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.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Reason for Every Season

Every year at Christmastime the message comes to us in many forms — in sermons, banners, carols, greeting cards, even on bumper stickers: Jesus is the reason for the season!

It is an enduring message, enjoying the double benefit of being both exceedingly memorable and profoundly true. It is memorable because of its pithy rhyme; it is profound because it speaks to us about the measure of our lives. The truth is, Jesus is the reason, not only for the Christmas season, but for every season of life. In Him we have a new and definitive way to think about all of time. As worship theologian Robert E. Webber has said,
From a Christian point of view the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the center of time, for from Christ we look backward toward creation, the fall, the covenants, and God’s working in history to bring redemption. But from the event of Christ we also look forward to the fulfillment of history in the second coming of Christ. For this reason, time is understood from the Christian point of view in and through the redemptive presence of Jesus Christ in history. (Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity)

Some Christians know only two seasons of celebration in the Church: Christmas and Easter. Many do not bother with much in between. My daughter calls them “flower people” — they come only when the Church is decked out in Poinsettias or Easter lilies. But they miss out on something very wonderful, for the life of the Lord Jesus Christ in His Church is much richer than that — it is a full-time experience! The celebrations of the Church year, which have come down to us through the centuries, help us enter more fully into that experience, to know Jesus in all the seasons of life, and how each season flows into the next. So here is a brief summary of the Church year, submitted for your contemplation:


Advent means “coming.” The season of advent is a season of repentance and preparation — a place of beginning again. It is the start of the Church year and occupies the four weeks before Christmas. It is a time when we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ, not only to a little stable in Bethlehem, but also His personal coming into our lives — “let every heart prepare Him room.” Hidden in the echoes of Advent we can also discern the promise of Jesus coming again to bring all things to divine completion.


There are twelve days in Christmas, beginning on December 25th and continuing through January 5th. In Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus; God incarnate; the Word made flesh. We think of the love of God and the saving work of Christ, for the Incarnation is as much a part of our redemption as are the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Like the shepherds who received the announcement of the Christmas angels, we come to adore Him.


Epiphany means “appearing” or “manifestation.” In this season, which begins on January 6th, we celebrate the ways Christ has made Himself known as the Messiah and Savior of the whole world, revealing Himself by many divine miracles and teachings. We think of the Babe made known to the wise men of the East; the Son made known at His baptism; Christ made known at the wedding feast in Cana. We also watch for the ways Jesus is making Himself known in the world today through His Church.

Jesus is the “Light of the World.” In Advent, we celebrate the promise of the Light. In Christmas, we rejoice in the coming of the Light. In Epiphany, we wonder at the shining of the Light, just as the wise men marveled at the Star which led them to Jesus.


Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, six weeks before Easter Sunday. Like Advent, it is a time of repentance and preparation. The ashes on the first day of this season represent mourning over sin and the longing for holiness. In Lent, we remember the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and His journey to the Cross. We become aware of how Christ humbled Himself and how God calls us, also, to humility as we participate in His redemptive purposes. We consider, also, what our own place of service and sacrifice is in His divine plan.

Lent concludes with Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we think of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, knowing that soon He would be rejected by the very ones who waved their branches and shouted Hosanna! The irony of this is subtly observed by the burning of this year’s palms to become next year’s Lenten ashes.

Holy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is also called Maundy Thursday because of the new commandment Jesus gave His disciples to love one another (maundy comes from an Old Latin term for “mandate” or “command”). On Good Friday, we think of Jesus on the Cross and behold the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Holy Saturday recalls how the world hung between death and life, sin and righteousness, darkness and light. It is a vigil for the Light.


In Easter we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ — His victory over sin and death and all the works of the devil. A great exchange has taken place: Christ’s victory has become our victory, His life has become our life, and His righteousness has become our righteousness. Because of this, Easter is not just some “big Sunday” in the life of the Church. Rather, all other Sundays are little celebrations of this great Resurrection Day. The victory of Easter leads us on to the celebration of the Ascension, forty days later, when the Lord Jesus Christ ascended to His throne in heaven to rule and reign forever as King over all.


Before He ascended into heaven, the Lord Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the “Promise of the Father” — the Holy Spirit. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus said, “and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That is exactly what happened ten days later, as we can see in Acts 2.

Pentecost is the commemoration of that event. It begins on the fiftieth day after Easter. In the season of Pentecost, we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to His Church. The Spirit makes us one people, empowered to bear witness of the Lord Jesus Christ, to bring evidence — signs, wonders and miracles — of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.

Ordinary Time

After Pentecost, we move into Ordinary Time, the largest portion of the Church year. It reminds us that God most often comes into our lives in very ordinary ways and speaks to us in a “still, small voice.” When all of the feasting and singing and dancing give way to the tedium of work and the trials of life, God is still with us. The hope of joy is ever present in the silence and stillness of Ordinary Time, until it leads us once again to the preparations of the heart in Advent.

There are, of course, many Scripture readings, symbols, themes, and even colors associated with these Church seasons, giving us a variety of ways to meditate on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Compared to the national traditions to which many Christians have become accustomed — Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, to name a few — these celebrations of the Church year seem like a radically new concept. But this perspective, although radical, is not really new at all. It is deeply ensconced within the traditions and history of the Church. It is a part of the heritage of every believer, a gift to us from those who have gone before. In it we receive a marvelous way to celebrate this new life we have in Jesus.

As you journey through your years, take up these celebrations of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let your heart always be preparing Him room. Rejoice that God came to dwell with you so that you might dwell with Him. Ponder how the Light of the World shines in all His glory. Consider His service and sacrifice, and how He invites you to partner with Him in the redemption of the world. Remember the Cross, and how it set you free. Dance in the wonder of His Resurrection victory. Drink deeply of the Holy Spirit and learn to walk in His power. Seek out the joy of His presence at every moment of your life, to recognize the quietness of His voice and the softness of His breath, and so let your heart be synchronized with His. Then you will know that, truly, Jesus is the reason for every season!

©2004 by Jeff Doles

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 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.

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 to free 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 is 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 “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.