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.

One God, one Savior, one faith

Christians recognize one God, although God is three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christians recognize one Savior—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christians recognize one faith—a right relationship with God through the work of Jesus Christ.

Clearly God is timeless. He created time and remains outside of time, eternal and unchanging. Yet the Son of God entered creation and became subject to time. He was born to Mary and grew from a child to a man. When the time was right, Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice to rescue sinners. His sacrifice stands at the center of history. In one sense, it marks a change in the relationship between God and his people. In another sense, it makes no change, because the faith of Old Testament believers was a relationship with the very same Savior known by New Testament believers.

The chief difference between the two groups of believers is the time in which they lived. Old Testament believers were looking ahead to a promised Savior. New Testament believers look back to a Savior who kept all the promises of God. In both cases, believers are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. God’s Word in the Old Testament gave his people faith in Jesus, and God’s Word in the New Testament also gives God’s people faith in Jesus.

Although we cannot go beyond the words of the Bible to describe the content of faith before Jesus was born, we read that Abel and Noah both came to God through animal sacrifices. We also know that those sacrifices were pictures of the sacrifice of Christ. Adam and Eve heard the announcement that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head, but not without suffering himself. By faith in that message, Adam and Eve and Abel and Noah were saved and were guaranteed a home in God’s new creation.

In his letter to the Romans, chapter four, Paul specifically says that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works. He talks of the faith of Abraham enabling him to prepare to offer his promised son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Abraham might have believed that Isaac was the promised Savior, the one who had to die so sinners could be rescued. By obeying the command of God, he acted out the history of salvation—a Father offering his Son—in a way that strengthened the faith of other believers both before and after Jesus fulfilled that which Isaac only represented. In the letter to the Hebrews, chapter eleven, we are told that the content of Abraham’s faith included the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

Hebrews 11 presents a large list of people who were saved by faith. Adam and Eve, Abel and Noah, and Abraham and Isaac are on that list. Moses is on that list. He acted as a picture of Jesus, serving as a mediator between God and God’s people. Moses proclaimed that a greater Prophet would come after him—Moses knew about Jesus. (It happens that the man who replaced Moses as leader of Israel and the man who replaced Moses as the final Mediator have the same name—Y’shua—although in English the earlier replacement is called Joshua and the ultimate replacement is called Jesus, from the Greek version of his name.)

David is also mentioned on that list. David wanted to build a Temple, a house for the Lord; but God sent the prophet Nathan to tell David that David would not build God a house—God would build David a house. His house would be the Son of David, who would rule an eternal kingdom. He would be disciplined by the Lord (bearing the burden of the world’s sin and paying in full to forgive all sinners.) David still made plans and preparations for his immediate son, Solomon, to build the Temple that David was forbidden to build. David may have been muddled in his faith, seeing either Solomon or the Temple as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Both of them were pictures of Jesus, but neither was the final fulfillment of the promise concerning the Son of David. Even so, David had saving faith in God’s promise to cleanse him from his sins and reconcile him to the Lord.

God’s means of creating, strengthening, and sustaining faith changed with the sacrifice of Jesus. From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, males were circumcised to initiate them into God’s chosen nation. A little blood was shed as they were brought into God’s kingdom. Even Jesus first shed blood in his circumcision. Now God’s people have Baptism, washing with water accompanied by God’s Word to initiate people into God’s chosen nation. Baptism is painless, is available to all people, and pictures the work of cleansing that is made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross. Before Jesus died on the cross, people sacrificed animals to the Lord, shedding the blood of animals as pictures of the future sacrifice. When people went through the motions of sacrifice without faith, God hated what they were doing. (See Psalm 50.) When they sacrificed in faith, God blessed their work and strengthened their faith. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the picture of sacrifice, his people no longer sacrifice animals. But they remember Jesus and his sacrifice in a sacred meal that features his body and his blood, strengthening and sustaining faith through the Word of God that accompanies that meal.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Jesus stands at the center of all that is done by the people of God. From every tribe and language and nation—and from every time in history, from Adam and Eve to present and the future believers—we are united in the same faith in the same God and the same Savior. Abraham, Moses, David, and the other believers of Old Testament times will feast at the same heavenly banquet to which all Christians are invited, where Jesus is the host and we are all his special guests. J.

 

Know your enemies

I seem to be having a devilish week. First insanitybytes writes a post about the devil called “The voice of the enemy”—I tried to create link to it, but failed . Then, while the oil is being changed in my car, I read a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1926, called “A Nursery Tale,” in which the devil plays a significant part.

One commenter to “The voice of the enemy” reminded IB that the devil is a created being, not omnipresent throughout the universe; the commenter questioned the ability of the devil to put thoughts into the minds of people. From there the conversation went askew, and rather than adding my voice to the din, I chose to visit the topic here.

A long-standing tradition in the Christian Church speaks of three enemies to the Christian: the devil, the world, and the flesh. “The world” does not mean the planet, but it describes all the temptation and opposition to the faith that comes from the people around us. “The flesh” does not refer to the Christian’s physical body, but rather to the evil thoughts and impulses that still exist in the mind or heart of the Christian.

From time to time, small groups of Christians insist that the flesh no longer exists in a saved Christian. Quoting a few verses out of context (particularly some from I John), they claim that a true believer no longer sins and that a sinner is not yet a true believer. They overlook I John 1:8—“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”—and they distort Paul’s description of the paradox of Christian living in Romans 7. No, the devil does not need to be everywhere to accomplish his evil goals; the devil has a willing accomplice inside each of our minds and hearts.

The world is polluted by sin, causing us to be tempted every day. From Elizabeth Taylor to Taylor Swift, men’s minds are led astray—not because these talented women are part of some massive conspiracy to promote evil, but because the entertainment industry uses attractive and skilled performers to give us what we say we want. The flesh is eager to be tempted. The world is eager to offer temptations. The world would rather drag Christians down to its level than see us rise by God’s power to the level of Jesus Christ.

I picture the devil, not as a mastermind steering all the evil in the world, but as a mafia boss or gang leader sitting in a prison cell. He is “a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8), but he is a caged lion, and we can resist him when we stay out of his cage. He is pictured as a dragon bound in chains and sealed in a pit (Revelation 20:1-3), but because the world is polluted by rebellion and evil, the devil’s schemes continue to succeed.

When did the devil fall from power? When was he chained and caged? When seventy-two missionaries reported to Jesus about their work, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). From this we learn that Satan falls from power and is bound whenever God’s Word is preached and believed. When is the dragon loosed? He is released from bondage whenever people turn away from the Word of God. When they call the Gospel “ancient myths and legends” and deny the cross of Christ and his resurrection, they unchain the devil. This unchaining is not some future event—it has been happening for centuries and continues to happen today.

The devil has several names. He is called Satan, which comes from the Persian name for a prosecuting attorney. Not only does the devil tempt us to sin; he also reminds us of our sins and calls on God to punish us as we deserve. He is called “Beelzebul,” meaning “master of masters,” a title given by Canaanites to their god Baal. The name is often changed to “Beelzebub,” meaning “master of flies,” a reminder that, even though at times he is called the king of this world, he has no real power. He took the form of a serpent to deceive our ancestors and to draw them and all humanity into his rebellion. (Only in the book of Revelation does the Bible explicitly say that the serpent is the devil.) God told Satan that he would “eat dust” and that his head would be crushed by the Christ—this first preaching of the Gospel is the time Satan first began to fall.

Jesus has defeated the devil by dying on a cross and rising again from the dead. The devil continues to be defeated whenever people hear and believe the good news about Jesus. If the devil and the world cause a Christian to suffer, hoping that the Christian will doubt God’s goodness or his power, their attack is defeated when that Christian allows his or her sufferings to be a reminder of the sufferings of Christ.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed sinners, and he has redeemed all of creation. The devil took the form of a snake, but a snake became a picture of Jesus (Numbers 21:8-9 and John 3:14-15). The devil is a roaring lion, but Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The devil is a prosecuting attorney, but Jesus is our defense attorney, pleading his case before his Father and reminding his Father that our penalty has been paid in full.

Yes, in this sin-polluted life we still battle the devil, the world, and our flesh. One cannot sort the struggles to know when a temptation or an attack came from the devil, or from the world, or from our own sinful flesh. They work together, and the source of our problems does not matter. All that matters is the victory that is ours through Jesus Christ. J.

 

Ruth

Our Sunday morning Bible class covered the four chapters of the book of Ruth today. I already knew many of the things that were said, but I learned some new things as well.

The book of Ruth is more than a study of ancient history. Its main point is to show how outsiders enter the kingdom of God. The title character is a citizen of Moab; by God’s own Law, she and her descendants should have been forbidden a place in Israel (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Instead, Ruth becomes an Israelite and turns out to be the great-great grandmother of King David.

Ruth learns about Israel and about its God from Naomi, her mother-in-law. Yet Naomi is dreadful at evangelism. Not only does she encourage Ruth to return to her people and to her gods (Ruth 1:15); she proceeds to blacken God’s reputation, saying, “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). Naomi may believe that the deaths in her family were punishment from God, punishment for leaving the Promised Land during a famine and seeking help among foreigners. She may be trying to spare Ruth a share of the family punishment, or she may simply be trying to avoid this reminder of her time spent in Moab.

Either way, Ruth will not be deterred. In the most famous verses of the book, she declares, “Do not urge me to leave you or return from following you. For where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17). If Naomi believes that she is cursed by God, Ruth offers to share that curse, and Ruth calls down a curse upon herself if she is separated from Naomi.

Boaz is, of course, a foreshadowing of his great descendant, Jesus Christ. The frequent use of the word “redeemer” in the book of Ruth makes that conclusion inescapable. From the time he notices her, Boaz provides for Ruth and protects her from danger. Only gradually does the writer of the book reveal the risk assumed by Ruth when she offered to glean the fields near Bethlehem. Boaz keeps her safe from harm and he is generous to her, so that she brings home a bountiful harvest. When he awakes at midnight and finds her sleeping at his feet, he promises to be her redeemer. He protects her, not sending her home at midnight when it would be dangerous, but sending her home early enough in the day that no one would know where she had been. He provides her with six measures of grain already threshed; now that she has a redeemer, she needs to do no work, neither gathering nor threshing the grain.

An unnamed man has the right to be a redeemer instead of Boaz. Boaz calls a meeting of the town council for a legal discussion and hearing. He begins by saying that Naomi is selling land that belongs to her family. Needless to say, she needs money now, and an unplanted field has no value to her. The potential redeemer is willing to buy the land. Under the law of God, the land would not remain his in perpetuity—at the next Jubilee year, it must be returned to Naomi or her heirs (Leviticus 25:13-17). Since the land had been unfarmed for at least ten years (Ruth 1:4), the redeemer would need to work hard to reclaim the farmland, knowing that in time he would return that land and have no more benefit from it.

The unnamed man is willing to purchase the land, probably out of compassion for Naomi. He is then reminded of his responsibility to the widow—he must take her into her house and provide her with a son to inherit the property that belonged to the widow’s husband (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). The ties between family and land were important to God. He had made a triple promise to Abraham: Abraham’s family would become a mighty nation, they would own the land where Abraham wandered as a rancher, and from that family on that land would come a blessing for the entire world. Therefore, the land was carefully parceled to the tribes of Israel in the days of Joshua. Strict laws forbade moving stones marking property lines. Keeping inheritance within families resulted in the laws about Jubilees years and about providing an heir for one’s brother.

Because of this tie to the land, Joseph took Mary his espoused and pregnant wife to Bethlehem at the time of the Roman census. Most people living in the Roman Empire were counted and taxed wherever they happened to be at the time of the census. Joseph was a son of David, though, and he was determined to be counted as a citizen of Bethlehem, David’s hometown. Jesus, the ultimate Son of David, was therefore born in Bethlehem, and thus he was entitled to inherit David’s throne and kingdom.

Boaz seems to have been coy about which widow the men were discussing. He used Naomi’s name when discussing the sale of land and then mentioned both Naomi and Ruth when speaking of the widow who must be allowed to produce an heir for her late husband. Some English translations make it seem that Ruth is intended (Ruth 4:5), but the Hebrew is vague. The unnamed man may have thought, “To acquire this land, I must also acquire Naomi, that old bitter woman. It’s not worth it.” After all, Ruth is not even an Israelite. He declines the offer to buy the land, saying that it would complicate inheritance within his own family. Imagine his surprise and regret when he learns that Boaz intends to marry Ruth, not Naomi—and must have intended that all along.

The ceremony ratifying the sale of land and accompanying women involves taking off the sandal of the redeemer who declines to redeem. The original regulation about providing an heir for a childless brother also involved taking off a sandal if a man should refuse to produce an heir for his brother. In this case, the widow was to pull off his sandal and spit in his face, and his family was to become known as the Unsandaled (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).

“Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer!” (Ruth 4:14). If Boaz serves as a picture of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, then Ruth is an image of the Bride of Christ, the Church consisting of all who have been redeemed by Christ. Jesus pays the necessary price to make us his people. He protects us from evil and generously supplies us with all that we need. He cheats the devil out of the devil’s claim on our lives by taking our burden upon himself. All this is ours, not because we bought it or earned it, but because Jesus is loving and merciful. J.

 

Genesis

People who know me describe me as intelligent and educated, even scholarly (among other things). Some of them are surprised to learn that I regard the biblical book of Genesis as historically reliable and accurate. They have been told again and again that the accounts of that book have been discredited by science and archeology. They don’t understand why I will not wave a white flag of surrender whenever they confront me with what “studies have shown.”

In the near future, I will write a second post to comment upon scientific studies. Before writing that, I want first to address my reasons for regarding Genesis as a good source of information about the past. My reasoning is not the circular argument that Genesis is in the Bible and the Bible says it is from God and true, so Genesis must be true. My confidence in the Bible comes from my faith in Jesus Christ. I do not worship the Bible as such, but I follow the example of Jesus in trusting what the Bible says.

Of course Jesus is best known through the Bible, so I might not have escaped yet the accusation of circular reasoning. However “studies have shown” that the New Testament documents were created by the first and second generation of Christians, reflecting information that came from eyewitnesses of Jesus. The four gospels were delivered as oral tradition before they were written—the similarities of outline and content among Matthew, Mark, and Luke testify to this oral tradition. The source of that tradition was a group of witnesses identified as apostles, men specifically chosen by Jesus to carry his message to the world. Gross inaccuracies in the account of Jesus would have been corrected or removed from the gospels. Without demanding belief in inerrancy of Scripture or addressing every apparent discrepancy or contradiction among the gospels, one can accept their general description of the attitudes and opinions of Jesus to be reliable for historians.

Among those attitudes and opinions of Jesus are respect for the accuracy and reliability of the Hebrew Bible (called Old Testament by Christians). Jesus frequently quoted from the Torah (known also as the books of Moses), and he treated the historical information they contain as true. Because I trust Jesus, I imitate his respect for the Hebrew Bible, and I use my intelligence to comprehend the message of those books rather than to fight against their message.

Perhaps on Judgment Day Jesus will tell me and other Christians that the book of Genesis was always meant to be treated as parable and metaphor. Perhaps he will reveal that Adam and Eve were not historic figures, that there was no Garden of Eden, no world-wide flood, and no Tower of Babel. I will not be sorry at that time to learn that what I believed about those stories was false. In fact, I will delight to relearn history and science from the Master. Meanwhile, I risk trusting that they are true, not because I don’t want to use my intelligence, but because I don’t want to lose my relationship with Jesus.

Other people, who cannot accept the accounts in Genesis because of their trust in scientists and historians, use their lack of confidence in Genesis to support their rejection of the entire message of the Bible. Because they cannot believe that the world was created in six days, or that a talking snake met Eve in Eden, they say that the entire Bible is nothing but fairy tales and that God is an imaginary being. Being wrong about how long the world has existed does not matter. Being wrong about God does matter. One of the strengths of science as a discipline is the ability of scientists to keep exploring new ideas, to admit that some ideas are wrong and others are better. One of the strengths of Christian faith is the ability of Christians to remain anchored in unchanging truth even while every scholarly finding is questioned and changed.

I have high respect for scientists, historians, and archeologists. I have high respect for their findings and discoveries. I do not have respect for people who try to use those findings and discoveries as weapons against people of faith. With unintended irony, they mock people of faith who aver that scientists and historians may be wrong, while genuine scientists and historians are always open-minded toward the possibility that they may be wrong. The air of superiority worn by those who trust science to disprove faith will be overturned when they meet God face to face. Sadly, that Day it will be too late for them to change their minds. J.