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Monday, October 10, 2011

Dismemberment or spiritual purity? ( the circumcision of the heart )

'If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched'. ( Mark 9:43 )

I believe that it is rather clear that Jesus is not advocating bodily disfigurement here ( indeed; I believe that He forbids it, in another place ). The covenantal context, which I've spoken of previously, tells us, as in the case of circumcision, that it was for an external sign of what had been done internally. We have seen that, even though God commanded His son, Israel, to circumcise the foreskins of his progeny, this was only an outward sign of obedience to the spirit of His command, which, as we see in Deuteronomy 10:16, was 'circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer', while, a bit later, in Deuteronomy 30:6, Moses also told them, 'the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live'.

Many Christians have gotten the Gnostic notion that God's commands to His people were based in physicality, that human flesh had become so corrupt that God must needs destroy this humanity and form a whole new body, one more in conformity to His glorious Body, and in His image. Circumcision, to this manner of reasoning, was a sign that God had stripped away, or would strip away this dead humanity, separating the old man from the new.................wait.........................

The verse above, Mark 9:43 ( and I'm sure someone will notice right away that I didn't quote verse 44, as well ) seems to state that we should cut off a hand or gouge out an eye if they cause us to sin. First of all; I believe that we all, if we're honest with ourselves and Scripture, know that our disobedience, or sin, does not come from our biological members, but rather from our perverted 'heart', our inmost desires, from our own naturally rebellious will! Secondly, even if one were to argue that our wrongful desires do come from a certain part ( such as the 'hand', or 'eye' ), which is clearly not what Jesus is saying, then even if we do gouge out an eye or cut off a hand; what about the other hand? What about the other eye? ( what about the penis? ) We would end up killing ourselves because of all the body parts that we were cutting off, and we would most likely still have those wrong desires: we may not be able to actually carry out those desires, but is that what Jesus taught?

Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth that, 'the weapons of our warfare [ are ] not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.' ( II Corinthians 10:4-6 ). They were not to, just as we are not to, wage war against our foe, whether it be inside or outside influence, using the same weapons that created the problem in the first place. We read, in Romans 8:3, that 'what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God [ did ] by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh'. First, mote that God did not condemn 'flesh'; He 'condemned sin in the flesh': He did not even condemn the weakness of the flesh that He had made good, just the sin, or disobedience that comes through the wrongful desires made possible by selfishly seeking our own wants and desires, rather than His Kingdom!

Now; to be fair; I have heard that separating oneself from a certain body part ( and I think we all know what body part that is! ) will remove the physical desire to use that body part wrongfully. I am not a scientist, and I will not claim to know the 'ins and outs' of the biological make-up of the human body, to say nothing of it's natural chemistry. I can say with certainty though, that our physical chemistry is not the problem; it is our will, our free choice to obey or disobey God's commands!

Are we really to think, though, that by cutting of a hand or gouging out an eye ( or removing some other perturbing body part ), that we will thus enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or rather, that they would? We know, in the covenantal and historical context of Scripture, that things like circumcision were merely foreshadowing the reality that came to Light in the Christ. 'Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God [ is what matters ]'. Paul wrote these words, also to the Corinthian Church ( I Corinthians 7:19 ) to combat this very idea. It was not whether one had removed his foreskin or not, whether he was a Jew or a Gentile, but whether or not he had 'circumcised' his rebellious 'heart', deciding to live according to God's Law, rather than his own!


You may note, that in the passage from which the earlier quote comes, Mark 9:43-48, that Jesus uses a form of 'biblical parallelism', in which He relays the same idea three different times, in three different ways: now, without going into a lengthy exegesis of this passage, and why he mentions first the hand, then the foot ( or feet ), and finally the eye, suffice it to say that He was not advocating dismemberment, but rather making a point. As we progress in this short study; we may note what that point was!

'It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched-where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.[d]'

It is interesting to note here, several things about this whole passage. In the more ancient manuscripts, upon which the NU-text ( Nestle'/Aland/United Bible Society ) is largely based, verses 44, the latter part of verse 45, and all of verse 46 do not appear. In verse 48, we can see that Jesus is quoting, as He so often did, from the Hebrew Scriptures, in this case, the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 66, verse 24. As this passage is descriptive of the New Heavens and New Earth, or the New Jerusalem, it should be plain to see, that Isaiah was prophesying that those outside the city, and perishing in the hellish fires of the valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna would be an unpleasant reminder to the daily worshipers of God, of what had happened to those who refused to give God His due!

It should be fairly clear, I believe, that when Jesus referenced Isaiah's prophecy; he was referring, not to the place of fire and brimstone that we have traditionally known as 'hell', but was speaking of the grave, 'where their worm does not die'( because the worms feed on the dead flesh ), and combining that with a reference to the ever-burning fires of Jerusalem's garbage-dump, the Valley of Hinnom. probably better known to us as 'Gehenna'. His was a warning to those present that if they continued in the old traditional ways, circumcising their flesh, but not their 'hearts', they would safer the same fate as those bodies that were placed in the grave, or consigned to the fires of Gehenna!

I was reminded this weekend, that the Old English word 'hell' means basically 'to cover' Jesus was not referring to the Greek vision that we have come to know and fear as 'Hell'; He was simply using very familiar and hyperbolic language to warn them of their fate, if they continued on the course they were presently on, not just the grave, but, using Gehenna as a metaphor, of the torment they would receive in the coming conflagration!

Another place we should look for clues to the meaning of this enigmatic ( though traditionally plain ) passage, besides, of course, the historical context of Jesus' words, is the immediate context. Remembering that the chapter divisions were not there in the beginning, let's take a look at several of the event that happened immediately before and after. After the vision of the Transfiguration that Mark recorded, the first thing that Jesus did was to heal a young boy of epilepsy. This physical malady was seen to be an outward representation of what was really wrong with the boy: he had a demon, which Jesus immediately cast out! Just prior to the passage in question; Jesus, when He perceived that His disciples were arguing among themselves about who would be greatest, or first, uttered these famous words, 'If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all', and then, 'Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me'. His point, I think we can all agree, especially in the latter statement, is not that we must necessarily shelter little children ( though this includes little children ) in order to receive Him, but that we must be willing to be a servant to all, if we would enter His Kingdom: it is not your status before men that God honors, but rather your status in His Son!

Again, remembering the chapter divisions; Mark next records the episode where the Pharisees questioned Jesus about divorce. They were hoping, somehow, to trap the Son of God, but Jesus, perceiving their wicked intent, reminded them that it was because of the hardness of their 'hearts' that Moses had made this concession for them. They were concerned only with the outward appearance, as with circumcision; if their wives did not do exactly what they required, they were allowed to divorce them. Jesus reminded them, 'from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’[a] ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’;[b] so then they are no longer two, but one flesh'. As Matthew recorded it, 'He said to them, Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.' ( Matthew 19:8 ).

'What do marriage and divorce have to do with circumcision or 'hell'?', you might ask. Well, since the Pharisees were so focused on the physical aspects of life; I believe that Jesus was giving them another example, showing them that the physical aspects, as the 'letter of the law', were not as important as the spiritual truth behind it, like Jesus told them, 'because of the hardness of your hearts' they were permitted to divorce their wives, and not just for any reason, but only for sexual impurity ( an outward sign of an inward problem ) or for adultery ( also an outward manifestation of an inner desire ). 'Hell' and marriage? I'm just not gonna go there, except to say that, like Jesus said above, it is instituted by God, and when entered into with 'both eyes open', can be a most blissful and glorious state!

Confident in Him,
Charles Haddon Shank

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