Friday, November 11, 2022

The Scene Where Every Knee Bows

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

The scene shown in Philippians 2:9-11 follows directly from the one portrayed in Philippians 2:5-8, which begins with “Let this mind be in you which is also in Christ Jesus.” Christ, because he is God, did not seek out his own reputation but became a human being and humbled himself to the shameful death of the cross for our sake. This is what self-giving, other-centered love looks like — and it is the glory of God.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. (Phillipians 2:5-8)
So, to interpret 2:9-11 as a scene where God coerces anyone, driving them to their knees and forcing them to mouth words that would be nothing more than lip service, would be completely out of sync with what preceded, completely out of sync with the revelation of God who, in Christ, reconciles the world to himself (see Colossians 1:19-20 and 2 Corinthians 5:19), and completely out of sync with the God who is love (1 John 4:8,10). Love does not look anything like that — indeed, such a thing would be detestable to love. To see what love looks like, we must look to the cross. And for an excellent description of how love behaves, let us look to 1 Corinthians 13:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

A deity who behaves in any way other than that would be a petty deity, a Zeus-like figure, not the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and therefore not worthy of anyone’s worship.

Bowing the knee and confessing Jesus as Lord are acts of worship, freely offered, not empty acts that are forced upon  rebellious and unwilling hearts. God has never cared for empty gestures and hollow words. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). But the confession that Jesus is Lord is a saving one, one  nobody can make except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

What we see depicted in Philippians 2:9-11, where every knee bows, is not a scene of cringing terror but of loving devotion, a heartfelt response to the scene in Philippians 2:5-8, where the self-giving, other-centered love and humility of our Lord Jesus Christ is most gloriously portrayed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Where is Christ in the Sodom Narrative?

If he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) — if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:6-9)

In recent years, I have learned the importance of reading all the Scriptures as being about Christ, since that is who Christ himself taught they are about. If we are reading them as being about anything other than Christ, we are not yet reading them as Scripture, and it is only in their testimony concerning Jesus Christ that they bear trustworthy witness (see my article, Intention and Inerrancy). 

As I have written about this, some have asked about where and how we may find Christ in various Scripture passages. Recently, I was asked about where Christ is in the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 19? 

One of the important features of this narrative is that it follows after the narrative of Abraham’s hospitality (xenophilia, love for the stranger) to the three mysterious, angelic figures who represent the Lord in Genesis 18. Both narratives are about hospitality, and in them, both Abraham and Lot show hospitality to angels without realizing who they are. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

It is for Lot’s hospitality that Second Peter 2:7-8 deems Lot a righteous man. That certainly seems strange, even offensive, to us when we recall that Lot offered his daughters to the men of Sodom, so to protect the strangers from the mob. In the light of Christ, it is an act for which there is no excuse, and neither Second Peter nor the Church Fathers defend it. But it is not that particular act for which Lot was considered “righteous.” Rather, it was because of the anguish and vexation he felt over the debauched and lawless behavior of the city’s inhabitants toward the strangers, his guests.

Lot’s righteousness is seen in his reception of the strangers. He sat outside the gate at evening, watching for them, then watched out for them once they were in the city, defending them as best he knew (though that was woefully inadequate). In the end, however, it was these two angelic strangers who rescued Lot and his daughters, leading them out of the city before destruction came.

But where is Christ in all this? Well, for one thing, Second Peter uses Lot as an example of the righteous, for he was “a righteous man,” in anguish over the debauched, depraved behavior of the wicked, and “tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.” The argument here is that if the Lord rescued Lot, “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials” (2 Peter 2:9). Christ is not only the Righteous One but is also the Rescuing One.

We may also see Christ as the Hospitable One. Hospitality has always been an important matter with God. To receive the stranger in the land was to receive the Lord; to turn away the stranger was to turn away the Lord. Lot showed hospitality to the two angelic strangers, and so towards the Lord; the men of Sodom failed to show any hospitality but only depraved hostility toward them. Christ has come into the world to reveal the hospitality of God toward us.

At this point, we might think of our Lord’s “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” in Matthew 25:31-46, where Christ commended the nations that showed hospitality to the stranger, because in receiving with kindness the “least of these,” they were actually, by their kindness, receiving Christ himself. And those who neglected the stranger were rejecting Christ himself.

Even more, we see that Christ himself showed the hospitality of God even to the publicans and prostitutes, sitting and eating with sinners. This was much to the consternation of the Scribes and Pharisees, and it was in response to this that Christ told the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (Luke 15).

As for Sodom itself, this was not the end of their story, for there is an interesting passage in Ezekiel that shows what would become of them:

Your older sister was Samaria, who lived north of you with her daughters, and your younger sister, who lived south of you, was Sodom with her daughters. Have you not copied their behavior and practiced their abominable deeds? In a short time you became even more depraved in all your conduct than they were! As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, your sister Sodom and her daughters never behaved as wickedly as you and your daughters have behaved.

See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and practiced abominable deeds before me. Therefore when I saw it I removed them. Samaria has not committed half the sins you have; you have done more abominable deeds than they did. You have made your sisters appear righteous with all the abominable things you have done.

So now, bear your disgrace, because you have given your sisters reason to justify their behavior. Because the sins you have committed were more abominable than those of your sisters; they have become more righteous than you. So now, be ashamed and bear the disgrace of making your sisters appear righteous.

I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters (along with your fortunes among them), so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in consoling them.

As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters will be restored to their former status, Samaria and her daughters will be restored to their former status, and you and your daughters will be restored to your former status. (Ezekiel 16:46-55 NET)

The surprising thing here is that Sodom is to be restored. And so we see that God’s judgment on them was not final but penultimate, and that God’s ultimate purpose was restoration. As it so often goes in the Old Testament Prophets, the word of divine judgment is presented, but with it also is the promise of divine restoration afterwards. Here in Ezekiel, the people of Judah were facing the judgment of God, but there was also the promise of reconciliation. God would be restoring them, just as he would be restoring Sodom.

Ultimately, then, Christ is not only the rescuer of Lot, but even of Sodom. His hospitality is not only toward the righteous (Lot) but also toward the wicked sinners (Sodom).

Since Christ taught that the Scriptures are about him, we should always continue to seek until we find him in them. What I have offered above is not the one and only interpretation; I do not think there is necessarily only one true interpretation — there may be many true interpretations of a passage. The way we can tell a true one from a false one is that a true one is Christ-centered, cross-shaped and gospel-patterned. In considering how the Scriptures treat Sodom, I see Christ who rescues all by the hospitality of the Cross.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

The Body of Christ, the Whole of Humanity

Now the body of Christ,
as I often have said,
is the whole of humanity.
St. Gregory of Nyssa

It is a truth of the Incarnation, in which Christ has united himself with all of humanity, that the body of Christ is the whole of humanity. For there is only one humanity in which we all share, and Jesus shares in it with us. That one humanity is thus united with God. It violates no logic. It is no redefinition except inasmuch as the coming of Christ into the world changes everything. This truth was well defined in the early Church, as Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-395) demonstrates. He was no theological hack, and orthodox Christian understanding today owes much to him.

We find the Incarnation in John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). This and many other passages shows the intimate connection between Christ and all humankind. He did not become human in a different humanity but in the only one there is. We are all and united in it, and Christ shares in it with us.

So thoroughly united is all humankind with Christ, Paul can say that, just as Adam’s disobedience resulted in condemnation for all humankind, so also Christ’s righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people (Romans 5:18). And that, just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Because all humankind is united with and in Christ, and Christ is united with and in all humankind, there can be no situation where only some are the body of Christ while others are not. For Christ would have to be disunited with that part of humanity which is not his body, and that would be the undoing of the Incarnation. And the undoing of the Incarnation would be the undoing of salvation not just for some but for everyone.

This Incarnational union and embodiment does not at all do away with divine judgment but is precisely the means of that judgment — and it happens through the Cross and Resurrection. This is how God sets everything right in the world, making all things new.

Inasmuch as in Christ all will be made alive in the end, then all humankind, eschatologically understood, is the body of Christ. And inasmuch as humankind is inextricably bound with creation, and Christ is inextricably bound with humankind, so Christ is inextricably bound with creation. All creation is in him, as Paul tells us in Colossians 1, and Christ is in all creation — Christ is all and in all. Just as all of humankind, eschatologically understood, is the body of Christ, so also, all of creation, eschatologically understood, is the body of Christ.

There is no place in creation where Christ is not present. Not one part, not one cell, not one atom. But Christ is in all of creation, every bit of it. This means that Christ is embodied throughout all creation, so thoroughly united with all creation that all in heaven and on earth are brought to unity in Christ, headed up in Christ. 

God 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 1:9-10).

Thursday, November 3, 2022

When Love Renders Judgment

YES! There is divine judgment — and thank God for it! It is how God puts everything right. But the judgment and justice of God is not antithetical to the love of God, nor does the love of God need to be somehow balanced out by the justice of God. Further, if we try to squeeze the love of God here and there into the judgment of God, we are working completely backwards from how the gospel reveals bot the love and judgment of God.

Why? Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 10). Love is not merely something God has or does or chooses to exercise on certain occasion and withholds on other occasions. But God is love. So whatever the judgment and justice of God is, it will always be according to love, perfectly manifesting the love of God, even towards those who are the objects of God’s judgment and wrath.

God is love, and God shows us what love is and how it operates. We see it most magnificently at the cross, where Christ poured himself out in self-giving, other-centered love. Greater love has no man than this. We also see how love is in Paul’s wonderful description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

God is love, so the judgment of God will never contradict or violate how love has been presented to us in the gospel, at the cross, and in Paul’s description of love. We must always understand the judgment and justice of God through the love of God.

Therefore, because God is love, the judgment of God is not and cannot be retributive, for love is not retributive. God’s judgment is, rather, restorative. It chastens, corrects, disciplines, but always for the purpose of restoration.

Scripture tells us that God is love and also that God is a “consuming fire.” Whatever the consuming fire is, it is always a manifestation of God’s love. It is a refiner’s fire, burning off the dross yet leaving unharmed the gold or silver (Malachi 3:2-4). It burns away what is “wood, hay and stubble,” while preserving intact the “gold, silver and precious jewels”  (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). It purges from us whatever does not belong in us, whatever in us that does not come from God.

Even the wrath of God is a manifestation of God’s love, even toward those who are subjected to that wrath. And what is the wrath of God? Paul tells us in Romans 1, and he says it three times: “God gave them over ...” to impurity (v. 24), to dishonorable passions (v. 26), to depravity of mind (v. 28). This wrath is not something God does to them. Rather, God lets them have their own ways, which have their own terrible consequences.

But why does God do this? Why does God give them over to these things? Is it so they may ultimately be destroyed? No, that would not be the act of the God who is love. But Paul shows us the answer later in his letter, at the very end of the argument he is making all along the way. We see it in Romans 11:32, “For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.” Then follows wonderful doxology in verses 33-36. God hands all over to disobedience so that he may ultimately have mercy on all — even on those subject to divine wrath in Romans 1!

Thank God for divine judgment, come to set all things right by the consuming fire of divine love.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

God of the Living

It is a most amazing revelation:
“For as in Adam all die, so also
in Christ all will be made alive.”

It is clear and absolute,
and perfectly symmetrical.
Both clauses balance out
perfectly, without remainder.

Adam’s disobedience resulted
in condemnation for all.
Christ’s faithful obedience resulted
in justification and
Life for all.

Once headed up in Adam,
humankind is now
headed up in Christ,
for Christ has united
divine being with 
human being.

In Christ all will be made alive.
For God, who will be All in All,
is not the God of the dead
but of the Living.
(Based on Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, 28)

Friday, October 28, 2022

All Has Been Accomplished in Jesus Christ

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)

The eternal purpose of God has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 1, Paul tells us that God's eternal purpose is to be bring all in heaven and on earth to unity, all summed up in Jesus Christ.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our offenses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight. He did this when he revealed to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth. (Ephesians 1:7-10)
When we see the Cross, we see the accomplishment, the fulfillment not only of God’s eternal purpose, but of time itself. The Cross is what the end of history looks like — Christ crucified, risen and ascended. For through the Incarnation, divine being is joined together with human being, heaven is united with earth, and eternity is made one with time.

Lord Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (John 12:32). This is ascension language, and here, Jesus refers to the Cross, the death he died. Christ, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, in his ascension to the Cross, “draws” all to himself. The Greek verb is helkuo, which means to draw or drag, like a fisherman drawing in his net. It is not merely all kinds of people Christ draws to himself. And I do not think it is only people that Christ draws to himself, but I believe it is all of creation that Christ draws to himself, everything in heaven and on earth. At the Cross, the devil is deposed and, in Christ, the world is put right, and Christ announces, “It is finished!”

We are used to thinking of the Cross as merely an event in time, locating it somewhere in the middle of history, as something that happened long, long ago. But the Cross is the eschatological event, the end of time, the final denouement and consummation of all things. I believe it is also the creation of all things, for it is through, and by, and for, and in Christ crucified and risen that all things come into being. The end is in the beginning, and the beginning is in the end.

The Cross plays out in time, and we experience its outworking mostly as a succession of moments. Yet it is accomplished in eternity as the reality of the world. Even time itself is transfigured by it, such that we can experience the eternal in the mystery of the sacraments — Baptism and the Eucharist — as full and complete.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Christ is the Meaning of All the Scriptures

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

In Luke 24, Jesus does not speak about the Scriptures merely as bits and pieces, some of which are about him, with the rest being about other things, so that we must decide which ones concern Christ and which ones do not.

In verse 32, Christ “opened” (Greek, dianoigo) the Scriptures to the Emmaus disciples. Why did he “open” them? It was because they were closed — cryptic. But of course, Jesus was not carrying around the Old Testament scrolls, which he then literally unrolled before them. Yet the word for “opened” does mean to open, and not just a little, but thoroughly. Christ opened the Scriptures to the Emmaus disciples because they had been closed. The disciples did not understand what the Scriptures have always been about because they had been veiled to them, though they had not realized it. But now Christ was opening the Scriptures thoroughly to them, unveiling them to reveal that they are about him  — not just in part, but the whole of them.

In verse 45, Jesus is with the Eleven disciples in Jerusalem. “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” Here, it is their nous, their understanding that he “opened” (dianoigo, to open thoroughly), that they might understand the Scriptures. Both things need to happen: The Scriptures must be opened thoroughly to us, and our minds must be opened thoroughly to understand the Scriptures. It is the Lord Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, who must both the Scriptures and our understanding.

Jesus did not teach them, “Just read it literally.” He did not advise them to employ the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Rather, he taught them that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms are about him. In speaking of these three sections together like that, Jesus was referring to the whole of the Scriptures, indicating their prophetic unity, that they are all about the same thing, Jesus, and not about a diversity of other things.

In John 5, Jesus tells the Jewish leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (v. 39). Then a few verses later, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (vv. 46-47). There is no parsing out here that only some of the things Moses wrote concern Jesus while other portions do not. What Moses wrote is a prophetic unity, not a compilation on various topics, and its unified meaning is Christ. “Moses wrote about me.” Not, “Scattered among Moses’ writings are some things about me.” What Moses wrote was thoroughly about Christ.

In the book of Hebrews, the author quotes Psalm 40:7 and understands that it is about Jesus. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come — in the volume of the book it is written of me — to do your will, O God.’” (quoted in Hebrews 10:7, NKJV). The “book” here is the scroll of the Law, that is, the Torah. The phrase “volume of the book” does not mean that only some of it, bits and pieces here and there, are about Christ, but that the entire scroll has to do with Lord Jesus.

Christ and the gospel are the interpretive key of the Old Testament Scriptures. All of them are about Christ, but we will not find him there by literal interpretation, nor did he ever give us literalism as an interpretive principle. As we go on to consider how the apostles and New Testament authors treated the Old Testament Scriptures, we quickly discover that they did not read them literally but, following what Jesus showed the disciples, figuratively and spiritually. 

For example, when Paul speaks of Sarah and Hagar, in Galatians 4:21-31, he does not offer a literal interpretation, but says, “These things may be treated as an allegory” (v. 24). Likewise, when Paul speaks of the children of Israel crossing the wilderness, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, it is not a literal interpretation he gives us but a spiritual one.

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

The crossing of the Rea Sea, and the divine cloud that covered them, he calls  “baptism.” It is baptism into Moses, but by it, Paul see reference to baptism in Christ. Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Rock that accompanied them in the wilderness, he understands that to be about Christ. He speaks of the Manna they ate and the water they drank from the Rock as spiritual food and spiritual drink, and by it, Paul means to show us Holy Communion, in which Lord Jesus is our food and drink. Christ is the meaning of those Scriptures.

So, Paul speaks of these events from the Torah very differently from what a literal interpretation of them would yield. By the literal method, we would never see that the crossing of the Red Sea, and the cloud that accompanied them, is baptism into Christ. Or that the Manna that came down from heaven is Christ, our spiritual food. Or that the Rock that followed them in the wilderness is Christ, our spiritual drink. 

Paul understood very well what Christ taught both the disciples and the Jewish leaders, that what Moses wrote is about Christ. Paul says, “These things occurred as examples.” The word for “example” here is typos. Paul expressly identifies them as types, and that what stands behind them is our Lord Jesus Christ.

It was not only the New Testament authors who treated all the Scriptures this way, but so did the early Church Fathers. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, wrote Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he shows how the Apostles and the Fathers preached Christ. The remarkable thing about it is that it shows how the the early preaching about Christ was not drawn from the New Testament Gospels or epistles but from the Old Testament Scriptures, thoroughly and throughout — they did not arrive at this by literal interpretation. Another example is St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses. He goes through the Moses narratives and shows, in considerable detail, that they are about Christ, the gospel of Christ and the body of Christ.

But here is a counter-example: There was one early figure in the Church who interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures literally, and that was Marcion. What Marcion saw by interpreting the Old Testament literally was a portrayal of God that is quite contradictory to the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ. What he saw by literal interpretation was a petty, hateful deity not worthy of our worship — and indeed, such a deity found by such literal interpretations is a moral monster, hateful and petty, and not at all worthy of our worship. So, Marcion pitched out the Old Testament Scriptures altogether. 

But where Marcion dismissed them, the early Church Fathers did not. For they understood something very important about them that Marcion did not, that Christ is the meaning of all the Scriptures.