dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Christ. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christ. Show all posts

Tuesday 12 November 2013

I have decided to know nothing

In Paul's first epistle to the church at Corinth, the apostle made the following astounding statement:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Cor. 2:1-3 NRSV)
Why do I say these words are astounding? There are two main reasons. The first concerns the preaching of a crucified Saviour. Earlier in the epistle, Paul had described the message of the cross as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The Jews did not expect that the Messiah would die, and their Law stated that "anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse" (Deut. 21:23). Likewise, it was foolishness to the Roman world to teach that a crucified man had more honour than Caesar. Crucifixion was reserved mainly for slaves and vile criminals, with slaves were sometimes sarcastically referred to as cross bearers. The famous Roman lawyer Cicero argued that no Roman citizen should be crucified (F.T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus, p. 55). L.L. Welborn writes, "The cultured elite of the Roman world wanted nothing to do with crucifixion, and as a rule kept silent about it" (Paul, the Fool of Christ, p. 131).

Yet Paul and the other Christians did anything but keep silent about it; they went around proclaiming Jesus Christ, and him crucified! From the point of view of contemporary human wisdom, this gospel was offensive and nonsensical. Nevertheless, instead of trying to cover up the fact of the cross, the early church made it central to their message of redemption. John used extreme irony by teaching that in the very act of being "lifted up" on the cross, Jesus was "lifted up" in the sense of being exalted (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34 cf. Isa. 52:13).

It was integral to the purpose of God that the message of salvation should not be plausible and tolerable from the standpoint of human wisdom, but should be implausible and offensive. This was so that God might be glorified and no human might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:29). This brings us to the second astounding statement Paul made in this text: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ."

When we as Christians preach, teach, debate and discuss, more often than not we aim to convince others that we are wise, that we understand the Scriptures, that we have all the answers. Paul was a brilliant and well-educated man (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:4-6). He could have taken this approach and excelled at it. Instead, he pruned the gospel down to its bare essentials: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul used his Spirit-filled erudition, not to impress his readers with elaborate doctrines, but to preach the gospel in all its simplicity and all its power. He did the same in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. These letters are theological masterpieces with weighty methods of argumentation, but their aim was very simple: to show that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I personally enjoy studying the Bible. I love delving deeply into the richness of the divine mysteries revealed in this book. However, I often need to remind myself that "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1b). In seeking to unlock these mysteries we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, like Paul did. In the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians Paul referred to Jesus Christ by name ten times! For him, it really was all about Jesus. Biblical exposition and theology is vain if it leads its audience away from the cross of Christ rather than towards it.

And so, to Christians of any stripe with whom I have had disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture, I pose this question: can we lay aside our differences and decide to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified?

Friday 12 July 2013

Is an understanding of the promises to Abraham necessary for salvation?

In my own estimation, the greatest contribution that Christadelphians have made to biblical theology has been their understanding of the close relationship between the promises God made to the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David) and the gospel or good news preached by Jesus and the apostles.

Christadelphians have correctly highlighted how much the New Testament writers emphasize the patriarchs and the covenants of promise that they received. This is particularly evident in the teaching of Paul. For instance, preaching in the synagogue at Antioch, Paul addressed the congregation as "sons of Abraham's family" (Acts 13:26 NASB). Having described the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he then declared, "And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers" (Acts 13:32 NASB). Later, explaining his relationship to Judaism as he stood on trial before Agrippa, Paul declared, "And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers" (Acts 26:6 NASB).
In Paul's epistles, the same emphasis comes across. After a lengthy analysis of the promises to Abraham in Galatians 3, Paul concludes, "And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:29 NASB). And again, in Romans 4, Paul emphasises that the promise to Abraham "will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all" (Rom. 4:16 NASB).
Now, it is not only Christadelphians who have grasped the importance of the promises. One only needs to pick up a book such as The Promise-Plan of God by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. to see that there are also Evangelical scholars who have understood that the promises are the unifying thread that runs throughout Scripture. Where Christadelphians have differed, however, is in their insistence that comprehending the promises to the fathers is a prerequisite for salvation in Christ. The Christadelphian argument goes something like this:
C1. Salvation is by faith in the gospel of Christ.
C2. The gospel of Christ is none other than the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
C3. Therefore, one cannot understand the gospel of Christ without understanding the promises to Abraham.
C4. Therefore, one who does not understand the promises to Abraham does not have saving faith.
This, I believe, is a flawed argument with a thrust that is very different than Paul's. I would express Paul's argument as follows:
P1. Salvation is by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
P2. The gospel of Christ is none other than the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
P3. Therefore, whoever puts their faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes an heir of the promises to Abraham.
P4. Therefore, Gentile believers are heirs of the promises to Abraham, regardless of whether they keep the Law of Moses.
Observe that the first two premises are the same in both arguments. The difference is in the implications of these two premises. I would assert that premise C3 is nowhere in the New Testament, and consequently the conclusion C4 cannot be inferred.
By contrast, premise P3 is central to Paul's argument. In Galatians 3, Paul's central concern is not with the promises to Abraham per se, but rather with basis on which Gentile believers receive the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2 NASB). Paul uses Abraham as a vehicle in his argument. He emphasises that the gospel was preached to Abraham in the words, "All the nations will be blessed in you" (3:8), inasmuch as all those who have faith are blessed just like Abraham was (3:9). Thus in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham comes on the Gentiles, so that they can receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (3:14). This promise is contingent on faith in Jesus Christ (3:22). Whoever has faith in Christ Jesus is a child of God (3:26) and consequently becomes a descendant of Abraham and an heir of the promises (3:29).
A similar line of argument appears in Romans 4. As we read earlier, Paul writes there that the promises to Abraham's descendants are for those who have the faith of Abraham. The faith of Abraham does not refer to an explicit understanding of who Abraham was or what he believed. Abraham had an embryonic understanding of what has now been revealed more plainly through Jesus Christ. The key element of Abraham's faith was his belief that "what God had promised, He was able also to perform" (Rom. 4:21). This faith was credited to him as righteousness. Paul's conclusion is then unmistakable: righteousness will in like manner be credited to all those who "believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification" (4:24-25). This is none other than premise P3: whoever believes in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ effectively has the faith of Abraham and is a joint-heir of the promises made to him.
Space does not allow us to proceed much further, but it is worth mentioning that most discussion of the promises to Abraham in the New Testament occurs when speaking or writing to Jews or concerning Judaism. There is no mention of the promises to the fathers, for instance, in the message Peter preached to Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43), or Paul's speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31). Although an argument from silence, this is contrary to what one would expect if the author of Acts sought to convey that understanding these promises was a prerequisite for Gentiles to be saved.
Now, all of this does not mean that the promises to the fathers are irrelevant or unimportant to Gentile Christians. An understanding of the covenants of promise in Genesis, and indeed of the whole Old Testament, is highly profitable for any servant of Christ (2 Timothy 3:16). One who is ignorant of these things is weak in his or her knowledge of the Word, and Christadelphians have done well to emphasize the promises in their teaching. However, there is a world of difference between saying a person's knowledge is limited and saying that such a person's faith is void.
What is wrong with the Christadelphian stance that a person cannot be saved without understanding the promises to Abraham? Firstly, it creates an unnecessary fellowship barrier. Secondly, and more seriously, it imposes a requirement for salvation the apostles did not impose. It comes dangerously close to violating the principle of Acts 4:12, by adding a second name (Abraham's) by which we must be saved.
Mercifully, God does not refuse to justify us due to flaws or limitations in our understanding of his Word:
"Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen." (Eph. 3:19-20 NASB)

Monday 18 March 2013

My Lord and my God (John 20:28)

One biblical text that has long fascinated me is John 20:28. Perhaps this is because it was spoken by my namesake, the apostle Thomas.

Over a decade ago, when I maintained a (now defunct) website entitled 'In Defence of Christadelphian Doctrine,' I wrote an article explaining what I thought this verse means. Some time after that, I developed a more elaborate explanation of the verse, which had Thomas acknowledging the truth of Jesus' claim in John 14:9 (a dialogue in which Thomas actively participated - see John 14:5). One can find another Christadelphian explanation of this text on the Wrested Scripture website.

All of these explanations propose that Thomas was not actually addressing Jesus as his God, but rather as a representative of his God; someone who manifests God's attributes but is not himself God.

Upon further reflection, I now find the above explanations completely unsatisfactory. I believe that in John 20:28, Thomas was actually addressing Jesus as his Lord and God. There are three reasons for this:

1) This interpretation follows a straightforward reading of the text; no verbal gymnastics required!

2) Thomas' emphatic confession functions as the climax of the Fourth Gospel, placed as it is just prior to the summary statement in John 20:30-31. It is the crowning moment in the writer's effort to prove the theological statement made in the Prologue (John 1:1-18). The Word made flesh, who was God, was finally received as God by men. To give the statement an elaborate, cryptic interpretation is to rob the Gospel of its climax.

3) It is absolutely unthinkable that a monotheistic Jew such as Thomas was, cautious as they were about misusing divine names, would address a fellow human being as "my God." It is true that there was some flexibility in the use of the word 'god' (theos in Greek; elohim in Hebrew) so that it could be applied to humans in certain rare circumstances (Ex. 7:1; Ps. 82:6 cf. John 10:34). However, we must not gloss over the vast difference between quoting scriptures in which God refers to humans as gods, and a man addressing another man as "My God!" Thomas would by no means have uttered such rash words, which could easily be mistaken for blasphemy, if he only meant that Jesus represented God. Nor would John have written them down without qualification.

Taking Thomas' words at face value, and interpreting them in light of their historical and literary context, we come inevitably to the conclusion that Thomas confessed Jesus to be his Lord and God because that is who he believed him to be.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Previously unreleased material, direct to the public

OK, this is unlikely to generate the same kind of buzz as the postmortem release of recordings from a platinum-selling musician.

However, I'm happy to announce that I've posted a new theological article on my website. It was actually written almost three years ago but has languished in "My Documents" since then, so this is the first time it's available for public consumption.

Thursday 23 August 2012

The Hub of Global Christianity - where?

I haven't posted in about six weeks mainly because I got married in the interim. It's a pretty good excuse, right? Going forward I'm hoping to post more frequent, but brief, insights on God, the Christian faith, life, and how they all fit together.

The first of these hopefully pithy observations is about global demographic shifts in Christianity. If you were looking at a map of the world and had to put a push-pin in the location that represents the hub of global Christianity, where would you put it?

Tuesday 3 July 2012

New article available on www.dianoigo.com

Those who come to my blog regularly might wonder why I haven't posted any content lately. There are two main reasons for this. One is, I'm getting married in a month and so my time is limited. The other is that I've been working on two larger writing projects. One is an indepth study of the biblical devil, and the other is an indepth study of Hebrews 1:10-12 and the biblical themes that it evokes.

The latter study, entitled You, Lord, in the beginning, is now available for download from www.dianoigo.com. Be warned, it is not particularly light reading. However, if you are like me and find it fascinating to explore biblical revelation about the person of Jesus Christ, I think you might learn a lot from it.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

The Ten Commandments Test

In the previous ten articles we took stock of each of the Ten Commandments. With help from the rest of Scripture, we reached some surprising conclusions about what these commandments are really saying. Now it’s time to take the Ten Commandments test: have you kept the Ten Commandments? Note that if you have broken even one of the Ten Commandments on one occasion, you fail the test. As it is written in James 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

Tuesday 8 May 2012

You shall not covet

The last of the Ten Commandments reads, in Exodus 20:17, like this: “You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour's.”

Saturday 28 April 2012

You shall not bear false witness

The Ninth Commandment reads, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20:16). This commandment is often paraphrased simply as, “You shall not lie.” This is not strictly accurate, as it refers to lying in a legal setting (often called perjury) rather than general cases of lying. This doesn’t mean lying isn’t a serious sin in God’s eyes; we shall see that it is. However, the Ten Commandments were part of a human legal system, and (like modern criminal codes) set down perjury as a crime because this kind of lie has particularly serious consequences.

Monday 23 April 2012

You shall not steal

I would venture that there are few, if any people in the world who reach adulthood without experiencing theft of their personal possessions. Burglary, smash and grab, pick-pocketing, fraud, and many other strategies are used to take what belongs to someone else. We all feel violated and outraged when we are victimized by any of these crimes. Beyond the pain of losing money or valuables, we react sharply to the feeling of injustice.

However, if we are honest with ourselves, we will probably have to admit that we have also been guilty of the Eighth Commandment, which reads simply, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). We may not have committed any of the crimes listed above, but there are many forms of theft that are more subtle and passive.
For example, you might borrow something (such as a book or a CD) from a friend and never get around to returning it. You may damage someone else’s property and cover it up rather than offering to fix or replace it. In the digital age, millions have openly stolen from the comfort of their own homes via piracy of movies, music and software.

So perhaps we are a bit hypocritical when we become so outraged about stealing. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "You preach, "Do not steal"---but do you yourself steal?" (Romans 2:21b)

The Bible names and prohibits many different types of theft, most of which are still prevalent today in some form. Leviticus 6:1-5 describes theft through deceit (such as failing to return a deposit, or failing to return a lost-and-found item). Indeed, the close relationship between theft and deceit is apparent throughout Scripture (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 11:1). Modern crimes that combine deceit and theft include fraud, ‘phishing,’ and identity theft.

Normally the penalty for theft, as for destruction of another person’s property, was to restore the value and then some (an additional 20% in Leviticus 6:1-5, or up to five times as much for outright stealing in Exodus 22:1-4). If, however, it was a human being who was stolen (kidnapping or human trafficking), the penalty was death (Deuteronomy 24:7).

There are certain forms of theft which are usually perpetrated by the rich toward the poor, which could be generally described as oppression or exploitation. These include withholding of a worker’s wages (Leviticus 19:13), charging interest on loans to the poor (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19), and false balances or scales (Leviticus19:35-37; Deuteronomy 25:13-16). In the ancient world, balances were the standard by which goods and currencies were weighed in business transactions. A dishonest businessman could rig his balances in order to cheat his customers, thereby stealing from them. Since businessmen tended to be people of privilege, this sin too was associated with oppression of the poor by the rich (Amos 8:4-6).

Another class of theft could be generally described as abuse of power or corruption. In particular, people who hold positions of influence (such as politicians and judges) are prone to bribery (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 16:9; Micah 7:3). God also warns against using threats to exact money from someone else (under which fall robbery, blackmail and extortion) (Ezekiel 22:12; Luke 3:14).

Another form of theft which remains relevant in today’s society is tax evasion. Jesus commanded disciples to pay taxes to the authorities of the day (Matthew 17:24-27; 22:17-21), which was echoed by Paul (Romans 13:6-7). Obedience to God requires compliance with tax laws regardless of how the government may use (or misuse) tax revenues.

How many of us have returned everything we have ever borrowed? Paid every cent of tax that we owed? Refrained from paying or receiving a bribe when it would save us a lot of time and money? How many have never taken something that didn’t belong to us? Have never tricked another person out of their money or goods? Have never illegally downloaded a movie, song or software package? Have never scratched a rental car and returned it without informing the company, hoping they wouldn’t notice (okay, maybe it’s just me who’s done that). We may be outraged at someone who breaks into a house to steal, but are we not guilty of the same sin in some measure?

Let there be no doubt that God takes all forms of theft seriously. Jesus listed theft among the basic forms of sin (Matthew 15:19) and endorsed the Eighth Commandment as still binding (Matthew 19:18). Paul listed theft among the sins that exclude one from the kingdom of God, apart from the cleansing that comes through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

It is probably time for all of us to pause and offer a heartfelt prayer of confession and ask God’s forgiveness. Having confidence that our sins are now forgiven on account of Jesus Christ, how do we go about “Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8)? Paul’s advice for the reformed thief was this: “If you used to rob, you must stop robbing and start working, in order to earn an honest living for yourself and to be able to help the poor” (Ephesians 4:28).

Sunday 23 October 2011

Beatitudes and Bewaritudes

One of the most well known parts of the Bible is the series of statements known as “The Beatitudes” with which Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:2-12). Each Beatitude declares those who have a certain personal quality to be “blessed” and promises them a particular reward. The Gospel of Luke also contains a version of The Beatitudes. It is less famous than Matthew’s version, probably because it is shorter (four Beatitudes instead of nine). However, there are other important differences. While Matthew’s Beatitudes focus mainly on character attributes, Luke’s focus on what might be termed ‘circumstances of living.’ Luke’s Beatitudes are also intriguing in that they are followed by “Woes” or (to coin a phrase) Bewaritudes, which are the opposite of Beatitudes. These sayings of Jesus read as follows in the English Standard Version:

Luke 6:20-26: “20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. "Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
The word ‘woe’ isn’t one we use every day, but the Greek word behind it is an exclamation of grief, like “Oh no!” or “What a pity!” As we read these words of Jesus an obvious question presents itself: “Ummm…What?” Jesus describes circumstances that we typically describe as “less fortunate” or “underprivileged” (poverty, hunger, grief and rejection/unpopularity) and calls them blessed. Then he describes circumstances that most people envy and aspire to (wealth, feasting, laughter and fame/popularity) and calls them less fortunate. In other words, we should feel sorry for the celebrities who grace the covers of lifestyle magazines and music videos on MTV, and should envy despised, brokenhearted beggars.

It sounds crazy, but the key to understanding this message is time. Seen through God’s eyes, this life is just a blip, and the next life is what it’s really all about. Wealth, fullness, laughter and popularity tend to blind people to their need for a relationship with God, and distract them from the far greater blessings that could be theirs in the future. By contrast, poverty, hunger, grief and unpopularity cause people to put their faith in God and the everlasting reward that he offers. This is precisely why the Christian faith is on the decline in affluent Europe and North America but thriving in the developing world.

So what does all of this mean in practical terms? Should we sell off our worldly possessions? Not necessarily. There are poor atheists and there are wealthy saints. What really matters is where our heart is; but we should recognize that poverty and hunger are more conducive to godliness than wealth and feasting. So if you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you can keep your beloved Mercedes-Benz, maybe you should think about how attached you are to your possessions. After all, Jesus did command one wealthy young man to sell everything and donate the proceeds to charity as a prerequisite for being a disciple (Luke 18:22).

What about the persecution bit? Should we go around seeking persecution? We should not seek it, but it will find us, as Paul’s ‘Law of Persecution’ states: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). If we take a stand for Christ and against evil with courage and integrity, there will be people who will make life difficult for us – maybe even from our own family (Matthew 10:34-36).

As for grief versus laughter, Jesus may have been alluding to the words of Ecclesiastes 7:2-3: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” In this context, we are probably talking about the kind of laughter associated with partying. Sorrow builds character and perspective; laughter (especially of the alcohol-induced sort) does not. This life is about building character; there will be plenty of time for laughter in the next. As the saying goes, “He who laughs last laughs longest.”

In summary, the heart of a Christian is not focused on materialism or enjoying the finest luxuries in this life. He/she doesn’t have a list of “1000 things to do before you die” because death is not the end, so what’s the rush? Nor is he/she focused on “winning friends and influencing people” like Dale Carnegie’s adherents. He/she is mainly concerned with loving God and loving others, and rejoicing in the grace and promises of God. I feel this message is à propos because of the “prosperity gospel” which has spread from America to a growing global audience.

The prosperity gospel says that good Christians should expect to be rewarded by God in this life with money. Some proponents go as far as to claim that those who tithe to the church can expect financial reward from God in return. Worst of all, they make the poor to feel guilty and inadequate. After all, if faithfulness to God leads to financial gain, then poor people must be unfaithful to God, right? Some prosperity preachers are getting rich by guilt-tripping the poor into giving their money to the church. They are replacing the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the American Dream. They view their own wealth as a mark of divine approval, but they need to reread the Bewaritudes.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Five Reasons why Pre-existence Matters

Many of the entries in this blog over the past few months have focused on lines of biblical evidence for the pre-existence of Christ: that Christ personally existed as a divine being prior to his birth as a human being.
The pre-existence of Christ has long been a hotly debated subject among Christian thinkers and students of the Bible. For some Christians, however, such a topic might seem confined to the realm of theologians and philosophers. Pre-existence is an odd enough idea; and why does it matter whether Christ pre-existed? How is it relevant to my life as a follower of Jesus Christ?

In this blog we want to briefly touch on five reasons why the pre-existence of Christ matters, and how an understanding of this doctrine could enrich your faith and your spiritual walk.
  1. It increases God’s sacrificial involvement in our salvation. God did not merely create a special man to die for our sins; he sent his already existent Son whom he loved. Within a Trinitarian framework it could even be said that God himself became flesh to save us. “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him” (Isaiah 59:16). 
  2. It adds another dimension to Jesus’ sacrifice. He did not simply learn as he grew up that he was a man designed for a special mission. He made a conscious choice to embark on that mission, and in doing so he gave up the prerogatives of heavenly divinity to live within the constraints of a mortal human body in a fallen creation. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:4-8 (and more concisely in 2 Corinthians 8:9), this was the ultimate example of humility.
  3. It makes salvation a divine gift, not a human achievement. If Jesus was merely a human being, albeit a Spirit-filled one, then God’s plan of salvation depended on a man to deliver the victory. A creature is the hero of the salvation epic, not the Creator. This contradicts many passages about salvation belonging to the Lord (Jonah 2:9), glory belonging to God alone (Isaiah 42:8), and the vanity of human achievement (1 Corinthians1:29-31). If Christ himself was a pre-existent, uncreated divine being, however, everything he achieved can be credited to God. 
  4. It justifies worship of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is full of praise, worship, and prayer to the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Revelation 5:13), and these practices continue amongst Christians today. Have we ever stopped to ask why these practices arose, and still persist, with respect to a human being? The strict monotheism of the Old Testament does not allow for the deification of a human being; this would be a blasphemous affront to the sovereignty of God. But if this human being was in fact a pre-existent being who had always belonged to the identity of the God of Israel, problem solved. 
  5. It marks the Christian faith’s uniqueness. In this age of religious pluralism, it is often said that each religion is a different, but equally valid, path by which humans may find God or the higher principle. If the pre-existence of Christ is true, however, then trying to find God is missing the point because God has come to us on our own terms. As we explored in a previous blog, the pre-existence makes Christ a two-way ladder connecting God and man, heaven and earth (John 1:51).
In summary, then, the pre-existence of Christ is not just an abstract notion for Christian philosophers and theological think tanks. It is at the heart of the gospel message and has real implications for how we relate to God and how we live out our faith.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Pre-existence in the other Gospels

In many of our past blog entries we have been looking at passages in the Gospel of John which teach the personal pre-existence of Christ. In places like John 1:30, 3:13 and 8:38, the argument for pre-existence is plain enough. However, such obvious references to pre-existence are absent from the other three Gospels. This has led some Bible students to see the Fourth Gospel as the exception to the rule. They justify fanciful interpretations of John by saying his portrayal of Jesus needs to conform to that found in the other Gospels.

This is a wrong approach for two reasons. Firstly, we must allow the author of the Gospel of John his own unique voice as an inspired writer. Just because John provides information that is absent from Matthew, Mark and Luke does not mean he is in conflict with the other Evangelists.

Secondly, the assumption is made too hastily that the other Gospels know nothing of Christ’s pre-existence. In fact, hints of pre-existence are to be found in all four Gospels. In this blog we are going to look at one example from Matthew 23:37, which reads in context thus:

“34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
This saying of Jesus has some remarkable features. By sending forth prophets, Jesus is taking on a prerogative that belonged to God in the Old Testament (see e.g. 2 Kings 17:13; Jeremiah 26:5). He also applies to himself the imagery of a mother hen protecting her young with her wings, which is similar to imagery used of Yahweh in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; 36:7; 91:4). Most significantly of all, Jesus describes having lamented over Jerusalem’s disobedience throughout the city’s history. This of course requires that he personally existed throughout that time!

Considering verse 37 in context, it is plain that Jesus is speaking in first person. The “How often would I have gathered your children together…and you would not” is best understood as referring to the sending of prophets in the past who were killed and stoned (as mentioned earlier in the verse).

Bible students who deny the pre-existence of Christ usually interpret Matthew 23:37 as referring to Jesus’ several visits to Jerusalem in his human life thus far. The biggest weakness with this interpretation is that within Matthew’s narrative, Jesus had not expressed any lament about Jerusalem’s disobedience up to this point, and indeed spoke these words on his first visit to the city. In Luke’s account, Jesus says this saying before ever reaching Jerusalem (Luke 13:34).

Now, we can infer from the Gospel of John that Jesus had in fact made several visits to Jerusalem by this time (though perhaps not enough to justify the lament ‘How often…’) and had met with great opposition. However, Matthew (and Luke) could not have assumed their readers to be familiar with these visits to Jerusalem. They have set this saying of Jesus within a context where it would certainly be read with reference to the history of Jerusalem through the ages.

In summary, Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem occurs in the context of the persecution of prophets throughout history; and the saying is positioned within Matthew’s narrative in such a way that it cannot plausibly refer to anything within Jesus’ human lifetime. Jesus here assumes the perspective of one who has been longing for Jerusalem’s repentance throughout the city’s history.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 3)

In the last blog we continued our exploration of ‘ascending and descending’ language in the Gospel of John. We found that John 3:13, when considered in context and against the background of Proverbs 30:4, provides a strong statement of Christ’s personal preexistence.

In this, the last of a three-part series, we will consider yet another verse which uses ascending and descending language to teach us about Christ’s pre-existence: John 6:62. It reads in context thus:

“58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever." 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, "Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Here we find Jesus issuing a bold rebuke to those who were offended by his prior claims to have descended from heaven, and to have given his flesh to eat: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” We find again the common thread of the “Son of Man” which was also found in John 1:51 and 3:13, which is certainly worthy of further study.

But it is not too difficult to determine what Jesus question meant. The context is full of references to Christ having descended from heaven (John 6:33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58), so for Jesus to “ascend to where he was before” can only refer to his ascension back to heaven. The rhetorical question makes good sense in light of the historical record which declares that Jesus subsequently did ascend to heaven. Jesus’ subsequent ascent to heaven was undeniably literal (i.e. personal). So for him to use the language of “ascending to where he was before” requires that he had literally, personally, been in heaven before. This requires that he pre-existed. The argument is straightforward.

Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have produced innovative alternative interpretations of John 6:62. One is that Jesus was referring to an ascent to Jerusalem (i.e. an uphill walk). Support for this view is claimed in the use of the verb anabaino (to go up), which is used of going up to the feast in Jerusalem in John 7:8, 10, 14; and also is translated 'ascending' in John 6:62. However, this view makes no sense in the context. Jesus’ question, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if…” implies that he is about to make an even more provocative statement than those he had just made (about descending from heaven and giving his flesh to eat). Does “Then what if I were to go up to the feast at Jerusalem?” qualify as even more provocative? It does not.

Others have claimed that Jesus’ statement in John 6:62 referred to his resurrection, that is, “ascending” out of the grave back to the realm of the living. This, too, is fraught with difficulties. For one thing, the verb anabaino is nowhere else used in the sense of resurrection. For another, the verb is a present active participle here; Jesus is emphasizing the action in progress. What if you were to see the Son of man in the act of ascending to where he was before? This use of the verb makes little sense if it refers to a figurative, resurrection meaning; but it makes a lot of sense if it refers to his bodily ascension to heaven, which was witnessed in progress by some of the disciples who heard these words (see Acts 1:11).

In their commentary on John, Bernard and McNeile bring out the sense of this verse well:

“Here is suggested the pre-existence of the Son of Man, as before at 3:13...The meaning of vv. 62, 63 is best brought out if we take them in connexion with v. 58 (cf. v. 51), which had seemed to the hearers of Jesus to be hard of acceptance...that He was the Bread which came down from heaven...That One moving among men in the flesh had descended from heaven seemed incredible, but is it not still less credible that He should ascend to heaven?  Yet the former had happened (in the Incarnation); the latter will happen at the Ascension, and some of those present might be there to see it” (p. 111).

Saturday 10 September 2011

Ascending and Descending (Part 2)

Last week we began an exploration of the language of ascent and descent in the Gospel of John as it relates to the pre-existence of Christ. We looked at John 1:51, an allusion to the Old Testament account of Jacob’s ladder which effectively equated Christ with the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven and allowed angelic beings to pass between the two domains.

In this blog we will look at a passage that bears more directly upon the pre-existence of Christ: John 3:13. In context, a Jewish nobleman named Nicodemus has come to see Jesus under cover of darkness, and is perplexed by his teachings about the need to be born again. Jesus expresses amazement that a teacher of Israel could be ignorant of these things, and then declares that he speaks about things he has seen – earthly and heavenly things. He then makes this startling claim:

“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

There are some important textual issues that affect the way this verse is interpreted. Firstly, in a few English translations such as the King James Version, there is a final clause at the end of the verse: “which is in heaven.” However, most textual authorities are agreed that this is not authentic.

Secondly, some have thought that the words in this verse are not the words of Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ speech ends at verse 12, and verses 13-21 are narration by the author of the Gospel of John. We can, however, say confidently that Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus. The use of the phrase ‘Son of Man’ points us in this direction. Outside of this text it occurs 77 times in the New Testament (with definite article). 75 of those are in the words of Jesus himself (the lone exceptions are John 12:34 and Acts 7:56). Furthermore, in verse 14 the Greek verb ‘dei’ is in the present tense – the Son of Man must be lifted up. This refers to the crucifixion as an event that must yet happen (as opposed to Luke 24:26, where ‘dei’ occurs in the imperfect past tense after the crucifixion).

If Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, the question that confronts us is, what did he mean when he claimed (at this early stage of his earthly ministry) to have descended from heaven and ascended up to heaven? Those who deny the pre-existence of Christ have suggested various interpretations, such as that the verbs are to be understood in future tense (in plain violation of the rules of grammar). Others have suggested a figurative interpretation. However, we already saw that John 1:51 sets a strong precedent for ‘ascending and descending’ language in this Gospel being literal.

I think there are two keys that allow us to unlock the correct interpretation of this verse. The first is recognizing from the context that the focus of the passage is about access to divine knowledge (see verses 10-12). A major theme in the Gospel of John is the contrast between Moses and Jesus (see John 1:17). A Jewish scholar like Nicodemus would have been aware of contemporary Jewish traditions which taught that Moses, Enoch and other figures had ascended to heaven to receive knowledge from God. Jesus here denies that anyone had experienced such a visit to heaven other than himself. But he does not stop there; he goes further to say that he had come from heaven. In effect he was saying, “Not only have I been to heaven; I come from there!” It is the difference between hearing about Paris from someone who vacationed there, and hearing about Paris from a Parisian.

The second key to interpreting the verse is recognizing that Jesus is alluding to Proverbs 30:4, which also occurs in the context of access to divine knowledge:
“3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. 4 Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son's name? Surely you know!”
Jesus’ statement in John 3:13 is an allusion to the rhetorical question, “Who has ascended to heaven and come down?” The implied answer in Proverbs 30:4 is, “No one except God!” but this is followed with a veiled reference to the Messiah in the question, “What is his name, and what is his son’s name?” This mysterious question supports Jesus’ claim that someone other than God – namely the Son – had ascended to heaven and come down from heaven.

The ascending and descending in Proverbs 30:4 can only be literal (when seen next to the references to creation of the earth and control of the weather), so this parallel strengthens our case that in John 3:13, Jesus claims to have literally come down from heaven.