Sunday, November 28, 2021

The First and Last Mountain

When I look back on it, climbing up Mount Kynthos wasn't so hard. It was twelve years ago. Mount Kynthos is the highest point on the Greek island of Delos, and from the top, next to an ancient pagan altar, you can look all around and see the Cyclades islands circling 'round. Come to think of it, mounting Mount Lykabettos wasn't so hard either. Athens is already pretty elevated, so it's still just a nice hill. Now, Diamond Hill – that's in Connemara National Park in Ireland, and that was a more formidable mountain my mother and I tackled together eleven years ago. It took a few hours to make our way to the top. The view was utterly spectacular – the beauty all around was immense. Alas, we both managed to injure an ankle on the way down, so we didn't escape the park until well after closing – it wouldn't be a climb I'd be eager to make again. But for me, the most challenging mountain climb I've faced was five years ago: a hike directly from the water line straight up a cliff to Simonopetra, a secluded monastery on Mount Athos, Greece's 'holy mountain.' Simonopetra sits high above sea level, and a narrow path zigzags back and forth across the cliff, relentlessly advancing upward, and certainly it made me wish I'd packed a great deal lighter! I thought for sure a few times that in exhaustion I might slip back over an edge and tumble into the Aegean Sea far below. But after a few hours of determined climbing, I saw the monastery gardens, then the gates, and at last stumbled into the guesthouse of a beautiful community of worshippers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that was absolutely worth the ascent.

I would submit to you that we can tell the story of the Bible – which is the story of all humanity, whether they know it or not – as a journey to seven mountains. We begin at the First Mountain. And that mountain is in Eden. Maybe you didn't think of a mountain there, but the prophet Ezekiel declares, “You were in Eden, the garden of God... You were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked” (Ezekiel 28:13-14).1 On this holy mountain of God, undying we lived in harmony and love and trust. Until we lost trust and broke faith – which starved love and shattered harmony. Then “unrighteousness was found in you,” says the prophet, and the Lord God “cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God” (Ezekiel 28:15-16). In dark rage, we fill the earth with violence. Then see God start anew, Noah striding down the slopes of Mount Ararat. Yet such was the pride still embedded in our hearts that at Babel we built a false mountain with our own hands, determined to reascend Eden's height and recapture paradise by force of craft and claw. Thus God scattered our foolish futility, apportioning us into many divided nations under the guardianship of his angels.

Then, out of this primeval mess, we enter more tangible history as God chooses one clan, one man, one Abram to carry grace forward. This Abram God will exalt like a high mountain of faith. But it takes a long journey. And that journey bears fruit for Abram, now Abraham, on the day he's summoned to a mountain. Now of ripe years, Abraham is called to bring his beloved son Isaac to the Second Mountain. And that mountain is Mount Moriah. Hiking the mountain's 2,520-foot height, strong Isaac carried a load of wood; his father Abraham carried a torch and a knife. No command hurt Abraham's heart more than the test to give him his dearest earthly love and only future hope – but since Isaac was God's promise of hope, Abraham was certain God would provide a solution (Hebrews 11:17-19). Isaac, for his part, was willing to die for the will of God, and willingly was laid on the altar. At the last moment, an angel brought a message staying Abraham's hand and praising their faith, for God had seen, and had provided a substitute for Isaac, a ram (Genesis 22:1-14).

Isaac the Beloved Son would have his own less-beloved son Jacob, renamed Israel, who would have many sons, who – living in Egypt – would grow into twelve great but oppressed tribes. Liberated by God through the God-blessed hand of Moses, through the desert they'd walk as a vast crowd to the base of the Third Mountain. And of course, if the First Mountain was Eden and the Second Mountain was Moriah, the Third Mountain must be Sinai. We remember how God came down on the top of Mount Sinai, and it burned like Eden's stones of fire, with “a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest” (Hebrews 12:18-19). Beneath its thunder, all quake in fear and trembling. These sons of Abraham stand at its foot, forbidden to even touch the mountain. Only Moses climbs the nearly 7,500 feet to the top; priests and elders can only go partway up into the cloud.

There at this Third Mountain, the tribes are forged into a single royal nation. At this Third Mountain, they are given God's Law as their constitution. And at this Third Mountain, just as a sacrifice celebrated a promise on Mount Moriah, so now here a sacrifice confirms the covenant between God and his people. At the base of the Third Mountain, on an altar surrounded by twelve stone pillars, Moses sacrifices oxen and shouts to Israel, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:4-8). Then, as they dwell beneath the burning mountain, they receive one further gift. They get the Tabernacle – it's God's portable sanctuary, a Sinai for the road, and in it is an ark, a box, that holds the stone tablets of the Law, on which are written God's ten covenant-terms, his ten commandments.

From there, this new nation marched, tabernacle and ark and all, to the land of promise in which Abraham had dwelt. And there, after many obstacles and setbacks through the coming centuries, at last they established a kingdom. The kingdom then was given to a ruler named David, with whom God made a royal covenant and adopted David as a son. David had much work to do to finish subduing the nations under God's nation. Part of that work, then, was to seize a Jebusite city called Jerusalem, and particularly to conquer its stronghold called Zion (2 Samuel 5:6-7). Here, we find our Fourth Mountain. For our Fourth Mountain is Mount Zion.

One day, after King David has governed wrongly, it's atop a nearby mountain that David sees a vision. He sees a destroying angel, standing at the mountaintop threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and the angel's hand is outstretched to sacrifice Jerusalem like it's Isaac. David rushes to buy the threshing floor, where he repeats Abraham's substitute-sacrifice, using oxen like Moses did; and the angel stays his hand (1 Chronicles 21:15-28). It's like Moriah all over again. In fact, the Bible later tells us that Araunah's threshing floor was Mount Moriah, the same place where Abraham's deepest act of faith happened.

Now, what happens next might surprise you. Years go by, and David leaves the throne to his son Solomon, who carries out his dad's dream of building God a temple. And where does Solomon build it? “Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of [Araunah] the Jebusite” (2 Chronicles 3:1). Yes, the Temple is built on the spot where Abraham's faith was put to the test. And when the Temple was finished, the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies of this new temple (1 Kings 8:1-6), going up the mountain with constant sacrifices (1 Kings 8:5). And what's inside the Ark of the Covenant? “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there” (1 Kings 8:9). Moses brought them down a mountain, and now they've gone back up a mountain. And they've gone into a sanctuary that's designed to look like a garden, with carved trees and plants, fruits and flowers, and even two great cherubim guarding the Ark of the Covenant. Then this Temple is a garden paradise, and so a new Eden; and it's the original place of sacrifice, being itself Moriah; and now it houses the Law, as a new Sinai.

Over time, this Temple Mount – which rolls Eden, Moriah, and Sinai into one – takes on the name of Zion (cf. Psalm 20:2), “for the LORD has chosen Zion: he has desired it for his dwelling place” (Psalm 132:13). “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2). When God dwelled on Sinai, the mountain could be approached but not touched, and so God could not be approached. But now that God dwells on Zion, his temple invites pilgrims to ascend – under conditions. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD, and who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart...” (Psalm 24:3-4). In this holy place, this Mount Zion, each of Israel's sacrifices will reappropriate Abraham and Isaac's faith,2 now empowered by the Law of Moses and focused through the royal covenant with David and Solomon, surrounded by an artificial Eden as if we're Adam and Eve all over again, every day. That is what the temple provided.

The trouble is, the temple on Mount Zion was created and corrupted, built and broken, not once but twice. This mountain simulated Eden and Moriah and Sinai, and even added something new, but it begged for fulfillment. Then, one day, to the second temple built atop Zion, a mother carried her baby boy, offering two doves as a purification-sacrifice in accordance with the Law – though in truth, they needed no purification. And there in that temple on Zion, an elderly prophet held the baby, and, tears streaming down his cheeks, he rejoiced that at last, Messiah son of David had been born: the long-awaited Savior was in his temple (Luke 2:22-32)!

This Savior would go up many hills and mountains in his ministry. On one, he'd sit and speak beatitudes. On another, he'd shine with light. But that ministry fed into his journey up the Fifth Mountain. We've seen Eden, seen Moriah, seen Sinai, seen Zion, but now the Fifth Mountain is Calvary. West of the Temple Mount, it's physically just a small hill, an outcropping of the extended Zion which overlooks the cemetery and garden that fill the old stone quarry. Physically, it's unremarkable, hardly a mountain at all. But spiritually, it's the greatest mountain around. For the Hand of the LORD has rested on Mount Calvary to trample down sin like straw in a dunghill (cf. Isaiah 25:10). There, the body of Jesus, a new and living temple, is lifted up on the cross. There, the LORD, reigning from the tree, decides the fate of strong nations far away, like us (cf. Micah 4:3). And as the LORD tastes death for us (cf. Isaiah 25:7-8; Hebrews 2:9), the mouth of the LORD of Hosts roars forth that it is finished (cf. Micah 4:4). And he offers us his “blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20) from his sacrifice on the mountain as God's Beloved Son. Only in this way could he open paradise again (Luke 23:43).

Yes, go to Mount Calvary, because what was done in it far exceeds anything ever done in the temple on Zion. Here on Calvary, the Beloved Son is at last sacrificed as even Isaac ultimately wasn't. Here on Calvary, the Law is fulfilled and signed and nailed to the cross. Here on Calvary, a better blood sealed a greater covenant. Here on Calvary, the true Son of David at last welcomes the plague onto himself to avert it from God's people, the sheep who follow him (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:17). Here on Calvary, we find the basis for all the worship we carry forward. On Mount Calvary, from the broken body of Christ, behold the spring of salvation gush forth, “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Psalm 46:4).

It might seem that, as we climb Calvary as our the Fifth Mountain, there's nowhere else to go. But there is. For Jesus does not stay dead. He rises from death. He ascends into heaven from the Mount of Olives. And then he settles his disciples in Jerusalem, on the western Mount Zion, to wait. There, in the upper room of a large house as they gather and pray on the Feast of Shavuot (or 'Pentecost') that remembers Sinai's gift of the Law, suddenly tongues of heavenly fire appear – hot as Eden's stones, bright as Abraham's torch on Moriah, more joyous than Sinai's blaze was fearful – and these divided fiery tongues burn the Law into the hearts of the apostolic outcasts from the world. For was it not written, “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2), to “assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away” (Micah 4:6)? And so, rushing from the Upper Room to the Temple courts, they proclaim that the Spirit has been poured out as the prophets said, and that the crucified Jesus, the Messiah son of David, is the one who's ruling in heaven to do the pouring. Though geographically the apostles are preaching in the same place as the Second and Fourth Mountains, what God has done is new enough to call it a Sixth Mountain: the Mountain of the Pentecost.

And from that Mountain of the Pentecost, the renewed Zion, the disciples go forth with the Law – the Perfect Law of Love that's etched on their hearts – and they carry the gospel of the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And down through millennia, we've passed the torch, and we still pass it today as we call and gather the people of the earth. But where are we gathering to? Nowhere but the Last Mountain.

Before we approach, let's review. We first fell from Mount Eden, the mountain of paradise. We went up Mount Moriah, the mountain of sacrifice, with Abraham. Moses took us to Mount Sinai, the mountain of the Law – so that was the Third Mountain. Fourth, David appointed, and Solomon built, Zion as the holy mountain of God's dwelling, which recaptured something of Eden, Moriah, and Sinai all in one. But even that wasn't enough. We needed, fifth, Jesus' sacrifice on Zion's Calvary. And once he'd ascended, then, as a sixth part of our journey, we stood on Zion as the Mountain of the Pentecost to receive the Spirit and go forth to disciple the nations into the Law of Love, so we can gather them to the Seventh Mountain, the Last Mountain. And that Last Mountain is the Mountain of the LORD – the heavenly Mount Zion and New Eden. This mountain is a spiritual and heavenly reality, which we now approach in spirit but aim to enter bodily in the new creation.

It is this spiritual reality of which it's prophesied that “in the latter days..., the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of mountains..., and many nations shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD...'” (Micah 4:1-2), “and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore” (Micah 4:7). It's here that “on this mountain, the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine..., and he will swallow up on this mountain... death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-8). It's this “great and high mountain” on which John, by the Holy Spirit, beholds “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). For “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Now that is a heavenly reality! Now that is a spiritual mountain! And that is how the author of Hebrews shows us what's really going on when we gather together to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). In spirit, we find the heavens open and ascend Mount Zion to celebrate the Lord's feast with angels and saints in the presence of our God and Savior. Every gathering of true worship, every Christian liturgy of the assembled people of God, is an ascent up the heavenly Zion, the Last Mountain – a foretaste of the hope now stored for us in heaven, to be revealed openly in the new creation. And our whole Christian life is the whole soul's climb up this Final Zion, diving upwards into the limitless life and light and love of the Lord. That is what it's all about, folks. That is what awaits us. And every time we are gathered in full worship, our spirits taste and see what's at the top, for we mingle with mighty angels and hold holiness in our hands. In the rest of life, we just aim to get entirely there, to that top of that Last Mountain – where we'll find also the First Mountain again, a paradise with God forever, in “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).

Friends, this is the last sermon in our series on the Ten Commandments. Those commandments were summed up in spirit in the one and only commandment given on the Mountain of Eden. Their proper ordering was established on Mount Moriah. Then the Ten Commandments were themselves the foundation of the Law given at Mount Sinai. Those Ten Commandments were likewise the heart of the temple on Mount Zion. It was our unfaithfulness to those commandments that required a new Moriah, the sacrifice of God's Beloved Son; and so he fulfilled the commandments by carrying wood up Mount Calvary to die for our sins in exile from the camp. Rising from the dead, the Beloved Son carried his sacrificial blood of the covenant into heaven to his Father the “Consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:29), and in turn he poured out his flaming Spirit onto Zion to burn the Perfect Law of Love into our hearts, so that the Ten Commandments, in letter and in spirit, might never be far from us.

And so, as we're brought to the foot of Heavenly Zion by baptism, and as we spiritually ascend in our worship, we recommit ourselves each step of the way to living this Perfect Law of Love as we make our journey up the Last Mountain. For this is why God's commandments were given. From the first, it was to help us safely find and approach the Last Mountain. And they were given to help us climb, to press rightly and strongly on the upward way, for none but those of obedient hands and heart can “ascend the hill of the LORD (Psalm 24:3-4). So “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking..., him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25)!

But not only do they help us find and approach the Last Mountain, they show us life on its summit. For “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my Holy Mountain,” says the Most High (Isaiah 11:9). In fancier terms, the Ten Commandments are eschatological – they look to the last things, the end, the goal – and that's part of what Advent is for, reflecting on the last things. By grasping their spirit through faith and hope and love on the journey, we're preparing ourselves to dance atop the mountain with angels and saints, much as the climb up that cliff prepared me to walk with the monks of Simonopetra. We are preparing to be forever with Christ as his Living Temple, and so to become nothing but love as God is Love – to be forever blazing with his flame and yet unconsumed. For the Ten Commandments are written in just such fire. And they are steps to that longed-for dance. May the rhythm we've been learning in the Ten Commandments these last seven months serve us well as we continue our climb – and serve us well when we reach the mountaintop, there to become a New Jerusalem!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Perfect Law of Love; or, Lessons in Renouncing Satan

Instant #1: A flash of light and heat beyond comprehension. The skies unfurl in directions uncounted. The clock starts ticking. The universe is born. Now rewind the tape. Back behind Instant 1, before the beginning, peer behind the void and the silence, and behold only God. No space, no time, only God alone with God's own self. But God is Love, eternally surging forth in his own heart with a Loving Word of Wisdom, and back and forth between the two, again within God's own heart, there flashes a Spirit of Love flowing from God to Word and Word to God. In this X-ray of the eternal heart of God, an unchanging snapshot of infinite action and vitality, Love is all. Love is supreme. Love is complete. Because Love is Trinity. Now roll the tape again. It's love that surges, love that lights, love that heats, love that drives. Love unrolls and expands this invention called 'space,' love initiates the countdown called 'time,' love kisses the infant cosmos, yet a dot, and the kiss is matter and energy and physical law and all things. Love kisses realms unseen, and spirits are begotten, pure intellect and consciousness, none of like kind – the angels, the created sons of God, ready to shout for joy as stars coalesce and planets cohere and life begins to grow (cf. Job 38:7).

And all is well, for all is love. Until the day love first goes unrequited. Until the day, in the council God has with his heavenly sons, one flashes with envy and turns off the flowback of love to its Source. And from that one, the disease begins to spread, sweeping a third of every pure intellect into dysfunction and darkness. As a violent storm, see them fall like lightning from the highest heavens to the lower realms. Label that first one to disrupt the harmony for what he is: an obstacle, a poison, the corruption of the highest created good into the most hideous perversion of good. In that instantaneous and irreversible choice, all love drains away from it – or call it a 'him': Satan. Satan, in his rebellion against God's love, reveals the utmost antonym to God's name and nature. Satan is reduced to lovelessness, a bankrupted heart frozen at absolute zero. He seeks the good of no one, desires the good for no one, cherishes no one. In a steadfast and unbroken refusal of love, his sole aim is to annihilate love – including especially our capacity to love our Creator and his creation. And so Satan falls like lightning into a whirlwind of unloving behavior-patterns, and he wants to conform us to his example. He dominates us by deforming us. As one early Christian put it, “Unrighteousness is the disposition of an unjust and depraved work, which is detected first of all in the devil and then also in those who want to imitate him.”1

Above all else, Satan's pride and envy are directed against God with his Word and Spirit. Satan wishes he could tear God from his throne, rise and be his equal, replace and supplant him. “I will ascend to heaven!” the devil might vow. “Above the stars of God, I will set my throne on high.... I will ascend above the heights; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). And so Satan yearns for us, God's created image-bearers, to turn our backs on God by worshipping Satan, knowingly or unknowingly, whether alongside God or in God's place: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours,” he whispers (Luke 4:7). Satan is willing to pay a considerable price to so distract us from God-love that we bend toward him as our petty fraud-god. When we withhold worship from the true God, as he does, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness, though, puts him in a frightfully insecure position. He is, after all, waging war against an Omnipotent Opponent. Satan is matching his fool wits against the All-Seeing and All-Knowing. And so Satan fearfully clutches at any useful shield, to console himself in his futile struggle to wound his Invulnerable Maker. And Satan yearns to stoke that same panic and insecurity in creation, in us, prodding us to clutch onto worldly powers we can represent and control – in other words, idols. And through these, Satan can manipulate us. It isn't for nothing that Roman idol-shrines were termed “altars of the devil.”2 When we bow to an idol, cling to an idol, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness, his hate for God, makes him want to drag God's reputation through the mud. He hates the very sound of God's good name. So he empowers the great “scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names” (Revelation 17:6), which “opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling” (Revelation 13:7). One of Satan's chief motives for putting on persecutions is the perverse pleasure Satan finds in pressing God's people to blaspheme the God of Love. Always, “Satan strove to have some word of blasphemy proceed from their lips.”3 And out of the same motive, Satan loves to toy with and manipulate God's word, twisting scripture out of context. When we drag God's name through the mud or God's word out of shape, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness leaves his heart without peace, so Satan despises to see people enjoy any peace or rest. So as he goes to and fro in the world, he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He's like the Pharaoh that held Israel in slavery: just so does Satan want to work us to the bone like slaves. Satan loathes our freedom and our rest, because he's seen the heaven it's for. He especially hates that freedom God calls holy. Satan doesn't know how to take a day off, is unable to sanctify time, so there's little he wants to rip away from us more than our Lord's Day and our feasts that fulfill the beauty of sabbath. When we work and work without sanctifying time with peace and rest and joy, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness does more than that, though. It cuts him off from relationship and orderliness. Satan's only experience of a father is the God he dishonors by rejecting, and his only experience of fatherhood is as father of sinners whom he abuses and wants to make as miserable as himself. Among Satan and his angels, no honor is shown – not one demon actually respects the devil. So the devil despises the authority God institutes within creation. The devil wants always to pervert it or subvert it. From parenthood to the polity to the pastorate, the devil wants all bonds of honor severed and all authority overthrown. For that reason, early Christians observed that a refusal to honor church leaders, for instance, was tantamount to Satan-worship.4 That's how Satan likes it. When we withhold honor from those to whom honor is due, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness extends to our very lives. Life, just by being life, is a participation in the Living God. And so the devil is angry about life, any life, all life. “The devil has come down to you in great wrath” (Revelation 12:12). He's furious that anything lives – much less that we live whose lives are stamped indelibly with God's living image. Satan is determined to break life, end life, cut us off from life – so he introduced death into the world: “Death entered the world through the devil's envy” (Wisdom 2:24). Now, Satan is “the one who has the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). And he's desperate to employ it as devastatingly as he can – for, as Christ tells us, Satan “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). When we take any step in murder's direction, whether a big step or the slightest flinch of unjust anger, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Short of ending life, Satan's lovelessness wants to see it emotionally and physically broken. He knows how the creation is destined to be wedded to its Creator – and the devil'd do anything to break up or defile that love story of the ages. So he seeks to inflame and seduce us into ruining everything that reminds us of that destiny (1 Corinthians 7:5). No wonder early Christians declared that “adultery is the money of the devil, for the image and superscription of the devil is on it,”5 or that Satan is “a most evil husband” to the soul.6 When we take a step toward adultery or other forms of misuse of God's good gifts of sex and sexuality, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan so hates the love story of Creator and creation that his lovelessness loathes the lavish generosity by which God “has given the earth to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). Satan wants to hoard all things for himself: he doesn't know how to give without plotting to take back. He sees us enjoying anything, or – worst of all, in his eyes – giving away anything, and it unsettles him. He wants us to grab as he grabs, hoard as he hoards, for on that field he knows he has the home advantage: he's the “thief” who “comes only to steal” (John 10:10). So when we hoard or swindle or steal or destroy, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan knows, though, that he cannot ultimately end life, cannot prevent the marriage supper of the Lamb, cannot claim ownership of anything – and such knowledge sickens him. Satan's lovelessness, then, must rage against reality. All truth is fidelity to reality, reflective of the God who is Truth. Satan craves a fantasy world out of joint, where no one can tell which way is up. He yearns to plunge all things into a darkness of intellectual fog. So he'll tell any tale to get his way, admitting only so much of truth as will help to sell the delusion. Satan is the devil, which means 'the Slanderer.' He's “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Satan “doesn't stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him: when he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Especially does he want to snatch truth from our hearts and minds, like a bird pecking away scattered seed from the earth, “that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). So he wants us spreading confusion and suppressing the truth. When we get careless with the truth or (worse still) contemptuous toward the truth, then, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

And Satan's lovelessness at last invites roaring passions. Disordered desires are all like his daughters.7 So he bends our desires out of shape, diverting them every which way to stop them from flowing clear and strong to the sea of glory that awaits us in God. And when we allow ourselves to be governed by the devil's daughters, by earthly craving and covetousness, just so are we taking a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

To live in these ways, any of these ways, is to submit to the devil's false ten commandments, and thus deformed toward his likeness – which is the very last thing anyone should want. “Be converted, you who walk in the commandments of the devil, commandments that are hard, bitter, cruel, and foul!”8 It's no wonder, then, that from the very roots of our faith, part of the ritual of baptism involved exorcisms, spiritual warfare, and a person being baptized into Christ had to shout out something like these words: “I renounce you, Satan, and all your works and all your pomp!”9 Too often, it's easy for us to settle into our cozy materiality, neglect that we live in the crossfire of a cosmic war, that the darkness is real and personal and bent on our seduction to destruction – but it's real. And to that end, for our help, God met Israel at Sinai and had angels hand to Moses a Law.

And “we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). How do we use it lawfully? Paul says we have to understand that the Law functions to correct those who are straying after Satan's example – it's a road block for those imitating the devil. “The Law isn't laid down for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, people who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to healthy teaching in accordance with the good news of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:9-11). Everything contrary to human flourishing as God defines it – those acts and attitudes are steps toward conformity with the devil, which is death. So God bellowed these commandments as fiery walls in our wayward tracks, lest we do Satan's works and march to hell among Satan's pomps. They're like guardrails and warning signs: “This way is Satan's likeness, these are Satan's works, do not approach, steer clear!” And to heed what we read, to keep the letter of the ten commandments and their corollaries, is a healthy thing.

But all these commandments – be they ten or a million – are, taken together in their spirit, a sketch of a portrait of practical love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor – therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10). It isn't merely a keeping of the Law – that's good – but the fulfillment of the Law, which is deeper and better by far. “The whole Law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). “For the commandments 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:9). “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law” (Romans 13:8). For “which is the great commandment in the Law? … 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind' – this is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

To read and heed the warning signs, back and front, and to breathe in their spirit, is to understand love. It's to train ourselves to love as God defines love, and that love inevitably spurns the devil's parade of woes. If you love God for who God is, then obviously you'll worship him, obviously you'll trust him and throw out your idols, obviously you'll speak well of him and honor his name, and obviously you'll give him what he asks of you, including your sanctified time of rest with him. Obviously, too, you'll honor the offices of authority he's placed in your life. And if you love your neighbors through God, then obviously you can't kill the neighbor you love, obviously you can't interfere with the marriage of the neighbor you love, or steal the property of the neighbor you love, or slander the neighbor you love, or even crave your beloved neighbor's life or family or goods. To love, to really love, is to rule all these out in advance, before even having to be told. That's why, as Paul said, “the Law is not laid down for the righteous,” not laid down to block the path to those whose love keeps them on the right way (1 Timothy 1:8).

So what must we do, to learn this love? “Let us walk properly as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13). “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). What does it look like when we put on the armor of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ? It looks like looking like him. It means embracing by grace a share in his identity, his character, being conformed to his love. Jesus is completely devoted to and worshipful of God his Father, rendering perfect worship – so those who put on Christ will thirst to know God as fully as they can and will worship him through Jesus' high-priesthood as lived out in the Church. Jesus is completely reflective of and surrendered to God his Father, as “the Image of the Invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), so those who put on Christ will surrender themselves from God and reject idol-efforts to keep the world under control. Jesus is completely committed to vindicating God's good Name (John 12:28; 17:6), rendering perfect praise – so those who put on Christ will live and speak in ways that glorify God's Name in Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us all to his heavenly sabbath and to his new-creation feast beyond it, so those who put on Christ will sanctify time with the Church in ardent hope of what Jesus promises.

Jesus showed honor to all in God's name, so those who put on Christ will likewise treat authority with respect, especially those held to parental, pastoral, and political responsibility. Jesus is “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25) and came to give us abundant life (John 10:10), so those who put on Christ will likewise become givers and protectors of life, honoring God's image and God's artistry. Jesus is the Faithful Bridegroom who came to seek his Bride, so those who put on Christ will become lovers of chastity and fidelity, imitating this Bridegroom and his unwavering commitment. Jesus is a gracious and merciful King, so those who put on Christ will become just stewards and generous givers of things tangible and intangible. Jesus is the Truth, so those who put on Christ will become zealous truth-tellers careful about how they speak. And Jesus is the Desire of the Nations, so those who put on Christ will yield up their desires to be transformed and elevated.

In all these areas, the imitation of Jesus' love for God and neighbor will overflow everything the Law's letter ever asked of us – or, more to the point, the Law was always meant to slowly spell out the love of Christ. And so these Ten Commandments we've been talking about for the past seven months – they are fulfilled completely as we conform to the life of Christ, who is Light of Light and Love of Love. The Ten Commandments are simply ways in which we renounce Satan with his works and pomps, and ways in which we open ourselves more freely to the uniting grace of Christ, in whom we rediscover our first love, the love that made us and for which we were made. So arm yourselves with this perfect law of love – for “the Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” from the ways of death and enlivening the heart for the adventure of true life (Psalm 19:7). “If you really fulfill the royal law” of love, “you are doing well” (James 2:8) – and the devil is doing poorly. Use this law lawfully and lovingly, to gain distance from the devil and to find yourself in Christ, crucified and risen and coming again. For in these his beautiful commandments, you will see and be trained in the love that leads to endless light. Amen.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Law on the Inside

In the countryside beyond the city limits of Rome, Hermas had no idea what was about to happen to change the course of his life. It was the tail end of the first century, and Hermas was a young Christian. He might've been born a few years before the great persecution under Nero, in which the Apostles Peter and Paul both gave their lives to seal the destiny of the Roman church. Hermas might have been a foundling, abandoned by the side of the road but discovered and taken in by another family who raised him as a household slave. The one who raised him initially had then sold him, as a boy or even a teenager, to a young wealthy woman named Rhoda, whom Hermas had served faithfully for a few years. Later on, Rhoda too sold him, and another master had – in time – manumitted him to freedom. Somewhere along the way, whether as a slave or as a freedman, Hermas became a Christian. Probably he was baptized in the Tiber River. And in the congregation, he'd found Rhoda as a fellow member – she, too, was a Christian.

Well, Hermas happened to think he was pretty good at it. He was a kindly man. He did well in business, honest in his dealings, and gave faithfully to the collection. He listened to the discipline of the church. Each week, he aimed to put into practice what the preacher read and said. He didn't murder. He didn't steal. He didn't go back to the idols of Rome. He kept his hands clean. He married, and stayed faithful to his wife. He had kids. He was a merry man, well-liked in church and community. An all-around upstanding guy, that Hermas.

Which is why what happened in the countryside took him so by surprise. At least, if we're to believe what our friend Hermas wrote. On the road one afternoon, as he listened to the birds sing and looked at the hills and the fields, as he glorified God, he began to feel awfully sleepy. Before he knew it, he'd found himself somewhere he couldn't remember going, and didn't see how he could've gotten there: a little crevasse in the rock carved out by a stream. Hermas crossed the stream, found a patch of level ground, got to his knees, and started praying. That's when it happened, he says. That's when the heavens opened, and he heard a voice. And he saw a vision.

It was Rhoda! Rhoda in the sky! Oh, Hermas was so happy to see her. See, she'd died a few years back, and Hermas had missed her terribly. Though he'd once been her slave in his old life, in their new life she'd been like a dear sister to him – not that he hadn't thought about more. And now there she was, bidding him a heavenly hello. But Hermas was confused. What was this all about? Rhoda said she'd come to confront Hermas about his sin – his sin against her. God, she said, was angry with Hermas because of his sin against Rhoda.

Now, that put Hermas on the defensive. He was mighty confused and dismayed. What had he ever done to her? Obviously it couldn't be something from his days as her slave, before he was baptized, because any sins there had been washed away. But when they got reacquainted, Hermas had never hurt Rhoda, never laid a finger on Rhoda, never stole from Rhoda, never said even an unkind word to or about Rhoda. “Have I not always honored you as a sister? Why do you malign me, woman, with these evil and unclean charges?”

Hermas was cut to the quick by Rhoda's response, which reverberated through the heavens. She laughed at him, in his vision, and said, “The evil desire arose in your heart!” She reminded him of a time when, helping her out of a bath, he'd admired her beauty and her status and been filled with longing for a wife like her – a wife that good-looking, a wife whose social standing would elevate his, a wife who'd fulfill him. Though Rhoda was a married woman, Hermas had coveted her and coveted her estate. Hermas had never said a word, never betrayed even by a look what was on his mind. But now that she was in heaven, now that she was represented in a vision or a dream or whatever this was, Rhoda knew all about it – and was none too pleased. “Don't you think it's an evil thing,” she went on, “if an evil desire arises in the heart of a righteous man? It is a sin – a great one! The righteous man has righteous intentions. So long as his intentions are righteous, his honor stands in heaven..., but those who intend evil in their hearts draw down upon themselves death..., especially those who acquire the things this world has to offer and rejoice in their riches and don't take part in the goods of the world to come. … They've given up on themselves and their true life. But you, pray to God, who will heal your sins and those of your whole household and of all the holy ones.”1

The vision ended. Rhoda disappeared. The heavens closed up. And Hermas tells us it left him grieving and in total shock. He'd never dreamt God was concerned with that sort of thing. And Hermas thought, “If this sin is on record against me, how can I be saved?”2 Hermas got an answer in short order, so he says. He sure spilled a lot of ink over it. But the point I want to get across here is this: God's law didn't work the way Hermas thought it did. He thought it was a matter of the actions he committed – the way he talked, the way he walked, the things he did and didn't do. But Rhoda set him straight.

And what Hermas learned is something unique about the Ten Commandments. Up until the end, you could see it as a fine list of moral principles and actions, a law code like you might find elsewhere. But then you reach this last one, and it retroactively opens up everything that came before it. I've spent my share of time reading the law codes used in all the countries around ancient Israel. The laws of ancient Babylon? I've read 'em. The laws of the Assyrians, the laws of the Hittites? I've read them too. And they'll tell you not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to bear false witness – or, more to the point, they'll remind you what should happen to you if you do. But one thing you'll never find in their laws is anything approaching “Thou shalt not covet.” None of the nations had a law that could reach into your soul, scan your insides, pass judgment on the guts of your life that never see the light of day. Neither did the laws or the courts of Rome, as Hermas well knew. No, not a one of them had a law against anything that stayed within the private bounds of yourself.3

And that's because the laws of Babylon and Assyria and Hatti and Greece and Rome were merely man-made. Oh, they reflected something deeper, but they themselves knew the limits of their power. But the laws of Israel alone stretched further than what any earthly court could dream of prosecuting, because they knew that no mere man – not even Moses – had brewed it up from his own head. They heard the voice of heaven. As one medieval theologian (Thomas Aquinas) explained it: “There is this difference between the divine and the human law: that human law judges only deeds and words, whereas the divine law judges also thoughts. The reason is because human laws are made by men who see things only exteriorly, but the divine law is from God, who sees both external things and the very interior of men..., for with God, the intention is taken for the deed...”4

Of course, Rhoda and the medievals were only following what the Bible told them. Samuel heard about how “the LORD sees not as man sees: man sees to the eyes, but the LORD sees to the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). David later reminds Solomon that “the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). Psalmists and prophets give the same witness. One psalmist addresses God as “you who test the hearts and kidneys” (Psalm 7:9). And Jeremiah is all over that picture: “O LORD of Hosts who judges righteously, who tests the heart and the kidneys” (Jeremiah 11:20); “I the LORD search the heart and test the kidneys” (Jeremiah 17:10); “O LORD of Hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the kidneys” (Jeremiah 20:12). Paul agrees with Samuel and David, speaking of God as “he who searches hearts” (Romans 8:27) and as “God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). And when John finds himself face-to-face with the exalted Christ in his glory, Jesus makes it totally obvious that he's the Jehovah God of Jeremiah by roaring, “I am he who searches kidneys and hearts!” (Revelation 2:23).

What do they mean? Today, you're likely to think of your heart as the shape you make a Valentine's Day card in – or that thing people tell you to follow. And what are people saying? Follow your desires, do what you feel. But to David or Jeremiah, your heart was your inner control center. It's where you formed your decisions. It's the seat of your mind, your reason. It's where you pledged your allegiances from. In Israel, the heart wasn't for all that mushy, gushy stuff. An Old Testament person thought from the heart. Where'd they feel from? The kidneys – those tender organs they only saw when an animal's were exposed for sacrifice.5

Under normal circumstances, you can't see your neighbor's heart, though you might hear a heartbeat; and if you can detect their kidneys, something's gone very wrong. You can't even look at, detect, or feel your own, most of the time. Put together, heart and kidneys stand for the utmost insides of a person. To us, especially before the development of modern surgery and X-rays and all that, even physically those regions are dark and murky. Nor do we find it any easier to inspect our insides morally or spiritually. So we have a tendency, when we wonder what kind of a person we are, to look at our outer behavior. And when we do that, as Hermas did, we can easily use the Law like a defensive shield. Like the Pharisee at the temple, we brag, “I'm not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers... I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all I get” (Luke 18:11-12). Like the rich young man in the Gospels, we rattle off the commandments and preen ourselves and shout with joy, “All these I have kept from my youth!” (Mark 10:20; cf. Matthew 19:20).

But what both should've already understood from the Law itself, and what Jesus brought home with the force of a supernova, is that keeping the letter of the law in its externals, while good and (when it comes to its moral demands) absolutely necessary, isn't enough if it fails to turn our darkness into light. By adding this final word on covetousness, the Law “cuts deeper down into the moral life. … It reminds us, then, that God's Eye is on our heart; it carries us at once into regions where no human eye can pierce. … Man takes cognizance of the outward life, but Almighty God of the inward life,” it's been said.6 Our will, our desire, our attachment, our emotion, our subconscious thoughts and plans, our real moral and spiritual standing – those things are actually dark to us, even in ourselves, let alone in the others we might be tempted to judge. We know less about our inner life than we pretend to – and that inner life matters morally. That's why Paul had to say, “I'm not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted: it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:4). To God alone, “even the darkness is not dark” inside us: “The night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:12). For that reason, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). So, as Moses said, “Take care, lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart!” (Deuteronomy 15:9).

But how can we take care if our own heart falls so far outside our field of vision? Here enters “the word of God [which] is living and active..., discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The word of God exposes to you a glimpse of what God sees as really inside you after all. And these Ten Commandments we've been hearing – they are that active word of God, they can be used to discern not just your outer behavior but your inner state of heart, too. In the first commandment, we're told to have no other gods before the LORD. In obeying that, it's one thing to pray a prayer. It's another thing to make a habit of coming to church on Sunday – both very good and necessary acts. But God's seeing, searching, scanning, testing your heart, your kidneys. Are your affections yet unmoved by his redeeming love? Have your guts forgotten the exodus from slavery into a boundless promise? Is your will detached from faith in the Creator who made you and who gave his only-begotten Son to share life eternal with the world? Where does your inner allegiance lie? Or, to take another commandment, we're told not to murder. In obeying that, it's one thing – an easy thing – to keep your hands clean of your neighbor's blood. It's another thing, more commendable still and also necessary, to avoid violence in what you do and what you say, coercing no one, detracting from no one's life or health. But God's searching and testing your heart and kidneys. Are your affections twisted up in anger at somebody? Do your guts burn with prejudice or contempt? Is your will a hateful one that separates anybody from the image of God they bear?

All the outward actions of hand or voice, everything the Ten Commandments condemn on the surface – they flow “from within, out of the heart of man,” as Jesus said – and first and foremost are “evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21). “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person,” even when they don't leak out to where your neighbor can see them (Mark 7:23). And that's intimidating! Hermas himself had misgivings – he wondered if it was really possible for a human heart to obey the law: “I don't know if these commandments can be kept by someone,” he said. “They're very difficult!”7 That's why, even in the Law itself, Moses practically begged Israel in his last words: “Circumcise therefore... your heart, and be no longer stubborn!” (Deuteronomy 10:16). It wasn't enough to just outwardly receive the sign of the covenant, symbolically pruning the flesh and its power. No, the inner reality signified by the sign had to follow. Israel needed to prune from the heart, from the center of will and desire, everything incompatible with their calling toward holiness, everything imperfectly compliant to God's invitation, everything that sandbagged his tidal wave of love for them.

Realizing this, one early Christian summed up the “divine law” of the Ten Commandments in one sentence: that “only the real God who made the universe is to be worshipped, with holiness of heart and a sincere mind.”8 And to that, Hermas adds what he learned: that “where holiness dwells, there – in the heart of a righteous man – lawlessness should not enter.”9 What we need is for the Law to somehow reach our hearts and our kidneys, to get inside us, to prune and cut and burn. And that's exactly what God promised. Through Jeremiah, the God of Israel explained that a new covenant was on the horizon, a new deal between him and humanity: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the House of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my Law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). This distant law, this law that seemed only able to help the outside of us, was finally going to be put inside a person, to make a difference at the core that goes beyond what you or I can see. But it would take something bigger and better than Sinai to get it there.

And, to make a long story short, that's exactly what God did in Christ. Jesus' blazing heart of love, radiant and gushing life, was opened for us on the cross, at the point of a Roman spear. That heart flawlessly kept the Law, embodied the Law, fulfilled the Law. And as the spear thrust all our lawlessness into his heart, lawlessness drowned in the flood. From that heart's torrent flows the water of our new birth. From that heart bleeds the blood of our communion. From that heart shines the grace of our enlightenment. And our hearts are kindled with flame from his holy heart when we receive his Holy Spirit. For after dying for our sins and rising for our vindication and ascending into heaven, then on the anniversary of Sinai – a day called Pentecost – his heart poured forth his Spirit to burn his Law of the New Covenant onto the hearts of all who will receive him.

So, on the other side of that, the apostles tell us that we're like living letters dictated by Jesus through their pens, “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God.” And what's the medium? Paper? Parchment? An e-mail? Rock? No, “not on tablets of stone,” like Moses carried down the mountain. Now it's “on tablets of human hearts,” at long last (2 Corinthians 3:3). With his Spirit of burning love, the Spirit from his heart, Jesus writes his story on our hearts, chiseling and charring the Law of Christ there, making sure these foundational commandments are written in our deepest depths beyond where we can see. He simply calls us to surrender and cooperate – to not flinch away from his Spirit's fiery work, to lean into it, to turn your heart where he's writing. You may not see it. You may not read it. But it's being written there, and can be kept there, and must be.

Because God deserves and demands your inside, not only your outside. If we study the Ten Commandments and only learn behavior modification, we'll have done some good – but not yet enough. God wants your guts, God wants your kidneys, God wants your heart, God wants your whole soul to be conformed to his law, his life, his love. God will not be satisfied until his Law is on your inside, so that from within, out of a human heart, can flow not evil thoughts but good thoughts, not foolishness but wisdom, not pride but humility, not wickedness but righteousness – things that purify instead of defiling.

God has aims for us so much higher than we aim for ourselves. And he may well be accomplishing them even beyond what you can see or tell. Only let God's word be a lamp unto your guts and a light unto your heart (cf. Psalm 119:105). Examine yourself, where you can – not to prematurely acquit yourself, but to cooperate better with the Spirit. Attend to what's within you. Don't neglect it. Where you find unholiness inside you, repent and pray. Pray for the fire of Jesus' love to fall from heaven on the altar of your soul, and there offer God your inner life as a living sacrifice, harvesting for the Lord holy kidneys and a holy heart and a holy mind. Embrace your true life. Seek honor in the heaven to which your whole soul is transparent. May God heal our innermost sins and forgive us and lead us to the greatest glory of everlasting life. Amen.

Sunday, November 7, 2021


It's February 351 – you've stepped back 1,670 years and nine months. It's a fine, temperate day in Egypt. And you're walking through the desert. You're searching for one man: a holy hermit named Anthony. You're told his hundredth birthday was last month. He was one of the first to press out into the deep desert, taking the fight of holiness to the desolate waste, shining his light in the den of devils and their mirages. Some go to him and have demons expelled in Jesus' name. Some go with a need, and he prays through the night, and miracles happen. Some go just to watch him a few hours, to better understand holiness. Some go to hear words that reset broken souls. Some bring their burning questions, for it's said that in his silence, Anthony hears the voice of God.

The trip is difficult. The pebbly ground is rough beneath your sandals. Rounding the mountain, you find the pebbles once more give way to sand. You think you're getting close. You face a sheer rock wall and see a few dark crevasses and clefts. Could one of these be his? You shout, “Abba Anthony! Abba Anthony!” And you wait in hope. Half an hour goes by, and you see motion through a three-foot-wide crack in the rock. Emerging from his tiny cave comes a frail old man with a long white beard, his dusty olive-brown form covered in a sheepskin. In silence he unrolls a mat of woven palm-fronds onto the sand, tosses a second mat to you, and sits.

You unfurl your mat at a distance – you can see bathing has no place in his rule of life. He wears rough and scratchy clothing. He usually sleeps on the hard ground, which helps him keep vigil most of the night to pray. He eats once a day after sundown, chiefly bread and salt, with minimal other vegetables to supply the necessary other vitamins. And his sole drink is the water he needs to survive in the desert. His philosophy is that “the soul's intensity is strong when the pleasures of the body are weakened.”1

Now, you ask him your question: “What means the scripture that says, 'Thou shalt not covet'?” For you have a feeling that your heart is beset by temptations to covetousness on every side. In reply, Anthony looks you in the eye and assures you that every temptation is an opportunity to glorify God as you flee it or fight it. “Without temptations,” he says, “no one can be saved.”2 He explains to you that “the written law works with us in a good service until we are able to restrain all passions and to fulfill the good ministry of virtue.”3 If you want to be truly pure, God gives believers “control over their souls and bodies, in order that both may be sanctified,” and this control is worked out “through many fasts and vigils.”4 Your mind needs to be “taught by the Spirit” to lead body and soul back to their original condition, “free from everything alien that belongs to the spirit of the enemy.”5 If you “hate all earthly possessions” and “stretch out the hands of your heart to heaven,” then “God will... grant you the invisible fire which burns up all impurity from you and purifies your mind. Then the Holy Spirit will dwell in you, and Jesus will stay in you, and thus you will be able to worship God as is proper.”6 Heed the Spirit, he says, and you'll be purified; give in too easily to desire, and you risk demons.7 But these demons are “afraid of... fasting, vigils, prayers..., humility..., and most of all..., devotion to Christ.”8 So the Spirit assigns this rule of purification: moderation after the power of the body, devoid of any greed or desire.”9

Hearing his words, in tears you tell Abba Anthony about all the times in life you've stumbled, all the desires at whose feet you've fallen. He gets up from his mat. He comes closer, kneels in the sand, and wipes the tear from your cheek. And he says, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”10 He sits with you in silence from then on out. Darkness falls, and he keeps vigil to pray for you until the first rays of dawn. You wake to see him smiling over you. He sends you on your way.

As you begin your walk through the sands of time back to 2021, maybe you think to yourself, “Now there was a man who doesn't covet.” You might also think to yourself that you've never met anyone like him, and aren't sure you ever will. Walk anywhere in modern America, and you won't find people chasing his particular path to holiness. Not even close. His are not ways natural to American Christianity, in part because we've been so effectively discipled not by the church but by convenience and comfort. Consequently, we meditate very little on what it might actually mean to “crucify the flesh with its passions and its desires” (Galatians 5:24).

But that's precisely what might be the inner heart of the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Oh, to be sure, it wears its main meaning on its sleeve. We aren't to set our sights on what belongs to another – no lusting after his or her spouse, no envious hankering after house or land or family or stuff. But we already covered lust under the commandment against adultery. And we already covered envy under the commandment against theft. So if all this does is tell us what we already know, we might as well close our Bibles and skip home, right?

Or... we can go back and see what we've missed. Some of the earliest meditations on this commandment see it most deeply as an exhortation to discipline our desires. For “excess, even of good, is never a boon to mortals, and a great luxuriousness draws one to immoderate desires.”11 Desires, they said, need to be “brought into obedience to the governance of reason, and then all things will be permeated through-and-through with peace and good order.”12 And they saw the Law of Moses as “thoroughly teaching moderation so that we restrain all pleasures and desires.”13 Some even suggested this was the point of all those dietary laws – don't eat this, do eat that – because God took away the tastiest foods to teach them discipline.14 “The passions of the cravings are endured patiently, being restrained by the self-controlled mind, and all the stirrings of the body are silenced by reason.”15 “When the Law has told us not to desire..., reason is able to restrain the desires.”16

Even in the New Testament, James explains how “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire; then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). In other words, if our desires aren't disciplined, they seduce us, and sooner or later, one will get pregnant, its baby will be sin, and sin grows up to be a killer. Paul, for his part, sees this one as an especially significant commandment. It's the one Adam and Eve had in the Garden.17 And when it was broken, when the commandment was exploited by sin to stoke a desire for the fruit it ruled off-limits, then that sin gave rise to all the other kinds of covetousness and desire in our lives (Romans 7:7-8). But God gives us grace that can “train us to renounce... worldly desires, and to live temperately and righteously and piously in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Temperance is the virtue that pulls us back from desires and pleasures wherever desires and pleasures get immoderate, disordered, out of line with reason and human dignity.18 Paul was willing to go to considerable lengths to work out his temperance: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things.... I pummel my body and make it my slave, lest... I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:25-27).

Our denomination's Book of Discipline reminds us that not only are we to “refuse to yield to the baser desires of the flesh and mind,” but we're even to “guard against excessive indulgence in things not evil in themselves, such as food, clothing, recreation, and personal possessions.”19 “At times, self-control may require abstinence from or renunciation of certain activities or things even though they are not evil in themselves,” especially activities or things that “particularly tempt [you] to overindulgence.”20 That's what we teach – on paper, at least.

So how might that look in real life? First, “Thou shalt not covet” then rules out greed and calls us to contentment. We know St. Anthony praised “renunciation of the world and human things.”21 Does our society need to hear about that today? We're bombarded daily with advertisements, messages meant to stoke our desires and tempt us to crave. So eager is every business to elicit your craving that they'll literally pay money to television networks, radio stations, and billboard owners just for the opportunity to tempt you! Advertisements are seldom merely reasoned cases. They're canny appeals to your flesh, preying on insecurities or awakening appetites. And it must work! They stir your desires for what they're selling, and you and I buy, buy, buy.

But what does Scripture say? Jesus tells us, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life doesn't consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). “The greedy” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). “Those who desire to be rich fall into... many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction, for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10). “But godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). The ideal, Jesus reminds us, is to “sell your possessions and give to the needy,” thus exchanging them for “a treasure in the heavens that does not fail” (Luke 12:33). That was the verse that changed Anthony's life as a young man.22 One early Christian said we should “regard the things of this world as foreign to us, and not desire them, for when we desire to obtain these things, we fall away from the right path.”23 So what can we do? Discipline our desires. Remind ourselves that those things fall apart, that we're pilgrim strangers and should travel lightly anyway. But what we do get, we should “use with contentment of mind, preserve them readily, and share them readily.”24

Second, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out ambition and calls us to humility. Someone once defined ambition as an “inordinate desire of honor,”25 and if that's the case, we can see how it's out of line. Does our society need to hear about this? Again, yes! Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville saw America as a country swept with a “universal outpouring of ambition.”26 Are we less ambitious, less grasping and climbing today? No, bigger is better, we say. We want to earn more, influence more, be more. We want to impress and outdo, so we crave after certain jobs, certain spaces, certain status symbols. We angle for opportunity and advantage.

But what does Scripture say? “Do nothing from selfish ambition” (Philippians 2:3), “for where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matthew 19:30). “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalm 84:10). Sometimes, what's healthiest for our souls is to take a step back and down – stay in small places, learn to love the low rung on the ladder, stand outside the camp with Christ.

Third, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out gluttony and calls for restraint. Anthony explained that “excessive eating stirs up the body, which is now moved by gluttony.”27 Does our society today need to hear this? Yes! Consider that, as of 2013, the average American was consuming 24% more calories each day than the average American in 1961 did. After fifty of those new calories were added by alcohol (more on that in a bit), another eighty-five were added by more sugar and artificial sweeteners, another hundred came from extra meat, another hundred and seventy came from more grains, and four hundred of the new daily calories come from all the vegetable oil we now use.28 And as for eating out, some restaurant meals are said to be three or four times bigger now than in 1950.29 This is one factor – far from the only factor, but one – influencing what's commonly titled today's 'obesity epidemic.'30 And again, our Book of Discipline declares that “moderation is also required in the amounts and types of food one consumes.”31 So this concept shouldn't be foreign to us.

But what does Scripture say? “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty” (Proverbs 23:20-21). “Such persons do not serve our Lord Christ but their own belly” (Romans 16:18). “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Other early Christians also warned that “if the diet oversteps the limits of self-sufficiency, it harms man … We must shun gluttony and partake of only a few things that are necessary. … We don't need to abstain from rich foods completely, but we shouldn't be anxious for them. … Overeating begets in the soul only pain and lethargy and shallow-mindedness.”32

But gluttony can take forms beyond knowingly eating too much. It can mean eating recklessly and mindlessly. It can mean obsessing over gourmet meals or spending too much on food. It can even mean being an overly picky eater who insists on only certain things and isn't thankful for anything else.33 All these are different ways of forgetting the fundamental purpose of eating, which has been defined as “nourishing the body in a manner that fosters loving and serving God and neighbor in thanksgiving for God's gifts.”34 So the early church didn't keep all the Old Testament dietary laws after Christ “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), but they adopted rhythms of fasting every Wednesday and Friday,35 and were careful the rest of the time too. One fourth-century preacher called fasting “likeness to the angels.”36 We could do with more fasting in our Christian life today.

Fourth, “Thou shalt not covet” rules out drunkenness and calls us to sobriety. One of St. Anthony's students, St. Pachomius, wrote: “It is written indeed, 'You shall not covet,' and again, 'You shall not get drunk': Covetousness is not one thing, and drunkenness is not one thing.”37 Do we have a society that needs to hear this? Yes! In 2019, about one in four American adults reported binge drinking in the prior month. Every year, 95,000 people in America die from alcohol-related causes, to say nothing of its other social ills.38 It's for such reasons that our Book of Discipline “encourages abstinence from the use of and traffic in beverage alcohol.”39

So what does Scripture say? “Awake, you drunkards, and weep! And wail, all you drinkers of wine!” (Joel 1:5). “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:34). “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). “Drunkards” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Do “not even associate with anyone who bears the name of 'brother' if he is... a drunkard” (1 Corinthians 5:11). “Be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” (1 Peter 4:7). One early Christian called drunkenness “the demon of our own choosing.”40

And that message goes beyond alcoholic beverages. It calls for caution and moderation when it comes to other potentially addictive substances. Neither alcohol nor all those other things are bad in themselves! But they can lead to chemical dependencies. We all know the plight of opioid abuse by those who get addicted to painkillers. Many illicit drugs are also highly addictive. But there are also common and socially acceptable addictive substances that call for caution and moderation. Nicotine is addictive. Smoking causes more annual deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs put together.41 Does that make it a sin to smoke one cigarette? Not necessarily – but if it harms your body or impedes your life, that's hardly temperate. When we willingly court the risk of addiction, can we really be sure that our attitude toward that next smoke can't be labeled covetous?

Much less harmful, much more socially acceptable, but still addictive is another drug called caffeine. It has its uses – even at our church coffee hour! But taken in excess, you might know the jitters it can cause. And once you build up a dependency, you feel awful without it. Withdrawal symptoms come on you. Are we immoderate and intemperate with our use of coffee, tea, or other sources of caffeine? That question deserves to be asked.

Fifth and finally, “Thou shalt not covet” calls us to patience. Does today's society need to hear that message? Yes. Americans want everything fast, convenient, and delivered. We want our food fast, our shopping fast, our answers fast. Increasingly, we don't read, because TV and the Internet are faster and more fun. It's all about maximizing speed, utility, convenience. And convenience isn't bad! But what are the trade-offs? What does building habits of impatience do to us? Five years ago, a team of scientists found evidence they said suggests that impatient behavior may actually speed up the aging process of our DNA, potentially causing our cells to age and our life span to shorten; and they found that the effect may be especially severe for impatient women.42

And what does Scripture say? During their desert journey, bad things happened to Israel when they “became impatient on the way,” for that's when “the people spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:4-5). But “good soil” will “bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). “If we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). Patience is, in fact, one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), and we're called to “walk... with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:1-2). “Patience in well-doing” is, according to the Apostle Paul, something God rewards with “eternal life” (Romans 2:7), so especially “be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). Sometimes, then, this commandment invites us to take things slow – read a book, write a letter, share a home-cooked meal, visit a physical market, invest time with someone. Don't hang up on hold. Don't get bent out of shape. Let things take the time they take.

Many of these are hard areas in which to discipline our desires – I certainly find some of them so! It might be among the more challenging things we're invited to do. But to have our desires properly disciplined will really make them stronger and better-aimed. C. S. Lewis said it best: “It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”43

And that's exactly it! We are far too easily pleased. And the disciplining of our desires is meant to help us fix that. When we embrace contentment here, it's to build an even greater desire for the great gain set in store for us when at last we hold our heavenly treasure. When we humbly forsake undue ambitions here, it's to climb to the heights of God's holy hill and share the glory of Christ. When we fast and accept simple food with thanks, or when we soberly keep watch for the Lord, it's because we're heightening our craving for the banquet of his kingdom. And when we train ourselves in patient waiting, it's to enjoy the final harvest when this long season ends. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), in a spirit of “power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Just “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), because God alone is the One who “satisfies the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16). To desire God more than anything else, and to desire other things reasonably for his sake and only in ways that aid us toward him – that is perfect purity of heart and soul. That is disciplined desire. May our desires be disciplined to build their strength and right order in Christ Jesus, and may we deny ourselves now and take up his cross and follow him to a more desirable glory! Amen.


Almighty God and Father, the world is passing away along with its desires, but the one who does your will abides forever, in accordance with your promise.  Yet our desires too often are the desires of the world, the desires of our flesh, disordered by sin and thrown out of moderation.  We confess this isn't what any of us should want.  Discipline our desires, Lord, and train us in temperance by your grace.  Help us hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Help us chase relentlessly for your kingdom.  Help us aspire to a share by grace in your glory.  Help us wait on you in the patience of hope.  Grant us to desire a godly life in Christ.  Grant us to desire our better and heavenly country.  Grant us to desire all that you desire.  Make your name the desire of our soul.  But most of all, let us desire you yourself.  If we delight ourselves in you, you promise the desires of our purified hearts will be ours, in due and healthy measure.  Satisfy our pure desire even in scorched places, and make us oases in the desert of life.  Give us a measure of the grace you showed to your holy one Anthony of old, and help us here and now to have a heavenly mindset more like his.  Strengthen our resolve to make no provision to gratify the disordered desires of the flesh, but rather to crucify the flesh with its desires, to clothe ourselves in Christ, and to live in his light.  In his name we cry out to you, God, that we are willing to take up his cross and follow after him, wherever he goes.  Amen.