|Written by Toby Sumpter|
|Saturday, 19 September 2009 15:51|
Nobody really wants to read the book of Job. After the first two chapters everything gets really boring, really fast. Lots of words, lots of talking, lots of hairsplitting theology, a few cool memory verses, and nothing for like 36 chapters, then there’s the Leviathan bit, and Job gets all his stuff back. The end. What an annoying book of the Bible. It’s about as exciting as the first eight chapters of Numbers.
But beneath the boredom there is also fear.
We’re all Calvinists here, three cheers for the exhaustive sovereignty of God, and then just when we have gotten done sanding the corners off the sharpest edges of those doctrines of grace, there’s Job still bumbling around in the wisdom literature. Maybe a really short minor prophet would have been better? But reading Job is like praying that God would give you patience. God actually answers those kinds of prayers. It’s a bit like climbing a tree with a coffee can on your head in the middle of an electrical storm. Do you want to die?
No one wants to read Job for fear that they might actually learn the lesson of Job. Decent, relatively stable Christian lives are about all we can take. Don’t make too much of a ruckus; don’t ask certain questions of the teacher; don’t dwell on the negative stuff too much. Stay positive. Keep your head down. Reading Job is inviting trouble. It’s like cigarettes; you can’t complain if your lungs get tired of all that tar. You can’t complain if God notices that you’ve come to terms with suffering and gives you some. The best way to avoid suffering and hardship is to generally ignore it, and plead our inability to handle it. If we can just manage to stay in second grade we won’t have to take that pesky third grade assessment test.
And some of the most terrifying words in the first two chapters of Job are Yahweh’s: “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him, a blameless and upright man?” God’s love of Job seems reminiscent of a three year old’s love for his pet frog. He loves that frog, really loves that frog, and a few minutes later the frog is dead. We kind of cringe at God’s enthusiasm and secretly hope God doesn’t love us like that. A little anonymity would be worth the peace. It’d be OK if God didn’t remember my name when Satan stopped by the divine assembly. Oh, what’s his name? Oh well, have you considered by servant, Jeff? He’s been praying a lot.
And so we check off our theological boxes and keep our heads down. Life’s a battlefield and we just keep trudging up the line, watching as friends and relatives are struck in various ways. And we hope for the best, place our faith in God, and keep ignoring Job.
But maybe part of the problem is that we think we already know what Job is about. We’ve read it or heard the story enough, and we know that Yahweh appears in the whirlwind at the end and basically gives Job the cosmic smack down. Do you know who you’re messing with, Job? And we shudder and realize that even if we do get struck like Job we’ll be in the same position as him, repenting in dust and ashes, and we might as well just suck it up and get ready for whatever comes. Job gets everything back in the end, and that’s proof that God really is good even if his ways are inscrutable, inevitable, and frequently hurt.
But there’s something of an echo in the words of Yahweh. Where have we heard this before? We have heard these descriptions before. Abraham is referred to as the servant of Yahweh and called to be blameless (Gen. 17:1). Jacob and Noah were also blameless before God (Gen. 6:9, 25:27). But when we do the Hebrew word search, we realize that the word is used nearly 30 times in the books of Leviticus and Numbers and always to describe the kind of animal that is eligible for sacrifice: it must be “without blemish.” Over and over again, the animal must be without blemish, without blemish. And of course this is because God is holy and without blemish (Dt. 32:4). But the qualification for sacrifice is without blemish, blameless; it must be perfect. In fact, the implication is that God prefers perfect sacrifices. Or to put it another way, God is inclined to sacrifice the perfect. Blamelessness is what draws God’s attention. Perfection is what catches his eye. God teaches Israel to imitate him: Have you seen that cow of mine? Not a blemish; she’d make a great sacrifice down in Jerusalem.
As others have pointed out, one of the most common sacrifices in Scripture is the OLAH, what is commonly translated burnt offering or whole burnt offering, but the word OLAH literally means “going up.” The “going up offering” or Ascension Offering reveals a foundational clue to all sacrifice. It establishes a central goal of every offering by fire. When a blameless animal is sacrificed, the blameless animal is going up, going up to God in smoke. God loves the perfect, he loves the blameless, and he loves them in his presence. He loves them and wants them to commune with him.
And this begins to push the book of Job into new directions and make better sense of the overall narrative. Job is declared “blameless” in the prologue three times (1:1, 8, 2:3). Job is perfect, without blemish, and if we have been reading our Bibles carefully, we should realize that this means that Job is an excellent candidate for a sacrificial victim. Yahweh is blameless and attracted to the blameless, and he looks for ways to bring them nearer, to draw them up into his presence, but the path is always through dismemberment and fire.
The book of Job bears this out. At the beginning, we see righteous Job offering sacrifice for his children who may have sinned, but when Satan, the Accuser, appears with the sons of God, Job is not there to defend himself. This is one of the great horrors of the whole story, and Job repeatedly pleads to have a day in court with God (e.g. 12:4, 13:3, 13:15, 23:4). As the narrative crescendos, we find Job in dust and ashes like the prophet Abraham interceding for his nephew Lot (Gen. 18:27), and two verses later Job is granted the privilege of offering sacrifice and interceding for his three accuser friends. Where Job was absent and had no word in the divine assembly at the beginning, he has now been granted access. He has been brought near, and his prayers will be heard (42:8). And this gives more shape to the entire story of Job. The stage is set with the horrific suffering of Job in the prologue, but the book is filled with arguments, the round and round debating of Job and his three accusers. These fierce words of wind are the fire of God drawing Job up into the whirlwind of Yahweh’s presence. The rhetorical wrangling is the dismemberment and fire of sacrifice, and Job ascends into the Spirit-Wind of Yahweh to see Yahweh with his eyes (42:5).
But there’s more. It is the assessment of an animal as perfect and blameless which qualifies it for sacrifice to God. It is the declaration that Job is perfect and blameless which qualifies him to be offered up in the fire of suffering and mistreatment. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that all peoples, all nations may now be made right with God. The good news that Paul is so ecstatic about is the doctrine of justification by faith. Everyone – Jew and Gentile – can be declared blameless, perfect, without blemish. The good news of the gospel is that everyone may be prequalified by faith to be offered as sacrifices.
The apostle famously summarizes that since we have been justified by faith and have peace with God and access to his grace, we also glory in tribulations (Rom. 5:1-3). Paul immediately connects justification with trials and suffering. But we tend to read through these verses like the Reformed linebackers that we are. We will not be deterred by anything. We think we know where Paul is going; we know what’s coming: “there is therefore no condemnation” and “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” and “therefore he has mercy on who he wills and whom he wills he hardens” and “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” And we rehearse the lines like a favorite movie. And we pause momentarily at chapter 12 and remind ourselves that now Paul is switching gears and beginning to talk about the practical applications of all that justification theology. But Paul has not switched gears at all. In fact, in my estimation he has finally arrived at the main point: “I beseech you therefore, brethren by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). The point of justification is sacrifice. The point of being declared “without blemish” is that we are now qualified to be dismembered and arranged on the altar. The imputation of the righteousness of Christ means that we may now be lit on fire. And of course that is precisely what God does. He sends his Spirit upon his justified people, and every time he does so, a Pentecost breaks out. Every time he declares a person righteous, God lights them on fire. And the Spirit begins his sacrificial work, consuming our dross, and turning us into Spirit-smoke, drawing us up into the whirlwind.
And maybe we still don’t really want to read Job. But maybe this helps us see that the problem is not really limited to Job. If we have problems with Job, we really have to throw out most of the New Testament. And there’s James talking about suffering and trials and justification. And it makes a little more sense. If you’re so blameless where are your scars? If you’re so justified where are your works? Where’s the fire, where’s the altar? Why don’t you smell like smoke?
But if the gospel of Job is really the same as Paul, if the good news is that by faith we may all be declared blameless, perfect, without blemish, then the good news is that God is drawing us up into his presence, where he promises to hear our prayers. And there’s something about suffering and hardship and trials that teach us how to pray. There’s something about pain that draws us closer to God. If God is training us for his presence, training us to intercede and speak in his councils, training us to be prophets like Abraham, the only way we can speak is from a pile of dust and ashes. And we are only dust and ashes after the fire has consumed us.
And that’s really not very boring after all. In fact it is very alive. Present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God. You know, like Job.
|Last Updated on Saturday, 03 October 2009 00:07|