Thursday, June 26, 2014

1 Corinthians 8: Who is God?

1 Cor 8:1-6 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." This "knowledge" puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "an idol has no real existence," and that "there is no God but one." For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

When I first started Prison Alpha at our local prison school (Kaki Bukit Prison), a young offender asked, "Who is God?" He de-enrolled himself out of the course when he wasn't satisfied with the answer we gave. In the Alpha Course, the answer to the offender's question is assumed rather than answered. Alpha assumes a Christianized society so God does not need to be defined.

Unfortunately, this assumption is invalid in Asian contexts. Asian worldviews are similar to the ancient Greco-Roman civilization to which Corinth belongs: it was a world populated by demi-gods and gods, without any supreme Being who is in charge of Heaven. The gods and goddesses are struggling against each other over territorial claims on earth as it is in the heavenlies.

I received a crash course on the Goddess of Mercy (Kwan Yin) when my mother wanted to convert to Christianity. She wanted to dispose of all the different Kwan Yin idols she had at home without offending the Goddess of Mercy. I invited my colleague to assist in this task. My colleague noticed that my mother's home hosted different idols of  Kwan Yin at different locations of the living hall. He explained that not all Kwan Yin idols are equal and the ones she had were actually in conflict with each other. I didn't even know then that various manifestations of the same Goddess of Mercy may not always show the same mercy towards other idol-versions in the same house! But this Taoist/Buddhist worldview is not much different than the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods and lords--they are constantly at logger-head with one another. The movie, "The Clash of the Titans", was a reflection of these inter-galactic battles taking place in the heavenlies.

In Hinduism alone, it is estimated that there is enough gods and goddesses for every Hindu in India--they exist by the hundreds of millions. So, when a Christian speaks about God, the first question that pops up in Asian culture is: "which god?" or "what god?" If we say we are not referring to any of their gods or goddesses, their next question would be, "Who is God?" No wonder Western missionaries had been accused of bringing a "foreign god" into Asian societies which has upset the spiritual status quo.

So, back to the young offender's question: "Who is God?" Paul answers this question first in the negative by saying who He is not. He is not like any of the idols we worship because "an idol has no real existence" (v.4). God is not in the idols that we see in the Taoist, Buddhist or Hindu temples, for an idol is dead wood or stone. God is not even the most powerful "god" among "many gods and many lords." He is totally unlike these "gods and lords".

Paul's affirmative answer to the question, "Who is God?" is found in verse 6: "yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist."

Let's unpack this verse:
  • "One God, the Father": For Christians, our concept of God is monotheistic, derived from the Jewish Scriptures: "In the beginning, God..." (Gen. 1:1). Before there was anything else, there was only God who was/is there before "the beginning." There were not "many gods" competing for supremacy and "God" finally emerged as the only One. Before time, there was eternity and only God was/is there. Furthermore, this God is "the Father"--not some impersonal Supreme Intelligence or Being but a Personal God--a Father of Love to us His creatures. He created this world in love and all creatures that love know God: "But if anyone loves God, he is known by God" (v.3). This world operates on the foundation of love because God is love. Love is the operating principle in this Universe.
  • "from whom are all things": God is not only Father, but also the Creator. He is the Source of all things in this space-time-energy Universe.  God spoke and this space-time-energy Universe instantaneously exploded into existence in what astro-physicists describe as the "Big Bang". The Universe came into being in a fraction of a second. And God is also the Source of all life-forms, including humans which was a late addition, after the Universe has been in existence for a long time.
  • "for whom we exist": The Universe and everything in it was created to glorify God and bring Him pleasure: "Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created" (Rev 4:11, KJV). This Universe may be said to be "theo-centric" (God-centred), not "homo-centric" (man-centred). It is only when we seek God's glory and pleasure (worship) that man become truly human. However, when we make ourselves the centres of the Universe, we mess up.
  • "one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist": God is not singular but plural. He is not a unitarian Being but a communitarian Being. In other words, God exists as a Community of Persons--Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. God was not "alone" before the Universe came into being: the Godhead was a Communion of the Trinity, so that when God decided to create man in "his image", He said within himself, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 1:26). And then the next verse says, "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). So God is both singular (Unity) and plural (Trinity). God therefore has only one Son--the "one Lord Jesus Christ", who is not just a religious founder but the God "through whom are all things and through whom we exist." To Paul,  Jesus Christ is Sustainer of all human life in the Universe. 
The three prepositions that Paul uses describe the God's activity in this Universe: "from whom", "for whom" and "through whom". He is the Source, the Reason, and the Sustainer of this Universe.

Father God, we are grateful to You for You have created us for Your pleasure and You sustain us to fulfil our calling to glorify You. Amen.

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