Monday, August 23, 2010

The Straight and the Narrow

"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it". Mt 7:13-14

Jesus Christ, toward the end of His Sermon on the Mount, puts forth this famous passage concerning two ways, an oft repeated image within Scripture, and may also be found in the Didache (1:1-6:2). The powerful imagery here is one that depicts a few v.s. many scenario in terms of salvation, or entrance into (eternal) life. This text is often misunderstood as teaching an exclusivity concerning salvation, being for the few, while condemning the masses. And often it's presented as being based on whether or not one has become a believer or not.

In v.14 the Greek word for 'straight' as for the gate which leads to life, is stenos, narrow (from obstacles standing close about): strait- Strongs. And the word translated as 'narrow' is thlibo afflict, narrow, throng, suffer tribulation, trouble -Strong's, 1) to press (as grapes), press hard upon; 2) a compressed way: 2a) narrow straitened, contracted; 3) metaphorically to trouble, afflict, distress -Thayer Greek Definitions. This word is translated as 'throng' in Mk 3:9, that Christ had to enter a ship so the crowds would not throng him, or crowd him; and also is related to the word translated in Lk 8:45 as 'press', which means to crowd (from every side). Anyone whose been in a 'rock concert' crowd, or a mob of people, knows what this feels like; to be in a sea of people, to be pushed about, pressed upon from everyside, and carried beyond your control by the mere force of the crowd.

In this instance, it is by two sides that one is pressed, thronged, or distressed by. The Amplified Version words it this way,

"But the gate is narrow (contracted by pressure) and the way is straitened and compressed that leads away to life, and few are those who find it.." v.14.

I was thinking on this passage the other night, and what came to my mind literally was the idea of a birthing canal. And Christ did relate entrance into the Kingdom of God as a being born of water and of Spirit (Jn 3:5).

What would be the pressures that would throng us on our way to entering life? With what are we contracted, and straightened? Based on an understanding of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7), it is evident that one side is the dangers of legalism: as the Pharisees who rely on the righteousness which is by the Law (Rom 10:5), who feel that they're righteous because they've not committed adultery, or they've not murdered anyone, when all the while they missed the spirit of the Law which is of the heart as in not lusting, or not hating anyone (Mt 5:27-28; 43-48). On the other side of this straightened way is the dangers of lawlessness (iniquity): this is as those who say, "Lord, Lord", yet do not the things that He says (Mt 7:21-23). These may be those who think that they rely on the righteousness which is by faith (Rom 10:6-10), but who suppose that they can now sin because they're not under the Law, but under grace (Rom 6:1-2, 15).

These are very real dangers, and make for a perilous journey for those willing to travel this narrow and straight way. First, we have to realize what is going on in the paradox of eternal life as presented in New Testament Scripture. As believers, we know that we have eternal life simply by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, and trusting in what He did for us on the Cross:

"He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." Jn 3:36

"But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." Jn 20:31 (See also Rom 3:21-26; 4:5).

While eternal life is ours upon believing, coming to faith in Christ, eternal life is also portrayed as synonymous with the Kingdom of God, which must be entered into, often with great distress and tribulation. Both sides of this very compressive pathway are brought out in two accounts:

1) The dangers of legalism: The story of the Rich young ruler (see Mt 19:16-30), where a rich young Jewish man supposes that by 'doing' some good thing, he would gain eternal life. But Jesus shows him that if he sought to keep the Commandments of the Torah, that he would have to keep them all perfectly, as says the Scriptures (Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5). He says that with great difficulty that a 'rich man' shall enter the Kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:23). But here, don't just think of monetary riches, but also riches of self-sufficiency, supposing that we're rich in terms of morals, and keeping of the Law: "all these commandments have I kept from my youth up" -v. 20. But when Jesus stated how difficult it would be for such to be saved, the disciples were pretty shocked. But Christ said, "With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." Mt 19:26. In other words, we may enter into life, into the Kingdom only by God, not of our own effort which is impossible. Only through God, His grace and His Spirit, can we keep the righteousness (which exceeds that of the Pharisees) as described in the Sermon on the Mount.

2) The dangers of lawlessness: The question someone posed to the Lord, "Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able." Lk 13:23-24 (see also v.v.25-30). Here, salvation and entering into life, or the Kingdom are synonymous, though we may now have eternal life. Notice in the following verses that those who are thrust out from the Kingdom of God supposed that because they were merely associated with the Lord Jesus, in that they ate with Him, and that He taught in their streets, they would be recognized by Him. But He says to them, "I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity [workers of lawlessness]." v.27b.

Please consider this deeply, especially as both of these texts (Mt 19:16-30 and Lk 13:23-30) end with "the first shall be last, and the last first ". Notice that eternal life is something that we may possess immediately upon our believing on Christ, and being born again (Jn 3:3; 20:31; Eph 2:8-9), but that eternal life is also something we may enter into (Mt 19:17; Jn 3:5). The very fact that there's no cut and dry differentiation between eternal life as we enjoy it now through our faith in Christ, and eternal life as the Kingdom of God, or of heaven which we enter only through much tribulation (Acts 14:22; Mt 19:24) causes this perilous pathway into the Millennium, creating this compressive tension. Let those who wish to see a contradiction do so to their own peril. Let those who wish to choose one side over another side do so to their own peril. But let those who have ears to hear, let them hear~ Yes, we have eternal life, and yes it's a free gift of God's grace through faith, but also, as Peter said,

"Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." 2Pet 1:10-11.

To fully understand, or appreciate the mystery of the Kingdom of God (which is only entered through much tribulation and personal cost) we must first differentiate it from eternal life which is a free gift of unearned grace- as true as that doctrine is, only to bring eternal life and the Kingdom of God back together when we understand this subtle difference, because in effect they're really one truth. It's this which underlines the fact that we will all be judged according to our heart, in light of the Sermon on the Mount. And this precludes us from judging our brother and sister on an ultimate basis, as entrance into life is a condition which is wholly a phenomenon of the heart, and not a mere fulfilling of outward requirements, nor conformity to man's ideas.

May all be blessed with Light.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Doctrine of the Atonement as Foundational in Early Christianity

From the New Testament, written 1st century

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. Jn 1:29;

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world... Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. Jn 6:51, 53-56;

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission [forgiveness] of sins. Mt 26:26-28;

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Mk 14:22-24;

And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. Lk 22:19-20

And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet. Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.
Acts 8:27-35

(Also, too many Scriptural references to cite, from the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the book of Hebrews, the epistles of both John and Peter, and the book of Revelations refer to the blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ).

Origen lived A.D. 185-254, so the references below will reflect Christianity prior to him:

Let us fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and know how precious it is to His Father, because it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to the whole world. Clement of Rome, 1Clement 7:4 A.D. 80 [96/98?]

For the sake of the love which he had for us did Jesus Christ our Lord, by the will of God, give His blood for us, His flesh for our flesh, and His life for our lives. 1Clement 49:6b A.D. 80

I have learned, however, that certain persons from elsewhere, who have evil doctrine, have stayed with you; but you did not allow them to sow it among you, and you stopped your ears so that you would not receive what they sow. You are like stones for a temple of the Father, prepared for the edifice of God the Father, hoisted to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using for a rope the Holy Spirit. Ignatius of Antioch, letter to the Ephesians 9:1a. A.D. 110

If, then, those who walked in ancient customs came to a new hope, no longer sabbathing but living by the Lord’s Day, on which we came to life through Him and through His death, - which some deny, - through which mystery we received faith, through which also we suffer in order to be found to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Teacher Ignatius, letter to the Magnesians 9:1 A.D. 110

...who cannot suffer, yet, for our sakes, accepted suffering, and who on our account endured everything. Ignatius, letter to Polycarp [disciple of the apostle John] 3:2b. A.D. 110

Everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an Antichrist; whoever does not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whoever perverts the sayings of the Lord for his own desires, and says that there is neither resurrection nor judgment, such a one is the first-born of Satan. Let us, therefore, leave the foolishness and the false-teaching of the crowd, and turn back to the word which was delivered to us in the beginning. Polycarp of Smyrna [a disciple of the apostle John], Letter to the Philippians 7:1-2 A.D. 135.

Let us, then, continue unceasingly in our hope and in the Pledge of our justification, that is, in Christ Jesus, who bore our sins in His own body on the tree, who did no sin, nor was guile found in His mouth; yet, for our sakes, that we might live in Hm, He endured everything. Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 8:1 A.D. 135

When our iniquity was complete, and it had become perfectly clear that punishment and death were its expected recompense, and the time came which God had appointed to show forth His kindliness and power, - oh, the magnitude of the kindness and love which God has for man! - He did not hate us nor reject us, nor yet remember our evils. Rather, He was long-suffering, and He was patient with us. In His mercy He Himself took up our sins and He Himself gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the Holy for the wicked, the Innocent for the guilty, the Just for the unjust, the Incorruptible for the corruptible, and the Immortal for the mortal.

Indeed, what else could have covered over our sins except His righteousness? In whom was it possible for us, in view of our wickedness and impiety, to be justified except in the Son of God alone? Oh, the sweet exchange! Oh, the unfathomable accomplishment! Oh, the unexpected benefits! - that the wickedness of the many should be hidden in the One who is just; and that the righteousness of the One should justify the wicked many! Letter to Diognetus 9:2-5 A.D. 125/200

*I’ll stop there, as space doesn’t allow that I should continue in showing that the doctrine of Atonement for our sins through the blood and Cross of Christ was a consistent and foundational doctrine of the early Church (prior to Origen) since it’s inception by Christ Himself.