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Thursday, 30 June 2011

For His Name's Sake


In modern Western society, names are often just labels. Parents often choose a name for their baby simply because they like the way it sounds, and in English speaking countries most people have names which have no meaning in English. Knowing someone’s name doesn’t tell you much about them. In my case, my name (Thomas) comes from an ancient Aramaic word meaning ‘twin.’ But most people don’t know that, and even if they did, it wouldn’t help – because I’m not a twin.

In the ancient Middle East, as in many cultures today, names were not just labels; they were far more expressive. They described something fundamental about one’s identity such as a distinctive attribute or a memorable event at the time of one’s birth, usually in one’s own native language. Take, for example, Esau and Jacob. Esau means ‘hairy,’ because he was hairy at birth; and Jacob means ‘heel catcher,’ because he was born hanging onto his twin brother’s heel. You can imagine their mother calling, “Hairy and Heel Catcher, it’s time for dinner!”

So what about God’s name? When Moses asked God his name in Exodus 3:13, he wasn’t just asking for a label to use when referring to God. He was asking God to describe his identity in a single word. And there is a very interesting phrase about God’s name that pops up over and over again in the Old Testament: ‘for his name’s sake.’ The phrase doesn’t resonate with the Western mind. We might say, “Do it for my sake,” but we wouldn’t say, “Do it for my name’s sake.” It sounds redundant. My name is just a label for me. But remember, God’s name is not just a label; it expresses who he is.

Here is a list of all (I think) Old Testament passages where the phrase occurs: 1 Samuel 12:22; 1 Kings 8:41; Psalm 23:3, 25:11, 31:3, 79:9, 106:8, 109:21, 143:11; Isaiah 48:9, 11, 66:5; Jeremiah 14:7, 21; Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22, 44; 36:22. You may want to read all of these in context in your own time, but we’ll just focus on a few representative examples:
 “For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” (Psalm 25:11)
 “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name's sake!” (Psalm 79:9)
 “Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: "Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name's sake have said, 'Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy'; but it is they who shall be put to shame.” (Isaiah 66:5)
“And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I deal with you for my name's sake, not according to your evil ways, nor according to your corrupt deeds, O house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 20:44)
The above verses show us that God’s name expresses his distinctive character. His mercy and faithfulness so far exceed that of sinful human beings that they are like God’s signature.

The name of God, Yahweh, is a Hebrew word. When we come to the New Testament, which was written in Greek, this name is no longer used. But what we do find is very surprising. This phrase “for his name’s sake” is used, but with reference to Jesus, not God! A survey of passages to look at: Matthew 10:21-22, 19:29, 24:9 (par. Mark 13:13, Luke 21:12, 17); John 15:21; Acts 9:16; 1 John 2:12; 3 John 1:7; Revelation 2:3.

Here are two of the most striking:
“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22)
“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake.” (1 John 2:12)
Matthew 10:21-22 is an obvious reference to Isaiah 66:5, and 1 John 2:12 likely draws on the language of Psalm 25:11 and 79:9. So we can see that these verses parallel the “for his name’s sake” passages in the Old Testament. The difference is simply this: now, the name in question is not Yahweh, but Jesus! The New Testament seems to be equating the name of Jesus with the name of Yahweh.

Throughout the Old Testament God stringently protects the glory of his name against usurpers and blasphemers:


“You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7, the Third Commandment, NIV)
“I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” (Isaiah 42:8)
“For you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ezekiel 34:14)
With this in mind it is astonishing how the New Testament describes Jesus, a human being, in language that the Old Testament reserved for Yahweh alone. This should cause us to reflect deeply on the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Holy Spirit: God's Down Payment on Eternal Life


We are taking a break from our study on the pre-existence of Christ in John’s Gospel to tackle another important subject: the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers today.

The activity of the Holy Spirit in believers’ lives is the subject of many of the 250-odd New Testament passages which mention the Spirit. Yet there are some Christ-followers who claim that the Holy Spirit is not at work in believers today. They say that the outpouring of the Spirit in the first century soon dried up, and that today the Spirit’s activity is limited to the written Word, the Bible.

It is true that the manifestations of God’s Spirit ebb and flow, and vary over time and space (1 Corinthians 12:4). But the way the Holy Spirit was poured out in the New Testament left no possibility that it could be withdrawn again.

Jesus spoke at great length to his closest disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit, the other Helper. The Holy Spirit would be so effective that he could say, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (John 16:7). Was Jesus’ promise for the apostles alone? Not at all. In the wider context of John’s Gospel, the Spirit was to dwell in the hearts of all believers (John 7:38-39), and everyone needs to be born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8). John later wrote that possession of the Spirit was a test by which we would know whether we abide in God and he in us (1 John 4:13).

When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, Peter emphasized that the promise of the Holy Spirit was not only for the people present on that day and their children, but for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39; cp. v. 33). See also Paul’s emphatic statements about the Spirit in Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 12:3.

It is difficult to imagine a time when Jesus left his followers without a Helper; when the promise delivered on the Day of Pentecost expired; when people could say they abide in God even though they have not been given his Spirit. But there is one illustration which, for me, shows beyond any lingering doubt that God sent his Spirit to dwell in the hearts of believers of all generations to come.

That illustration comes in the form of a distinctive Greek word which will help us to understand the role the present possession of the Holy Spirit plays in God’s unfolding plan. This word is arrhabon. The BDAG lexicon defines the word as “a legal and commercial technical term: payment of part of a purchase price in advance, which serves as a legal claim to the article in question, or makes a contract valid; in any case, it is a payment that obligates the contracting party to make further payments.”

We are very familiar with the concept of a deposit or down payment in today’s economy. In real estate purchases, car rentals, and many other transactions, a down payment or deposit is required as a way of demonstrating one’s commitment to eventually paying the full amount.

The Greek word arrhabon is actually borrowed from a Hebrew word, arabon, which is used in the Old Testament in Genesis 38:17-20. This passage helps us to appreciate the financial meaning of the word, although the transaction in question is a rather unsavoury one.

Arrhabon is used three times in the New Testament, all in the letters of Paul. Each time he uses the word figuratively to illustrate the role of the Holy Spirit:

“21 Now the One who confirms us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, is God; 22 He has also sealed us and given us the Spirit as a down payment in our hearts.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Holman Christian Standard Bible)

“4 Indeed, we who are in this tent groan, burdened as we are, because we do not want to be unclothed but clothed, so that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 And the One who prepared us for this very thing is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment.” (2 Corinthians 5:4-5, Holman Christian Standard Bible)

“13 In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation—in Him when you believed—were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14, Holman Christian Standard Bible)

These passages tell us that our present anointing with the Holy Spirit is God’s mark of ownership upon us. People use a deposit of money to validate a financial contract and show their commitment to paying the full amount. In the same way, God uses a deposit of the Holy Spirit to validate his covenant and show his commitment to fulfilling the promise of eternal life. So this illustration from Paul’s writings should fill us with confidence that God is “supplying the Spirit to us and working miracles among us” (Galatians 3:5) even today.

If you have not received the Holy Spirit in your life, read Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:11-13. Then pray to God with confidence and ask him to fill you with that indescribable gift.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

He who comes from heaven


In last week’s blog we looked at something John the Baptist said about Jesus (John 1:29-30) and we claimed that it required Jesus to have existed before his human birth. In this week’s blog we will look another statement John the Baptist made comparing himself with Jesus, this time taken from John 3:27-32:

“27 John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.' 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.’ 31 He who comes from above is above all.  He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way.  He who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.”

It is plain from the immediate context ( verse 35) and the wider context of John’s Gospel (John 8:23) that ‘he who comes from heaven’ is Jesus Christ.

It appears that ‘he who is of the earth’ refers to John the Baptist (or perhaps more generally to all prophets other than the Christ). Thus we have here another contrast between John the Baptist, who ‘is of the earth, belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way,’ and Christ, who ‘comes from heaven,’ ‘is above all,’ and ‘bears witness to what he has seen and heard.’

In what sense did Christ come from heaven? Did he pre-exist in heaven and then actually descend to earth? This is the literal interpretation of the passage. But others claim it has a figurative meaning. Some say it refers to the fact that Jesus was born as a result of miraculous, heavenly intervention. Others say Christ came from heaven in the sense that the heavenly God had been planning his life long before he was born. Still others say that Christ came from heaven in the sense that the heavenly God sent him on a mission. So which meaning is correct?

A basic rule of biblical interpretation is to take words at their plain, literal meaning unless there is good reason to prefer a figurative meaning. In this case, there is no good reason to prefer a figurative meaning, and in fact the figurative interpretations mentioned above have serious flaws.

One thing everyone can agree on is that the main point of this passage is the distinction between Christ (who came from heaven) and John the Baptist (who is of the earth). Interpreted literally, the distinction is significant indeed. But interpreted figuratively, the distinction is almost trivial. It is true that Christ’s birth was a result of heavenly intervention; but so was John the Baptist’s (Luke 1:7-20). It is true that Christ’s life was planned ahead by God, but so was John the Baptist’s (John 1:23), and so too are all the saints’ (Ephesians 1:5). It is true that Christ was sent on a mission by God, but so was John the Baptist (John 1:6). So under these interpretations, John the Baptist came from heaven almost as truly as Jesus Christ did. It is only the literal meaning that accounts for the ‘heaven and earth’ distinction drawn here between Christ and John the Baptist.

There are other reasons to take the words “He who comes from heaven” literally. John 3:31-32 implies that Christ testified to what he had seen and heard in heaven (we will look at other passages in this vein in the next blog). Christ could not have seen and heard things in heaven unless he had actually been there.

Note also the difference in verbs between “he who comes from heaven” and “he who is of the earth.” The writer doesn’t say “he who comes from the earth,” because John the Baptist didn’t literally come out of the ground. But he does emphatically refer to Christ as “he who comes from heaven.”

The Socinians (a group of Polish unitarian Christians in the 16th century) believed that Christ made a special trip to heaven after his baptism where he met the Father, was instructed by him, and then returned to earth (see Section V of the Racovian Catechism, ‘Of the prophetic office of Christ’). They knew that this verse and others clearly taught that Christ actually descended from heaven, but they were not prepared to accept the pre-existence of Christ.

Rather than inventing a story to avoid the plain meaning of the passage, let us hear the Scriptural testimony that Christ personally pre-existed in heaven before coming down to earth. He ranked before John the Baptist because he existed before him. He is above all because he comes from above.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

An Introduction to the Pre-Existence of Christ

Pre-existence is a strange word. It refers to existence before entering one’s current state of being. To say that a human being pre-existed is to say that they existed in some personal form before their human birth.

The Church has taught for many centuries that Jesus Christ pre-existed. In the past two centuries, however, this teaching has come under heavy criticism on two fronts. Firstly, critics have argued that the idea of pre-existence is unscientific – a biological impossibility – and have called on the church to conform to modern science and abandon such absurdities. Secondly, critics have argued that the idea of pre-existence is unbiblical – a myth invented by the early church – and have called on the church to return to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

To the first criticism, we can respond that the idea of pre-existence is just one of many “unscientific” claims the church makes about Jesus. The virgin birth, walking on water, the resurrection, ascending bodily into heaven – none of these events can be reproduced in a laboratory; and yet without them, the Christian faith is an empty shell. If you don’t believe in miracles, can you really call yourself a Christian? If you do believe in miracles, the limitations of science should not prevent you from believing in the pre-existence of Christ. The real question is whether the Bible teaches the pre-existence of Christ.

This brings us to the second criticism. We do not have space in one blog entry to consider the biblical case for and against the pre-existence of Christ in detail. However, I want to discuss one Bible passage which I believe is a good starting point for a larger study.

John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus and a great prophet who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. From the birth accounts in Luke 1 we know that he was a few months older than Jesus. Yet in John 1:29-30 we read the following astounding statement:

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.'” (English Standard Version)

       The most obvious meaning of these English words is that Jesus existed before John the Baptist. Since Jesus was born after John, this could only be true if he pre-existed.

      Now, this may be the obvious meaning of these English words, but we must ask, is this meaning supported by the context and by the original Greek text? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes! From looking at the context we note the following: 
  1. "He was before me” can only refer to precedence in time, not in rank. John the Baptist had already mentioned precedence in rank earlier in the verse!  If he did so twice, his statement would be a tautology: “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he ranked before me.”  This is redundant, and it fails to make sense of the shift from present tense to past tense. 
  2. John the Baptist’s statement opens with, “After me comes a man…” This ‘after me’ plainly refers to time, so the symmetry of the whole thought requires that ‘before me’ also refers to time.
  3. The wider context of the chapter strongly supports a pre-existence interpretation. The same statement by John the Baptist is quoted earlier in John 1:15 as part of the prologue to John’s Gospel, which is all about the Word who existed in the beginning. The prologue even contrasts the pre-existent Word with John the Baptist, who was merely “a man sent from God” (John 1:6). John 1:30 should be interpreted within this framework.
       The original Greek also bears out the pre-existence meaning of “He was before me”:
  1. The Greek word translated “before” is protos, which can refer to precedence in time or in rank, and takes on both meanings numerous times in the New Testament. However, within the writings of John it always refers to time, and not once to rank (John 1:41; 2:10; 7:51; 8:7; 10:40; 12:16; 15:18; 18:13; 19:32; 19:39; 20:4; 20:8; 1 John 4:19). So John’s stylistic tendencies suggest that protos also refers to precedence in time in John 1:30. 
  2. It is worth noting the tense of the Greek verb translated ‘was’: it is the imperfect tense of the verb en (to be), denoting continuous past existence. This is the same verb and tense used to describe the past existence of the Word in John 1:1-2. So the Greek does not actually say that Jesus came into existence; he simply was in existence. By contrast, John the Baptist is introduced in John 1:6 (“There was a man…”) with the aorist tense of the verb ginomai (to become; to come into existence), denoting that he came into existence at a point in time.
So, after looking closely at the grammar and context of the verse, we can confirm that the most obvious meaning of John the Baptist’s words is also the one best supported by context and language. John was explaining that Jesus, despite coming after him, ranked before him. This was an exception to the rule that the younger prophet should submit to the older prophet (see 2 Kings 2), and the reason for the exception was that Jesus had in fact existed before John the Baptist - which is possible only if he pre-existed!

It would be foolish to build a whole doctrine upon one verse. Fortunately, we don’t have to, as there is plenty of other biblical evidence that Jesus pre-existed, some of which we will examine in future blog entries. But my hope is that this one verse will motivate you to open your mind to think more about this subject.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

What does the virgin birth tell us about Jesus?

According to the Bible, Jesus was born to a virgin mother, Mary, and had no human father. That is, unlike every other human being since Adam and Eve, Jesus was not the genetic offspring of two human parents. Rather, Mary miraculously became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. I would encourage you to pause and read Luke 1:26-38 for context.

Christians through the ages have puzzled over the meaning of the virgin birth. Why did God decide that Jesus should be born in this way? Some say that it allowed Jesus to avoid the stain of original sin, or gave him super powers to overcome sin. These are interesting but speculative theories.
Others have identified a link between the virgin birth and the title “Son of God” often used of Jesus in the New Testament. This link is largely based on Luke 1:35, where the angel told Mary that because of the virgin birth, her child would be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). But what does this mean exactly? Did the virgin birth make Jesus the Son of God?

When we look at the whole New Testament, one of the first things we notice is that only two of the four Gospel accounts even mention the virgin birth. This is not too surprising because biographies of that time rarely devoted much space to birth and childhood, since they had to fit the whole life story into a single scroll. The lengthy genealogies and birth accounts in Matthew and Luke are exceptional, suggesting the authors saw great significance in Jesus’ lineage and the circumstances of his birth.

Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult. This is more typical of biographies of the time, but it also suggests that Mark did not see the virgin birth as fundamental to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. His identification of Jesus as the Son of God was at the centre of his Gospel message (Mark 1:1, 11) but he was able to get this point across without mentioning the virgin birth. This suggests he saw the title “Son of God” as capturing something other than the means of Jesus’ conception.

John’s Gospel also emphatically identifies Jesus as the Son of God (John 1:14, 3:16, 20:31). He used up a lot of precious scroll space at the beginning of his Gospel describing Christ’s divine origin as the Word, but did not mention the virgin birth. This again suggests that the title “Son of God” means something more than merely how Jesus came to be conceived in Mary’s womb.

Moving beyond the Gospels, we find that there is not even a single direct mention of the virgin birth in any of book of the New Testament outside the Gospels. Consider passages like Romans 1:4, Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 1:1-2, and 1 John 5:5. All of these writers emphatically declare Jesus to be the Son of God, and not one of them felt the need to mention that he was born of a virgin! This is very strange if the virgin birth is of great theological importance; if it is what made Jesus the Son of God.

In my opinion, the key to understanding the significance of the virgin birth is found in an obscure prophecy given to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14:
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ birth was the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us).” (Matt. 1:22-23)

The key word to note in the prophecy in Isaiah is sign. The virgin birth was a sign. What does a sign do? It points us in a direction. It does not create anything new, it only draws our attention to an existing reality. If you are driving along and see a sign, “Bumpy road ahead” then you know the road will be bumpy. But the sign does not cause the road to be bumpy. The bumps would still be there even if the sign wasn’t; you just wouldn’t know about them. In the same way, the virgin birth did not cause Jesus to be the Son of God. It was a sign, indicating to us that Jesus was the Son of God. That is why Luke says that the virgin birth caused people to call Jesus the Son of God, just as walking on the water did (Matthew 14:23-33) or being raised from the dead did (Romans 1:4). These signs pointed out what was already true.

In conclusion, then, rather than being the climactic revelation about Jesus’ identity, the virgin birth points us toward a far greater revelation: that, in Matthew’s words, the child to be born would be God with us; or that, in Isaiah’s words, the child to be born would be the Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6).

This explains how Mark, John, Paul and other New Testament writers could have been aware of the virgin birth and yet felt no need to mention it, even as they proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God. For Paul, the majesty of the Son of God made it necessary to emphasize that he was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). Jesus’ divinity was obvious enough; it was his humanity that really needed to be emphasized!

The virgin birth was the means God chose to dispatch his Son into the world, perhaps because it helps us to visualize how he could be both divine and human. Had Jesus been born to two human parents, it would have been difficult to see him as a preexistent divine being, the Son of God, God with us. Had Jesus simply appeared like an angel, or been formed from clay like Adam, it would have been difficult to see him as a real human being, the Son of Man, the seed of the woman. In the virgin birth, we see Jesus’ infinite, eternal, divine nature preserved and his finite, temporal human nature created.