Saturday, April 30, 2016

Christ the Source of All Being

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)
All things are created in Christ, through Christ and for Christ. Nothing exists apart from him. He is not on the outside of anything. He is within everything, holding everything together, causing everything to continue to exist. This is true not only of material things but of spiritual things as well — it is true of everything that has been created.

God is not merely a being, not even just the greatest of all beings. He does not merely have being — he is being, and is the necessary source of all other beings. God does not merely exist; he is existence. If he were not, if existence were a separate thing that God possessed and that caused him to be, then existence would be a higher being than God. It must be, then, that God is existence and being itself, who causes all other things to be. God revealed himself as being when he identified himself to Moses as “I AM that I AM.” Several times in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus revealed himself simply as “I AM”. In Acts 17, Paul affirmed that we all “live and move and have our being” in God.

The relationship between God and his creation is not merely like that of an artisan and his artifact. An artisan can place his creation on a shelf or pack it up and ship it off to a client and be done with it. But God is not only the maker of creation, he is present throughout as the continuing source of its being. It continues to exist because God is present within every part of it. If God were absent from any part, that part would simply not exist. The idea that anything could continue to exist without God being present within it as the cause of its continued existence comes from a much later philosophy than any known by the New Testament writers or the early Church Fathers.

As the creator and sustainer of everything that exists, then, Christ is necessarily present everywhere in the universe. His presence permeates everything. He is in every part of everything, keeping them all going. He is not identical with every part — that would be pantheism — but he is ever present within them as the source of their continued existence.

The spiritual realm also is his, and he is, likewise, present throughout. Though there are souls in rebellion against him, Christ is never absent from them, for their continued existence, even as spirit, is totally dependent upon him. It is his very presence — his loving, sustaining presence — in them that becomes a torment for them for as long as they turn away from him.

The presence of Christ does not just surround us — it pervades us. Yet, though we live and move and have our being in Christ, we do not pervade him. He remains who he is and we remain who we are. We do not lose our identity but we begin to realize our true identity — who we were really created to be in Christ. In turning to Christ, we are embracing the source of our existence, blessing the source of our identity, and we experience his loving presence not as torment but as the blessing it is.

Christ is the source of all being. Only in him do we come to know our true selves. It is only in Christ, then, that we find true reconciliation — with God, the world, each other and ourselves — to become what we really are. This is God’s plan in Christ concerning all things, and in this way, Christ is making all things new.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Worship Freely Given
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 2:9-11)
This is a wonderful scene in Paul’s letter to the Jesus believers at Philippi. It portrays the exaltation of Christ, “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!” (Philippians 2:6-8). Is there any greater demonstration of love than this? Or any greater proof that God is love? It should be no wonder, then, that every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow to him, and every tongue will confess him as Lord.

There are some Christians, perhaps many, who view this scene as a mixture of those who freely bow the knee in reverence and gladly confess the Lord Jesus, and of those who are forced to their knees in abject horror and utter defeat, with the confession of Christ wrenched from their unwilling mouths — I used to think such myself, but have in recent years come to repent of it. These latter are thought of as pressed down with their faces in the dirt under the feet of Jesus. One Christian I was recently in discussion with even thought of them as like those who are forced to their knees with their necks laid bare, longing for the sword to remove their heads and put them out of their misery.

Friends, that is not a worthy portrait of Christ. Nor is it in keeping with the context, with the way Paul described Christ just a few verses earlier, or with the reason Christ has been exalted by God and given the name above all names.

No, this scene is not a mixture of some folks freely honoring Christ while others must be forced. It is a scene of every knee bowing in reverence and every tongue confessing in adoration. The language of bowing the knee is not about what is done against one’s will — and it is certainly not to be confused with an enemy having his neck under the foot of his vanquisher. Bowing the knee is honor willingly offered.

Likewise, confession is not what must be pulled through one’s teeth. It is freely given, and from the heart. Paul speaks two other times about the confession that Jesus is Lord. In 1 Corinthians 12:3, he tells us that no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 10:9, he says that those who confess “Jesus is Lord,” will be saved. How, then, could we ever imagine that any of those in Philippians 2:11 who confess Jesus as Lord — which is everyone — are lost? We cannot.

Let us place this further in context. In the verses that follow, Paul returns to his original purpose for appealing to the self-giving nature of Christ and his consequent exaltation:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. (Philippians 2:12-16)
Paul wants the Philippian believers to have the same mindset as Christ: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). It is not a question about whether or not they are saved. Nor is about somehow working for their salvation. But it is about living out the salvation that is already theirs in Christ.

Is there “fear and trembling?” Yes. Is it the abject horror and utter defeat of a vanquished foe? Certainly not. Is it the threat of damnation, of losing their salvation? Not a whiff of it. “Fear and trembling” is about being circumspect, careful, diligent and respectful. J. B. Phillips translates it as having “a proper sense of awe and responsibility” (The New Testament in Modern Speech).

Paul does not want them to stand in the overwhelming presence of the One who is perfect love and be ashamed to realize that they have not shown love to each other. It is not, after all, a matter of trying to somehow come up with such love ourselves but of yielding to the One who is Love. For it is Love himself who is at work in us, not only giving us the ability to do what pleases divine love but also creating in us the desire to do so. In this way we become light for others, shining like stars so that they may come and honor Christ, confessing him as Lord.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Making All Things New

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5)
Here is an interesting realization I had the other day as I was thinking on this verse: I noticed that it is not in the aorist tense, that is, describing a completed action. It is in the present tense, the active voice and the indicative mood. In other words, it describes an ongoing action.

What is interesting is that it is said at the end of the book of Revelation, after the Great Battle has taken place and John is shown the new heavens and the new earth, with the Lord Jesus seated on his throne — but Jesus does not say, “I have made everything new.” He says, “I am making everything new.” This shows us a couple of things. First, it indicates an ongoing process that has not yet, at that time, been completed. Second, it indicates that the end point of this process is everything made new. This, then, is not the final scene, for there is more yet to do. In the final scene, everything will be restored and reconciled to God, for as Paul says, God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

But what yet remains to be done in between “I am making everything new” and “God will be all in all”? I think we can see an indication just a couple of verses later. Christ speaks of the water of life being given freely to those who thirst (v. 6), and of those who have “overcome” inheriting all things (v. 7). But then he speaks of a different group: “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” (v. 8). Clearly, these have not yet been renewed. But in verse 5, Christ says that he is making everything new.

Is this “fiery lake of burning sulfur,” which is called “the second death,” a point of no return beyond which nothing can be renewed? That would seem to contradict the words of King Jesus in verse 5. But let’s look a moment at what fire and burning sulfur (or brimstone) signify. Fire was often used for the purpose of testing or purification. Sulfur, especially in conjunction with fire, was used for cleansing and purification. (See Fire, Brimstone and Torment

As we read further in Revelation, we see the great city, Jerusalem, come down from heaven to earth (vv. 9-21). There is no temple built therein, for God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple (v. 22). The glory of God illuminates the city and the Lamb is its Light (v. 23). But then something occurs that is quite unexpected, if we have been reading Revelation from the beginning: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it” (v. 24). Where did these suddenly come from? Throughout the book of Revelation, the nations and the kings of the earth are the ones who have been the enemies of Christ and the Church.

The nations are shown in Revelation as 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 stuck down by the “sharp sword” coming out of the mouth of Christ (19:15). The kings of the earth 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 and become “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.

But that is not the end of their story nor the final word on their destiny, for here they come now, the nations and the kings of the earth, entering into the Holy City, bringing their splendor with them in honor of the King. What accounts for this sweeping change? They have been cleansed and purified. They have been made new. (See After the Lake of Fire)

King Jesus is in the process of making everything new, and we will know when it is completed, for then God will be “all in all.

Monday, April 25, 2016

What if “All” Means All?

Basilica of St. Apollinaris in Classe

God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ is quite inclusive — all, everyone, the whole world, everything — not leaving out anyone or anything. All that has been lost because of man’s rebellion against God is in the process of being restored so that, in the end, everything will be made new and God will be all in all.

In the following catena of Scriptures, I take “all” as meaning all, understanding the all-inclusive nature of the language to be … well, all-inclusive.
  • Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:31-32)
  • Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:20)
  • Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. (Romans 5:18)
  • For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)
  • When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28)
  • All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
  • In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:7-10)
  • 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 2:9-11)
  • For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
  • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
  • He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
  • He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5)
Now, there are several important things to notice about this universal reconciliation and restoration: First, it does not happen apart from the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s plan and purpose is to bring all things together into unity in and through Christ, reconciling all things in heaven and on earth to himself (see Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20).

Second, it does not happen apart from the cross. It is through the blood of the cross that God has made peace, making possible the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth (see Colossians 1:20).

Third, it does not happen apart from repentance, all who have turned away from God turning back to him (see 2 Peter 3:9).

Fourth, it does not happen apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul tells us that every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord. The language of the knee bowing and the tongue confessing is not about what is coerced but, rather, what is offered freely and willingly.

The final restoration of all things does not happen apart from any of the above, but in the end, it does and will happen. For in the end, God will be not just all in some but, as Paul declares, “all in all.”

No doubt, the view I express here will raise many questions and objections by people who believe or have been taught that the Scriptures teach otherwise. That is quite understandable — before I came to believe that God’s “all” truly means all, I had many questions and objections about it myself. But as I continued to study the Scriptures and meditate on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, I came to see that those questions and objections have sound, biblical answers. I have written about many of these over the past year, under the theme, Last Things.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Intention and Inerrancy

My faith as a Christian is that the Holy Scriptures are true and trustworthy, authoritative and infallible in all God intends to do and teach through them. That does not mean, however, that they are inerrant in whatever way we might wish to take them today from our culturally conditioned viewpoints. Nor does it suggest that they are subject to the empirical methods of modern science concerning what is acceptable as reliable knowledge, or to modern ideas of historicity.

The notion of biblical “inerrancy” that is generally on offer in many North American churches (though not so much elsewhere) is of fairly recent vintage. It arose in a fundamentalist fervor in the 20th century and was presented in an attempt to defend the veracity of the Scriptures against the perceived onslaught of modern empirical science.

In practice, though, “inerrantists” themselves tend toward the use of the empirical method to answer the empirical criticisms brought against the Scriptures. But in playing by the rules of the empirical sciences, they in effect concede that the Scriptures are subject to scientific verifiability. That misunderstands the Scriptures and what they are about.

Complicating matters even more, “inerrantists” also tend toward literalistic readings that were unknown in the early Church, by the authors of the New Testament, or even by the writers of the Old Testament. But it is these new, literalistic readings that they attempt to defend by the empirical methodologies of their opponents.

In the Scriptures themselves, however, we find a very different standard of infallibility and a very different understanding about the authority of God’s words. In Isaiah, the Lord speaks through his prophet and says:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
Here is the key point: The word that proceeds from the mouth of God accomplishes whatever God intends for it to do. This is the measure of the truthfulness, trustworthiness, authority and infallibility of Scripture.

What, then, does God intend the Scriptures to do? The Lord Jesus answers this for us: The Law and the Prophets — that is, the Old Testament Scriptures — are about him (the New Testament writings, of course, are manifestly about him). We see this, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

In a rebuke to the Jewish leaders who rejected him, he said, “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 … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:39-40, 46).

To the two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus, on the evening following Jesus’ resurrection raised from the dead (Luke 24:13-32), he said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (vv. 25-26). Luke adds this comment: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27). Then when the two disciples finally recognized Jesus, they said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (v. 32).

That same evening, Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples in the upper room and said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Luke adds, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”

The Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) are all about Christ. Their authority and trustworthiness is rooted in their testimony about him. That is how the New Testament authors all understood them, as teaching us about the Lord Jesus. Such understanding did not arise for them from a literalistic reading but because they had come to know the crucified and risen Christ, who taught that the Scriptures are about him. The early Church Fathers, likewise, receiving the tradition handed down by the apostles, read and understood the Scriptures as speaking about Christ.

The truth and trustworthiness of the Scriptures is found in what God intends for them to do: Jesus taught that they are about him. Within that, Paul finds a secondary purpose:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. These have nothing to do with the methods of modern science and history but everything to do with the truth of Christ and the gospel, so that followers of Christ may be thoroughly equipped for living the Christ life.

The truthfulness, trustworthiness, authority, infallibility of Scripture is in its testimony to Jesus Christ and its usefulness for the faith and life of the Church.