By JIM NICHOLS
Early in my adult life, a wise person suggested a word to look for in scripture. You may have received the same instruction—it is almost trite, frankly—but it works for me. I suppose this word would be considered a conjunction, something that connects two thoughts. Used in scripture it relates one thought to a following one that depends on the first.
This wise person said that I needed to be on the lookout for the word “therefore.” She said in her quaint way, “If you see the word ‘therefore,’ examine what it is “there for.” That is, why did the original writer use the word “therefore” to connect two thoughts, the second one depending on the first?
An illustration of this in the New Testament has its beginning, it seems to me, in some Old Covenant words. Understanding that you and I are looking back at the old words from a clearly different culture, it strikes me as to how many of the words (especially in the Pentateuch) are instructional words. Furthermore, they are not gently instructional, but in many cases they are nearly threatening. This seems to have had the effect on the original people of God of teaching them that God is harsh, demanding, and even in some cases, vindictive. I admit this is a superficial perception from several thousands of years later, but it certainly seems plausible. Furthermore, since this view of God was established originally in His followers, it was logically carried over to His later followers after Jesus came to earth. In fact, Jesus spent a fair amount of time introducing a clearly different view of God rather than simply this wrathful one.
Many of those today who decline to follow God still site this harsh view of God; they have missed, I believe, a clear transition with Christianity that proposes a much different view. Even in the Old Covenant words there are striking examples of a future in which God’s nature is more completely addressed. For example, in Jeremiah 31:31 ff, a glorious explanation of a “new covenant” is given. In this new time, the scripture says, the Lord will put His law within people; it will be written on their hearts and they will know Him in a much deeper way than trying to follow the myriad of laws from the Old Covenant.
Which brings us to “therefore.”
Do those of us under the New Covenant not have laws to follow? Certainly, we do. However, the law-following comes second, after we recognize who we are in God’s sight. That is, there is a sequence. First, we are told who we are; then, we are told what to do.
A clear example consumes almost the whole letter to the Ephesians. The first three chapters of the book do not tell us what to do at all. Instead, we have description after description of our qualities as God’s people. We are chosen, adopted, and forgiven. We have been called to a hope in God and marked with the Holy Spirit. We live in God’s kindness and are saved by His grace from the passions of our flesh. We are not strangers and aliens from God, but members of His household. We are filled with the fullness of God. We are rooted and grounded in Christ’s love.
I am not making this up; it goes on and on with totally positive identifications of who you and I are as God’s people, even though we are imperfect.
Only at that point, beginning with chapter four, are practical illustrations and instructions given. Chapter four begins “therefore” (look it up if you do not believe me). Paul has spent three chapters establishing our identities as God’s people and then says, “Therefore, go live out your identities.”
You and I are children of God. He does not love us because we behave a certain way. He loves us with a love that is so great that we cannot understand it. Therefore, because He loves us, there are certain expectations for the way we live. We do not live that way to earn His love. God wants us to know our true identity as His children and treat one another as equally loved children of His.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain