Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Biblical Literalism

Protestant Reformer John Calvin
     The recent controversy surrounding "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson underscores the deep divisions within American society – between urban and rural America, between "blue states" and "red states." In some respects Robertson represents a stereotype, the stereotype that affluent, educated Americans have of "hicks" and "rednecks."

    What role does religion play in all of this? One recent commentator, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, describes rural America this way: it is a place where hunters convene, fundamentalist Christians think that biblical literalism is a virtue, and there are millions of "Duck Dynasty" fans. And what are the marks of "fundamentalist Christians"? Ms. Parker mentions two: 1) they think that "biblical literalism is a virtue," and 2) they find "refuge in the toxic swamp of moral certitude."
    In all fairness to Ms. Parker, she appears to be criticizing liberal stereotypes of rural Americans as much as she does fundamentalist Christians themselves. But even so, the picture she paints of fundamentalists is hardly a flattering one.
    First of all, what exactly is a "fundamentalist"? Today just about the only people who would claim the term for themselves are a relatively small number of evangelical Christians who are noted for their extreme separatist mentality (many of them would want to distance themselves from "evangelicalism," as being too compromising). Most conservative evangelical Christians, however, would value "biblical literalism" and "find refuge" in "moral certitude." And what, we might ask, is so terrible about that?
    When we interpret the Bible literally we are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture. Our aim is to ascertain the meaning of the text intended by the original human author. We look at the vocabulary and grammatical structure of the text, as well as the context – both the immediate context in the book as well as the historical context in which it was written. The technical name for this is "grammatico-historical exegesis," and it is based on the simple faith that words have meaning and sentences convey thought. Or to put it another way, I read the Bible pretty much the same way that I read Ms. Parker's editorials. I assume that she is a rational, intelligent person who is capable of saying what she means. Is my faith misplaced?
    And what is the alternative to biblical literalism? How are we supposed to interpret the text?
    Are we to suppose that the Bible is an arcane, mystical book with all kinds of hidden meanings? That we are to find our own personal meaning somewhere between the lines of the text? In actual practice what often happens is this: we begin with our own preconceived notions of what we think the text should have said (let's say, about sex, for example), and then we try by various artifices to make it say what we want it to say. We can pick and choose those passages that we think are relevant, or invent a context to make it appear that the text says something different from what it appears to say. Or we can look for a hidden, symbolic meaning. But what we wind up with is a make-believe theology wholly concocted out of our own imagination. It can hardly be called "truth."
    Whichever way we choose to do it, however, it is fundamentally dishonest. We are pretending to go to the Bible for answers when in reality we are reading our own ideas back into the text. Would it not make more sense to do what most common sense people do – to drop the pretense and discard the Bible altogether? To consign it to some dusty shelf in the library basement?
    We remember, during our youth, hearing preacher whose name we have long since forgotten, lay down this rule of interpretation: "If the plain sense makes horse sense, seek no other sense." That has been our rule ever since.
    And then what about the idea that "fundamentalism finds refuge in the toxic swamp of moral certitude"? Well, yes, apart from the "toxic swamp" part, this is true. But what makes moral certitude a "toxic swamp"?
    At this point Ms. Parker has put her finger on the central issue facing western culture today. For centuries, millennia really, Western civilization was rooted in the idea that there is a moral order to the universe. Our country's founding Fathers could go so far as to say that "We hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" and that "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." This, in turn, implied that we live in a rationally ordered universe created by a single, all-powerful Intelligent Being. There is a distinct difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. And in the end divine justice will prevail. Based on this conviction our forbearers labored and fought to created "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."
    It took Charles Darwin to undermine all of this. We are now supposed to believe that everything is in a state of flux, slowly evolving toward some indeterminate future state of being. It is all the result of a blind, impersonal natural process. And so now such ideas as "self-evident truths" and "unalienable rights" are deemed a "toxic swamp"!
    How then can anyone's rights survive this moral ambiguity? Ms. Parker is likely to find herself in a position in which she cannot say with any degree of certainty that anything is absolutely right or wrong. Do we say that an unborn child has a right to life? We are accused of "legislating morality." Does a woman have a right to an abortion? That is just Ms. Parker's own personal opinion. Who says that any of it is true?
    What is happening today is that we are witnessing the last gasp of a dying civilization. That it has been left to the likes of Phil Robertson to defend what is left of Western culture says something about how far we have come. We are rapidly retreating back into barbarity. That is something to be mourned rather than applauded.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Duck Dynasty, Gays and the Kingdom of God

Recently a brouhaha erupted when the A&E network announced that it was suspending "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson for controversial remarks he made in a magazine interview.* Robertson told GQ magazine that homosexual behavior was sinful, and quoted a passage of Scripture, I Corinthians 6:9,10, to back his assertion.
    Was Robertson right? The passage cited reads as follows (in the New International Version, which Robertson appeared to be quoting loosely): "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." Similar passages can be found at Gal. 5:19-21 and Eph. 5:5, although neither of these other passages mention homosexuality specifically.
    The first thing to be noted about these passages is that homosexual behavior is just one of a series of vices that are condemned. It should also be noted that all of these vices involve various forms of human behavior. What is condemned is not a racial characteristic such as skin color or hair texture, but the conscious actions of human beings. In other words, God holds us accountable for the way we think and act.
    But what is wrong about homosexuality? To answer that question one must first ask what is the purpose of sex. It may strike some as odd that we would even ask the question. Who says that sex has to have a purpose other than our own sensual gratification? (Certainly not the editors of Cosmo!) But if it is true that everything was created by an Intelligent Supreme Being then everything has a purpose, a reason for which it was created. And the obvious primary purpose of sex is reproduction, which requires a heterosexual relationship. The Bible puts it this way: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it . . .'" (Gen. 1:27,28). Men are expected to marry women, love their wives, produce offspring, and raise their children. The nuclear family that thus results is the foundation stone of human society. The home should be a place where children are nurtured and socialized.
    It is for this reason that adultery is considered to be one of the worst of all sins. It is specifically condemned in the Ten Commandments, and it carried the death penalty under Old Testament law. Anything that deviates from the divinely ordained pattern and undermines the institution of marriage and the stability of the family is a perversion of what God intended. This would include prostitution, divorce and bestiality.
    Seen in this light homosexuality is an extreme form of lawlessness, a radical disregard for God's will. In the Old Testament God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah partially because of this sin. In the New Testament it is described as a sign of advanced moral decadence. According to Romans chapter 1 the problem begins with secularism – the stubborn refusal to acknowledge God as Creator and Lord (vv. 18-23). The text then goes on to describe the next step: "Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another" (v. 24). As we advance even further into moral degradation we come to this: "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion" (vv. 26,27). Note: the push for gay marriage is an indication of God's judgment on our society – God has "given us up" to our sinful passions and desires.
    What is assumed here is a sense of what is natural and decent. There is something unnatural and grotesque about sodomy. Homosexuals are using their sexual organs in a way for which they obviously were not intended, a bit like sticking your knife into your mouth when you eat. Even from a purely secular standpoint there is something profoundly unnatural and dysfunctional about homosexuality, which is why same-sex attraction used to be known as "Gender Identity Disorder," for indeed that is what it is.
    Which brings us back to a point that we made earlier. All of the forms of behavior condemned in I Cor. 6 involve conscious choices on the part of human beings. We are thinking, rational creatures. We can tell the difference between right and wrong. God holds us accountable for our actions. Ultimately all sin is a form of rebellion against God – a willful disregard for His commandments, which is why we are repeatedly told that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
    Can we really expect to disobey God and not suffer the consequences?

*We understand that Robertson has since been reinstated.

Related blog posts:
The Future of Playboy America 
God's Portrait of Modern Society 
What God Thinks About Modern Society 
The Queer Scouts of America? 
Morality = Bigotry? 
God Never Changes 


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

King Jesus

The Foundation of the Temple Being Laid

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, they King cometh unto thee . . . "            Zech. 9:9
    The Messiah is, of course, a King, among other things. But when and how does He reign? That is a question that has vexed theologians for centuries.
What did the ancient Jews expect? Part of the answer is provided by the Old Testament prophet Zechariah. Zechariah lived in the late 6th Century B.C. The southern kingdom of Judah had been spent seventy years in captivity in Babylon. Now some of them had been allowed to return to Jerusalem. But while they had made some progress in rebuilding their homes, work on the temple lagged behind. The prophet Haggai had prodded them into action, and finally work had begun.
But the political situation still looked unpromising. After a period of civil unrest the Persian emperor Darius the Great had consolidated his rule. A measure of peace had been restored to the Middle East. And yet for the Jews rebuilding the temple a disturbing question remained: why hadn't Judah regained its independence? Why was it still under the control of a foreign power?
In response to that question Zechariah received a series of visions and revelations from God. Israel had gone into exile because of its sin, but had suffered excessively at the hands of its foreign oppressors. The Lord reassured the nation, "Thus saith the Lord of hosts; I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy" (Zech. 1:14). What follows is a remarkable series of prophecies in which God promises to restore Israel and punish the surrounding nations.
It is in this context that we hear about a Messianic figure who will usher in a reign of peace. Israel is told to "rejoice greatly" because "they King cometh unto thee." But what an unusual king He is! He is "lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." This was literally fulfilled when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, shortly before His arrest and execution.
The next verse tells us what will happen when the King arrives. "And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off." In other words, there will be an end to war, and Jerusalem will be at peace at last.
But there is a broader, more universal aspect to Messiah's reign as well. For the text goes on to say, "and he shall speak peace unto the heathen." Our King James translation here is unfortunate. The word translated here "heathen" literally means "nations" or "Gentiles," i.e., the broad mass of non-Jewish humanity. What is in view here is nothing less than the proclamation of the gospel to the entire human race. As for the extent of Messiah's kingdom, "his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth." The first part refers to Palestine, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. The river is the Euphrates. This is roughly the area originally promised to Israel (Gen. 15:18-21; Ex. 23:31; Josh. 1:4) and ruled over by King Solomon (I Kings 4:21; II Chron. 9:26). But the dominion of the Messiah would encompass even more than that; it would extend "even to the ends of the earth." Messiah's reign will be universal.
So when and how will all of this be fulfilled? In one sense the kingdom of God is already present; and in another sense it has yet to be fulfilled. In I Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul, speaking of the resurrection of the saints at Christ's Second Coming says, "Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet" (vv. 24,25). Christ is already King right now (Eph. 1:20-23; Phil. 2:9-11), and when we become Christians God "hath delivered us from the power of darkness and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son" (Col. 1:13). But after Christ returns, "Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:37-43).
Some have supposed that the Christian church is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies regarding the restoration of Israel, but those prophecies are meaningless unless the group being restored is the same group that had been sent into exile. And so far the Messiah is not reigning over a restored nation of Israel. He has yet to appear "in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30). The culmination of history still lies ahead.
It is also important to emphasize that there is amoral dimension to all of this. Israel went into exile because of its sin (Zech. 7:8-14), and restoration will involve a change of behavior on their part (8:16,17). The sin problem must be resolved. "In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness" (13:1). Our past sins must be forgiven and we must receive a new heart that is bent on pleasing God. Only then can we "enter the kingdom of heaven."
Merry Christmas to all our friends!



Friday, December 20, 2013

Christ the Intercessor

"Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us." -- Romans 8:34
    Christ's work as priest did not end with His death on the cross. For He also was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is even now exercising a ministry of intercession with God the Father on our behalf. In this sense He is still actively fulfilling the role of a priest.
    When someone has offended someone else, there is a breach in the relationship. A third party is sometimes needed to bring the other two parties back together again. In other words, an intercessor is needed, someone who will intercede on behalf of the offending party.
    Unfortunately it is sometimes true that even committed Christians can "backslide" and fall into sin, and this will disrupt communion with God. It is at this point that Christ's work as an intercessor comes into play. Our text tells us that He is "at the right hand of God," and that He "maketh intercession for us."
    Christ is uniquely qualified to fill this role. Because He is human, He can sympathize with us, knowing firsthand the temptations we face. In Hebrews 2:17,18 we read, "Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" ("succour" in an old-fashioned word with a British spelling that means "to go to the aid" of someone). At the same time because He is also God He is personally sinless, and therefore is in a position to intercede with God the Father on our behalf. Moreover, since He lives forever his ministry of intercession will never come to an end – it will last for as long as life continues here on this sin-cursed earth. "Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:25).
    Christ's ministry of intercession has immense practical implications for us. First of all, it means that if we know Christ truly and are genuinely united to Him by faith we can rest securely in God's love. The apostle Paul asks an interesting rhetorical question: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:31). He then proceeds to answer his own question: "Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God . . ." (v. 34). Let our fiercest enemies say what they may; let even Satan himself bring accusation against us. It doesn't matter; for our salvation ultimately rests on what Christ has done, and is continuing to do for us. He died for our sins, He paid the penalty on the cross, and now He is in heaven making intercession for us. We are forever secure in God's love.
    Moreover Christ's ministry of intercession should make us bold in prayer. Heb. 4:15 says, "For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." What, then, is the practical implication of this? "Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace in time of need" (v. 16). We are oft beset with trials and temptations. Difficulties lie on every hand. We are weak and prone to failure. But help is available if only we ask for it. We have an open invitation from God to go to Him in prayer and ask for the help we need. And we can do this because Christ, who can sympathize with our weakness, is there in heaven making intercession for us.
    None of this means, of course, that we have a license to sin. Sin will come between us and God, and needs to be dealt with. "If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth" (I John 1:6). But "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (v. 9). And this is possible because "if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (2:1). What more could we ask for in the way of an attorney?
            "Hark the herald angels sing,
                'Glory to the newborn King;
             Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
                 God and sinners reconciled!'"
  • Charles Wesley

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Man of Sorrows

When we think of the birth of Christ we are liable to think of a charming manger scene – a young mother cradling her infant son, the Magi bringing their gifts from afar, the angels singing to the shepherds in the field. It all looks so picturesque, and indeed it is. But amid all the tinsel and trimmings it is easy to lose sight of the real reason for the incarnation. The manger was but the prelude to a brutal death on a Roman cross.
    And the amazing thing is that it was all predicted. In Isaiah chapter 53 we have one of the most stunning prophecies about the Messiah found anywhere in the Old Testament. And it portrays the Messiah as "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (v. 3).
    One would have thought that Israel would have welcomed its Messiah, but that turned out not to be the case. "Why?," one might be tempted to ask. The answer is that His contemporaries failed to appreciate who He was and what He came to do. They were looking for a national deliverer – a charismatic leader who would come and rule. Instead He came across as a radical rabbi who challenged established ways of thinking. He led no armies and He provoked no revolt. He was eventually crucified by the Romans. What kind of Messiah was that? And thus the prophet foresaw that He would be "despised and rejected of men" (v. 3a).
    What His contemporaries failed to realize is that it was necessary for Him to atone for sin – for their sin. That is why He had to suffer, and bleed, and die. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities" (v. 5a). The problem, which neither they nor we like to admit, is that we are, at the bottom of it, guilty sinners. The prophet uses a homey illustration to make the point: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one into his own way" (v. 6). Somehow, if we are ever to be forgiven, an atonement must be made for our sins. And that was what Christ came to do when He was born in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago. His path would lead to the cross, " . . . and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6b).
    And here was the supreme irony of the situation. When He was here among us, "he was despised, and we esteemed him not" (v. 3b). ". . . we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (v. 4b), and indeed He was. But it was for our sins that He suffered the pain and humiliation of the cross. It was our sin and guilt that occasioned His suffering.
    Jesus, in other words, was essentially acting as a priest offering up a sacrifice to God, except that in this case He was both the priest and the sacrifice. That sacrifice, then, becomes the basis for our peace with God. ". . . the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (v. 5b). The "chastisement of our peace" is a kind of corrective discipline that leads to a restoration of a relationship. In this case we were alienated from God by our sin and disobedience, and Christ's death upon the cross brings us peace with God. To achieve reconciliation we need to embrace by faith Christ's atoning work on our behalf.
Have you made your peace with God?

Other blog posts in which you might be interested:
Right with God
What Must I Do to be Saved?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christ as Prophet

Moses and the Ten Commandments
"Christ, as our Redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king . . . "
                                Westminster Shorter Catechism


    So far we have considered who Christ is, but what did He come to do? What was the purpose of His coming? The catechism sums up the biblical teaching on the subject by stating that Jesus came to fulfill three offices. He is a prophet, a priest, and a king. We will consider the first of these today.
    First of all, what exactly is a prophet? The phenomenon had existed long in Israel's history. From time to time God would speak through a human being especially chosen for this function. While God had spoken directly to Noah and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the first great prophet, in the sense of someone communicating God's message to others, was Moses. Exodus chapters 3 and 4 describe how God met Moses at the burning bush and commissioned him to be the leader of Israel. Moses, however, demurred, objecting that he was not an eloquent person and hence not up to the job. God then explained to Moses how the process would work: "Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say" (Ex. 4:12; NKJV). But Moses still demurred, and so God tells him to have his brother Aaron act as his spokesman. "And he himself shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God" (v. 16). In other words, a prophet is someone who acts as a spokesperson for God, with God telling him what he should say. Or to put it another way, a prophet is someone who can communicate a genuine revelation from God Himself.
    Some theologians and philosophers have questioned whether God, who is transcendent, incomprehensible, and inscrutable, "wholly Other," as one of them has said, can communicate His thoughts and ideas in human language. But God Himself answered that objection when He asked Moses, "Who had made man's mouth? Or who makes the mute, the deaf, the seeing, or the blind? Have not I, the Lord?" (v. 11). Human language is something that God created – thus He can make it express what He wants it to. And while we can never fully understand what God is in His infinite being, we can understand what He wants us to know and do.
    Other prophets came and went after Moses. But as God had told Moses, "I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him" (Dt. 18:18). That Prophet was Christ, God's own Son, whom He sent into the world. As Jesus Himself put it, "For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak . . . Whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak" (John 12:49,50).
    What made Christ preeminent as a prophet was the fact that He was not just a human being to whom God spoke; He is God's own Son, who had lived with God the Father in heaven from all eternity. Because of that intimate connection He is in the position of knowing the mind and will of God the Father better than anyone else. That is why His words carry such weight and authority.
    Jesus once told a parable to explain His position as a prophet. The owner of a vineyard sent one of his servants out to the vineyard to tell the workers there to begin the harvest. The workers, however, beat up the servant and sent him away. The owner sent another servant, and another, and several more besides, and they were all mistreated and abused in one way or another by the workers. Finally the owner decided to sent his own son out to the vineyard, reasoning that the workers would at least respect his own son. But the vineyard workers killed him. The conclusion of the story? "Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others" (Mark 12:9).
    The servants obviously represent the various prophets that God sent down through Israel's history, and the son was obviously God's own Son, Jesus Christ. Those who chose to ignore what the Son says will be dealt with severely. We will do well to take heed to what He said!
    The teachings of that greatest of all prophets are recorded for us in the four gospels of the New Testament. They expound on the Law of God and point to Christ Himself as the way, the truth and the life. In modern times religion has fallen out of favor, and we preoccupy ourselves with the pursuit of material gain. But life will not last forever, and eventually we will all face eternity. We cannot afford to ignore God's own Son!

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Savior, Christ the Lord

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord"
- Luke 2:11
    There are several things about the birth of Christ that strike the modern reader as peculiar. One is the fact that He was born in extremely humble circumstances, to a poor family, in a stable, and laid in a manger. And this for the Son of God, the Savior of the world! And then there was the announcement to the shepherds. One would have thought that for an event of this magnitude that a press conference in Jerusalem, or even in Rome, would have been in order. But instead the announcement was made to a humble band of shepherds out grazing their flocks in the open field.
    What the angel told the shepherds was this: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). What did the shepherds understand by this? Undoubtedly they would have understood it in a Jewish context. Unfortunately our translation here is a little misleading. The King James Version translates the last clause of verse 10 as "which shall be to all people," universalizing the message, making it applicable to the entire human race. The Greek, however, has a definite article, and so it should be translated "that will be for all the people" (cf. NASV, ESV, NIV), i.e., referring evidently to one specific nation or people, viz., the nation of Israel. Moreover, when we see the word "Christ," we are likely to think that it is a last name, like "Jones" or "Smith," when in reality it is a title. It is the Greek form for "Messiah" or "anointed One." Moreover, the angel mentioned "the city of David" as the place of birth. The Old Testament prophet Micah had predicted that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, David's home town (Mic. 5:2). David, in turn, was the ancestor of Judah's royal line. Thus the angel was announcing the birth of Israel's long-awaited Messiah, Who would deliver the nation from oppression and usher in an age of peace.
    But for those of us who are not Jewish by birth or ancestry there is a broader significance here as well. The reign of the Messiah will affect the entire world. It will be a time of perfect peace and righteousness. But how will that come about? What we have today is a world full of exploitation and violence, and all of this can be traced back to a fundamental defect of human nature. Obviously something is going to have to change.
    There are two aspects to this problem. First there is the problem of our guilt before God. If God is just and holy, He must punish sin. But we are all sinners, and have already committed numerous sins in the past. If we are made to pay for those sins we are doomed. But in order for God to forgive those sins some sort of atonement must be made, and this is what Christ accomplished on the cross.
    The second aspect of the problem is primarily psychological. We sin because we are born with a human nature that is predisposed to sin. One older woman of our acquaintance put it this way: "I have been a mother and now I am a grandmother, and I have never yet had to teach a child how to steal cookies!" Stealing comes naturally, and parents have to teach their children not to steal. Unfortunately lots of other things come naturally, too – lying, cheating, fighting, gossiping, and all the rest. But somehow that must all change if we are ever to enter the Messianic kingdom.
    Salvation, then, also involves an inward change, and this is largely accomplished through the work of the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. This work begins with the new birth, and continues through the life-long process of sanctification.
    As human beings we lead a profoundly dysfunctional existence. The birth of the Savior in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago promises to change all that. It was the first ray of hope in the dark night of sin and misery. The long war is by no means over, but the decisive victory has already been won.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Son of God

Lorenzo di Credi, The Annunciation, ca. 1480-1485

"For to which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?" -- Heb. 1:5


    As we noted in our last blog post, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. But what exactly does that mean? In what sense can Jesus be called "the Son of God"?
    The question is not an easy one to answer, for we are talking about a relationship that is totally unique. There is nothing like it in heaven or on earth, and there is nothing else to which it can be compared. We find ourselves in the position if trying to scrutinize the nature of the infinite being of God.
    Nevertheless there are a few things that can be said. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament is making the point that Jesus occupies a position of preeminence over every created thing. He is superior to both prophets and angels. To support that assertion our author quotes a verse from Psalm 2, which describes the future reign of the Messiah. In the psalm God is pictured as saying to the Messiah, "Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee" (Ps. 2:7). But what does that mean?
    First of all, it does not mean that Christ was a created being, something less than God. For just a few verses earlier the author of the epistle had just said that Jesus is "the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature" (Heb. 1:3; NASV). It is a little hard to understand exactly what this means, but the way the early church finally came to express it was that the Son was "begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father . . . " (Nicene Creed). In other words, Christ shared the same essential being as God the Father: He was indeed true God. Our text in Hebrews goes on to say that Christ is "upholding all things by the word of his power." Christ is not a part of created reality; He is a part of what created and sustains reality. He is God.
    But then what does our text mean when it says, quoting the psalm, "this day have I begotten thee"? The answer of the church fathers is that Christ is eternally generated from the essence of the Father. That may be true, but that is probably probing more deeply into the nature of God's being than we are entitled to go. The context in Hebrews, however, points to a specific event, viz., the incarnation: "And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him" (v. 6). And the angel Gabriel told Mary at the annunciation, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Lu. 1:35). Jesus, as the unique God-man, was conceived in Mary's womb, at a specific point in time, and was born in Bethlehem. In that sense He really was "begotten."
    The babe in Bethlehem, then, truly was the Son of God. He came down to earth from the Father in heaven with Whom He had dwelled from all eternity. He came and lived among us as a human being, but He spoke with all the authority of God Himself. This is why we need to be careful heed to what He said.
        "Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things
         we have heart, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if
         the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression
         and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; How shall
         we escape, if we neglect so great salvation . . . ." ? -- Heb. 2:1-3

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Born of a Virgin

"Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isa. 7:14
    We are now at that time of year when our thoughts turn to the birth of Christ, the "reason for the season," as we like to say. But what exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? Who was Christ, and what does His birth mean for us today?
    Who was Christ? Even His own disciples weren't exactly sure. It was obvious that He was no ordinary human being. But who was He? Or more to the point, what was He? He claimed to be the Son of God, but what does that mean?
    During the coming month we will examine some of the these issues in order to gain a better understanding of the significance of the birth of Christ. We will look at a number of passages of Scripture that describe the Person and work of Christ. Significantly, many of these texts were employed by George Frederick Handel in his famous oratorio Messiah.
    We begin with the fact of the virgin birth itself. And here at once we encounter the chief difficulty that the modern mind has with Christianity. Modern man finds it difficult to accept the idea of the supernatural. And yet according to the accounts given to us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke Jesus was born of a virgin: He had no earthly biological father. He was born of a virgin; He performed miracles; He rose from the dead. And His miracles and resurrection, at least, were attested by eyewitnesses.
    Jesus could do all of these things because He was God incarnate. The universe is not a closed system with a uniformity of natural causes. It is the creation of an eternal, all-powerful Supreme Being Who retains ultimate control over His creation. And Jesus performed His miracles precisely to assert His deity. He is the Lord of heaven and earth, and His miracles were a vivid demonstration of His divine power.
    The virgin birth was critical to all of this. If Jesus were the natural offspring of two biological parents, then He would have been no different from the rest of us – an ordinary human being. And if that were the case He could not have been the Savior of the world. His death would have been no more significant than that of any other great man in history who was killed in a noble cause – Lincoln, Gandhi, Kennedy or King. But Jesus was no ordinary human being; He was "Immanuel," which in Hebrew means "God with us."
    Some have questioned whether Isaiah 7:14 really predicts a virgin birth. The New Revised Standard Version, for example, translates the verse, "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." It is true that the Hebrew word used here ('almah) generally refers to any young marriageable woman. Hebrew has a different word (betulah) to refer specifically to a virgin.
    The immediate context calls for a child born in Isaiah's own time. The nation of Israel at that time was divided into two separate kingdoms: the northern kingdom, usually designated as "Israel" or "Samaria," and the southern kingdom which was called Judah. In 735 B.C. the northern kingdom, Israel, along with its neighboring ally Aram (Syria), invaded Judah. The prophet Isaiah approached Ahaz, the king of Judah, and told him not to fear. The Lord would give him a sign: a child would be born, and before the child would be weaned the two invading kingdoms would be destroyed. Isaiah has relations with a prophetess (Isa. 8:3) and a child was born. In 732 the Assyrians under Tiglath-pileser invaded, and Israel and Syria were effectively destroyed.
    But it is evident that there is more to the prophecy than just that. For Isaiah goes on in chapter 9 to describe another child, a child that would become a ruler, whose name "shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" (Isa. 9:6,7). Amid all the chaos and turmoil that beset Israel, Isaiah had a vision of a coming Messiah Who would rule with perfect peace and justice.
    When Matthew, then, in the New Testament describes the birth of Christ, he declares that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy made in Isa. 7:14 (Matth. 1:22,23; the Greek uses the word parthenos, which does mean a "virgin"). What we have, then, is a double fulfillment of the prophecy. The initial fulfillment took place in Isaiah's own time, when a young woman gave birth to a baby boy. But in a much more remarkable way it was fulfilled by the birth of Christ Who was truly "Immanuel," literally "God with us." God had fulfilled His Word in a way that far exceeded even Isaiah's expectation!