The Great Dance
Once upon a time, long long ago . . .
(Okay, okay — this is my myth, and I’m using it to tell the truth. This is the easiest way I know to do this, so humor me if you will.)
Once upon a time, oh, so long ago that no one remembers it but God, there was nothing but God. God filled everything (and perhaps He still does). There was no nothing because nothing is non-existent, and always has been — but there was God — everywhere. God was satisfied within God’self, consisting of three persons who are One — the Godhead, we call it today, or the Trinity. God was love then as now, and could only be love because — though He was One, yet He was three: The Father, the Son, the Spirit, co-eternal, co-equal, in perfect unity, the original and the one perfect community, pouring themselves out to one another in a never-beginning, never-ending jubilee. Today theologians and poets call this the Great Dance. Back in the day though, it needed no name.
Because of love’s generosity and its infinite desire to love yet more and more, God conferred amongst God’self and the Father said to the Son, “I would that you had a bride, My Son.”
The Son said to the Spirit, “I would you had a sanctuary, my dear Mentor.”
The Spirit said to the Father, “I would you had many children; brothers and sisters just like the Son, my dear Lord and King.”
“It will cost us much,” the Father said.
“It must fall on me,” said the Son, “to purchase this bride and set her free from the bondage she must rise out of.”
“I shall teach them,” said the Spirit, “and turn their hearts toward their Father.”
“And I,” said the Father, “will make you, my Son, All in All to them — as I receive them unto Myself — We are agreed then. Let us make man in our own image; in the image of God we will make him; male and female we will create them.”
From a mortal point of view, it wasn’t quite so simple as all that. For God though, a thousand (or a billion, billion) years are like a day, since God is not affected by time as we are. Time is merely another dimension of God’self through which to travel at will — if One who is everywhere can be said to travel.
God prepared a nearly invisible something; infinitely small and incredibly dense. We would call such a thing a singularity — the seed of a universe. He planted it within Himself, as there could be no other where. The seed grew swiftly, explosively. It would be wrong to say this hurt or displaced God, though. God is Spirit — even three-in-one, and such things cannot hurt a spirit.
The years formed along with the stars, and the quasars, and finally the planets took up their part in the wild whirling dervish of the unfolding universe. Life sparked at long last, on a small blue and green orb — just the right size, circling a star just the right size, in a quiet backwater of the celestial ballroom where it would remain safe for many long ages — and so it did. Maybe this happened over and over on other planets as well; maybe in other universes; but this one planet, and this one universe only do we know, for it is our planet and our galaxy and our very own universe.
It is here our ancestors got the form they finally bequeathed to us, the humans. Here also our beasts developed and are developing still, some quite close to consciousness, others yet far, far away from it. We awakened first, for our brains and bodies were ready. The Father breathed the life of the Spirit first into our nostrils — consciousness into our minds. We began to know, and we have been knowing more and more ever since.
We have a story, and in our story, our Father God offered us two trees: one the Tree Of the Knowledge Of Good and Evil, and one the Tree of Life. In our new-awakened cleverness, we chose the former. It has proven to be an unfortunate decision. Our Father offered us Life — even commanded us to spurn the beautiful TOKOGE — yet it was that tree we chose. He offered us a place in the Dance — His Dance — to receive our knowledge from His hand, by His guidance. But even today, when millenia of wars and torments follow in our train, mocking us with the screams of children and the wailing of bereaved fathers and mothers, lovers and friends and brothers and sisters and daughters and sons, and the suffering of the beasts — even today we continue to choose the TOKOGE over the ToL. Why?
It is our nature. The nature of the beast, inherited from our ancestors — from a time before we awoke. This is the mere cleverness we so cherish — bereft of the Life we ought to have chosen — and had the knowledge too, through the life. We do what seems right for ourselves and for those we care for. We live selfish lives, neglecting the care of our neighbors, of our beasts, of our planet, and we cannot seem to help ourselves — all of ourselves — to be better. We long for the community we were awakened into, but so quickly rejected. We try to recreate it for ourselves, but we create only horrors — tyrannies and gulags and societies of slaves and masters. We are all slaves to the beast nature at least a little, and some of us far more than others.
And we ask, “Why does God allow this?” But God allows it because it is what we demanded. We wanted, and we still want, to captain our own ship. Some of us do very well, but others wander lost, behaving like the beasts, and worse — far worse. For beasts, while they can be savage, are not capable of conscious cruelty. We are. We have become, some of us, a horror. Intelligent beasts behaving with cruelty toward one another and supposing it to be right and good that we should do as we please.
“But where is God?” we ask again. “How can a good God allow such things?” Yet if He intervened every time some human behaved badly, could we ever learn to be good for true goodness’ sake? Think — where would He stop? If God wants free beings, doing the right for the sake of the right, then God must stand back, let it play out as it will, let us see the consequences of our behavior, let us rise up, if we will, and speak out for the oppressed and rescue the helpless and offer a guiding hand to the blind.
The story is incomplete because it is still unfolding. We have been invited to join the Great Dance of the ages, and all the steps of this ballet are giving, pouring out, loving, caring for one another, without thought of recompense. Some try to silence the players and cripple the dancers — these are devils, whether human or not. Some hang about the sidelines, joining neither the devils nor the dancers — these are the masses, afraid to give away too much of themselves, lest they lack what they need. Some enter in with the abandon of love, pouring out their lives for the joy of healing others. These are the children of the Kingdom, who welcome all who would join them, and love all who are in need of their love. They are few, but perhaps their ranks are swelling. Some know they are God’s own; some will be surprised to hear it when He says so.
All of these are too caught up in the music to think much about their place in the scheme of things. They just surrender to the current of love flowing. And they dream of the day when the side-liners and even the devils lose themselves and so find their higher natures in the great whirl of giving and loving and being and knowing — and tread the Great Dance together.
What is Evil?
How do we define it? How do we recognize it? Some things are merely inconvenient and unpleasant, such as the dog forgetting his house-training, or winter starting in early October with four feet of snow, or the transmission going out on the car on the day you lose your job. These things don’t rise to the level of evil, in my opinion. We’d like to avoid them, but they are hardly the stuff of calamity.
But then what IS evil? Humankind’s uncaring, hateful actions toward one another surely qualify. Yet, without some external standard, how can we be certain? I believe that evolution is inadequate to account for western society’s standards of good and evil. We consider many things to be good that neither perpetuate the survival of the individual nor of the community, nor contribute to the transmission of healthy genetic code to the next generation. We consider many things to be evil that DO accomplish these evolutionary goals. Where do our ideas of good and evil come from?
On a non-behavior level, we must consider natural evil. Take for example the Black Death, which has been in the news of late. During portions of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Black Death killed approximately 75 million people — horribly — and that in a population far smaller than today’s. Such a thing could be considered to be a part of natural population control of course. Most of the deaths occurred in over-crowded and filthy cities where huge swaths of the population suffered from exposure and malnutrition. The powerful and rich kept themselves aloof, well-clothed and housed and well-nourished, and were therefore more likely to survive. Yet we still cite it as an evil (and I agree). Nevertheless there is a certain lack of logic to this point of view, if held by a person who denies the existence of an ultimate arbiter of good and evil. It is an adaptive adjustment of a population grown too large for the land to support it, and it is the weak and less suited for survival who are culled.
Over the past ten years, an average of 78,000 people per year died in natural disasters. Some years are much more lethal than others, of course, with actual numbers for any given year varying widely. Many more people were affected negatively, either by personal injury, loss of loved ones, or loss of resources needed for survival and thriving. We can’t lay the blame for this on biological evolution, except perhaps to say that people living in areas less suited for thriving are less likely to sustain large populations. Inhabitants will move if they can, and in an evolutionary sense, those who are able are probably more suited to survival. Be that as it may, I think it’s safe to say that most of us are horrified at such events. We are at a loss as to where to place the blame, and for those of us who believe in a supreme being, it’s tempting to lay such events at the feet of said being. Presumably such a being could have intervened and chose not to do so. Or worse, we might judge a people who suffered such a disaster to be under the judgment of a punishing and vengeful god. In other words, we might feel they deserved what happened to them.
But what IS evil? Based on secularism and evolution, I would have to conclude that evil consists of that which thwarts the progress of a species and nothing more. From that perspective, evil might consist of a family insisting on caring for their aged mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and thus diminishing their own resources for survival and perpetuation of their genetic heritage. It might consist of a powerful man sacrificing to care for the weak and vulnerable and thus diminishing the survivability of the more viable population of his village. It might even consist of aiding disaster victims, thus encouraging the rebound of a population which would be better established in a more survivable location.
This is not the definition of evil I see when I read atheists demanding why a good god does not put an end to evil. Why do they define evil in the same way that I, a follower of Jesus, would define it? Logically, based on their stated beliefs, their only concern should be with the advancement of the species. Yet they have a higher view of things. These good people honestly care for the “least of these,” of whom Jesus also spoke. Why do they care?
First, I believe that God has placed in all people a basic understanding of what is good and what is evil. One finds extraordinarily good and giving people in all cultures. Often they get themselves “crucified” in one way or another, but we do find them in the most unlikely places.
Second, Judeo/Christian ethics have profoundly influenced western societies. Our particularly high view of ethics comes from our cultural environment, and for those of us in the historically Christian world, that means an environment heavily influenced by Christian ethics. Flawed and scandal-ridden though the history of the church has been, there have always been many true believers among the relatively powerless, and these have passed their strange values of loving one’s neighbor even at one’s own expense on to those around them. The whole of western society is steeped in biblical ethics like a cup of strong tea. THIS is where the atheist — the one who protests the pains of humans he has never met and who contribute nothing to his survival — gets his angst from. He knows that this is wrong because first, he has the fingerprints of God on his heart, so to speak. In addition, if he is one who has been under the influence of the prevailing western culture, that is how he was raised.
Theologians fill our libraries with volumes examining this question. Secular philosophers do the same, from their own points of view — but what does it really mean to be “free?”
I wonder . . . are we mixed up on this topic because we have the idea that freedom means license and psychological ability to do absolutely anything we’re capable of doing at any time? Or is such a radical degree of liberty the root of chaos and death? Such “freedom” describes the torture of the mentally deranged, the disorganization and death of a wilderness, the wild reproduction, immaturity and unpredictability of a cancer. Such “freedom” leads inevitably to death.
A person who obeys his every whim and does all his heart desires at any moment, unresponsive to any outside influence, will live in constant torment. He’ll be socially isolated, impoverished, and probably physically ill. If our bodies’ cells did this, we’d be dead in moments. If the universe behaved in a completely “free” (ie: random) manner, it would not exist. Because of the organized (and yet free) dance of the universe around us, an individual person may survive for a time in a state of complete psychic disorganization. He’ll end up in a mental hospital if he’s lucky, a prison if less so, or if he has no luck at all, he’ll soon meet death, whether by his own hand or by disease or by the violence of another. Neither society nor the world can tolerate this kind of freedom for more than a very brief time.
We have a lovely, romantic idea that wilderness brims over with beauty and life, and is natural and perfect just as it is. As a person who lives in what is more or less a wilderness, I beg to differ. Wilderness means that plants and animals go their own ways, fighting with one another for survival. One sort of plant (Ponderosa Pine in our case) overgrows all the other plants to the point of excluding almost anything other than itself. As a consequence, whole forests die from unchecked, specialized infestations, and thorns grow up in their place. Populations of animals ebb and flow in a constant battle between predators and prey, with disease and depredation as a wild card. There is great beauty here, but the beauty is in the organization, and the organized things are the healthy things.
Mankind was deputized to keep the garden, which essentially means to introduce organization, to keep all things in balance with one another and in a state of health and optimum well-being.
Between wilderness and wild garden, which of these states truly embodies freedom and life? Only the garden offers a space for genuine freedom, for all the plants and animals to thrive and live in peace with one another. The wilderness — the way of libertarianism — is the way of chaos and death. If all the residents live according to a higher nature, that is, in love toward one another (not the letter of the law, but the spirit — which is love), then the garden thrives.
Cancer occurs when cells reproduce out of control — that is, in a disorganized fashion. They never mature, but continue to grow and stack up one on another on another in a chaotic mass which is, in itself, extremely viable — until it kills its host. Are the cells free to do as they will? Maybe — at least they’re free to do what’s in their nature. What they “will” is to garnish all the resources of the body to feed their wildly reproductive nature. The problem is, that they’re broken. But they’re doing what they, as broken things, will to do. Is this freedom? Is this the sort of freedom Father wants for us?
WE are broken. Without His guidance, WE are following the will of a broken nature. When we die with Christ, we leave behind that broken nature, that unchecked chaotic wilderness, that deranged and disorganized mind. All these things are bondage. Is it possible that, in conforming us to the image of His Son, He’s lifting us up into the next stage of our development (evolution, if you like) from the merely physical plane into a new freedom? As we are naturally, we’re confined to the physical dimension. When we die with Christ and are raised with Him, we add the spiritual dimension; we become new creatures, learning to live in the life of God, in the dimension of the spirit, rather than merely in the life of the natural, physical plane.
In our new level of life, we no longer desire to do the things that lead to death. Does that mean we’re not free? I suppose you could look at it like that, but in truth, I think it means we enter a freedom the like of which we cannot yet fully comprehend. We enter life. That does mean organization as opposed to chaos, and maybe in our present state we see that as somewhat restricting. I don’t think we’ll see it that way for long though.
A child who learns to keep his bedroom clean and tidy is free to enjoy his room far more than a child who has to climb over piles of toys and dirty clothes to get to a bed he must first clear of books and candy wrappers, more toys and more dirty clothes before he can relax with his new magazine. We tend to resist this kind of freedom just as a child may resist organizing his room. Nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that organized freedom is any form of bondage. In fact, it is maturation (which you remember cancer cells never experience), and keeping the garden so that it fills with life rather than death, and finding true mental stability and peace. It is, I believe, becoming the adult sons and daughters of God — His representatives in the physical universe who have become fit to orchestrate the Kingdom of Light in the realm of disappearing darkness.
There’s been a lot going on in my life. Like just about anyone, I’d like a little heads up as to what the plan might be. Father doesn’t always (or often, for that matter) tell us what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or year or decade. When I was praying today, this is what I believe He spoke to my heart. As you read, keep in mind that there’s a lot of metaphor here. Very little of this is literal. (He knows I love metaphors.)
Trust Me. Take the waves as they come, and trust Me. For those who walk My paths see My face as others do not, and indeed cannot. But looking on My face can even make the blind to see — as you walk, follow My footsteps and see whether you do not begin to see My eyes as they guide your feet. You don’t need to know which route we will take. I leave that open — not knowing (or not choosing to know) whether you will choose this turning or that.
There is no hurry. Only love’s urgent desire for her consolation drives us to hasten toward the goal — the mystery of the high calling, drawing us ever onward, seeking solace in loving and in one another’s presence.
See how the new immediately builds on — grows up from the old — so that the old disappears, though of old I laid it down as a foundation without which nothing new can stand. So therefore build, build on that foundation of the apostles and prophets, but build well or you will be spending your time hauling away rubble.
This is how you will know you are building well — if I infuse it with My presence. You are My daughter and will do well so long as you keep this one thing in mind — this is that together, we will ride the waves — you and I. We will take on life as it comes and weave — deftly weave of the strands, both light and dark, of sorrow and of joy — beauty.
Why doesn’t God make His truths more obvious? People ask this all the time in one way or another. “Why doesn’t God reveal Himself to me so that I can believe in Him?” “Why do all the churches believe different things? Can’t God make His written word clear enough so that we’ll all know what it means?” A friend recently asked, “If God really will save all people in the end, why is He doing such a lousy job of selling that doctrine?” Jesus told this story about truths and lies, I believe, at least partially to address that question:
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while people were sleeping, his enemy came, sowed tares among the wheat, and left. When the plants sprouted and produced grain, then the tares also appeared. The landowner’s slaves came to him and said, ‘Master, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Then where did the tares come from?’
“‘An enemy did this!’ he told them. “‘So, do you want us to go and gather them up?’ the slaves asked him. “‘No,’ he said. ‘When you gather up the tares, you might also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I’ll tell the reapers: Gather the tares first and tie them in bundles to burn them, but store the wheat in my barn.’” (Mat 13:24-30 HCSB)
Before I elaborate on this story, I want to point out that God works with people in an incremental way. Think about your own children, or yourself as a child. A baby, sweet as she is, is utterly selfish. She wants what she wants and she wants it NOW! It doesn’t matter if Mommy and Daddy are dead tired. Her tummy hurts and she will scream until something happens to make it stop. She doesn’t even think about Mommy and Daddy as anything other than a warm, comforting presence. As she grows, though, this begins to change. Gradually she begins to understand the separateness between her self and other selves. She begins to care if Mommy is sad. Pleasing Daddy becomes important to her. Little by little she learns to be more human (in a good way), we hope. Some people don’t seem to make a lot of progress, but most of us do grow up at least a little bit.
Paul had this to say to the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus:
And He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell upon all the face of the earth, and He ordained their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, in order for them to seek the Lord, if perhaps indeed they might grope for Him and find Him, and yet being indeed not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Act 17:26-28 EMTV) (the underlining is mine.)
What if God did this for a reason; that this is quite simply the way we have to learn. Children learn by groping about after the truth. They try things until they find something that works. If they can’t get to their feet on their own, they’ll pull themselves up by grabbing on to something — like the dog. If the dog walks (or runs) away, next time they’ll go for the coffee table because they’ve discovered that it more or less stands still. What if we truly do have to grope around and seek God in order to learn to know Him? What if Paul was right about that?
That’s where the wheat and the tares come in. The atheist or the Christian asks, “Why can’t I find God? Why doesn’t He make His doctrine more obvious?” Or in my friend’s case, why God has allowed the church to miss the very scriptural doctrine of universal reconciliation through Christ.
After the day’s preaching, sitting around the campfire toasting, um, locusts maybe, one of the disciples plucked up his courage to ask Jesus what the parable meant. They didn’t know either. Jesus said that the wheat represented the sons of the kingdom and the tares represented the sons of the wicked one. Now you can interpret these sons as people and I think you would have a point, but Jesus’ parables are known for nuance. As simple as they seem, people — highly educated, dedicated disciples of Jesus — have been chewing on His parables for at least 2000 years and coming up with all sorts of interpretations.
If you look back a little bit, you’ll see that Jesus told the Pharisees (after He called THEM sons of the devil) that the devil was the father of lies. I see an application here for this parable. Why have so many lies been allowed to grow for so long amongst the truths of the gospel of Christ Jesus?
Sowing a field with tares was an act of war. It deprived your enemies of food, or it sickened and killed your enemies by their food. Tares are typically infected with a fungus that produces symptoms of intoxication and often causes death. Why would God allow His field to be sown with tares? These tares have intoxicated and killed the church’s people and leadership — and its witness — for so many, many years. The idea that God is willing for most of his created people to burn forever in hell, is I believe, one of those tares.
I don’t know why He refused to have the tares uprooted from the beginning, but might it have something to do with our feeling around and learning what was NOT good and finding the thing that IS good? You never ever know your lessons by learning them from a lecture or a book in the depth that you CAN know them by finding out their truthfulness from experience. Darnel (the modern name for tares) is bad for wheat; it robs moisture and nutrients and severely reduces crop yield. It’s good to avoid having the field sown with darnel. BUT wheat is sown by broadcasting, and it wouldn’t be easy (or possible?) to go tramping around pulling up the darnel and NOT hurting the wheat. Besides, until the harvest time comes, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.
We’ve seen the church let go of toxic ideas before. When was the last time someone tried to sell you an indulgence? Have you burned any witches lately? Tortured any heretics? We don’t do that any more because it doesn’t work with Jesus’ teachings of love toward all, including our enemies. Jesus told us to love our enemies so that we would be LIKE our Father in heaven, who is love. We know what LOVE is because Paul gave us a magnificent description in 1 Corinthians 13. Read it. That’s what God is like. That’s the standard. That’s the Father we’re groping around, trying to find — yet He isn’t far from any of us since in Him we live and move and have our being. All of us.
I suppose He could have taken us tiny children by the hand out into the wheat field and said, “This is wheat. See how the spikes are thicker and the spikelets are oriented with the flat side to the rachis and have two glumes? This is a tare. The spikes are thinner, and the spikelets are oriented edgeways to the rachis and have only a single glume.” But would we understand what He was talking about? I don’t understand what the Wikipedia writer was saying here either, and likewise the church needs a certain level of maturity to be able to separate the wheat from the darnel.
To make matters worse, when the harvest comes, the grain looks like wheat too — only it’s BLACK wheat. You know, hungry people will eat it anyway. Once. Unless they’ve seen what it does to other people who’ve eaten it.
Has the church been trying to pass off black “wheat” on the world for so many years that we think that’s what it’s SUPPOSED to look like? We don’t even want to eat the stuff ourselves. It makes us feel sick unto death, thinking about the hell doctrine, but we’ve been told it’s wheat. Who are we to answer back to God? Or maybe we should be more careful to notice just WHO has been telling us to eat this poisonous black “wheat.” MAYBE an enemy has done this.
What if our punishment for being ABLE to believe in eternal conscious torment . . . is to BELIEVE in eternal conscious torment? (paraphrased from George MacDonald) I said to my friend that I think none of this surprises God. He knew we would have to grope around to find the truth about His mercy and His justice. We really are in the dark in so many ways, learning to see the light of His love. It takes time, but Father is not in a hurry. It takes as long as it takes. As we seek Him, we will find Him when we search for Him with all our hearts. And He delights to be found by His beloved children — by all of His beloved children. Even those wandering farthest afield in the darkness, still live and move and have their being in Him.
The Jews were pretty proud of their famous forebear, Abraham. It was their descent from him after all that made them the favored, the chosen people of Yahweh. Do they have exclusive rights to the patriarch? Or have the Jews been shoved aside and rejected in favor of the church? And if so, which church in particular? Paul had something to say about this, of course. Here’s my paraphrase of Romans 4:1-12:
So then, what shall we say about our father Abraham? If Abraham was declared righteous by works, then he has something to boast about (though not before God). For what does scripture say?
Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him as righteousness.
Now, to the one who works, his reward — his wages — are not given as a favor but because he has earned them and his employer is obligated to pay him. Whereas to the one that does not work, but trusts Him who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.
David also spoke of the happiness of the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
Happy are those whose sins have been forgiven and covered! Happy the person whose sin Yahweh will not count in any way.
So . . . is this happiness for the circumcision or the uncircumcision? (the Jews or non-Jews) Because we say, “Abram’s faith was accounted to him as righteousness” how was it accounted? Before or after his circumcision? Before! The circumcision came after, as a symbol and a seal of the righteousness he received because of his faith — before he was circumcised.
It happened this way so that he might be the father of all who believe and who are not circumcised, so that the same righteousness might be credited to them. And ALSO father of the circumcision — to those who are not ONLY circumcised, but who also walk in the steps of faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised.
God doesn’t owe us anything because off works that we’ve done. Even if we HAD obeyed Him, what would He owe us? As His children, cared for by His hand, obedience is merely that which is our duty to do. Even Abraham hadn’t earned the grace and favor of God. That doesn’t mean that our Papa doesn’t incur any obligation to His creatures simply by the act of creating them. That is another topic. The point here is that WE can do nothing to put Him in our debt so that we might say, “I have earned this status,” rather than, “I am here because of His grace and love toward me.”
Here, Paul points out that Abraham was declared righteous by God because Abraham acted in faith toward God (which is the duty of his and our relationship to God). Because of this, he was declared righteous completely apart from works of the law as evidenced by the fact that he hadn’t yet so much as taken on the seal of the covenant — circumcision.
Paul says that it was done in this way to allow Abraham to be the spiritual father of those who are of the Jews and also those who are of the nations (non-Jews). In this he says to the gentiles (non-Jews), “You are acceptable apart from the works of the law,” and to the Jews, “You are accepted because of your faith, not because you have kept the works of the law (you haven’t), but because you trust the word of the Lord that He has made you righteous.”
I’ve got nothin’ to boast about — neither have any of us. Alas, this doesn’t always stop me from feeling like I’m at least better than “those people.” Paul didn’t think so, and (sigh) he’s probably right. Here’s my paraphrase of Romans 3:27-31:
Well then, what can be our reason to boast? We have NONE! What excludes boasting? A law of works? No! A law of FAITH excludes boasting. For our logic has lead us to the conclusion that people are to be declared righteous by faith, completely separate and apart from works of law.
Otherwise God would be one of those local, tribal gods — of Jews only, and not the God of the whole world. But He IS the God of the nations (rest of the world) also.
In every case, if God is one and the same in all circumstances, who will declare righteous the Jews by faith and the Gentiles (non-Jews) by faith, do we thereby nullify the law and make it of no effect? Certainly not! We establish the law/teachings.
Two questions here: The first one is simple but not easy. We are proud and we want to say, “I did it my way.” Sadder words were never spoken. Ladies does this remind you of the man in your life who refuses to ask for directions even though it’s painfully obvious he hasn’t a clue where he’s going? Alas, it isn’t only men who suffer from this malady; we just suffer in different ways. In this case, the human race has wandered around lost, trying and failing to keep Torah, or the law we perceive instinctively in the case of us non-Jews, for thousands and thousands of years. We have all failed miserably; look around you. We’re still trying and we’re still failing. If any of us ever manifest any degree of righteousness, it is only be through Jesus, the life of God, working in and through us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The second question is a little harder. Does this new righteousness that comes to us by trusting Jesus nullify the law? It would seem so. The law has failed (even if through no intrinsic fault of its own), and it is being displaced by this new paradigm; faith. Well, yes and no. Yes, we have or should finally realize that we aren’t able to attain righteousness using the law as a guide to place our feet in the right path. Faith is the only way. BUT in simply following our Lord by faith and trust in Him, we DO righteousness at long, long last. The law which failed as a tool to bring about righteousness has now finally been upheld and fulfilled in Christ — and through Christ, in His disciples.
Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, but what does that mean? It isn’t an easy word to translate, but lucky for me I have lots of books written by smart people. Here is my paraphrase of Romans 3:21-26:
But now, something besides and apart from the law, a righteousness (right standing in relationship) of God has been shown (displayed, revealed, manifested). The law and the prophets (that is, the teachings of the old testament or TANAKH) talked about this righteousness of God. This is a righteousness of God through the faith (faithfulness) of Jesus Christ which is unto all who believe — for there is no difference — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Those who believe are being declared righteous freely by His favor through the ransom paid by Jesus.
God set Jesus forth as a propitiatory covering (mercy seat) through the faith in His blood to show forth His righteousness, because He passed over the previously committed sins in His forbearance with a view toward showing forth His righteousness in the present season, that He may BE righteous when declaring righteous the one who is (a product) of the faith of Jesus.
Religious scholars have typically interpreted “propitiation” according to the pagan idea of appeasing an angry and offended god. But should we see it that way? First, “propitiation” is a doubtful translation. If it IS correct, it still doesn’t point a finger. Who is attempting to propitiate whom? Search and you’ll note that NOWHERE in the entire text of the new testament do we see an example of God needing to be reconciled to human beings. It is ALWAYS the other way round. WE are to be reconciled to Him.
It is we who are the wayward children being entreated by our Father to return to life; not Him stubbornly refusing to open the door to our anguished pleas from the outer darkness. God is not willing that any should perish. The father of the prodigal son waits and watches then runs to greet his returning son. He leaves the joyful celebration to urge his firstborn son, farther from him even than the younger who ran away, to come into the house and take his rightful place as the master of ceremonies. Because of the overall witness of scripture, I would suggest that it is we, not our Daddy, who need to be mollified, cajoled, and persuaded.
But none of this is necessary to understand this particular passage, because our word in question, kapparah, does not mean propitiation at all. It refers to the Mercy Seat — the covering of the Arc of the Covenant. Here’s what Vincent (Vincent’s Word Studies) has to say:
. . . the dominant Old-Testament sense is not propitiation in the sense of something offered to placate or appease anger; but atonement or reconciliation, through the covering, and so getting rid of the sin which stands between God and man. The thrust of the idea is upon the sin or uncleanness, not upon the offended party.
“Atonement” means literally, “at one-ment.” The thrust here is wholly reconciliatory. The message is, “See? I have carried it away, covered it, purged and cleansed away your shame. You are clean. You are loved and accepted and acceptable. Come home. Be reconciled to your Father.”
Remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and what happens to the Nazis when they look into the Ark? That wasn’t such bad theology (aside from the over-the-top special effects). Looking on the law is deadly. That’s why it had to be covered (symbolically speaking) by mercy — the Mercy Seat.
Our dear older brother, Jesus, has made the way for us. We couldn’t, for all our trying, achieve rightness in our relationships on our own. He leads the way for us to follow Him in kindness, in mercy, in love toward one another — not in our own strength, but rather with Him showing us how and enabling us. He has defeated death (which comes through sin) by setting us free from bondage to sin. He has made atonement for us by taking our sin within Himself, dragging it down into the grave — which is where He left it.
Yes, we wanted to do it ourselves; we wanted to boast, but sometimes you just gotta have a hero. Be humble — just say thanks and enjoy the gift. We’ll talk about that next . . . .
Nah, not really. It just sounded like a catchy title — I’m distressingly fond of cliche’s as you may have noticed. I must have been pressed for time when I did this particular study because I only did Romans 3:19-20. Here’s my paraphrase:
All the things the law says, it says to those within the law so that every mouth will be stopped and all the world come under the penal sentence of God. This is because no flesh will be declared righteous before Him by doing the works of the law. What law DOES is reveal sin.
Paul is here speaking to those of the Jewish religion, but he’s also speaking to the rest off the world. As you can see from the earlier chapters, we all have SOME sense of right and wrong, and if we offend against that sense, if we know we’re wrong, then we are “a law unto ourselves” and we should obey that law. In fact, we can’t, but the whole reason for the law is to show us our need. We, none of us, can with any honesty claim to be sufficient in ourselves.
This is the metaphor of the Garden of Eden again. When we choose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we choose independence. We believe ourselves able to live by our knowledge and to live righteously and justly by our own innate goodness. The law gives that the lie. We KNOW in our hearts that we stand condemned before God and one another for our unloving behavior toward one another and toward Him. Only one of us has ever lived a perfect life and we nailed Him to a tree. But He did show us the way and more than that, He cut the trail for us to follow.
Jesus lived by the life of His Father. He followed; He accessed the mind of God; He didn’t figure life out on His own, but rather obeyed His Father, even to death on the cross — all for the love of us. We weren’t made to live as independent, unconnected individuals. We were made for community with our God and with one another. That is the way of love.
Naturally, it wasn’t enough for Father to tell us this. (Choose the good tree, Luke!) We had to figure out for ourselves. Even a little child has to touch the hot stove just once to see whether Mommy is telling the truth, but the difference between a grownup and the kid is that the grownup will usually do the thing that hurts over and over and over, hoping for a different outcome.
Part of what Paul has been saying here in these early chapters is that whether his readers are Jews, circumcised and at least overtly keeping the law (the teachings) or heathen, pagan gentiles without that advantage, they are equally guilty. Neither the one nor the other can claim to be justified in their own strength before God. All stand condemned as law breakers. The law is good. It served its purpose, but that purpose was never to enable us to save ourselves; it was only to demonstrate to us granite-brains that we couldn’t earn it. We need help.