History and prehistory

The textbook assigned for my history classes occasionally made references to groups of people who had lived in various places for many thousands of years or of people who arrived in certain places many thousands of years ago. I promised my students that they would not be required to learn those time spans, and I assured them they would not be tested on those numbers.

Right after explaining to the class what the textbook means by “BCE and “CE,” I gave them that assurance. “This class is a class about history,” I told them. Those few sentences in the book are about prehistory. We are not studying prehistory in this class; if it comes up in other classes, you can learn about it there. I used the opportunity to teach the students that, when it comes to prehistory, more than two theories are available. The reduction of debates and disagreements to two choices can be a problem in many areas—particularly in the study of history. I reminded the students that often prehistory is approached as if there are only two positions: Evolution, in which the world has changed and developed over millions of years, and Creation, in which the world was made by an Almighty God less than ten thousand years ago. I pointed out that there are other theories. Some people believe that an Almighty God created over millions of years, gradually shaping the world and life in it into what we know today. Others see God as a Spirit of the Universe, evolving with the worlds and with the life living on those worlds. Still others view the universe as passing through stages, gradually building to a high point, then crashing into destruction and beginning again the process of building. Some versions of Hinduism regard the physical world as a place in which building and destruction and rebuilding has been the pattern, repeated many times through the long course of history.

Evolution did not begin with Charles Darwin. When we reach the nineteenth century and talk about Darwin, I point out that his writings were heavily footnoted. None of his ideas were new; he was merely a successful writer who brought those ideas together and expressed them in a popular fashion. One might say that Darwin had a better press agent than other scientists of his generation—just as one might say that Guttenberg had a better press agent than other inventers of his time. Guttenberg was selected as the most influential man of the millennium (1000-2000) because of his printing invention; but printing was invented in China centuries before Guttenberg was born. Even movable type had been devised before Guttenberg came along. His printing business was more successful than those of his competitors, and he ended up taking credit for the new technology, but he scarcely deserves credit for changing the world by inventing printing or any facet of printing technology.

And don’t let me even start talking about Thomas Edison….

But I digress. I also tell my students that if Charles Darwin were transported into a biology class taking place in our time and were given an examination on evolution, Darwin would fail the test. The theory of evolution has changed (some would say it has evolved) since Darwin wrote his famous books. Darwin believed in slow, gradual change continually occurring in nature. Scientists today teach about long periods of stability and sudden changes—often climate change brought about by meteorite strikes or other cataclysmic events. Darwin believed that all surviving adaptations were improvements—“survival of the fittest”—but scientists today insist that many surviving adaptations are not the best possible results of change—“survival of the survivors.”

In any case, human beings at the beginning of recorded history were essentially like human beings today. They had the same intellectual capability, the same ability to learn, and the same ability to remember that people have today. They had less to learn and less to remember—not only history, but science and literature and other classes would also have been greatly abbreviated from what students learn today. Their bodies were smaller, on the average, and their lives were shorter, but that was due more to nutrition and other health-related issues than to any evolutionary change over the past few thousand years. No, when we think of the earliest people who lived at the beginning of history, those people were very much like ourselves.

Poor people. J.

Two plans: creation and salvation

              A story is told about a father and his son who took a donkey to town to sell it at the market. When they left their home, the father and his son walked alongside the donkey, one on the right and the other on the left. But the father overheard some people along the road commenting, “What a waste of a good animal, to carry nothing while both of them walk.” So the father told his son to ride the donkey. Soon he heard another group of people saying, “What a thoughtless boy, to ride the donkey while his father walks.” So the father had his son get off the donkey and instead he rode. But then he heard other people saying, “What a mean father, to make his son walk while he rides the donkey.” So the father told his son to get in front of him on the donkey so both of them would ride. But then the father heard some people say, “That poor donkey! How cruel of them to make it carry all that weight.” The father finally decided that he and his son would carry the donkey to town. Finally, they heard no more comments, because people were laughing too hard to say anything. Finally, the donkey lost patience, struggled, and ran off across the fields, and the father had no donkey to sell in town. The moral of the story is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so you might as well not try.

              Even the Almighty God cannot make everyone happy. The message of his Bible contains two simple plans that relate to us, his people. Lutherans call these plans Law and Gospel. They have many other names. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we might call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation. Even with two simple plans, God often finds his people confusing them, mixing them, and misunderstanding how those two plans relate to our lives. Even among Christians who trust the Bible and believe that it is true, a trustworthy message from God, we still find many differences relating to these two plans and what they mean for our lives as God’s people.

              Why were you born? Why are you here on this earth? What is the purpose of your life? Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand. God is love, and we were made in his image. We are created to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s Ten Commandments tell us how to love. If ten commandments are not enough for you, more than six hundred more commandments can be found in just the first five books of the Bible. All of these commandments are about love. They tell us how to love God. They tell us how to love our neighbors. They tell us how to be the people God had in mind when he created us in the beginning.

              God’s perfect world has become polluted by sin and evil. We are frequently tempted to sin, and every day we surrender to temptation. We rebel against God. We fail to love. We fall short of God’s plan for our lives. When we sin, God’s plan of creation cannot rescue us from evil. We are like the victim of robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan. God’s good commandments, like the priest and the Levite, walk past us without stopping to help. Only a second plan can save us. This second plan is God’s plan of salvation. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who stops to rescue us, to heal us, to restore us. Whoever believes in him will not perish. Instead, through the plan of salvation, we receive eternal life. We are saved by grace, through faith, not by works. We are snatched out of the clutches of evil. Our sins are forgiven, and the sins committed against us are likewise cancelled. We belong to God, and no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

              These two plans of God are vitally important. They are also fairly simple. God created us to do good works, to love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives. God loves us and rescues us by grace through faith when we sin and when we are hurt by evil in this world. When we want to know why we are here, we consult the plan of creation, the commandments of God, the Law. When we want to know how to be forgiven, how to have life, how to be free from evil, we consult the plan of salvation, the grace of God, the Gospel. Both plans are God’s plans. Both plans are important. Both plans give meaning to our lives. But even Christians who know both plans sometimes go off course when we start confusing these plans and mixing these plans and muddling the messages God has given us about these plans.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because we try our best to do what is good. Our best efforts are not good enough for God. God has zero tolerance for sin and evil. He hates sin because it hurts the people God loves. We cannot contribute anything to God’s plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work to rescue us. When we think that we are helping Jesus to save us, we are only getting in his way. We insult God by suggesting that he saved us because of good things we were doing. Even seeking God, even giving our hearts to God, even inviting Jesus to be our Savior, even these are not good works that contribute to our salvation. Jesus is the Shepherd who seeks us and finds us; we do not find him. Jesus claims our hearts, even though our hearts are stained and corrupted by sin and selfishness, hardly worthy of being gifts to him. Our decision to be God’s people means nothing: God’s decision to rescue us is the only decision that matters in God’s plan of salvation.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because of the good things we will do for him once we are saved. God’s grace restores the image of God that we had because of creation, the image of God that was damaged and lost through sin and rebellion. We are not yet perfect and sinless: we sin every day and need God’s forgiveness every day. God made us so we would do good works; God does not save us so we do good works. God saves us because he loves us. God gives his Son out of love. God rescues us by grace through faith, not because of works. Being forgiven, being rescued, we begin to be transformed into the image of Christ. His love enters our lives so we love God more and we love our neighbors more. But the good things we do are caused by the plan of salvation; they are not the reason for the plan of salvation. We cannot repay God for saving us, any more than we can purchase his salvation in the first place. Being saved by grace through faith is the result of God’s love, not a result of our love.

              Therefore, we cannot measure our salvation by the good things we do for God. We cannot be sure that we are going to heaven because of the good things we do for God. Other people see the good things we do out of love and recognize us as saints. Seeing our good works, they praise our Father in heaven. Our good works testify to others about God’s goodness, but they do not testify to our hearts. For one thing, we know our sins, our darkness hidden in our hearts from the rest of the world. We know how far we still remain from the perfect love God planned for us. We know our mixed motives for doing good, the times that we do the right things for the wrong reasons. For another, because we are Christians, our eyes and our hearts and our minds are to be focused on Jesus, not on ourselves. If we want to measure salvation, we look at the Savior. If we want to be sure that we belong to God and his kingdom, we reassure ourselves by God’s promises and not by our good works.

              We do not live up to the plan of creation. God’s Law guides our lives, but it does not lead us into heaven. When we have sinned, when we are victims of evil, the Law cannot help us. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy. We confess our sins and ask him to forgive us. We call out to God for help, trusting his promises. We turn to the plan of salvation, setting aside the plan of creation so long as we need to be rescued from evil and restored to the people that belong to God.

              Jesus helps us. God gave his only Son. Jesus became human, became one of us, so he could accomplish the plan of creation in our place. He obeyed all the commandments of his Father, and he gives us the credit for his goodness. He trades places with us, letting us be blessed as he deserves while taking the blame for our sins. He clothes us in his righteousness, putting instead on his shoulders all of our guilt. On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. He accepts the wrath of his Father at sin and evil so he can give us instead the grace of his Father, bringing us his victory over sin and evil and death.

              Jesus fights the war against sin and evil and death, and Jesus wins the victory. He is the light shining in darkness, the light that the darkness can never overcome. On his own, Jesus defeated all the forces of darkness. He defeated all the sins ever committed, including my sins and your sins. He defeated the devil and all the evil forces that work against his plans. He defeated death—the wages of sin, the result of rebellion against God, the end of all that fails to match God’s plan of creation. Jesus proves that love is stronger than hate, stronger than pride, stronger than selfishness. Jesus loves, and so he sacrifices himself to rescue the people he loves. To the forces of evil, love is weakness. To Jesus, love is strength and glory. Love prevails; love triumphs; love never fails. We belong to him because of his love, which is bigger than all our failures and shortcomings.

              Therefore, Jesus gives us the gift of faith. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith cannot save us unless it is faith in Christ and him crucified. If we put faith in ourselves or in our good works, that faith cannot save us. Only God’s grace saves us, but that grace saves us through the faith God has given us. Faith is nothing we do for God—not a good work, not a gift, not even a decision. Faith is the relationship God has established with us. Faith is our confidence that the promises of God are true, and that confidence could not exist if God had not given us his promises.

              Therefore, God delivers those promises to us in ways that we call the Means of Grace. He speaks to us in the Church, promising us forgiveness. He speaks to us in the Bible, telling us his plans and bringing us his promises. He speaks to us in Holy Baptism, washing away our sins and adopting us as his children. He speaks to us in Holy Communion, bringing the body and blood of our Savior from the cross to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory over all evil.

              None of these Means of Grace are good works that we do for God. We do not come to Church to earn forgiveness; we come to receive it as a gift. We do not read the Bible to earn forgiveness; we read it to gain faith in God and to strengthen that faith. We are not baptized to earn a place in God’s family; we are adopted by the price Jesus paid for us on the cross. We do not eat and drink at God’s table to earn his blessings; we receive those blessings by God’s grace as Jesus serves us his body with the bread and gives us his blood with the wine.

              The plan of creation is restored in our lives by the power of the plan of salvation, the grace of God. Being adopted as his children, we are transformed into the image of Christ, learning again how to love God and how to love our neighbors. We walk in the light, not in the darkness. We look to Jesus, putting our faith in him, and being saved by him we also are changed by him so we can be the faithful people of God.

              This salvation rests on God’s love. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God’s grace rescues us and claims us forever for God’s kingdom and his family. We were in sin and darkness and death, but God has made us alive through Jesus. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and glory and praise and honor, now and forever.                   Amen.

Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #2: are accounts of the miracles of Jesus (especially his own resurrection) only retelling older myths and legends?

Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?

These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.

The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.

Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.

One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.

First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.

Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.

Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)

As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.

Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.

About angels

Last Saturday, September 29, was the annual festival of St. Michael and All Angels, sometimes shortened to Michaelmas. This minor holiday on the traditional Christian calendar provides an opportunity for Christians to think about the things we know about angels and to thank God for the place he has given angels in creation and in the life of the Church.

Here are some things we know about angels (along with some things we can reasonably guess):

  • Angels were created by God. Although the Bible does not tell us when angels were created, it is reasonable to guess that they were created at some point in the six days described in Genesis 1. Many Christians opt for the fourth day of creation—the day when God created the sun, moon, and stars—since stars are often associated with angels in the Bible.
  • Angels have always been angels and will always be angels. People do not become angels when they die. People who die remain human, even though their bodies and their souls are separated between their death and their resurrection.
  • Angels are not material beings. They do not contain any atoms or molecules. They take up no space in the three dimensions of creation, nor do they reflect light. When it is useful for an angel to be seen and heard, that angel glows with light instead of reflecting light. They Bible does not explain how immaterial angels make themselves heard by human ears.
  • The English word “angel” comes from a Greek word which means “messenger.” Likewise, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament translated as angel means “messenger.” Sometimes the same word is used to describe human messengers. (This may be the case in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.) The reason this word is used to describe the beings we call angels is that (most of the time) when humans interact with angels, the task of the angel is to deliver a message to the human.
  • Other names for angels found in the Bible include cherubim (single = cherub) and seraphim (single = seraph). These Hebrew words depict the glowing or burning appearance of the angels. Early medieval Christian writers deduced nine levels of hierarchy among the angels, including thrones, principalities, and powers. Michael is named as an archangel, or head of the angels (but see below). Gabriel is the only other angel named in the sixty-six books of the Bible. (Raphael is an angel named in the Apocrypha.)
  • Moses described Jesus as an angel—namely, the Angel of the Lord. This reflects knowledge of the Holy Trinity in the writings of Moses, as he speaks of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord frequently speaks of God in the third person (“he” rather than “I”) but also says things that only God can say. Some Christians believe that Michael the archangel (or head of the angels) is also Jesus, since he has authority over all the angels of heaven.
  • Early in time, some angels rebelled against God and tried to grasp his authority over creation. The leader of the rebellious angels is called the devil. He is also named Satan (which means the accuser or the prosecutor). Some Christians deduce that Satan drew one third of the created angels into his rebellion. (Revelation describes a dragon who swept one third of the stars out of the sky with his tail.) If so, that means that the faithful angels outnumber the rebellious angels two-to-one, not to mention that they serve on the side of the Almighty God, whom Satan opposes.
  • The Bible says only that Satan rebelled against God because of Satan’s pride. It appears that Satan understands power and authority, but he cannot grasp love and mercy. Therefore, Satan believes he is stronger than the loving and merciful God. It is fitting, then, that the Lord defeated Satan through a sacrifice given because of God’s love.
  • Whenever humans break a commandment of God, whether through an act that is against what God has said or through neglect to do what God requires, that person declares independence from God and joins in the devil’s rebellion. Pure and untempered justice would require that sinners be forced to accept the consequences of that choice and to share the devil’s punishment for rebellion. Because his nature is to love, God is unfair to human sinners, providing a way to be rescued from their sin and from Satan’s power. That rescue is accomplished by the perfect righteousness of Jesus, the Son of God who became human, and by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The resurrection of Jesus proves his victory over the devil, death, and all evil. All who trust in Jesus and in his life, death, and resurrection, share also in his victory.
  • Jesus lived, died, and rose again as a human being to redeem human beings. Jesus has done nothing to redeem Satan and the rebellious angels. The Bible does not explain why God made that distinction between angels and human beings, choosing to rescue the latter but not the former from rebellion and its consequences.
  • It appears that after Satan’s rebellion, God has hardened all the angels into their state of obedience or disobedience. The obedient angels are not in danger of a future fall into sin, nor are the rebellious angels given an opportunity to renounce their rebellion and return to the Lord.
  • The power of the devil is in his lies. He persuades people to sin by lying to them, and he tries to block their path to redemption by lying, saying that they cannot be forgiven and that God does not love them anymore. The power of God’s Word overturns the devil’s lies. To those who know and believe God’s Word, the devil is like a lion caged at the zoo, separated from those he wants to harm. Those who discard God’s Word are like visitors to the zoo who climb into the exhibit and try to play with the lions.
  • Satan’s fall from heaven does not happen at a single time in human history. Rather, Satan falls from heaven whenever and wherever God’s Word is proclaimed and believed. Satan has been falling ever since God spoke the first Gospel promise to the first sinners. Satan fell from heaven when the apostles of Jesus proclaimed his Word in Galilee (Luke 10:18). Satan falls as pastors, missionaries, and any Christians share God’s Gospel promise with sinners.
  • God assigns angels to watch over his people in this sinful world. Although at times those angels can intervene to protect or save a human life, their primary desire is to preserve faith in the heart of the believer. At death, angels carry the soul of the believer to Paradise to await the resurrection. According to God’s will, guardian angels permit suffering and even death to happen to a Christian. We cannot know how many times and how many ways each of us has been protected by an angel.
  • Angels, as our guardians, take their orders from God. We cannot tell angels what to do. In the new creation, when all our sin has been removed, we will have authority over angels. We cannot exercise authority over angels today.
  • Angels do not want us to pray to them or to be distracted by them from God. Angels want our faith and trust to be in Christ Jesus and not in angels. Even when studying what the Bible says about angels, Christians do well to remember Christ and his cross and to keep them central in their thinking.
  • On the Day of the Lord angels will be active in gathering Christ’s people from all parts of the Earth to join Jesus in his glorious appearing. They will accompany Christ Jesus as he brings the souls of the saints from Paradise and raises their bodies for life in the new creation. Satan and all rebellious angels will be cast out of the new creation. Humans who have refused to trust Christ and believe his promises will share the devil’s punishment. This is just, because they did not want to be with Christ during their lifetimes, and they would be miserable in the new creation where Christ will always be present for everyone living there. But the believers—body and soul united, never again to be separated—will live forever with Christ and with all the faithful angels in a perfect new creation, never to be stained by rebellion, sin, or death.

J.

Sabbath rest fulfilled

According to the book of Genesis, when God created the world, he did so in six days. By the power of his Word he called into existence everything that exists, aside from God himself. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. Even before sin entered the world, God commanded his people to rest on the seventh day of each week. He created a weekly holiday so people would have a break from their usual work and would have time to celebrate fellowship with God and with each other.

In the Ten Commandments, God reaffirmed this commandment to rest on the seventh day of the week. Through the prophets he repeated the message that his Sabbath Day was to be respected. God never told any of the prophets that he was going to change his mind about that commandment (although he did reveal to Jeremiah that a new covenant was coming). Jesus debated with his opponents about the meaning of the Sabbath Day, saying that it was appropriate to do good and helpful things on that day. But Jesus did not signal that he was going to change God’s weekly holiday.

The vast majority of Christians in the world today worship God on Sunday. Sunday morning is treated as the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. Christians are free to move their time of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday, or to Wednesday night, or any other time they please. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Kosher rules no longer apply, because they were related to the animals sacrificed on the altar, and Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which they were a picture. Christians are free to hold a Seder and observe the Passover week if they wish, but most choose instead to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, since Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which Passover is a picture. Christians do not have to make a Sabbath rest every Saturday, because Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which the Sabbath is a picture.

In the week of creation, God rested on the seventh day. In Holy Week once again, God rested on the seventh day. The body of the Son of God rested the rest of death, buried in a borrowed tomb. The soul of the Son of God rested in Paradise, in the hands of his Father. Whenever a Christian dies, that Christian rests the same way—the body buried or otherwise resting on earth, the soul with Jesus in Paradise.

But the rest of Jesus was short. When the Sabbath ended, a new day began, and Jesus no longer rested. The substance of the Sabbath was fulfilled, as the substance of Passover and of animal sacrifices was fulfilled in the death of Jesus. Christians are free, not only from sin and death, but also from the burden of the Law. “Let no one pass judgment on you,” for God has already judged you worthy of eternal life in his Kingdom. J.

Reposted from Holy Saturday 2016

Thy Kingdom come

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Thy Kingdom come….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

Salvageable adds: Scholars speak sometimes of the three kingdoms of God, although they do not intend to say that these are distinct kingdoms. No, they overlap, and a person can be part of more than one of God’s kingdoms. They are called the kingdom of power, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of power is creation, over which Jesus rules right now. The kingdom of grace is the Church, including saints in Paradise with Jesus and believers still living on the earth. The kingdom of glory is the coming new creation, in which all things will be perfected, all evil will be removed, and all the saints will live with Jesus forever. They will be royalty because of their family relationship to the King.

We do not need to pray that the kingdom of power will come. Creation already is here. We pray about that kingdom, though, when we pray for daily bread.

We pray for the kingdom of grace—for the Church. We pray for pastors and other church leaders, that God would keep them faithful and would work through their ministries. We pray for missionaries spreading the good news about Jesus. We pray for people we love, especially those who seem not to believe in Jesus right now. We pray that the kingdom of grace would come to more people so they can be redeemed and can enter the kingdom of grace and await eternal life in the kingdom of glory. The Lord’s Prayer is a missionary prayer.

At the same time, we are praying for ourselves. We pray that we would continue to mature in the faith—as a famous song from Godspell says, to see God more clearly, follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. On the one hand, there are not different levels of faith. The faith of every Christian is identical, because it is faith in the same Savior, the same Lord, and the same promises. The Christian life is easier, though, for believers who have stopped measuring themselves, who have put their full trust in the Lord, and who are being transformed into the image of Christ, loving God and neighbors according to the example of Christ and by his strength.

Even as we pray for the kingdom of grace, we also pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory: “Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus!” We look forward to the Day when we see Jesus coming in the clouds, bringing with him all the saints of Paradise, raising all the dead, and inaugurating the new creation. We pray for that Day when all sorrows and sufferings will cease, when sin and evil will no longer exist, and when death will no longer be an end to life. That Day is already guaranteed through the redemption of Christ. By his life and death and resurrection, he has conquered sin, death, and evil. By his life, death, and resurrection, he shares his victory with us. Therefore, we do not fear the Day of the Lord. We look forward to it with hope and excitement, and we pray for its coming. Yet it has been delayed for the sake of the work of the kingdom of grace. There are yet more people—at least one more person—who will come to faith and enter the kingdom of grace before it all becomes the kingdom of glory.  J.

Creation

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this he does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

Since the first century, Christians have produced statements of faith, or creeds. Creeds are summaries of what the Bible says—they are not intended to replace the Bible. Christian creeds have three purposes. They instruct children and visitors about the key teachings of the Bible. They remind every member of the congregation what we believe. They declare to God the truth we believe about him. In that way, they serve as part of Christian worship, another way to thank and praise God.

The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest creeds. It was not written by the apostles, but it summarizes their teachings. Versions of it date back to the first century. The creed has three articles—one about God the Father, another about God the Son, and the third about God the Holy Spirit.

The first article, and Luther’s explanation of it, are probably acceptable to every religion that proclaims one God. Jews and Muslims and heretics could all say the same: we believe in a God, we believe that he is able to do anything, and we believe that he created everything that exists, aside from himself. As Luther spells out in detail many of the things God provides, he reminds us that we are dependent upon God for everything we have and for everything we are. We deserve none of the gifts we receive from God through his creation, but we are managers of the property God has invested in us. Part of serving and obeying him is fulfilled as we care for our bodies and for our minds, putting them to the best use. Along with that, we manage wealth and property that belongs to God. On the Day of the Lord, he will ask us to account for the way we handled his property.

The Ten Commandments tell us how to serve and obey God. They do not tell us what can be done for us when we have failed in that responsibility. Nor does the first article of the creed tell us how we are rescued from our sins, from an evil world, and from the power of death. That information is found in the second article of the creed.

I picture Luther pounding his fist, or perhaps his stein, on the table as he firmly declares, “This is most certainly true.” J.

 

Why am I here?

Why do I exist? What is my purpose in life? Why did God put me here? Most of us grapple with these questions from time to time. Even Socrates knew that the unexamined life is not worth living. Does the Bible contain answers to these questions, or are we doomed to ask them again and again until the day we die?

The Bible says that the first man and the first woman were made in the image of God. This can refer to many things—intelligence, moral sense, and creativity, for example—but the most important quality of God, according to God, is love. “God is love.” Outside of creation, the Persons of God have pure and perfect love for one another. Creation itself can be viewed as a gift of love from the Father to the Son. God created many more beings that he could love, beings that could return his love. We are created to love God whole-heartedly and also to love one another. God needs nothing from us, but we glorify God and serve God when we love and help each other.

How do we love God? We place no other gods ahead of him: not Baal or Zeus or Thor, and not money or power or fame or entertainment or any person or animal or cause or job or hobby. We love God when we use his name properly, rather than using it to trick other people (or using it carelessly to punctuate our conversations). We love God when we give him the time he deserves—not merely an hour on Sunday morning, but time each day to speak to him in prayer and to learn from His Word about his commands and his promises. We love God when we honor, respect, and obey human authority in the home, the workplace, and the government. The way we treat those in authority over us shows how we truly feel about God’s authority.

We love and serve God by loving and helping our neighbors. We respect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. Not only are we careful not to harm them in these matters; we look for ways to help them in these matters. We love God and our neighbors when we are content with what God has given us and made available to us. When we are not content, we do not love God, for we accuse him of failing to give us what we should have. When we are not content, we do not love our neighbors, for we become angry seeing them enjoy things we do not have.

This is why we were made: to love in all these ways. Different people in different situations will have different opportunities to love. Marriage is one kind of love; friendship is another. Children love their parents by honoring, respecting, and obeying them. Parents love their children by instructing them and by modeling God’s love and forgiveness. Workers and managers do their jobs with mutual respect. Citizens honor and obey their governments, while those with authority do not abuse their authority but use it for the good of the people they serve.

Each of us has a different blend of resources, abilities, opportunities, and interests. Each of us can spend a lifetime serving and glorifying God while helping his or her neighbors in a different way. To find your niche in God’s creation, if you have not already found it, I recommend answering three questions: “What do I enjoy doing? What do other people tell me I do well? What tasks do I most notice need to be done?” When the answers to these three questions converge, you may have found the unique purpose for which God put you into his creation.

We were created to love, to do good works motivated by love. When we fall short—when our love is incomplete—we cannot restore ourselves to perfection or reconcile ourselves to the God who made us. No matter how hard we strive to love properly and to do those things that love requires, the more we will see ourselves falling short of the glory of God. The better we know the commandments of God, the more clearly we see how we have failed to accomplish them. Each of us was created to love. None of us can rescue ourselves when our love has failed to meet God’s standards.

God’s plan for salvation is entirely separated from his plan for creation. When we do not do the things God created us to do, we cannot change matters by trying harder to do them. God does not redeem us or reconcile us because of anything we did in the past, or because of anything we are doing now, or because of anything we will do in the future. God redeems us and reconciles us because he loves us. He rescues us without any merit or worthiness in us. We cannot earn his redemption, and we cannot repay his redemption. If we try to do so, we only insult God and his gift.

Yet the forgiveness of God, his redemption, and his reconciliation, change us. They erase all sins from our record. They restore to us the image of God. They made us able to love as we should love. It does not happen instantly; our transformation will not be completed until the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection. Along the way, though, with no stain of sin to restrain us, we are able to love more and more in the way God intended. The good things we do are not proof of our redemption. We have all the proof we need in the promises of the Bible and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As we deny ourselves and follow him, we stop measuring ourselves and our worthiness (which are insufficient for our redemption) and we instead measure Jesus Christ, his perfect life, his sacrifice on the cross, and his resurrection (which are fully sufficient for our redemption).

Why am I here? To love God and to love my neighbors. Why am I saved and a citizen of heaven? Because of what Jesus has done for me. It is as simple as that. J.

Sources, and the origin of the world

I teach history. Every term, in the first session, I talk to my students about sources. I tell them that there are primary sources, secondary sources, and tertiary sources.

Primary sources come from witnesses, people who were there when history was being made. They might be autobiographies and memoirs, diaries, letters, oral histories, or any other record of what people saw and heard and felt. Artifacts can also be primary sources—ruins of buildings, tools, artwork, even garbage. Garbage is a great source of information about the way people live.

Secondary sources come from scholars who interpret the primary sources. They gather as much information as they can, and they explain what happened, and why it happened, and what resulted from its happening. Secondary sources can be very narrow and deep investigations into a topic, or they can be broad evaluations of an entire culture or time period.

Journalism produces a mix of primary and secondary source material. The journalist explains and interprets, but often the journalist quotes a witness directly. The quote from the witness is a primary source, even as the article as a whole is a secondary source. This is true of newspaper accounts, magazine articles, radio and television broadcasts, and internet news services.

Tertiary sources summarize what the secondary sources say. Encyclopedia entries, whether printed in books or distributed online, are tertiary sources. Textbooks are tertiary sources. Papers written by students are tertiary sources. Such sources are useful summaries and can be a good starting place for research. However, a student who writes a paper based only on tertiary sources has produced a quaternary source which has no academic value. Beyond the junior high school level, teachers generally do not approve of student papers that are based only on encyclopedias and on the textbook.

After explaining sources to the students, I ask them whether a larger number of primary sources guarantees that historians will understand what happened. That seems like a reasonable proposition, but my test case shows the opposite. On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President Kennedy was shot and killed. Hundreds of people were present at the time. Many of them had cameras, even moving pictures. Along with the human witnesses, there are numerous artifacts: the injuries to the bodies of the President and Governor Connelly, the gun, the bullets, the clothing of the President and of the Governor, the car, the pavement—all these are primary sources. Yet the secondary sources disagree about what happened. Most witnesses heard either two or three shots; hardly any witness reports hearing more than three shots. Yet many secondary sources insist that the damage was caused by at least four and sometimes up to twelve gunshots. Some secondary sources conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot the President. Others say he was part of a conspiracy. A few say he was investigating a conspiracy to shoot the President but was unable to prevent its success. Many others say that Harvey was innocent of any crime but was framed for the shooting.

If historians are confused about an event that happened just a few decades ago in front of many witnesses, how can people today investigate the origin of the world? There are primary sources—some written documents that describe creation, and many oral traditions about creation—but they do not all agree. Other primary sources exist as artifacts: fossils, geographic patterns, radioactive decay, and astronomic observations, among others. Can investigation of these primary sources be trusted when the conclusions of those investigations match none of the other primary sources that claim to have inside knowledge about creation?

Americans are fond of easy choices between two extremes. One approves of the President’s actions, or one disapproves. One votes Republican, or one votes Democratic. Creation is true, or evolution is true. In fact, there are more than two opinions about the origin of the world. Some Hindus believe that the world goes through lengthy cycles of development, culminating in a catastrophic destruction that is followed by a new beginning. Some ancient Greek philosophers thought that the physical universe is eternal, without beginning or end. Muslims are as divided as Christians about whether the world was created by direct miracle a few thousand years ago or whether it evolved over many millions of years. Some Christians hold to a young earth opinion, while others believe that God worked through the powers he created, planning and developing the world over many millions of years. Some say that God is eternal and unchanging but chose this slow method to create the world, while others say that God himself developed and evolved over the course of creation. Yet another view says that God created the world as it is now in an instant, but that he described creation to Moses over the course of six days.

What did Jesus say? He treated the account of creation written in Genesis as an accurate primary source. Trusting his authority, my opinion is that the earth and the universe are less than ten thousand years old. I view the act of creation as a singularity, as some physicists would say. God spoke, and the world appeared according to his design. He did not plant acorns and wait for them to sprout and grow; he created mature oak trees bearing acorns. He did not wait tens of thousands of years for coral reefs to grow from a single coral creature; he created mature coral reefs containing thousands of coral creatures. Adam and Eve were created with mature adult bodies; they did not grow from babies. Distant objects in the universe are visible from Earth because God created beams of light that extend to the Earth, even though the sources of those beams are more than ten thousand light years away.

I admit that I may be wrong. As I have written before, when I meet Jesus face to face in the new creation, he might tell me that I took the first chapters of Genesis far too literally. If so, the two of us will have a good laugh about my mistake. On the other hand, those who reject Jesus because they refuse to believe in a literal creation by an all-powerful God will not be laughing on that Day.

The primary job of the Christian Church is to warn sinners of the consequences of their sins and to introduce those sinners to the Savior who rescues them from evil and death and promises everlasting life. When our conversation disintegrates into arguments over creation versus evolution—or arguments over abortion, or homosexuality, or other matters that are important but not vital—only the devil wins. We have time to debate important matters, but we must be careful not to neglect the vital matters. At times, like Paul, we must know nothing aside from Christ and Him crucified. That matters most of all. J.