God’s Very Verbal Word in the Words of Jeremiah

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” -Jeremiah 1:9-10

mouth full of fireI’ve written before about the appropriateness of speaking of the Bible as the “Word of God” even though Jesus is referred to as the the Word as well. I was reminded of the discussion as I began Andrew Shead’s new study on the “word” theology of the book of Jeremiah A Mouth Full of Fire. I’m only in second chapter so far, but already Shead’s been making a compelling case that the whole book is structured around the story of the “word of the Lord” that comes to Jeremiah the prophet.

At the beginning of his exploration of the usage of various forms of the word “word”, Shead opens with a helpful comment for those involved in the task of theological exploration and biblical exposition:

..it should be remembered that Jeremiah’s words were ordinary human ones. The notion that human language can be an adequate vehicle for the divine word is a bone of contention among theologians, and yet the remarkable implication of the book’s opening paragraph  is that the inescapable imprecision of human language does not prevent it from conveying the word of God. This impression is only strengthened by the striking imagery of Jeremiah 1:9, towards the end of the prophet’s call narrative: ‘Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth. The Lord said to me, “I have just put my words in your mouth.”‘ Clearly, it was not merely a general message that Jeremiah received. we can safely conclude that the message from God came to Jeremiah in words. To put it in theological terms, this act of revelation is verbal.

-A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah, pg. 54

This observation about the passage in Jeremiah (and the theology of the book as a whole) is important for a number of reasons, the first of which is that it acts as a helpful counter-measure to an over-weening skepticism about theological language. Theologians are constantly falling into one of two errors: the first is an over-confidence in the ability of human language to capture the essence of God in human language that fails to forget the finite and fallen character of our speech of God. The other is the sort of agnosticism that comes in and says we can’t know anything at all about God because our human conceptions and speech are so far distant, none of our words can apply to him.

That second option sounds humbling to human speech at first, but it inadvertently makes too little of God the Speaker. Indeed, this passage reminds us that human finiteness and fallenness are not the ultimate reality, or last word, so to speak, when it comes to God’s words. It’s not so much a question of whether small, weak, human words can capture the divine holiness within them. The question is whether God can, in his omnipotence, grace, and condescension, put his own words into human speech. While we would do well to have a more complex account of God’s revelation and speech than a simplistic “divine dictation theory”, Jeremiah’s prophecy stands as a warning for us to hold off from scoffing too loudly at the idea that God could, or would, take the time to “dictate” a message for his people. Certainly we shouldn’t let that lead us to the conclusion that the words of Scripture are inherently the sort of thing that can’t be identified with God’s own word.

I’ll give the last word to Vanhoozer again:

Those who would be honest to God must strive to avoid both pride and sloth in their God-talk. Theological pride overestimates the adequacy of human language and thought; theological sloth underestimates the importance of responding to the provocations of God’s self-revelation. The one goes before destruction; the other pre-empts instruction. Yet it is hard to miss the recurring biblical theme that God wills to communicate and make himself known: “The word of the Lord came to . . .”; “the Lord said . . .”. Theology is ultimately irresponsible if it fails either to attend to what God says or to think about the nature of the one who addresses us.

–Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, pg. xvi

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kevin DeYoung on The 10 Commandments and Moral Orthodoxy

holeinholinessA few weeks ago I wondered aloud about the idea of “moral orthodoxy”–whether there was some sort of corresponding standard of right moral practice that functioned comparably to the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed when it came to theological orthodoxy. Since then, we’ve chatted about the issue with the Mere Fidelity boys, and Trevin Wax has had an extremely helpful post arguing that defending the faith is about life, not just doctrine.

Still, neither of these discussions weighed in on my suggestion that the 10 Commandments ought to be considered as a specific standard summarizing an orthodox Christian moral theology, or whether there was any sort of biblical reasons for thinking it could function that way. Imagine my delight, then, to run across this passage by Kevin DeYoung:

The rule for holiness is the law, in particular the Ten Commandments. Christians don’t always agree on how to view the law (something I’ll say more about in the next chapter), but historically the church has put the Ten Commandments at the center of its instruction for God’s people, especially for children and new believers. For centuries discipleship instruction (catechesis) has been based on three things: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. If you wanted the basics of the Christian faith, you learned these three things. And if you wanted to know how to live a holy life, you followed the law of God summarized in the Ten Commandments.

You may think of the Ten Commandments as a painful memorization exercise for five-year-olds, but the “Ten Words” (or Decalogue) from Exodus 20 are central to the ethics of the New Testament. For Jesus and the apostles, the Ten Commandments provided a basic summary of God’s ethical intentions for everyone everywhere.11 When a rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “You know the commandments,” and he listed the commands in the so-called second table of the law (Mark 10:19). The only “horizontal” command he didn’t mention was “do not covet.” And that’s because he wanted to expose the rich man’s greed. True, Jesus used the law in this instance for its convicting power more than anything else, but it still shows the place the Ten Commandments held as a summary of God’s will (cf. 1 Tim. 1:8–11).

We see the same thing in Romans 13:9, where Paul rattles off four of the commandments and makes reference to “any other commandment.” What’s amazing is that Paul says in verse 8, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Then he moves on to the Ten Commandments. Obeying the commandments is how we fulfill the law of love, and love is at the heart of holiness (v. 10). If you care about love you will love to obey the Ten Commandments.

The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Kindle Locations 645-660). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

While DeYoung isn’t looking to weigh in specifically on the question I was asking, his line of argument here seems to give biblical, and especially New Testament heft to my suggestion.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Carl Trueman: The Papacy Is Not *That* Obvious…

CarlTruemanOften-times in modern conversations between Catholics and Protestants, the challenge of the apparent chaos of Protestant interpretive pluralism is wielded against the idea that Scripture is “perspicuous” or clear enough with regard to the issues of salvation and so forth. The idea is that Protestants opened up a Pandora’s box with the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture alone, ultimately, is our final norm for theology. Of course, there’s the usual misunderstanding here that for the early Reformers this didn’t mean ignoring tradition entirely, but even when that is conceded, the point is still raised that Protestants have made a mess of things. It should be obvious given all of our denominations, and all of our theological disputes, that the “clarity” of Scripture isn’t all that clear, and that’s one more reason we need Papal authority, and the teaching magisterium of the Roman Church in order to give us something solid to stand on. It’s one, or the only, check we have against the sort of interpretive anarchy we see in all of our “Well, I feel like this means…” Evangelical Bible studies.

In a review of Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation, which, among other things, argues along these lines, Carl Trueman argues that this line of thought tends to forget one key issue: the perspicuity of Scripture was put forward as a response to the mess of the Medieval papacy:

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 

Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 

Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.

Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  

Forget it.  Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Trueman is no rabid Rome-hater, but points these things out in blunt form because he’s:

...simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity.  These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Of course, none of this is an actual argument for the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, or sola scriptura. For that, I’d commend Mark D. Thompson’s fine book A Clear and Present Word.  All that same, these are points ought to be kept in mind the next time the papacy, or the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is presented as an obvious answer to the issue of Protestant interpretive pluralism.

It’s not that obvious.

Soli Deo Gloria

God of Strength

We know that the Lord is the one who gives strength to the weak, right?

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:28-31 ESV)

This is good news, right? Isaiah points us to the God who has life in himself, who brought forth the world from nothing, as the one that gives power and life to those who trust in him. What comfort! When we are weary and laid low, the Lord has energy to spare that he freely gives to those who will call on his name. This is supernatural strength too–eventually even the seemingly tireless youth gives out at some point, but God’s strength isn’t tied to human limits, though. So even when it seems like there is nothing left for us to give, God supplies vitality to his people to accomplish the tasks he’s set them. Surely we can sing about this?

What we don’t often give thought to is the inverse truth: God can remove the strength of the strong.

“Behold, I will press you down in your place,
as a cart full of sheaves presses down.
Flight shall perish from the swift,
and the strong shall not retain his strength,
nor shall the mighty save his life;
he who handles the bow shall not stand,
and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself,
nor shall he who rides the horse save his life;
and he who is stout of heart among the mighty
shall flee away naked in that day,” declares the LORD.
(Amos 2:13-16 ESV)

While Isaiah points us to the life-giving God, Amos reminds us that those who oppose the Lord through the arrogance of their own might, will find it failing come the day of judgment. No one is fast enough, strong enough, clever enough, or brave enough to withstand the coming of the one who is the source of all these things. We who are tempted to trust in our own muscle, our chariots, our horses, to accomplish our own ends apart from or opposed to the Lord, will soon find ourselves weak in the knees.

As ominous as that sounds, contained within Amos’ judgment is a comfort as well. All too often in this world, might makes right, and the wicked prosper because it seems that righteousness never has the bigger guns. Eventually, though, the tireless God will tire of his patience towards their oppression. The words of the Lord remind us that ultimately our hope isn’t in power measured by human standards, but in the righteous God whom even the mightiest tyrants cannot stand.

Soli Deo Gloria

Wright on Election in Ephesians 1

"Yes, I really did write that."

“Yes, I really did write that.”

N.T. Wright makes two points about election in Ephesians 1. The first is that it’s real:

Verses 4–6 celebrate the fact that God’s people in the Messiah are chosen by grace. This is, perhaps, the most mysterious thing of all. God, the creator, ‘chose us in him’, that is, in the king, ‘before the world was made’; and he ‘foreordained us for himself’.

Many people, including many devout Christians, have found this shocking, or even unbelievable. How can God choose some and not others? How can being a follower of Jesus Christ be a matter of God’s prior decision, overriding any decision or freedom of our own?

Various answers can be given to this. We have to be careful here. Paul emphasizes throughout this paragraph that everything we have in Christ is a gift of God’s grace; and in the next chapter he will declare that before this grace reached down to us we were ‘dead’, and needing to be ‘made alive’ (2:5). We couldn’t lift a finger to help ourselves; the rescue we needed had to come from God’s side. That’s one of the things this opening section is celebrating.

Contrary to what some might think (even myself initially!), Wright affirms in a very careful, tentative, but apparently open way that God’s election of some and not others really is a thing. Now, very quickly he moves on to make a second point that many who affirm the first can tend to forget if they’re not careful:

The second thing, which is often missed in discussions of this point, is that our salvation in Christ is a vital stage, but only a stage, on the way to the much larger purpose of God. God’s plan is for the whole cosmos, the entire universe; his choosing and calling of us, and his shaping and directing of us in the Messiah, are somehow connected with that larger intention. How this works out we shall see a little later. But the point is that we aren’t chosen for our own sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish through us. –N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (8–9)

God has plans for his elect beyond their election. They are chosen for a purpose–various purposes really, such as mission, worship, and so forth, all culminating in the glorification and enjoyment of God. An awareness of God’s saving grace in election, then, ought not be an invitation to sit on your stump, but to get on the move and fulfill God’s proposed purposes through us in the Church (Eph. 2:8-10; 3:9-11). Yes, that grace outrages and amazes, and it should also enliven us to worshipful service in the world.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. If someone wants to post clear evidence to the contrary about Wright’s views on election, feel free to correct me here. I know he typically pushes a number of election passages in a corporate direction saying they’re not really what former dogmatics has said. Still, I’ve never seen him out and out deny individual election, and have seen him make statements like this that seem like affirmations of it.

P.S.S. Here’s the sort of thing I’m referring to in the P.S.: Wright on Election in Romans 9. (HT: Michael Bird and Matt Armstrong.)

Two Instances of NT Judgment (Or, Apparently Luke Didn’t Get the Memo)

sapphira-leclercEverybody knows that God allegedly struck people down in wrath in the Old Testament. We find dozens of instances in the Torah of God dealing out judgment in the form of illness or death, both on foreign enemies (Pharaoh & the Egyptians) as well as his own people (Sons of Korah, the snakes, etc.) for their sins. The pattern continues on through the historical prophets, as well as the the literary prophets. In text after text we see God prove that he both “kills, and makes alive” (Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6), as he executes his righteous rule over the earth.

Of course, that’s the Old Testament. It’s now quite common to assert something along the lines of “Well, though the OT was really inspired (to a point), the fact of the matter is the OT authors were confused on some realities when it comes to God. How do we know this? Well, Jesus. I mean, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, who does whatever he sees the Father doing, right? So Jesus never killed anybody nor did he teach anybody to kill anybody. Therefore, we know that God’s not the kind of God who would kill anybody or ever command anybody to be killed like we see in a number of OT narratives and legal passages. Now that Jesus came, we can overlay Jesus’ picture on the OT and see clearly which parts get God right and which don’t.” Or something like that.

This is the sort of thing Andrew Wilson has dubbed the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. I’ve dealt at length  with this sort of logic before in a few places myself, dealing with the problematic theology of revelation, hyper-pacifism, and it’s contradiction of Jesus’ own views of the Old Testament. Once here with respect to some unfortunate things Brian Zahnd said, and a second time with respect to Steve Chalke and Sabbath Sticks. Still, it’s worth pursuing the line of thought from another angle.

You see, it appears to me that if this logic were true, then the New Testament writers who had seen Jesus wouldn’t have gotten God wrong, right? I mean, they’d seen him face to face and received the New Covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit in union with Christ who would reveal all things to them, right? And anybody being discipled by them in subsequent years who also wrote inspired Scriptures should have that gift as well, right? So then, if any biblical writers might be expected to get the totally non-violent nature of God right, it would be the New Testament writers.

Except for it seems that they didn’t get the memo. At least Luke didn’t. Observe:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.

And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (Acts 5:1-11)

In this dark and disturbing story we see the judge of all the earth disciplining his church. Ananias and Sapphira greedily and foolishly conspired to lie to the church about their giving and in doing so lied to God himself, bringing down his judgment. Now, of course, it’s possible for you to try and speculate as to whether both Ananias and his wife both just so happened to have cardiac failures on the same day, in the same situation, (shared eating habits & whatnot), or you can accept it in line with the revelation of the OT as the hand of God.

Still, if that’s not convincing enough, jump ahead a few chapters to Acts 12:

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.  (Acts 12:20-23)

Just as in the Old Testament, the Lord strikes down a tyrant who has been oppressing his people for his pride and arrogance. If in the last story Luke left the author of judgment anonymous, here he explicitly names him: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down…” Now again, if you want to go about speculating as to whether this was a rogue angel, prone to disobey God, who nonetheless goes about defending his name…well, that’s your prerogative. It seems clear enough from the context, though, that this is to be taken as a divinely authorized judgment–angels are “messengers” bringing God’s righteous message here.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that in both cases Jesus’ followers are not the ones executing judgment. A pacifist reading of these texts is totally possible; I don’t mean to settle that issue here. What I will say is that unless you want to go around calling into question the New Testament’s revelation of the character of God as well, then you have to have an amazing level of confidence in your ability to distinguish the really inspired bits from the not-so-inspired bits–one that I’ll admit I simply don’t share. This is especially the case when I consider that the inspired author of Acts is also the inspired author of one of those Gospels I’m relying on to get my picture of the non-violent Jesus who points us to a God who never violently judges people.

Now, this may not be enough to convince you, but I do hope it at least slows you down from the overhasty judgments about Jesus & the OT we’ve been seeing lately. Buying into these claims means biting off, chewing up, (and eventually spitting out) a bit more than you might have anticipated.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

When We’re At Our Worst (My Good Friday Sermon)

This last Friday I had the honor of preaching a brief meditation (13 minutes) on the Good Friday services at Trinity. Below you can listen to the audio (we couldn’t get video), and I’ve also posted the rough transcript below it. I pray it blesses you. 

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. (Mark 14:66-72)

Intro - I’ve always been captured and, quite frankly, terrified by this story, ever since I was a kid. Maybe it’s not something that’s ever grabbed you, but growing up in Church, you wonder at the idea of denying Jesus. I mean, how, does that happen? I always figured that after 3 years walking around, seeing Jesus’ goodness, watching him feed thousands, raise the dead, walk on water, hearing his words, seeing his almighty power, and just, being with Jesus, that would be impossible. I just thought it was obvious. It was an incomprehensible enigma.

peter deniesI Don’t Know The Man - Of course, as I grew older, I began to see different layers to the story. For one thing, I started to get the danger of the situation. At this point in time, Jesus has been arrested, right. It’s Passover week and political tensions fills the air. Sensing trouble the Jewish leadership acts to get this rebellious upstart teacher out of the way, lest he disrupt their power or set off the judgment of Rome. So, they pay off the disciple Judas and find Jesus in the Garden, arrest him, and take him away. They set up a couple of Kangaroo Courts organized by the Sanhedrin being held in the courtyard and home of one of its chief members.

Now, at this point, all the disciples have fled. All of them, it seems, except for Peter. Peter follows at a distance, but he follows to see what happens. He goes further than all of the others.  Peter had some courage—courage and strength that none of the rest have. And yet, when push comes to shove Peter denies Christ. 3 times.

You have to see that this isn’t a momentary lapse. When you read the story, you see each time, his denial gets even more vehement. At first the servant girl notices him, and then later, noticing his distinct Galilean accent, they start connect the dots and think, “Well, of course this guy is with Jesus. Jesus is from Galilee. This guy is from Galilee. Why else would a Galilean be hanging out here?”

And so here we see fear at work in Peter’s heart. The fear that the council might rule to round up all of Jesus’ followers, or especially Peter himself, because just a few hours earlier it was he who had raised up a sword to defend Jesus. This fear, then, grips him with great force and so he denies. Actually, at this point he gets so frustrated to distance himself from Jesus that he can’t even say his name. Did you catch that? He calls him “this man”, and he even invokes a curse on himself to prove how serious he is.

And here, right here where I used to be most tempted to think, “How do you say that?” But now, now, I start to ask myself, “How different am I really?”

There’s a song lyric, by a band named My Epic that goes like this:

I always thought that I would have fought had I been alive
I would have stayed to the end, wept at Your feet, and died by Your side
yet again they beat You down and tear You
Limb from limb
but I keep my peace and my distance

Curse

See, I’m not sure I’ve ever denied Jesus publicly when pressed like that, but the older I get, the more I realize how completely and totally I’ve denied him. Because, you know there’s more than one way to deny Jesus, right? You don’t have to say “I don’t know this man” with your words to do it. With every careless unloving action to my wife I say, “I don’t know this man.” Every day I get up and live my day without reference to him I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time cultivate anger, pride, socio-economic disdain, or lust in my heart I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I chase money instead of generosity I say “I don’t know this man.” Every time I keep silent about him out of fear of rejection by our culture, or neighbors, for being one of those “Christians” I say “I don’t know this man.”  In a million different ways, my life, and if we’re honest with ourselves, all of our lives have screamed “I don’t know this man!”

He Already Knows - And yet, and yet, that’s still not what grabs me about this text. The verse that grabs me are Jesus’ words. Peter hears the rooster crowing in the morning and he remembers’ Jesus words.

“Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”

Jesus predicted this. Like so many of us, Peter was so sure of his own righteousness. Peter had even boasted earlier of his faithfulness and that even if everyone else abandoned him, he wouldn’t. And at that moment Jesus looked him in his eyes told him “Peter, here’s how you’re going to fail down to the last detail.” And at that moment, Peter’s failure hits him with crushing force of grief, shame, and sorrow.

I think many of us know that grief.  Many of us are kept from following Jesus because there is a dark well of shame for past failures thinking “God can never accept me after that. God couldn’t want a person like me.” Or, for those of us who follow Jesus, our inevitable failure, sin, and betrayal can crowd in on us with an accusing weight that torments the soul. When we think of our sin, we feel unworthy and unfit for service to Jesus, or we get weighed down with a pressure to make up for it with frantic good works.

Here’s the thought that doesn’t strike Peter that shocked me one day as I listened to the text: Jesus knew what he was going to do and loved him anyways. Jesus had a perfect knowledge of who Peter was, all of his fears, all of his failures, and how he would betray him at his greatest hour of need, and yet he still called him. Jesus knew Peter at his most sinful, his most rebellious, his most pitiful, and see all of that darkness loved HIM! Not the imaginary Peter that Peter thought Jesus did, but real one that he would even face himself, and he still came for him.

This truth is the beating heart of the Gospel. Paul, in Romans 5 says this:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

At the heart of the good news is a God comes to save us when we’re still sinners, before we do anything right. See, you and I constantly think we need to clean ourselves up before we come to Jesus, or we live in constant fear that this sin, this denial, this season is the one where God’s finally going to throw his hands up in frustration and disgust and say, “I’m done with you.”

On the Cross Paul says we see the ultimate proof God isn’t like that. How? How is Jesus’ death on the Cross proof of God’s great love for us at our worst?

So That We Might Be Known

In the Bible, the heart of life, of goodness, of salvation itself is to know and be known by God—to be in a true, whole, relationship with him. That’s what Jesus says in John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This is why the most terrifying words of Jesus was his warning to those who were fooling themselves into thinking they were believers and telling them that at the end, if they didn’t repent, they would come to him and he would say “Depart from me I never knew you.”

With this in mind, we can finally start to understand the crushing reality of Peter words when he curses by God’s name and says, “I don’t know the man”–he was showing us what our sin leads to. See, sin is a rejection of knowing God and all that goes with that. So, God’s righteous judgment, his wrath and the punishment we deserve is to give us what we ask for: a life without God, separated from all goodness, all love, all joy, all truth and beauty. That’s what sin asks for and that’s what sin gets.

On the Cross, we are told that Jesus suffers the judgment of God in our place. We deserve death and he receives it. We deserve spiritual separation from God, but he, as the only perfect one who ever lived, experiences it in our place so that we don’t have to. It is only when you see this that you understand that, while Peter is cursing his name, bringing the curse down on himself, Jesus is preparing to go bear the curse for him on the Cross so that Peter would be able to know the God that he’s denying.

And this is the heart of the Good News: we have a God who sees you at your worst, sees ME at my worst, and yet still loved us, and was willing to come, in some mysterious way, in the person of Jesus to suffer on our behalf, that we might know him. You have to understand, God doesn’t look down with shock. He knows it all. He saw it all with his eternal gaze–every sin, past, present, and future that you and I will ever commit and he went.

That same band has another song where they put it so perfectly:

See, Jesus never fell in love.
With open eyes He walked directly to the cross,
He knew exactly what I cost,
and He still went.

Childbodybride

In fact, he knew exactly who I WAS and he still went.

And this is  why we call this Good Friday. On this day we see the love of God revealed in Jesus’ suffering. We find a God who truly knows us and loved us to the full measure.

The promise is that if you put your trust in Jesus, and what he’s done for you on the Cross, you can know and be in relationship with this God. So the question is, “Do I trust him?” For some of you, you’ve never placed your faith, or accepted Jesus. If that’s you and you’d like to, you can find me or one of the pastors or staff after service and we’d love to talk to you.

If you have, but you’re still wallowing in sin, maybe you’ve been far, maybe you’ve been cold, maybe you’ve been wandering–the invitation is to trust and believe that even that is covered and you can trust him

The invitation is to believe today that we have a God who saw us at our worst and he still came.

Prayer – Father, let us understand the height and truly, the depth, of your love displayed in the Cross. Give us over to trust and faith in your good promise. Let us worship you with whole hearts for so great a sacrifice. Amen

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. Due to the shortened time frame, I couldn’t expand on certain subjects. Here are some clarifying articles related to the issue of atonement, judgment, wrath, and love.

1. Tim Keller, Passive Wrath, and Understand the Fearful Symmetry of Judgment
2. 5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile
3. Can a God of Love Have Wrath?

The Ridiculous Entry into Jerusalem

ridiculous entryToday we begin Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry, by celebrating Palm Sunday and his Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Here is the standard account in Matthew:

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

 “Say to the daughter of Zion,
‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” (Matt. 21:1-9)

To ears trained by a couple thousand years of church history to hear these Hosannas as those of glorious choirs, and the donkey as a dignified steed, we miss the glorious irony of this most ridiculous of all entries. John Calvin highlights how foolish the whole thing would have been:

This would have been a ridiculous display, if it had not been in accordance with the prediction of Zechariah, (9:9.) In order to lay claim to the honors of royalty, he enters Jerusalem, riding an ass. A magnificent display, truly! more especially when the ass was borrowed from some person, and when the want of a saddle and of accouterments compelled the disciples to throw their garments on it, which was mark of mean and disgraceful poverty. He is attended, I admit, by a large retinue; but of what sort of people? Of those who had hastily assembled from the neighboring villages. Sounds of loud and joyful welcome are heard; but from whom? From the very poorest, and from those who belong to the despised multitude. One might think, therefore, that he intentionally exposed himself to the ridicule of all.

And yet, this was necessary because:

…in consequence of the time of his death being at hand, he intended to show, by a solemn performance, what was the nature of his kingdom. So then, as his removal to heaven was at hand, he intended to commence his reign openly on earth….But as he had two things to do at the same time, — as he had to exhibit some proof of his kingdom, and to show that it does not resemble earthly kingdoms, and does not consist of the fading riches of this world, it was altogether necessary for him to take this method. (Harmony of the Gospels, Vol 2, Comment on Matthew 21:1)

This is the way the King came announcing his kingdom: in humility, poverty, absurdity, and weakness. And yet, because of this, we see all the more clearly that it “does not consist in the fading riches of this world.” The gold and the pomp we might have expected would have only obscured the true glory of our King.

So then, as we sing our hosannas today, and lift our palms to the King of glory, let us recall his humble, and, indeed, ridiculous entry into Jerusalem.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile as Judgment

fall of samaria2 Kings 17 recounts the story of the Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and her Exile:

But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:4-6 ESV)

At first it looks like a simple case of power politics gone wrong. Hoshea backs the wrong horse in putting his trust in Egypt, calling down the wrath of the more potent political power found in Shalmaneser’s Assyria army. Open and shut case here, right? If we’re dealing with the purely human level of motivation and machination, then yes. But the author of Kings invites us to peer deeper into the providential working of God in the events of Israel’s Exile. Please don’t skim this, but read it carefully:

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:7-18 ESV)

Reflections on the Exile as Judgment. As I was reading through this story earlier this year, I was struck with the clear progression at work here. In this short narrative passage, we have a constellation of disputed but crucial themes involved in understanding the deeper logic at work in our theology of atonement and sovereignty. I’ll list them in no particular order:

  1. Sin as Idolatry – First of all, sin is presented to us as both relational and legal violation. The LORD gave Israel the Law, the covenant that codifies in its clear commandments the special relationship between the LORD and his chosen people. All of Israel’s sinful actions are committed “against the LORD”. To despise God’s commandments is to despise the God who gives them. This point is deepened when we reflect on the fact that the sin that is singled out here, almost exclusively, is that of idolatry in its various forms. Reflecting both the metaphors of King and husband, Israel’s violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments can only be seen as a betrayal of trust, fealty, and fidelity to her covenant Lord. In the covenant we have a relationship of law and love. Indeed, in their placement as the head of the commands, we are instructed to understand that, first and foremost, all sin has a God-ward dimension that cannot be reduced to its horizontal implications.
  2. Patience – Next, the God of the Old Testament is radically merciful and patient. After clear violation after violation, God sends warning after warning, prophet after prophet, both before and after the period of the kings of Israel, in order to draw his people away from their sin. I’ve told my students this before, but the history of Israel is not the history of God getting mad and destroying things. Instead, it is the history of God having patience with a people that repeatedly, irrationally, and violently reject him, until his hand is forced to act.
  3. Wrath - His warnings go unheeded. In fact, they seem to provoke only greater disobedience and idolatry of such depravity that includes child sacrifice and every sort of abomination that the Canaanites who dwelt in the land before them were driven out for. And so, God is presented to us as one is who is provoked to “anger” and wrath by sin. Three times God’s anger is mentioned here in this passage, twice after a laundry list of Israel’s sins, and once in the judgment formula. I’ve mentioned Volf’s reflections on God’s anger before, but once again we’re faced with the reality that the holiness, goodness, and yes, the love of God means he does not shrug his shoulders with a “meh”, in the face of gross evil, or really, any evil. For Though God’s emotions mustn’t be thought of in a simplistic fashion, we cannot deny the reality that God observes human sin and idolatry with great displeasure and the will to ultimately remove them. With references to God’s wrath/anger reaching spanning between 400-600 times in the Old Testament alone, if we are to take the revelation of God to Israel seriously, we cannot brush this aside.
  4. Judgment – Which brings us to the Exile. The judgment and exile of the Northern kingdom is clearly presented to us in what can only be described as a judicial execution of as the God’s anger at sin. “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” Judgment is the enacting in history of the LORD’s moral evaluation of Israel’s actions in eternity. Given our prior reflections, we can’t help describing it as a penal judgment rendered in reference to the covenant law. This is not just some “Western, legalizing” interpretation of the event, as is so commonly charged, but a reading that flows from carefully attending to the logic of the text, as well as its placement within the broader narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. That said, we see the logic of the Exile as well. If the land is symbolic of, and part of, the covenant blessings Israel enjoys as part of her relationship with the LORD, it only makes sense that her rejection of the LORD would result in exclusion from the land. It is the “fearful symmetry” of judgment we’ve talked about before.
  5. Multiple-Agency – Finally, this judicial execution is presented both as the work of both divine and human agents. Shalmaneser is clearly given responsibility, acting for what were presumably less than holy reasons like imperial dominance and greed. And yet, in the inspired author’s presentation, without denying or explaining away the freely chosen actions involved, the ultimate agent of judgment is the LORD himself. Again, “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God”, and “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” We see, then, both Divine and human agency at work in one and the same event, one wicked, and one wholly righteous in the destruction and Exile of Israel. While no explicit theology of mulitple-agency is cleanly laid out here, something like it is clearly presupposed.

This is the logic of exile: Israel violates God’s covenant at length, ignores God’s mercy, provokes God’s anger, and brings down God’s judgment. I’ve chosen one key passage where it is laid out rather cleanly, but it’s important to note that each of those five points could be buttressed with skads of verses, narratives, prophecies, and long-range themes in Scripture.

The Cross as Exile – So that people don’t misunderstand, breaking down the logic of exile takes on the importance it does for me because, again, it is that logic that informs part of how we understand Jesus’ glorious, representative work for us on the Cross. As the author of Hebrews hints at, Jesus’ execution on the cross was that of the Levitical scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people beyond the camp in a mini-representative-Exile:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:12 ESV)

What’s more, in line with the curse of execution, he suffered “outside the gate” as the Law prescribes (Lev. 14; Num. 15; Deut 17) to exhaust the covenant curse of Exile-as-judgment in our place as our great High Priest, make us holy once more, and institute a new covenant with the people–a truer, more inviolable one–in his own blood:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 ESV)

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:12-18 ESV)

I know that I’ve only just sketched a basic, partial, and patchwork understanding of these New Testament texts, but when you understand the logic at work in the Exile of Israel, you can begin to see how deeper logic of Jesus’ Exile on the Cross as divine judgment on sin isn’t just some “rationalistic, systematic-theological”, or “medieval”, imposition on them, but rather a way of understanding them describing the Cross as the culmination of a number of themes central to the divine drama of God’s faithful relationship to unfaithful Israel. Again, the dark backdrop of sin and judgment is the only one in which the light of sacrifice and grace can be see in all of its glory.

Soli Deo Gloria