Thursday, December 31, 2015

Random Thoughts

Here are a few random thoughts as we turn the page for another go around the sun. About divine love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been my tweets and Facebook updates. Some have been my Instagrams. Offered as “jump starts” for a Happy New Year!
  • Love is not merely an asset or attribute of God. Love is the essence and energy of God, for God is love.
  • God practices what Jesus preached.
  • O Blessed Fellowship! I am in the Three and the Three are in me. It is a good day.
  • King Jesus, who made all things in the beginning, will make all things new again.
  • Jesus has been given the keys to death and hell. What do you suppose he will do with them?
  • Faith in Jesus is trusting him with your past, as well as with your present and your future.
  • Hell is not the absence of God but the soul unprepared for the presence of God in the radiance of his love.
  • God always gets the last word ... and his final answer is love.
  • Real love is cross-shaped.
  • The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, dwelling in eternal community, know the all-surpassing power of love.
  • Whatever happens — Keep Calm and Remember that JESUS is LORD!
  • Put not your trust in judges or politicians ... nor fear them. King Jesus is Lord over all, and his love will prevail.
  • All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus the Messiah. Love is the outworking of that authority. When we walk in love, we walk in the authority of King Jesus.
  • The full revelation of God is not found in a book, not even the Bible, but in a person: Jesus the Messiah.
  • The revolution has come and Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all. Follow him.
  • I worship the God who is man, the man who is God. His name is Jesus.
  • King Jesus is making all things new by the consuming fire of his love.
  • The mercy of God is available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Always has been, always will be.
  • One day everyone will get what they want ... but not everyone will like what they get. What is it you want?
  • Lord, in your mercy, strip away in me everything that does not belong. Some things, I can easily tell. Other things, I do not trust myself to know the difference. Let only love be left in me. Amen.
  • My faith is not in how the future will be taken care of, but in God, who will take care of the future, for he is greater than the future.
  • Fear not the future. It is in God’s hands ... and God is love.
  • This is the judgment of God: Jesus the Light has come into the world and exposed the darkness of our hearts. Follow the Light.
  • God is not in the damning business. He is in the Search and Rescue business.
  • The mysteries of God and His love are not for us to understand but to experience.
More random thoughts from this past year …

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Small Town, Eternal Significance

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son, and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be our peace. (Micah 5:2-5)
The prophet Micah alternates, as the prophets often did, between the warning of judgment and the promise of restoration. He foretold the fall of Samaria, capital of the northern Kingdom, Israel, and the people were carried off into Assyrian captivity. He foretold the fall of Jerusalem, capital of the southern kingdom, Judah, which was later carried off into Babylonian captivity. But then, in chapter 5, he speaks of a remnant, a return and a Ruler whose reign would cover the earth. He speaks of Messiah, God’s anointed King.

It would begin in the small, seemingly inconsequential town of Bethlehem, but one mighty in eternal significance. For from there this Ruler would arise who comes from long ages past, indeed, from eternity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” says John the Evangelist. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14).

But until then Israel would be abandoned, given over to captivity, for as with all births, there is a time of travail. And though the Jews were eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem, they remained under foreign rule and so also in exile. Yet there would come a true return, a gathering together of Israel with this Messiah who was to be born in Bethlehem.

Messiah would stand up for his people and shepherd them. He would not be a transient ruler who would pass away or be overtaken but would persevere and endure for their sake. “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11). Jesus identified himself as this shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

This Messiah does not stand in his own strength but in the strength of the LORD. He does not stand in his own name, yet he has been given the majestic name of the LORD, and his greatness extends to the ends of the earth:
Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does ... By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me. (John 5:19, 30)

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
“He will be our peace,” the prophet says. Not only Israel, but all the world benefits from Messiah’s reign and will know his peace. In the end, every knee will gladly bow before him and every tongue gratefully confess him as Lord. After the cross and resurrection, but before he ascended to his throne at the right hand of the Father, Lord Jesus gathered his disciples and said to them,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
The nations will not lose their identities but will find them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. They will be included in God’s people, Israel — “grafted in” is how Paul puts it — through faith in Jesus the Messiah. “And in this way all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

God’s Wild, Exuberant Joy Over Us

Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.

On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.”

“I will remove from you all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals, which is a burden and reproach for you. At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home. I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes,” says the LORD. (Zephaniah 3:14-20)
The burden of the book of Zephaniah was a warning to the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repent, for the Lord was about to allow judgment to fall on them because of their wickedness. Historically, this occurred when Jerusalem was captured and the people were carried off to Babylon. But then, in the last half of the last chapter, there is a word of hope and restoration. God would remove their “punishment” and “turn back” their enemies. Benton’s translation of the Septuagint (an ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) says, “The Lord has taken away thine iniquities, he has ransomed thee from the hand of thine enemies.”

This was a prophecy about the return of Judah from Babylonian captivity. Yet it was never quite fulfilled, for though the Jews were able to return to Jerusalem, they were never free from foreign rule and in that sense were still in exile. But the New Testament teaches us to read this now in regard to Messiah, because all the law and the prophets, Jesus said, are about him. And, indeed, that is how the early Church understood them.

Especially at Advent, then, we read this passage theologically, as fulfilled in the coming of Messiah. For he has taken away our iniquities, which distanced us from God. In him we have forgiveness of sins and through him we are reconciled to God. He has also delivered us from the enemy of our souls. Paul puts it this way in the New Testament: God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).

In Jesus the Messiah, we now have exuberant celebration: “Sing, shout aloud, be glad and rejoice.” But that translation doesn’t quite capture the enthusiasm of the Hebrew text. More like: wild singing, ear-splitting shouts of triumph, exhilaration and jumping for joy. For Jesus has delivered us from the oppressor — he has disarmed the “principalities and powers,” destroyed the works of the devil and broken the power of death. He “rescues the lame” so that we may walk straight and sure. He gathers us from our exile and replaces our shame with honor.

God joins in the celebration, too, taking “great delight” and “rejoicing” over us with “singing.” Again, the NIV seems too tame here. Rather, God exults over us with exhilaration and dancing, whirling and twirling over us in boisterous song. For he is gathering his sons and daughters and bringing them home. He is like the father of the prodigal, with unbridled joy at the return of his son:
Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (Luke 15:22-24)
As we draw near the Christmas season, let your heart be open to God’s wild, exuberant joy over you.

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent and the Refiner’s Fire

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)
This passage in Malachi speaks of two messengers. The second one is the Lord himself and is called the “messenger of the covenant,” because he is the covenant God makes with the people. The prophecy speaks here of a desire fulfilled, but the question that then follows is a sobering one: Who can endure the day of his coming? Who will be left standing when he appears?

This is the solemn language of judgment, of sorting out what is good from what is evil, a sorting we must all eventually go through. It may not seem a cheery thought, but it is a necessary one. And it is for this judgment that Jesus the Messiah came into the world, to set everything right — and that does bring us hope.

It is also heartening that it is not we who do the sorting out but God. If it were left to us, we would get it all wrong, for it is we who are the problem. With us, judgment and mercy are two different things, and either one can be very destructive. But with God, judgment and mercy are the same thing and work toward the same purpose.

Now, note what Messiah is like on the “day of his coming.” He is like a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s soap. The purpose of the refiner’s fire is not to destroy the silver or gold but to purify it. And the launderer’s soap is not meant to destroy the garment but to cleanse it. Likewise, the judgment of God does not come to destroy us but to burn away the impurities in us and cleanse us — and that is a great mercy. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).

The testimony of Scripture is that “God is a consuming fire” but also that “God is love.” Whatever God’s fire is, then, and whatever it burns away must always be for the sake of love. It burns away whatever is not love or does not come from love — which is to say, whatever does not come from God — and purifies in us what does come from love, from God: the divine image and likeness in which we were created.

Here is something important to understand about the season of Advent: It has just as much to do with the second coming of Jesus as with the first. The two complete each other, establishing in the earth the fullness of the promise of God. This passage in Malachi appears to indicate both. For the first messenger is John the Baptist, who heralded the kingdom of God and focused our attention on Jesus of Nazareth, the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But then the “day of his coming” and the question of who can endure it sounds like the great day of Messiah’s return.

Yet, the first coming, when God became human and dwelt among us, was just as much a judgment as the second one will be. His light judged the darkness of the world. His love judged the fear that grips the world. His wholeness judged the brokenness of the world. His goodness judged the wickedness of the world. His cross judged sin and death and the devil, and his resurrection was the beginning of the new creation, the renewal of all things. The second coming, then, is the outworking of the first and will bring completion to it.

In between, there is the refiner’s fire, the ongoing process by which God is purifying the world and cleansing it. This refinement is not only the burning away of what does not belong but also about what is being instilled, a restoration of what is lacking in us. God does this by his own Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who comes to dwell in us and manifest the fruit of divine love and the life of Messiah in us. In the Advent lectionary, Malachi 3:1-14 is paired with Philippians 1:3-11, where Paul speaks of the continuing refinement God is doing in us, that we may be prepared for the day of Messiah’s return.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus ... And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God.

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Messenger and the Messiah

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:1)
The book of Malachi presents us with two figures — two messengers. The first is the one God calls “my messenger,” who comes to prepare the way before the Lord. This is John the Baptist, who came announcing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:4-6, quoting Isaiah 40).

The second figure is the Lord himself, whose way the messenger is sent to prepare. This is Messiah, who comes “suddenly,” which is to say, unexpectedly. But he is also himself a messenger, “the messenger of the covenant.” Indeed, he is the covenant, as foretold in Isaiah: “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7).

Jesus is that second messenger, the Messiah. The covenant of which he is not only the messenger but also the substance is the new and better covenant prophesied in Jeremiah and is made in his own blood. At the Last Supper, we are told, Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:19-20).

The people of Israel looked for Messiah and desired his coming. But when he came suddenly, in a time and manner they were not expecting, many refused to recognize him, even though the way had been prepared by the preaching of John the Baptist and the “baptism of repentance.” He was not who they wanted him to be. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him,” says John the Evangelist. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12).

King Jesus the Messiah is God’s covenant for the people and God’s light for the nations. He came — and comes — to open the eyes of the blind, set captives free and release those who are bound in darkness. To those who embrace him in faith, he gives the authority to become the children of God, to become the likeness of God.

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

King Jesus and the New Jerusalem

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Savior.” (Jeremiah 33:14-16)
At the time this was spoken, Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians. The city was destroyed, the temple decimated, the people carried off into captivity. God allowed this to happen because of their wickedness, their faithlessness, their idolatry. But that would not be the end of the story. Not by any means.
Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it. (Jeremiah 33:6-9)
“Nevertheless” — a wonderful word with wonderful promise: Restoration. Rebuilding. Return from captivity. Healing. Abundant peace and security. Cleansed of sin and rebellion. Forgiveness. Prosperity. Awe. Praise and honor to the Lord before all nations.

“The days are coming,” says the LORD, and in those days, two realities would come to pass. The first concerns the “righteous Branch” that would “sprout from David’s line.” God had promised King David that there would be a son and heir who would reign on his throne forever. After the kingdom divided into Israel and Judah and their thrones eventually fell, it was understood that this promised king would be the Messiah, who would restore Israel and rule over the nations with his peace.

This promise is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who is called the Son of David. He came in an unexpected way, born in a lowly cattle stall, to the Virgin Mary. He established his reign through the contradiction that was the cross and resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God the Father.

This leads us to the second promised reality: Judah restored and Jerusalem dwelling in safety. As with the promised Messiah, this too would be fulfilled in an unexpected way, for the New Testament speaks of the new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that is free, a Jerusalem that is above, a heavenly Jerusalem that comes down, joining heaven to earth.
  • But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:26)
  • But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem. (Hebrews 12:22)
  • And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. (Revelation 21:2)
This new Jerusalem is the Church, which is identified as Messiah’s body and bride. However, it is important to understand that the Church in the New Testament is not a separate entity from Israel in the Old Testament — indeed, the Church is Israel. What was promised to Israel in the Old Testament is received by Israel in the New, by all who come to Jesus the Messiah. Even the nations (the Gentiles) who receive him as King are, to use Paul’s words in Romans 11, “grafted into” the root, which is Israel.

The coming of King Jesus into the world fulfills the promise God made through the prophet Jeremiah. He is the Lord Our Righteous Savior, who comes to bring his peace and set things right in the world.

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Becoming Divine

In Jesus the Messiah, we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), which is what God intended for us from the very beginning when he created humanity in his own image and likeness. The implication of this, however, is one that many Christians shy away from, for it means that in Christ we become divine. Yet this was the understanding of the early Church Fathers. For example:
  • Irenaeus. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through his transcendent love, become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself” (Against Heresies, Book 5, Preface).
  • Clement of Alexandria. “And now the Word himself clearly speaks to thee, shaming thy unbelief; yea, I say, the Word of God became man, that you may learn from man how man may become God. Is it not then monstrous, my friends, that while God is ceaselessly exhorting us to virtue, we should spurn his kindness and reject salvation?” (Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 1)
  • Athanasius. “For he was made man that we might be made God” (On the Incarnation, chapter 54). “Therefore he was not man, and then became God, but he was God, and then became man, and that to deify us” (Against the Arians, Discourse 1, Chapter 11). “For he has become Man, that he might deify us in himself, and he has been born of a woman, and begotten of a Virgin, in order to transfer to himself our erring generation, and that we may become henceforth a holy race, and ‘partakers of the Divine Nature,’ as blessed Peter wrote” (Personal Letter 60:4).
The doctrine of our divinity in Christ rests quite soundly within the orthodoxy of the historic Christian faith. More importantly, it is found in Scripture at every turn, especially in the New Testament. For example:
  • God created us in his image and according to his likeness — that is, to be like him (Genesis 1:26-27). Jesus, who is God in the flesh, the express image of God in human form (Hebrews 1:3) came to restore us to that image, that godlikeness.
  • In Christ, we have the right to become the children of God (John 1:12). As the child of a bird is a bird and the child of a lion is lion, so the children of God are divine.
  • In Christ, we have union with the divine, with God — we become one in him and with him (John 17:20-23)
  • In Christ, we are being conformed to the image of the Son of God, Jesus (Romans 8:29), who is the express image of God.
  • In Christ, we have the very life of Christ, who is living his divine life in us (Galatians 2:20).
  • In Christ, we have the very Spirit of God dwelling in us, producing in us his divine fruit — love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23). By his divine Spirit, God, who is love (1 John 4:8) brings forth in us that which he is: love.
  •  In Christ, we participate in the divine nature, that is, the nature of God (2 Peter 1:4).
All of this adds up to nothing less than our divinity in Christ. No wonder, then, that Athanasius and the others affirmed that Christ was made man that we might be made divine. But they are also understood quite clearly that this does not mean that we are identical with God. For some of God’s attributes are incommunicable (that is, not able to be shared), such as God’s omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. But in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, we partake of God’s communicable attributes, such as his immortal, incorruptible life, and the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, etc.).

The reticence many Christians seem to feel about being identified so with the divine nature is often, I think, because they do not have a very good understanding about the hypostatic union of the divinity and humanity of Christ. Jesus is not a divided being, half half-human and half-divine. He is fully human and fully divine. He is the perfect expression of God in human form, and in him we have the perfect union of God and man. However, this could not be unless it were possible not only for God to be humanized but also for humanity to be divinized. In affirming the Incarnation, then, we are also necessarily affirming that humanity can become divine. And so it is for us through Christ: he participate in our human nature so that we may participate in his divine nature.

No doubt, it is hard for us to wrap our minds around this truth, just as it is hard for us to wrap our minds around the truth of the Incarnation, that God became human. Many Christians today are often not taught very well about either one, but for the early Church, it was a very important part of the Christian faith. Yet, our divinity in Christ is, like the Trinity and the hypostatic union, a mystery. The early Church did not try to explain these mysteries (such explanations usually ended up in heresy), but they identified them and preserved them for us. For example, we can define what the doctrine of the Trinity is, but we cannot adequately explain the mystery of it. Likewise our participation in the divine nature: we can identify the truth of it in Scripture, but we cannot adequately explain the mystery of it.

So it is with the language in 2 Peter, about participating in the divine nature. It is quite stunning, yet mysterious, for how can we fully understand what it means to partake of the divine nature if we cannot fully understand God himself? We can only affirm, with Scripture and the Church, that it is so: To participate in the divine nature means that we are divine beings, just as surely as participating in human nature means we are human beings.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Random Thoughts

More thoughts culled from my random file. About divine love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been my tweets and Facebook updates. Some have been my Instagrams. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • Today I admit my ignorance and confess my dependence upon God. It is a good day.
  • Following Jesus is not about trying. Or even doing. It is about surrendering … which is all we can do.
  • God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is all about relationship. For God is love, and love is dynamic.
  • God’s love for us is not based upon the cross but was revealed to us at the cross. So also his forgiveness.
  • We cannot know God except through love, for God is love.
  • Our primary role in this hour, as in every hour, is to worship and pray. Everything else comes from this.
  • Today I am thankful for the gift of remembering ... and of forgetting.
  • That awkward moment when you realize there is a bit of the poser in everything you do.
  • Today I will offer no justifications, no explanations, no excuses. I will simply receive the mercy and be glad.
  • Today is a good day to repent and rejoice in my forgiveness.
  • Gratitude is the recognition that all I have has been given to me.
  • Today I confess the mystery of the Trinity. When I understand the mystery, I will know my own wholeness.
  • When we love, give and serve, we experience the life of the age to come.
  • If God can change my heart, he can change the world.
  • Out of the abundance of their love for each other, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit created you and me.
  • The love God has for you and me is relentless and strong.
  • You will know when the plan of God is complete because God will be all in all.
  • Following Jesus is never about what we do for God. It is always about what God is doing in and through us.
  • Happiness and gratitude are the same choice.
  • The cross is not about “sinners in the hands of an angry God” but about sinners in the hands of a loving God ... in the outstretched arms of Christ.
More random thoughts …

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Where Worms Do Not Die?

It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell [Gehenna], where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47-48)
We have seen that Gehenna is used very differently from Hades, and following the prophetic tradition concerning the Valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah, Jesus’ use of Gehenna was likely in reference to the destruction of Jerusalem that was yet to come in AD 70. Now we will look at a phrase associated with Gehenna, and in the New Testament is found only in Mark 9. But it is also found in the Old Testament, only once, in the final chapter of Isaiah.

Isaiah 66 is about both hope and judgment. First, there is hope for the “humble and contrite of spirit” (v. 2). But then there is judgment on disobedient Israelites who follow their own ways and do what is detestable in the sight of the Lord so that even their sacrifices become an abomination to him (vv. 3-4). There will be a judgment that comes upon them in the city of Jerusalem and even in the temple:
Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: “Your own people who hate you, and exclude you because of my name, have said, ‘Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy!’ Yet they will be put to shame. Hear that uproar from the city, hear that noise from the temple! It is the sound of the LORD repaying his enemies all they deserve.” (vv. 5-6)
But that is not the end. There is yet comfort, for God brings forth a nation in a day, and there is a Jerusalem that once again becomes the mother of many children. The faithful remnant of Israel is joined by the “wealth of nations” streaming in to honor God (vv. 7-14). Then follows a restatement of judgment on those who do what is detestable in God’s eyes (vv. 15-17). There is a gathering of people from all nations and languages to see the glory of Lord, and a regathering of Israelites from among the nations to come and worship at the mountain of the Lord (vv. 18-23). Finally, in the last verse of the book (as well as of the chapter), there is this note of judgment and shame:
And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind. (Isaiah 66:24)
This scene depicts God’s judgment on the faithless Israelites mentioned earlier. It is shown as one that occurs on earth and in history, not in some otherworldly realm or somewhere off in eternity. It is not a picture of conscious torment but of lifeless bodies, which as such have no consciousness at all. These are the corpses of those who rebelled against God.

The “worms” do not die and the “fire” is not quenched, we are told, but this does not mean the corpses will never finally be consumed. Quite the opposite, it shows that nothing will keep the worms and the fire from completing their natural work of eliminating those bodies. But the real point of this verse, however, is not about what happens to those bodies but about the great contempt with which the unfaithfulness of these Israelites is held in the eyes of the faithful.

With this background in mind, then, let’s look at how Jesus uses this quote. It comes at the end of three similar statements:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell [Gehenna], where the fire never goes out. (Mark 9:43)

And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell [Gehenna]. (Mark 9:45)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell [Gehenna], where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47-48)
These are parallel to Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:29-30. The word for “hell” in each case is Gehenna, not Hades. Like Matthew, the book of Mark leads up to the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13), in which Jesus describes the destruction that was to come upon Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70, which was a destruction upon the faithless Jewish leaders who rejected Messiah.

If we follow the biblical prophetic tradition rather than unsettled rabbinic tradition concerning the meaning of Gehenna, it points us toward that terrible destruction rather than some otherworldly scenario. The final comment about the “worms” and the “fire” in Mark 9 would also then line up with how it was used in Isaiah 66 — a reference to the dead bodies of unfaithful Jews who were destroyed in Jerusalem. Cyril of Alexandria (AD 376-444), a Church Father and bishop, recognized this same connection in his commentary on Isaiah 66.
These misfortunes piled on the Jews are meant to be the things we say happened to them at the hands of the Romans, when the temple was destroyed and all were subjected to cruel slaughter. For suffering such things they became a spectacle for all, but their suffering was not prolonged indefinitely. Yet this is what perhaps is meant when it says, “Their worm will not die nor the fire go out.” Some, however, want to refer these words concerning them to the time of the end of the age. In any case, Christ will deliver us from all such things, through whom and with whom may glory be to God the Father and the Holy Spirit forever. (Commentary on Isaiah, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Thomas C. Oden, General Editor)
If we follow the biblical prophetic tradition rather than non-biblical rabbinic tradition, then the language about “worms” that do not die and “fire” that is not quenched does not refer to some post-mortem realm of souls in interminable conscious torment but, rather, to dead bodies (therefore without consciousness) being completely consumed in this present world. In that case, there is no biblical reason to associate it with Hades or notions of hell current in popular religious imagination.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Gehenna — A Word About Hell?

Last time, we looked at the Greek word Hades, which is usually translated as “hell” in most English versions. It refers to the “realm of the dead,” both of the righteous and unrighteous dead. Now let’s look at the word Gehenna and how different it is from Hades. Literally, Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a place not far from Jerusalem. This valley is referred to eleven times in the Old Testament, but we will look at six because they are particularly significant for how Gehenna is used in the New Testament:
  • “He [King Josiah] desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek.” (2 Kings 23:10)
  • “He [King Ahaz] burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.” (2 Chronicles 28:3)
  • “He [King Manasseh] sacrificed his children in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced divination and witchcraft, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, arousing his anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)
  • “They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire — something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)
  • “So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.” (Jeremiah 19:6)
  • “They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded — nor did it enter my mind — that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.” (Jeremiah 32:35)
The Valley of Hinnom was a terrible place that defiled the land because of the detestable sacrifices done there. It was a place where the people of Judah gave their sons and daughters as burnt offerings to the false god, Molek. But a day was coming in which it would be so filled with the corpses of Judah that it would be called the Valley of Slaughter. This is Gehenna.

In the New Testament, Gehenna is used twelve times — eleven times in the books of the Gospel and once in the book of James. In the book of Matthew, it is used seven times, all from the mouth of Jesus. We will look closer at these since the three uses in Mark and the single use in Luke are in parallel accounts. In all these instances, the NIV translates Gehenna as “hell,” but let us use the Greek word so we can more clearly note the distinction:
  • “Anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:22)
  • “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:29)
  • “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:30)
  • “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” (Matthew 10:28)
  • “And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of Gehenna.” (Matthew 18:9)
  • “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of Gehenna as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)
  • “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33)
Gehenna is about a coming judgment, no doubt, and one to be avoided at all cost. But what is the nature of that judgment? When does it happen, and where? Is it a post mortem event, or one that happens in this life? Is it in this world or in some nether realm? Is it yet to come or has it already occurred?

To consider these important questions adequately, we need to look at the larger context, which is about the kingdom of God. That is what the preaching and teaching ministry of Jesus was about (Matthew 4:17), and was manifested in his healings and miracles. It is what the “Sermon on the Mount” was about, which begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Jesus warned his listeners that the way of God’s kingdom is not like the way the Pharisees and others had been following, who had failed to recognize Messiah. He exhorted them concerning these two ways: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

The narrow gate is the way of the kingdom. The wide gate and broad road is the path the Pharisees, zealots and others were on, and it led to destruction. For even though the kingdom was promised to the Jews, it was possible for many of them to miss it. It was important, then, that they not let anything keep them from entering God’s kingdom, or else they would be caught in the destruction to come.

This theme of coming judgment intensifies throughout Matthew and especially in Jesus’ pronouncements and warnings toward the end of the book. In chapter 23, where we find Gehenna mentioned twice, Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees with a series of eight “woes” (Matthew 23:13-32). In verses 33-36, he spoke of the destruction that would come upon them in their generation. Then he lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (vv. 37-38).

This “house” Jesus referred to was the temple, the destruction of which was the subject of Matthew 24 and the Olivet Discourse. Not only the temple but the entire city of Jerusalem was going to be destroyed as well — and within the generation of the scribes and Pharisees. This was fulfilled in the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome, in AD 70. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during that time, recorded how the city was under siege and multitudes died of the resulting famine. Some were so desperately hungry, they engaged in cannibalism, even killing and eating their own children.

In August of AD 70, the temple and city were finally destroyed by fire. In all, over one million inhabitants died of siege famine or were violently killed, most of them Jews. Their corpses filled the streets and were thrown over the siege walls into the valleys below. It was a very sobering fulfillment of what the prophet Jeremiah wrote hundreds of years earlier about Jerusalem and the Valley of Hinnom:
So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate. (Jeremiah 7:32-34)

So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who want to kill them, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. I will devastate this city and make it an object of horror and scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them. Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 19:6-11)
This, then, is the Gehenna that Jesus warned about, fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem. It is a very different reality from the one that is called Hades. It was not an otherworldly or underworld event but one very much a part of this world. It is not an experience yet to come but one that has already come and been and gone, and can be located in history. By contrast, Hades consistently refers to the realm of the dead, a post-mortem netherworld. It is difficult, then, to see how these two very different realities, Gehenna and Hades, should be lumped together, treated as if they were the same thing and called by the one name, “hell.”

Now, to be clear, we need not expect Jeremiah had the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem in mind but the one that occurred in 587 BC, when the people were carried off into Babylonian captivity. But the Valley of Hinnom became a reference point for destruction and over the centuries took on layers of meaning. In rabbinic tradition, Gehenna came to refer to an otherworldly judgment, although there was never a consensus on its duration or purpose.

It is doubtful, however, that Jesus was following such ideas about Gehenna — he does not seem to have minded breaking with rabbinic thinking in many other regards. It is more likely that he was following the prophetic tradition, and where the mention of the Valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah referred to the 587 BC destruction, Jesus used it in regard to the one that was to come in AD 70, the destruction he makes explicit in Matthew 24. Given his understanding that the law and the prophets were about him, it seems a stronger point that he would identify more with the biblical prophet than with the mixed, non-biblical tradition of the rabbis.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Hades — A Word About Hell?

Hell, as popularly conceived, has long been a sort of kitchen drawer, a jumble of assorted ideas stuffed into one handy catch-all. There are two words in the New Testament that are usually rendered as “hell” in English translations: Hades and Gehenna. If they refer to the same reality, they refer to it in very different ways — yet they are customarily translated as if they meant the same thing. Today we will look at the word Hades. Next time we will look at Gehenna and discover how very different it is from Hades.

Hades is used eleven times in the New Testament. Twice each in Matthew, Luke and Acts, once in 1 Corinthians and four times in Revelation. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 66 times and in every instance refers to the realm of the dead, both of the righteous and the unrighteous. Likewise, in the New Testament, it refers to the realm of the dead, which is how the New International Version usually translates it. The ways Hades is used in the New Testament are as interesting as they are varied:
  • Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15 both refer to Jesus’ statement warning Capernaum, a city that thought itself “lifted to the heavens” (that is, prosperous and privileged) but would “go down to Hades” (that is, be brought down low). This is a very metaphorical use, as cities do not actually go down to the grave or the realm of the dead.
  • In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Christ builds his Church and not even death can prevent it. Christ’s Church is greater than the realm of the dead because Christ himself has been raised from the dead and is the firstfruits of the resurrection to come.
  • In Luke 16, Jesus tells a couple of parables about money and attitudes about wealth. One of them is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which we find the line, “In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (v. 23). The point of the parable is not to provide a description of Hades, literal or otherwise, but about valuing what God values over the pursuit of wealth. The details simply support the story line in order to make the main point.
  • In Acts 2:27 and 2:31, Peter preaches at Pentecost concerning the resurrection of Christ. In verse 27, he quotes David from Psalm 16, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.” In verse 31, he affirms David’s prophetic statement concerning Christ: “Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.”
  • Finally, it is used four times in Revelation, always named together with death. Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (1:18). The rider of the pale horse is named Death, and Hades follows close behind (6:8). Near the end, “death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them” (20:13), “then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (20:14). Notice that Hades is emptied of its contents before being cast into the lake of fire.
The meaning and biblical use of Hades does not support what we usually have come to think of as hell, unless it is thrown together with other words or phrases, such as Gehenna, “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “eternal punishment,” “eternal destruction” or “fire and brimstone.” However, these are not explicitly associated with Hades and do not necessarily pertain to it. The “lake of fire” is associated with it, as we saw above, but it is not itself Hades — indeed, we are shown in Revelation 20 that death and Hades are emptied and done away with in the lake of fire.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Faith Means Following the Shepherd

The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:25-28)
Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication (aka Hanukkah) and was standing in Solomon’s Colonnade, in the temple complex. Several of the Jews who opposed him came up to him and demanded, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24). Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you did not believe me” (v. 25), then spoke to them about the works that testified about him. But they did not believe him, he said, because they were not his sheep.

Now, mind you, the whole of John 10 is about Jesus the Shepherd and his sheep. He talked about the Pharisees and others who tried to sneak into the sheepfold in order to steal the sheep (v. 1). He said that the one who comes through the “gate” is the rightful shepherd (v. 2). That the “gatekeeper” “opened the gate” for him (v. 3) — perhaps a reference to Moses (see John 5:45-47) or more likely to John the Baptist (see John 1:29-34). Jesus said that his sheep listen to him and follow him because they recognize his voice and not the voice of a stranger (v. 4-5). That he himself is the “gate” for the sheep and that all who enter in by him will be saved (vv. 7-9). That the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but Jesus comes that the sheep may have abundant life (the life of the age to come) because he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (vv. 10-11). He is the good shepherd — he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, just as he knows the Father and the Father knows him — and he lays down his life for the sheep (vv. 14-18).

And now, even though he and others have testified plainly to his opponents about who he is and has done healing signs and miracles in the name of the Father, they still refuse to trust him, to listen to him, to follow him. They did not really believe Moses and the prophets or else they would have believed Jesus, because he is the one Moses and the prophets spoke of.
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)

But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say? (John 5:45-47)
They did not listen to Jesus’ voice because they did not listen to the voice of Moses and the prophets. They did not follow Jesus because they did not follow Moses and the prophets. They were not Jesus’ sheep because they were never God’s sheep.

But now let’s look at who Jesus’ sheep are: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus’ sheep are the ones who listen to his voice, the ones who follow him. That is what faith is, what it looks like, what it does. Faith is more than an acknowledgement of who Jesus is or agreement with some facts about what he has done. Faith means trusting him, which is to say, entrusting ourselves to him — putting our lives in his hands. So it is listening to him and following him. The man who says he is trusting Jesus but does not listen and follow is not really trusting after all, merely acknowledging something about him.

Acknowledging who Jesus is may be more than those Jewish opponents were willing to do, but it does not measure up to faith. More importantly, it falls short of how Jesus identifies his sheep. Listening to his voice and following him describes their faith, their trust in him. And it is specifically of these that Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

Monday, November 9, 2015

Divine Love is a Fine Madness

On my Facebook page the other day, I posted a quote by George McDonald: “In low theologies, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell.” And I added a thought of my own: “What if the love of God is deeper than hell? That changes everything.”

A friend of mine saw the post and commented, “Much study hath made thee mad” — I’m not really sure how he meant it. It is a quote from Acts 26:24. Apostle Paul is preaching the gospel to Festus, the Roman governor in Judea, after which, Festus says to him, “Paul, you are beside yourself! Much learning is driving you mad!” Paul answered, “I am not mad, most noble Festus, but speak the words of truth and reason.” The revelation of Christ sounded like truth and reason to Paul but madness to Festus.

Another friend commented, “Sounds like universalism to me.” Indeed, it does, and there is good reason for that: George McDonald was a Christian Universalist. He believed that the love of God will ultimately prevail over hell because it is a truth deeper than hell. Let me hasten to add, however, that it does not happen apart from Christ, who is the only way. It does not happen apart from the cross but, rather, because of the cross. And it does not happen apart from faith in Christ, for in the end, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-11).

But here is something that is curious to me: If the love of God is greater and more powerful than hell, and that sounds like universalism, then I can’t argue with that. And I don’t, because it certainly does sound like that to me. However, what does it sound like if hell is greater and more powerful than the love of God? It sounds like God’s plan to reconcile all things in heaven and on earth to himself through Christ by the blood of the cross (according to Colossians 1:19-20) ultimately comes up a failure. And it sounds like hell is more powerful than God, because God is love by his very nature. And it sounds like, in the end, it is hell and not God that wins. But here is what it does not sound like: It does not sound like what I hear or read in Scripture about hell or about God.

So, which view is madness — the view that hell ultimately wins out over the God who is love, or the view that the God who is love ultimately wins out over hell? If the latter, then it is a fine madness, a divine madness, and one I can embrace with all my heart.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Holiness, Love and the Cross

Holiness is set-apartness. God’s set-apartness is his uniqueness. He is not merely a being, not even the greatest of all beings. He is being itself, the cause of all beings. The holiness of God is expressed by the line in the Shema, “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Whatever God is by nature, there is none else like him. Love is something God is by nature; holiness tells us, then, that there is no other love like God.

As I wrote about yesterday, there are some who imagine a tension between the love of God and the holiness of God. “Yes, God is love,” they say, “but he is also holy.” It is that “but,” an adversative, that indicates the distance they see between God’s love and holiness. They do not seem to think that “God is love” can adequately stand by itself, that it must be balanced out by something. “God is love” seems to them to diminish his holiness, so they must quickly correct it — and thereby do they diminish his love. And diminishing his love, they also diminish his holiness.

It has been my experience that what they often mean by God’s holiness is his offendedness at sin. They associate it with wrath — “holy wrath,” they intone — and imagine it an offendedness so great that some sort of payment or penalty or retribution must be rendered to appease him before he can, in love, forgive and embrace. The narrative of the cross then becomes how God so loved the world, he sent his one and only Son to satisfy God’s honor and appease God’s wrathful holiness in our place. But that misunderstands God’s honor, holiness and wrath, mistaking it for the feudalistic sort of justice of medieval times. That is not God’s brand of justice, however. God’s justice, which is the same as his righteousness, is not about retribution but about restoration.

God’s love has never needed to be reconciled with his holiness. That would suppose an artificial distance between them, a distance that has never existed. What God does in his love does not disrupt his holiness in any way or create a problem that needs to be solved. God’s love perfectly manifests his holiness and his holiness perfectly manifests his love.

The cross, then, was not about Christ satisfying the demands of holiness so that the love and forgiveness of God could thereby be legitimated. It is about the love of God, perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, reaching down to free us from sin and death, making us holy by setting us apart from them and reconciling us to the one true God.

Friday, November 6, 2015

God’s Love and Holiness are Not in Competition

Over the years, and especially with the advent of social media, I have come to realize that no matter what I say, there is always going to be someone somewhere who will take issue with it. I find this to be true even with the simple, biblical declaration that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).

When I affirm that God is love, as I often do because I think it is one of the most profound truths of Scripture, there are, curiously, Christians who will respond with something like, “Yeah, but God is also holy” — as if God’s love and holiness are in some sort of tension or competition, or that God’s love needs to be counter-balanced by his holiness. That seems to me a poor theology.

The Bible says that God is love. It also says that God is holy. Now, notice that, grammatically, love is a “noun” but “holy” is an adjective. As you might recall, an adjective describes or modifies a noun. So, “God is love” is a different kind of statement than “God is holy.” The Bible does not simply say that God is loving — that would be an adjectival statement — but rather, God is love. Love is not simply something God does. Nor is love merely an attribute of God, a quality God has. It goes deeper than that. “God is love” tells us what God is in his very nature. Love is fundamental to his being.

Holiness is about the otherness of God, the otherness of his nature and attributes. God is holy in that he is entirely unique and there is no other being like him in all the universe. The psalm writer declares, “For you, LORD, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods” (Psalm 97:9).

Love is what God is by nature, fundamental to his being in a way that the word “holy” can only describe. It is quite correct to speak of God’s “holy love,” and the word “holy” tells us something important about the love of God — the love God is — that it is unique, set apart, surpassing all other love. It is also quite correct to speak of God’s “loving holiness,” where “loving” is the adjective that describes the holiness of God.

But whether we speak of God’s “holy love” or his “loving holiness,” we are essentially saying the same thing. There is no tension whatsoever between the love of God and the holiness of God. The love of God does not pose any sort of threat or problem to the holiness of God. Nor is the holiness of God a throttle that keeps the love of God from being too extravagant. Indeed, it is the utter lavishness of God’s love that makes it so holy, so totally unlike anything else in the universe.

Tell me about the unbridled love of God, and I will tell you about the holiness of God. For it is the unbridled love of God that is holy. Any time we feel like we must put limits to it in the name of God’s holiness, we are actually denying God’s holiness and have failed to understand either God’s love or his holiness — likely both.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fire, Brimstone and Torment

The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Revelation 20:10 NKJV)
Mention the words “fire and brimstone” and it might conjure up images of ranting preachers breathing out hellfire and damnation. It is dramatic language that evokes the senses and makes for good theater, but how would John’s readers have understood it in the book of Revelation? I’ve already addressed the meaning of “forever and ever,” or rather of the Greek words that are translated that way (see here and here): A literal rendering would be “to ages of ages,” which may be a long, long time, but is not the same as everlasting. But now let’s consider “fire,” “brimstone” and “torment.”

In the Bible, fire is often used for the purpose of testing or purification. In Zechariah, for example, the Lord says concerning a time of judgment, “This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold” (Zechariah 13:9). The book of Malachi speaks of a coming day of judgment and says, “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2 NKJV). The refiner’s fire separates the silver from the dross, burning off what is worthless while preserving what is valuable. Paul, in his letter to the believers at Corinth, speaks similarly of fire in the day of judgment:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person's work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved — even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
Notice again that it is only what is worthless that is destroyed, the base things, while what has value is preserved. The soul is not destroyed by the fire but is purged by it. That does not mean that the soul is inherently indestructible, only that God does not intend the fire to destroy the soul.

These examples pertain to the people of God, but they show that God is both willing and able to let what is evil or worthless be burned away yet retain what is precious. That is the nature of God’s judgment: setting things right, eliminating what does not belong and establishing what is good.

In both the Old and New Testaments, we are told that “God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29). But to understand that through Christ, who fulfills all the Scriptures and is the perfect expression of God, we must also remember that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That means that love is not just an attribute of God, something God does. Love is what God is by his very nature — it is fundamental to his being. How we think of God as consuming fire, then, must be consistent with God as love.

There is never a point at which God ceases to be love, for then God would cease to be God. Everything God does, even in judgment on the wicked, is for the purpose of love — even for the sake of the wicked, who, underneath all their wickedness, are created in the image of God and are objects of his eternal love. The consuming fire of God’s love, then, is a refiner’s fire, not for the purpose of destroying but for cleansing and purification.

The Greek word for “brimstone” is a very interesting one. It refers to sulphur, but the Greek name for it is theion, a word that apparently derives from theios, which means “godlike” or “divine.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary says that it originally denoted “fire from heaven,” and adds, “Places touched by lightning were called theia, and, as lightning leaves a sulphurous smell, and sulphur was used in pagan purifications, it received the name of theion.” Thayer’s Greek Definitions gives the meaning as “divine incense, because burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off disease.”

The Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon notes that theion is called for in the Odyssey (16:228) to “fumigate and purify.” In that passage, “Ulysses says to Euryclea, ‘Bring me sulphur [theion], which cleanses all pollution, and fetch fire also that I may burn it, and purify the cloisters.’” (Odyssey, Chapter 22). In the Greek text, it is pur kai theion, “fire and brimstone.” Both are used together to cleanse and purify.

The Greek word for “torment” is another interesting word: basanizo, from basano, the initial meaning of which is, as Thayer’s notes, “a touchstone, which is a black siliceous stone used to test the purity of gold or silver by the color of the streak produced on it by rubbing it with either metal.” This would be a test that reveals the authenticity or measure of what is being tested. Figuratively, there are several different kinds of torments and causes indicated in Scripture.
  • The “suffering” of the centurion’s paralytic servant (Matthew 8:6).
  • The boat the disciples were in as it was “buffeted” by the wind and the waves (Matthew 14:24).
  • The disciples “straining” at the oars against the wind and the waves (Mark 6:48).
  • The “torment” of Job’s soul as he dwelt among the wicked (2 Peter 2:8)
  • The demons implored Jesus not to “torment” them (Matthew 8:29, Mark 5:7, Luke 8:28).
It is also used in different ways within the book of Revelation. In Revelation 9:5, it is the torment caused by the plague on earth indicated when the fifth trumpet is sounded. In Revelation 11:10, the preaching of the two prophets is a torment to those who are not willing to receive their message. In Revelation 12:2, it is the pain of travail as the woman gives birth. In Revelation 14:10, as in 20:10, it is the torment associated with “fire and brimstone.”

There is no question that John intends to describe an experience that is indeed a torment, but the simple use of basanizo does not tell us about the nature or significance of that torment. However, if the figure of fire and brimstone suggests some process of purification, that would tell us something about the nature of the torment associated with it, that it is for the purpose of bringing forth what is true and of value — the soul, as God originally created it to be.

John’s Audience
Let us also consider John’s audience for a moment. The book of Revelation was written for Christians, particularly those of John’s own day. They were not taught to be a vengeful people or to rejoice at the torment of others but to forgive their persecutors, even to pray that God would forgive them — that is what Christ taught, and he demonstrated it supremely at the cross. They were also taught that God is love (1 John 4:8). Shall we then suppose they heard the words of fire and brimstone and torment in the book of Revelation and imagined it was not ultimately about restoration but about retribution? That would seem to be a contradiction of what the gospel teaches.

Are these points conclusive? That will be a matter of opinion, and the Church has never had a universal view on the meaning of this passage or the ultimate nature of hell. But I offer these as important considerations. The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic literature, a genre that is highly figurative, symbolic and hyperbolic. We cannot simply read it as if it were describing literal things, and that can make it difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions. But whatever is meant by “fire,” “brimstone” and “torment,” the main point is that, in the end, the wicked will no longer be a problem. And given the nature of the apocalyptic genre, however this imagery functions in Revelation does not ultimately prevent the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ and his cross as it is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Random Thoughts

More thoughts culled from my random file. About divine love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been my tweets and Facebook updates. Some have been my Instagrams. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • The words of Jesus are not just about eternal life, nor do they merely lead to eternal life — they are eternal life. Just as in the beginning, God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. His Word is Light.
  • The gospel is an announcement, not a negotiation. It is the proclamation of a new reality: Jesus is King, whom God raised from the dead.
  • In the gospel, King Jesus heals my brokenness with God, with myself, with others and with the world.
  • If sin does not grieve us, it is not because we do not understand Law but because we do not understand grace.
  • The passion of the bird is to fly, and of the fish, to swim. And so they honor what they are and the God who made them. Likewise, the passion of man is to worship and adore. But when the object of our worship is anything less than God, the world disintegrates.
  • The grace of God shatters the remnant echo of unworthiness.
  • Teach me, Lord. I know nothing but what you show me ... even then, I forget.
  • Lord Jesus came that we might partake of the divine nature and so learn to love, for God is love.
  • The nature of the Trinity is love, and the love of the Father is revealed to us through Jesus the Son by the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit, this love is to be revealed in the world through us.
  • Jesus is the victorious King who has broken the gates of death and hell so that they can hold us captive no longer.
  • Love fears no judgment.
  • At the cross, Jesus poured out the wrath of God on sin ... and broke its power.
  • The cross is not subtle, nor is the empty tomb. Both declare the victory of King Jesus.
  • Christ alone is holy, yet he makes the whole world holy.
  • Good memories are made from love. They will endure because love endures.
  • Faith leaves everything in God’s hands, even the timing.
  • God’s plans work in God’s time. And all shall be well.
  • If I am empty, God will fill me with himself. So, let me be empty before him. If I am helpless, God will help me. So, let me be helpless before him. And so will I be blessed.
  • Father, let the light of King Jesus illuminate the world today through Your Spirit. Amen.
  • Faith in God is something that can be seen, because it expresses itself through love.
More random thoughts …

Saturday, October 31, 2015

After the Lake of Fire

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:15)
The three main views on the nature and function of hell each understand the “lake of fire” differently. All agree that anyone whose name is not found in the “book of life” is thrown into the lake, but the important question that separates them is, what comes next?
  • The Eternal Conscious Torment answer is that those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer eternal conscious torment.
  • The Annihilationist answer is that those who are cast into the lake of fire suffer for a time and are eventually destroyed.
  • The Restorationist answer is that those cast into the lake of fire suffer until they repent and call on the name of the Lord, and then, having done so, are reconciled to God through Christ.
One support used for ECT is Revelation 20:10, “The devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” There is the “lake of fire” (or “burning sulfur”) and the words “torment” and “forever and ever” all neatly joined together.

But the book of Revelation is written in the apocalyptic genre, which is a very symbolic, stylistic and even hyperbolic, form of literature. The “lake of fire” is neither a literal lake nor a literal fire. The experience of torment is very real — the anguish of the soul — for those who oppose God. How long does it last? “Forever and ever,” English translations say, but the Greek words, tous aionas aionon, have to do with ages or eons. That may be a long time, although the length of an age in the Bible can vary considerably. But it is not the same as eternity or endlessness. If aionas actually meant “forever,” it would be unnecessary to add ton aionon, i.e., “and ever.” A literal rendering would be “to ages of ages,” but whether that indicates endlessness or eternity is a matter of interpretative opinion. (See also, Eternal Punishment, Eternal Destruction?)

The “lake of fire” comes up again in Revelation 21, which is about the new heaven and new earth, and the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven to earth, uniting them. It is the home of the faithful, who are called the victorious and who inherit the city. But in verse 8, we read of the wicked, who have no part in the city: “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars — they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” That might seem to be the end of the matter — except that as we continue to read just a few verses later, an interesting development comes to light:
The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21:24-26)
Who are these nations? Earlier, they are shown being prophesied against (10:10-11), as the angry recipients of God's wrath (11:18), as drinking the “maddening wine” of Babylon the Great (14:8 and 18:3), as those whose cities collapsed in their war against God (16:19), as part of the waters upon which the Great Prostitute was seated (17:15), as led astray (18:23) and as struck down by the “sharp sword” coming out of the mouth of Christ (19:15). Yet, now they are seen walking by the light of the New Jerusalem. What has happened that accounts for this change?

And who are these kings of the earth? They, too, have been mentioned several times earlier in Revelation. They are chief among those who hid in caves and begged the mountains to fall on them, to hide them from the face of the Lord and the wrath of the Lamb (6:15-17). They are the ones who have “committed adultery” with the Great Prostitute, “intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries” (17:1-2). They “committed adultery” with her (18:3) and mourned over her destruction (18:9). Finally, they aligned with the “beast” and gathered their armies together to wage war against Christ and the saints, but they are defeated and dispatched, destroyed by the “sword” from the mouth of Christ.

These are not nice people, and we should not expect to see them again in Revelation, certainly not in the New Jerusalem — yet that is exactly what we find. They enter into the Holy City, bringing all their tribute with them to honor Christ. Again, what has happened that accounts for this change?

May I suggest that perhaps what has happened to them is the “lake of fire.” The nations and kings of the earth, as wicked as they were, would surely be cast there. But they are not destroyed or consumed by that experience — they are refined. Their anger and rebellion are burned away and they have turned to God and his Christ in repentance and faith. Elsewhere, we see that the judgment of God is for the purpose of correction, not retribution. So, too, the fire, brimstone and torment.

The nations and kings of the earth eventually returning to God in faith agrees with the purpose Paul attributes to God, that all things in heaven and on earth be reconciled to God through Christ (Colossians 1:19-20, Ephesians 1:10), that every knee bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:9-10) and that, in the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Whatever the “lake of fire” is or how it functions in the apocalyptic imagery of the book of Revelation, it does not ultimately prevent the reconciliation of all things to God through Christ and his cross.