Monday, February 16, 2015

Double Commands

The fledgling fellowship in Thessalonica was a community of people who had experienced a radical change in their lives. Paul and had come and proclaimed to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and their God-motivated response had resulted in a “turn(ing) to God from idols”, expressed in the dual activities of “serv(ing) the living and true God”, and “wait(ing) for His Son from heaven.” It is this “serving and waiting” that I am investigating.

I don’t believe that Paul is making this stuff up on the spot. I do not believe that this is original material. Paul is steeped not only in the Old Testament (which he is), but also in the majestic storyline of God’s plan, beginning in creation and culminating in New Creation, tracing the fundamental promises to Abraham, and seeing their fulfillment in God’s new people. So, I wonder if the dual command has a history, a biblical background, that will give depth and context to what it means for us “to serve and wait.”

In the more personal aspect of creation in Genesis 2 (as opposed to the more formal and schematic approach of Genesis 1) we find that God is personally involved with Adam, and gives him a double command: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”(Genesis 2:15 NAS95) This is certainly not all that God says, but these two commands are notable, and perhaps foundational. A literal translation of the Hebrew word rendered above as “cultivate” would be “serve.” Sound familiar? The word rendered “keep” is often literally “guard,” which could easily be understood and waiting and watching, or perhaps, Peter-ishly, “watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).

A review of the 43 references1 where “serve” and “guard/keep” are found in association, we find that the servant is one charged with royal responsibility to rule righteously, according to God’s law, which is to be guarded, or kept. “Servant” is who you are as one oriented toward God, and holding/keeping to God’s word/plan is what you do. This line traces through Moses and the prophets, through David, and then finally to Jesus, the ultimate Servant of the Lord who fulfills/keeps God’s word/plan perfectly.

Now, abruptly, come back with me to 1 Thessalonians 4, where I find dual infinitives, a similar construction to what we have in 1:9,10. But here there is a very specific application. With regard to the use/implementation of our physical bodies in sexual relationship, we are to serve and wait. The idea of serving is stated negatively in 4:3, where we are told not to serve the flesh, and by implication, that we must not serve the flesh because who we are as Christians is those who have “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” We are servants of God as followers of Jesus, the ultimate Servant, who perfectly cultivates the royal role of righteous representative of God. As servants, we are to keep, or, according to 4:4, “possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor.” We are to wait for our body’s prescribed and righteous fulfillment in the marriage relationship. 

Interestingly, there is another infinitive doublet in 4:6, where we are instructed “that no man transgress and defraud his brother,” antithetical actions from cultivating and keeping. Our abandonment of our role as God’s servants, and thus our responsibility to responsibly wait, is a clear violation of the law of love, also a double command, that we love God and love neighbor.

This talk about a proper relationship reserved for marriage leads me, finally (for the purposes of this post) to think about the dual commands given to the husband and wife to “love and submit” in Ephesians 5:22-33, and similarly in 1 Peter 3:1-7. Is there a correspondence here between the responsibilities to “cultivate and keep,” or to “serve and wait”? It at least gives color to these words - that who we are as royal representatives of God, are those who love/serve. And yet, we are not ultimate representatives - only Jesus is, and so we do not simply plough ahead with our own ideas and agendas, but we submit/wait. As broken out in the Ephesians text, it is the husband who is to cultivate the family’s identity as God’s servants,, and it is the ministry of the wife to exemplify that we are not lords, but stewards, who, while responsible, are not ultimate. That would be Jesus, the One for whom we wait. Going back to my review of the OT verses where the Hebrew terms for “cultivate and keep” are associated, it would primarily2 be the husband who is specifically charged with “cultivating” the identity of the household as those who have be oriented toward God, and are thus His servants, and it would be primarily the wife who is charged with “keeping” and ever restraining the functions of the household in order to be consistent with the home’s proper identity.

1Gen 2:15; Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:7; Deut 6:12; 7:8; 11:16; 12:30; 13:4; 16:12; Josh 1:7; 22:2, 5; 24:17; 1 Sam 28:2; 2 Sam 22:44; 1 Kings 3:6; 8:23–25; 9:6; 11:11, 34, 38; 14:8; 20:39; 2 Kings 12:21; 17:13; 21:8; Is 56:6; Jer 16:11; Ezek 37:24; Hos 12:12; Mal 3:14; Psa 19:11; 86:2; 119:17; Neh 1:7; 10:29; 2 Chr 6:14–16

2I use the word “primarily,” because other Scriptures make clear that we all members of the covenant community are called to love, and we are all called to submit, and therefore, we all have responsibility for cultivating our God-given identity and keeping our God-given functions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life: Psalm 128

Psa. 128:1    How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, 
Who walks in His ways. 
2 When you shall eat of the fruit of your hands
You will be happy and it will be well with you. 
3 Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine 
Within your house
Your children like olive plants 
Around your table
4 Behold, for thus shall the man be blessed 
Who fears the LORD. 

Psa. 128:5 The LORD bless you from Zion
And may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. 
6 Indeed, may you see your children’s children. 
Peace be upon Israel!

Finally, on January 20, I will try and finish my 2014 series on “Songs (psalms) for a Good Life,” 6 psalms that start with “blessed,” and which outline how the God-oriented life is indeed the good life.

Earlier psalms, and posts, are available on Psalm 1, 32, 41, 112, 119, and this post on Psalm 128.

If the colors come through on the psalm, blue shows elements of “the good life.” Certainly, “blessed” is part of this. In this psalm, the first phrase of verse 1 forms a nice inclusio with verse 4, wedded with the idea of fearing this God who blesses. These are not exclusive terms. One does not either fear, or is blessed. It is inclusive: fear and blessedness go together. This is the God who holds us in the palm of His hand, and we are utterly at His disposal, and yet this is also the God who has made us promises. This is the God with whom we are bound by covenant, and we always fall short of our covenant obligations, and yet this is the God who covers are failings and provides a Substitute for us. Fear, and blessedness.

Further, in terms of blessings, more than in the other psalms, this blessedness is drawn out for us with other terms: happy, well, prosperity, peace. There is nothing wrong with these things. The blessing of God works out in ordinary and happy ways when our closest relationship flourish, and we are able to enjoy the simple joys of home and garden without undo fears of outside interruption or interference. If we have enjoyed these things for most of our lives, we may forget that this is not the rule in all places and at all times. Let us not forget to thank the Lord for the blessings that we have enjoyed for these years.

This is a family psalm. It is a garden psalm. It is a psalm that recognizes that family and garden can only thrive and be enjoyed when there is national or social stability.

The family aspect of the psalm is traditional. It is addressed to the father, with references to his wife and children. There is a stability here, an order that is outlined in Scripture as designed by God. Modern renditions of family have not been proven, and I believe that we will soon see increasing, disastrous consequences from this experimentation which will have to be further justified or explained away by social engineers. But this ancient text reminds us that there is old wisdom that is now sadly neglected.

The idea of fruitfulness can be difficult for us in a manufactured society. Fruitfulness should be organic. But when we live by the machine, we tend to think of productivity in manufactured, man-produced ways. You can find a perfect match online, and pick your children from genetic maps. But this is not what God is here describing. Our marriages and families are marked by surprises and delights that are not the product of our careful planning. They are from God, and we are blessed to see how they turn and grow.

We do not live our family/garden lives in a vacuum. There is a capitol, and the reign runs from the throne. There is a King, and we are subjects in the kingdom. And until every enemy has been placed under Christ’s feet, this political center will be contested by would-be powers and potentates. We will be caught in the middle between earthly and heavenly kingdoms, and here there will be rebellions and wars. May God continue to give us that kind of peace and stability, that we could enjoy not only our children, but their children as well.