Bad Fight, Good Fight part 1
Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time. (1 Timothy 6:11-15)
As we were traveling yesterday in the car my wife was meditating on the book of first Timothy and began dialoging with me about what she was finding there. As we talked and mused over the possible meaning and implications of what Paul wrote about to Timothy, suddenly new light began to break through into our thinking.
First let me take time to unpack some of the words and phrases in this passage. I will start with the word confession.
A confession by inference and definition is an admission. To confess or admit something usually implies that it might be risky, that what is being admitted may not be agreeable or approved by those who would be listening. To confess something which everyone around you already agrees with does not really convey the same sense as admitting something that has been a guarded secret inside you.
In this passage Paul attaches an important word to confession. He calls it a good confession. I think it is safe to assume that this is meant to be in contrast to other more common kinds of confession. More significantly he links this good confession by Timothy to another good confession, the one given by Jesus before Pilate. This has powerful implications as to the nature of His kingdom as we grasp more clearly the core issues involved as well as what was taking place at the time of Jesus' confession.
We usually associate confession with secret sins, faults or mistakes. Another kind of confession today is connected with iterating a litany of beliefs required to join some religious group. But I don't believe either of these are what Paul had in mind. And neither do I believe that early believers ticked off a list of beliefs in order to join a church. The kind of confession that Jesus and the early church confessed was not a cerebral disclosure of a list of beliefs but was rather a verbal expression of deep belief and conviction about the kind of God they believed in, worshiped and emulated. This becomes clear when we examine more carefully what Paul referred to here as the confession of Jesus before Pilate.
"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." (John 18:35-36 NIV)
It starts to be plain that these passages are meant to explain each other. Not only do we see something called confession taking place but more importantly this confession involves the issue of fighting and violence. Paul admonished Timothy to fight a good fight, a fight involving faith. In contrast we find in the confession of Jesus a reference to fighting of a very different nature, a fight that Jesus viewed as not good. And we don't have to look very far to find an example of how strongly Jesus felt about this.
Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave's name was Malchus. So Jesus said to Peter, "Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:10-11)
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?"
At that time Jesus said to the crowds, "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as you would against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me. "But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets." Then all the disciples left Him and fled. (Matthew 26:51-56)
For far too long religion has been deceiving us into assuming that the issues at stake in the events surrounding the cross of Christ had to do with becoming our substitute in the sense of receiving violence from God as a retribution and punishment for our sins. This assertion is supported by various passages and is often reinforced by the choice of words used by Bible translators that confuse readers. Nearly every religion on earth endorses some idea that the deities in charge of our lives have to be appeased, placated or even bribed in order to satisfy what we call justice. Thus we have been seduced into embracing a view of God as one who is vindictive, harsh, demanding and more interested in having His rules enforced more than anything else. There are variations on this theme, but almost without exception in every explanation of salvation we find some model of appeasement in order to satisfy what we are sure is the demand of a divine law for punishment of offenders.
But a brilliant Light has come into the world. This light is the Son of God, the Son of this same God we have long insisted that demands a justice we practice here on earth. But by assuming that God runs His government like we operate ours, relying on violence and fear to intimidate people into compliance and submission to our laws, we fail to take seriously the clear testimony of His Son. He came to this earth to expose the lies about God that have distorted humanity's thinking about Him ever since the fall. And what Jesus revealed is that God is not like what we have made Him out to be in spite of our efforts throughout centuries of religion to the contrary.
"If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him." Philip said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? (John 14:7-9)
We read these words and think that we believe them. Yet whenever our theology infers that the Father is demanding death as payment for our sins (defined as breaking rules), we embrace a concept of God who demands death as the punishment that He will inflict on rebels and unrepentant sinners. This is exactly as His archenemy likes it, for in viewing God as the threat to be feared we come to be afraid of the only One who can save us and it becomes impossible to truly love Him.
We have created all sorts of explanations and rationalizations as to why Jesus had to die, but most of them are out of harmony with the truth that He came to reveal to us the Father, the God who is Love.
If we would allow 1 Corinthians 13 to define what loves looks and acts like and apply that to our notions about what God is really like, we would find it very difficult to include in that description any tolerance for violence or fighting. Yet because our fallen nature demands a forceful God and we cannot imagine how God could overcome evil in any other way, we advance our opinions and assertions that God must resort to violence at some point to overcome evil, otherwise He must be considered to wishy-washy and wimpy to be respected or honored as God. We insist from our perspective that it would be possible to win the war against evil without doing so. But this line of thinking is fatally flawed and reflects our penchant to make God out to be like us.
An insurmountable problem with this line of reasoning is that it drives a wedge in our thinking between God and Jesus. When we insist that Jesus took a punishment from God for our sins, then it becomes impossible to reconcile that belief with Jesus' clear statement that He and God are one and the same. There is no other option. If God demands punishment and imposes death to establish His government, then His kingdom is little different than the kingdoms of this world that rely on violence to maintain power and assert control over their subjects. Yet clearly the confession of Jesus before Pilate makes it explicitly clear that His kingdom is not to be viewed as anywhere near the same as how we perceive and practice things here. Christ's kingdom is not of this world.
These things you have done and I kept silence; you thought that I was just like you; I will reprove you and state the case in order before your eyes. (Psalms 50:21)
This is one of the most difficult truths that many people face today. We desperately want gods who will resort to force when necessary to get their way when all else fails. From experience and history we are certain this must be the case, for we see no other way to overcome evil than to fight fire with fire, force with greater force. We fill books and movies and music with this theme and parade our heroes as mini-gods that we worship. Any other option is viewed as insanity and could not possibly work. Therefore we insist that God has no other option than to resort to force when it becomes clear that love does not fully accomplish what He desires. (Or is the real truth here that it does not accomplish what we want?)
Our obsession with believing that violence must always be a viable option is nothing new. Jesus' disciples were immersed in that same line of reasoning. But this is precisely why they failed to discern much of what He taught during the years they spent with Him. Because they were so convinced that God's kingdom would bring them a Messiah who would liberate them through the use of force, all of Jesus teachings otherwise simply made no sense to them and so the truth did not register.
Even repeated explicit declarations of the coming events surrounding the cross could not break through the thick wall of expectations for a worldly type of kingdom they believed He was going to set up. Right up to the last few hours every disciple had become caught up in a frenzy of competition seeking to impress Jesus with their superior loyalty in hopes of earning the highest offices in the soon coming new government. Yet in spite of all their confusion as to the nature of God's ways and character, Jesus never wavered in His mission to reveal and explain the real truth about God's kingdom against all odds.
Not until later did it finally begin soaking in to the disciples that God is surpassingly different than anyone had ever imagined since the Garden of Eden. God was not at all like the pagan gods or even the god conceived by the religious traditions of the Jews. Although the God who had chosen Israel through which to reveal Himself to the world was the true God, their misinterpretation of Him and their fear-based response to His revelations had perpetuated the distortions implanted into humanity by Satan. Only with a fresh revelation directly from God Himself through His Son could the veil be effectively lifted and the dark spell be broken. God's reputation could not be salvaged in any other way.
Looking back on his own experience and the testimony of Jesus in the middle of those dramatic events, Peter in awe later penned his new awareness that God was in fact radically different than he had ever imagined before. In the garden of Gethsemane Peter had attempted to impress Jesus with his valor and loyalty by risking his life to rescue Jesus from violence by using violence himself. But by resorting to violence he invoked a rebuke from Jesus to which he reacted with a spirit of offense, setting him up for his own catastrophic meltdown a few hours later as he denied that he even knew Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that what Peter confessed in front of Jesus' enemies that night was not far from the truth. Peter did not know the man he had spent over three years with like he thought he knew Him. He had been so influenced by popular expectations of a violent Messiah and the traditional views of a God who endorses violence and coercion to get His way that in reality he didn't know Jesus. As he watched Jesus acting out the very principles of love and gentleness that He had preached all His life, it appeared completely foreign to the kind of God he had learned about from religion.
As Peter looked back from a new perspective years later, he saw more clearly how God and heaven's kind of justice are strikingly different, even foreign to the kind of justice and the nature of any kingdom ever seen before. He saw then that God really was just like Jesus as Jesus had insisted, and that the cross was in fact the ultimate demonstration of non-violent resistance to the greatest onslaught of evil. This was the revelation of the real truth about God. God was not different than Jesus but was in Him exposing the core truth that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
This is, in fact, what you were called to do, because: The Messiah also suffered for you and left an example for you to follow in his steps. "He never sinned, and he never told a lie." When he was insulted, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he did not threaten. It was his habit to commit the matter to the one who judges fairly.
"He himself bore our sins" in his body on the tree, so that we might die to those sins and live righteously. "By his wounds you have been healed." (1 Peter 2:21-24 ISV)
God's fairness is at the center of this war we find ourselves in, a war between the revelation of God's heart by Jesus contrasted with the lies and insinuations by Satan. Every question we have about God's actions or lack of intervention in any situation that produces pain and suffering is really a question about the fairness of God. Religion too often contradicts the truth that God is not like us but maintains complete separation from the principles used in Satan's system. But Jesus came as the explicit revelation of God's pure character of agape love, a love which never resorts to force to overwhelm the resistance of His opponents. This kingdom based on love that overcomes the world is a kingdom unlike any kingdom ever witnessed before. God's kingdom is superior in real power and will dissolve every other option but without ever resorting to violence to achieve its goals. His kingdom really is not of this world.
We have long assumed that sin means breaking rules and we are quick to cite chapter and verse to prove it. Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. (1 John 3:4 KJV) But we fail to give close attention to the first part of this verse that should alert us to the fact that sin actually precedes transgression of law. This verse says clearly that one who commits sin also transgresses the law. That means that there is a sin that precedes the sin of law-breaking. And that preceding sin involves the false beliefs about the very nature of God and our definition for love.
"She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)
Salvation from sin is not a program or even a magic pill to produce behavior modification; salvation is designed for a heart transformation. Anything short of this cannot cure our terminal mental illness caused by sin or effectively address our distrust of God at our deepest core. Only by catching a glimpse of the truth about God as it is in Jesus and embracing that can we begin to see with Peter and Timothy and Paul that God is scandalously far better than we have dared to imagine. And that includes the extreme position that He will never resort to the kind of fighting that Peter tried to use to help out Jesus. Those who chose that path, according to Jesus, will be defeated by that same activity.
And He was saying to them, "Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you; and more will be given you besides." (Mark 4:24)
Freedom lies at the very foundation of God's government and violence is the antithesis of freedom. Only in true freedom can love thrive and only love can create the atmosphere of safety that will protect happiness and real security throughout eternity. Only by untainted love free of fear, reflective of the pure love of the Father, can sin ever be truly eliminated. God's kingdom is founded on love and love alone. The two trees in the Garden reveal this truth and our only hope is to disconnect from the false notions from the wrong tree and embrace the kind of life offered to us from the true Source of Life.
The other issue mentioned by Paul in this instruction to Timothy regards the sort of fight that we should to be engaged in as we learn to follow Jesus' example. What does it mean to fight a good fight? If fighting good is not to include violence, force or coercion of the will, then what did Paul have in mind when he wrote of our need to fight the good fight of faith?
This is a vitally important question that we must wrap our minds around as we are exposing the fallacy of violence necessary as an option in God's kingdom. Clearly there is a place for fighting according to Paul, but the nature of this good fight is radically different than what we have long associated with the word. How can I fight in a good way? Who am I fighting against and what does it involve?
I want to explore this much more fully but not here. In part two I will flush this out more God willing. But to conclude this part I want to review the truth that we are all facing only two options, but they are not what we often assume they are.
There are two options in this war going on in the universe. One is rooted in false assertions and assumptions about God and how order and power must be enforced. The other option that at first seems impossible is based on God's respect for total freedom and love where everyone chooses life yet are free to choose otherwise. Sadly that choice unavoidably will result in eventual non-existence. But it is not God who will enforce that death for He is not the author of or administrator of death.
God draws; He does not resort to demands or forcing our will or intimidation. All such tactics are techniques of the enemy who seeks to make us afraid of God. Perfect love displaces all fear and in the process will displace Satan's kingdom entirely, the kingdom that relies on fear and deception for its very existence.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:7-8, 16-19)