Made in the Image of GodSaturday, February 18, 2023
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
In the above text, Jesus simultaneously escapes a trap and teaches a valuable lesson. The Pharisees and Herodians, normally at odds with one another, team up to trip up the Lord. Their question expects an either/or answer but Jesus gives a both/and answer (“fear God, honor Emperor” 1 Pet. 2:17). But what’s all this about coins? Jesus points to the image of Tiberius on the coin for the poll tax (Greek εἰκών, eikōn). This is the same Greek word used in the Septuagint translation (LXX) of Genesis 1:26-28 which speaks of God creating humanity in his “image.” Jesus makes a subtle and powerful contrast: since Caesar’s image is stamped on the coin, he can lay claim to money through taxation; but since God’s image is stamped on us, he can lay claim to our whole lives (Mt. 22:36-38).
What is the “image” of God within us? It consists of those faculties that distinguish us from the rest of creation. These are things that make us unlike animals and like God. All creation is reflective of the Creator but humans uniquely reflect God. There are at least five dimensions to the divine image within us.
Rational: ability to think — Humans can reason. We are told “be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding” (Psa. 32:9). Though animals have rudimentary intelligence, they don’t share our complex rationality, wisdom and understanding.
Moral: ability to choose — We have a will. That is, we are moral beings who can distinguish between right and wrong (Gen. 2:16f). Humans are imbued with the unique quality of free moral choice.
Social: ability to love — We are emotional beings made for relationship. This is reflected in the plurality of God and the plurality of humanity (male and female, Gen. 1:26). God exists in eternal communion with himself (Father, Son, Spirit). God is love and we reflect God most accurately when we love God and our neighbor (Mt. 22:37-40).
Creative: ability to work — We don’t just exist within creation, we are given jurisdiction to rule over it, yet under God (Gen. 1:28; Psa. 8:3-8). We bear God’s image by using that ruling power to make full use of the amazing potential of creation. We farm fields, build houses, grow families and communities, invent and create. The Hebrew word for “image” (Gen. 1:28) is translated “idol” in most places. Idol statues were often placed in temples to represent the gods (Ex. 20:4-5a). In contrast, humans are God’s living “images” placed in the temple of his creation to represent him and rule on his behalf. Exercising godly dominion is a uniquely human vocation.
Spiritual: ability to worship — Lastly, we were created to be in perfect communion with God. He is described as “walking in the garden” among humans in the beginning (Gen. 3:8). Ultimately, we are fashioned, body and spirit, for that fellowship (Gen. 2:7).
But underneath all this is an intrinsic quality of being human that has nothing to do with ability. Simply by virtue of being human we are made in God’s image, a fact that has far reaching implications. Though God’s image within us has been corrupted by sin it can be fully restored through Christ, who is “the image of God” (Col. 1:15).
The Widow's OfferingSaturday, February 11, 2023
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
At first glance, this story seems to teach a straightforward positive lesson: give sacrificially like the widow. Jesus clearly commends her wholehearted devotion and generosity. There are lessons here about the heart of the giver in contrast to the amount given, what God can do with “two copper coins,” what God values as opposed to what man values, the trust and love toward God that motivate our giving, and importance of sacrificial giving (see 2 Sam. 24:24). However, there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Part of what a text means is the context in which it is given. The synoptic writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all record this story. And in each of the books, the stories which come immediately before and after the widow’s offering help us interpret it.
What comes before: the greed and hypocrisy of the wealthy religious elite (Mk. 12:38-40) — Matthew gives a more detailed account of Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes (Mt. 23) but Luke’s and Mark’s condensed version makes the same point. Scribes and widows occupied opposite ends of the social spectrum in Jewish society. Scribes who taught and interpreted the Law of Moses sat near the top, with widows, to whom God expresses particular care in the Law (along with orphans and foreigners), at the bottom. The disciples must “beware” of the example of the scribes. Why?
The scribes were only concerned with appearance. Not only do they fail to express any loving concern for vulnerable widows, they actually “devour widow’s houses.” Their long prayers are merely a pretext for showing concern for the very people they defraud. Jesus’ judgment against them is ironic: instead of receiving “greater” wealth and honor in society (which they were seeking), they will receive “greater” condemnation from God. This poor, unnamed widow, probably didn’t own any fancy clothes, was probably more concerned with affording food at the market than receiving special greetings there, and probably didn’t get invitations to sit in the best seats at the synagogue or the places of honor at banquets. While the greedy, hypocritical scribes fancied themselves the spiritual leaders and important members of society, people like this self-sacrificial widow were the real spiritual backbone of Israel.
What comes after: the certain destruction of the temple (Mk. 13:1-2) — The widow made her offering on the temple grounds which led the disciples to remark on its beauty. Herod the Great’s construction project to enlarge, refurbish, and beautify the temple took 46 years to complete. The result was impressive. But in response, Jesus shockingly declares the temple’s utter destruction. Haggai describes the building of the temple as “stone placed upon stone” (Hag. 2). Jesus describes its destruction as no stone being left on another. Why would God abandon such an impressive structure dedicated to his glory? Because, just like the religious hypocrites, the temple was beautiful on the outside but rotten on the inside. The story of the widow’s offering was just one example.
The temple treasury was set up in such a way that it fed off those who could not fend for themselves. Instead of caring for people like the widow, the scribes and wealthy religious elite devoured them. The contrasting lesson is negative: don’t be like the scribes and the wealthy religious who give to be seen by others, neglect the poor, and perpetuate a system which disadvantages the less fortunate.
An Epidemic of LonelinessSaturday, February 04, 2023
“Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
We are living through an epidemic of loneliness. The more technology connects us, the more that same technology, far from breeding intimacy, creates a gulf between us. While the reach of our communication has never been broader, the depth of our communication has never been shallower. Research consistently shows that one of the top issues facing young people today is loneliness. Exacerbated by social media, technological dependence and addiction, this epidemic is warping our idea of healthy relationships and what it means to be human.
Jonathan Franzen’s 2015 novel, Purity, tells the story of Purity “Pip” Taylor. In the opening, Purity is working in a coffee shop and meets a man she finds attractive. She begins to wonder about developing some kind of relationship with him. During the course of their conversation, Purity asks herself, “Dare I risk the intimacy of friendship? Or shall I retreat to the relative safety of casual sex?” The protagonist’s musing is a reflection of the twisted contemporary view of relationships, where a physical relationship is seen as less risky (and, because it is so perverted, less intimate) than friendship.
We are so unused to relating to others as fellow image-bearers of God that the intimacy of friendship feels threatening. We are caught between the desire to be known and loved and the fear of being known and loved. The result is that we have become terribly lonely.
This epidemic can be traced, in part, to a low view of others. We are conditioned to evaluate others on purely physical terms, viewing only “the outward appearance” (1 Sam. 16:7). This dehumanization objectifies people made in God’s image. An object is something to be consumed for personal benefit; the relationship between a person and an object is one of consumption. But the relationship between two people is a connection where there is mutual benefit.
This objectification is evident not just in how we view others but also in how we view ourselves. Professionals are taught to “market” themselves, as if they were a brand, a program or a car. We are losing sight of what it means to be human by reducing ourselves and others to objects. Thus, our desire for connection and intimacy goes unsatisfied. What can be done to cure such an epidemic? Jesus said that he came so that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). How can we access this abundant life?
Our relationship with God — First, we must address the primary relationship for which we were created. When we are disconnected from our Creator, the one in whose image and likeness we were made, nothing can be done to cure our emptiness and loneliness. Though our sins separate us from God, he provided access to himself through Jesus Christ. When this relationship is repaired, then our humanity can begin to be restored (Col. 3:5-17).
Our relationship with others — The gospel of Christ trains us to see others through God’s eyes: “from now on… we regard no one according to the flesh… if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Cor. 5:16-17) Christ helps us see ourselves and others as fellow image-bearers of God, leading to a humble view of ourselves and a high regard for others (Phil. 2:3-4). This proper perspective opens the door to sincerity, love and the intimacy of true friendship.
Our relationship with technology — Following Christ also helps us put technology in its proper place. ““All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor. 6:12) While technology serves a purpose, we must be wise to its dangers and refuse to become enslaved by it. God has given us the power to put down our phones and take up abundant life in Christ Jesus.
Peace Through DisciplineSaturday, January 28, 2023
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
The church in Philippi was under intense pressure. They were contending with false teaching (3:2-3), persecution (1:27-30), temptations to selfishness and vanity (2:3-4), indulgence and greed (3:18-19) and even disagreements within the church family (3:2-3). Paul knew that the stresses they were under would have been a source of great anxiety so he counsels them against giving into fear and discouragement with a command to… rejoice?
Joy is not happiness. Happiness is an emotion that depends on external circumstances, on what happens. Maintaining happiness would require a perpetual state of pleasurable circumstances. Since life east of Eden is a series of peaks and valleys where change is the only constant, perpetual happiness just ain’t happening.
But we can rejoice in spite of and in the midst of hardship, but only “in the Lord.” That is, the sphere of our joy is in our unchanging fellowship with Christ rather than our ever-changing circumstances in the world. Being “in the Lord,” with all its attendant blessings, ought to bring us peace and joy (Jn. 16:33). Why, then, are so many Christians stressed out? It could be a lack of discipline. Paul offers a simple and practical solution to overcoming anxiety and finding peace through the disciplines of prayer, meditation and obedience.
The discipline of prayer — “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:6-7) Peace is granted to those who pray, who cast their burdens on the Lord (1 Pet. 5:6-7). “Are you weak and heavy laden, encumbered with a load of care? We should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not take it to the Lord in prayer.” It sounds so simple, but so seldom do we do it in times of anxiety. There is a direct correlation between our peace and our prayer life. If you are not at peace then learn to pray.
The discipline of meditation — “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (4:8) Peace follows a disciplined mind. Undisciplined thinking and misplaced mental focus are sources of stress. Alter the text to reflect its opposite and you’ll agree. What if we focused only on what is false, what is shameful, what is unjust, what is foul, what is ugly, what is reprehensible, etc.? To think “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5) leaves out any possibility of peace and joy. However, if we “set our minds on things above” (Col. 3:1), nothing can rob us of our joy in Christ. If you are not at peace, discipline your mind. Finally, Paul takes this a step further into action.
The discipline of obedience — “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (4:9) Behavior follows thought. Whatever occupies our mind will shape our life: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23) Therefore, peace comes through practice. The deeper our obedience to Christ, the deeper our peace and joy in him grow. Strangely, true rest is found in serving the Lord (Mt. 11:28-30).
We all want to live more peaceful, joyful lives. But are we willing to humble ourselves to receive God’s gifts and discipline ourselves to enjoy them to their fullest extent? If we pray right, the peace of God will protect our hearts. If we think and live right, the God of peace will be with us, even in times of uncertainty and anxiety.
Getting the Word to StickSaturday, January 21, 2023
The Lord’s example prayer (Mt. 6:7-15) illustrates that, while there is merit to spontaneous prayer, we often need structure to engage in the daily struggle of prayer. Have you ever started to pray and lost your train of thought? It’s easy to get off track. One way we can maintain our focus in prayer is to use the psalms as a guide.
The Psalter was the combined prayerbook and hymnal for the ancient Israelites and the early church. The first psalm teaches us how to use the others. It mentions the practice of meditation (Psa. 1:1-2). The blessed man “meditates” on God’s law day and night. This is not referring the practice of clearing the mind or verbal repetition to achieve a transcendental state. Biblical mediation is an active pondering over God’s word to find insight into its meaning.
The Hebrew word for “meditation” is the same word used to describe the sound of a lion growling over its prey (Isa. 31:4) and the sound of a dove cooing in its nest (Isa. 59:11). When used of people, it describes the soft sound of Scripture being repeated under one’s breath. Biblical meditation occupies the space between reading Scripture and prayer. It is a kind of devotional thinking which uses Scripture as a guide to keep the mind from wandering.
Meditating on God’s word deepens our prayer-life and clears out valuable mental real estate for God’s word. This way it “sticks” with us: “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16).
Try it yourself and you’ll see what I mean. This works particularly well if you do it first thing in the morning.
Pick a psalm and slowly read the text aloud. The point is not to finish the psalm but to savor the words and give them a chance to sink in. Next, meditate on the text, asking what it means, how it points to Christ, how it applies to you, etc. Then, pray the text. Try using the words from the psalm to formulate your own prayer. Finally, contemplate the text throughout the day. Notice how the words of the psalm intersect with what happens that day, with conversations you have with others, with the work that you do or the problems you encounter. If we meditate on God’s word it will be a blessing to us.