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Mercy and Justice

These two ideas are not normally thought of as going together very well. Justice demands that the full measure of punishment of the law be meted out in punishment for a crime committed. But justice is not simply limited to satisfying the law. Justice includes the need for restitution to be measured out to the one offended by the crime and justice needs to be exercised in such a way that it is a preventative measure in the larger society — that others, who might be considering said crimes of their own, would be turned back to walk on the straight and narrow path.

On the other hand, mercy is usually thought of as one being pardoned from either part or all of the demands of the law. The dictionary ordinarily defines mercy in terms of leniency, forgiveness, and clemency. If we are the accused, we usually think of mercy in terms of a reduced or forgiven judgment.

The funny thing has to do with the balance between them. A good and honorable judge is one that sees that the law is satisfied and obeyed. Yet, if he always punishes crime to the fullest extent of the law, without showing any mercy, he is considered ruthless and domineering. On the other hand, if a judge is always showing mercy, we consider him lax and maybe even corrupt and call for his resignation.

A middle ground can be reached in the American society because the law permits for a range in the sentencing. That way a first offender can be charged differently than a repeat offender and so that the judge may take into account the sincerity of an offender’s repentance. And so, the balance is struck and judges are held accountable by the voters in many cases.

The problem, though, when you take this idea and extend it from human experience to eternal things is that God, as judge, is not dealing with first-time offenders. We have been sinning since the day we were born — indeed, even since the day we were conceived! Further, God is not dealing with those who are likely not to sin again. We are repeat sinners and habitual sinners who will struggle with sin all of the days of our earthly life. And, God is not dealing with those who only pose a slight threat to society — our sin offends others and tempts others into sin themselves. And, even further than that, God is also dealing with those who have inherited the guilt of their first-parents’ sin. The only righteous punishment is infinite and eternal damnation in the fires of Hell. There is no range in sentencing possible.

So here, it would seem that with respect to the children of Adam, that God (as Judge) has his hands tied. Mercy cannot be accomplished simply as a matter of appealing to a range of sentencing possible within the law. Mercy becomes incompatible with justice.

Yet, is God not a merciful God? Indeed, scripture tells us that he chooses to have mercy on some (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). Yet, how does God maintain his justice? The just punishment of the law must get meted out on a suitable representative for those to whom God has chosen to show mercy. Indeed, he pours it out on his Son, Jesus Christ. Question 11 of the Heidelberg catechism forms the bridge between the woeful state of our fallen souls and the redeeming work accomplished by Christ — the way that God fulfills both the demands of the Law and his choice to show mercy to some — more specifically to those whom he has elected in Christ from the foundations of the World (Ephesians 1:4-5).

Blessed Be the Name of the Lord!

“You love all of the words of confusion on a tongue of trickery.

But God will tear you down forever,

He will take you and drag you from your tent;

He will repeatedly uproot you from the land of the living.

Selah!

(Psalm 52:6-7 {verses 4-5 in English Translations})

 

Here we transition and David proclaims the judgment of God against those whose words are filled with deceit, whose ends are their own stomachs, and whose love is to confuse (some translations render this word as “devour” as it shares a root with the word that means “to swallow,” yet in context, “confuse” seems to be a more accurate choice given the word’s range of meaning). Though the wicked love words of trickery (that double-tongue, speaking out of both sides of their mouth), God loves words of truth and will punish those whose ends differ from his own. God will tear them down, he will drag them from their homes, and over and over, he will uproot them from the land of the living. He will lay bare their generation.

How liberating it is to know that we have a God who will bring those who tear us down and destroy us into judgment — a God who will frustrate the plans of the wicked and establish the righteous in places of security. Your initial response might be, “But wait a minute, in the world we live in it seems like the wicked prosper and the righteous get beaten down.” Indeed, that was David’s experience as he was writing this psalm. At the same time, while David did not see the whole of the big picture, he did stand in the confidence of knowing that God does see the big picture and his hand controls every step we take. All too often, when we are in the midst of trials, we cannot see what it is that God is doing, or, we get focused on how we would like God to work out his plan for his church and not on how God is working out his plan for his church. And we are HIS church, by the way…

Ultimately life and blessing and judgment is about God and not about me. It is his will and his design and we can find our comfort in knowing that once everything is said and done, and we are finally able to understand the plan and design of God for our lives from His perspective, our words of response will be, “Blessed is the Name of the Lord, Amen!”

Bread and Circuses

Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”

I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.

It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.

But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?

In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.

Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.

So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.

 

The Sleep of the Beloved

 

“It is vain for you to get up early and go late to your dwelling,

Eating the bread of toil;

For he gives to his beloved sleep.”

(Psalm 127:2)

 

It may be granted up front that there is some discussion as to how to interpret the last line of this verse. Commonly it is rendered as I have done so here, but some would argue that it ought to be rendered, “for he provides for his beloved during their sleep.” Though the nuances of the psalm are changed within that translation, the essential meaning of the text remains the same. God provides for the needs of his beloved — and he does so in an abundantly wonderful way.

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus speaks in much the same way. It is expected that the pagans will lay awake worrying all night, working long and thankless hours to provide bread for their families. Their idols are false creations of their own hands and imaginations. What benefit can a chunk of wood give me apart from helping to heat the house when I burn it in the fireplace? If I create something with my own hands, it contains no power to do anything but sit there. It has no life. One can draw no hope or assurance from such things.

But we worship a true and living God — one from whom we can draw assurances. He lives and is the God of the living (Matthew 22:32; Luke 20:38) and not of the dead; he gives us new life (1 Peter 1:3) and he gives us that life abundantly (John 10:10). And thus Jesus says to us, “why do you sit home and worry about what may or may not happen this week or even tomorrow?” Do we forget whom we serve? Our worry seems to betray that we do, yet to the beloved, God gives rest and peaceful dreams at night.

How often my dreams have been haunted by the cares of countless anxieties—anxieties that are projected in nightmarish ways. Yet, in prayer, there is rest for the soul. How often there has been tossing and turning rather than restful slumber; again, trust in God’s provision, believer, and you will find that rest will come. There is no need to fear what may transpire; our God is sovereign over all events (Ephesians 1:11) and has promised to work them all out for our good (Romans 8:28). What comfort there is in those divine promises to us! What rest we can find in that context!

For the believer, rest means more than sleep during the evening hours. Rest also includes rest from one’s enemies—the greatest of which are the spiritual powers of wickedness that roam this world like a roaring lion. They may roar, but we are held secure in the hands of our loving Savior (John 10:28-29); of what shall we fear? No, we are loved of God and true love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).

Loved ones, sleep well and dream well of the glory of our God. He will provide for your needs because he loves you (Matthew 6:31-34); the pagans eat the bread of their sweat and toil—enjoy the restful sleep that your Father provides.

Defending Job’s Wife

Recently, I read an article that really came down hard on Job’s wife because of the statement that she makes to her husband, to “curse God and die.”  The author went as far as to suggest that this was a woman who clearly had no faith and was a blasphemer because of the statement that she made and her unwillingness to follow her husband’s example.  Granted, Job’s wife does not follow her husband’s example, but that being said, we need to be very careful about making judgments about her character and about her faith.

All too often, when folks come to texts like these, the matter of primary concern is, “What is the doctrine in question?” or “What moral or ethical principle can I learn?”  And while texts like this do raise moral and ethical questions, when we look to answer these questions first, we oftentimes lose the people who are living out the event.  Job and his wife are not fictional or allegorical characters, but they are real, historical people—human beings like you and me.  They come complete with worries and fears, good days and bad days.  They struggle with the same kind of struggles that you or I would struggle with, and Job’s wife, more-so than others in the narrative, needs to be looked at through this lens.  We need to see her humanity and her hurt and as a result, we need to discuss her character flaws with compassion and not analytical scorn.

Look to other characters in scripture that have committed equally heinous sins.  Look to King David who had his friend murdered to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba.  Look at Peter who denied our Lord three times and then later, after Pentecost, still falls into fear of the Judaizers and had to be rebuked by Paul, “to his face.”  Look at Abram and Sarai who doubted God’s promise and tried to force God’s hand through Hagar.  Look at God’s people through history and their stumbles and failures, their doubts and their fears, and when we look at Job’s wife in this light, we see her very differently.  Granted, we never see her recanting her statement, but she is restored in the end alongside of her husband.  Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are strongly rebuked in the end; Job’s wife is not.

Remember something as well, it is not just Job that is going through this trial, but Job’s wife is going through the testing and trial as well.  Are not Job’s children also the children of his wife?  Are not the lands, the wealth, and the property of Job also the lands, wealth, and property of his wife?  Thus, in all these things, she has lost and suffered and hurt and grieved right alongside of Job—and been faithful, according to the account.  Now, though, she sees the hand of trial turn upon her husband to the point where he is reduced to a wretched state, covered with sores and scraping himself with pottery shards, sitting in ashes.  And it is here, at this point, that she breaks down and makes the comment that is recorded above.

Let me pose the question, how many confessing Christians have you known through the years who have come to this point?  How many Christians have sought euthanasia for a loved one to end their suffering?  Is this not the same thing as what Job’s wife is advocating?  How many confessing Christians have been so overwhelmed by the grief over the loss or suffering of a loved one, that they have railed against God in anger and rage?  Even many of the theological giants have gone through such crises—C.S. Lewis does us the favor of allowing us to see his inner doubts and fears about God as he watched his wife, Joy, wither and die of bone cancer.  Friends, if you do not see her grief in these matters, you will interpret her badly, but when you see her grief you will see that these are not the words of a faithless blasphemer, but are the words of a fearful, hurting believer who is not able to bear what she sees taking place in the body of her husband.

The beauty of this whole event, and of our own lives when we face such trials, is that God is bigger than our grief.  He is gracious in our doubts and merciful to us even in our anger.  And sometimes we need to be brought by God to that point where we can just stop and be still, finding peace in Him—even in the midst of our lack of understanding.  He is like a loving Father that once he has loved and held his child through a fit of rage, sits calmly with them and comforts that child in the wake of the fit.  The beauty, loved ones, is that we don’t need to understand, simply trust that God understands and will work even the most horrendous things for our well-being.  Thus, the next time you are ready to condemn Job’s wife, remember that she is human and remember that you are too; that ought to show her in a different light.

Angry with God’s Mercy (Jonah 4:1)

“And it was evil to Jonah—a great evil—and he burned over it.”  (Jonah 4:1)

 

In case you hadn’t noticed Jonah’s attitude toward the Ninevites by his lackluster sermon in Nineveh, the true feelings of our wayward prophet come out as we move to the final chapter of this story.  Most of our English versions water down the wording of this verse some, putting Jonah in a little better light; only Young’s Literal Translation seems to grasp the full strength of the situation when they translate it, “It was grievous to Jonah.”  Literally, the Hebrew reads that it was evil to Jonah and then emphasizes again that it was a great evil to Jonah!  Just as the Ninevites’ idolatry was evil in the eyes of God; God’s mercy toward the people of Nineveh was evil in the eyes of Jonah.  And not only that, his anger burned toward God on account of this mercy.  You can almost picture Jonah, standing at the edge of the city with clenched teeth and fists, his face red with rage, and steam coming out of his ears.  This guy is about to explode.

It is easy to want to find excuses to water this image down a bit.  Nobody likes to see one of the Biblical heroes completely lose his cool—especially when it comes to God’s mercy.  But the reality is that Jonah was human and Nineveh was the winter capital of the Assyrian Empire, people that the Jews desperately hated.  These two nations were fierce enemies and no good Jew in his right mind would want to see the people of Nineveh blessed.  These people of Nineveh were violent pagans and idolaters; there was nothing in them that seemed redeemable in the eyes of Jonah.  Yet, these people repented and God showed them mercy.  This kind of thing was just simply not right and proper!  God had some teaching to do with his prophet.

It is easy to jump on Jonah’s case and start wagging our fingers in accusation.  Oh, how sophisticated we have become in sending missionaries to all the corners of the earth.  See how we have such a broad view of God’s mercy toward the nations!  At the same time, what about those ministries to people groups we don’t particularly like?  What about ministries to the street people in our culture or to the prostitutes?  What about ministries to the drug users in our culture or to the gay community?  Sometimes we are a little less comfortable about the mercy of God when dealing with these folks.  Probably about the closest we can get to how Jonah felt toward the Ninevites would be the feeling of a black pastor working with Ku Klux Klansmen or that of a white pastor working with Black Panther members.  Jonah was more than out of his comfort zone; he was in enemy territory.

Yet, beloved, that is exactly the way God works!  When Jesus gave the apostles the great commission, he did not qualify what “all the corners of the earth” meant—he simply said, “go.”  When we begin to come to terms with just how grievous our own sin is, then how can we who have already received the mercy of God begrudge another from receiving it?  Oh, how we are like Jonah, though, when we see God’s blessings poured out somewhere other than on ourselves.  Beloved, let us keep Jonah always before us as a reminder that we should rejoice in the mercy of God to all who would repent and believe—let us rejoice as the angels rejoice when one sinner comes to faith—even if that sinner is one we don’t particularly like. 

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be;

Let that grace now, like a fetter,

Bind my wandring heart to thee.

Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—

Prone to leave the God I love:

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for thy courts above.

-Robert Robinson

Jude’s Greeting

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, brother of James, to those who have been loved in God the father, and who have been guarded and called for Jesus Christ:  May mercy be to you and may peace and love be multiplied.”

(Jude 1-2)

 

As mentioned earlier, Jude identifies himself not as Jesus’ half-brother, but as Jesus’ servant and brother of James.  It is a clear reminder to us that we are to take a humble attitude when we approach leadership roles.  We are called to be servants, not masters and Jude’s attitude exemplifies just this mindset.  Jude also reminds us as we read this letter, that those of us who are called and elect are beloved to God and kept, not on our own strength but guarded by the power of God and held for Jesus.  There is a great eternal wedding that God has planned and He has called a people to himself—the church—to be the bride of his beloved son, Jesus.  What a blessing to be called beloved of God.  This is the name that God gave to Solomon (Jedidiah: see 2 Samuel 12: 25). 

The blessing is also interesting.  Not only does he pray for mercy, which is unusual (only 1 & 2 Timothy and 2 John contain mercy in their blessing), but it is the only epistle where mercy is listed first.  I think that it is an indication that there are serious problems in this church.  The people have clearly, based on the text, fallen astray, following these false teachers, they are in need of God’s mercy.

Note also that Jude’s blessing is for peace and love to be multiplied while mercy stands alone.  Though one may argue that all three of these items are connected, as many modern translations would lead you to believe, the Greek sets mercy apart from the other two blessings.  Perhaps this is because of the problems that are going on in this church.  One of the things that these false teachers are doing is to create disharmony within the fellowship and to pervert the people’s love feasts.  All sinners desperately need the mercy of God, yet, given the issues going on within this fellowship, they especially need God’s peace and love to shape their fellowship.

Jesus Paid it All–All to Him I Owe…

“And you, being dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, forgiving us all trespasses.”

(Colossians 2:13)

 

“And yet God demonstrates his own agape love to us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

(Romans 5:8 )

 

We who have nothing to bring to the table, we who have no righteousness of our own, we who stand guilty in our sin, we who stand as gentiles without the law, we who deserve God’s wrath and the fires of hell, it is for us that Christ died.  We initiated rebellion; God initiated restoration.  We sinned; Christ bore the punishment for our sins.  We have hated and despised the good and righteous law of God; Christ has loved us with a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether that love is reciprocated and has fulfilled the law on our behalf.  In the fall, we rejected the earthly paradise that God has prepared; Christ prepares for us a heavenly paradise that cannot be spoiled.  Beloved, what more can I say?  Jesus did it all, how is it that we so often do not feel a compulsion to honor him with all of our beings in our worship and our lives?  How is it that we as believers so often live for ourselves?  Loved ones, give all of your life to Christ, holding nothing in reserve.  You cannot hope to pay him back for what he has done, but oh, how you can glorify him as you live out your lives in this world!

And when, before the throne,

I stand in him complete,

‘Jesus died my soul to save,’

my lips shall still repeat.

Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.

-Elvina Hall

Show Favor to Me: Psalm 51 (part 2)

“Show favor to me, O God, according to your chesed;

according to your abundant mercy, wipe out my transgressions.”

(Psalm 51:3 [Psalm 51:1 in English Bibles])

 

For those of you who have been reading my devotional reflections for a while, you know that I think the word that David uses in the first line of this verse is extremely important.  In Hebrew, it is the word ds,x, (chesed), and is translated many ways in our English Bible to suit the context.  The idea that this word conveys is that of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people in spite of their covenant unfaithfulness.  It is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that we are not destroyed and that mankind was not destroyed at the time of the fall.  It is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that he demonstrated his agape love in sending his Son, Jesus, into this world to fulfill the law and offer a propitiatory sacrifice to atone for our sins.  It is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that we may know him and are not left to our own devices.  And it is because of the ds,x, (chesed) of God that he offers us forgiveness in Christ when we deserve nothing but wrath.  Indeed, this is a very significant word for us as God’s people!

There is a second thing that we ought to note about the language of this verse.  David’s prayer is that God would wipe out his transgressions.  The word that is used here is the Hebrew word [v;P, (pesha), which can refer to either individual transgressions or to the rebellion of a group of people.  It is valuable to note that we rarely take seriously enough the gravity of our own sins.  We usually see them as the stumbling of a fallen individual when it comes to trying to live a righteous life.  Yet, sin is more than simple stumbling—it is outward rebellion against a holy and a righteous God.  Indeed, as far back as Adam and Eve, sin has been rebellion against the righteous law and nature of God, and when we enter into it in our lives even today, we should recognize it as outward rebellion—rebellion that, by act, aligns us with the enemies of God.  Oh, beloved, until you recognize sin for what it is, you will always take forgiveness for granted; until you truly begin to hate your sin, you will not treasure the redemption that is found in Jesus Christ. 

David employs what is called a “chiastic” structure in this verse to add emphasis.  What that simply means is that the two halves of the verse are flip-flopped in what they convey:

Show favor  (A) Chesed  (B)

  Abundant mercy (B’) wipe out transgressions (A’)

This (ABBA) structure is called a chiasm after the Greek letter c (chi), and is commonly used in Hebrew poetry when the writer wishes to add emphasis what is being said.  Essentially, he is saying the same thing twice, just with different language to make his point.  In this verse, David begins by requesting God’s favor and ends the verse with the specific way in which he desires to see God’s favor enacted.  David is not asking to defeat an army or to perform a mighty task, but is asking that his sins be forgiven—indeed, there can be no greater sign of God’s favor than this.  At the center of the verse are two additional parallel ideas.  We have spoken of God’s chesed already, but here David adds further definition to the word by defining it in terms of God’s abundant mercy.  And indeed, once again, it is because of this abundance of mercy that God offers his chesed to his people.

Oh, loved ones, while sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of poetry, but they are important because they have been deliberately employed by the writer to convey a sense of meaning.  At the same time, do not lose sight of the reality of David’s situation—he has entered into horrendous sin, his child lays dying as a result, and he has come in penitence before God, pleading for mercy.  And note how he does so—it is not on the basis of who he is or what he has done, but it is on the basis of on who God is and what God has promised.  Beloved, as you walk through this life, you will enter into sins, the question that must be asked is how do you come before God in the wake of those sins?  Is it as one who is proud of the way they live, or do you beat your breasts like the penitent publican (Luke 18:13), pleading the mercy of our God?

God be merciful to me,

On thy grace I rest my plea;

Plenteous in compassion thou,

Blot out my transgressions now;

Wash me, make me pure within,

Cleanse, O cleanse me from my sin.

-from the 1912 Psalter