Mark DeVine is associate professor of history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School.

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"Let Him Not Eat!"

by Mark DeVine

“Let Him Not Eat!” --The Apostle Paul

Is it just me or has fasting fallen on hard times across the fruited plain? Oh, I see—fasting never flourished here in the first place, at least not voluntary fasting. Not that folks haven’t gone hungry, sometimes even on a large scale. Depression era photographs don’t lie. As a child, more than once I made my way to bed hungry rather than consume turnips and peas and any number of indecipherable and frightening casseroles served to me. I soon learned to “acquire” tastes rather than slink off from the table with an empty stomach.


Voluntary fasting is not the American way, not the tradition, not by a long shot. We eat the food available and instinctively find the notion of depriving ourselves or others of food abhorrent. Food is plentiful here and we consume it. Inhabitants of lands where food is scarce and expensive notice this and a goodly number make their way over deserts and oceans in hopes of taking their own big bite out of the American dream.

One Indian immigrant to America recounted the troubles he’d faced in the good ole US of A. But his attempt to dissuade his relative back in India from making the difficult and expensive move to the States failed: “I want to live where the poor people are fat!” Surely every person created in the image of the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills should be provided what all recognize as necessary for life itself—food.

Yet in his letter to the church at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul calls for the withholding of food in keeping with what he calls “the tradition you received from us.” There are those, insists Paul, who ought not to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).

And this is not even the Old Testament with its commands to destroy whole populations, careful not to leave so much as a kitty-cat still breathing or its musings on the dashing of baby’s heads against rocks. We’ve grown somewhat adept at finding hermeneutical strategies for domesticating troublesome passages from that “Old” Bible of the Jews. But here we are in the New Testament— you know, where we meet the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood fame who talks to birds, speaks like a misty-eyed poet, and stares gently into space.

Can this be the same apostle who penned the famous “love chapter” to the church at Corinth that so frequently adorns our wedding feasts? Is this the same “sent one of God” who admonishes believers to “remember the poor,” and “count others better than yourselves”? Can he now also chide believers for failing to banish from their tables a few idlers in search of a piece of bread? Can he really now commend the withholding of food! “Let him not eat!”?

How can this be? Surely every divine image-bearing human being has an inherent, unassailable birthright to food. For the untimely-born apostle, apparently not. One wonders if, for Paul, any inherent human rights can place a claim upon others if food itself does not make the list. What about shelter? Clothing? Health care? Unemployment benefits? Whose up for plumbing the depths and mapping the contours of non-rights according to one who is prepared to see food withheld among followers of Christ?

Yet Paul does identify a universal human right of sorts. He does identify what every person ought to expect from a follower of the one who didn't mind working miracles in order to see folks fed:

Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments . . . are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10).

Excursion into Paul’s rhapsodic affirmation of the “law of love” is crucial, indeed decisive for our comprehension of his harsh, alien-sounding admonitions to the Thessalonians. Indeed, immediately before taking up the matter of idleness in Thessalonica Paul prays, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”

Paul cedes to his would-be naysayers not one inch of the high ground of LOVE with his “let him not eat.” Just the opposite. Love shapes the Apostles’ construal of the situation and prompts his guidance regarding food.

But how so? Unloving consequences (intended or not; recognized or not) result from aiding and abetting those who “will not work.” This blog has previously noted that productive work belongs to the good life God intended for human beings from creation. But, Paul’s concern here is not that the slothful deprive themselves of the divinely intended blessings work brings. Rather Paul hones in on the harm the eating idler inflicts upon others, harm Paul himself was meticulously careful to avoid at Thessalonica—eating idlers are “a burden” to others, and an unnecessary burden at that.

Paul addresses the whole community of believers, giving disproportionate attention to those who prop-up the idlers: “we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” But his last word on the subject targets the idlers themselves. His command seems to fit nicely with a fundamental feature of free-market economics, namely that whoever is capable of doing so should strive to produce more wealth than he consumes. Here are the apostle’s words to the eating idlers: “Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Posted by Betsy Childs at Tuesday, January 21, 2014
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Wealth and Warnings

by Mark DeVine

“Stay away from that road!” “Put those matches back where you found them right this minute!” Love warns. Love warns because love reflexively acts to prevent harm to the beloved. God is love. No wonder the Bible is so crammed with warnings—“Thou shalt not have any gods before me . . . thou shalt not covet . . . thou shalt not bear false witness . . . and also this one, “people who want to get rich fall into a temptation and a trap” (1 Timothy 6:9).

It might seem obvious or at least likely that divine warnings target that which is pernicious and often that which is positively evil. Certainly much biblical admonition does just that: “resist the Devil,” “flee from idolatry.” There’s no context in which snuggling up to the Devil or plunging headlong into idolatry commend themselves. These warnings identify and address intrinsic evils.

But many warnings and admonitions, biblical and otherwise, do not. Their purview concerns not inherent evils but potential misuse and abuse of good things. “One scoop of ice cream and that’s it for now.” “Do not drink and drive.” “Do not commit adultery.” Give up ice cream altogether? No way. God invented sex, Jesus turned water to wine, and a great deal of ministry takes place through the use of automobiles.

What about the many biblical caveats concerning wealth and riches? Which sort of warnings confronts us here? Do these expose wealth and riches as intrinsically and irredeemably evil or only illumine dangers that threaten where misuse or abuse of wealth arises? 

Certainly the frequency and fervency of biblical warnings regarding wealth must rivet the attention of any serious would-be follower of Jesus Christ: “One cannot serve God and money”, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Insistence upon the intrinsically pernicious threat of riches boasts an ancient and honored pedigree within the Christian tradition. The rich young ruler disobeyed Jesus’ command to sell everything and follow him, but thousands across the centuries and around the globe have since complied, taking vows not just of chastity and obedience, but also of poverty. Countless Christian communities have arisen across two millennia within which all property is shared and no one says that anything is his own.

Middle and upper-middle class believers not yet willing to alter their own lifestyles often harbor pangs of guilt for not doing so and sometimes even glamorize “the simple life.” We may be rich by any global or historic standard, but at least we feel really bad about it! Such entrenched, reflexive identification of riches as evil (even among rich Christians) takes much satisfaction in the admittedly pervasive biblical warnings on this score.

At the other extreme we find spunky Bible-toting preachers of the prosperity gospel and the vibrant communities of faith who follow and support them. They too find much aid and comfort for their views throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. The divinely inspired images of the good life God brings and promises to bring to his children include these: a paradisiacal Garden free of want; a promised land flowing with milk and honey; a messianic banquet; a new heaven and a new earth replete with a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to be traversed along streets of gold. In fact, these images are made to frame and punctuate the whole history of God’s primal and periodic and promised provision for his people—images of neither want nor moderation nor simplicity but of abundance and affluence.

Do we want to glamorize poverty or a simple lifestyle while clinging to an authoritative Bible? We’ll have to reckon with stuff like this:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams of water, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills; a land of wheat, barley, vines figs, and pomegranates (let me just stop here and warn folks of modest means to discourage in your children habituation to the consumption of pomegranates!); a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without shortage, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you will mine copper. When you eat and are full, you will praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.” In this place God sees to it that his children will “build beautiful houses to live in” and their “herds and flocks [will] grow large, and your silver and gold [will] multiply, and everything else you have [will] increase.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-13).

After casting this dazzling God-given vision, Moses immediately warns of the special dangers abundance and affluence will bring in its wake. Israel needs such warnings because the coming affluence and the abundance are not optional. Dangers notwithstanding, God insists that his children receive the material blessings prepared for their enjoyment. 

If we want to glamorize poverty and demonize riches, we can find traction for our views in the Bible, so long as we put up blinders periodically and strategically. Likewise, if we are looking to legitimize an unhindered and unabashed quest for affluence and riches as the birthright of every joint heir of Christ, we’ll find sufficient footholds in both testaments so long as we keep clear of the numerous contrary passages. But if we aim at faithfulness to the whole of God’s word on the matter of wealth, I suspect we’re going to have to take seriously the prized passages on both sides of this divide. Warnings about wealth are serious, but clearly do not identify an intrinsic evil. God has prospered his children in the past and promised unimaginable abundance for his children’s future even as he issues grave warnings of dangers posed by the love of money.

Posted by Betsy Childs at Thursday, January 2, 2014
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Work Lost, Work Redeemed

by Mark DeVine

The first thing God did was work. And he derived satisfaction from his work, calling it “good” and “very good.” The first command issued to his most special creature was essentially “work.” Man too would derive nothing but pleasure and satisfaction from his work: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” This work promised nothing but pleasure and satisfaction—keeping the Garden, naming the other creatures, enjoying all the trees but one.

A delicate and potentially dangerous balance between divinely determined likeness and difference between Creator and creature was discernible from the beginning. God works in creation and so man, created in his image, also works. God is lord of his creation, but man, uniquely privileged and equipped to reflect his Creator, “has dominion” over the lower forms of the created realm.

The likeness with God meant for man is not open-ended but targeted and circumscribed. God is THE WORKER par excellence; man is himself a work of God—the crown of that work, yes, but still a work. God creates from nothing, man rules and keeps and exercises dominion over what God has made and what still belongs to God just as he belongs to God. God's activity is primal and sustaining; man’s is receptive, responsive and grateful. God knows all, including good and evil. Man knows only good and ought to be satisfied with that good.

The little word “like” signifies with a certain precision and eloquence the very real similarity within permanent and profound difference that characterizes the actual relationship between Creator and creature. There can be no denying the unique place of humanity among all God’s creatures; nor that what is special here involves astounding realities and possibilities of closeness and even unity with God reserved exclusively for humankind. Yet clear indicators of unbridgeable distinction and separation between God and human beings abound.

Precisely this, the desire to “be like God”, followed by the attempt to reach out and literally bite into prohibited regions of God-likeness destroyed the primal harmony with God into which our first parents were set. Oh the irony! “God knows that when you eat [this forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” The serpent knew what he was about. Note well the target of the Lord’s (sarcastic?) reprimand as he strolled through the Garden, post-transgression. Nothing about what a delight the fruit brought to their eyes. “Good for food”? No mention of that either. Only this—“Behold the man has become like one of us . . .” with the implied question “How’s that working for you?” Yes, the serpent knew his work.

That abortive bite at God-likeness precipitated serious but loving discipline and included man’s work in its purview. The curse administered to this most special creature included something like this: “I’m now about to muck up your work.” The place where you should have only derived fruit, pleasure and satisfaction reflecting God’s own satisfaction in his work, shall yield fruit of mixed sort. You shall yet “eat” from your work but now only though “painful labor”. You shall lay hold of good food but only painstakingly grasped in the midst of thorns and thistles.

Man’s work is meant to yield a reward. Where the good life for which we were created prevails, we enjoy the fruit of our labor. But we enjoy it always as the grateful obedient children of a wise and loving creator and provider, always as those who receive that fruit as also and ultimately from his hand. Never as those would-be usurpers of the place reserved exclusively for the Creator. Never as those who, rather than receive their life itself according to truth, as a gift from his hand, attempt to take their lives into their own hands, and thus “be like God.” One of the first and most fundamental casualties of such transgression is the loss of the enjoyment of both our work and the fruit it yields—loss of an essential dimension of the divinely intended human flourishing imago Dei (in the image of God).

The redeemed life secured and offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ promises restoration of more than the status quo ante but not less. Our work still belongs to the good life given and promised by our Lord. Our work is destined to serve its original and eternal role as a permanent dimension of life lived in the image of God. Thus the repeated promises throughout the Bible to once again prosper the “work of [our] hands.” So ought and may we embrace the command-embedded promises the apostle so clearly proclaimed: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything, do everything in the name of Jesus Christ” and “Whatever you do, do it with all your might, as unto the Lord, not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord—you serve the Lord Christ.

Posted by Betsy Childs at Wednesday, December 18, 2013
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Letting Your Light So Shine

by Mark DeVine

“Six days you shall labor and do all your work,” God said (Exodus 20: 9). Not infrequently, followers of Jesus have supposed that either their duty as witnesses of Jesus Christ impinges not at all upon their work during the six days or that their work is their witness. A major preoccupation of this blog is to explore the meaning and relationship between both the Sabbath-keeping of the Christian Lord’s Day and the others six days and, just for this reason, the relationship between gospel witness and the work and works of Christian believers.

“Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” However often attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, the gentle Poverello never uttered them and neither should we. The gospel is a message proclaimed. Witness to Jesus Christ is never complete apart from verbal proclamation of the gospel, indeed conversion-seeking proclamation. Otherwise, we find ourselves unable to add our own voices to that of the apostle who was not ashamed of the gospel knowing that this proclaimed message and nothing else, (especially not our works) is “the power of God unto salvation.” Its proclamation requires the employment of words (Romans 1:16).

Abandonment or even significant neglect of the verbal, conversion-seeking proclamation of the gospel eventually sounds a spiritual death-knell over communities of faith. Perhaps the best explanation for the precipitous decline of mainline protestant churches in North America is their slow but steady loss of a good conscience for proselytizing. When, whether overtly or through silence, we communicate nonchalance regarding conversion, a good number of those who receive our message adopt our nonchalance about it.

At the heart of the necessity for verbal conversion-seeking witness is the meaning of witness itself. To witness is precisely and adamantly NOT to point toward oneself but to point away from ourselves to the Lord and Savior we know and others desperately need. Personal testimony has its place within proper Christian discourse, and such testimony may serve Christian witness, but the distinction remains—personal testimony points toward the believer or the believing community, and witness points away to the actual one the gospel proclaims.

To withhold the name of Jesus in favor of a supposedly more virtuous, culturally-organic or relationally-authentic witness makes about as much sense as withholding the name of a medicine that brought cure to you from a disease that now holds your neighbor in a death-grip. Tell them, “I suffered just as you, and look at me now” (personal testimony!) but then tell them the name of the medicine and everything you can about how to lay hold of it (witness!). The “look at me” or “look at us” dimension may serve witness, but cannot replace it. 

Nevertheless this “serving of the witness” matters. God uses the lives of his children, their changed lives, their whole lives, to point people to himself:

“You all are the light of the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

The danger of misunderstanding the meaning and purpose of humanity’s works is very great; so great that such misunderstanding threatens to negate the heart of the gospel message itself, that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Standing in utter contradiction to this good news is precisely the notion that salvation comes by works.

How often as a pastor a bereaved family member has insistently, without prompting, cornered me in order to recount a litany of good works performed by the departed loved one while they lived. The ostensible goal is to prove the good spiritual state of the deceased person who, though apparently bursting with good works, displayed little or no concern for the gospel of Jesus Christ, the church he promised to build or the Bible that bears him witness.

Works apart from gospel avail nothing. But gospel-prompted works may “shine”. The scope of God’s redeeming purpose revealed and underway in and through Jesus Christ includes not less than the rescuing of guilty sinners liable to hell fire through the forgiveness of sins, but it does include more. It encompasses the whole lives of the redeemed, the putting of their works back in their place—back where work no longer imagines or needs to imagine or desires to imagine that it prepares sinners for salvation, secures that salvation, or maintains that salvation. Rather works that praise God involve a distinctive enjoyment of salvation and display of this distinctive enjoyment. Works now settle for their power to, it their own special way, enjoy and display that salvation. Work now insists on its own happy, modest but blessed circumscription within these bounds. Because within these bounds, God makes it “shine” and prompt glory to himself. 

Posted by Betsy Childs at Monday, December 2, 2013
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