Metaphors of the Christian Faith

metaphorsAlmost all theology is based in metaphor. This is not because theology = fantasy but because this type of language is all that is available for the task of describing God. As I sit typing this, I could describe myself in concrete language: wearing khakis, a black polo, freshly shaved, graying hair … etc. But I have few such concrete terms for God, so I must take terms from my experience, my world, and apply them to God in ways that help me understand him. When I quote John to say, “God is light,” I am not making a statement that requires a degree in physics to understand. I am making a metaphorical statement about the purity and intensity of the presence of God in my world.

This is particularly true when it comes to describing our relationship with God. The Bible authors employ many different metaphorical ways of understanding this situation, especially the restoration of the relationship damaged by my rebellion against God and his authority. Consider a few:

  1. Redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις, e.g., Rom. 3:24). This is a metaphor drawn from the slavery system of the ancient world and refers to the buying back of a slave and perhaps releasing him.
  2. Reconciliation (καταλλαγή, e.g., 2 Cor 5:19). In context of 2 Corinthians 5, this is a metaphor drawn from the world of diplomacy, ambassadors working on behalf of kings.
  3. Forgiveness (Remission) of Sins (ἄφεσις, e.g., Acts 2:38). This word means “release,” and had several applications in NT times, including the word for “divorce.” Theologically, however, it is drawn from the financial world to bring up the metaphorical image of cancelling a debt.
  4. Names in Book of Life (τὰ ὀνόματα ἐν βίβλῳ ζωῆς, e.g., Philippians 4:3, also Rev 21:27). This is an metaphor from the government world of censuses, keeping lists of persons enrolled as citizens. Aside: do we really think there are giant dusty volumes in heaven with names inscribed by angels? Haven’t they updated to Windows 10?
  5. Justification (δικαίωσις, e.g., Romans 4:25). This is a metaphor drawn from the legal world and refers to the acquittal of a person charged with a crime.

There are many other such metaphors used to describe a restored relationship with God: gospel (good news), salvation, ransom, transformation, restoration, peace, etc. But here is the kicker: these are all talking about the same thing! We use the arenas of language available to us in theological ways to describe this renewed relationship. Through faith in Christ, we are no longer alienated from God.

One of the problems for Evangelical Christians has been to see everything exclusively through the lens of Paul’s understandings. This is particularly true here, and the forensic language of “justification” has trumped all others for most Reformed theologians. This is reductionistic and misses the richness of the Bible’s other metaphorical descriptions. The references above serve to show that Paul employed many metaphors for salvation. Some are unique to him, leading us to think that he might have coined them himself using his fertile metaphorical imagination (metaphor from agriculture if you didn’t notice it).

So let us not park exclusively on the idea of God as a Judge who has pardoned us. He is also a Father who allows us to call him Abba (Daddy). He is also a rich person who adopts us as his heirs. And I have not come close to exhausting the metaphorical language.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Note: due to my responsibilities as the Academic Dean at Nebraska Christian College and Crossroads College, I have neglected to blog much for the last several months. Our NC accreditation review is almost done, and I intend resuming weekly posts. Thank you for your patience.

Anarchists, Iconoclasts, and Reformers in the Church

“Anarchist” is a pejorative label for many people, a designation implying lawlessness and amorality. “Iconoclast” is a milder designation, implying a particular vendetta on a volatile issue. “Reformer” has a positive aura, but can imply hopeless and unending do-goodism, talk without resuAnarchylts.

My understanding of anarchism’s core impulse is the belief that the current state of affairs is hopelessly corrupt and irredeemable. Therefore, it is best to tear down or destroy all governing institutions. The opportunistic anarchist hopes to prevail in the resulting chaos, rebuilding a new society with limited government. So the idea that anarchy=chaos is essentially accurate, for temporary chaos may be to the advantage of the eventual winners.

iconoclastIconoclasm is a term arising from the church’s icon controversies, a time when some feared that religious art might be inappropriately worshiped. The term literally means “image-breaking,” and now implies a targeted destruction of certain institutions or persons deemed to have grown too powerful and/or corrupt. Once the offender is destroyed (or at least neutered), the iconoclast will move to the next target.

votes-for-womenA reformer sees the inefficiencies and offensiveness of a system and seeks to repair or replace corrupt elements, thereby revitalizing the whole. A reformer does not see the current state as irredeemable, but also knows that reform is a never ending process, that we can always do better.

A political example might serve to illustrate these differences: the Internal Revenue Service. This is the tax gathering arm of the U.S. government and it seems reasonable that something like this is necessary if government is to be funded.

The anarchist move is to abolish the IRS. This is proposed without alternative, either oblivious to the consequences of the resulting chaos or desirous of the result of defunding government in general.

The iconoclastic move is relentless attack on the IRS as a symbolic boogeyman, a convenient focus for one’s frustrations with government. The IRS might be “broken” by lawsuits, hearings, and cuts in funding, but there is no serious attempt to eliminate this source of tax collecting altogether.

The reformer recognizes the inefficiencies with the IRS and the general frustration with the current tax system. The reformist call is to redo the entire tax code, eliminating its labyrinthine layers of privilege and penalty that have accumulated over many years of tinkering. The reformer will want to retain those things deemed positive, eliminate sections that are oppressive or corrupt, and perhaps add new ideas that will increase fairness and productivity for the IRS. But reform is difficult, especially in a representative government.

For many in the church today, there is a feeling that things are not right, not as they should be. Those who seek to change this status quo may follow one of these three pathways.

The anarchist impulse is not so much to destroy the current institutional church, but to abandon it altogether. It will then die from neglect and lack of support while new churches are planted, new buildings are built, and new leaders are empowered. But what will be the fate of these new things when they become old? Will the next generation of church leaders, having learned the techniques of anarchism from their mentors, abandon them just as quickly?

The iconoclast is on a more focused search and destroy mission. Get rid of those pews. Disband that choir. Eliminate adult Bible classes. Quit supporting traditional missionaries. Tear down that antiquated thirty-year old building. The iconoclastic focus rarely notices that all of these things have constituencies, because the people who love them are old and irrelevant, and not in positions of power.

The reformer’s agenda is never-ending. Tough questions are asked and hard answers are given. Why are we putting energy into a traditional event that is poorly attended? Are we doing church in such a way that honors the past but ignores the present? Are we getting desired results for our budget expenditures? Yet as with government, reform is slow and can be frustrating to impatient folks (like me).

I will admit that in my 30+ years of ordained ministry, I have functioned in all three of these roles.We need all three to a degree for the church to be healthy. But are there dangers here?

Karl Barth wrote, ecclesia semper reformanda est, the church is ever-reforming. The church we grew up in was not the church our grandparents grew up with. Change is inevitable. Our choice is to be agents of change (having a say), to be observers of change (watching as others do it), or to be self-understood as victims of change (mourning the past and rejecting the present).

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Prison and Death: A Lenten Meditation for Maundy Thursday

imagesWe have been traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem since Ash Wednesday, six weeks. Jesus is now in the holy city, and he has been busy. He has rallied his supporters with a tumultuous entrance, an improvised celebration of Hosannas. He has made more enemies by wreaking havoc on the commercial interests in the temple, turning over their tables and driving out their four-legged merchandise.

On Thursday night of this unforgettable week, Jesus has arranged to celebrate a traditional Passover feast with his beloved disciples. It is a joyous yet melancholy time, just as Passover must have always been for the sons and daughters of Israel in those days. One one hand they were celebrating the epic deliverance of their ancestors from being a nation of slaves in Egypt. This led to the formation of their proud nation through the providential acts of their God, Yahweh, the LORD.

N.T. Wright characterizes their other feelings this way, “We are in the Holy Land focused on the temple, but paradoxically we are in a sense still in exile, still outsiders in our own land.” This was because they were ruled by pagans, by uncircumcised Romans who cared nothing for the Law and the traditions of Israel. Emotions were running high on that Thursday night.

During the Passover meal on that night, Jesus blesses the cup and loaf and teaches the disciples how to understand them symbolically to represent his blood and body. This is the beginning of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. On Maundy Thursday, we should remember these dramatic, prophetic, words of promise.

After the meal, Jesus has a private word for Peter, revealing that “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.” We often take this as a dire warning to Peter alone concerning his upcoming failure: three denials of Jesus. Yet the “you” here is in the plural. Satan has desired to sift all the disciples, and maybe he has. Sifting is an act of purification, removing the tiny stones that were hidden is the wheat. Luke has already told us that one of the disciples, Judas, has been sifted, for Satan has entered his heart and filled it with greed.

Is Peter Satan’s next target?

Feeling the pressure, Peter blurts out, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” And so he does, eventually, so he does. It is a long road, but thirty-five years later in Rome, the fisherman is imprisoned and then crucified head down.

Prison and death. Do we include this in our calls to discipleship? As we drink and eat the emblems of the Lord’s Supper, we are eating symbols of death. As Paul put it, signing up to follow Christ is being “crucified” with him. I think that if a commitment to prison and death were a requirement for being a Christian, our numbers would dwindle dramatically.

As we finish our journey to the cross tomorrow, Blessed Friday, let us contemplate. Do we want to just watch this as if it is an internet feed on a computer, or would we join Jesus on a cross if asked to do so? If we were sifted by Satan, would we be live-giving wheat or a useless, tooth-breaking stone?

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The Final Turn: Meditation for the Sixth Sunday of Lent

home exitDo you know the feeling? I mean the feeling of taking your home exit off the freeway after a long journey. You are finally turning toward home. You can park in your own garage, eat your own food, sleep in your own bed, shower in your own shower, and nap in your own recliner. The tension of traveling begins to relax.

For those of you who have followed me these past few weeks, we have been using Luke’s Gospel to travel with Jesus to Jerusalem, the final journey to the cross. Luke presents this as an extended journey, surely exhausting for Jesus. At one point Jesus admits, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). This was not even couch surfing, but sometimes sleeping rough, outdoors, for the Lord.

You might be thinking, how could going to Jerusalem be going home? The cross and a horrible death awaited Jesus in Jerusalem. No one should desire that! But remember as we started this journey, Jesus set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. Perhaps it wasn’t just the cross that drew him to the holy city. Surely he saw beyond it and knew it was just a matter of days for him to be returned to his Father in heaven.

The last turn for a Galilean pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem for Passover would normally be the south end of the Jordan River valley at the oasis city of Jericho. From there, the road to Jerusalem loomed, a climb of over 3,500 feet in about 18 miles. Sometimes, when you are driving home, that final stretch of freeway seems the hardest, the longest. Yet home awaits, and we don’t want to stop. We want to get home.

Blind BartimeusAs Jesus comes to this final Jericho turn, he is accosted by a blind man whose daily existence consisted of begging by the side of the road. He hears that Jesus is passing by and understands it is a carpe diem moment for him. He calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He is asking to be healed, to receive the mercy of God for his miserable life. What will Jesus do? Surely he wants to get home!

A little later, as Jesus enters Jericho, he encounters Zacchaeus, a “wee little man” who has climbed a tree to see the famous rabbi traveling zacchaeusto Jerusalem. Zacchaeus, a wealthy outcast in his city, needs Jesus as much as the poverty-bound blind man. We would think that the urgency of Jesus’ journey would mean there is no time for this tax collector. What will Jesus do?

Luke tells us that Jesus heals the blind man and goes to the home of Zacchaeus to redeem this hated “son of Abraham.” Jerusalem can wait a little. Jesus has time for those who need him. The journey can be as important as the final destination.

Holy Week is upon us. Today is Palm Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ entrance into his city of destiny. In the midst of these momentous events, don’t think Jesus has forgotten you. Speak with him and he will be listening. Ask for his mercy and he will bless you. Look for him and he will come to your home and bless you.

Prayer: May we prepare our hearts for Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death, and Resurrection Sunday, the morning of his true triumphal entry from death to life. Let us not stumble through this week without taking time each day to remember Jesus. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, may you have mercy on us!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The Thumb of God: Meditation for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

cast out demonThe Gospel of Luke relates many fascinating events encountered by Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem for Passover in A.D. 30. On one occasion recorded in Luke 11, Jesus was casting out a particularly troublesome demon. This evil spirit had caused its host to become mute, unable to speak. It must have been a notorious situation, because when the man is delivered and begins to speak, Luke tells us the crowd was amazed.

So amazed that they grasp at straws to find an explanation. Someone offers a plausible answer, although one that is dead wrong. This person suggests that Jesus has power over the demons because he is in league with the prince of demons, an entity known as Beelzebul. Others aren’t quite so sure, but ask Jesus to provide even bigger proof of his power, wanting a “sign from heaven.” We are not sure what this might be, perhaps a summoning thunderbolt or making the sun disappear, but Jesus does not take the bait. His demon busting ministry is not really for them. It is to relieve the suffering of the unfortunate man who was unable to speak.

In some ways, this encounter is representative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, even his entire ministry. The amount of miracles necessary to bring everyone to faith is a bottomless pit. Miracles like driving out demons cannot be understood without the recognition of divine power at work. If we fail to recognize the presence of God or refuse to believe in God’s activity, we must either concoct a ridiculous implausibility to explain it away or we must be insatiable in our demands for evidence. Today, as it was for Jesus, some look at him and respond with faith and love. Others reject with distrust and slander.

Jesus responds with dramatic language. He makes quick work of the Beelzebul theory, and offers this observation:

If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The Greek word translated “finger” (δάκτυλος) does not have the distinctions our word “finger” does, because it refers to the digits of the hand, all five of them. It could be translated the “thumb of God,” and I think this gets the sense better. It is not God’s finger wagging at you for unbelief. It is God’s thumb pressing on you, pushing you, not letting you run away from a decision of faith.

For those of you who have joined with Jesus, Luke, and me as we make our way to Jerusalem and its cross during this Lenten season, may we not be relieved of the pressure of the thumb of God. May it not pressure us into decisions we should not make, but help us confront our doubts and believe even more strongly. May we never forget that we live in the presence of the living God, under his reign, in his kingdom. Our road to Jerusalem may be filled with the miraculous or it may not. Let us not demand or even seek signs, but be amazed at the Savior who drives out demons and saves our souls.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Working by Myself: Meditation for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Martha-and-MaryThe last part of Luke 10 continues the story of Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem. The narrator tells us that “Jesus and his disciples were on their way,” the final walk to the holy, fateful, temple city of Jerusalem. In these meditations for Lent, we are over half-way there as we follow our Lord to the cross. Let us look at the story Luke tells about Mary and Martha.

The story shows us that Luke’s material is stylized and topical, not a linear presentation of events in chronological order. We say this because the village of Mary and Martha was Bethany, just a few hundred yards from the gates of the temple in Jerusalem (John 11:1). Luke still has over eight chapters of material to relate, not reaching Jerusalem until chapter 19, but this is the story he wants to tell us now.

The incident is familiar to us. Jesus and his troop show up at the home of Martha. It feels like a place they have been here before, a welcome place. Martha immediately begins arrangements for a festive meal, a fitting reception for her friend and Lord. While things are being prepared, Jesus is talking and teaching, and we can imagine a small crowd of disciples, villagers, and other pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. Among them is Martha’s sister, Mary. Martha’s hospitable and niceness persona is dropped temporarily, and she goes and complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her, not sitting to listen to Jesus. We can imagine that tempers have flared a bit and the atmosphere of accusation and shame is strong in the room (or, more likely, the courtyard of the home).

Martha’s core complaint is this,

My sister has left me to do the work by myself.

How often have you felt that way? How often, in church work, have you felt that many are receiving and few are giving? How often have you felt that you are going it alone, just you and Jesus, and no one quite understands how lonely your journey is?

In this Lenten season, let us each make our way to the cross to celebrate Jesus’ great sacrifice for us. We must sacrifice, too, and there will be days when we feel we have been left to do a mountain of tasks of ministry all by ourselves. You need help, and there seems to be no help to be found.

Yet we know this is not true. It is not just you and your imaginary friend Jesus laboring in ministry. First, he is not an imaginary friend. He is a real presence in the lives of his disciples. Second, you are not alone. Look around. The road to the cross is full of pilgrims. Some are happy and have a bounce in their step. Some are sad and walk slowly. Some are even disabled, and are being pushed by another. Yet we are not alone.

When we feel the Martha blues coming on us, let us stop, and give thanks for the companions we have on the way.

Prayer: Lord, may we not feel sorry for ourselves, the worst of all feelings. May we take joy in our journey, joy in our companions, and joy in you, our Leader. Amen

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Trampling on Snakes and Scorpions: Meditation for the Third Sunday of Lent

In Luke’s trample snakeaccount of Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem, there is an interlude in which a large group of disciples are sent out as evangelists (Luke 10:1-24). There are thirty-six teams of two, and Luke indicates they were sent as advance teams to the towns and villages that Jesus intended to visit. Their message was simple: the Kingdom of God is near.

This is synonymous with the arrival of Jesus. Jesus’ presence is the Kingdom of God. We see this in three things that happened with these evangelist teams.

First, they are to say to each house they enter, “Peace to this house,” a blessing indicating God’s favor. The Kingdom of God is accompanied with the blessings and gracious acts of the Lord. This week, as we journey with Jesus to the cross, are you accepting and enjoying the peace of God, the grace of God, the blessings of God? Is your life, no matter how dangerous and stressful, resting in the comfort and peace of the Lord? Here is a way to judge this for yourself: Are you angry or content most of the time? Peace and anger are not easy companions. This week, let us concentrate on releasing our angers and resting in God’s peace.

Second, the Kingdom of God is also a sign of God’s judgment. Where the teams were not welcomed, they were to announce that rejection did not mean the Kingdom of God was thwarted. Instead, such villages were to be warned that their fate was to be worse than the ancient city of Sodom, a place that received the deadly rain of heavenly fire for rejecting God’s call to repentance. This week, let us leave behind all of our rebellious attitudes and pretensions of independence as we travel with Jesus to the cross.

Third, Jesus tells the returned teams that they have the authority to “trample on snakes and scorpions and overcome all the power of the enemy.” The bites of poisonous snakes and the stings of scorpions are not necessarily deadly. More often they are extremely painful and debilitating. If Jesus’ metaphor says we can step on threats and crush the heads of opposition. We can travel with him in confidence. This week, let us confront our fears in following Jesus. Are we afraid of ridicule, of rejection, of sacrifice? May we lay behind these fears and stride confidently with the King of Kings as he nears the cross.

Lord, give us peace in this Lenten season. Let us drop our resistance to needed repentance. May we live confidently as your servants who journey with you throughout our lives. Amen.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College