Have you ever reread a passage with which you are familiar when you suddenly experience a flash of insight? It shocks you. Various words and phrases describe the experience: epiphany, aha moment, light bulb, eureka, flash of insight, enlightenment, etc.
Today is a rainy day where I live and I am inside reading and studying and preparing to teach at a church tomorrow. I am teaching on one of my favorite passages of Scripture. It is a passage where the apostle Paul teaches on a theme humanity reckons with each generation–namely, where we place our trust. That theme shapes the arc of our lives. Depending upon where we place our trust, our lives follow a trajectory. If you trust in government, you will grant bureaucrats more power over your life. If you trust media, you will imbibe from its seemingly endless options. If you trust in fame/celebrity, you will value what the stars of the minute say and do. If you trust in power, you will pursue it or labor to align with those who seem to have it. If you trust in yourself, well, Scripture addresses that, too. A lot.
In the passage I am teaching on tomorrow, the apostle Paul wrote on this theme of in what and in whom people trust:
And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:3-4, ESV).
As I have read these verses, and the passages before and after them, and reread the letter in which they are found over and over, it amazes me how Paul, as credentialed a former Pharisee as you can imagine, with an intellectual resume to which few others would dare want to be compared, viewed himself after being saved by God. What was Paul’s thesis? It was “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v.2).
I am bad about reading several books at one time. One of the ones I have going currently is Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I have read it before but I am going through it again. Last night when I was up late reading it, I came to this passage:
“And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men” (131).
That is a revealing passage. An accurate paraphrase might be, Man’s value, if any, is rooted in his accomplishments. People only matter if and when they have created things boast-worthy. That’s what distinguishes you and makes you matter.
How different the claims are in the Steinbeck passage from the Christo-centric worldview of the apostle Paul. Steinbeck’s voice in East of Eden is that the glory is to man alone because, well, man is alone.
But in the biblical worldview, Paul wrote that when we see Jesus Christ for who He really is, that changes everything. For Paul it meant that his life was no longer about his accomplishments. It was no longer about what Steinbeck’s narrator called “the quality and number of his glories.” No. Once Paul grasped that Jesus’ person and work changed everything, it crushed Paul’s pride and brought him in love with the truth, and the truth was and is a person: Jesus.
It meant that the Corinthian believers’ boasts were not to be in human wisdom but in “the power of God” (v.5). That was Paul’s message. How different from Steinbeck’s view. In the Steinbeck passage, man is, if he is lucky and fortunate, creative. But his glories are temporary, and they lack any transcendent or redeeming value because there is no ultimate evaluator (God) or objective standard (special revelation). Man may hold up a trophy to himself and declare his accomplishments, but his trophy and his self-proclaimed accomplishments are vapors blowing across a theological desert. It reminds me of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” poem where man’s boasts are laughable in their tragedy:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias boasted but it was ultimately for nought.
Paul labored to teach his hearers on this issue of where we place our trust. In chariots and horses? In government? In our own accomplishments (like Steinbeck suggests)? In statues to ourselves amidst the whims of thugs and the ravages of time?
No; Paul’s boast was not in himself, or in what he had done or would do, or in men’s accomplishments. Rather his boast was in teaching about the One who not only created the trees but who was nailed to one. His boast was about the One who gave up His life in order to take it up again three days later. It was about the One who was stripped of His garments but offers to clothe sinners with His righteous robes.