Pour a cup of coffee, pull up a comfy chair, and get cozy. Maybe grab someone and read out loud. You’re going to want to hear this story.
The Vulcan blessing, accompanied by the “Vulcan salute” is one of the most recognizable and memorable aspects of Star Trek. Go anywhere in the world, whether it be Japan, Moscow, London or even Afghanistan, mention Star Trek, and you’ll be bound to see someone raise The split-finger hand sign, and say the words, “Live long and prosper.” People who don’t even like Star Trek know what it is and where it comes from. But I wonder if they really think about it. I mean really think about it…
Leonard Nimoy, the first actor who played Mr. Spock came up with this symbolic salute during the shoot of an episode where his character goes back for the first time to his home planet, Vulcan. He wanted to bring something to this show which would stand out as a uniquely Vulcan custom or ritual. Drawing from childhood memories of the Jewish services he would attend with his father and grandfather, he remembered the hand gesture made by the kohanim (Jewish priests) called the koranic blessing, a manual approximation of the Hebrew letter shin. Shin is the first letter in Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names for God. Accompanying the hand gesture was the Priestly or Aaronic Blessing recorded in Numbers 6:24-25: “May the Lord bless and keep you and may the Lord cause His countenance to shine upon you. May the Lord be gracious unto you and grant you peace.”
While Mr. Spock will undoubtedly live on and the legacy of Leonard Nimoy will not be soon forgotten, those of us who have never had the privilege of meeting him will never get that chance again, at least not in this life. On February 27th, 2015, Leonard Nimoy died due to complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Likely, you didn’t miss the news of his passing. It was all over the place.
In a number of tributes on social media people have taken pictures of themselves giving the Vulcan Salute, or koranic blessing. Captions read, “Live long and prosper, Leonard Nimoy.” I find that very interesting. Here’s why. Leonard Nimoy is dead, yet those who are observing his death and offering their respects have wished him, “Live long…” For certain, Mr. Nimoy lived a long life. 83 years is nothing to balk at. I would like to live that long and will count myself blessed if I do so. But the inevitable will eventually come for me. Perhaps even sooner than I’m ready. Perhaps I’ll die of old age, sleeping in my bed, or from some terrible disease. Perhaps death will come when I’m least expecting it and not prepared at all. And what is there then? Death seems so final, so definitive. Once it’s over, it’s over. Or is it? Perhaps what people are wishing for Mr. Nimoy is not merely sentimental. Perhaps it’s an indication that though we all know death is the end of this life, we hope for and want to imagine that there is something better, something after… something besides a final breath and then the lights going out forever.
In the Christian tradition, which of course has roots reaching back into the Torah, the most sacred Scripture of the Jewish faith, of which Mr. Nimoy claimed to hold, there is a belief that though the body dies, the spirit lives on. All the dead are waiting for the day of the Lord when heaven and earth will collide and all the dead will be raised. The Bible teaches that the unrighteous will be raised to condemnation and eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life with God. So then the question is, how can one attain this righteousness, which will be necessary for eternal life, on that both great and terrible day of the Lord? What must one do in order to live in such a way that they will be counted amongst those who are the righteous and avoid being grouped with the unrighteous?
There are innumerable theories about this, but all of them fall into one of two different categories. The first, most common, and most popular way of being sure that one is counted amongst the righteous is by trying to do one’s best, to act righteous. In other words, if you want to go to heaven, you better be good for goodness sake! We could also call this, regardless of which religion teaches it, a system of salvation by works. Be good, do more nice things than bad things, obey God’s commands, and if you can get the scales to tip in your favor, maybe you’ll get in. If your religion’s deity is a nice one, maybe he will even have some leniency just in case you did anything really bad. Maybe. We can at least hope, right? We’re all okay with a little injustice as long as that injustice works out in our favor.
These are the tenants of most world religions. Ask most people how they’re getting into heaven, going to make it to nirvana, stop the vicious cycle of karma and reincarnation, etc., and they’ll tell you, “I hope I’ve been good enough.” If they consider themselves Christian, even marginally, they’ll probably give you their “good” list. You know, the one that’s full of all the good things they’ve done, like the list kids hope Santa Clause has with their name on it. Are you getting your Christmas dream gift that you wished for, or coal this year? Well, what do you really deserve?
This is simply the natural way that people think about these things, and it makes sense from a natural perspective. If we do good things, hopefully good things will happen to us. If we work hard, are honest and nice, we should get that raise or promotion. If we study hard, we’ll ace that test. If we are nice and share with our brother or sister, maybe they’ll share their cookie with us. It’s the system of give and receive. We’ll earn what we have coming to us. And we often do.
If I’m bad, if I break the law, I’ll likely be punished, incur a fine, have to do community service or maybe even go to prison. But I’ll do my time and pay for it myself. And then I’ll get a second chance. If I do well, should I not be accepted and rewarded? It’s quid quo pro, tit-for-tat, this for that. And of course, that’s exactly how it should be… in this life. These are our rules. They are fair. Remember that word, “fair.” We all want fairness, well, as long as it means something good is going to happen to me. If bad things are going to happen to anyone, we don’t want it to be to us (even when we’ve earned them). And we’d really prefer that those bad things happened to people who actually deserved them (even though, if we’re honest, we usually deserve at least some bad things to happen to us).
And so, with minds turned toward eternal life, many of us have looked for an aid to help us become more certain of our being admitted through the Pearly Gates. Commonly, some of the aids that people turn to are virtues, ethics, and the commandments of God from the Bible. We turn to these and hope that they will help us in our endeavor to become that good and righteous person who will get into heaven, find bliss in nirvana, or break the cycle of reincarnation and finally join the life force of the universe. Yet, few of us would claim to be perfect. Funny how most of us want to think of ourselves as good people, yet we obsess over “second chances.” If we’re such good people, why do we have to have so many second chances?
Rules and laws and ordinances make sense to us. We can work with rules. We understand rules. They make sense to us. They seem safe because we know that if we keep them, at least well enough, we can predict the logical outcome. We like this because the outcome depends on our behavior and action, on our work. We’re in control here. We can decide, for the most part, what is going to happen. For the most part our future depends on us. It makes perfect sense to look for rules, laws, and ordinances as aids to help advance us on our way to rewards in this life. After all, that’s really how it works. We have objective proof of this. When we do good, we get rewarded. When we do wrong, we get punished. Pretty simple. Pretty safe. We’re in control, pretty much.
And so, in turning to matters of eternal life or death, it makes sense to pursue what we want (eternal life, of course) through the means and aid of these same rules, laws, and ordinances. In order to attain eternal life, become righteous. In order to become righteous, follow the rules. Be good. Be obedient. Maybe the “Big Man” upstairs will notice and give us a “raise” when we die. Sorry, not funny?
Something radical takes place when we take a closer look at Scripture, though. We read in Roman’s 3:21 that “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” In other words, righteousness, as God understands it doesn’t come through the Law, but from another avenue. The righteousness God requires doesn’t come by following the rules. It can’t be attained by obedience to God’s commands and laws. So what then? And how has God’s form of righteousness been shown to us, or manifested?
Augustine (you may have heard of him), a Christian who lived in the fourth and fifth century, interpreted this verse to mean that righteousness as God sees it must be sought without the Law, that is, without its support. If we’re looking for righteousness, the Law will not be of any help to us. It cannot aid us. It cannot drive us toward that end.
In Romans 5:20, the Apostle Paul writes, “The Law came in to increase the trespass.” Two things are happening here in the first passage. The Law does not only show us what it is good and right to do, but it also shows us the magnitude of the wrong that we have done. Like a magnifying glass, or a microscope, the Law increases our limited, or self-limiting, ability to see our “failures,” (A.K.A, sin). Before, we could ignore certain sins, but when the Law comes in, it turns up the magnification. The longer we look at the Law, the more of our own sin we will see.
Secondly, the Law also has an opposite effect than what we might imagine. We often think that the Law will aid us in avoiding sin, but something counter-intuitive actually happens: nothing but 200 proof Law, rules, and ordinances can actually increase our desire to do what is wrong. It’s the natural human tendency to think this way. When we’re told to not do something, something else within us may say, “You can’t tell me what to do! You’re not the boss of me!” Even if we don’t act on every instance of this thought, you can’t deny you’ve had them. We have all felt this way at some point, and worse, we’ve all acted this way as well. The Law can actually work in the opposite way than what we’re hoping for. Instead of aiding us to do good, it can actually incite, stir up, and fan the flame of desire to do evil. True story.
In Romans 7:9 Paul adds, “When the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” This only further testifies of this fact that the Law alone can and will increase our proclivity to sin. Here’s a simple example of how this might work. If someone tells you not to go through a certain door, or not to go in a room, you suddenly really want to know what’s on the other side of that door or in that room. Where does this come from? You may never have even thought about it if it hadn’t been for that silly little rule. Perhaps the last thing you would have thought about doing was walking through that door, or going in that room. But once you’re told that you can’t, a new, strange desire and curiosity comes over you that wasn’t there and may have never been there in the first place. Now you really want to know what they’re keeping from you in there. This is the effect that the Law can have. The Law says, “You shall not,” and now all of the sudden you want to and you don’t even know where that desire came from. You’ve probably never even thought about this before, but I guarantee it: you can probably think of a few examples from your own life-experience that are similar. See, I told you so.
Is it any wonder, then, why Paul calls the Law a “law of sin and death”? (Romans 8:2) In fact, Paul says in 2 Cor 3:6, “the letter [of the law] kills.” Augustine understood this as applying to every commandment and law of God, even to the most holy of God’s laws.
About all this, Martin Luther wrote:
- The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
- Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural rules, so to speak, lead to that end.
What Luther understood is that because of the stain of sin on our very being, no one can follow God’s law perfectly, not even close to perfectly. This is because, as Paul says in Roman’s 3:10-12, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
“No one does good.”
“Not even one.”
That means you.
That means you and me and everyone. God says we don’t do good. And notice to whom Paul addressed this letter. He was writing to the Church. No one does good, not even you, Christians. What now?
Romans 7:10-11 lands the killing blow, crushing any hopes and dreams that we can make ourselves better or become righteous by way of the Law.
“The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
Sorry if I just killed all your aspirations and dreams of becoming righteous by yourself. Well, I lied. I’m not really sorry. In fact, I hope that’s what I just did.
The Law cannot advance you on your way to righteousness. It will not aid you. It will not help you. It won’t even give you a tiny, little push. Showing you all the right things to do will not help you do them. The Law says, “Run,” but gives you neither arms nor legs to get there. The Law promises life, hope, and reward if you can keep it. Perfectly. But if you fail on one point, you’re guilty of the whole thing. It will turn on you faster than a rabid dog and chew your face off. The Law doesn’t just hinder you on your way to righteousness, it actually stops you dead in your tracks. Literally! It brings death. Not just temporal death, but eternal death.
We naively look at the Law, thinking it’s our sure ticket out of danger. What folly! The Law isn’t our salvation. It’s not a savior. It’s an executioner! It dares us to try it while pointing a gun at our head.
The Law isn’t Mother Teresa. The Law is Dirty Harry. Only worse. It says, “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’”
“Well, do ya, punk?”
Now I know what you’re wondering. “How is the Law like Dirty Harry, but worse?” Well, in all the excitement of thinking up this clever metaphor I almost forgot. Thanks for reminding me. The Law is worse because it’s not out of ammunition. It’s fully loaded. Lock, stock and barrel. And it doesn’t wait for you to respond. Hesitate and you’re dead. Move and you’re dead. Either way you’re dead. The Law isn’t your friend. It isn’t here to help. It’s here for one purpose and one purpose only. To kill. I’m not making this up either. Paul calls the Law “the ministry of death.” (2 Corinthians 3:7)
Mr. Spock said, “Live long and prosper.” Implicit in this was the Vulcan code of reason and logic. Follow the rules, keep their values, live by their ethic, and you’ll live long and prosper. Logical. It makes sense. And in the the economy of this world, that’s the way things work. Do a good job and you’ll get a paycheck, keep your job, and maybe even get promoted. Do a poor job and you might get the chopping block. We can wrap our head around this. We get this.
But God’s ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts our thoughts. In His kingdom the economy of this world holds no sway. And that’s actually a good thing. I told you to remember the word “fair.” If we got fairness, no one would be counted among the righteous. We’d all be grouped together with the unrighteous. That is what we are, after all. In truth (not our version of the truth, but God’s truth) we aren’t righteous. We don’t do good. None is righteous, no, not one. “Fair” would be everyone getting what they deserve for being sinners: eternal punishment. But that’s not what God wants. He’s not interested in giving us what’s fair. He wants to give us what’s not fair. He wants to give us what we don’t deserve. Check it out.
Jesus said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:9-10)
Jesus came that we may “live long and prosper.” Not by the economy of this world, but by a completely different one. God’s economy. Just after this He said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11) And Jesus did just that. Not only did He die for us, for our sins, but He also lived the perfect life that we could not in our stead.
God isn’t a sadistic God who says, “Give Me, give Me, give. And oh, by the way, better make it a perfect.”
God says, “Here, take it all. Here’s my life. Take it. Here’s my death for you. Take it. It’s pure gift. Take it.”
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Maybe this is the first time you’ve seen this passage. Maybe you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Either way, I hope you’re seeing it clearly and in contradistinction with what the Law says. This is the Gospel. You can’t earn it. If you try, the Law will just blow your head clean off for trying to find something to boast in and ultimately failing. But the Gospel is a greater word than the Law. It says, because you can’t earn it, I’m giving it to you as a gift, for free! I bought it for you. It wasn’t cheap. In fact it cost my life. But all you can afford is “for free.” Take it. It’s yours.
Mr. Spock wishes for you to live long and prosper. Just follow the Vulcan code and you can have it all.
Until you die, that is.
Just like Leonard Nimoy, we’re all going to die someday. Death is coming. Hesitate, or make your move. It doesn’t matter. It’s coming for you.
Jesus wishes for you to live forever with Him. There are no rules you can follow to grant this wish, so Jesus didn’t stop at wishing, but acted Himself. He acted because you can’t. Even when you’ve tried, you’ve failed.
Jesus lived for you and died for you so that you can live eternally and in abundance. No matter how well off or poor you are in this life, it’s all going to end someday. Leonard Nimoy was famous, successful and probably made a lot of dough during his life. Who cares now? Certainly not Leonard. He’s dead. All those riches and success and fame are worthless to him wherever he is now.
But if Leonard bet all the blue chips on the most illogical thing he’d ever heard of, then right now he has the priceless riches of eternal life in heaven. These riches were bought, not with his Law-keeping, good deeds, or charity, but with the priceless blood of the spotless Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Live long and prosper sounds a whole lot better when it’s forever. Live Long and Prosper sounds a whole lot better when Jesus is saying it. For when Jesus says it, you know He’s giving it to you for free and there’s nothing you have to do to earn or attain it.
Now you go think about that.