Advent

Last year Christmas was on a Sunday and the season of Advent was as long as it can be—twenty-eight days. This year Christmas is on a Monday and Advent is as short as it can be—twenty-two days.

In traditional congregations, Advent is a time of preparation, not merely for the celebration of Christmas, but for the presence of Christ himself. When Advent is treated as a countdown to Christmas, it provides little comfort or peace. Advent can instead be an oasis, a quiet place in the midst of the world’s mad rush toward its Yuletide observances that overlap the Christmas holiday. For many worldly Americans, the season of Christmas begins in mid-October (or, at the latest, on Thanksgiving) and lasts until the sun goes down on December 25 (or perhaps lingers a few days longer, maybe even to the end of the year). On the traditional Christian calendar, December 25 is the first day of Christmas and eleven more days follow that belong also to the Christmas season. Advent consists of the four Sundays before Christmas and all the other days that happen between the First Sunday of Advent and sunset on the night of December 24, Christmas Eve. (For that reason, traditional Christian churches this year will observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent on the morning of the 24th and Christmas Eve on the evening of the same day.)

The word advent means “coming.” Commonly, Christians speak of the season of Advent as threefold, involving a past Advent, a present Advent, and a future Advent. From a human point of view, the distinction is useful. The spirit of Advent Past recalls the Old Testament believers waiting for the promised Messiah, including John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way of the Lord. This Advent Past comes to fulfillment when Christ is born in Bethlehem and proceeds on a rescue mission which takes him to a cross and a grave in Jerusalem. The spirit of Advent Present recalls the ways Jesus is present for his people today: in the power of his Word, the Bible; in the proclamation of forgiveness in his Church; and in the Sacraments of his Church—Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The spirit of Advent Future directs attention to the Day of the Lord, when Jesus will appear in glory with all the angels of heaven and all the saints. The dead will be raised, the Judgment of the Lord will be announced, and the new creation will begin—an eternal wedding feast of Christ and his Bride, the Church, and an unending celebration of the victory Christ won in his first advent and now shares with his people through his present advent.

Like all human beings, Christians move through time, from past to present and from present to future. Jesus is the Son of God. He created time; he exists outside of time, unchanging and eternal; he moves through time in ways that are incomprehensible to the rest of us. When Jesus ascended forty days after his resurrection, he “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Time is included among “all things,” so that the Son of Mary could eat with Abraham and wrestle with Jacob. The Son of Mary, hands scarred by the nails that held him to the cross, could shape the earth into the body of Adam and sculpt a woman, a teammate for Adam, from one of Adam’s ribs.

As I wrote here, the future advent of Jesus is not a return, because Jesus is always with us. His appearing to judge all people and to inaugurate the new creation is an important teaching of the Bible and the Church, but for Jesus it is a reality that has already occurred. As Christians wait for the fulness of the victory that was won in Jerusalem on Good Friday and Easter, Jesus says that we already have abundant and eternal life, we already belong to the kingdom of God, and we are already children of God (through the adoption purchased by Jesus on the cross). John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he {Jesus} appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). The puzzle of time as it relates to Jesus and to his people cannot fully be solved this side of the Day of the Lord, but the season of Advent allows us to rest in the assurance that all is solved and secure in the hands of the Lord. J.

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What will be

“Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven.” The sentence looks and sounds correct at first, but at best it is sloppy theology, and at worst it is packed with doctrinal errors.

The words “coming back” suggest that Jesus has left and is currently not here. But he promised his followers, “I will be with you always, to the end of the ages,” and, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Jesus will not come back because he has never left. The Greek word “Parousia,” generally translated “coming” in Matthew 24 and in Acts 1:11, has a more complex meaning of “arrival” or “appearing.” It has no sense of returning, but more of an unveiling, a revelation of what already exists.

One passage of Scripture could be used to defend the idea of Jesus coming back—John 14:3 says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Although some scholars apply this verse to the ascension and Parousia of Jesus, its context refers instead to his arrest and execution, his burial, and his resurrection. Jesus is not busy now preparing a place for us in his Father’s Kingdom; Jesus prepared a place for us by his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection. He came back Easter morning after spending the Sabbath with his body in the tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Through the work of his Church he takes us to be with him, even as he is with us as he promised.

Other scholars suggest that the divine Jesus is with us now, but the human Jesus will return at the Parousia. This thought conflicts with Biblical Christology. The divine nature of Jesus and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated; he is one Christ, always fully divine and always fully human. The Son of God was born and learned how to talk and how to walk, even though as God he can do anything and knows everything. The Son of God was hungry, thirsty, in danger from storms and enemies. He was arrested, tortured, and killed—the Son of God died and was buried, and he rose to life again. Likewise, the Son of Mary is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything and can do anything he chooses. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. When we pray to him, he understands our needs and desires, because he is like us in every way, except that he never sinned.

Likewise, the words “take us to heaven” distort the Bible’s description of the Parousia. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 describe what Jesus will do on the Day of the Lord. He will appear in the sky, seen by every person on earth. All the angels of heaven and all the saints in Paradise will accompany him. Believers alive at that time will meet him in the air (the “Rapture”), but that meeting in the air is a brief event. It is like the officials of a city meeting a king at the city gates to escort him into the city. It is like children seeing their grandmother’s car arrive and rushing out the door to meet her in the driveway. They do not stay in the driveway with her, but they accompany her into the house. I have often considered the Rapture to be our Shepherd’s sorting of the sheep and the goats, described in Matthew 25:32-33.

When Jesus announces his Judgment, unbelieving sinners will be sent away from this world to the devil’s prison. Believers will remain in this world, but we will be changed. All the dead will be raised, and the bodies of all believers will be restored to the original plan of the Creator. Injuries and sicknesses will be removed, never to return. Even birth defects will be canceled. As our bodies will be changed, so also the world around us will be changed. It will be restored to its original perfection, the very good world inhabited by Adam and Eve before their sin brought death and decay into creation. Will there be dogs and cats in heaven? Undoubtedly, for they were part of the first perfect creation. Will they be the same dogs and cats we have known and loved in this lifetime? I don’t know, but I cannot find a verse in the Bible that says that our beloved pets will not be with us in the Kingdom of God.

“The meek will inherit the earth.” Jesus did not describe eternal life as spirits sitting on clouds playing harps. He described eternal life as a wedding reception, an unending celebration of his victory over sin and evil and death. Jesus ate with his disciples after his resurrection; he also spoke about eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets also spoke about the heavenly feast—consisting of the finest foods and the best wine. The new creation will be as physical as the first creation, and it will be on this same planet we inhabit today. Jesus is not going to take us to heaven—he is going to bring heaven to us, making this world perfect so it can be our home with him forever.

Careless and sloppy sentences (such as “Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven”) distract us from the clear message of the Bible. They prevent children from learning what they need to know about Jesus, about salvation, and about the Day of the Lord. They weaken our efforts to share with mission prospects the hope that we have in Jesus our Savior. Those nine words require nine hundred words to clarify and  correct. The real promises of the Bible are far better than our casual summaries. May God grant us firm faith and correct understanding of all that he has told us. J.

God’s holy time

God says, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Salvageable adds: “Holy” and “sacred” mean the property of God, something that has been given to God and belongs to him. “Despise” means not only to hate, but also to disregard, to treat as of no importance.

Notice that Luther’s explanation does not mention days of the week. In the beginning, according to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. While the world was still very good, pure and without sin, God mandated that people were to follow his pattern, working six days but resting from work on the seventh day. God, who made us, knows that we require rest from both physical labor and mental effort. Therefore he gave us the gift of a day free from work, a day when we can rest and can also focus on our relationship with God.

In the Law of Moses, God stressed the holiness of the seventh day of the week, demanding that his people do no work on that seventh day. Even the gift of manna in the wilderness was withheld on the seventh day of the week. The rabbis of Israel in Roman times (the Pharisees) made a detailed study of God’s commandments and had a long list of requirements, teaching what can and cannot be done on the seventh day of the week. They criticized Jesus and his disciples for going against their requirements. Rather than entering a detailed debate with them about the commandment, Jesus said simply, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8).

Paul explained what this means in his letter to the Colossians. He wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (or, better, “the substance is Christ”) (Colossians 2:16-17). As Jesus in his death fulfilled the significance of the Passover lamb and the other animal sacrifices (as well as the kosher food rules, which are related to the sacrifices) by his death on the cross, so Jesus also fulfilled the significance of the Sabbath day by resting on that day, his body in a tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. As Christians do not sacrifice bulls and lambs to God, knowing that the death of Jesus ended that practice, so Christians are not required to rest on the seventh day of the week. We are free to gather for rest, for worship, and for renewal of our relationship with God whenever we choose. Most Christians choose to gather on Sunday morning, the weekly anniversary of Christ’s resurrection, but a group that gathers on Wednesday night or Friday afternoon or any other time is not breaking God’s commandment.

Yet it is incorrect to say that the Sabbath commandment, unlike the other Ten Commandments, is not repeated in the New Testament and can be ignored by Christians. Jesus expected us to gather when he promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews admonishes, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Therefore, Luther stresses that the Sabbath commandment is obeyed or broken by our attitude towards God’s Word and the preaching of it. One Christian who occasionally misses a Sunday morning church service because of work obligations or illness but regrets it has not broken the commandment; another who attends every Sunday but disdains the Bible readings and the sermon has broken the commandment. As Luther says, we should gladly hear and learn God’s Word, for the Word is the power that changes our lives and brings us forgiveness and reconciliation with God through Christ’s sacrifice.

Every Christian needs some holy time, some time that belongs to God, preferably daily. This time is best spent in reading the Bible, meditating on its message, and in prayer. But even this is not enough. Every Christian needs to gather with like-minded Christians, preferably weekly. This time also is holy. Christians gather to support one another and to receive the support of each other. They also gather to hear God’s Word and to honor his name with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Jesus assures us that when we gather in his name—celebrating his victory and his forgiveness and all his promises—he is present in a special way. By means of the gathering, he shares his victory and his forgiveness with his people. J.

Prophecy and fulfillment

We people move one direction in time, from past to present and from present to future. Sometimes we forget that God sees all history at a glance and that he can jump into any time as he chooses. When we speak of prophecy, our descriptions sometimes miss the mark because we have forgotten that God is timeless.

We say that God knows everything, including the future. Of course God knows everything, but the future is not something he foreknows as much as something he already sees. Worse, sometimes people picture God fulfilling prophecy as if he was checking items off a list: “Let’s see—born of a virgin? check. Born in Bethlehem? check. Honored by Gentiles? check. Called out of Egypt? Let’s see how I can get him into Egypt so I can bring him home again.”

When God spoke to the prophets about future events, God was describing things he had already experienced. He never had to figure out how to fulfill a prophecy. As far as God was concerned, he was talking about things that had already happened. When God described Judas’ betrayal of Christ, he was not foreordaining that Christ would be betrayed by a certain man. He was telling what had already happened, the betrayal that Judas chose freely to perform. David and Isaiah wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus, and Jesus predicted his own crucifixion, but the priests and elders did not think of sending Jesus to the cross until Governor Pilate offered them a choice—to free Jesus or to free a terrorist named Barabbas. When the crowd chose Barabbas, they then began demanding that Jesus be sent to the cross, which was to have been the execution of Barabbas.

The focus of the Old Testament prophecies was always the rescue mission performed by Jesus. Trying to predict our future based on Biblical prophecies is pointless, not because the prophecies are unreliable, but because they have already been fulfilled. What of Judgment Day? That Day will come, as hurricanes and earthquakes remind us, but the propheciesabout that Day were met nearly two thousand years ago. As the Son of God was hanging on a cross, the sun went dark and the earth shook, even as the prophets had described. The Father’s judgment was poured on Jesus that day, which is why Christians need not fear the coming Judgment Day. Our judgment and our rescue have already been accomplished.

The book of Revelation describes a battle at a place called Armageddon. That name, Armageddon, means the heights of Megiddo. Megiddo is an ancient city built upon a plain. Several key battles were fought upon that plain, including the battle in which King Josiah was killed. The picture of all the nations of the world gathering to fight on the heights of Megiddo (which do not exist) is an image of the world-wide rebellion of sinners. That rebellion began in Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. It still rages today. It will end when Jesus appears in glory, and it will end without a bomb exploding or a shot being fired. That is the case, not because of some future event, but because of the victory Jesus won over sin and evil while nailed to the cross.

All the prophecies of the Bible are fulfilled in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. If he should appear in glory this afternoon to raise the dead and call all people to judgment, no one could say to him, “But wait! You can’t do this yet! Something else has to happen first!” For this reason, Christians prepare themselves for the glorious appearance of Christ every day, even while we make plans for tomorrow and next year and the more distant future. We have one foot in each world—we live in this world and deal with it, while we also are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We read the New Testament to learn about Jesus. We also read the Old Testament to learn about Jesus. The sacrifices and holidays of the Old Testament were lessons about Jesus. Moses and the prophets wrote about Jesus. Even the commandments of God are descriptions of the perfect, sinless life Jesus lived for our redemption. It’s all about Jesus, and for us, all the news is good news. J.

Definitions

This is the first part of a three-part post. In this first part I will define some terms used when discussing religion, particularly Christianity. In the second part, I will provide historical context using many of these terms. In the third part, I will finally get around to saying that which I want to say.

  • Agnostic: uncertain whether or not God exists. Many agnostics are quiet about their lack of certainty, but some agnostics insist that certainty about God is impossible. The latter group regards theists and atheists as equally insincere about their convictions.
  • Apologetics: the effort to communicate religious beliefs to others, often in an attempt to convert the others to the same beliefs. Not to be confused with the usual meaning of apology, in which one admits that one was wrong—in this sense, an apology is a defense of what one believes to be correct.
  • Atheist: certainty that no god exists. Many atheists are quiet about their lack of faith in any god, but some atheists overtly insist that there is no god and that all religions are based on lies and delusions.
  • Catholic: (when used of Christianity) united and present throughout the world. All Christians on earth who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, and all those with him in Paradise awaiting the resurrection, are members of the catholic Church.
  • Conservative: 1. In any context, wanting things to stay the way they are, resisting change; 2. In Christian thought, holding to the historic teachings of the Church, demanding that doctrines not be changed. (compare liberal)
  • Contemporary: in the context of Christian worship, using recently-written songs and an informal structure of worship that consists largely of songs, prayers, readings from the Bible, and preaching. (compare traditional and liturgical)
  • Cult: 1. in an academic context, a New Religious Movement not based on any older religion, or one that contains enough syncretism to be treated as a new religion; Among many conservative and fundamentalist Christians, a religion based upon false teachings, often centered around a powerful personality
  • Deist: belief in a God who created the world and established the rules of morality, but who is inaccessible. Deists do not believe in miracles or prayer or a personal relationship with any god.
  • Ecumenical: An effort among Christian groups to unite the Church into a single organization rather than many competing organizations. Conservative and fundamentalist Christians sometimes accuse ecumenical efforts of watering down doctrine for the sake of shallow unity.
  • Eisegesis: warping or twisting a passage from the Bible to make it seem to support a certain thought or belief (compare exegesis)
  • Evangelical: based upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • Exegesis: studying the Bible to discover what it says (compare eisegesis)
  • Fundamentalist: defining membership in Christianity based on acceptance of a list of beliefs. Fundamentalism began in the United States early in the twentieth century, but the word is now used for movements within Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism as well. The list of beliefs created by Christian fundamentalists usually includes the doctrine of the Trinity, the identity of Jesus as both truly God and truly man, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus as the only source of salvation, inerrancy of the Bible, acceptance of miracles (especially the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection), and the future bodily return of Jesus.
  • Gnostic: claiming to have secret knowledge about religion (especially Christianity) that goes beyond the teachings found in the Bible. Gnosticism was common during the growth of early Christianity, and is often thought to have been revived in the New Age movement within Christianity.
  • Heretic: one who denies a key doctrine of Christianity, such as the Trinity, the deity of Jesus, or the humanity of Jesus. Heretics are generally regarded by Christians as outside the true Church.
  • Hermeneutics: the set of principles that guide a reader of the Bible—a way of practicing exegesis and avoiding eisegesis. Differences among Christians often result from different hermeneutical approaches.
  • Heterodox: one who is mistaken about certain important doctrines but correct about the key doctrines. Heterodox people are generally regarded as fellow Christians with the same Savior and the same hope of heaven in spite of their differences. (compare heretic and orthodox)
  • Indigenous Religion: a religion long practiced among a small group of people with the same culture, usually a minority surrounded by a more powerful culture which follows a different religion. Indigenous religions are still practiced among some Native Americans, Africans, Pacific Islanders, Siberians, and the like.
  • Irenics: the effort to communicate among groups with differing beliefs, generally in a non-confrontational manner. The term irenics is derived from the Greek word meaning “peace.” Accordingly, irenics can be described as peaceful coexistence of people whose beliefs differ, although irenics includes communication about their differing beliefs. (compare pluralism)
  • Liberal: 1. In any context, wanting things to change, believing that a situation can be improved. 2. In Christian thought, accepting changes in doctrine, whether as a response to scientific discoveries, a response to changing social conditions and perceptions, or the ecumenical movement.
  • Liturgical: in the context of Christian worship, following the order of worship that was developed in the early Church, generally including the Kyrie, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei, all of which are songs derived from passages in the Bible. (compare contemporary and traditional)
  • New Religious Movement: in an academic context, a group of religious beliefs and practices that has come into being within the past several centuries (see cult and sect)
  • Orthodox: one who is correct about all Christian doctrines. Naturally, every Christian considers himself or herself orthodox and judges others to be heretic or heterodox.
  • Pluralism: a society in which several religions coexist without violent confrontation. The United States is often described as a pluralist society.
  • Sect: 1. In an academic context, a new religious movement that arises within an established religion. 2. Among many conservatives and fundamentalists, any Christian group that is heterodox rather than orthodox.
  • Syncretism: blending two or more religions. The Old Testament prophets preached against syncretism involving Canaanite religion and the religion of Israel. In more recent times, Santeria and Voodoo have appeared as New Religious Movements derived from Christianity blended with indigenous religions of Africa.
  • Theist: certain that God exists, that he has thoughts and feelings and personality, and that one can have a personal relationship with God.
  • Traditional: in the context of Christian worship, maintaining the same form of worship rather than developing new forms of worship. Often a synonym for liturgical. (compare contemporary)
  • Unionism: groups of different beliefs and practices worshiping together. Sometimes used of different religions worshiping together, sometimes used of different forms of Christianity worshiping together.

Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

Sorting the New Testament–a different approach

The New Testament is traditionally described as containing four types of books. These are the four Gospels, one book of history, twenty-one epistles, and one apocalypse. This description is useful because it recognizes the different kinds of literature in the New Testament and because it lists the books in the order they are arranged.

A second approach to the New Testament also describes four types of books, but this description includes one Gospel in each set. The four sets are Hebraic, Petrine, Pauline, and Johannine. The point is not that the New Testament contains different or competing theologies. All the books of the New Testament proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God, fully human, and the Savior of sinful humanity. However, this approach recognizes diversity in the authorship of New Testament books and in the intended audiences of the writers.

The Hebraic books are the Gospel of Matthew, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Letter of James. These three books are written with a Jewish audience in mind. They assume literacy in the Old Testament and familiarity with first century Jewish customs. (Other New Testament writers explain customs that these three books simply state.) The word “faith” is not often used in the Hebraic books; instead, James speaks of “wisdom” when he talks about faith and uses “faith” to talk about the content of the faith (the list of things that are believed) rather than the actual relationship of faith.

The Petrine books are the Gospel of Mark, the two epistles of Peter, and the letter from Jude. Peter was a fisherman who was trained by Jesus to be an apostle. The Gospel of Matthew is relatively terse and dry (after all, Matthew was a tax collector–a numbers person), but Mark’s accounts are lively and vivid. Early Church historians say that Mark wrote what he heard Peter preach, so the language of the book is that of Peter. Jude, brother of James (and therefore brother of Jesus), traveled with Peter. His short book is a summary of the second epistle of Peter.

The Pauline books are the thirteen epistles bearing Paul’s name and the two books by Luke: his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. While Paul’s readers included both Jews and Gentiles, the books of Luke definitely have a Gentile readership in mind. Luke is the only Gospel writer who provides a sequel, describing how Jesus and his Spirit worked in the Church during the first generation of Christians. Paul wrote nine letters to seven different congregations–a fact that Augustine of Hippo found fitting, given the number seven often signals completeness, and also given that John’s book of Revelation also is addressed to seven congregations. In addition, Paul wrote four letters to three different individuals. The letters to Timothy and Titus are written in a different style from Paul’s other epistles, leading some Bible interpreters to think they had a different author. Paul’s different style in those letters is caused, not by a different author, but by a different audience with different concerns.

The Johannine books were written by John the Apostle. They are the Gospel of John, the three epistles of John, and the book of Revelation. John, like Peter, was a fisherman trained to be an apostle. John lived longer than Peter and probably wrote these books toward the end of his career, when he had been a leader of the Church for many years. He writes like a pastor. The Gospel and epistles use a very basic vocabulary and grammar, whereas the book of Revelation is written in a far different style. Again, this probably does not indicate a different author, but rather a different subject, a different approach, and a different situation (since John wrote Revelation while imprisoned on the island of Patmos).

This approach to the New Testament helps to clarify some apparent contradictions among the writers. It also provides additional context for each book. Recognizing connections between the Gospels and the epistles may grant a reader of the New Testament new understanding of what it contains.

Tomorrow I will address the so-called Synoptic Problem. J.

Christ in Genesis

My writing project for 2016 was a series of studies of Christ in Genesis. I want to publish it all in one place, but now that I have time to work with it, WordPress is being uncooperative. Therefore, as one reader asked, here are links to the twenty-two pieces of the work as published.
Introduction

  1. In the Beginning
  2. In the Garden
  3. A Tale of Two Trees
  4. The Better Garment
  5. Confession and Promise
  6. Raising Cain, Raising Abel
  7. Noah, the Ark, and the Flood
  8. The Tower of Babel
  9. The Promise to Abraham
  10. Melchizedek
  11. Abraham, the Father of Faith
  12. Miracle Babies, and the Rights of the Firstborn
  13. The Sacrifice
  14. The Bride
  15. Birthright and Blessing
  16. Jacob’s Ladder
  17. Wrestling with God, and Seeing the Face of God
  18. Joseph & Bros.
  19. At the Right HandAt the Right Hand
  20. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah
  21. “Am I in the Place of God?”

 

“Your body is a temple of God”–part one

At times Christians say that we should take care of our bodies because they are God’s temples. Now, I am entirely in favor of maintaining our health. That is good stewardship of part of God’s creation. (See note #1, below.) But describing our bodies as God’s temples is a mistake—one which muddles what the apostle Paul wrote. It combines two or more references into a single thought that Paul did not intend.

Paul used the word “temple” in seven places among his epistles (counting multiple uses in the same sentence as one place). Only once does he refer to the actual building in Jerusalem (I Corinthians 9:13). Another time he refers to pagan temples (I Corinthians 8:10). In the remaining five places, Paul uses the word “temple” figuratively to speak about something else. These instances are worth analyzing one by one.

I Corinthians 3:16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For the temple is holy, and you are that temple.” In every case, the word “you” in these verses is plural. If your Bible does not point that out in a footnote, and if you are unable to read the New Testament in Greek, then check out a King James translation. The translators used “ye”—the plural for you at that time. (See note #2, below.) The Christian Church, together, is one temple. Moreover, Paul is writing about Christian unity in this chapter, not about physical health.

I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” This verse comes closer to saying that each of us is a temple of God, but Paul specifies in this case “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit of God does dwell within a Christian, granting saving faith and perseverance and guiding the Christian in doing good works. The topic of this part of Paul’s letter, though is sexual morality. He stresses that visiting a prostitute is a sin against God, especially against God the Holy Spirit. In ancient Greece, as in Canaan, prostitution was part of the pagan religion. Visiting a prostitute was an act of pagan worship. Therefore, it was wrong for a Christian to visit a prostitute. By extension, a preacher might use these two verses to talk about diet and exercise or other bodily matters, but that preaching goes beyond what Paul intended in these verses.

II Corinthians 6:16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” Once again, the temple of God is the Christian Church. The pronoun is plural—we, not thou—but the temple is one temple. Together, we are all the temple of God.

Ephesians 2:19-22: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Here Paul expands a simple figure of speech into an entire parable or allegory. Unmistakably, though, he is telling many Christians that together they are one temple.

II Thessalonians 2:3-4: “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that Day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Some people treat the temple in this verse as a physical structure. (See note #3, below.). When we apply Paul’s thoughts about the temple of God in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, we see that the man of lawlessness (the antichrist) will be found among God’s people, not actively opposed to the visible Church. Hitler and Stalin were not fulfillments of Paul’s prophecy, nor would Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton qualify as the man of lawlessness. That false leader will draw God’s flock astray by false teaching inside the Church—taking his seat in the temple of God.

Having established the teaching that the temple of God, according to Paul, is the whole Christian Church, I will next explain what it means for the Church to be the temple of God. J.

  1. Stewardship is a technical term describing the way Christians take care of God’s property. It sometimes becomes confused with fundraising for the church, but stewardship involves far more. Adam and Eve were placed in charge of the planet. Their descendants are still in charge of taking care of the planet. Stewardship means meeting our worldly responsibilities—paying our taxes, for example. It includes caring for our families. Yes, taking care of our own health is also part of faithful stewardship. We can do far more to serve God and help our neighbors when we are healthy than when we are sick or out of shape.
  2. English has changed since the time the Bible was first translated into English and Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets. Like many other languages, English had one word for addressing a single person (thee and thou) and another for addressing more than one person (ye and you). That has probably fallen out of use because of the egalitarian nature of American and British society in modern times. You see, in English of that time, as in other languages, people would use the plural pronoun to speak to royalty or to other people of importance. I suspect the origin of that custom is the Holy Trinity. When God spoke to himself, he used the plural (“Let us make man in our image,” for example.), and some ancient rulers may have started imitating the Lord to emphasize their own importance and authority. That last part is mere speculation, but the elimination of “thee and thou” means that we use the same pronoun no matter who we are addressing and how important that person is.
  3. Of course some Christians believe that this verse must be read literally and will be fulfilled literally. They anticipate that the Day of the Lord cannot arrive until a third temple has been built in Jerusalem for the man of lawlessness to defile. These becomes part of an elaborate narrative based on a few verses of Scripture taken out of context—but that can be the topic of another post.

Christ in Genesis

My summer writing project failed to happen this year, due to various other projects and distractions. This post introduces an occasional series of summaries of what the summer writing project would have contained.

The entire Bible, from beginning to end, is about Jesus. People read and study the Bible for other reasons, but the primary reason God gave us the Bible was to teach us about our Redeemer. Whenever we read the Bible, no matter which part of it we are reading, we should expect to encounter Jesus.

This collection of essays, “Christ in Genesis,” shows how our Redeemer can be found in the first book of the Bible. Some people read Genesis seeking only historical information about the past. The historic information it contains is accurate, but as a world history it is incomplete. Many important nations and empires are lumped together as “the nations” or encompassed as “the ends of the earth.” Some people read Genesis seeking only literature. The book of Genesis contains fine literature which can be studied in the usual way. When people say that the Bible is more than literature, they (usually) do not mean that it is less than literature. Some people read Genesis looking for moral lessons about the commands of God and the consequences of obeying or disobeying those commands. Those lessons can be found and they are useful for correcting and rebuking sinners, but even they are not the central message of Genesis. Like every part of the Bible, the book of Genesis was written that we may know Jesus and, believing in him, receive eternal life (John 20:31).

Before beginning, though, the words in the title must be defined. By “Christ,” I mean the Son of God, equal to God the Father in power and glory, wisdom and holiness–eternal, unchanging, and present everywhere in the universe. The same Christ is human, completely like every other human being, except that he never sinned. He was born at a certain time and place, he grew from a baby into a boy and then into a man, and he faced every temptation that is common to all people. He fell into the power of his enemies and was tortured and killed. The same weekend that he died, though, he rose from the dead to prove himself to be God’s Son, the world’s Redeemer, and Victor over evil in all its forms. He rules the universe today and will return on a Day known only to God, when he will judge all people and inaugurate a new and eternal world, a restoration of God’s perfect creation.

By “Genesis,” I mean the first book of the Hebrew Bible, which is also the first book of the Christian New Testament. Moses is traditionally considered to be the author of Genesis through Deuteronomy, a tradition affirmed by Jesus (Mark 12:26, for example). Originally written in Hebrew, the book of Genesis has been translated into other languages, including a number of English translations. In these essays, Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This collection of essays is not intended to be a comprehensive commentary on the book of Genesis. I will not be dealing with difficult questions such as the meaning of “day” in the first chapter of Genesis. I will be skipping entire chapters which are significant to the accounts of the book of Genesis but less relevant to my chosen theme. I do not plan to address alternate theories about the authorship of Genesis or the context in which it was created.

Perhaps the most significant word in the title, though, is the word “in.” Translators and interpreters of the Bible–or of any significant texts–find that the proper understanding of prepositions is a challenging but necessary skill. When I say that Christ is in Genesis, I mean that he is present in three significant ways.

First, the promise of his coming and of his messianic mission of redemption appears several times in Genesis. A promise is clearly stated before Adam and Eve after they have confessed their sin–this promise will later be fulfilled by Christ. God makes a promise to Abraham and repeats it to Isaac and to Jacob–this promise also will be fulfilled by Christ. Jacob foresees a Redeemer and King coming from the family of Judah–this promise likewise will be fulfilled by Christ.

Christ is also present in Genesis as the eternal, unchanging, and omnipresent Son of God. Many interpreters of Genesis speak of a preincarnate Christ. They mean that Jesus was present in a human form but not as a human being, since he had not yet been conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. They forget that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). According to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, at the time of his ascension Jesus filled the universe in every way (Ephesians 4:10). This means that he fills time as well as space. In other words, the human body of Jesus traveled backward in time to wrestle Jacob, to eat with Abraham, and even to form Adam’s body in the Garden of Eden. From his point of view, of course, Jesus did not travel through time, since he is present in every time and in every place. From our point of view, though, we can say that the human body of Jesus traveled through time.

John writes, “No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). From this I conclude that every contact a person had with God as described in the Old Testament was contact with Jesus. Several books in the Old Testament mention the LORD (in Hebrew, Yahweh or Jehovah), the Angel of the LORD, and the Spirit of the LORD. As the Spirit of the LORD can easily be recognized as God the Holy Spirit, so the Angel of the LORD is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has made the LORD known to his people.

Christ is found in Genesis in a third way. Many of the events recorded in the book of Genesis depict the work that Jesus would do to redeem sinners. I am not suggesting that the events in Genesis are not historically true; I am saying that these events are also pictures of Christ. In some cases, New Testament writings connect people and events from Genesis with Christ. In other cases, Christians from ancient times or from more recent times have noticed the connections. To avoid confusion, I am not using technical terms to describe these pictures or connections. However I am convinced that these pictures and connections are helpful to believers who know how Christ fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament, and also that they were helpful to believers who lived before Christ was born and who were still expecting the promised Redeemer.

Every part of the Bible is about Jesus. This is as true of the book of Genesis as it is true of the Gospels or the Epistles of the New Testament. Readers who encounter Christ in Genesis will better understand what is said of him in the Gospels and Epistles. The marvelous way in which Scripture interprets Scripture–the more difficult portions of the Bible being explained by the clearer passages–allows Christians to see Christ in Genesis in a way that nonbelievers are unlikely to perceive.