Friday, May 22, 2015

Strait, Narrow, and Few

In my last post, I talked about Scripture flowing in one direction on a topic, but then sometimes we see "rocks" that interrupt that flow. One of these "rocks" that I mentioned is Matt. 7:13-14. I've been wrestling with Matt. 7:13-14 for some time now. Some would just tell me to accept the fact that few go to heaven and almost everyone goes to hell. End of discussion. It's settled.

Only that doesn't settle it for me because I see a strong current in Scripture moving toward an earth that is full of righteousness and a heaven with innumerable hosts. It's surprising how often this appears.

It's in the Pentateuch in Numbers 14:21. Here, there are only a few. There are two faithful out of about 2 million and God is ready to wipe them out. Moses appeals to God's mercy and forgiving nature and God responds with forgiveness and mercy and states that "all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord." He does not withhold punishment in this incident, and reminds us of the virtue of justice. But He forgives and pardons and redeems and preserves those two and raises up an entire faithful nation that inherits His promises.

This statement in Numbers 14:21 is repeated almost verbatim in Habakkuk 2:14. Again, it's a context of wickedness overwhelming righteousness, and here is this promise. The earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

In probably the most Messianic Psalm, Psalm 22:1-31, we have a very interesting promise in Psalm 22:27. The Psalmist is forsaken by God, surrounded by enemies mocking and abusing. But eventually God hears and delivers, and promises that "all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord."

There are several verses like this in the Psalms.(Ps. 72:19; 86:9; 66:4; 102:15; 98:1-3, etc. etc.)

And Isaiah? Isaiah surely believed that the whole of the earth was going to honor God. Isaiah 11:9 is essentially the same as Habakkuk 2:14. Isaiah 11 is in a context of the kingdom of God covering the whole earth and is one of the most beautiful descriptions of the earth being full of peace and righteousness in all of Scripture.

And I haven't even talked about Revelation 7:9-12. And Revelation 15:4. And there are many more. Research for yourself.

Some may say, "but those passages are figurative and prophetic". I'll grant that for some of them. But even so, the figures and prophecies have meaning. The overwhelming flow is toward an earth filled with people who know God. You have to try to miss that in the Old Testament. And the innumerable hosts in heaven stands in contrast with few entering a narrow gate.

Yet the most common explanation of Matt. 7:13-14 that I've heard is a reversal of this flow. This explanation says, "Very, very, very few go to heaven. Almost everyone goes to hell." It's as if Jesus came along and on the Sermon on the Mount said, "By the way, all those promises about the earth knowing and turning to the Lord, I'm reversing those. Just a very few people are truly approved. 'Us and them' is the right way to think after all."

The churches with which I've been associated have especially relied on this passage. These churches have shaped my faith and made me much of who I am today. I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to them for my Bible knowledge, study habits, friends, family, good work ethic, appreciation for purity, and many other good things. I love those churches, my people. But these churches have isolated themselves from all others who claim to be Christian and used Matt. 7:13-14 as justification and as comfort for this isolation.

I no longer believe the "us and them" use of this passage is correct or good. According to Wikipedia, these churches have about 120,000 members. There is considerable evidence that the number of members is shrinking at an alarming rate. If their isolation is correct, then less than 0.0017% of the world's population makes it. That isn't a narrow gate. It's a closed gate.

I'm not completely sure what Matt. 7:13-14 means. Consider the immediate context that promises that "all who seek will find" and "whoever knocks, it will be opened for him" (Matt. 7:7-8). The immediate context emphasizes that the Father knows how to give good gifts and wants to give them more than we do (Matt. 7:11). In light of that, I don't think He's saying that there's a pattern for worship hidden in the New Testament and about 1 out of 100,000 in the world will find it and those will be rewarded with the good gift of heaven while the rest of the world just won't get the blessing of God's eternal goodness.

However, no matter the numbers and despite its contrast from the context, Matt. 7:13-14 still has meaning. I do not want to ignore this verse. I do not want to ignore the flow of Scripture. How can I honor both?

The rock is still there and the river is still flowing and God's voice is in this sound of the flow against the rock. The earth and heaven will be filled with innumerable people who know God and His love and justice and peace. Few enter the narrow gate that leads to life and many go the broad way to destruction.

One idea that I think has some merit is this: Jesus was speaking exclusively to a Jewish audience. Those in that Jewish audience were His contemporaries. His teachings were very strange and contrary to them. Very few of His Jewish contemporaries would heed His word. Maybe.

Perhaps He is talking about a way of life more than eternal destiny. He's talking about a way of life that truly lives by the golden rule and gives to the needy and shares and puts others' needs above one's own. There are really few who truly live self-sacrificially, even though that is a brilliantly simple and fulfilling yet difficult ethos that brings life. Perhaps.

Or maybe He really is saying that only Christians will be saved and there will be few of them. In the world today, about 2 out of 7 people claim to be Christian. Even if "not every one who says Lord, Lord" (Matt. 7:21) makes it to heaven, a little over 2 billion is enough to cover the earth but it's still a relatively narrow gate. Maybe.

Or maybe the truth is in the sound of the flow against the rock. Just like Joshua and Caleb were alone among the spies and the vast numbers in the whole camp of Israel, God redeemed the camp and raised a nation. To this nation in His perfect timing, He sent His Son. His Son was alone and rejected and abused and killed. Even though His followers disbanded and forsook Him in His darkest hours, God raised Him. And God redeemed those followers who disbanded and turned them into the church, the kingdom of God, that now covers the earth. In spite of overwhelming odds and a very small beginning, God's name and glory will cover the entire earth and God will continue to redeem the faithfulness of His servants to spread love and peace and justice. That's what I think is the best explanation.

But for sure, I'm convinced that Matt. 7:13-14 is NOT a passage to give any one tiny sect a raison d'etre. It's not intended for folks to quote then congratulate themselves for being the few who figured out God's true will. It's not intended for people to use as justification for sitting on their hands and isolating themselves from other followers of Jesus. It's not there to give comfort for a small sect's own numbers falling because "broad is the way" and "this evil world doesn't want the truth". I'm sure of that.

Instead of worrying about who's in and who's out, I should put more effort in loving God and loving others. More like Him.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

When Scripture Has Rocks

One of my favorite things to do is to run on the trails in DeSoto State Park. One trail parallels the Little River, which is a fast flowing river that flows mostly south and mostly atop Lookout Mountain and eventually forges a canyon to the south of the state park. The water rushes along and you can hear it from quite some distance away. Occasionally, as I'm looking at the river, I'll see a large rock, maybe several large rocks just sticking up above the water. The water hits the rock, turns white, makes noise, and flows around the rock, continuing southward.

These rocks add beauty to the river. These rocks make the water rough. These rocks make the river more difficult to navigate. These rocks amplify the voice of the river and sometimes make the flow of the river even more obvious. Ignore these rocks and you'll miss the river's voice. You'll miss the river's beauty. And if you're in the water, ignore these rocks to your own peril. To attempt to ignore them is both futile and dangerous. However, to pick up and go the complete opposite direction because a rock stands against the flow of the river is even more futile and dangerous.

Sometimes we have Bible verses like those big rocks.

What I mean is this. The overall sweep of Scripture is flowing very strongly in one direction, but there are verses that jut out, like big rocks on a fast river. These verses seem to oppose the flow of the "river". When we see those, we have to choose. Will we turn and go against the overall flow of Scripture? Will we attempt to ignore them? Or will we admire the beauty and roughness and navigate around them listening for God's voice in the noise caused by these verses that seem to oppose the flow of Scripture?

Examples of passages that are like these rocks...

Matthew 7:13-14 is a passage that I've wrestled with for some time. There is an overall flow of Scripture, especially in prophecy, toward an earth filled with people who turn to God and who know God. There are innumerable hosts in heaven in Revelation (Rev. 7:9-12; 15:4). There are verses like Habakkuk 2:14; Isaiah 11:9; Ps. 22:27 and Ps. 98:1-3. Does this one passage near the end of the sermon on the mount suddenly reverse all of those? (That's not impossible because the sermon on the mount begins with a set of reversals, for sure.) Or is there another way to understand this verse that honors both this verse and the overall flow of Scripture?

Other examples include the role of women. You have Miriam, Deborah, Anna, the women proclaiming the empty tomb to men, Phoebe, Junia, Philip's daughters, Gal. 3:28, etc. Standing against those you have 1 Tim. 2:12 and 1 Cor. 14:34. What do we make of that? How do we deal with those rocks? How do we decide which verses are the "flow" and which are the "rocks" in my metaphor?

There is an overall flow of a picture of God as merciful, patient, kind, loving. In fact, that is perhaps the major theme of all of the Bible. There are passages like Deut 5:10 and Deut 7:9 and Rom. 5:15 and Rom. 5:17 that show that God's mercy is orders of magnitude greater than His punishment. We are told that God is slow to anger. But then you have Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-3) and Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:7) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5; Acts 5:10). Do we throw out the flow of Scripture toward a merciful and loving God of grace in favor a few "rocks" that on the surface appear to portray God as an angry cosmic despot? Or do we strive to see what else may be going on in those "rock" verses?

Let's take the more difficult road of wrestling with passages that cause us tension. Let's not settle for pat answers. Let's use the tools available to us, including modern scholarship which can help us understand customs and language and culture and audience and author of the books in the Bible. Let's strive to honor all of Scripture, even the parts we don't like or that present problems to our cherished and long-held beliefs. Let's even consider the possibility that we may not be able to reconcile all of these verses and we're just left to honor the beauty of the different perspectives in Scripture. Let's not be satisfied to read Scripture the way we always have. Let's read Scripture as it has been given to us by God (a beautiful story written from different times and perspectives) instead of turning it into what we may want it to be (a uniform, simple, point by point instruction manual).