Monday, January 13, 2020

A Higher Standard

One of the challenges that Jesus left with His disciples was to figure out what the New Covenant meant in an old covenant world. Several times in the book of Acts, we see the disciples wrestling with what it means to be a person of faith now that Jesus was born, died, and rose again and the Holy Spirit has come.

Does faith look the same as it always has?

The biggest question in this brave new world seemed to be what the new role of circumcision was. From the early pages of Genesis, the people of God have always been known by the marking of their bodies - by the lack of a foreskin. This has been the sign that these are people of the covenant. But now, under Jesus, the covenant was branching out to the uncircumcised, and the disciples had to figure out whether the uncircumcised should be circumcised as a mark of the faith or whether this new faith had some kind of new mark.

What they decided, of course, is that the new faith has a new mark - the mark of the Holy Spirit. So the mutilation of the flesh was no longer necessary. They sent out a proclamation through the region that those coming to the new faith in Jesus Christ did not need to be circumcised in order to be accepted among God's people.

It's interesting, then, that in Acts 16, when Timothy begins to come along on mission to spread the Gospel of Christ, it is decided that he must be circumcised first. Even though literally no one he ever converts will face the same requirement.

So what gives? Why, in an age where the disciples have already decided that circumcision is not required under the new covenant, do they require Timothy to be circumcised before he can travel and minister to the uncircumcised?

Simply put, ministers of the Gospel have always been held to a higher standard. (And they still should be.)

Most Christians, they are never going to be ministers. They are the embodiment of the ongoing work of Christ in the world, of the mission God is on right now. They are examples in their own little realms, living by faith wherever God's planted them, and their job is to show the world what a living and active faith looks like in a broken and messed-up world. Most Christians get to live "today" as though it is God's day, and that's all that's required from them. And if this is the kind of faith God has called you to, then you are marked by the Spirit of God that dwells in you. You need nothing else.

But ministers, as with Timothy, are bearers of God's deeper story into the world. They hold not just today, but all of history, all the way back to "in the beginning." It is their job to help illustrate not just who God is right now, but who He has always been. It's their job to tell His story from the formless and void to the healing happening today. They have to carry with them everything and live a life marked by something much greater than just "today." In a sense that is limited by the English language, ministers carry with them "eternity," "forever," and that is a much heavier burden.

Can you imagine a man coming and teaching you about the history of God among His people if the man is not circumcised? You would look at him and say, how do you know? You clearly just got here yourself. Timothy could not convincingly teach the un-Gospelized world about Jesus if he didn't bear the mark of the history of the Jewish people, if he wasn't part of the covenant promise they held onto for so many years to even get to Jesus. "Hey, you guys, this Jesus is the fulfillment of a promise that I never had to believe in." It just doesn't make sense.

Does circumcision itself change the way that Timothy could talk about the promise? No. But it eliminates a barrier for those who would hear him preach. It takes away one of the questions they would instantly be asking themselves - how could this man even know what he's talking about? If, circumcised, he looks like he knows what he's talking about, then they are free to listen to the words more intently and simply come to believe.

And that's the heavier burden that is, and always has been, on ministers of the Gospel, as it should be. For most Christians, it's enough to simply be responsible for how you speak. But when you take on the role of ministry, you all of a sudden become responsible not just for how you speak, but for how you are heard. That's why ministers are held to a higher standard. (And they should be.) 

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