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 …