Paul’s Doctrine of Sin from a Doctrine of Christ: With Reference to Douglas Campbell

Sin. A word that has various understandings within the church; particularly the church of the 21st century. I would imagine that most in the churches have a rather elementary grasp on what sin entails. For those who have thought about it more deeply, even they would have variance on the way they understand sin’s impact upon the human being. Some might think of its affect in terms of a disease that might need to be cured; others as utter death that leaves the human being in a totally incapacitated state left to themselves; and maybe for others, somewhere in between the two poles just mentioned. No matter what someone’s position on sin is it often seems that, even in the best of cases, they attempt to define what sin is in rather abstract, or I suppose, literary ways alone. Indeed, appealing to Scripture seems like the best way to come to an understanding of what sin entails, but literary studies, I would argue, will not give us the depth dimension of sin and its impact. We clearly must engage with Holy Scripture’s teaching on what sin is and does, but I would contest that if we simply attempt to define sin’s heft in that way alone, that we will not arrive at a proper understanding of sin’s reality. The Apostle Paul doesn’t actually think sin from abstraction; can you guess where he thinks it from?

Paul, as with everything, defines sin’s height and depth from, you guessed it: Jesus Christ.[1] If we think sin and σάρξ (transliterated: sarx), or Paul’s frequent usage of ‘flesh’ together, what we quickly come to realize is that sin has penetrated into the very depths of what it means to be human; it has devolved us from beings capable of having a right relationship and fellowship with the living God (which is what it means to be human for us), to a status that has become sub-human, or out of koinonia/fellowship with Yahweh, the triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we think sin, as Paul does, from what it took for God to re-concile us unto Himself, through the enfleshment of the Son, His death, burial and resurrection, then we will come to have a greater appreciation of what God has accomplished for us; and just how utterly wicked and evil our hearts actually are. Douglas Campbell explains it this way as he is describing how the Apostle Paul thinks on these things:

The seriousness of Paul’s account of human wrongdoing here needs to be noted. If sin is just a series of bad choices that proceed from a fundamentally healthy nature, then Jesus needs to provide only a clear example of how to behave, along with some additional teaching about right acting. That he had to die, executing our condition, then resurrecting human nature in a new form, suggests that there was something irredeemably corrupt and contaminated in the old one. As some scholars would put it, our problem is radical (from the Latin radix, meaning “root”), suggesting that our problem goes down into the very roots of our nature.[2]

In other words, sin does something ontological to human nature. As Athanasius and even Maximus the Confessor argue, human beings, apart from the redeemed humanity of Jesus Christ are sub-human. This does not mean that the mass of humanity has no value; it simply notes that without Christ for us we are not living out what it means to be creationally human. It presupposes that humanity has an anchor outside of itself; that it has an image it was originally created in, and then recreated in. To be human in the economy of God’s Kingdom in Christ is to be ‘lifted up’ and seated at the Right Hand of the Father in participation with the humanity of Jesus Christ.

As Campbell’s explanation should make clear: For the Apostle Paul, if it required God to become human, and be executed in our stead, then humanity apart from this gracious work is in a status that is inconceivably mal (bad) before God (coram Deo). We are in a place where our ontology is jacked up; which means that our epistemology is jacked up; which means that our practice and function as homo sapiens is going to be utterly jacked up all the way down. If nothing else, there is more empirical evidence for this truth, about sin and the human condition, than any other field of inquiry. True, from within this ‘fallen’ state humanity will attempt to say that the crooked is straight / the straight is crooked, but even in this state we can see how destructive (even by just looking at the stats) living this way actually is.

The cross of Jesus Christ executes this sinful status, and raises up a glorified Christ in whom God’s Kingdom is rightly framed. A Kingdom wherein “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”[3] Jesus Christ lives that Kingdom for us now, and He breaks into our lives moment by moment letting us know that His Kingdom has come, and is coming; a Kingdom that, at a root level, has reversed the human nature unto the status that the Living and Holy God has always envisioned for it; a status that finds its very lifeblood in Immanuel’s veins; a status, that is exalted and highly lifted up participating in the eternal and triune life of God; a status that this world system, left to its own fallen devices, has no place within—but Christ.

I will be writing more on this topic in days to come. I want to talk about how ‘sin’ impacts salvation theories (soteriology), and its related theme: theological-anthropology. There are, of course, constant debates about what is called total depravity and total inability, so on and so forth. But I think those debates are given orientation by too much of an abstract (from Christ) notion of what sin actually is and does. If we think sin from Christ, and all its organic lineaments, we will arrive, I think, at very different theological categories and ways of thinking than the so called classical discussions have given us in this regard. But we will visit this discussion later. In this post I simply wanted to clear my throat a bit, and let Campbell provide a brief and precise explanation of how sin functions in the theology of Paul the Apostle. This throat clearing exercise will be instructive for later discussions on sin.

[1] Karl Barth is famously known for thinking sin from Christ.

[2] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 116, n.7.

[3] Revelation 21:4, KJV.

Being ‘Lived-Out’ Rather than ‘Conference Christians’: Engaging with Douglas Campbell’s Apostle Paul

Is there a place for all the theological and pastoral conferences that happen annually? Sure, at some level I think they are healthy insofar as they bring people together for networking and fellowshipping purposes. But when that becomes the reduction of what the Christian life is, particularly for ‘professional’ Christians, there might be something wrong. I think this has become the case with much of what’s going on in evangelical Christianity. We might think of The Gospel Coalition, Together 4 the Gospel, Shepherd’s Conference, and a host of many others (inclusive of all the academic conferences). It is in these places that many find their Christian identity. Some of the ‘elite’ in these settings are elevated to rock-star status, with autographs and book signings as the hallmark. Indeed, some of these folks are on a conference tour almost year-round; to the point that if they are pastors, they pretty much become guest speakers in their home churches.

I just picked up Douglas Campbell’s new tome: Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. I am just starting to dig in, and in the introduction he speaks to what we were just thinking about. He is starting to detail the way he thinks the Apostle Paul would operate, and how he would think of what characterizes much of Christianity in America today. He writes:

I sometimes wonder what Paul would make of the conferences at which scores of highly learned people sit around and debate for hours tiny semantic nuances preserved in his writings. I expect he might be patient with this exercise for a while, but then at some point I’m pretty sure that he would jump up—possibly wielding a whip—and shout: “For goodness sake! Haven’t you read what my writings actually say? You’re not meant to be sitting around debating them. You are meant to be out there doing what they tell you to do—meeting people and fostering Christian communities in service to our Lord. Get off your backsides and get moving!” Doubtless this challenge would be accompanied by the sounds of tables being overturned and piles of pristine books crashing to the floor.

There is such a thing as a scholar-activist, and I venture to suggest that scholars of Paul should by and large be scholar-activists. If we are not, then we are royally missing the point, and I suspect that our interpretations of Paul will suffer as well. . . .[1]

I remember being a fresh student at Multnomah Bible College, just off the streets of living out the faith in the workplace and elsewhere. By time I had arrived I’d read through the whole Bible four times, and the NT tens of times; having memorized three books of the NT as well. I was in the midst of spiritual warfare, and relying on Scripture not as an academic piece of literature to be debated, but the living Word of God burning as fire in my bones. I remember towards the end of my first semester we had a schoolwide barbeque on a beautiful Spring Pacific Northwest day. I’d learned that there was a group of guys (fellow students ahead of me by a year or two) who were really well versed in Scripture, and even learned. So, that day I thought I would at least go and stand by them, and attempt to participate in their discussion about the biblical text. What I quickly learned, sadly, was that the text, for them (at that point at least) was more about its critical and academic content more than it was the living bread by which a Christian might find daily sustenance and life. This discouraged, saddened, and angered me all at once.

I share this anecdote not to declare myself ‘holier than thou,’ but to illustrate how Holy Scripture can become one thing to this group of people, and something solely different to another. If we extrapolate out from my anecdote, I think we might recognize how my co-students’ attitude back then is indeed what Campbell is taking aim at now. This sort of attitude about Scripture, in general, and Paul’s epistles, in particular, is exactly the attitude that Scripture, and the Lord of Scripture desires to contradict. We do indeed, as Campbell rightly notes, see in certain heady circles that Scripture is only ‘talked about,’ as if the act itself is effectual in itself. Indeed, we do need to have understanding of Scripture, but at some point, it is time to act it out in the faith of Christ. We are called to be ‘living sacrifices’ by the Apostle, ‘smoked out like burnt offerings’ in the way we live before God. Conference Christianity does not foster this sort of ‘drink offering’ faith; instead it cultivates a posture of sitting back and talking in theoretical and abstract terms about what the Bible might be saying here or there. This is neither Pauline nor Dominical Christianity, as such I think Campbell is right about what Paul might have thought about the sort of conference Christianity we see dominating much of the Christian landscape in America. May we not be ‘conference Christians,’ but instead ‘lived-out Christians.’

 

[1] Douglas A. Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020), 4-5.

The King’s Wives and Theological Methodology: Just as There is One Will of God There is One Revelation

God works in accommodating ways. Not accommodating in the sense that He concedes to our desires and wants, but accommodating in the sense that He meets us where we are and, often through a process, takes us to where He is. It is on this analogy that I want to refer us to a theological methodology. In order to provide an example for this analogy, of the ways of God, I will appeal to the kings of Israel. This might sound rather strange, but bear with me. What I want to suggest, from the kings of Israel, is that God does not always immediately change our ways into His ways; instead He comes to our ways, and through a sanctification process, breaks down and builds up / breaks down and builds up until we are all finally delivered into the glorified image of God in Christ that God currently holds for us and in us in the mediatorial humanity of Christ.

My thesis is this: God works into various periods of time in order to accomplish His purposes and make them known in Christ. When we think of the kings of Israel, and their multitudes of wives and concubines, we have to wonder why God didn’t immediately and apocalyptically reveal that this is not His way or intention for marriage (which we understand from Gen. 2). Over time, in the fullness of time (cf. Gal. 4), it becomes clear that God’s ideal for marriage, as a witness to His relationship to His ‘bride’, is that it be between one man and one woman. This finally becomes clear, once again, in the revelation of Jesus Christ; and this becomes normative for the Church of Christ. On analogy: The Christ comes to this world, at Christmas time, during the Graeco-Roman period of world history. As such, and since the early Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church were ensconced in this period, they naturally used what was most native to them. That is, as the early Church attempted to work out their salvation, meaning as they attempted to explicate and come to terms with the reality of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they deployed Hellenic philosophical categories in order to achieve their goal to think and speak God in intelligible ways. But just as with the kings of Israel and their wives, the admixture of Greek conceptions and Christian theology were never intended to stay wedded indefinitely. As God worked, even in definitive ways among the Church Fathers, in ways that perdure in basic ways into the present language of the Church, this work has pressed on.

I want to suggest (and maybe argue later) that just as the status of the kings of Israel and their wives did not / could not remain the status in God’s Kingdom; likewise, the over-emphasis upon Greek categories for thinking God could not / should not remain the status for us. It is not as if what I am suggesting is that there is a linear progressive nature to God’s revelation in Christ; to the contrary. What I am suggesting works off the premise that God’s life is eschatological, and His way: apocalyptic. His way is given up front and immediately, but because He is patient and long-suffering with His people, He will allow us to fumble around until we grow into His eschatological way. Just as Christians today have rejected polygamy, so to, I want to suggest that we ought to reject over-reliance upon so called ‘Pure Being’ categories when thinking God. Indeed, as Jaroslav Pelikan has keenly learned us to, even in the early Church, while the propensity to fall prey to the Greeks was always intensely present, even then the aim was to reify the Greek philosophical categories in such a way that God’s Self-revelation in Christ, as attested to in Holy Scripture, was given categorical preeminence in the way they sought to think and speak God to themselves and the world.

It seems to me that the Church has grown lazy. That she is in a rush, in order to distance herself from the modern mediating theologians, in the sense that the modern theologians are known for attempting to wash Christian theology of any relic of an over-reliance upon the Hellenic form in the theological endeavor. But I think the evangelical and Reformed Churches, or any ‘conservative’ (so called) theologian, have swung the pendulum back too far. There is wisdom in the thesis that the Greek category has been allowed too much shrift in the way the Christian thinks God. This is not to say that the Christian ought to simply abandon all forms of Greek or so called catholic categorical thinking when it comes to the Church’s theologizing. But it does mean, that just as the kings of Israel and their matrimonial framework could not remain the status quo, likewise, the reliance on Hellenic categories, insofar as those overly-intrude into God’s Self-revelation, cannot and must not remain the status. Yet, in the haste to remove herself from any residue of the modern mind, the conservative 21st century Church has devalued the insight of the modern Church that the Greek concubines ought to be abandoned insofar as they have spawned lines of thought about God that are not themselves corollary with the God revealed in Christ. Most will simply laugh my suggestion off, and continue on their merry way with their harems in tow; but they shouldn’t. The work of allowing God’s revelation to be the end all in the theological task of the Church needs to be engaged with in much more toilsome ways (cf. II Tim. 2:15). Instead of simply receiving what she takes to be the catholic and orthodox way, she needs to more critically wonder about how the Hellenic categories have been allowed to thwart the way we think God.

Of course the underwriting premise is this: Contra the ‘two-books’ theory of revelation, I am committed to the idea that just as there is one will of God, there is only one revelation of God; and that revelation is strictly limited to Jesus Christ alone. It is this theory of revelation that must be the driving commitment, or my suggestion about over-reliance on Greek forms will not be taken seriously. Yet we must ask: where does this commitment to natural and special theology come from? Where do proponents of two-books, even if they see special as greater than natural revelation, get their notion that God has revealed Himself in nature such that we have the capacity to find Him there? They often claim that Scripture itself gives them this theory. But this presumes that they would or could read Scripture itself outwith an already commitment and submission to the reality that Jesus is Lord; Lord within the revealed and relational framework that God is Father of the Son before He is the Creator.

Jesus is the New Israel

Much like you will find in the work of Thomas F. Torrance in his recently published New College, Edinburgh lectures (Incarnation & Atonement, edited by his nephew, Robert T. Walker), Karl Barth in his coverage on The Apostles’ Creed in his small and accessible book Dogmatics in Outline highlights the dialectic relationship that the covenant nation of Israel has with Jesus Christ. What is very rich about Barth’s coverage is that he makes something quite explicit, and it is something that some Covenant theologians get wrong; and it is something that most Dispensational exegetes caricature. That is, that the ‘Church’ replaces Israel, and thus the point of the nation of Israel, with all of her promises included, was finally realized by the Church; some dispensational proponents disparagingly call this ‘replacement theology.’ In some cases, this label might fit for some ‘classical covenant theology’ advocates, but even for many of these it does not fully fit. In other words, not even all covenant theologians argue that Israel is replaced by the Church; although many of them do.

The above notwithstanding, it is my belief that Israel is not ‘replaced’ by the Church, but that Jesus Christ is actually the ‘new Israel’ (i.e. not the Church). That Jesus himself, as the inner ground of the Covenant is the point and purpose for which Israel was called by God as the prefiguration of Yahweh’s meeting with humanity, with man. Their history is funded by God’s history to be Immanuel, God with us, including Israel; and out of this history is a reflection of God’s life becoming particularized in a specific people, in a specific time out of his own freedom and choice (which started in his original act to create, Genesis 1:1).

So my thesis is that: Jesus is the new Israel, the new humanity in his resurrection for us. If this is the case, then when we read the Old Testament and its promises to the nation of Israel, we ought to re-read and interpret those promises for whom they were ultimately intended; in Christ for and with us. Karl Barth agrees with this thesis when he writes:

But now we must turn the page. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment, is the consummation of Israel. We look again into the Old Testament and find continual traces, that these obstinate and lost men—astoundingly enough!—in certain situations even confirm their election. When this occurs, when there is a kind of godly, upright continuity, this does not arise from the nature of Israel, but is rather God’s ever renewed grace. But where there is grace, men are bound contre cæur to lift up their voice in praise of God, and bear witness that where God’s light falls upon their life, a reflection of this light in them is bound to respond. There is a grace of God in the midst of judgment. And of this the Old Testament also speaks, not as of a continuity of Israelite man, but as of a ‘nevertheless’ of God. Nevertheless, there are in the history of this nation recurrent testimonies which begin with the words, ‘Thus saith the Lord …’ They sound out as the answer of such hearers, as the echo therefore of the ‘nevertheless’ of God’s faithfulness. The Old Testament is aware of a ‘remnant’. Here it is not the question of better or more moral men, but of those who are distinguished by having been called. Sinners gripped by God’s grace, peccatores justi, are those who constitute the remnant.

Revelation culminates in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. He comes out of Israel, born of Mary the Virgin, and yet from above, and so in His glory the Revealer and Consummator of the covenant. Israel is not a sick man who was allowed to recover, but One risen from the dead. By His appearing, over against the verdict that man pronounced on himself God’s verdict comes into view, to remove all human self-condemnation. God’s faithfulness triumphs in this sea of sin and misery. He has mercy on man. He shares with His inmost Being in this man. He has never ceased to lead by cords of love this people which to His face behaved like a whore. It remains true that this man of Israel belongs to God and again and again, not by nature but by the miracle of grace, may belong anew to God, be rescued from death, be exalted to God’s right hand.[1]

Rich! In this, not only do we see how God relates to Israel and humanity in general; but we also see glimmers of the ontological theory of the atonement etc. peeking their eyes out in the theology of Karl Barth (more on that later).

Can we make an exegetical case for the above dogmatic realities that Barth is developing for us? Indeed. But somewhere else, at another time. Be edified!

[1] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 80.

The Temple of God’s Triune Life: Learning to Hear God’s Voice, With Samuel as the Case Study

Learning God’s voice is often a process, but Jesus taught that His Sheep would know His voice; we read in John 10.27: “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of young Samuel. It is a favorite, on one hand, because my own “conversion” story mimics Yahweh’s call to Samuel. The LORD called me out of my sleep in the middle of the night to Himself when I was three. I went and woke my parent’s up and they led me to Christ. On the other hand, this is a favorite story because it pictures how God comes to each of us, and calls us out of our childhood into the pathway of maturation and growth as we learn to distinguish His voice from all others. Let’s read this story, and follow up on the other side.

Now the boy Samuel was serving Yahweh in the presence of Eli. The word of Yahweh was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. And then one day when Eli was lying in his place (now his eyes had begun to grow weak so that he was not able to see) and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, Samuel was lying in the temple of Yahweh where the ark of God was. Then Yahweh called out to Samuel and he said, “Here I am!” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” But he said, “I did not call you. Go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. And Yahweh called Samuel again, so Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” And he said, “I did not call you, my son. Go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh, and the word of Yahweh had not yet been revealed to him. Again Yahweh called Samuel a third time, so he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” Then Eli realized that Yahweh was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel “Go lie down. If he calls to you, then you must say, ‘Speak Yahweh, because your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Then Yahweh came and stood there and called out as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, because your servant is listening.”[1]

Samuel didn’t immediately know God’s voice for him; instead he went to what was common to his experience, he went to Eli—a known and concrete quantity, so to speak. But Eli, based on his own experience of God knew that there was something deeper and more Holy about the voice confronting young Samuel. The LORD persisted that night with Samuel until Samuel went from not knowing God, to knowing and being able to recognize His voice from others.

God, likewise, persists with us. But it is required that we have eyes to see and ears to hear. He has given those for us in the mediatorial eyes and ears of Jesus Christ. We have the capacity to see and hear God, but it requires an obedient yielding to this work of God in our lives in order for us, each day, to move from not knowing God, to knowing God. Samuel, once this initial revelation came, persisted in this life of obedience, and it shaped his life for years to Kingdom come. This is an important realization: knowing God is a daily, moment by moment reality. We have the freedom in Christ by the Holy Spirit to say yes or no to God’s constant revealing of Himself to us, or not. There are clearly plenty of other voices that vie for our attention, typically not as sage as Eli’s was for Samuel. And yet God persists with and for us just as sure as He is and always will persist in the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. He always lives to make intercession for those who will inherit eternal life. Samuel came to know this voice at a young age, and he persisted in his pursuit to hear this voice each day of his life for the rest of his life. He didn’t have to do anything to prompt God’s voice for him. It is because of who God is for us that God pursues us, just as sure as He has put on flesh for us in the Son, and as such there is nothing we can do but humble ourselves to seek God’s pursuit of us.

This is so much simpler than we think. Like Samuel lying there in his bed doing nothing, we too, simply lay in the temple of the LORD, where the ark is, and herein we are constantly in touch with the living God. Indeed, we are the temple of the living God as we now participate in the vicarious humanity of Christ. He tabernacled (Jn 1.14) for us, that we might tabernacle with Him; just as He has tabernacled with the Father by the bond of the Holy Spirit for all of the eternity of their shared Triune life. Each step we take, every bed we lay in, every plane we fly in; wherever we are we are in God’s tabernacle, indeed we are God’s tabernacle. This, because of who God is for us, is the depth reality of our lives as Christians. We don’t have to do anything or go anywhere to hear God’s calling and penetrating voice. He has freely chosen to come to where we are, beset in our dusty frames, and fellowship with us here that we might fellowship with Him there in the temple of His Triune life. His voice is ever present. Just as young Samuel came to know, we too should come to know that God’s voice is always there; He is ready to succor and care for us in ways that we cannot begin to imagine. But it does require some work; it requires obedience. But even that is not from us, but comes to us by the energy of the resurrection life of Christ that we have been brought into by the Spirit; and that we are brought into afresh and anew moment by moment. Herein is God’s voice, the verbum Dei for us.

 

 

[1] Lexham English Bible.

God’s Discipline Unto Death

Sinning unto death; this concept was a common one for me growing up in the evangelical household that I did. It is a biblical concept, and one that I want to consider briefly in this post. I will lift up three pericopes, maybe the locus classicus for this thinking, and reflect from there.

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you[a] sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. –Acts 5.1-11

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. –I Corinthians 11.23-32

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. –I Corinthians 5.1-5

16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. –I John 5.16-17

I am not going to do a full exegesis of these passages, but I wanted to refer to them in a suggestive way. In the Apostolic period, per these passages, it wasn’t uncommon for Christian brothers and sisters to face steep and deliberate judgment from God; at points resulting in what would seem to be a premature death as God’s judgment on them for unrepentant and willful and ongoing sin. Since I see continuity between then and now, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, I don’t think this reality has ceased. In other words, because God is merciful, and because He will discipline His children per his gracious Fatherly love, we ought to walk humbly before Him. St. Peter writes:

17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. –I Peter 4.17-19

And the author of Hebrews (Paul) writes:

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. –Hebrews 12.7-11

Clearly, severe discipline from God should be expected for those of us who persist in sinful behavior, or even promote aberrant teaching of the sort that is deleterious not to just our souls but to all those we influence.

I take it, because of the passages I’ve mentioned, and many more left unmentioned, that God is God and we are not. And if we are His children this ought to inject a sobriety into our lives that keeps us living in broken subjection unto Him. Now, don’t read me wrong, I am not wanting to suggest that God is a wrathful bully who is just waiting for us to mess up or mis-perform; just the opposite, actually! What I am suggesting is that because God is a loving Father, He will make sure He keeps us on a short leash not allowing us to stray from His gracious and Holy Life He has given for us in Christ. What I am suggesting is that because God is Holy, and without ‘holiness we will not see Him,’ He will make sure, as the Greatest Father, that we stay in step with the Spirit.

God’s ways are not our ways, His thoughts not our thoughts; and so, it is difficult to discern exactly a causal link between things that happen to us (with Apostolic oversight saying ‘this is that’), and God’s discipline. But that notwithstanding, it is not outside the bounds of the New Testament witness, bolstered by God’s dealing with His Covenant people in the Old Testament, to think that indeed, we endure things as Christians precisely because God is bringing His discipline into our lives.

I think in extreme cases, as we have mentioned in some of the passages above, some of us are taken home early for our own good. This might not seem like a discipline, but I think it can be. Paul says in Galatians 6.9-10: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” Our time here on earth in this current in-between time offers unique opportunities for the Christian to suffer and experience the sufferings of Christ; an experience that will not be part of the eschatological reality realized. As such, to be taken home ‘early’ as a result of God’s merciful discipline in our lives, has the potential to take this opportunity for growth in Him away from us.

All things considered, what this tells me is that I ought to live soberly before God, and walk not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit. This thinking might not be coherent with the current sensibility of Christianity, but I do think it is consistent with what we must wrestle with in the New Testament witness. I think there are cases before us in the Christian world today where we might actually be able to justifiably think that some of this sort of discipline is currently underway now. But again, without Apostolic ability to say this is that we cannot make dogmatic judgments this way; but I think we can dogmatically think this is a ‘way’ that God interacts with His children.

 

 

 

 

Being Studious So We Know What and Who the Gospel Is: ‘The Weapons of Our Warfare Are Mighty’

In light of tragedy I often hear pastors and teachers in our 21st century context downplay the Gospel; as if the Gospel ultimately is indeed some sort of insurance policy, but at the end of each day does not have the resource to confront the types of tragedies we are faced with on a daily basis as Christians. As if the Gospel itself is not effulgent with the life of very God of very God. Maybe one reason Christians think of the Gospel in these terms—in domesticated and muted terms—is because they have failed to appreciate that understanding the Gospel requires rigor and work. In other words, we live in a fallen state (still!), and as a result even though salvation is by grace alone understanding what grace alone entails requires great depths of work and study. Maybe pastors and teachers gut the Gospel the way they do, particularly in light of travail and torment in people’s lives, because they are simply lazy; as are most in the church. Maybe the Gospel actually is the power of God, and not in some mystical sense, just as the Apostle Paul has asserted (by the Spirit!). Maybe the Gospel has the resource to actually make the crooked straight even in the in-between we currently inhabit, and we ought to entrust ourselves to it (Him) more rather than less. Maybe if we committed to exerting the necessary energy of putting the work in we’d have a greater depth understanding of the Gospel and see it for what it actually is, and for what it actually has the capacity to accomplish in us and for us.

The late John Webster offers a challenging word on this front as he develops his theme on theological theology. He confronts the sin of laziness, and underscores how important it is for Christians to be studious in regard to gaining proper understanding of the fullness attendant with the Gospel. Webster ties study of the Gospel (he calls this theology) into ends and purposes; and notes the impact that the end has on purpose. But more than that, as noted, he wants to impress how if the Christian is to appreciate what they actually have in the Gospel they need to work and be studious. He writes:

Christian theology pursues scientific ends, that is, the acquisition of that knowledge of its matter which is proper to creatures, in accordance with its cognitive principles. Pursuit of scientific ends is an element of the fulfillment of our intellectual nature, and is a creaturely good. Human creatures are by nature studious. We have an appetite to acquire knowledge beyond what is necessary for the immediate fulfillment of our animal nature, and we possess intellectual powers which we apply to satisfy this appetite. Well-ordered, temperate studiousness is not self-derived or wholly spontaneous; it is creaturely, the exercise of powers which have been given and which are moved, preserved and fortified by a movement beyond themselves. Studiousness is the arduous application of these powers; it is not indolent or casual, but concentrated, determined, painstaking and resistant to premature termination.

All theological activity requires this kind of purposive pursuit of scientific ends: revelation awakens theological science. It is through study that God becomes actually intelligible, and defects in the acquisition and exercise of studiousness threaten the attainment of other ends in theology. However, pursuit of scientific ends is instrumental and interim: necessary, but not sufficient or final. Forgetfulness of the instrumental status of scientific ends arises from disordered intention: our purposes for this activity fail to coincide with its intrinsic ends, and excessive devotion to scientific ends inhibits attainment of the true ends of theological intelligence. Much harm to theology is done by this disordered purpose. Theology’s object becomes one which is ours to appropriate or master by scientia; its cognitive principles become naturalized; the dependence of theology on divine instruction is neglected. Some kinds of institutional setting in which theology is undertaken may provide opportunities for such distortions to flourish, but their chief cause is the crookedness and futility of our intellectual nature after the fall. Only with the restoration and regeneration of that nature can our purposes be taught to direct themselves to fitting ends; theology will be theological as it is caught up in this renewal.[1]

It is important to identify, as Webster does, the internal battle we all are facing as Christians. The struggle is indeed real, and we should not be naïve to this as Christian warriors. We are enveloped in the very life of the living God in Christ, and in this envelopment we have been given the mind and heart of Christ. This is where we have the ‘renewal’ to do genuinely theological theology. Meaning: this is where we have the ability to grow deep into the reality of the pleroma (fullness) of the Gospel. Webster’s points are well taken; sin retards our desire, even as Christians, especially as Christians to seek God while he might be found call upon him while he is near. But we must not give into the baser desires of the old nature that continues to seek to assert itself where it has been crushed like the serpent’s head that it is.

In an even more applied sense: as we continue to mourn the loss of Pastor Andrew I fear that Christians won’t allow this tragedy to forge them into the steely new creations they have been made in and through their gracious union with Jesus Christ. As Christians we are in a spiritual battle, and the means of our battle, the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. But what does this really mean? Is this some sort of mystical appeal that we simply live ethereally into as a New Ager does in their transcendental reflections? No. The weapons of our warfare are exactly what Webster was referring to; it entails work and being studious around the Gospel; around growing into the grace and knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and who he is for us as he is eternally in himself. If we fail to sharpen these weapons, which requires labor, we will indeed reduce the Gospel to some sort of shallow insurance policy shorn of the very power of God that it actually is. Armed with such a Gospel we will remain impotent, and the attacks of the evil one will land hard and furious; we won’t know what hit us till we are on the brink of destruction (even as Christians).

As a brother in Christ I implore you, at the very least, to daily take up your Bible and read it; internalize it. More, I implore you to read sound theology, and learn the tools that will allow you to interpret Scripture in depth ways. The end is to know and love God; the purposes of our activity are to be shaped by this end. If so, if we take this to heart we will be constrained by the love of Christ (the end), and motivated in the proper ways toward reaching the end of who we are in Jesus Christ.

[1] John Webster, God Without Measure: Working Papers In Christian Theology: Volume 1: God And The Works Of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 219-20.

Is The Devil Real? The Bible’s Take Contra Friedrich Schleiermacher’s

Alexandre Cabanel’s Fallen Angel, 1868

Is the Devil real; some refer to this as: is the Devil personal? Yes, I personally think the Devil is real. I can only arrive at this conclusion based upon the Dominical affirmation and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is important, I think, because the biblical reality not only asserts that this is the case, but it frames the ‘spiritual battle’ Jesus Christ undertook, and the same battle that his church continues to undertake, as the church militant, in such terms that are clear that our battle is not ‘against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers and principalities’ that inhabit the ‘air’ as it were (read the whole Epistle to the Ephesians). None of this is to mention, of course, the most pivotal section of scripture in the whole of the Bible (it could be argued) in regard to the Fall. Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

We have other references in the Old Testament that refer to the ‘spiritual battle’, particularly in Daniel 10; note:

12 Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. 13 But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. 14 Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.”. . . 20 So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come; 21 but first I will tell you what is written in the Book of Truth. (No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince.)

And then of course the infamous battle that Jesus had with the Devil in the wilderness (a recapitulation of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness) in Matthew (and the Synoptic attestation):

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we didn’t have the Old Testament witnesses the New Testament account of Jesus’s battle wouldn’t make sense, for one thing. For another thing what we do have in the ‘spiritual battle’ that Jesus undertook in the wilderness and the victory he won (think Irenaeus and recapitulation as far as hermeneutical and soteriological method) is not ‘parabolic’ in literary form but historical prose; in other words its intention is to detail a concrete event with theological depth per the reality of the euaggelion, per the Gospel reality that Jesus is in the incarnation. In other words, the reality of the Devil to this account in Matthew (and Mark) is just as central to the canonical narrative as is Genesis 3 with our first introduction to the Devil. There is a continuity of salvation-history in regard to the character and function of the Devil from the first Adam to the second Adam (to pick up on the Pauline motif cf. Rom. 5), and his role in introducing humanity to an evil that he had already partaken of. This is not to suggest that the Devil is evil, like in a Manichean or dualist sense, or that he helps explain the origin of evil—this would only exceed the bounds and thrust us into a mode of speculation that we dare not engage in as those committed to a revelational theology—but it is to recognize through attention to the text’s development that the Devil ought to be understood in a realist and at least ontic sense insofar as he has agency and volition in his textuality.

In short, the text, I contend, wants us to believe that the Devil is a real entity who is maliciously oriented against God and his purposes in Jesus Christ. The text wants us to think that the Devil wants to undo what God has done, and is doing in and through the resurrection power of the risen Christ in the human and created order in general. The text, as we think this canonically, wants us to think that the Devil is real; has agency, ‘prowls around like a roaring lion’; is leader of a cohort that has been made a public spectacle of at the cross of Christ; is ‘accuser of the brethren’ cast down from heaven in warfare with the heavenly host, that soon, along with the rest of death will be put under the Christ’s foot once and for all never to be heard of again. In other words, the text wants us to think that the Devil, with all his ‘being’ wants to destroy the good and very good creation and recreation of God in Jesus Christ; not to mention all of those who are participants in Christ’s life by the Spirit.

I write all of the above to get to Friedrich Schleiermacher; just who you were waiting for! Most evangelical and Reformed Christians couldn’t give two cents for what Schleiermacher thinks; I get that. Nevertheless, I think it is interesting, if not important, to understand where someone as giant and genius as Schleiermacher stood on such things. His theology of the devil is actually pretty scant, and as he notes (as you will see) unnecessary for a Christian theology. Clearly he reflects the ‘enlightened’ thinking of his times, and presupposes upon the developing ‘higher criticism’ of his day. You will see this reflected in what he has to say about the non-importance of the devil relative to scriptural teaching and Christian living. As you read him along with me here, what I opened up with above will become clear; you will see why I wrote what I did in anticipation of what Schleiermacher thinks. He writes:

Thus, even if only a few scriptural passages treat of the devil, or even if all the passages actually cited here and those otherwise still reputable for the purpose treat the devil, all grounds for taking up this notion as an enduring component in our presentation of Christian faith-doctrine would be lacking to us. Accordingly, all grounds would also be lacking for defining the notion so much more closely that everything that is ascribed to the devil could also really be considered together. This is so, for in Christ and his disciples this notion was not used as one that would be derived from the Sacred Scriptures of the old covenant, nor even as on that would be acquired from divine revelation by any pathway whatsoever. Rather, it arose from the common life of that time, thus in the same way in which it more or less arises in all of us, despite our complete ignorance as to the existence of such a being. Moreover, that wherefrom we are to be redeemed remains the same, whether the devil exists or not, and that whereby we are redeemed also remains the same. Thus, the very question concerning the existence of the devil is also no question for Christian theology at all. Rather, it is a cosmological question, in the broadest sense of the word, exactly the same as that concerning the nature of the firmament and of heavenly bodies. Moreover, in a presentation of faith-doctrine we actually have just as little to affirm as to deny on this topic, and likewise we can just as little be required to hold a dispute over that notion in a presentation of faith-doctrine as to provide a grounding for it. What the biblical deposit shows is nothing more than that the notion was a confluence of two or three very different components among the Jewish people themselves. The first component is the servant of God who locates the whereabouts of wickedness, and who has a certain rank and work among the other angels, but of whom there can be no talk of being cast out from being near God. The other main component is the basically evil being of oriental dualism, modified in such a way that the Jews alone would have been in a position to adopt the new version.[1]

Schleiermacher, clearly, was under the influence of his times; as such the Bible was undergoing a radical displacement in regard to being a trustworthy gateway into the strange world operative under the strictures of supernatural reality, as he attempted to theologize.

There are many today, Christians even, who have little time to ponder whether or not the devil is real; many believe we have enough concrete expressions of evil, systemically and personally, to take up our time and attention. But according to the brief survey of Scripture I offered previously this is errant. The Bible, contra Schleiermacher wants us to think that we are engaged in a real life battle with a ‘personal’ satan who seeks to not only destroy our souls, but the souls of every person for whom Christ died; and along with that the rest of creation as that is tied to our stewardship.

From a personal perspective I have experienced all types of spiritual warfare, in fact I’ve experienced some right now as I’ve come to type this post. I’ve had encounters with tangible contact points with the kingdom of darkness, been exposed to people who are demon-possessed, and confronted such realties in the name of the living Christ. This is why this is important; because it’s a real life struggle that each of us as soldiers of Christ faces on a daily basis. Maybe one positive point we could take from Schleiermacher, in a recontextualized way, is that we don’t want to give the devil too much of our time and focus; but along with the Apostle Paul we don’t want to be ‘ignorant of his devices’ or reality either!

Further, I wouldn’t want to close this post without noting that the ‘spiritual’, just as the resurrection of Christ illustrates, is disembodied, per se. In other words, even though the devil is a ‘spirity’ entity (as are his cohorts) does not mean, as we can infer from Scripture, that his means are always or mostly of the so called ‘paranormal’ sort. Typically, especially in the Western enclave, his most heinous manifestations of evil are very material in orientation. We see this extended into space and time in terms of economic, sexual, physical forms of violence and abuse; in systemic and structural ways. But we ought to remember, nonetheless, that standing behind such ‘beastly’ action is indeed the kingdom of darkness in all its grossness. Devil be damned!

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. –Ephesians 6.10-12

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. –II Corinthians 10.3-6

 

[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith Volume One, trans. by Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 242-43.

A Theology of Scars and Remembrance

God has a way of keeping his people close to his side; I would like to suggest one of his primary means for doing this is through suffering. For the remainder of this post I want to attempt to offer a theology of scars and remembrance.

We all walk through various forms of suffering in this life, this is what it means to live in a fallen world; there is fall-out in this fallen world—both internal and external to ourselves—that we will in one way or the other be exposed to and experience in various measures of intensity and duration. The wisdom of God was to enter this world precisely at the point of our weakness, and redeem and reverse the human travail from there (I Cor. 1.17-25); as we walk through whatever suffering we are going to be faced with that will leave these scars, whether those be physical, spiritual-emotional, or all of the above. This has been my experience after walking through many years of various trials.

In my early twenties (starting in 1995) I began to experience severe anxiety attacks, deep depression, associated with a doubt of God’s existence (even though I still believed in Him), and a host of other emotional-psychological woes that wouldn’t abate for a period of at least six years. I won’t wear you out with indexing the details of all the woes I struggled with during that season, but suffice it to say there are deep and abiding scars left over from that season. Indeed, God in Jesus Christ brought me healing and comfort through it all; but He let me go through it, in all of its excruciating torment and pain. Yet, He never left or forsook me; He cared for me through apocalyptic in-breakings bringing total relief to tortuous moments where I thought all sanity would finally be lost; and He did this over and over again. He brought relief this way so much, He met me in the depths so frequently that I began to have confidence and expectation that He would deliver me through each episode of despondency and horror. In the midst of the torment He was building His life into mine in such ways that I would learn to recognize His voice, to understand His presence, and to expect Him to show up just when all seemed lost. When this series of events happens over and again for a season of years you begin to have an abiding trust in God that no one can rattle or shake. You begin to realize that the very ground of your identity and essence as a person is fully contingent upon the Living God and His Word of sustenance. If nothing else, this is what this season of time taught me about God. Yet it came with scars. The scars are reminders that I am not my own, that I’ve been bought with a hefty price, and my life can never go beyond the life that God chooses to give me in and from Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Fast forward to 2009, another epic trial hit me; this time it wasn’t just me, but it would impact my young family—my wife and two kids, most immediately (but all of my family). I was diagnosed with what is normally a terminal and incurable cancer called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT). I thought I had experience anxiety before—and I had—but this brought things to a new level. This season that lasted just about a year held me in a state that went beyond anxiety, it took me to depths of anguish that I didn’t know were possible. Attendant with this season of life there was, of course, the physical component to the suffering that I had never experience previously in any measure in my life. The chemo literally ravished my body, and the lack of having a sense of ‘future’—with my family on this earth—was more than overwhelming. Yet again, the Lord met us in so many ways it would be hard to detail them. He provided for us financially, with the best of medical care, He provided me with what I could only describe as “visions” of Him, He made sure we knew He was tangibly present by angelic visitors, and so many other means of provision. And for some reason, only known to Him, He walked us through that to the point that I was allowed to live. This season of suffering likewise brought scars, not just emotional-psychological, but this time I have physical scars I can look down at on my belly and upper chest. What was made clear in this season is that at the deepest depths God is faithful to meet us where we need Him most; He meets us in our moments of deepest suffering and anguish and reveals Himself in the times where by all outward appearances He seems to be Hidden.

I sketch these two seasons of suffering from my own life to help segue into some biblical passages that I think tie into my own moments of suffering, and into the moments of human suffering in general which we all are partakers of to one degree or another. Let me quote some of these passages, and then I will offer some reflection on them as they relate to this topic of consideration.

13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Exodus 12:13-14

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’… that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” Joshua 4:1-3, 6-7

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:67, 71

42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Luke 22:42-46

28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:28-30

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” John 20:27

14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. Galatians 6:14-17

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers,  of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. II Corinthians 1:8-10

10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, Hebrews 2:10-11

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18

These only represent a small sampling of the various passages we could refer to when thinking about a theology of scars, remembrance, and suffering; but they are the ones that most immediately came to mind. Very early on God provides new life for His people through the shedding of innocent blood; He creates a framework wherein sacrifice and substitution for the other becomes the means by which we are to understand our relationship to God. There was much travail and anguish that attended this time of Passover; there was death and judgment, and yet out of this sprung new life, and the hope for all of humanity that would ultimately come through the offspring of Israel in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. As Leviticus notes ‘the life is in the blood,’ and it is this that comes through most clairvoyantly as we contemplate what happened in Exodus; life was lost, through suffering and the death of the other, in order that life might be reborn in the creation of a new people that would ultimately lead to life for the nations. But I want to highlight the tie in between suffering and new life.

As this new people is formed through much tribulation God has the priests place remembrance stones in the Jordan as a sign of God’s faithfulness; we might see them as ‘scars’ that the people in solidarity could look back upon and remember that they are a people not of their own making, but of the creative hand of Yahweh. These ‘scars’ were intended to be a resource for the people to look at particularly in times where they might be tempted to forget God’s faithfulness; more positively, they were intended to be a sort of sacramental means by which the people were to understand God’s presence in their lives, and for their lives in a very concrete rock hard way.

King David understood how important affliction was; he knew of his heritage and the God who created and formed his lineage. He was so aware of God’s faithfulness that he could look upon his deep and tortuous suffering as the means by which he understood God to be showing Himself faithful to him rather than as an onerous overlord arbitrarily beating him for sadistic purposes. He could look at suffering and affliction and know that there God’s faithfulness was present in it, and that God was using it to teach deep and abiding things about Himself to David.

We meet the son of David, Jesus Christ, in the travail of the Garden; the substantive Passover (I Cor. 5:7). He along with David knew that in order for the plight of new life to come to pass He, as the Lamb of God, must endure suffering for the ‘joy set before Him.’ The depth of His anguish only caused Him to press that much more deeply into His Father’s sustenance and love in reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence. Even while in the intensity of the suffering, He knew the Father’s faithfulness would carry Him through in and through the bond of eternal love that He shared with the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s great travail, most notably observed in the Garden, ironically where the Fall of Humanity occurred (in ‘the Garden’ Gen. 3), eventuated in the deepest travail to ever be experienced in all of history. The suffering and tribulation that Jesus experienced at the point of the cross was of depths that no greater suffering will ever or ever has been known throughout all the long corridors of human suffering and travail. The suffering Jesus endured required that the very ground of His humanity be Divine in nature; outwith this fortification His frail dusty humanity would have been vaporized into the oblivion that the Devil himself and humanity’s incurved souls would have hoped for.

But He is risen! Even in His resurrected body, as Thomas realized, the scars of the cross remained. They will serve as reminders and signs of remembrance for all eternity that God’s faithfulness is greater than humanity’s unfaithfulness; that what it means to be truly human before God is to be reconciled to Him in New Creation and Reconciliation. These scars, at a macro-level, serve to remind us that God in the Son is not untouched by human suffering and anguish, but that His heart is immediately in the midst of all that we walk through in this life, and in the life to come in eschatological vision.

We see the Apostle Paul, as a partaker of the Divine nature, experiencing suffering tribulation and anguish in the same sorts of ways we’ve seen starting in Exodus, in the King David, and ultimately in Jesus Christ himself. The Apostle Paul, like King David understood the value of the trials (even though he’d rather not walk through them cf. II Cor. 12), and could later look at all of his scars and gain great strength and purpose from realizing that God would never leave or forsake him. The Apostle Paul, as he cared for the various churches, wanted people to realize that this pattern was going to be normative for all those who would become spiritual participants in the life of God through Jesus Christ. His writings are filled with notations of how the Christian life will be one that is lived out of brokenness, and in this brokenness God’s resurrected life in Jesus Christ will be made strong and complete; will be the place where He is borne witness to most, and His glory displayed for the world to see and experience.

We understand as we look at Christ that the hope we have laid before us in the heavenlies is one where His indestructible life is the reality. Not an ethereal abstract reality to the human experience, but one where the human experience has been assumed, renewed, and resurrected in the triumph of the living God. The scars of Jesus show the world that there is real hope.

Conclusion

I’ve written this post more as an exercise in reminding myself that God is faithful at all costs; that His love will never cease; and that His ability to take care of His people (including me) is unmatched by any challenge we might face in this life. My scars sometimes become more apparent to me than at other times; I’ve been pressed into a situation, once again, where my weaknesses and inabilities in myself are on full display for me to see. And I can recognize these moments as God’s mercy in my life, keeping me from drifting from His more sure Word for my life. Hopefully my reflecting can serve as some sort of reminder to you of His faithfulness to you in your own life; that you will be able to value the scars in your life, and appreciate the development of new ones—even though these are not welcomed when we are walking through whatever we are walking through. At the very least our scars can cause us to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, and this might provide the kind of Manna we need to walk through whatever dark night of the soul we might be experiencing this time. Maybe, ever so faintly, we will see our scars as grounded in the scars of the Son for us; and in that vision recognize that our lives are securely grounded in the One who has ‘died’ and yet ‘alive forevermore.’

How to Read the Book of Revelation: Against Modern Day Astrological Numerology and other Aberrations

Given that according to some prognosticators the world is facing certain apocalyptic and cataclysmic reorientation starting in September 23rd, 2017, I thought I would reshare something I wrote awhile ago that engages with how to interpret the book of Revelation. Since these prognosticators are tying their predictions and prognostications to their interpretation of Revelation 12, it only seems fitting to test such an approach against a critical baseline for how the book of Revelation was originally composed, and for whom. If we push into this “baseline,” I contend, that what we will find will show these modern day prognosticators for who they are; i.e. hucksters (maybe even with good intentions) who haven’t taken the proper time to understand basic hermeneutical rules when it comes to interpreting biblical literature. So in an attempt to help address this issue, I give you the following (realizing that this is only a blog post with major space limitations; so a fuller development cannot be provided here, but hopefully it will provide enough grist for the reader to have some critical hooks to hang their hats of discernment on in this evil age).

Richard Bauckham’s books The Theology of the Book of Revelation & The Climax of Prophecy are resources that all Christians should avail themselves of. Let me provide an introduction, of sorts, into the basic argument of Bauckham’s book[s].  And of course, given the nature of my blogging pattern and style, I will also be reflecting upon the theological and exegetical issues that Bauckham’s writing is touching upon—as well as the more applied and correlative issues that Bauckham’s work only implicates, that is, the popular issues of dispensationalism, amillennialism, premillennialism, & postmillennialism. That said, let me wade us into what Bauckham thinks constitutes the basic trajectory and original purpose for writing the book of Revelation (which will implicate all kinds of things). Here is what Bauckham writes on the original audience and purpose of the ‘Epistle of Revelation’, and then a bit on how Bauckham thinks this reality cashes out in application (theologically and pastorally):

Thus it would be a serious mistake to understand the images of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as timeless symbols. Their character conforms to the contextuality of Revelation as a letter to the seven churches of Asia. Their resonances in the specific social, political, cultural and religious world of their first readers need to be understood if their meaning is to be appropriated today. They do not create a purely self-contained aesthetic world with no reference outside itself, but intend to relate to the world in which the readers live in order to reform and to redirect the readers’ response to that world. However, if the images are not timeless symbols, but relate to the ‘real’ world, we need also to avoid the opposite mistake of taking them too literally as descriptive of the ‘real’ world and of predicted events in the ‘real’ world. They are not just a system of codes waiting to be translated into matter-of-fact references to people and events. Once we begin to appreciate their sources and their rich symbolic associations, we realized that they cannot be read either as literal descriptions or as encoded literal descriptions, but must be read for their theological meaning and their power to evoke response.[1]

We leave off from Bauckham with a bit of a teaser; he goes on and provides some examples of what he describes in the quote paragraph of above. Suffice it to say, it can readily be observed that Bauckham, even in the small notation above (the quote), is getting at two popular, and I would say, erroneous, ways of reading the book of Revelation. Bauckham is getting at a naked idealism way of interpreting Revelation (as it has been in the history) which usually involves a presupposition of dualism; meaning that the book of Revelation is often construed as an ethereal book that depicts a cosmic struggle between good and evil. While there is an aspect where this is true for Bauckham, we can obviously see that he sees much more particularity, unity, and concreteness to the message and theology and history that make up this book than the classic idealism approach does. And then in the next breath, we also see Bauckham challenging what I will call the futurist, premillennial, dispensational reading of Revelation (the kind given popular expression in ‘The Left Behind’ series of books by Lahaye and Jenkins). He thinks it is in error to read Revelation as if its primary semantic and conceptual pool is predictive in nature; in other words, he sees it as highly problematic to read current events (like ours) into the book of Revelation, as if this was what John and the Holy Spirit had in mind when it was originally penned. Bauckham does not see the book of Revelation as a secret code book awaiting the decoder key (current events) to, in fact, decode it. No, he sees all of the events, people, and picturesque language of Revelation as grounded in a labyrinth of inter-related complexities that bubble up from the Old Testament apocalyptic genre (like that found in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.); and then he sees this context being applied to the ‘current’ events of the Roman empire of which the seven churches addressed in the Revelation are located.

There is much more to Bauckham’s thesis about the book of Revelation; like he sees the point of the book of Revelation as most pertinent to the Christians in the Roman empire who were suffering great tribulation and suffering, to the point of martyrdom. He sees the point of the book as primarily something to provide comfort and perspective for those being killed by the Roman persecution of the Christians. He sees the vindication of the Christian martyrs as the crux for understanding the composition of Revelation; and all of the apocalyptic language in the book, as providing God’s perspective over against the secular, mundane Roman perspective which these Christians were inhabiting. Bauckham sees the book of Revelation as predictive, in the sense that God’s people (all of us) will be vindicated at his coming (the second time, based on the first), as he crushes the powers of the nations, but not as the world would think, but as ‘the lamb slain before the foundations of the world’. So we see Bauckham’s vision of Revelation as correlative with the trajectory already set throughout the canon of the Old Testament apocalyptic literature; something like Daniel 2 comes to my mind:

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands —a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

It is this kind of motif that Bauckham thinks shapes the book of Revelation, but not in light of its promise (like we leave it in the book of Daniel), but in light of its fulfillment, and thus reinterpretation ‘in Christ’. There is much more to say (and I will), but this should be enough for now.

 

[1] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 19-20.