Monday, June 29, 2020

Is God a Destroyer of Souls?

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 hell. (Matthew 10:28)
These are sobering words Jesus spoke to the disciples. What do they mean? There are two assumptions that are often made about this verse. The first is that it is about a postmortem, afterlife experience — often thought of as eternal conscience torment in “hell.” The second is that it is God who destroys both body and soul in hell. But let’s take a closer look.

Is Jesus speaking of a postmortem experience? The word for “hell” here is Gehenna, which often gets conflated with the word Hades and translated as “hell.” But is Gehenna the same thing as Hades, so that they can be spoken of synonymously, as many modern translations seem to do? I think not. I have written about both of these terms in previous posts (see links below). My conclusion is that they refer to two very different things and cannot be lumped together.
  • Hades is a Greek name and is a counterpart to the Hebrew word Sheol in the Old Testament. It refers to the realm of the dead (see Hades — A Word About Hell?). As such, it is postmortem in nature.
  • Gehenna, in the New Testament, is a variation of the Hebrew name, Ge Hinnom — Valley of Himmon — from the Old Testament (see Gehenna — A Word About Hell?). It is geographical, a place located outside of old Jerusalem and can still be found today. The prophets spoke of it as a place where faithless Israel would be judged, and the valley would be filled with their dead. This judgment was fulfilled in history, centuries before Christ. Although it was not a postmortem experience, Rabbis after the time of Jesus did come to use it metaphorically for such an experience, but it was thought of as a judgment that was of very limited duration, a purgatory of sorts.
So, how did Jesus use this word, Gehenna? What did he mean by it? It seems unlikely that he would have followed later rabbinic usage rather than the usage of the Old Testament prophets, to speak of a judgment that would occur not in some otherworldly scenario but in this world and could be located in history.

There is a movement of warnings in the book of Matthew that culminates in the Olivet Discourse, in Matthew 24, where Jesus warns of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This destruction is seen as a judgment on the faithless leaders of Israel (see the “woes” pronounced on the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, ending with the words that their “house” would be taken from them). It is the destruction that occurred in AD 70, when Roman armies, after a long siege, burned the temple and the city to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, speaks of that horrific time and tells us that, during the siege, the Jews ran out of burial space for the dead, so the bodies were thrown over the wall into the valleys below Jerusalem. Jesus’ warnings about Gehenna were fulfilled.

In Mark 9, Jesus again speaks of Gehenna and adds that it is where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” It is a reference to Isaiah 66:24, “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” (see Where Worms Do Not Die). This scene depicts not only the thorough destruction of the dead bodies of the faithless, rebellious ones but also the contempt that is shown for them. Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth century Church Father, commented on this final verse in Isaiah, connecting it with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70:
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. 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.”
If Gehenna is not a postmortem, otherworldly experience but a judgment in this present world, then who is “the one” who can destroy both body and soul there?  Many assume that it refers to God. But is God a destroyer of souls? In John 10, Jesus speaks of the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy, while Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep and gives deep and abiding life without limits. We know that God does not act any differently than Jesus, because Jesus is the perfect expression of God (Hebrews 11:3). And if God were the destroyer of both body and soul in Gehenna, it would be rather odd that the verses immediately following describe him in quite a different way:
Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-30) 
God is the Good Father who knows when a sparrow falls. God is not the destroyer of souls. Jesus is not playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” here. God is not malevolent one moment and then benevolent the next — there would be no assurance in that. But Jesus clearly intends to reassure the disciples about God’s intimate care for them.

Who, then, is “the one” Jesus is talking about in verse 28? Would it not be “the evil one” he referred to earlier, when he taught the disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13)? I am persuaded that it is so.

The persecutors Jesus warned the disciples about knew how to kill the body, but how is the evil one able to destroy the soul? Can he annihilate the soul and put it out of existence? No, he is not the creator and sustainer of the soul, so he has no power to make it cease. Nor does he have the power of death, for that has been destroyed by Christ: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). The only ability that he has is to and accuse and to slander — that is what the name “devil” means. His is not the way of Christ, whose way is love and forgiveness, but the way of hate and shame.

Jesus promised that those who followed him would be persecuted by the Jews and spoken of falsely — and, indeed, many were martyred for following him. Yet that was not to be feared; those who were persecuted for the sake of righteousness would have great reward (Matthew 5:11-12).

Far greater than the destruction of the body through such persecution would be the destruction of the soul if they departed from the way of Christ, the way of peace, the way of forgiveness. In the prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he lay heavy emphasis on forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Failure to forgive is no small thing but is a trap of the evil one. In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, Paul instructs them to forgive, “in order that Satan might not outwit [exploit, defraud, take advantage of] us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (see Don’t Let the Devil Outsmart You).

For those who followed the way of Christ, death would find no shame in them. But for those who turned instead to the way of violence, the Gehenna that was to follow in AD 70 would be not only the destruction of the body but also the shaming of the soul. Even if the Jews had defeated the Romans and gained the whole world by their violent resistance, their souls would have been eaten up by their own bitter hate.

Those who followed the way of Christ endured persecution but were not present at the destruction of Jerusalem, for they had been forewarned by Christ about when to leave (Matthew 24). But those who followed the way of violence suffered terribly under that destruction and were put to shame by the Romans.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Random Thoughts


More random thoughts, pretty much as they come, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About God in Christ and the reconciliation of the world. Some have come to me in moments of prayer and quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. The stuff that memes are made of. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • Christ, who is in all things, and in whom all things hold together, holds me together. It is a good day.
  • Christ is my wisdom, my healing and my prosperity. It is a good day.
  • The Cross and the Resurrection cancel out every word of death, destruction and injustice.
  • A will truly free is one that naturally follows God, in whose image we are created.
  • Discipleship is learning to live daily in the reality of the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
  • Christ is risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father ~ and we with Him.
  • At Pentecost, God poured out His Spirit on all humankind, just as He promised through the prophet Joel. For all in Adam are made one in Christ, joined to God through the Incarnation and reconciled through the Cross.
  • There is a deep, deep love in the universe that embraces you and me. It is the mutual, overflowing love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
  • God chose us in Christ from the beginning of the world. Which is to say, when God chose Christ, He chose us, too. That is the wonder of the Incarnation.
  • When we hold on to bitterness, we leave no room for God’s peace. Forgive.
  • Faith in God, who is love, looks like love.
  • Faith in Jesus, who is The Way, looks like following.
  • God can take the worst our broken humanity has to offer and turn it to profound healing and blessing. Behold the Cross.
  • Though the God of Creation is fundamentally different from Creation, yet through the Incarnation, God has become part of His Creation, to suffer with Creation in a way that is completely redemptive.
  • In Jesus Christ, all humankind is put right with God.
  • We are in Christ not by anything we have done, not even by our faith, but through the Incarnation of Christ.
  • Lord Jesus, you are my rest, the calm peace of my soul. It is a good day.
  • The gospel is not about sinners in the hands of an angry God but about sinners in the hands of a Loving God, about God in the hands of angry sinners, and  how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.
  • The wholeness of Christ judges the brokenness of the world with healing.
  • Grace is the mutually self-giving nature of Father, Son and Holy Spirit extended toward us.
  • Grace is the hospitality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit bringing us all into Their divine fellowship.
  • Nothing depends on our faithfulness. Everything depends on Christ’s faithfulness. In that is our rest, our peace, our freedom.
  • If we do not forgive one another, we do not forgive ourselves, for we are all connected.
  • The wrath of God is the love of God burning away in us whatever does not belong, whatever is harmful to us. For God is love, and love is a consuming fire.
More random thoughts ...

Sunday, June 14, 2020

A Trinitarian Prayer



Abba, Father,
Thank You, for giving us Your Son
And sending us Your Holy Spirit.

Holy Spirit,
By whom we cry out, “Abba, Father,”
Thank You for showing us Lord Jesus,
For taking what is His And revealing it to us.

Lord Jesus,
Who is the image of the invisible God,
In whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form,
And in whom we are made complete
And become partakers of the divine nature,
Thank You, for showing us Abba, Father.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Lead us all into the eternal bliss
Of Your divine fellowship.
Amen.

The icon above is The Hospitality of Abraham, by Andrei Rublev. It shows the three mysterious visitors in Genesis 18. The narrative says, “The LORD appeared to Abraham,” (v. 1), and the angelic figures arrive. In Christian theology, these are understood as a type of the Trinity. Consequently, the icon of The Hospitality of Abraham is often referred to as an icon of the Trinity.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Freedom of Will

So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God. (Philippians 2:12-13 NET)
People usually think of freedom of will as the ability to choose, a deliberative action by which we select from among competing options. But in recent years, I have come to think of freedom of will as the ability to live according to our true, inherent nature; which is to say, according to who we really are — and who we really are is beings created in the image of God and to be like God (Genesis 1:27).

St. Maximus the Confessor, a very interesting Christian theologian from the 7th century, spoke about this distinction. There is the “gnomic” will, which is the deliberative will, choosing among the perceived options. But there is also the “natural” will, by which we act according to our inherent, created nature.

The problem has never been that human beings have free will and must deliberate between moving toward God or away from God, and therefore must somehow be persuaded to choose the former rather than the latter. The problem has been precisely the opposite: human will in bondage, leaving us incapable of acting according to our true, inherent nature, our natural selves, as God created us to be. Human will needed to be redeemed and set free.

God delivers us from that bondage of will through the Incarnation, in which Christ became one with us, not only revealing God’s faithfulness toward us but also becoming our faithful response to God. But more than that, and as the manifestation of that, Christ delivers us through the crucifixion, in which he destroyed death and all the powers that kept our human will in bondage.

Now we are in the process of the outworking of that deliverance, for it is God himself who is at work in us, bringing forth in us what he desires (Philippians 2:12-13). In other words, God’s work in us is freeing our wills from bondage so that we may naturally be what God created us to be from the beginning: the image of God, created to be like God.

Another way of saying this is how the apostle Paul put it in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” This not about us deliberating among the options and choosing “good works” but about our inherent nature as beings created and redeemed in Christ Jesus being manifested through “good works.” What we receive in and through Christ’s union with us is true freedom of will, which is to say, freedom of being — for it is Christ who is ever and always the source of our being.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Meditative Riff on the Lord’s Prayer



Father of us all, 
Who is over all things,
Let the beauty of Your name,
The glory of Your goodness,
The faithfulness of Your love,
The brilliance of Your light,
The vibrancy of Your life
Be seen and adored and embraced
Throughout the whole world.

And so, Your kingdom come,
Your will being done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us that bread today.

And so, forgive us, O Lord,
As we forgive everyone everything.
Do not let us be caught in the snare
But deliver us from evil—
From doing evil to others,
And from evil done to us.

For this is Your kingdom,
And this is Your power,
And this is Your glory
Now and forever.
Truly, it is so.

The image above is of a Russian icon from about 1800. It is a visual presentation of the Lord’s Prayer. “The prayer ‘Our Father’ rendered allegorically over two register and five scenes each one illustrating a verse; beginning from the central scene at the top frieze, God Father encircled by archangels in a double glory standing for: Our Father, who art in heaven. The lower scenes symbolising the verses: Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil (Adam and Eve in the Paradies).” This description is from The-Saleroom.com. “Paradies” is a variation of “Paradise.”

Friday, June 5, 2020

Will Evil Finally Be Eradicated?


Will evil finally be eradicated from God’s creation, or is the best we can hope for is that it will be sequestered? Will it finally be no more, or will it be forever confined in some corner of God’s creation?

The question I am posing actually concerns the extent of Jesus’ victory over evil. If, in the end, evil is merely shut away but still existent, that would seem to be a lesser victory than if it were altogether done away with, would it not? Evil would still have a little bit of the victory inasmuch as, though sequestered, it would still exist in God’s good creation. The cross and the resurrection would be mostly successful — but is that the most we can say?

Annihilationism (also known as Conditionalism) is a possible reading of the Scriptures. It is the view that there are some who will suffer varying degrees of punishment and then perish and cease to exist. It seems that a few of the early Church Fathers may have leaned toward that view. The undivided Church never took any dogmatic position on it one way or another (though individual sects and segments have over the years). The late Edward Fudge, who wrote about it in his book, The Fire That Consumes, addresses some of the history of it and the exegetical issues involved. His is a helpful book, and I did take the Annihilationist view for a season, but finally came to a different position on the matter.

The advantage of the Annihilationist view is that it does envision the full and final eradication of sin and evil from God’s good creation — which is more than my former position did or could. But the problem is that it does so at the cost of part of God’s good creation, which God called good. In particular, it comes at the cost of a portion of humankind, which God created in God’s own image and to be like God, and which God called very good. Can we call it a full victory over sin and evil when even a portion of what God created and called good ends up being destroyed? In that case, sin and evil would seem to win at least some victory over those who get annihilated.

My former view — Lord, forgive me — was of a fire that torments eternally; some in the early Church did hold to this view. Fudge referred to Annihilation as a fire that consumes, utterly and completely; and there were some in the early Church who held to this, though not quite as many. But what I see in Scripture is the fire of God as a fire that refines. This view was prevalent in the early Church for about the first five centuries; more in the East than in the West, though not absent from the West. Again, the undivided Church never took any dogmatic position on any of these views one way or another; all three are within the bounds of historic Christian faith and orthodoxy.

In 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, we see the fire of judgment as a refiner’s fire, a purgative fire, a therapeutic fire that burns away in us what is evil, without destroying what God has created; burning away, as it were, the “wood, hay and stubble,” leaving finally only the “gold, silver and precious jewels” (that is, what is created by God). Even those whose works are burned up will be saved, not in spite of the fire but through the fire. Jesus declared that everyone will be salted with fire (Mark 9:49). Salt, like fire, was and is an agent of cleansing and purification.

Lest anyone misunderstand, none of this does away with or replaces the saving work of Christ on the cross but, quite the opposite, is an expression of it, Christ’s saving work being applied to the sinner to free him evil and sin. Without the cross, none of that could happen.

All of this, I believe, is in accord with Paul’s words, that God will be “all in all” — not just all in only some, or even all in whatever is left. Everything that God in Christ created in heaven and on earth in Colossians 1:16 gets finally reconciled to God in Colossians 1:19, through Christ by the blood of the cross. Likewise, in the divine purpose of God as expressed in Ephesians 1:7-10, all things in heaven and on earth (and not merely whatever is left of them) are finally brought into unity in Christ.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

God’s Judgment is Always for Our Good


The judgment of God is never against us, to condemn us, but is always for our good, to save us. That is a stunningly beautiful truth, though one that some Christians balk at. It means that God never gives up on us. For God is love, and love never fails. Even in hell — whatever such hell may be — God’s love endures. What God has purposed in Christ will be fulfilled.

Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s being, in whom all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form, so that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. Scripture has much to say about God’s purpose in Christ — and God has no other purpose for the world apart from the one he has purposed in Christ.
  • In John 3:17, we see that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but to save the world. God has no purpose to condemn the world.
  • In 2 Peter 3:9, we see that God has not purposed that any should perish but that all should repent.
  • In 2 Corinthians 5:19, we see that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. Christ, the perfect expression of God’s being, came reconciling everyone to God, not condemning anyone.
  • In Ephesians 1:9-10, we see that God has purposed to bring all things in heaven and on earth together in unity, headed up in Christ.
  • In Colossians 1:19-20, we see God’s purpose to reconcile to himself all things in heaven and on earth, through Christ, having made peace by the blood of the cross.
God’s plan and purpose in Christ, as found in Scripture, is to save the world, to reconcile all in heaven and on earth to himself through Christ by the blood of the cross, so that all are brought to unity, being headed up in Christ. There is no Plan B, no plan to condemn anyone in case Plan A does not work out.

Even in Matthew 25:46, often cited in support of Plan B thinking, we find a very interesting thing. It comes at the end of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, and it speaks of “punishment” in the age to come. The Greek word is kolasin and is rooted in an agricultural term that refers to pruning. Pruning is not done in order to destroy a plant but to restore it to health and productivity. In this passage, kolasin is used metaphorically and refers to chastisement. It is not retributive; the Greek word for that sort of punishment would be timoria — but that is not the one we find here. The difference is this: retribution is for the benefit of the one exacting it; chastisement is for the benefit of the one receiving it.

What Jesus speaks of here is chastening, not condemnation. It is for the purpose of restoration, not retribution — for God is love, and love is not retributive. Clearly, it is divine judgment, and it may not be pleasant to endure, for it strips away whatever does not belong so that whatever does may come to fruition. This may be very painful if we try to hold on to what God is working to purge from us. Yet, it is not intended for harm but for healing and for good, to bring one finally to know their salvation and completion in Christ.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Breathing the Spirit

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)
As we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, there is much we can learn about the Spirit in the Gospel According to John:

  • The Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove from heaven and remained on him (John 1:32).
  • Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. (John 1:33).
  • What is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6).
  • Everyone born of the Spirit is like the Spirit (John 3:8).
  • The Spirit is of infinite measure in Christ (John 3:34).
  • The giving of the Spirit is related to the glorification of Jesus Christ (John 7:37-39).
In John 14-16, Jesus speaks much of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot understand because it does not know him (John 14:17).
  • The Spirit is the Advocate the Father sends in Jesus’ name, who teaches us everything and causes us to remember everything Jesus taught (John 14:26).
  • The Spirit testifies to us about Lord Jesus, who is the Truth (John 15:26).
  • The Spirit guides us into all truth, because he does not speak on his own authority but whatever he hears from the Father; he tells us of what is to come (John 16:13).
  • All that belongs to the Father belongs to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus and reveals it to us (John 16:14-15).
There is much more in these chapters concerning the Holy Spirit, but let us now turn to John 20:19-22. It is the evening of the Resurrection, and the crucified and risen Christ comes and stands among the disciples. “Peace be with you,” he says, and then he shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are overjoyed to see him. Jesus again says, “Peace be with you,” and adds, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
It is a scene that recalls a moment in Genesis, in the beginning, when God created Man. God formed humanity in the image of God and according to the likeness of God (that is, to be like God). “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
The Scriptures are about the crucified and risen Christ (see Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures), so Genesis is about the crucified and risen Christ, by whom, through whom, for whom, and in whom all things are created (Colossians 1:16-17). It is Christ who made the Man in the image of God, and it is Christ who breathed the breath of life into the Man. In the Septuagint (aka, LXX, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text), the word for “breathed” is emphysao, to puff. Christ puffed into humankind the puff of life, and it was only then that what he had formed from the earth became a “living being.”

In John 20, the crucified and risen Christ “breathed” on the disciples. The word used here is the same as in the LXX of Genesis 2, the word emphysao. Just as Christ puffed the breath of life into humankind in the Garden, so here he puffed his breath on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which is also translated as “breath.”

The Lord Jesus breathed on the disciples, and the Holy Spirit is that breath — the holy, life-giving breath of God. As the psalm writer says, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30). The NET Bible has it as, “When you send your life-giving breath ....” Christ gives the life-giving breath of his Spirit to his disciples, and so to the Church, which is the body of Christ, alive with his Spirit. As we confess in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life.”

The crucified and risen Christ is the “firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:18). As he imparts his life-giving breath in Genesis 2, so he does in John 20, and the body he formed from the earth becomes a living being.

At Pentecost, Christ gave his Spirit, his life-giving breath, pouring it out not just on the disciples but on all people (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:16-17), to renew the face of the earth. For he says, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Cross As Glorification

Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:38-39)
It was the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles. For the first seven days, the priest processioned from the Pool of Siloam to the temple and poured out water at the base of the altar. As they went, they sang words from the prophet Isaiah, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). The Hebrew word for “salvation” is Yeshua, which is the name Jesus.

Now it was the eighth day, the greatest day of the feast. Jesus stood up among the crowd and in a loud voice announced that whoever believes in him, rivers of living water would flow from within them. The significance of these words on this occasion would not be lost on them. The rivers of living water would be water from the “wells of salvation” — water from the wells of Jesus.

John the Evangelist tells us that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit. But those who believed in Jesus had not yet received the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet been given, and the reason for that is that Jesus had not yet been glorified. The giving of the Holy Spirit happened at the Feast of Pentecost, and is vitally connected with the glorification of Jesus. But what is the glorification to which John referred, and when would it occur?

We see something of it in the next chapter, when Jesus addresses a group of Pharisees who were challenging him. He said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28).

The Greek word for “lifted up” is hypsoo, which means to elevate, or even to exalt. The “lifting up” to which Jesus referred is the cross, the crucifixion the Pharisees and Jewish leaders who would soon insist Jesus be put to. They wanted to elevate Jesus on that wooden instrument of death, but it would be an elevation they had not expected — if would be an exaltation. For in that lifting up of Jesus, they would know that Jesus is the Son of Man, and that he does not do anything on his own but does and says whatever the Father has taught him. It would be the exaltation of Jesus and the revelation of the Father.

In John 17, on the night before his crucifixion, after speaking to his disciples about the Holy Spirit and of what would come, Jesus prayed to the Father, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5 NKJV).

The hour had now come for the Father to glorify the Son and the Son to glorify the Father. It was the hour when the Son would be lifted up and the Father revealed. It was the hour of the cross. The Resurrection and the Ascension are part of that same movement, but they each in their way show reveal the glory of the cross. It is not merely because of the cross but in the cross that Jesus is “highly exalted” (hyperypsoo a compound of hyper and hypsoo) and given “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Paradox of Descending and Ascending



In my last post, we looked at the Cross as Ascension, particularly in the Gospel of John. There we saw Jesus speaking of his death on the cross as being “lifted up.” The Greek word is hypsoo, which means to be elevated, and can even mean exalted. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” Jesus said (John 3:14). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

It is at the cross that Christ, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, is“lifted up” from the earth; it is there also that he “draws” all to himself — surely this describes his exaltation. Is this not what the apostle Paul describes it in Philippians 2:5-11, the paradox of descending and ascending?
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 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.
Here we see the descent: Christ, thoroughly divine, “made himself nothing” or “emptied himself” (NET) — the Greek word is kenoo, to make empty — taking the very nature of a servant, participating fully in human nature. As humankind was created in the image and likeness of God, now God in Christ took on human likeness, to become what God intended for humankind to be. This is the Incarnation.

Thus joining himself with humankind, subject to mortality, it was necessary that he should “humble himself” (make himself low) and become obedient to death, so to deliver humankind from death. And it was necessary that he be put to death by the hands of wicked men, so to deliver humankind from wickedness and sin. Christ became obedient even to death on the cross, and by that was “lifted up.”

Here we see also the ascent of Christ: God “exalted him to the highest place.” The Greek word is hyperypsoo, a compound of hyper and hypsoo, the latter being the word Christ used of his crucifixion — this is Christ highly exalted. Further, God gave Christ the “name that is above every name.” As Theodoret of Cyrus observed, Christ “did not receive what he did not have before but received as a man what he possessed as God.”

Jesus was given the highest name so 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.” Is this not what Jesus said would happen? “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

We tend to think of the descent and ascent of Christ as two different things. First, he goes down, down, down, then subsequent to that is raised up, up, up — two movements with a u-turn in between. But I don’t think that is necessarily what Paul is describing here, because he is exhorting us to have the same mind toward each other as Christ has toward us. Is that so we may one day be glorified, with servant humility as but a means to that glory? Surely not.

Christ’s humility was not a means to glory but the very expression of divine glory. For God is love, and it is the nature of love to give and serve. God loved the world by giving us the Son; the Son did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life for us. When we see the humility of Christ in his deep descent, we are not seeing the divine glory in recess but, rather, most fully revealed. The lower Christ descended into the depths of the world, to redeem it, the more his glory was made manifest, and in that way, Christ was seen to be highly exalted.

The paradox of the descent and ascent of Christ, then, is this: It is not two different things but the same thing. His descent into the earth is simultaneously his ascent into heaven — and us with him.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Cross As Ascension


We often think of the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension as three events instead of  one. They seem to be separate in time; each is given its own day within the space of forty-something days. But Christ is eternal, and in the Incarnation, not only is humanity joined with divinity but time is joined with eternity, and what appears separately in time is one in eternity. In the Gospel of John, Cross, Resurrection and Ascension are one continuous movement. (See also, Cross and Resurrection As Singular Event.)
In John, being lifted up refers to one continuous action of ascent, beginning with the cross but ending at the right hand of the Father. Step 1 is Jesus’ death; step 2 is his resurrection; and step 3 is the ascension back to heaven. It is the upward swing of the “pendulum” which began with the incarnation, the descent of the Word become flesh from heaven to earth. (NET Bible, study note at John 4:13)
We can find several references to ascension in John’s Gospel, but they cast it as crucifixion. We see this early, in John 3:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven – the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:13-15 NET)
Jesus speaks of descension from heaven and ascension into heaven — a downward movement (katabaino) followed by upward movement (anabaino). We may think of the descension as the Incarnation, the Logos of John 1 becoming flesh and dwelling among us — God condescending to join in union with humankind — and the humiliating death of the cross, with the descent from the cross into the grave.

But when we come to ascension, we find something unexpected. It does not begin with the resurrection but with the cross. In John 3, Jesus, understanding the Scriptures as speaking of himself, refers to the story of Moses “lifting up” the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) and makes a comparison (indicated by “just as”). The point of comparison is lifting up: Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness; Christ must be lifted up. The Greek word is hypsoo and means to elevate or exalt.

In the Numbers 21 account, when the people turned away from the LORD, venomous snakes passed through the people, killing many. When the people turned back to the LORD, Moses was instructed to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten would look upon that serpent, they would be healed and saved from death.

Just as Moses elevated the bronze serpent on the pole, Jesus says, so the Son of Man must be elevated, and the instrument of that elevation would be the cross. Jesus had just been talking about descension and ascension? Which one was he now speaking of by this comparison of himself with the lifting up of the serpent? Well, we can say it is descension; is it not the cross to which he is referring? Indeed it is. Yet Jesus speaks of it as ascension, being lifted up, elevated, exalted. In John 12, Jesus again speaks of it as exaltation:
“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.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:31-33)
Is this descension, or ascension? By his words, Jesus showed the kind of death he was going to die, death by crucifixion. And yet those very words speak of him as being “lifted up,” elevated, exalted. For the world was about to be judged, which is to say, there was about to be a world-changing crisis (the Greek word for “judge” here is krisis) that would set things right. The old death-dealing way of the world was about to be condemned, and the living, life-giving Christ would prevail. The “prince of this world” was about to be driven out, exorcised.

The cross is the exaltation of Christ because it is his judgment on the world, casting out darkness and death and the devil. It is his rule and reign that is exercised, and in a singular way, dramatically changing the world forever. It is ascension, and humankind, joined with Christ through the Incarnation, is ascended with him — to the Cross, to the Resurrection and to the right hand of the Father.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

God in the Old Testament Scriptures


There are passages in the Old Testament which, if interpreted literally, would portray God as a Zeus-like, retributive deity. But to read them that way would be to read them very differently from how Jesus taught us to read them, and would contradict the revelation of God we have been given in Jesus Christ, who is the perfect expression of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus taught the disciples that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are about him (see Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures). So, if we read them as being about anything other than Jesus, we are reading them differently from the way Jesus taught us to read them, with the result that our “understanding” (Greek, nous) has not yet been opened (Luke 24:44-45) and a veil still covers our heart (2 Corinthians 3:13-16).

So the disciples and the New Testament authors read the Old Testament Scriptures as being about Christ and the gospel. Of course, Christ is not found in the Old Testament by a literal reading, and so they looked for him there in spiritual, allegorical and figurative readings, which was an ancient practice of Jews and non-Jews alike. The only difference is that they read the Scriptures with Christ as the interpretive key — they read them Christologically, that is, in a Christ-focused, Christ-centered way.

This is also how the early Church Fathers interpreted the Scriptures. The only early Church figure who took them in a manner like modern fundamentalist or evangelical literalism, threw the Old Testament Scriptures out altogether — because, taken literally, they present a very different portrait of God than the one presented in Jesus Christ.

The early Church Fathers, on the other hand, did not pitch the Old Testament but cherished them as being full of the gospel, because they interpreted them through Christ, with Christ as their meaning. I have written a brief series of articles about this:
That last one (Part 3) may be of special interest to many because it demonstrates how the Fathers, particularly Origen, approached the “terror texts” in the book of Joshua.

It would also be instructive to see how St. Gregory of Nyssa read the Moses narrative in his Life of Moses. And St. Irenaeus of Lyon shows how the gospel was preached from the Old Testament Scriptures, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. What is very interesting in this work is that Irenaeus does not quote the Gospels, or any of the New Testament, but demonstrates the apostolic preaching of the gospel entirely from the Old Testament Scriptures. Reading it spiritually, through the  Spirit, and understanding it through Christ — reading the Old Testament with new eyes.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Cryptic, Coherent and Contemporary


The Scriptures are about Christ. This is what he said to the Pharisees (John 5:49). It is what he taught the disciples (Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures). The Scriptures are centered on Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. He is their source, their theme and the end for which they are given. That being so, there are at least three things that follow (forgive me as I indulge in a bit of alliteration):
  • The Scriptures are cryptic. They must be opened to us by Christ, just as Christ opened them to the disciples (Luke 24:24-27, 31-32). Our understanding must be opened up to the Scriptures, just as Christ opened the minds of the disciples to understand them (Luke 24:45). They must be unveiled to us, so that we, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, may be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18).
  • The Scriptures are coherent. They all hold together around one person, the crucified and risen Christ. Jesus said to the Emmaus disciples, “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?” (Luke 24:25-26).
  • The Scriptures are contemporary. They are not about who Christ was but who Christ is. For Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). They are about the crucified and risen Lord, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, so that (Revelation 13:8).

Friday, May 15, 2020

Christ Is the Meaning of the Scriptures


What does it say? What does it mean? How does it apply? Those were the questions I was taught, in my earlier years, to ask when reading the Scriptures. But I have since come to believe that there really is no difference between the interpretation of a text and the application of it. The act of interpretation is the act of discovering meaning in a text; application is the act of discovering meaning in a text. They are both concerned with discovering meaning in the text. Application and interpretation of the text are really but two different ways of describing the same function.

In 1 Corinthians 10, when Paul speaks of Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness, he says, “These things happened to them as types written for our instruction” (v. 11). What are they? They are types. Why are they written? For our instruction. They have meaning for us, and that meaning instructs us. Some would call that application, and so it is; but there is really no difference between that and interpretation.

We cannot know for certain what the ancient Scriptures (the Old Testament) meant to ancient readers. We cannot even know for certain what the human authors of the Scriptures understood their own writings to mean. Did the author of Exodus and Numbers understand that the crossing of the Red Sea is about Christ and baptism? Did he realize that the Rock that followed them in the wilderness is Jesus Christ, and that the water that flowed from that Rock is spiritual drink? Did he understand that the One the children of Israel rebelled against in the wilderness is Jesus Christ? It is doubtful. Did the author of the book of Jonah recognize that the sign of Jonah is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as Christ said it is? Again, doubtful. We could bring many more similar examples.

There is also no reason to suppose that there is only one correct interpretation of a passage. There may be many true interpretations (and there are also many interpretations that are not true). This is especially so when we consider that, though the Scriptures have many human authors, the author whose meaning matters most is God, and there is no reason to suppose that God cannot communicate any number of things to us through the divinely inspired Scriptures — but they will always be about the crucified and risen Christ.

Choosing an interpretation as the one and only interpretation and then calling the rest “applications” simply disguises the matter. The truth is that whether we call it “interpretation” or “application,” we are talking about what a text means, and that is always a matter of interpretation.

What this means when we are reading the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, is that we are not applying them to Christ, as if Christ were not already inherently present in them — we are not imposing Christ upon them. It is one thing to say that an interpretation is imposed upon the Scriptures; it is quite another to say that Christ is imposed upon them. Christ is neither imposed upon them nor applied to them, but the Scriptures are about him. He is always the One of whom they speak. He is the One they present to us and give witness to. For Christ, who is the Word, the Logos, the divine author of Scripture has said that they are about him.
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. (John 5:39)
Likewise, in Luke 24, Christ opens the Scriptures to the disciples, and opens the minds of the disciples to see that what Moses and the Prophets wrote are about him, and thus to understand them properly (see Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures). Christ himself is the meaning of the Scriptures. So we do not apply the Scriptures to Christ, or impose Christ upon the Scriptures, as if he were external to them. Rather, we discover Christ in them as their inherent meaning.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Random Thoughts


Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About God, the mystery of the Incarnation, redemption, faith, and life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of prayer and quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. The stuff that memes are made of. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • When you love, you don’t think about sacrifice.
  • The Incarnation means that Christ did not die on the cross simply instead of us but that he died as us. His death was our death so that his life is now our life.
  • The Incarnation, when God became man, is the atonement — the at·one·ment. For in Christ, God has become one with all humankind. The Cross and Resurrection flow inevitably from that.
  • At his baptism, Christ identified with us in our brokenness and shame, and turned us to God. In our baptism, we are identified with him in his death and resurrection.
  • Lord, let the prayer of my breathing be as angels ascending and descending, inhaling the breath of your Spirit and breathing out your praise. Amen.
  • God is love. Grace is the love of God reaching out to us. Glory is the revelation of that love and grace — the revelation we have in Jesus Christ.
  • The holiness of God is the revelation of his love, and the justice of God is the revelation of his mercy. All is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ.
  • Let go the what ifs of the future and if onlys of the past. They keep you from the one thing that matters: this present moment with God — the only moment there is.
  • Jesus did not come into the world to get mixed up with religion.
  • The fast God desires is one that never ends, an ongoing process of faith being formed by the love of God.
  • Repentance does not change how God sees us but how we see God.
  • Sin, like repentance, does not change the way God sees us but the way we see God.
  • It is through the gift of repentance that God shows us the way to life. It is a good day to repent.
  • Life is not a passing stream of moments. It is but one moment. This one.
  • Our understanding of eternal things gets flattened out in our time-bound perspective, like trying to understand a three-dimensional world from a two-dimensional point of view.
  • Our true origin is not in time but in eternity, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • We are na├»ve about evil until we have recognized the depths of it in our own heart.
  • Pride has ten thousand faces, and every one of them is false.
  • In praying, “Forgive us our trespasses,” we are asking forgiveness not only for ourselves but for everyone else as well. For there is no them; there is only us — of whom we are all a part.
  • God redeems our every moment, transforming them by the blood of the Cross and the power of the Resurrection, making them all one.
  • With God there is no merit system. No points are awarded or taken away. There is simply no such reckoning, and never has been. There is only the love of God surrounding us through Christ by the Holy Spirit.
  • Christ has broken the gates of Hades and set us free. The only hell now is the one we create within our own hearts.
  • In Christ, God has reconciled us to Himself, and so also to our true selves, who are created in the image of God.
  • Though we are created in the image of God and to be like Him, still we are finite creatures and ever shall be. How then shall we suppose that anyone possesses an infinite ability to resist the love of God forever?
  • There is no us and them. There is only Christ, in whom all in heaven and on earth are made one.
More random thoughts ...

Sunday, May 10, 2020

From the Face of the Lord

These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:9-10 NKJV)
This is often supposed, by not a few evangelicals, to be a “kill” verse to any idea of Christian universalism. After all, does it not speak of “everlasting destruction”? Case closed! Or so it is thought.

What goes unnoticed is that the word for “everlasting” (aionion) does not actually, of itself, indicate any idea of endless duration. Oh, it can certainly take on such meaning when applied to God, or to the kingdom of God, or to the life we have in Christ, all of which are otherwise known in Scripture to be without end; but it does not inherently mean without end. Also unnoticed is that “destruction” (olethros) is not necessarily annihilation but may actually have a corrective, therefore, redemptive purpose — I have addressed both these points elsewhere (see “Eternal Punishment, Eternal Destruction?”). To put it simply, in this passage, Paul is speaking of chastisement in the Age to Come.

But there is something else in the verses above that is often assumed to disprove any Christian universalism, and that is the phrase, “from the presence of the Lord.” The assumption is that the “everlasting destruction” is separation from the presence (or face; the Greek word is prosopon) of the Lord. But that assumption fails on at least two counts:

First, it fails theologically, in regard to the relationship between God and creation. Paul teaches us in Colossians 1 that all things are created by Christ, through Christ, for Christ and in Christ, and continue to hold together in Christ. That being so, it is impossible for Christ to be absent from any person or thing in creation, or else such persons or things would simply cease to exist. Of course, that could be a point in favor of the annihilationist view — except that Paul also tells us in Colossians 1 that God is pleased to reconcile to himself, through Christ, all things in heaven and on earth (that is, all that has been created), having made peace by the blood of the cross.

Second, the phrase “from the presence of the Lord” (apo prosopou to kuriou) is used in only one other place in the New Testament, and it does not indicate any separation from God. We find it in Acts 3:19, where Peter is preaching in Solomon’s portico and says, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (apo prosopou to kuriou). Clearly, this has nothing to do with being separated from the Lord but is about the blessing and refreshing that proceeds from the Lord’s presence.

In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, the phrase, “from the presence of the Lord,” is not about being separated from the presence of the Lord but is about what proceeds from the presence of the Lord: chastisement in the age to come. Now, the Lord does not have two different presences, one that brings refreshing and another that brings chastisement. Christ is everywhere and always present throughout the universe, but his presence may be experienced in different ways.

The difference is not found in the Lord or his presence but in the disposition of the one who is in the presence of the Lord. For those who turn toward Christ, his presence is experienced as blessing and refreshment, but for those who turn away from Christ, his presence is experienced as torment and destruction. The presence of the Lord is life and light and love, and those who turn to Christ are prepared to receive his presence as such. But those who turn away from Christ experience his presence as torment for as long as they cling to their dead, dark ways. This is just as true in the Age to Come as it is in this present age.

But as the life of Christ overcomes death, and the light of Christ overcomes darkness, so the love of Christ overcomes hate. So the “destruction” in the Age to Come is not a destruction of persons but of the things of death and darkness and hate. It is purgative and corrective, therefore redemptive in purpose.

Make no mistake, the prospect of such drastic measure in the age to come is not pleasant but is thoroughly dreadful, to be avoided at all costs — not only for our own sake but for the sake of others as well. But it in no way forecloses God’s redemptive purpose in Christ, to bring all things in heaven and on earth to unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10), and to reconcile to himself all in heaven and on earth, through Christ, by the blood of the cross (Colossians 1:19-20),“so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Mercy of God Rescues Us All


Through the Incarnation, Christ participates in humanity, the only humanity there is and in which we all participate. Christ participates in it with us; we participate in it with him. This is how Christ is able to save us, because he participates with us in our humanity.

This is why Paul can say, “Just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18), and “Just as in Adam all dies, so in Christ all with live” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Humankind, formerly headed up in Adam is now headed up in Christ — because of the Incarnation, and through the Cross.

The mercy of God rescues us from very real consequences, namely, the death that resulted from Adam’s sin, and the bondage to sin that death entailed. That death was never a penalty but a consequence. When God warned Adam (whose name means Man) about eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God did not say, “For on the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but, “On the day you eat of it you will die.”

It is death that is the real problem, and it is death from which Christ delivers us. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

At the cross, Christ broke the power of death, breaking the power of the devil, and the fear of death that enslaved us — and so the power of sin.

This does not mean, however, that sin can be winked at or simply waved off. No, sin has no place anywhere in God’s creation or in God’s creatures. It must be completely destroyed, not merely sequestered in some dark corner of creation for eternity. For sin is corruptive, destroying the lives of all in whom it exists and defiling God’s creation. That is why it must be thoroughly dealt with and purged from everyone.

God is doing this through Jesus Christ. For it is God’s purpose to bring all in heaven and on earth to unity in Christ, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10). It is God’s will to reconcile to himself all in heaven and on, through Christ, having made peace by the blood of the cross (Colossians 1:19-20).

All the enemies of God’s creation will be destroyed. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. As it is the last enemy, when it is destroyed, there will be no more enemies of God anywhere in Creation. All will be made subject to Christ, and Christ will be made subject to God, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:26-28).

Oh, hear and believe the good news of the gospel, what God has done in Jesus Christ. For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Monday, May 4, 2020

Christ is Our True Nature


We are already in Christ as much as we are ever going to be, and Christ is already in us as much as he is ever going to be — which is 100%! It is irrevocably so because to undo it would require undoing the Incarnation, in which Christ has united with all humankind. Indeed, it would require the dissolution of creation itself, for all things are created in Christ and hold together in him.

Our salvation in Christ is settled from the beginning. For Christ is the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, and we are chosen in him from the beginning (Ephesians 1:4).

But there is a sense in which our salvation is progressive as we continue to be transformed, by the life of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us, in our experience of salvation and the redeemed nature we have in Christ.

And there is a sense in which our salvation is future, for we have yet to experience the transformation of our mortal, corruptible bodies into immortal, incorruptible bodies, like that of Christ in his resurrection.

Yet our identity in Christ remains the same throughout. We neither increase nor decrease in him, and he neither increases nor decreases in us. What increases is our awareness and experience of him and our awakening response to him. Our true nature in Christ remains constant, created in the image of God and to be like God, to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

There is only one human nature, of which we all partake, and it is redeemed in Christ, by his participation in this nature with us. And though we do agree with God about sin, the things that do not belong in us and in our life (this is called confession), we do not agree with any false idea that we are of a sinful nature. For Christ is now our life (Galatians 2:20) and through the Incarnation, he shares with us in the only human nature there is and has healed it, so that Christ is our true nature. So instead of agreeing with the false idea that we have a sinful nature, we agree with the gospel, and with the Incarnation, which is foundational to the gospel.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Humanity As the Likeness of God


From the beginning, the purpose and project of creation was to make Man in God’s image and to be like God (compare Genesis 1:26 with Genesis 1:27). It is important to understand that God’s plan was not just to make us in the image of God but also in the likeness of God. Before that happened, though, humankind fell to sin and mortality.

But in the Incarnation, Christ came and joined himself with humankind, uniting with us even in all our brokenness and mortality. Being life, when he finally met death on the cross, he destroyed it, not only for himself but for all humankind. For even at the cross, Christ was joined with all of us.

That is the glory of the Incarnation; it means that Christ did not die on the cross instead of us but as us. His death is not merely counted as ours (a legal reckoning), but his death truly is our death (an ontological reality), so that his resurrection likewise truly becomes our resurrection. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Christ restores us to the image of God, as we are conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Through him, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). That is, through Christ, we become like God, becoming through grace what Christ is by divine nature.

Some have wondered what might have happened if man had not sinned, and the Fall, however we think of it, had not occurred. But we have not been given to know that; we have only been given what actually happened in the economy of God. Whatever happened and however it happened, it happened. Yet God used it to fulfill his divine purpose in Christ, to bring all things in heaven and in earth to unity under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).

The cross, then, was not a waste of any kind. Nor was it God’s Plan B, a contingency in case Plan A failed. For it is precisely at the cross that we see the full glory of God revealed as other-centered, self-giving, co-suffering love. There also — and for the same reason — we see the full glory of humanity as both the image and likeness of God.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Consuming Fire of Divine Love


The Scriptures teach us that God is love and that God is a consuming fire. That is not saying two different things but saying the same thing in two different ways. For God is simple, not a being of parts that must be held in tension or played off one against the another.

To speak of God as love and as consuming fire is to say that the love of God is the consuming fire of God, and the consuming fire of God is the love of God. So, however the consuming fire of God is manifest, it has everything to do with the love of God, and has no expression apart from that love.

The consuming fire of God’s love is a refiner’s fire, purging away the dross and purifying the precious elements. It may be like the doctor’s laser burning away a cancer in the patient’s body. The doctor’s purpose is not to harm but to heal. Likewise, the purpose of the consuming fire of God’s love is not to harm but heal and restore.

Christ is the perfect expression of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3), which is to say that God is exactly like the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, any interpretation of the Scriptures that portrays God in any way that is contrary to the revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ is an interpretation we must reject as being unworthy of Christ and the Scriptures.

In the New Testament, we learn the gospel-shaped truth that God is love. Love is not a possession, an item in God’s divine toolbox to be brought out as the occasion arises. Nor is love a choice God makes, extending it to some while withholding it from others. Nor is it an attribute that must be held in tension with or balanced out by other divine attributes. No, it is much deeper than all that: God is love (1 John 4:8). It is the nature of God to love — always. So, any interpretation of Scripture that portrays God as in any way contrary to Christ’s self-giving, other-centered love, or the New Testament teaching about love, is an interpretation we must reject as unworthy of Christ, of the gospel and of love.

God has always been the way he is revealed in Christ. He has not changed from the Old Testament to the New; he has always been the way Christ has revealed him in the New Testament. The understanding the Old Testament writers and prophets had about God was not full and complete. But Christ has now come, and he is the full and complete revelation of God, the perfect expression of God’s being.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
That really is a night and day difference, but it does not mean we ought to dismiss the Old Testament Scriptures, as if the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ has done away with them. Quite the opposite, for Christ said that the Scriptures are about him:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. (John 5:39)
We ought to read the Scriptures, then, but we ought to read them through Christ and the gospel, with a Christ-centered, cross-shaped understanding. Otherwise, we are liable to end up with ideas about God that are simply unworthy of Christ and therefore unworthy of God.

The idea, then, that God should ever act in any way that is retributive or intends harm to anyone is thoroughly unworthy of Christ, and ought to be rejected — love simply does not act that way. Rather, we ought to see the consuming fire of God as the expression of God’s love, intended not for harm but for healing, not to destroy but to restore.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Death Has An Expiration Date

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26)
Death has an expiration date, for it is the last enemy to be destroyed. After that, there are no more enemies of God. No beings at enmity with God. Anywhere. After death is destroyed, there is only life. For death is nothing more than the absence of life, and where death itself has been put to death, there is no longer any impediment to life or any lack of life. Paul continues:
For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 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 15:27-28)
When death is finally eliminated, all that exists, everything that has being, everything God has created, will have been made subject to Christ, brought into alignment with Christ, put in order under him. And Christ himself will be made subject to God — not in regard to the eternal and internal unity of the Trinity, but in the economy of our salvation.

And God will be “all in all.”

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Christ-Centered, Cross-Shaped Interpretation of Revelation 19


In a previous post, Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures, I made the point that we ought always interpret the Scriptures in a Christ-centered, cross-shaped way. In this post, I seek to apply that to the interpretation of Revelation 19.

There are several things to note about reading the book of Revelation in general. First, the book is by its nature as apocalyptic literature (the title in Greek is Apocalypsis), a highly figurative, highly symbolic literature with high hyperbole. It is not given as a literal exposition of anything but is given to John the Revelator through signs and visions.

Second, interpretation of Revelation is famously controversial and has been subject to all kinds of interpretation — some preteristic, some futuristic, some historistic, some spiritual — and the Church has never settled on how it should be approached, let alone what it means. Indeed, the Church did not receive it into the canon without great difficulty. It was not generally accepted in the East, just as the book of Hebrews was not generally accepted in the West. But in the end, there was a sort of trade-off, and both books were finally received by both East and West. Even so, both are deemed authoritative for the Christian faith.

Third, because of the highly figurative nature of the book, and because of the extreme difficulty of coming to any agreement about what it is about and how it should be read, the book of Revelation is not and cannot be used to establish doctrine.

So, fourth, the book of Revelation becomes something of a Rorschach test. That is, what people often find in it is what they bring to it to begin with. For example, some who see God as retributive, see Revelation 19 as showing Christ in a retributive mode. Others, such as myself, do not.

But here is what I do see about Revelation 19: I see Jesus coming to judge injustice and to wage war by his justice. The nature of divine justice is that it comes to set things right in the world. We see the justice of God most clearly in the Cross and the Resurrection, where Christ destroyed death and the power of the one who held the power of death — that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15).

In Revelation 19, Jesus shows up on the scene with his robes dipped in blood. But whose blood is it? Has Jesus suddenly become a killer, a shedder of other people’s blood? No, that would be quite opposite to how Christ is revealed in the Gospel, as other-centered, self-giving love. But the blood that stains his robes is his own. For the Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the world. So the blood on his robes has been there from the beginning of the world — his own blood, shed for us.

His name is the Word of God, and out of his mouth comes a sword. It is not a literal sword; it is the Word of God that is quick and powerful and sharper than any double-edged sword that comes to discern the thoughts and dispositions of the heart (Hebrews 4:14). He comes to judge the motives and purposes of the heart, to eliminate those motives that do not belong so as to properly establish those that do. The judgment of God that comes to remove wickedness is not pleasant to endure. But it comes to heal, not to harm, for it is God purging evil from his good creation, so as to restore it to God’s original intention.

So the nations and kings of the earth are dispatched, in Revelation 19, in a very drastic and seemingly final way. The language is highly symbolic. Evil is being destroyed from God’s creatures, and it is a very serious business. But it is not intended to harm or destroy any of God’s creatures; it is intended to purge the poison of evil out of them and heal them.

Whatever happens to the nations and kings of the earth in Revelation 19-20 is not God’s final word about them. For in Revelation 21, we meet them once again, and in a very surprising way. Throughout the book of Revelation, they have been at enmity with God, embracing wickedness and making war against the Lamb and his faithful ones. But in Revelation 21, where do you suppose it is we meet them? In the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem that joins together heaven and earth. The City where the Lamb of God is himself the temple, the meeting place of God and humankind. The City where there is no darkness and no night, for the Lamb of God is its lamp and light. The city whose gates are never shut — never shut!

And into this City come the nations and kings of the earth, bringing their tribute with them (Revelation 21:24-26). They have been purified, for nothing impure can enter the City (v. 27). Throughout Revelation, they have been spoken of in the worst terms, but now they come into the City, purified, purged of evil. So, whatever happened to them in Revelation 19-20 is not the final word on them. Whatever happened to them was not to harm them but to heal and cleanse and purify them. (See After the Lake of Fire and Fire, Brimstone and Torment.)

Now, my interpretation is no more determinative of the meaning of Revelation 19 than yours or anyone else’s. But it is the one I see: Christ in his glory and goodness rescuing the world, even the most vile in it, for whom he has shed his own blood. In a word, what I see here is the gospel — I can only bear witness to it. And I am content that it is a Christ-centered, cross-shaped interpretation, which is as it should be.

Friday, April 24, 2020

A Christ-Centered, Cross-Shaped Interpretation of Isaiah 10:5-20


In a previous post, Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures, I made the point that we ought always interpret the Scriptures in a Christ-centered, cross-shaped way. In this post, I seek to apply that to the interpretation of Isaiah 10.

In a literal reading of Isaiah 10:5-20, we see that God allows Assyria to come against God’s arrogant and oppressive people. Then he punishes Assyria for the willful pride and haughty eyes of Assyria and the king of Assyria. The “Light of Israel” will become a fire, the Holy One will be a flame that burns away proud Assyria. Then the remnant of Israel will return to God and rely on the “Holy One of Israel.”

Knowing Christ’s teaching, that the Scriptures are about him, and thus having the veil lifted from our heart, it is not difficult to identify Christ in this passage: He is the Light of Israel, the Holy One of Israel. And knowing that the Lord Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s being, in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, we must therefore reject any interpretation of Scripture that portrays God in any way that contradicts the revelation of God we have been given in Jesus Christ. God will not act in any way that contradicts how Christ acts and what Christ teaches, or else we should have to conclude that Christ is not really the full and perfect expression of God after all.

So if we read this passage as being about God taking retribution on his enemies, we are reading counter to Christ, who teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those spitefully use us. It is also counter to what Paul teaches us in Romans 12. Does God repay evil with evil? No! But God overcomes evil with good, which is precisely what Paul teaches us to do. So any idea of God doing harm to anyone runs counter to Christ and the gospel, and so, simply will not do. Otherwise, we end up worshiping a false god, a petty, Zeus-like deity. But the true God is like Christ.

But if we can only see in Isaiah 10 a god who does harm to anyone, then they are seeing a god who is not worth worshiping but a petty, jealous, self-centered, self-seeking deity who is quite different from Christ. For Christ loves his enemies, and love simply does not intend harm. Indeed, in the New Testament, we see, through Christ, that God is love. And harm is nowhere to be found in Christ’s example of love or in Paul’s description of it in 1 Corinthians 13. Christ does not overcome evil by hate or by harm but by the humility of the cross, and it is in the humility of the cross the we see the glory of God, grace of God, and love of God most fully revealed.

There may be several spiritual, Christ-centered interpretations about what is happening in Isaiah 10 and what Christ is doing there. But here is one that strongly impresses itself upon me: I see that there is a persistent theme of pride and arrogance, not only in the behavior of Israel but even moreso in the behavior of Assyria and the king of Assyria.

Willful pride and arrogance are spiritual enemies of the soul, and so enemies of the people of God. But God allows these spiritual enemies to test his people in order to break them of their own pride and arrogance so that they might return to God in reliance upon him. Then God deals with pride and arrogance itself through the one who is the Light, the Holy One of Israel. This is Christ, who is humble and lowly in heart, and who has conquered the pride and arrogance of the world through the humility of death on the cross.

I am reminded of Luke 22, where the disciples are arguing over which of them should be considered the greatest — they are behaving proudly and arrogantly. In verse 31-32, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Satan wants to have at all the disciples, to “sift” and test them. Jesus does not prevent this, but he tells Simon Peter in particular that he has prayed for him that his faith will not be completely overthrown, so that when Simon recovers in his faith, he will be able to strengthen and stabilize the others in their faith.

This was on the night before the cross, and Jesus saw that pride and arrogance were testing his disciples. But, of course, through the humility of the cross, Christ destroyed the power of satan, the power of pride and arrogance.

In broad strokes, what I find in Isaiah 10 is God’s people are being sifted by pride and arrogance, but then pride and arrogance are destroyed by Christ, and the people of God return and trust in him. Spiritual enemies test them; the enemies are themselves destroyed; the people turn back to Christ; the people rely on Christ. The progression we see here is the progression we find in the Gospel.

This, then, is an interpretation that takes Isaiah 10 as being about Christ and is shaped by the contours of the gospel — it is Christ-shaped and cross-shaped, which is as it should be. And it does not portray God in a way that contradicts the way of Christ.

This way of interpreting is not a novel approach. The early Church Fathers approached texts like that in the same way I have done above. See, for example, how Origen interpreted the genocide texts in the book of Joshua (Reading With the Church Fathers (Part 3/3)). See also St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses” (it is not very long, and it can be found online).

Of course, no one is obliged to accept my interpretation of Isaiah 10, and I make no claim that it is the only legitimate one. In fact, I noted above that there may be many other legitimate interpretations. But any interpretation of Isaiah 10, or any other Old Testament Scripture, that portrays God in any way that contradicts the way and teaching of Christ ought to be rejected as unworthy of the Christian faith. That is because Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). He is the one in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, so that whoever has seen Christ has seen the Father.