Friday, January 29, 2010

Marriage—A God-Plane Relationship (Part Two)

We tend to look at our lives in a very physical manner, and this applies to our relationships, including marriage. For instance, many young people, influenced by this world's highly sexualized culture, believe that a top factor in a marriage is sexual compatibility. This leads them to indulge in fornication—often with multiple partners—and cohabitation without the benefit of the marriage vow. Statistics show that following this path actually increases the chances of destroying any subsequent marriage. Depending on the study, there is a 40 to 85 percent higher risk of divorce between couples cohabiting before marriage than those waiting until after marriage to live together. This tragic result can be traced back to a merely physical viewpoint.

However, when God introduces humanity and marriage, the first thing He does is to put it on a spiritual plane. His initial concern is that we have been created in His image—after the God-kind. Our relationships, then—especially our marriages—should include this God-plane quality. While there are many physical aspects to marriage, the most important facet of married life is spiritual in nature, concerning our preparation for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus' teaching on marriage follows the pattern set in the first two chapters of Genesis.
Matthew 19:4-6 appears in a passage on marriage and divorce in which Jesus answers a question posed by some Pharisees about divorce, specifically, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" (Matthew 19:3). At that time, divorce was quite rampant because of the general notion among Jews, taken from a misreading of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, that the law allowed a man to divorce his wife simply by giving his wife a certificate of divorce and sending her away.

Notice, however, how Jesus answers their cynical question: "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female' . . .?" (
Matthew 19:4). He answered their question with Genesis 1:27! This gives us insight into what Jesus based His understanding of the institution of marriage on: God's original instruction just after creation. In the very next breath, He quotes from Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (Matthew 19:5).

So what did Jesus do in answering their question? He reached back to the very beginning of mankind and reminded them of God's intentions at that time, explaining that, in God's judgment, nothing has changed. His purposes and instructions regarding marriage have not "evolved" over the millennia. He still considers marriage a God-plane union between a man and a woman with significant implications regarding being created in God's own image. In other words, God's reasons for the marriage institution have not been altered by mankind's inability to fulfill them.

Jesus continues in
Matthew 19:6, "So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate." His answer can be paraphrased as, "Look, you have got things all wrong. Marriage is not just a physical relationship that one can make or break at any time and for any reason. Genesis shows what God intended when He created people male and female, and clearly, He made marriage a divinely ordained, lifelong institution." He explains in verse 8, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so." He then proceeds to give the biblical reasons for divorce.

In this New Testament context, Christ shows that God has endorsed the marriage relationship from the beginning as an excellent way to produce righteous character in His children. He is preparing children in His image—not just children who look like He does, but also ones who live as He does. Thus, His creation of mankind was not complete with His physical creation in Genesis 1, but it continues to move forward spiritually within the conversion process. As can be seen in Jesus' comments, the marriage institution plays a large role in it. Divorce, sundering the union of man and wife, can be a great hindrance to the spiritual growth of both parties involved.

The first purpose of marriage, then, is that it provides a fitting environment for producing divine character.

Immediately after He created humans as male and female, "God blessed them" (
Genesis 1:28). The Theological Word Book of the Old Testament says that a blessing is "to endue with power for success," which is its essential meaning in just about every usage in the Old Testament. We can also define it by recognizing its opposite—a curse—the intention of which is "to bring great evil upon" in order to hinder success.

Thus, God gave the newly created couple a blessing to bestow power for success on them. We could also say that in the context, this divine blessing was their wedding ceremony. By this blessing, God gave Adam and Eve the right and the authority to enter this union, just as a marriage ceremony does today. It also gives them the authority and power to produce what God expected of them. With God's blessing given to the institution and to the individuals involved, the chances for success become significantly greater. In fact, with God's eager blessing, a married couple really has no excuse for failure!

The marriage ceremony used by the churches of God stresses that the bride and groom are making a covenant before God and man. The ceremony includes a laying on of hands that sets the couple apart in their union, showing that God Himself seals the contract—the marriage covenant—between the man and the woman. In addition, in the prayer that accompanies the laying on of hands, the minister normally asks for blessings to come upon them—a blessing on their relationship, a blessing on their offspring, a blessing for their prosperity, etc.

The apostle Paul writes in
I Corinthians 1:9, "God is faithful." When God gives a blessing, He follows through by giving what is needed for its fulfillment. God's Word is not empty: "So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). So a groom and his bride have little excuse for not producing what God desires to result from their marriage.

To provide godly blessings, therefore, is a second purpose for this institution. Marriage is truly a blessed arrangement. Not only does marriage have God's sanction, but He also loads it with benefits from His own hands. He blesses a man and his wife with advantages that are in no other union because He is intimately involved, a party in the covenant. In a Christian marriage, the power that is needed to make it work is available from God.

Part Three will consider this divine blessing further and introduce the third purpose for marriage.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Marriage—A God-Plane Relationship (Part One)

In the United States, marriage has been under assault for many years, at least for the last five or six decades. We could perhaps pinpoint the publication of the Kinsey Report in the early 1950s as a starting point of the major offensive against marriage. Very quickly after that, the sexual revolution lurched into full swing, launching the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. While we tend to confine this to the 1960s, that era has never really ended but only transformed over the years. Millions are using their "sexual freedom" to dally with multiple partners before marriage—and continuing the practice even after saying, "I do."

On January 1, 1970, California's no-fault divorce law went into effect, and before long many other states followed suit, easing divorce. In the same decade, feminism reared its head in two major efforts: the legalization of abortion and the push for an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. Abortion—of which there are about a million performed each year—made the consequences of illicit sexual activity easier to avoid.

The next decade saw the onset of AIDS, early on traced to perverse sexual activity among homosexuals, and the rise of the homosexual movement, which has pursued such goals as homosexual rights, hate-crimes legislation, and most recently, homosexual "marriage." Along with AIDS, gonorrhea, and syphilis, at least 25 new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—some of which are viral like AIDS—have ravaged many who have participated in the "sexual revolution." Modern medicine cannot really "cure" any of these, only make the symptoms more bearable (although antibiotics can kill Chlamydia and gonorrhea, scars and sometimes infertility may result). These diseases have reached pandemic proportions, as 15.3 million new STD infections happen each year, including over three million in teens.

All of this so-called progress has its effect on marriage. In addition, we cannot forget that potentially huge problems are inherent simply in two different people trying to create a life together. One that should not be minimized is each mate's unique set of sins and weaknesses that must be overcome. Everyone has "baggage," and when a man and a woman try to make a marriage work, they must be prepared to deal with such potential "skeletons in the closet" and their aftermaths.

As the end draws near, those who are married as well as those who desire to be married seem to have the deck stacked against them. Even in good times, marriage has its difficulties. There always seems to be communication problems because men and women do not communicate the same way. Men and women also typically approach life differently—men have a tendency to act first and think later, while women often let their emotions lead. The diverse backgrounds of the bride and groom can set up another possible obstacle, not to mention in-law problems, and when children arrive on the scene, childrearing problems. The inability to harmonize such differences makes many marriages unstable and prone to collapse. Marriage is not an easy proposition.

Marriage is a complex social institution, but it is an important, even vital, part of most people's lives. Although God has not commanded everyone to marry, the greater part of us do. Yet, not everyone is suited to marriage. Jesus teaches in
Matthew 19:12 that "there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs [decided not to marry] for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it." Paul echoes this in I Corinthians 7:8, 32: "But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am. . . . He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord." As Jesus says, remaining unmarried is fine if one can master his sexual drive and devote himself to God's work. God is able to work out a person's salvation without the aid of the marriage environment.

However, for the majority of us, the route of marriage is the one we are most likely to take. And, after baptism, the decision to marry is the most important decision we can make, one we should consider most deeply, not only before we make such a sacred vow, but as we go through it. In fact, the marriage vow is merely the beginning of a process of refinement and growth that will not only bind husband and wife more closely, but also enhance the development of holy, righteous, godly character.

Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." In this one verse appears several important, foundational points that relate to marriage. The first is that God created both men and women in His own image.

Before God, a man and a woman are equal, meaning that both have the same potential: to be transformed into the image of God and inherit His Kingdom. Marriage, then, is a union of equals before God. However, Scripture clearly shows that God placed husbands in the position of authority—he is, as has been said, first among equals. Yet, though they are equal in potential, they may or may not be equal in many areas of mental and physical abilities, and they are certainly not the same in emotional makeup or strength. It is evident that men and women have different natural inclinations, skills, and abilities—all the while not making one better than the other.

Being fashioned after God's own body and mind implies that both have human equivalents of God's abilities, desires, goals, preferences, etc. While creating Adam and Eve, God took many of His qualities and distributed them between the male and the female human. Clearly, humanity's God-like qualities are not as excellent as His, since there is a great gulf between what God is and what humanity is, but we have human-level counterparts of what God Himself possesses. As Herbert Armstrong often said, we are made after the God-kind.

This fact makes the relationships that we undertake with others quite important.
Genesis 1:27 indicates that we are no longer dealing with just physical associations. In his first mention of mankind in the Bible, God begins by putting man's existence on a spiritual plane by letting us know that He made us in His image. Our relationships, then, also have a God-plane quality to them, suggesting that we need to take them very seriously.

Why? Because the goal of every human being, whether he or she realizes it or not, is to be just like God. Male and female, created in God's image, are on the same track to the same place. So, the relationship between a man and his wife assumes a very spiritual and imperative quality.

In Part Two, we will see that Jesus' teaching on marriage begins in the same place.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Six)

We have learned that conversion is primarily a process, a transformation of a Christian's nature from human and carnal to godly and spiritual. Much of conversion occurs in the mind, putting off selfish, sinful beliefs, inclinations, and approaches and putting on their holy and righteous counterparts. However, the life of a human being—Christian or not—is not played out solely in the mind; what people think and believe manifests itself in words and deeds. Conversion, then, must also play out in changed behavior, the fruit of God's Spirit accomplishing its miraculous work in us.

The first-century Corinthians provide a negative example from which we can learn. Immediately after the apostle Paul declares that Christians "have the mind of Christ" (I Corinthians 2:16), he informs the Corinthians, "And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. . . . [F]or you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?" (I Corinthians 3:1, 3). Despite their having become Christians through baptism and the laying on of hands, these Corinthians had retained their pre-conversion natures. How do we know this? It exposed itself in their carnal behavior! As Paul says, they were acting just like other people who had not received God's grace.

Their conversion had never really left the starting gate because they had failed to continue in the process of spiritual transformation. The author of Hebrews explains what must occur:

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

Conversion, then, is the process of exercising our senses, not the five senses, but the mental and spiritual faculties of reason, understanding, and judgment. If we are not making judgments about events that are happening in our homes, in our communities, in our workplaces—if we are not determining whether they are right or wrong, and if we are not endeavoring to correct those that are wrong, then we are failing in our conversion. We are, in fact, in danger of neglecting our salvation and drifting away.

The writer, however, is not finished with his instruction. In the next chapter, he shows them what they need to do:

We are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:9-12)

Notice what he encourages them to do: to show diligence, that is, "earnestness," "zeal," "deep commitment with eagerness." He advises them to dedicate their lives to this spiritual transformation and to stick with it to the end, as this is what those who will inherit the promises do. In other words, they need to launch zealously into a campaign of regaining all their lost ground. As he implies, Christianity is not a religion for the lazy.

The apostle Peter says much the same thing in II Peter 1:2-8:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue. By which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He mentions that, since the Father and Christ have given us so much—even allowing us to share in God's nature—we should strive to add to our faith. Just believing that God is and that He has forgiven our sins is not enough (James 2:19). Among other things, we must grow in these qualities: virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. If we work to instill these godly attributes into our characters, we will be producing the kind of fruit that God wants to see in us (John 15:1-8).

Peter concludes his instruction in verses 10-11: "Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Spiritual growth and producing fruit are what makes our calling sure. Our maturity as Christians is based upon us zealously, diligently working to move our conversion along.

What is real conversion? It is the transformation of our characters, our intellects, our emotions, our actions, our words, our very thoughts, from the evil way inspired by Satan and man's carnal nature into the divine nature—the very nature of God Himself!

So, how much like God are we? How straight and true is our trajectory to putting on the image of Christ (Romans 8:29)? How much of the old man have we put off, and how much of the new man have we put on (Colossians 3:9-10)? Are we growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18)? Are we cooperating with God in being transformed to His image (Romans 12:2)? Are we making becoming more like Christ a daily goal (Luke 9:23)?

Though the Corinthians had their problems with carnality—as we all do—they worked to overcome them and began growing. Paul's final words to them in his second epistle should give us encouragement as we "work out [our] own salvation" (Philippians 2:12): "Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. . . .The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (II Corinthians 13:11, 14).

Friday, January 1, 2010

What Is Real Conversion? (Part Five)

Romans 12:1-2 summarizes what must occur during the conversion process:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The apostle Paul presents our marching orders directly. We are to sacrifice our bodies while we still live, that is, we are to submit ourselves wholly to God and to His way of life, which is only reasonable, since having redeemed us, He owns us completely. In addition, we are to reject this world's attempts to pull us back into its ungodly lifestyles, despite its many allurements. Instead, we are to engage in the transformation of our minds into perfect alignment with God's will.

Paul calls it "the renewing of your mind." This renewing is not making the mind new in the sense of time. For instance, to say one has a new bike suggests that it was recently purchased; someone else has not used it. The renewal of Romans 12:2, however, speaks to quality. We might understand it better by using the terms "refresh," "revive," or "rejuvenate." When a tool—say, a chisel—is old and dull, a craftsman will renew it by cleaning off the rust, sharpening the edge, and perhaps putting on a new handle. Essentially, this is what God is doing in renewing our minds. He is taking an old, ill-used mind, cleaning it, sharpening it, and putting it to use in His work.

Consider that another spirit has had many years to shape our minds to follow his way (Ephesians 2:2; Revelation 12:9). Satan the Devil's way of life is that of pride, vanity, lust, greed, envy, deceit, murder, adultery, and covetousness—all the evil things that we are supposed to be putting off. While he had a hold on us, Satan impressed his ungodly way on our minds, but now God has called us and is now in us by His Spirit, transforming us, refreshing our minds, so that we can change the quality of our minds from carnal to spiritual. The transformation that we are undergoing will take us from the self-absorbed, degenerate, sensual mentality to the outgoing, pure righteousness of God's own mind.

The last part of Romans 12:2 can be paraphrased as, "so that you may test or experience all the benefits of His will." Without His mind being formed in us through the Holy Spirit, we would have no way of truly understanding His will or His way. Our minds must be transformed so that we can have even the capacity to understand the differences between God's way and Satan's way, as well as the overwhelming benefits of living as God prescribes. Only then, as it says in Deuteronomy 30:19, can we truly "choose life." This process is happening in us so that we can make the choices that will allow us to live eternally.

Paul covers this transformation of our minds in I Corinthians 2:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (I Corinthians 2:7-8)

Without the ability to distinguish between God's way and Satan's way, the leaders of Judea put their Savior to death. What He said and did was a mystery to them, as they had no basis within them to comprehend Him. Without God's Spirit working in them, they had no understanding and therefore no ability to make proper judgments. As we will see, truly converted Christians do.

But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. (I Corinthians 2:9-10)

The apostle proclaims that, by God's Spirit, not only can we understand some of the things of God, but the Spirit is so powerful that we can plumb their very depths! Of course, we do not know these things just by having the Holy Spirit in us; we learn them over time and through much experience in using the Word of God (Hebrews 5:14). This is why conversion is largely a process, as transformation into Christ's image occurs over years of study and growth.
For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (I Corinthians 2:11-14)

In verse 11, Paul explains the Spirit's work in us by an analogy. Just as the human spirit enables us to understand material things (Job 32:8), God's Spirit works on a similar but higher plane, allowing us to grasp spiritual matters, specifically, "that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God" (I Corinthians 2:12)—the benefits of doing God's will, as Romans 12:2 suggests. Of course, this spiritual insight sets us apart from people in the world, so we should not expect them to understand either our doctrines or practices. Frankly, Paul says, it is beyond them.
But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For "who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ. (I Corinthians 2:15-16)

At this juncture, the apostle reaches his goal in this passage: the subject of judging or discernment. With the Spirit working in us, we now have the ability to discern true from false, right from wrong, good from evil from God's perspective. By writing that "we have the mind [Greek nous] of Christ," Paul means that we can have the thoughts, intellect, or understanding of Christ! However, in this context, the meaning of nous is even more specific: "the faculty of judgment; the ability to discern." In other words, we can learn to judge just like Christ. This is overwhelming to consider, but it is ultimately the goal of the work of God's Spirit in us.

Obviously, this fact places tremendous responsibility on us, as well as an extraordinarily high goal before us. It requires us to exercise our spiritual faculties of understanding and judgment far more than we probably do, but what great purpose does not call for equally great effort?

Next time, we will tackle the daily grind of the conversion process.