A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

A message from God (part one)

The Lord Jesus and I have a running joke. Since Jesus knows everything, he knows that I am only pretending, but I like to think that he sends me private and personal messages via the songs I hear on the radio. Whether it’s a recent song such as, “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be,” or a classic rock song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” I treat the lyrics as encouragement to trust that a job change is coming soon. Even break-up songs can be heard as a promise that soon I will leave my current job for something better.

Jesus knows that I accept only the Bible as genuine messages from him. He said it himself: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Luke 24 shows Jesus using the Hebrew Bible (Moses, the prophets, and the writings) to explain his rescue mission, including his death and resurrection. Moses and the prophets spoke and wrote as inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles chosen by Jesus did the same. We can trust the Bible to be God’s Word, trustworthy and true, fully reliable in whatever it reports. No other message that claims to be from God—dreams, visions, or inner voices—comes with that guarantee.

Over the years I have known several Christians—in person or through the Internet—who believed that they received personal messages from God outside the written Word of the Bible. I do not want to single any of these Christians out for argument or debate. God can do whatever he wants. If he chooses to send a dream to one person and a thought to another person and a song on the radio to a third person, the Lord is quite capable of doing so. He doesn’t need my permission. But I want to share a cautionary tale about accepting every such message as heaven-sent, without “testing the spirits” (I John 4:1) by comparing the current message to the Bible.

Two men—I’ll call them Moe and Joe—had similar frustrations about religion and Christianity, although they lived in different parts of the world and at different times of history. Moe and Joe were both perplexed by the many religions in the world, including various differences in Christian teaching. Groups of Christians read the same Bible yet offered different interpretations of what is written. Moe and Joe both sought a direct and personal relationship with God. They wanted the Lord to confirm the truth to them so they could believe the truth and share it with others.

Had Moe spent more time studying the Bible, he would have been prepared for what happened to him. Moe would have know that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14), and he would have remembered Paul’s warning that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8) As Moe sought a personal relationship with God to reveal truth to him, Moe was met by an angel of light who claimed to be the archangel Gabriel. This angel gave Moe messages to recite, purportedly messages from God that had been preached by all the prophets but had been changed over time. These messages included moral teachings that greatly resemble those accepted by Jews and Christians. But they also included statements that Jesus is a prophet but nothing more than a prophet, that God has no Son, and that each person is responsible for his or her own salvation. Some people think that Muhammad (or Moe) made up the messages he received; others believe he did receive the recitations of the Quran directly from an angelic figure. I cannot judge Muhammad, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

Likewise Joe (Joseph Smith Jr.) in the state of New York received heavenly visitors who provided him access to “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” the Book of Mormon. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believe that the Book of Mormon is from God; most Christians believe that it is not. The proof is found in comparing its message to the writings of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Once again, the messages do not agree. Some people think that Joe invented the messages of the Book of Mormon; others believe he did receive those writings from heavenly figures. I cannot judge Joseph Smith, but I can judge his message to be false because of what it says about Jesus.

With Moe and Joe in mind, I encourage every Christian to be slow to accept any dream or message or thought or feeling as a personal message from God. “Test the spirits.” Study the Bible to know God’s Word so you can distinguish truth from falsehood. Don’t be angry when another Christian uses God’s Word to correct a message that you think came from God, because that is one of the purposes of the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17). And tomorrow I will write more about having a personal relationship with Jesus that goes beyond reading, hearing, learning, and sharing the written Word of the Bible. J.

Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.

To fulfill the Law

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Jesus shows his respect for the Old Testament. The Law—that is, the Torah, the five books of Moses—and the Prophets are valid for all of history, not merely for the time before Jesus was born. Not the smallest part of the Bible can be omitted. Jesus does not say that religion grows and evolves, changing as the times change, leaving behind what is no longer practical and improving as people improve. Instead, Jesus says, true religion rests on a timeless standard. People cannot drift away from the eternal standard without letting go much that is good, even much that is essential.

Why, then, did Jesus and the early Church abolish so much of the Law? Why don’t Christians maintain the kosher food rules delivered by Moses? Why is the Sabbath day, for most Christians, the first day of the week rather than the seventh? Why do Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter but neglect Passover and Yom Kippur? Why do Christians refuse to sacrifice lambs and bulls and doves to the Lord?

People have not improved; nor have we outgrown the old ways. The answer to all these questions is that Jesus has fulfilled the writings of Moses and the prophets. The holidays and sacrifices and all the teachings of the Law were pictures of Jesus. Jesus fulfilled them in such a way that practicing them is no longer relevant. Christians still study the Old Testament to learn how Jesus is revealed by these pictures. In some cases—the animal sacrifices, for example, and the seventh day Sabbath—Jesus fulfilled the Law by suffering and dying on the cross, resting in the grave on the Sabbath, and rising to life on the first day of the week. We remember these Old Testament commandments, but we do not obey them. Jesus fulfilled them for us; we are no longer bound to them. Other commandments—not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to bear false witness—Jesus also fulfilled for us, but now we are guided by these commandments as we strive to imitate Jesus and as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image of Jesus.

Christians do not agree with one another about certain aspects of God’s Law. Some hold to the seventh day Sabbath; others are willing to jettison even God’s view of marriage. In general, though, the apostles chosen by Jesus have given the Church reliable guidelines about which commandments are no longer binding because Jesus fulfilled them and which commandments he fulfilled so that we can obey them and imitate him.

“Not an iota, not a dot” can pass away from God’s Word. The yodh subscript and the wavy line which distinguishes a Tau from a Heth—they all matter. We ignore no part of the Bible. We treasure it all. We study the Bible, learn its message, and teach that message to others. As we look at God’s Word, though, we find more than rules about how to live. We see the ways Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. We have not truly understood any part of the Bible until we have found Jesus in it. The entire Bible was written to bring us to him. Therefore, Jesus speaks against anyone who would ignore part of God’s Word, and he favors those who cling to the entire Word of God. Because it all is about Jesus, it all matters.  J.

My newest book: Unveiling Revelation

Imagine seeing a woman and a dragon stretched across the sky. Imagine seeing four supernatural horsemen riding across the landscape, bringing death and destruction in their wake. Imagine watching as the mighty city Babylon is destroyed by enemies that used to be its friends. Best of all, imagine standing in the presence of God, surrounded by angels and saints, all singing praise to Jesus Christ the Lord and the Redeemer.

All these things happened to John the Apostle on the island of Patmos. He described his experiences in the book of Revelation, the full name of which is A Revelation of Jesus Christ. The book of Revelation is written in poetry with many odd and frightening vision. But the main theme of the book is good news: Jesus has won against all evil, and he shares his victory with his people.

In “Unveiling Revelation,” John’s book is studied by comparing it to the other sixty-five books of the Bible. After an introduction that outlines Biblical eschatology (the study of Last Things), the book breaks Revelation into sections and analyzes them one by one. More a devotional work than a commentary, it reveals the true meaning of what is described in the book of Revelation.

This is now the tenth book I have self-published through Amazon and Kindle. To celebrate, I reduced the Kindle cost of all ten books to four dollars each. In some ways, Unveiling Revelation was a difficult book to write—it was meant to be last summer’s writing project, and I didn’t finish it until this summer. But I think I learned a lot studying Revelation to write about Revelation. I’ve taught the book in Bible class at least five times, and before that I took a seminary course on the book of Revelation, so I hope other people will find my observations helpful.

On the other hand, not all readers are going to like my book. It does not follow the path of The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind books. Instead, I treat passages such as I Thessalonians 4:13-18 as God’s clear messages about eschatology and use them to decipher the meaning of the poetic language of Revelation. Since everything in the Bible is true, and Revelation is in the Bible, it follows that everything in Revelation is true. But, as there are figures of speech elsewhere in the Bible—figures that must be interpreted in context and through comparing them to clearer sections of Scripture—so the same is true of the book of Revelation.

In one of the Bible classes I taught about Revelation, a young man spoke up to say, “I don’t understand everything in this book, but I’ve figured out one thing: Jesus wins!” That is certainly the most important thing to remember when reading and studying Revelation. If you don’t comprehend anything else, be sure to remember that Jesus wins. J.

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For the paperback, click here.    For the Kindle, click here.

The finish-line–Revelation 22

“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17—read Revelation 22:1-21).

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, he made a garden as the home of the first man and the first woman. In that garden grew the tree of life. But when the man and the woman ate the fruit of another tree, fruit that had been forbidden to them, God removed them from the garden. He did not want them to eat the fruit of the tree of life and live forever in their sin and rebellion and separation from him. Instead, he wanted them to pass through death to everlasting life, to be restored to fellowship with him.

God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, promising them a garden-like home in the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. To reach that land, they had to travel through the wilderness. God made a covenant with his people in the wilderness, saying, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But the Israelites doubted God’s promise; they feared the Canaanites living in the Promised Land and failed to trust God. Therefore, they remained in the wilderness forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land.

Like a shepherd searching for lost sheep, Jesus came into this wilderness of sin to rescue us. He battled the devil’s temptations in the wilderness, and Jesus won. When the time came to fulfill his promise of redemption, Jesus went into a garden to pray. He was seized in that garden and taken to trials and to the cross. But, after his death on the cross, he was buried in a garden, and in that garden his victory was proclaimed as Jesus rose from the dead.

Now the new creation is described as a garden. As rivers flowed from Eden to water the earth, so a river flows from the throne of God through the main street of the New Jerusalem. That river carries the water of life, the redeeming water that gives life to all God’s people. The tree of life grows on either side of that river, with twelve kinds of fruit to nourish all the people of God. Its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Because our sins have been removed, we are no longer barred from eating the fruit of the tree of life. We can live forever, because our rebellion against God has ended and all sin and evil has been removed from our lives.

One of the historic prayers of the Church mentions the devil, saying, “that he who by a tree once overcame might likewise by a tree be overcome.” The cross is that tree where the serpent’s head was crushed. It is a tree of life, even though nothing could be deader than a bare, wooden, fruitless cross, an instrument of death rather than life. We are all trees in the Lord’s orchard, meant to bear fruit for him. Yet apart from him we can do nothing. We might have green leaves, suggesting life, but we offer him no fruit. We are dead trees, fit only for the fire. Only Jesus of Nazareth bears fruit fit for the kingdom of heaven. But by going to the dead tree of the cross, Jesus gives us life. He makes us fruitful trees, worthy of his kingdom. His cross truly is the tree of life that makes us alive, watered by the river of the water of life, yielding fruit in due season (Psalm 1:3).

The last chapter of Revelation seems almost a scatter-shot of promises, echoing the previous chapters of the book as well as those of the other books of the Bible. Jesus speaks, and his messengers speak on his behalf. Even John becomes confused, worshiping an angel who speaks Christ’s promises, and being scolded by the angel for his confusion. The angel calls himself a fellow-servant of the apostle and of his brothers, the prophets; he tells John, “Worship God!” We also, as fruit-bearing trees in God’s orchard, can be fellow-servants with the apostles and prophets and angels; we also have the joyful privilege and obligation to share God’s life-giving Word, to bring forgiveness to sinners and hope to the victims of sin through the tree of life, the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is coming soon. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He is also everything in between. He is both the root and the descendant of David—David’s son and David’s Lord. He is the bright morning star, first-risen from the dead to promise all of us a resurrection like his on the Day he appears in the clouds.

Revelation 22 includes a warning not to add anything to the book of Revelation, nor to take away anything from the book. This warning applies to the entire Bible. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). But Jesus has fulfilled the promises of Moses and the prophets: he has done everything required to rescue God’s people, to defeat evil in all its forms, and to make everything new. Soon he will be seen in the clouds in glory, giving the command to raise all the dead, to announce his verdict on every life, and to welcome his people home into the new creation. Meanwhile, we live in his grace, redeemed from all our sins, reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice, and ready for eternal life in a new and perfect creation. As John writes, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

Sons of David

The New Testament stresses that Jesus Christ is “the son of David.” This label refers to a conversation between King David and the prophet Nathan, recorded in II Samuel 7 and I Chronicles 17. David wanted to build a Temple for the Lord, but God responded that David would not build him a house; he would build David a house. The message continued that one of David’s sons would rule an eternal kingdom. David had several wives and at least nineteen sons, but four of those sons particularly stand out as predecessors to Jesus, the ultimate son of David.

A son was born as a result of David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Nathan challenged David with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only sheep, and David said, “That man deserves to die!” “You are that man,” Nathan replied, but then he said, “You will not die, but the child will die” (II Samuel 12:13-14).When the child was born and became sick, David wept and pled for the infant’s life, but the baby still died. David ended his mourning after the death of the child. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23).

David sinned and deserved to die. David did not die. God was gracious and forgave the sin of David. But the son of David died as a consequence of David’s sin. The son of David was just a baby. He had done nothing wrong. Even so, his death followed David’s sin and, in a way, rescued David from the death he deserved. Later, the Son of David would be born in Bethlehem—David’s hometown—so he also could die in payment for David’s sin. He also was without sin and did not deserve to die. His life was threatened by King Herod when he was very young, but God protected him at that time, sending him to Egypt to escape Herod’s plot.

Trouble and strife entered David’s family following his sin. Amnon, the son of David and heir to David’s throne, attempted to seduce his half-sister Tamar and instead raped her. As a result, Tamar’s brother Absalom murdered Amnon when he had the opportunity. Amnon was guilty of sin, of course, but instead of being put on trial, condemned, and sentenced, he was struck down by his own brother and died. Another son of David had died, this time rejected by his own family. Later, the Son of David would also be rejected by his own people, first in Nazareth and later in Jerusalem. The people of Nazareth, who had known Jesus since he was a child, rejected his teaching and tried to throw him off a cliff and stone him to death. At that time, Jesus walked safely through the crowd, because his time to die had not yet come.

Absalom was punished with exile from Jerusalem, but later he was allowed to return. When he returned, he began to plot against his father. He tried to steal the kingdom from his father, and he nearly succeeded. David had to flee Jerusalem, but his faithful soldiers stayed with him. Israel fought a civil war between the forces of David and the forces of Absalom. David begged his soldiers to be gentle with his son, but when the leader of David’s forces found Absalom caught in a tree, he thought that the opportunity for victory was too good to miss. Joab killed the son of David while Absalom was hanging on a tree. David wanted to mourn over the death of his son, but Joab persuaded David to thank the soldiers who had fought for him and to celebrate their victory.

 The ultimate Son of David, who is also the Son of God, also died hanging on a tree. He was arrested in Jerusalem, turned over to the Roman authorities, and crucified. Jesus was guilty of no rebellion against his Father, but while hanging on the cross he was treated as guilty for all the sins of the world. Though he might mourn the death of his only-begotten Son, God the Father still accepts the sinners whose wrongdoing brought about the death of Jesus. As Absalom’s death meant victory for David, so the death of Jesus means eternal victory for all those who trust in him. Their sins are forgiven, and they are welcomed by God into an eternal Kingdom, an eternal celebration of the victory Jesus won.

Solomon replaced his father David on the throne of Israel and built the Temple David had wanted to build. Solomon was a son of David, but he was not the promised Son of David. Solomon ruled Israel for forty years and then died; his kingdom was not eternal. Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, rules an eternal kingdom. His death means forgiveness and life for all God’s people. Those who trust in Jesus are not merely servants of God and citizens of his Kingdom; we are royalty, for the King has adopted us into his family. His victory is our victory, and because of his death we will live forever. J.

(adapted from a post first published August 2, 2015)

 

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #6: Has the Church changed the Bible since it was first written?

Around the end of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds discovered a cave near the Dead Sea. In the cave they found jars, and in the jars they found ancient scrolls. During the following years more caves with more scrolls were discovered nearby. Although most of the scrolls have crumbled into fragments, it has been possible to piece together nearly one thousand scrolls. They were written between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D., and they are a library used by a Jewish community that had left the cities to live in the remote desert. About forty percent of the scrolls were portions of the Hebrew Bible, known among Christians as the Old Testament.

At that time, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament (in the original Hebrew) known to exist was one thousand years old. Now scholars had access to versions of the Bible twice as old. Close comparisons have been made, and—aside from a stray letter here or there—no differences were found between the two sets of documents. None of the differences represents a change in teachings among God’s people. The Bible has been preserved through the centuries without human interference.

This should have come as no surprise. The Jewish scribes who make hand-written copies of the Scriptures are meticulous in their work. After one scribe has copied a text, another inspects it. If more than one mistake is found, the faulty copy is destroyed. To assure accuracy of the inspection, these scribes count letters, knowing what the thousandth letter should be and what the two thousandth letter should be and which letter is at the exact center of the Torah.

The history of the written New Testament is more complex. Generally one leader would read from a New Testament text to a room of scholars, and each scholar would write a copy. More errors were likely in this method—skipped phrases, repeated phrases, misheard words, and the like. But thousands of copies of the New Testament, or parts thereof, have been found by archaeologists, dating to the early centuries of Christianity. Using a science called textual criticism, experts can compare divergent texts and determine what the apostle had originally written.

Anyone capable of reading the common Greek of the first century can pick up a New Testament and be reasonably certain that he or she will read the same words, sentences, and books first written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. Of course everyone else has to depend upon translations. A translator—especially a paraphraser—may have a theological bias which leads to misrepresentations in the translation, whether intended or not. But the most common English translations are reliable, and a person concerned about bias can check several different translations to get a surer sense of the original message.

Contrary to rumor, the Church has not changed the Bible over the years. J.