Finding God in the Darkness: What I Learned in the Hospital

A Twilight Musing

          I recently went through nine days in the hospital being treated for severe pneumonia. It was the longest hospital stay of my life, and it was extremely stressful, both physically and spiritually. But it was revealing as well. I learned that Satan will take advantage of us when we are most vulnerable, and that God can and will cause us to grow spiritually when we are subjected to unavoidable interruptions to our comfort.

          The onset of my crisis was quite sudden. Although I had already had a visit with my primary care physician and received an antibiotic to combat my infection, a return visit quickly turned into a fast trip to the emergency ward and immediate application of measures to keep me from lapsing into a life-threatening condition. I was subjected to an intense regimen determined by the medical professionals, and I was merely carried along on its tide. Needles were inserted, and IVs attached. I was pumped with fluids and antibiotics, subjected to prescheduled vital sign checks, and perpetually tethered to a bunch of tubes that had to be hauled along whenever I got out of bed. Had I been knocked out, I would have not known what was going on, but I was awake most of the time and had to grab naps when I wasn’t being waked or poked or prodded by nurses and their aides.

          The first two nights after being admitted were the most trying. Because of the medications being administered, I was hypersensitive to physical and psychological stimuli, so that during those two nights I felt a palpable presence of Evil, and I had to battle fear by calling out to God to deliver me from it. During the initial nights I had a frightening sense that I was being subjected to the equivalent of an endless loop of bizarre dreams, like clips from a horror movie. Something was messing with my mind. But God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to regain some spiritual equilibrium after a couple of days. During that first part of my stay, I felt myself enveloped in a kind of heart of darkness (a la Joseph Conrad). I didn’t feel God’s Presence, but I kept hanging on to my intellectual conviction, reinforced by long experience, that God was present and that His Love was working on my behalf. In that situation, I could exercise choice only in how I reacted to the medical regimen I was being subjected to.

          Strategically, I had to be content with short naps, rather than extended periods of sleep. Once I accepted that process, I found peace in not expecting more. One of the nurses talked to me in the middle of the night, after I had complained about being unable to sleep because of all the sounds and activities around me. She explained how my (and other patients’) expectations in a hospital stay need to be brought into line with hospital objectives and practices. “Most people come to a stay in the hospital expecting to rest, whereas the purpose of a hospital stay is to be cured of your illness. Once that is accomplished, we send you home to rest.” That would seem to be analogous spiritually to the instruction of Jesus (see Matt. 6:25-34) not to worry, to trust God for sufficiency in all that we need, and to experience the peace that that trust brings.

My encounter with Darkness during these nine days in the hospital was unique in my experience, and I want never to repeat it. Nevertheless, it gave me a new perspective on the Christian’s struggle with Evil. Darkness can be a very effective teacher, but its lessons require a radical sacrifice of our comfort.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Lighten Our Darkness

Lighten Our Darkness

Mother Teresa described her mission as lighting ‘the light of those in darkness.’  ‘Darkness’ is ancient, Scriptural prophecy’s description of the state of wayward Israel.  They are ‘those who lived in a land of deep darkness.’  This biblical assessment of ‘the land of deep darkness’ corresponds well with a broader characterization of the dark state of human existence.

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Three Ways that Apologetics Helps Preaching

Photo by  Andrew Seaman  on  Unsplash

              In the first article I made a plea for pastors to include apologetics in their preaching ministry. In this article I share three ways that apologetics helps preaching. As a lead in, remember that there are two general types of preaching that pastor do—preaching for evangelism and preaching for discipleship. As the three ways I present will discuss, apologetics can help with both types.

1.       Apologetics Helps Overcome Obstacles to Faith in Evangelistic Preaching

In evangelistic preaching, obstacles to belief can be based on rational and passional barriers formed when a person is ignorant of the coherence and defensibility of the Christian message. Apologetic content in evangelistic preaching can help overcome such barriers to belief by addressing common objections to the Christian faith. For example, the central doctrine of the Christian faith is arguably the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:12-19). However, since the first reports of the resurrection were made to Jewish and Roman authorities there have been attempts to disprove the claim (Matt. 28:11-15). Each generation of Christians since Christ resurrected has also encountered detractors from the resurrection, and this generation of believers is no different. A recent survey in Great Britain concerning beliefs about the resurrection reveals that, of the 2,010 adults surveyed, 50 percent do not believe the resurrection happened, and of the respondents identified as active Christians, 43 percent do not accept the biblical account of the resurrection as accurate. Thus, when preaching a gospel message that is dependent upon the doctrine of the resurrection, the evangelistic preacher should anticipate that many in his audience likely reject the doctrine, and proactively defend is as part of a cumulative case supporting the Christian gospel.

2.       Apologetics Helps Overcome Doubt and Equips Believers in Discipleship Preaching

              In discipleship preaching, besetting doubts and answers to attacks on the faith of Christians by an unbelieving world can be addressed by including apologetic content in sermons. Through apologetic preaching for discipleship, believers are able to better overcome their own doubts (cf. Heb. 11:1-2), and to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). For example, as the barrage of writing from the New Atheists demonstrate—including the frequently vitriolic and one-sided attacks upon Christianity by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett—Christians are often susceptible to challenges based on a lack of preparation to answer apologetically-oriented questions. Believers might be harangued by opponents of the faith with questions such as: How could a loving God command the genocide of the Canaanites? or How could anyone believe a Bible that was assembled in the early third century by misogynistic, power-hungry men in league with Constantine and bent on controlling people? The researcher knows from personal experience with his own congregation that an accessible series of apologetic-infused messages targeting believers and addressing such concerns can provide great strength and resources to a struggling congregation. Such messages can also buoy the pastor’s spirit amid the persistent concerns and doubts raised by those he shepherds.

3.       Apologetics Adds Overall Depth to the Pastor’s Ministry Abilities

              In both apologetic preaching for evangelism and discipleship, the preacher will spend considerable time learning apologetic content and preparing it in such a way to make it accessible through his preaching. As this happens, the preacher’s apologetic knowledge and abilities increase and will usually overflow into his broader pastoral ministry. For example, learning apologetics concerning which theodicies are most helpful in addressing the problem of evil provides a pastor with greater ability to offer pastoral counsel when someone is looking for answers to personal or societal tragedies. Likewise, when a pastor becomes better equipped with apologetics in his preaching, he is likely to show an increase in confidence related to evangelism, and, in turn, become more intentional about evangelizing and encouraging his congregation to do the same. As he does so, it is reasonable to think that the same apologetics that helped his confidence rise will also become a focal point in teaching others to evangelize.

Conclusion

              Other reasons attain regarding why preaching benefits from apologetics, but these three get the conversation started. In next week’s article I will present three ways that preaching specifically relates to moral apologetics. Until then, keep defending the faith in the pulpit.

 

Imprecatory Psalms Are Horrible Models for Christian Prayer

Imprecatory Psalms Are Horrible Models for Christian Prayer

The imprecatory psalms also have value for Christians today in reminding them of God’s holy hatred of sin, evil, and injustice. Christians not only petition for the judgment of the wicked but also for sin and evil to be expunged from their own hearts.

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Preaching and Apologetics?

Photo by  chuttersnap  on  Unsplash

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Series Introduction:

What does a pastor’s preaching have to do with apologetics, if anything at all? Some conclude that the two are separate activities, that preaching is preaching, and apologetics is apologetics. However, as T. J. Gentry’s forthcoming series “Pulpit Apologetics” will argue, preaching and apologetics not only can go together, but should, and every pastor has an obligation to learn to bring apologetics into the pulpit. In this series the general relationship between preaching and apologetics is considered, as well as the special connection between preaching, moral apologetics, and abductive argumentation. Further, as a practical offering to those seeking to better unite preaching and apologetics, a model of sermon preparation will be developed for both negative and positive apologetic concerns. The series will feature a new installment every Friday. Don’t miss it!

 

Preaching and Apologetics

Sheila’s friend, Mary, invited her to a special Sunday evening service at her church designed to answer questions about the Christian faith for skeptics and seekers. As a curious non-Christian, Sheila was intrigued by the invitation and decided to attend one of the services. Mary’s pastor began each message at these services with a question about Christianity, and the night Sheila attended the question was, does God really exist? As Sheila listened to the message, the pastor explained that each person has an innate sense of what is right and what is wrong, and that this innate sense of morality is a clue to God’s existence. Sheila was challenged by the message and, though she did not respond to the brief gospel invitation offered at the end of the service, she did promise to attend again with Mary. The preaching Sheila heard offered answers to questions about God, and she began to seriously consider the claims of Christianity.

Raised in a Christian home, John regularly attended church and other activities, including participating in his youth group and actively sharing his faith in Jesus. Upon graduating high school John enrolled as a commuter student at the local state university and, as part of his course of general studies, took a course in cultural anthropology. His professor was an atheist and an outspoken critic of religion in general, especially Christianity, and soon the professor’s challenges led John to wrestle with profound and persistent doubts about the existence of God and the reliability of the Bible. Thus, when John’s pastor began a series of sermons on why the Christian worldview makes sense and the Bible can be trusted, John found answers to his doubts and his faith was strengthened. The preaching John heard helped him find reasons to believe, and he grew as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

What do these examples of preaching have in common? Though the primary purpose of the preaching in Sheila’s instance was to make a compelling case for Christianity to skeptics and seekers, and the primary purpose in John’s instance was to strengthen a disciple’s faith, both messages involved apologetics. However, is this a legitimate role for preaching, whether to those who are already Christians or to seekers and skeptics? Is there a nexus—a central link or connection—between apologetics and preaching for discipleship and evangelism or are these separate activities?

Preaching is a fundamental and regularly occurring expression of a pastor’s work within most congregations, both in terms of evangelism and discipleship. Wayne McDill concludes that “of all the tasks to be done in ministry, preaching is surely one of the most important.” Paul the apostle admonished his young protégé, Timothy, who was also a pastor and mentor to other pastors, to “give attention to…exhortation” (1 Tim. 4:13), to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2), and to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). In these directives to Timothy, Paul describes the centrality of the pastor’s role as preacher—to exhort, teach, and evangelize. Haddon Robinson explains that the pastor’s call to preaching is so significant because “through the preaching of the Scriptures, God encounters men and women to bring them to salvation…and to richness and ripeness of Christian character.”

Yet, amid the prevailing post-modern and post-Christian milieu in much of the world, the audience to which the pastor delivers his message is increasingly ignorant of and unsure of the veracity of even its most basic elements. According to J. E. White, 23% of adults in the United States consider themselves as having no religious affiliation, and nearly 19% of adults claim to be former Christians. Add to these statistics the widespread veneration of philosophical and religious pluralism and one begins to recognize the challenge today’s pastor faces when standing in the pulpit and proclaiming the Christian message. As White aptly states, “It’s simply a cultural reality that people in a post-Christian world are genuinely incredulous that anyone would think like…well, a Christian—or at least, what it means in their minds to think like a Christian.”

Further, it is not difficult to see that God’s greatness and goodness are under attack directly and indirectly in various challenges presented by antagonists of the Christian faith. If God is great, the skeptic asks, then why are there so many examples of slavery in the Bible, and why would He order the slaughter of Canaanite women and children? If God is good, the struggling Christian wonders, then why did individuals kill thousands of innocent people in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and why did an earthquake kill thousands in India? These are challenging questions that strike at the very heart of God’s character, and the Christian message offers answers that reflect sensitivity to the issues and assurance regarding God’s greatness and goodness. Preaching can and should help with these challenges to God’s character.

Thus, it seems reasonable and practical to conclude that preachers should expect to engage in various forms of apologetic encounters—helping answer challenges to belief posed by unbelievers while also helping strengthen the faith of believers. What a pastor should do and what a pastor can do, though, are not necessarily the same when it comes to apologetics, and this reveals a fundamental problem: Pastors may have little knowledge of apologetics in general, and less in how apologetics relates to preaching. For those pastors who do have knowledge of apologetics, they may not know how to integrate apologetics into their ministry of preaching in a holistic manner that avoids turning sermons into dense apologetics lectures or trite and simplistic messages lacking relevant depth and substance.

What, then, is a pastor to do concerning apologetics and preaching? The answer to this question provides the impetus for future articles in this series. In the next installment we will consider further the general rationale for the nexus of preaching and apologetics. Until then, remember that Peter’s command to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15) applies to everyone, including those who preach.

“Christ in you, the hope of glory”: Three Poems on the Incarnation

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

            Incarnation has come to be a theological word associated primarily with the embodiment of God Himself in human flesh, living for a time on earth with the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  He was also given the name of “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).  But “God with us” means more than the fact that the Son of God was historically present on earth for a short time.  When He went back to Heaven to be with the Father, His place was taken by the Holy Spirit, so that the joyful Presence of God within us is the “hope of glory.”  Just as Jesus’ time on earth was lived and terminated for a larger purpose, so we, dying to the flesh, will find His Presence in these mortal bodies to be fulfilled by being resurrected into the eternal Presence of God.  God’s Incarnation is reenacted in us, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

            The three poems below present responses to and experiences of the Incarnation.  In “The Husbandry of God,” Mary wrestles with the implications and the aftermath of yielding herself to be the instrument by which the God of Heaven would be incubated and born into the world.  She is the willing ground into which divine seed will be planted to bear the fruit of Heaven, and therein she prefigures the process by which every believer in the Messiah becomes a recipient of the Presence of God and by His power reaps eternal life.

                 The Husbandry of God

                        (Luke 1:26-35)  

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God's planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

 

            In “Immanuel,” the “one birth” at the center of the poem both emanates from and ends in God’s Presence.  In the first triplet, we look back to the source of the unique “one birth”; in the last triplet we see the results of the “one birth.”  God became flesh that we might truly know Him, and He truly know us.  

 

                             Immanuel  

 

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence. 

 

 

Finally, “And the Word Became Flesh” emphasizes that it was the very essence, or “Word” of God Who gave up His rightful place beside the Father and came in the form of a fleshly baby.  In His short earthly ministry, He steadfastly walked the road to a death He did not deserve, and thereby enabled us who believe in Him to become children of God, inhabited by His Presence as a guarantee that we will someday abide eternally in His Presence.

 

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

 

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

 

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

The Goodness of God after the Loss of My Son

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The goodness of God is perhaps nowhere more in question than in situations of unexpected loss—especially when this loss is of your happy and healthy 6-month-old son. A year ago, October 7, 2017, the dark cloud of death appeared over my family and brought with it a deluge of grief and flash floods of confusion, pain, and frustration after my son Landry failed to wake up from a routine nap. In the aftermath that followed in those difficult first few weeks and months, the slowly receding waters of despair revealed a new reality for our family that remains something from which we are healing to this day. On several occasions, the murky deeps even drew out an ancient serpent who hoped to sink its venomous fangs into my weakness and inject the poison of doubt concerning what I have publicly professed as a maturing believer, pastor, and theologian—doubts of God in general and of his goodness in particular. And yet, my commitment to and assurance of a good God, in spite of this horrible calamity, remains, and, in fact, is more certain than ever before. How can this be?

When Goodness Doesn’t Register

It is well known that the Christian worldview argues that a good God offers hope that brings perseverance in seasons of tribulation to those who know and belong to him. One iteration of this principle is recorded in 1 Peter 1:6-7:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

This passage teaches that the good promised in the future is able to provide needed perseverance in present difficulties. However, there are those moments in which this particular implication of the promised goods offered by a benevolent God seems especially distant and even foreign. Being reminded of how good God is in providing future hope while in the throes of great suffering might be compared to a flood insurance agent knocking on your door, hoping to sell you a policy for the next major weather event while there is still standing water in your house.

Both of these situations share the promise of coming answers and aid and yet both do not yield immediate comfort and/or present satisfaction for one’s existential confusion. Put differently, there may be at least one situation (acute grief and loss) in which a straightforward moral argument for God or the future goods that he provides is not the most appropriate means of rescuing someone from doubt and disillusionment. It certainly wasn’t what contributed to my resolve to remain a Christian theist in my darkest hour.

 

Other Goods and Cumulative Apologetics

Interestingly, even the apostle Peter appears to have recognized this in his first epistle. Prior to promising perseverance in trials (supported by the future hope offered by a good God) he reminds his audience of other foundational truths that are apologetically useful and uniquely evidenced.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

In this lead up to the passage cited earlier, Peter appears to predicate any and all future hope for salvation and all of the good things that entails with the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This integral event happens to be one of the most thoroughly evidenced episodes in all of history. Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and company have devoted decades to demonstrating that not only is the resurrection of Jesus Christ possible, it is the most probable explanation for all the available historical data that is conceded by the widest variety of critical scholarship. This data includes but is not limited to the following: the fact of Jesus’ death, the presence of an empty tomb three days later, the radical transformation suffered by the disciples in general and James and Paul in particular, the spread of the resurrection story in the proximity of Jerusalem (exactly where the events were said to have transpired and where they could have easily been investigated), the explosion of the early church, the instigation of Sunday worship, etc.

The evidential case made for this important event not only helps the believer defend a central component of Christianity and, by proxy, a myriad of other connected theological teachings, it is not as prone to the kind of emotional scrutiny and skepticism that the concept of a good God is (that is, when articulated in isolation), especially in tragic situations. In other words, one can know/remember in a primarily intellectual way that there are good reasons to affirm belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead along with its theological implications even if/when their existential experience has them doubting God’s goodness. This appears to be Peter’s agenda in his encouragement. When one suffers tribulation that interrupts his conviction in God’s goodness because of a tidal wave of emotion, he can still remember on a more cognitive level that there are good reasons to affirm other fundamental elements in his system. This initial step then has the potential to lead, eventually, to the acceptance of God’s work and many attributes—including but not limited to his divine benevolence. This became especially clear to me when on what would have been my late son’s first birthday, we celebrated Easter Sunday. On that day my Christian convictions were reinforced not by what I felt, or even directly by any formal moral argument, but by a miraculous event that transpired some 2000 years ago and the many strong reasons to affirm its historicity. It was only after this primarily intellectual recollection was made that I was able, in time, to reacquaint myself with more distant affirmations.

One may wonder, especially in the miry depths of despair, how the alleged resurrection of some Nazarene two thousand years ago can provide hope for anyone. Even if he was raised, what is that to me? Whether raised or not, still here I am, drowning, gasping for air. While in the dark, questions come quickly, incessantly. One question comes, perhaps, more naturally than the others: “Oh Jesus of Nazareth, what is this hope to me? How will you right these wrongs? How will you make my family, my son, and me whole again?” In the dark of the deep, only the brightest light will reach the bottom. So, what does the reality of Jesus and his empty tomb offer those who weep?

In that dark place, after recalling Christ’s most wondrous resurrection (affirmed by compelling evidences), I was reminded of several of his claims. Chief among these was his claim to be “the light of the word” (Jn 8:12)--a phrase often heard, but not frequently understood. When Jesus said these words, he was at the Jewish Festival of Lights. Around the temple, bowls were filled with oil and the wicks were so large, they were made from old priestly garments. When lit, the entire temple was filled with the blazing light. Since Jerusalem sits perched on a hill with the temple at the top, one would have seen the lamps burning for miles around.

The light of the golden lamps represented at least two things for the Jews at the feast. First, it was a reminder of the Exodus and of God in the pillar of fire. As the pillar of fire, God would lead Israel to the promised land and he would be in their midst. The Jews also saw the fire and hoped for a new Exodus, where God once again free them from oppression and be with them. God will liberate his people. But the light also represented God himself. After all, the temple was meant to be God’s dwelling place. In fact, there are many occurrences in the Old Testament in which God is said to be light or like light. For example, Isaiah (60:20) tells us that in the day of the messiah, “Your sun will no longer set; your moon will not disappear; the LORD will be your permanent source of light; your time of sorrow will be over.”

It was during this ceremony that Jesus declared, “I am the light world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

What this Nazarene offers, then, is Emmanuel, God with us. He offers peace, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). That is some solace, indeed. What Jesus offers is to make all wrongs right, even the death of a son. How this will be accomplished may be a mystery, but that is the promise. Here is the lighthouse whose penetrating beams reach through the depths of grief.

This short testimony reveals the necessity of a well-rounded, multi-valent apologetic system. A cumulative case for God and his work is essential, because if one is either dependent on or tethered to a single argument/style or argumentation, he runs the risk of being broken loose when the storm strikes, doubt overwhelms, and skepticism rises. To encourage the church and effectively communicate in compelling ways to the secularist, the Christian theist must be equipped with a variety of cases for God and employ them appropriately to reach people where they are emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and otherwise. In my personal odyssey, it was the strict evidential case for the resurrection that acted as a lifeline that both kept me connected to my theism and eventually reacquainted me with other elements therein. In this an many other cases, more immediately assessible arguments are able to draw those at risk of drowning in darkness to other truths that slowly, but most assuredly, betray the guiding light that leads the way back to glorious God from whom are all good things.

The Goodness of God

In providing multiple evidences and/or arguments for his existence that can be employed in a multiplicity of situations (from the highly emotional to the academic), God shows something about himself that appears far off when tragedy strikes—his goodness. Only a good God would provide proof of himself that is capable of both piercing through the flood waters of grief and being intelligibly apprehended by people who are struggling to believe that he is benevolent in those painful moments. One might say that by providing arguments in addition to the moral argument, God once again demonstrates how utterly good he really is, and of that I am most assured even after losing my son.

Suffering: Richard Dawkins Contra Jesus

Photo by  Stefan Kunze  on  Unsplash

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

In touching on the issue of suffering, the Neo-Darwinist poster boy Richard Dawkins famously states in his book River Out of Eden, ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.’ He goes on to note in the wake of tragedy that people are obsessed with asking, ‘Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?’ Why did my innocent child go blind?  Why was my mother taken from me?[1] 

The issue of suffering, pain and distress bedevils us all.  It has been ill-engaging humankind’s most profound thinking from earliest days.  How do we think regarding suffering?  This brief post does not pretend to address adequately the issue of suffering.  However, considering the two polar opposite bents of the Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ is thought-provoking and illustrative.  We see the stark tendencies of the current majority view of the scientific and educational community against that of Jesus Christ.  Both Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ, for different reasons, eschew probing the ‘why’ of suffering.  Nevertheless, their contrasting ‘takes’ on suffering is clarifying.

Begin with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Most importantly, he is anxious to ward us off from asking ‘why’.  Suppressing the asking of ‘why’ is vital to his conception of suffering.  Lamenting that people have ‘purpose’ on the brain, Professor Dawkins almost chastises the human predisposition for seeking ‘purpose’ in suffering.  In passing, this strikes one as odd coming from a scientist. The very principle of science under which Professor Dawkins subsumes his study of evolution and upon which Bertrand Russell prominently elaborates is that science itself has a purpose, to form an accurate image of the world.

The necessary presupposition of this Neo-Darwinist’s conception of suffering is we must not read purpose into a universe of ‘blind physical forces and genetic replication’.  The universe is precisely as we should expect it.  Namely, it seeks the maximization of DNA survival into the next generation. As long as DNA and genes get passed on, says Dawkins, ‘it doesn’t matter who or what gets hurt in the process…Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything…Nature is neither kind nor unkind.  She is neither against suffering nor for it. It only matters as it affects the survival of DNA.’  Tragedy is as equally meaningless as good fortune.  The universe has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’!  Though a critic can argue the survival of DNA is indicative of ‘purpose’, the Neo-Darwinist insists there is no purpose in suffering!  Suffering is simply the ‘by-product of evolution’.

            Now consider in absolute contrast Jesus’s illumination of suffering.  The book of Hebrews picks his view up when it says he (Jesus) ‘who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross’.[2]  This interpretation derives from Jesus’ own words.  He likened his death to a woman’s labor in birth.  He said, ‘When a woman is in labor, she has pain…But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.’[3]  There is no denial but recognition of the reality of pain and affliction.  No question.  A woman suffers in labor. Just last week, my daughter Karissa went into hours of intense labor finally giving birth to a beautiful, healthy son Beau. Women say ‘labor’ is their hardest physical activity – ever! One mother described it as feeling like her insides were being twisted, pulled and squeezed out!

            Labor is intense agony a woman must endure.  Similarly, Jesus’ cross had to be ‘endured’.  ‘Endured’ means he had to stand his ground before the cross’s tribulation.  He held out against the physical pain and the psychological humiliation.  He did not abandon the cross to escape the suffering.  England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, resolutely held out against the continuous, Nazi bombing raids on England.  He famously quipped, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’  The Neo-Darwinist and Jesus agree suffering is a given and something through which one must go.  Neither Richard Dawkins nor Jesus Christ contemplates life without suffering.

            The world-shattering contradistinction between Jesus and the Neo-Darwinist and everybody else is that for Jesus suffering is teleological.  Contrary to Richard Dawkins’ notion, suffering has ultimate purpose!! Suffering is not a wasteful by-product. It labors to a meaningful end.  Counterintuitively, for Jesus suffering finally results in joy! Admittedly, a hundred seeming contradictions leap to mind.  Nevertheless, there is a deep, universal principle promulgated here. Hours of excruciating labor leads to the beautiful, seven pounds of beauty and joy a mother holds in her arms.  Labor’s painful memory fades as the presence of one’s child brightens.  The torture of a Roman cross is unimaginable; yet, persevering agony finally results in joy.  Jesus’ joy is the profound sense of happiness of obtaining by ‘his own blood’ eternal salvation. Any repentant sinner who has saving faith may now have everlasting fellowship with God! 

            Is all suffering a Neo-Darwinist waste, a useless by-product, or, might it be, as Jesus claims, useful?  Is it meaningless, or purposeful? Does suffering only matter to affect DNA survival, or is it to be endured till ultimately blossoming into joy?


[1] My references to Richard Dawkins’ view of suffering are taken from the fourth chapter of his book, Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life: Science Masters Series. New York: Basic Books, 95-135

[2] Hebrews 12: 2

[3] John 16: 21

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Now May the God of Hope…. The Biblical Obligation to Hope in Suffering, Part II

Photo by  Jake Blucker  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Consequential Nature of Hope in Suffering

Despair and Hope: A Contrast

The word hope itself appears for the first time in the book of Ruth, but it is the absence of hope in suffering that is noted rather than the existence of hope. Having come under horrendous grief, Naomi’s soul is embittered toward God. She has lost her husband and her sons, and with them, she has buried all natural hope for safety and prosperity. As could only be expected, she despairs in sorrow, but her despair is particularly characterized as bitter and hopeless.[1] She proclaims herself to be a victim of God’s cruel treatment (Ruth 1:12-13; 20-21). Having adopted this filter through which she sees reality, Naomi inadvertently positions herself against God and speaks out as a perpetrator of his goodness. Through her story, the Bible attests to the fact that experiences with deep sorrow and tangible evil are powerful enough to serve as blinders to all hope; in fact, in this scenario, Naomi rejects hope as an offensively unrealistic mindset and an intentional, disregarding assault toward her pain. Yet, biblically, hope is neither artificially constructed nor dismissive of suffering, and hope in suffering does not preclude grief. Naomi’s rejection of hope is tied to her fundamental misunderstanding of God’s character in light of his dealings with her (Ruth 1:12-13). Though enduring life-altering and heart-breaking suffering is sufficient to produce hopeless bitterness in any soul, the biblical narrative indicates that in view of God and his mercies, it need not, and it must not.

Hannah, too, “was in bitterness of soul,”[2] (1 Sam. 1:10), but rather than resenting God as the cruel catalyst of her pain, she laces her sorrowful cries with confessions of hope. Hannah not only prays, but she weeps, continually pouring out her soul (1 Sam. 1:15), “an involvement of the whole being.”[3] The sufferings of both Naomi and Hannah affronted the core of their beings, and each woman writhed in anguish. Even so, Hannah was unable to relinquish her hope in God. She unleashed the cry of her anguished soul with the confidence that God would not treat her grief casually, nor would he dismiss it flippantly.[4] Hannah’s heart was weighed with her grief, but as her prayer reveals, it was lined with a hope that properly positioned her to receive a response. To this point, it is interesting that though Eli blessed Hannah according to the formal appellation, “God of Israel” (1 Sam. 1:17), a reflection of his deity and authority over the nation, Hannah prayed to “Lord of Hosts” (1:10-11), referencing the personal, covenantal name of the one who revealed himself as compassionate and loving to her ancestors at Sinai (Ex. 34).[5] She knew the one to whom she prayed, and she boldly appealed to him with hope that he would display his goodness in her situation. Even before Samuel was conceived, Hannah’s grief was turned to joy because she received God’s promise by faith and anticipated it in hope.

 

Culminating Value of Hope in Suffering

The grief of both Hannah and Naomi was answered through miraculous means of unexpected provision; both women tangibly received the desires of their hearts in this life, which is certainly not promised or universally experienced (John 16:33; 2 Cor. 12:9-10). Ultimately, God will right every wrong, and though justice and vengeance may not abound until this world has been purged of evil (2 Pet. 3:10), he guarantees that he will wipe every tear and renew all that is groaning under the curse of sin (Heb. 6:19). It is the biblical intent to inspire hope.[6]

In light of God’s revelation, there is a biblical obligation to hope, yet the inescapable reality is that each person will suffer and make a choice as to how he suffers. To this end, we are implored to pour out our anguish before the Lord of Hosts, even through tears of bitterness, and emerge as those who, through storm, wind and fire, have been unmoved from the rock that is Christ (1 Cor. 15:58). Yet, just as mankind was free to choose the road of sin that led to suffering, we are free to suffer apart from God and void of hope; we are free to turn from him in hopelessness, embittered by the conclusion that evidently, circumstances have revealed him to be less loving than he promised. In either case, and in any case, God will make all wrongs right (1 Cor. 15:24-28), but a choice has to be made whether the claims of the biblical narrative will be believed and its God trusted by faith. G. K. Chesterson summarized the rejection of God, and the rejection of hope, in these words: “When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him; but in heaven’s name to what?”[7] It is imperative that we hear the biblical command to hope, for without it, the one suffering will be deceived into constructing a distorted view of a distant and unfeeling God. This misconception is fatal to the soul. In light of the Savior, this must not be the experience of the Christian. The Bible answers the cries of human suffering with a depiction of a God whose nature and ways among men validate humanity’s sorrowful cries while answering them with a proclamation of consoling hope.

Surely, hope trusts in the goodness of God’s character and the reliability of his word, and it submits to the process by which he promises to produce perfection. While bitter grief is laced with anger, resentment and a latent distrust of the one who could allow such seemingly unjust treatment, hopeful grief is paradoxically “sorrowful, yet rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10), expectant and confident in God’s goodness. It is essential that the biblical obligation to hope not be mistaken as an attempted means of escaping suffering. God’s love is enduring and perfecting, and it must be distinguished from weaker forms that dilute genuine love with permissive kindness that stiff-arms all sources of discomfort, no matter its value in the end.[8] The biblical narrative witnesses much too loudly to suffering for Christian theology to be distorted according to moralistic therapeutic deism. Though pain and suffering are the unavoidable byproducts of a sinful existence, the character and promises of God, as revealed through the biblical narrative, offer an unshakable source of enduring and eternal hope that is anchored in God’s commitment to create good out of present evil and pain.

 

Conclusion

Though traces of this transformative goodness can be detected in this life, suffering will finally give way to glory in eternity, and the moral knowledge of God, his character and his promises, obligates hope in the present (Rom. 8:18). Rather than simply commanding the Christian to endure suffering, the biblical narrative implores him to do so with hope because hope distinctly validates the conviction that all is not yet well, while simultaneously appropriating God’s strength to be sustained through suffering. Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica, “We remember before our God and Father … your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). His prayer must be appropriated by every generation of Christ-followers.

When suffering threatens to capsize the believer, hope anchors him in the person and promises of God. To Abraham, God “swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13) and established his person as the grounds for Abraham’s hope. His specific promises were filtered through the reliability of God’s person, so hope was sustained through years of silence, and Abraham “against hope in hope believed… according to that which had been spoken” (Rom. 4:18). Regardless of how outlandish the content of the promise sounded to Abraham’s reason, he instead reasoned through eyes of hope, because it was God’s unchanging character that was the backdrop to each of his promises. Having received inspired accounts of God’s faithfulness to reference, and having seen in Jesus the full and perfect revelation of God’s character, we now, with even greater confidence, must flee to God for refuge “to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18). Hope certainly is the graciously ordained “anchor for the soul” (Heb. 6:19).

 

 

[1]  Ruth 1:20: “The Almighty has dealt to me very bitterlyהֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י מְאֹֽד.

[2] נָ֑פֶשׁ מָ֣רַת וְהִ֖יא. The same root word found in Ruth 1:13 and 1:20 and is found here: מָר, “bitter.”

[3] David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 121.

[4] “Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’” (1 Sam. 1:8). Hannah sought consolation that validated her suffering.

[5] Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, 122.

[6] “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

[7] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart, 65.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 33.

 

Now May the God of Hope…. The Biblical Obligation to Hope in Suffering, Part I

Photo by  Hillie Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hillie Chan on Unsplash

 

Introduction

One need not search the Bible long before finding honest interaction with the concept of unexplained suffering. The biblical narrative unapologetically attests to the sufferings of mankind. It does not posit a quip response or simplistic answer to humanity’s hardest reality, nor does it suggest that the problem can be diffused, avoided or ignored. Rather, the biblical response is one that dignifies a world that suffers under the weight of sin and the threat of death. The biblical response to suffering is embodied in the suffering Son of Man, who paved the road to eternity by way of the cross. In his paradoxical example, the believer is granted a vision of the divinely extended gift of meaningful, absolute and certain hope in the midst of suffering. Biblical hope is neither wishful thinking nor blind optimism; it is reckoning in the present what is guaranteed in the future. Hope actively and expectantly waits for what is assured but not yet realized. While faith believes in God’s revelation and trusts in his declarations, regarding the past, present or future, hope is exclusively anticipatory. The biblical call to hope, then, is distinct from the call to have faith.[1]

With a compassionate and courageous voice, the biblical narrative affirms the pain of suffering, while in the same breath repeatedly and distinctly beckoning the Christian to hope. The reason is clear: Christian hope is contingent upon the unchanging character of God. Faith in the reliability of God’s nature and the immutability of his word is foundational for Christian existence, and hope for their future realization is the bedrock for fruitful endurance in times of suffering. The Bible presents a God who is essentially loving, and the unflagging, immovable conviction in his goodness produces hope. To hope in suffering is meaningfully and personally to internalize and respond to biblical revelation and directives. If the God of the Bible is to be trusted and his promises believed, hope in suffering is not just an invitation but an obligation; hope is the silver cord that tethers a suffering world to a loving God.

 

Biblical Reality of Hope in Suffering

Human Examples of Hope in Suffering

The Psalter walks the reader through national and personal journeys of pain, loss, betrayal, joy and victory, and more than any other canonical book, it contains frequent references to hope. The psalmists reflect on the way that blessing and suffering seem to travel along parallel tracks in the lives of the righteous ones, and though confounded by suffering, they attest to an obligation to hope. Interestingly, the Psalms reiterate an enduring hope in God’s promises to the house of David, though the Psalter was arranged after the exile when there was no trace that Israel would ever see another Davidic King. Despite this reality, the Psalter finally concludes in a proclamation of hope and a call to praise, though the Davidic throne sat empty (Ps. 146-150). God is celebrated as Israel’s king, and there is the certain hope that he will, as promised, assume rule over Israel in a tangible way (Ps. 145). In light of Israel’s national suffering and apparent abandonment, hope for a Davidic king should have been forsaken in spiritual disillusionment, and individual Psalms that reminded God of his commitment and celebrated the future realization of these promises should have, at least, been arranged less prominently in the Psalter.[2]

Yet, proclaiming hope in the midst of suffering characterizes the Psalter and emerges as a distinctive marker of those who know God. The psalmists frequently rejoice in God’s promise never to forsake those who hope in him (Ps. 21:7; 22:4-5; 26:1; 31:6, 14; 52:8; 56:4, 11).[3] Their endurance in suffering was fueled by hope that they would again see the outworking of God’s unending, unfailing love. They were persuaded to hope in suffering because of the one whose goodness was unaffected by the forces that threatened them, and their hope was fueled as they constantly rehearsed this truth. They hoped not simply because they had a God, but because they knew precisely what he was like (Ps. 33, 36, 100, 117, 118, 136). The Psalmists, and the community of faith whom they represented, were unable to lose hope (Ps. 43:5).

The ability to express genuine hope in the midst of suffering is not unique to the psalmists; the biblical witness presents it as the paradigmatic experience of God’s people.[4] As he lamented the destruction of Jerusalem and the seeming hopelessness of rebellious Israel’s future, Jeremiah’s despair was turned to joy when he remembered God’s goodness: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: It is of the Lord’s great love that we are not consumed…‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him,’” (Lam. 3:21-24). When the prophet recalls the steadfast love and faithfulness of God and the commitments that he made to his people, a remarkable transformation occurs and the hopelessness of the previous chapters give birth to hope.[5] Though the circumstances causing his suffering were unchanged and his pain was no less tangible, the shift in his spiritual and emotional disposition is due to a shift in his perspective. The prophet’s bitterness and despair gave way to renewed hope when his vision cleared and he caught sight of the Lord and his “great love.”[6] As Heaven’s spokesman, Jeremiah had faithfully proclaimed God’s love and faithfulness to Israel, but sitting in the midst of deep suffering, he experienced it, and his head that hung in despair was then lifted in hope.

The book of Job famously paints the Bible’s first picture of a righteous, innocent sufferer who all but loses hope. Yet in the midst of Job’s confused and pained lament, the book is second only to the Psalms in its references to hope. Long before a robust hope of resurrection appears in the Bible, there is hope in the person of God (Job. 14:7, 10).[7] Though Job despaired of the brevity of life and the inexplicable depth of human suffering, he found the courage to confess, “Though he slay me,” said Job, “yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). God’s face was hidden and his ways looked dark, but Job’s knowledge of God and experience with him prevented total despair from consuming the God-fearing sufferer. Though Job’s friends were incorrect in their estimation that a righteous person is surely shielded from such an unimaginable amount of suffering, their proclamation that “there is hope” (Job 11:18) does attest to the truth that God does not abandon his people. Having given him room to grieve, God finally responds to Job’s cries not by dictating an explanation, but by revealing a vision of the one in whom Job could surely trust (Job 38-41). Before God restores Job’s life, he restores his hope, not by answering his complaints, but by answering the single cry of a heart shattered by pain (Job 42:5). Realizing how suffering had accentuated his mortality and weakness, Job despaired that God “is not a mere mortal like me that I might answer him,” and he cried out for “someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together” (Job 9:32a, 33); Job’s cry likely sounded pitiful and futile in the moment, but it was not. The Old Testament dynamically paints a picture of a God who is present and responsive in suffering, and though Job certainly never envisioned the astounding extent to which his plea is answered, this picture is ultimately given flesh and breath in Jesus Christ.

 

Divine Example of Hope in Suffering

Biblical hope in suffering is personified by the divine, innocent and victorious sufferer. Though fallen men try in vain to escape suffering, God actively pursued it. Though it was human freedom that chose, against the will of God,[8] the path of sin and suffering, the cross climaxes the biblical presentation of a God who shares in pain to offer humanity hope, deliver it from sin and rescue it back to himself (Col. 1:13). Though the concentrated echo of humanity’s cries would deafen mortal ears, “there is a place where there is an aggregate of human suffering and questioning. That place is the heart of God.”[9] The creator God is the suffering Savior who wept, grieved and sweated drops of blood in sorrowful dread of the inexplicable pain he would endure. Yet, “for the joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2), he did endure. With assured expectation of his glorious exaltation, Jesus was sustained in suffering with unwavering hope that was born out of his unflinching, perfecting and unrelenting love (Phil. 2:8-11; Is. 53:10-11).

It is of optimum importance that Jesus bore both humanity’s sin and suffering on the cross. As James Stewart of the Church of Scotland reflected, “He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it,”[10] and he emerged on the other side as the single source of hope for those still journeying to join him.[11] Though the suffering that men experience is paralyzing at times, “Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God.”[12] The hope of complete reunion with the God of love promises that every cry will be answered with a greater response of glory on the day of reckoning. Jesus bowed under the weight of death in order to defeat it, so that rebellious humanity would only have to walk, for a short time, through its shadow (Ps. 23:4). He now compels his followers to consider his example and endure, with hope, as he did, for those who do so will not be put to shame (Phil. 3:10, 2:5; Rom. 5:3; Rom. 8:18).

It is the character of God, seen most clearly at the cross, that is both the inspiration and actualization of hope. The biblical narrative pays witness to hope that exists in both the objective sense, as that for which we hope, and the subjective sense, as an attitude of hope, and God is both the source and the anticipation of hope in suffering.[13] It is from the foundation of God’s character that hope arises, because hope is effected in the hearts of those who know the love of God (1 John 4:8, 18). God’s supreme love commissions hope to preserve a suffering humanity, and it is to Love himself that hope ultimately returns (Rom. 5:5). Love is both the road that hope travels and the destination it reaches (Ps. 25:3, 7; Ps. 31:24; Ps. 40:1, 11-12; Ps. 103:5-6). The love of God is the very foundation and anchor of hope, which awaits the future realization of glory, the full expression of God’s love.[14] Whereas faith will give way to sight and hope will give way to reality, love will never give way (1 Cor. 13:13).

Since hope is a crucial means of experiencing God’s love in suffering, the biblical narrative treats hope neither as a peripheral byproduct of robust Christianity, nor as the preferred attitude that may soften life’s blows. Rather, to endure with hope is the obligation of those who know “the God of hope,” the one who gave himself at the cross and gives of himself through his Spirit so that his people will attest to the reality of the faith and supernaturally anticipate his promises by “abound(ing) in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). It is God himself, and the word he speaks, that is the cause for hope, and he obligates himself to answer the hope which he inspires (Ps. 119:49; Ps. 33:4; Num. 23:19).[15] By virtue of his experience, God relates to suffering men, and by virtue of his character, he consoles them with hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] Though faith precedes hope, it does not necessarily guarantee it. For instance, the suffering Christian can simultaneously affirm by faith that “the universe was formed at God’s command” (Heb. 11:3) while despairing in hopelessness.

[2] The opening of the Psalter includes Psalm 2, a celebration of the Davidic King’s special relationship with God and cosmic rule. This Psalm is referenced and quoted at Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, as well as in Acts and Hebrews.

[3] Willem A. VanGemeren, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs 5, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 102.

[4] The book of Micah contains a beautiful example of the proclamation of hope in the midst of suffering. Though he can only see judgment and suffering for Israel (Micah 3-4), Micah had been assured of future salvation, so he proclaims his confidence that God would transform his current suffering: “But as for me, I will look in hope to the Lord, for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light” (Micah 7:7-8). Though he suffered, he was anchored in God’s promises.

[5] F.B. Huey Jr. Jeremiah, Lamentations NAC 16 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 473.

[6] Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 473.

[7] Job lments, “At least there is hope תִּ֫קְוָ֥ה for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail…but a man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more” (Job 14:7, 10).

[8] Genesis 2:17; 2 Peter 3:9.

[9] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002), xiii.

[10] Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 174.

[11] “We who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf,” (Heb. 6:18b-20a).

[12] Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin Group, 2013), 181.

[13] Ibid., 522.

[14] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 651.                     

[15] VanGemeren, Psalms, 746.

 

Fear of Giants, or Faith in God?

John Martin - Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still - Google Art Project

John Martin - Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still - Google Art Project

Giants threaten.  How do you respond to them?  With fear?  Or with faith?  In July 1739 John Wesley was just getting untracked in outdoor preaching.  Joining with George Whitefield the two began advancing England’s eighteenth century awakening.  Giants menaced their mission.   Bishop Joseph Butler was aghast at their unauthorized preaching.  He confronted John Wesley. Bishop Butler was no slouch.  He was the Bishop of Bristol and the renowned author of The Analogy, a hallmark defense of orthodoxy.  Their interview was often in my mind as I frequented Bristol City Library just yards away from the once episcopal residence.  The Bishop spoke plainly to John Wesley:  ‘You have no business here; you are not commissioned to preach in this diocese, therefore I advise thee to go hence.’

How John Wesley would respond to the bishop would have historic consequences. Would he respond with fear?  Would he stop offering Jesus Christ to church outsiders?  Would he respond in faith?  Would he trust God for the call on His life? Would he continue to preach salvation in Jesus Christ in the highways and by-ways?  What ‘giants’ threaten you?  What threats would deter you from fulfilling God’s purposes in your life?  Are you responding with fear? Or with faith?

Moses and the children of Israel are in the Sinai desert at the borders of the Promised Land.  Moses sends twelve men into Canaan to assess the land.  They bring back a mixed report.  The report’s positive is the land is great.  It flows ‘with milk and honey’.  The report’s negative is the people are great too!  They are physically strong.   Their towns are fortified.  The people are of ‘great size’.  Literally, they are ‘men of measurement’:  ‘Giants!

The majority of Israel’s spies came to this conclusion:  ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.’  In some sense, this was the right conclusion.  They ‘were not able’.  The Canaanites had well-defended towns.  They were more powerful people.  Israel was ‘grasshoppers’ next to these giant Canaanites.

Jesus was talking to his disciples about how hard it is for the rich to be saved.  He told them it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.  He disciples shot back, ‘Who then can be saved?’  Jesus led them to recognize salvation is not the province of humans, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible’.  We are not able!

King Jehoshaphat had Moabites and Ammonites threatening war.  He stood at the temple with the Israelites assembled together praying to God, ‘For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us’.  We are not able!

The kernel of the Gospel, Martin Luther insisted, included this point:  ‘In fact, we are not sick and in need of healing.  We are dead and in need of resurrecting.’  Luther said if we don’t recognize we need eternal life from the hand of God, we remain in our sins and are eternally dead.  We are not able!

The children of Israel came to the right conclusion but made the wrong response.   They said ‘we are not able’ and responded with fear.  They weighed the strength of the towns.  They noted the size of the inhabitants.  They feared.  Fear supplants God with the threat.  It deifies the threat.  The threat carries more gravitas than God.  The Israelites responded with fear to Canaan saying, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we…Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword’?  Let us choose a captain and return to Egypt.

Had not God told them many times what he told the Israelite spies before he sent them out, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites…’  The Israelites overvalued the threat and undervalued God. 

Remember when disciple Peter got out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus.  When Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink.

A second respond to the conclusion ‘we are not able’ is faith.  Both Caleb and Joshua saw the same threat as the other Israelite spies.  They responded to the Canaan giants with faith.  They believed God was able.   Caleb said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’  Joshua joined in with Caleb and said, ‘If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us.’  Faith puts a threat in God’s perspective.  Yes, we are not able…but God is.

When Bishop Butler said to John Wesley, ‘You have no business here’, John Wesley stood his ground.  He argued that since he was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, he had a commission to preach the word of God in any part of the Church of England.  Therefore, he did not conceive that in preaching in the brickyards in Bristol that ‘I break any human law’. 

This was John Wesley’s argument not ecclesial policy!  The greater point for John Wesley was if the Bishop’s protestation prevailed, he would effectively not be able to offer Christ outside church walls!  This would annul God’s call on his life.  Giant of a bishop or not, John Wesley told a friend, ‘God being my helper, I will obey Him (Jesus Christ) still, and, if I suffer for it, His will be done.’  John Wesley did not fear Bishop Butler.  He put His faith in Jesus Christ.

The threat of giants can be watershed moments.  Israel’s refusal to go into Canaan was a momentous watershed moment.  The children of Israel listened to their fears. They paid dearly for it.  After this, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  Worse yet, they never made it into the Promised Land.  Caleb and Joshua believed God.  They did enter Canaan.  John Wesley believed God rather than fear Bishop Butler.  Consequently, he entered a historic ministry of preaching Jesus Christ to persons who never darkened a sanctuary door.

Is there a ‘giant’ threatening you?  ‘We are not able’…but God is.  Respond not with fear.  Respond with faith.  The way of fear leads to the way of curse.  The way of faith leads to finding your providential way!

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1 Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Dead but not Deaf

Photo by  Greg Rakozy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The lord of Saxony Germany, Frederick the Elector, saved Martin Luther from execution.  He protected Luther for a year in his castle.  In the coming years, Frederick died, grieving Luther.  Luther moaned, ‘Death is oh so bitter – not so much to the dying as to the living whom the dead leave behind.’ ( Luther, Metaxas, 340)  Many of us have grieved over the death of a loved one.  We know the pangs of being left behind.  Good Friday and Easter Sunday are just passing in the rear view mirror.  Like me, maybe you have reflected on death and resurrection.  Let me share a Scriptural text that has consoled me in the wee hours of the night on death and life.

Jesus speaks it to you and me as he did to the onlookers at the Pool of Bethsaida.  He just healed a man lame for thirty eight years.  He says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’

Jesus introduces his word saying, ‘Very truly’ or, ‘verily, verily’ as in the King James Version.  In the New Testament text it is literally, ‘amen’, ‘amen’.  A teacher says, ‘Class, y’all listen up’.  Perk up your ears.  Listen carefully.  Trust what I’m going to tell you.  It is the truth. Guaranteed.   You can ‘take it to the bank’.  It will be on the exam.  

‘The hour comes’.  In fact, ‘the hour is now.’  The tense is ‘progressive present’.  The ‘hour’ was present when Jesus spoke.  The ‘hour’ is still present - at this very moment.  It is a special hour, a rare time. It will not always be here.  It is here now.  It is the juncture of circumstances that have been ripening to a purpose - n o w.   It is five minutes to midnight Christmas Eve.  You’ve been preparing for the stroke of midnight for weeks.  You have been anticipating it for months.  It has now arrived!

What hour is it?  The hour ‘when the dead will hear’.  Has not the hour for the dead past?  Why should the ‘dead’ concern us?  Jesus is referring to you and me.  Jesus can use the word ‘dead’ for both the biologically and the ‘spiritually’ dead.  Here Jesus is speaking of the spiritually dead.  It is not applicable to the biologically dead.  Have you ever thought of yourself as ‘dead’?  Every person either was, or, is, dead.  It is the default human state.  The apostle Paul tells the Ephesian Christians to remember ‘you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked’.  We either were, or, are, dead?  Can I own it?

My wife Pam lived in Haiti.  Her Haitian friend Vivi knew a Haitian girl the witchdoctors made a ‘zombie’.  The witchdoctors made this girl a ‘zombie’ by giving her a potion – a powdered drug.  It puts the victim in a paralyzed state, a ‘zombie’ state.  Though she was fully conscious, she was buried alive on top of the ground.  At night the witchdoctor took her out of the grave.  She did not die.  But she was not the same. She lived in a disoriented state.  She was what the Haitians call a’ zombie’ – the walking dead.  You are not a Haitian zombie.  But you were or, are, the walking ‘dead’.

The hour comes ‘when the dead will hear.’  Who can speak to the dead?  Is it not a contradiction in terms?  The dead are dead!  Are they not incapable of either having sounds directed at them or receiving them?  There is One who speaks to them.  He spoke to the possessed woman, Mary Magdalene and to Zacchaeus. What amazes me is He even wants to speak to the dead! Jesus says, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners.’

What will the dead hear?  ‘The hour is now when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God.’ The dead will hear the Voice of the Son of God.  Last summer my recent retirement was haunting me.  In the wee hours, retirement felt too much like death.  I was meditating on this phrase ‘the dead will hear’.  I cried to Jesus as a suppliant in the dark, ‘I want to hear your Voice…speak to me…I want to hear…I want to live’.  Hallelujah!  He speaks to the dead!  What is the effect of his speaking to the dead? 

‘The dead will hear …and those who hear will live’.  ‘Will live’ is contingent.  Living is dependent on listening.  The dead will hear with their ears.  Sounds will go in.  They must listen with their hearts.  They must consent to, own, obey, keep, treasure, and actively trust in what is said.  Those who hear say, ‘Yes, I will!’

I will never forget Harry R. Truman.  This is the other Harry Truman.  Harry and his wife operated for forty years the Spirit Lake Mountain Lodge at Mt. Saint Helen’s, Washington.  In 1980 the once dormant volcano began volcanic activity.  Scientists began to caution an explosion was imminent.  Officials warned people to get off the mountain.  ‘This is an extremely dangerous place to be’ said a USGS volcanologist.  Harry Truman was not going to hear of it.  He said, “I don’t have any idea whether it will blow…But I don’t believe it to the point that I’m going to pack up…the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.’  Law officials were incensed he refused their last warning.  The next morning the entire northern flank blew off.  Harry was never heard of again.

Jesus’ word to mortals is heartening:  ‘those who hear will live’!  They will live now, and into eternity.  Jesus promises, ‘Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life’.   Be sure of this - you can take it to the bank- those who hear will live! I want to live!  I want to live now!  I want to live into eternal life!  Don’t you?!  Repent, and put all your confidence in Jesus’ word.  Martin Luther’s 13 year old daughter Magdalena lay dead in her coffin.  Luther said, ‘Go ahead and close it! She will rise again on the last day’.  After the coffin was carried away, he said, ‘Do not be sorrowful.  I have sent a saint to heaven.’

Do not be dead - and deaf!

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

The Always Scandalous Cross

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The pagan Celsus was the earliest infamous, literary critic of Jesus Christ.  He blistered Jesus for suffering on the cross. He railed against Christians’ affirmation that Jesus is God’s Son – even God himself.  When Jesus was on the cross, why did he receive no assistance from the Father? Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Underneath Celsus’ criticisms are assumptions humankind has shared across the ages.  If God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so ignominiously? Would not God have foreseen such a tragedy and planned to avoid it? Furthermore, would the all-powerful God allow his power to be impugned and subverted by plotting priests, and his supremacy to be bested by Roman power?  These questions and assumptions may be roadblocks for some in considering Jesus’ death. Let me consider them briefly.

The explanatory meaning of the Cross takes Celsus’ assumptions and turns them on their head!  Scrutinizing Celsus’ criticisms gives us a singular portal into God and the cross. First, if God were God, would He really will his only Son to suffer so scandalously?  Yes. The foreordained coming of a suffering servant-champion who would redeem humankind from the ghastly effects of the Fall begins as a thin red line in Genesis chapter three and runs through Isaiah chapter 53.  The suffering and death which Adam and Eve’s sin caused has to be born. God’s coming Servant Prince takes this sin with its suffering upon himself in order to redeem humankind from it. Neither is God’s dignity offended nor is He blindsided by his Son’s cross.  God knows with full intention the Serpent ‘will strike his heel’. ‘He was crushed for our iniquities’ and ‘by his wounds we are healed.’ Celsus says a god knowing this would not rush headlong into it. Oh no? Since when do champions, much less God, shrink from a noble end charged with pain and suffering?  The very confrontation with suffering and victory over it is what gives champions their character. Olympic Half Pipe icon, snowboarder Shaun White, overcame a devastating, face-altering snowboarding accident last fall to win a gold medal in the 2018 Olympics. This made him an even stronger champ. Contrary to weakness and cowardice, Jesus’ conquering of the cross demonstrates the very heroic redemption of suffering and shame.

Take another of Celsus’ criticisms of Jesus. If Jesus were God’s Son, why did he receive no assistance from his Father?  Further, if Jesus were God, why was he unable to help himself? Celsus deliberately echoes the chief priests’ mockery as they looked on the dying Jesus.  ‘He saved others; is he unable to save himself? He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now….’ In my youth, I wondered the same thing.

Power is the ability to get something done.  It may also be the ability to choose not to do something.  Would not the killer by restraining himself from the impulse to gun down seventeen Stoneman Douglas’ students have shown greater power than by pulling the trigger?  Choosing not to save himself on the cross enabled Jesus to demonstrate more power. Power is also the rate at which work gets done. A Corvette ZO6, going from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.3 seconds, gets work done faster than an Aston MartinV12 Vantage that takes 4.1 seconds.  Jesus could have saved himself in three hours by coming down from the cross. In those three hours he would have saved only himself from death. He would have saved only himself from death but not conquered it. However, by waiting some thirty nine hours till Sunday morning to rise from the grave, he conquered death, saved millions, and all creation!  Which is the greater display of power?

Celsus’ attacks perennially play to the lust for a momentary flash of brute muscle.   The prideful lust for superiority and the diabolical wish to cut God down to size are perpetual temptations.  Twenty one centuries later, what Salvation Army founder William Booth said remains true, ‘It is precisely because He would not come down that we believe in Him.’

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

Wonder Bread

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In the eighteenth century, a French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote a book on the pleasures of cuisine.  He made this memorable argument:  ‘Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.’ The food you eat is directly linked to your physical and mental state.  Yes, tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you what you are:  dead or alive.  Listen to what Jesus tells you: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.(John 6:51, 53-54)  This is a mouthful.

Jesus equates himself with ‘bread’.  Then, He connects his being bread with His flesh and blood.  Let consider:  First, what does Jesus mean by comparing and contrasting himself to breadSecond, how do you eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood?

What does Jesus mean by saying He is the ‘bread of life’?  He is comparing himself to ‘bread’.  ‘Bread’ had special meaning for a Jew.  Consider this background.  Jesus has just fed the thousands with a few fish and five barley loaves.  This reminded the Jews of how God fed their ancestors in the wilderness after the Exodus.  God gave them bread-like substance ‘manna’.  To the Jew, bread was a staple of life.  Bread and drink were life’s two ‘must – haves’.  Meat and vegetables were mere supplements.

In the wilderness God’s people experienced great hunger and need.  They lacked the ‘must-haves’ (Exodus 16: 3).  They learned God wanted them to trust Him to supply their need.  ‘You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing’ says Psalm 145: 16.  Likewise, as ‘the bread of life’, Jesus wants persons to see their great need.  He also wants us to trust Him to supply our need.

Jesus shows up in the Galilean shoreline hills multiplying bread and fish.  He says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven.’  On the one hand, He likens himself to ordinary bread.  On the other hand, He also distinguishes Himself from ordinary bread.  I prayed this morning, ‘Thank you for this bread that keeps us alive today; feed us also with the bread that will keep us alive forever.’

Ordinary ‘bread’ is necessary for natural life.   Jesus is the bread necessary for eternal life.  He is not just another loaf of bread.  He is ‘wonder bread’.  In 1931, the ‘Wonder bread’ Company did a ‘blind promotion’:  they marketed their new bread with an ad campaign that simply said: ‘Wonder is coming May 21’.  Wonder came to the shores of Galilee.  Jesus is distinct from every other bread – even manna.  He is bread from another world.  He says, ‘Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died’ (John 6:48).  In contrast, ‘This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die’.  In fact, ‘Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.’  Do you want to live forever?  Try this wonder bread.  It is of a different origin, of a different essence, and of a different reality.  He is the Bread of heaven!

After Jesus fed the thousands, the Jews searched for him.  They saw in him a perpetual bread machine.  Crank out bread like that and we won’t have to plow, or plant, or reap.  We can have an unlimited supply of loaves of bread!  Yippee!  The woman at the well wanted similar: endless well water.

Jesus called them out.  “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves.’ They wanted endless materiality in this world.  Jesus had something better in mind.  Ordinary bread won’t keep you from dying.  The Bread of life will.  My sixty one year old first cousin Elizabeth Archer lay in ICU in Lewis Gayle Feb 23.  Growing up she wouldn’t eat green beans or vegetables.  On my first visit to her I said, ‘Archer, I brought you some string beans.’  She said, ‘No Brussel sprouts?!’  No food on earth could keep her alive.  In fact, Dr. Haney said there is nothing we can give Archer to keep her alive.  Jesus gives bread that whoever eats won’t die.  Give me this Bread!  You too?

Jesus said, ‘You can believe this.  It is certain, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’  Jesus transposed ‘bread’ into His ‘flesh and blood’.  His statement is startling.  It’s downright repulsive: ‘those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life’.  Here He doesn’t even try to soften our squeamishness.  His statement is even more graphic than you imagine.  Jesus uses the word for ‘eat’ that suggests the audible sounds of an animal munching and gnawing its food.  Critics slam Christianity for this imagery.  Contemporary atheist Sam Harris says if you take the Bible literally you’d be a cannibal.  An ancient second century church critic already said this.  He told Christians: ‘Nobody likes you…we hear that you are cannibals.’

Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  What is he telling us to do?  He can’t mean we are to eat his arms and legs raw, baked or fried!  There wasn’t enough of his flesh to go around to his 12 disciples, much more for the world. The word ‘eat’ is used figuratively.  If you ‘swallow’ an insult, you submit to it.  If you ‘eat up’ a novel, you can’t put it down.  In the early American colonies they’d say ‘to eat earth’.  ‘To eat earth’ meant to ‘possess oneself of the land’.   ‘To eat’ can mean ‘to take something into you’, make it all yours.

To ‘eat’ Jesus flesh and drink His blood can mean ‘to take Jesus into you’; to possess Him; and to make all of Him all of yours.  Having said this, Jesus’s command to eat and drink Him is more than just a figure.  It may not be literal, but it is objectively real.  To take into you and possess the flesh and blood Jesus shed physically on the Cross really procures God‘s forgiveness; it really releases you from the law of death; it really makes you friends with God; and it really invests you with eternal life.

To eat His flesh and drink His blood then equals to believe in Him (John 6: 29).  Jesus says, ‘This is the work of God that you believe in Him’.  To eat Him is to believe in him is to take Him into yourself is to own Jesus in all He is and does for you.  It is to possess Him and His flesh and blood given for you on His atoning cross.

When you eat a Porterhouse steak, your body breaks down the steer’s DNA.  Your body then rearranges the animal DNA into human DNA.  The DNA is integrated into your body.  The animal’s protein becomes your energy to power your bodily processes.

If you will eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood, you will believe in Him.  You will take Him into you so He becomes identified with your body and you with His.  You become united with His death so that His death is yours.  You become united with Him in His resurrection so His resurrection is yours.  His death releases you from the judgment of death for your sin.  His resurrection invests you with eternal life.

What you eat determines what you are: dead or alive!  Repent of your sin; believe in Jesus Christ and eat to live forever!

 

2 Comments

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

United or Untied?

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The second largest denomination after the Southern Baptists, The United Methodist Church (UMC), is schismatized.  For almost a decade some bishops and pastors have been defying church law and electing, ordaining and solemnizing the marriages of homosexuals. The issue finally came to a tipping point in 2016 when the church’s ruling body, General Conference, formed a commission to provide a plan to the bishops to resolve the matter in 2019. Last November 2017, President Bishop Bruce R. Ough envisioned the way forward in his address to the Council of Bishop’s (COB).   In his message, ‘In Love with Union’, he said the church may be divided theologically, but unity can trump it. He repeated the word ‘unity’ no less than twenty five times.   He told the Bishops, ‘I have focused nearly all of this President’s address on the theme of maintaining unity.’ He reminded them what the COB told General Conference in 2016 when they formed the Commission on a Way Forward.  The COB is committed to maintaining the unity of The United Methodist Church.[i] Bishop Ough is telegraphing that unity is the guiding principle which will determine the proposed model the COB will offer as a way forward to the 2019 General Conference.

This focus on unity prompted a question in me, ‘What does the New Testament say about ‘unity’?  In the following I want to consider three New Testament words regarding ‘unity’.  I will organize them under two headings, horizontal and vertical unity.   In light of this, I want to show how the prevailing talk of unity leaves out the most crucial factor in the unity equation.

The word ‘unity’ (enotas) appears but four times and the term ‘united’ seven in the Holy Scriptures.  This is few in comparison to such key terms as ‘truth’ which appears approximately seventy times.  In each of the four occurrences ‘unity’ speaks of the saints in Christ’s Body having a oneness of spirit.  Peter exemplifies its meaning when he exhorts believers to have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind (1 Pet 3:8). This ‘unity’ is horizontal.  It speaks of ‘unity’ on the human plane.  It talks of human inter-relationships and the nature of saints’ attitude, mind and purpose among themselves.  This is the plane in which Bishop Ough operates.

The word ‘united’ is used to mean being ‘joined’.  Persons are ‘united in love’ if they are connected and brought into close association with another. One use of ‘united’ speaks of our being ‘united’ to the Lord.   This conception of our being united to the Lord is more fully expressed by another term which I am coming to now.  (1 Corinthians 6:17, Colossians 2:2).

I asked myself, is this all the Bible has to say about ‘unity’ and being bound together as one?  The Bible talks also of ‘unity’ in speaking of ‘being one’.   The Greek New Testament word for ‘one’ is eis.  Eis can mean the quality of being one in mind, feeling, opinion, purpose and spirit.  Indeed, the word ‘one’ is the Bible’s richest word for ‘being one’ or ‘unity’.

Let me organize ‘one’ under two large headings: (1) ‘vertical’/ transcendent oneness (2) horizontal oneness.  What do I mean by ‘vertical’ or transcendent oneness?  This is the oneness the believer experiences in ‘being one’ in the Father and Son.  The believer can be one in the Father and Son as the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son.  Jesus prays in John 17:21, ‘…that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us….’  In John17:23, Jesus prays, ‘I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….’  This oneness and unity comes only by believing in Jesus Christ.  ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one….’ (John 17: 20).  Only through saving faith may the believer be one with the Father and Son.

Constituent of being one in the Father and Son is sharing: sharing their glory and the Son’s blood.  Jesus prays, ‘The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ (John 17: 22).  Believers share also in Christ’s blood.  Paul says, ‘The cup of blessing…is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

Being one with the Lord is further fleshed out by the Apostle Paul.  Being one with Him is being ‘united to the Lord’ and one spirit with him.  Paul says, ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.’ (1 Corinthians 6: 17).    The word ‘united’ is ‘kollao’.  ‘Kollao’ means ‘to cling close to something or someone’ or ‘to come into close, intimate contact with’.  ‘Kollao’ can picture sexual union where ‘the two shall be one flesh’ embodying the higher, spiritual union of believer with Christ.  Being one spirit with the Lord means the ‘believer’s “spirit” has been joined indissolubly with Christ’[ii]

One would like to go on, but suffice to say, the believers’ oneness with the Lord is oneness and unity of the first order.  Oneness as revealed by the Lord Jesus originates in being one in the Father and the Son.   Vertical, transcendent unity issues in horizontal unity.  Grace through faith shares in the blood of Christ reconciling antitheses – uncircumcision and circumcision, and Gentile and Jew.  ‘In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall…’ (Ephesians 2: 13-16)  We, the Body of Christ ‘though many, are one body’.  By grace through faith we share in Jesus’ blood (1 Corinthians 12: 12).  Each in the Body is one because each is reconciled with God through Christ.  Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one (John 17: 21) only works in this light.  The reconciled are many different members with different gifts in one Body because each is one with the Father and Son through the Spirit.  The meaning of ‘we who are many are one body’ only now has reality and power.

This is a brief and inadequate description of ‘being one’.   Nevertheless, I hope it is enough to contrast the biblical witness on first-order unity with ‘unity’ being promoted by UMC leadership today.  The prevailing view of the vanguard leading the way forward virtually ignores the vertical union. The stress is horizontally on a theologically diverse church (‘the many’) being ‘one’.  Yes, so the argument goes, we may differ on the sufficiency and authority of Holy Scripture, on the nature of God and Jesus Christ, on the nature of salvation, and on human sexuality.  These should not divide us because we the ‘many’ are one Body bound by a common purpose and mission.  Do we believe in Jesus Christ so that we are one in the Father and in the Son?

The prevailing view is keeping alive yesteryear’s conception of ‘theological pluralism’.  ‘Theological pluralism’ is doctrinal diversity in unity.  It harks back to theologian Albert Outler’s revision of John Wesley’s theological approach.   ‘Revision’ it is because it is a misuse of John Wesley’s approach.  Indeed, John Wesley argued for unity on theological ‘essentials’ and liberty on theological ‘opinions’.  However, he argued for it among a pre-selected group whom he knew was already united by an inner experience of conviction of sin and of saving faith in Jesus Christ.  ‘Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever?  Is he revealed in thy soul? Dost thou know Jesus Christ and him crucified?’ he asked those of ‘catholic spirit’.[iii]

What Albert Outler revised and, subsequently, several generations of pluralists have ignored, is that ‘unity’ begins with intimate union with the God/Man Jesus Christ and the Father through saving faith.  Vertical oneness cannot be assumed or ignored.  It is first-order business.  Horizontal oneness only works in unity with vertical oneness!

Martin Luther became almost violently exasperated with ‘the Prince of the Humanists’ scholar Erasmus.  Luther felt Erasmus with great subtlety and tenacity promoted church unity but neglected Jesus Christ.[iv] What value is ‘unity’ if we ignore Jesus Christ?  What value is ‘unity’ if we are not united first with the Savior Jesus Christ?  No transcendent union, no unity!

 

[i] Bishop Bruce R. Ough, Council of Bishops The United Methodist Church President’s Address: ‘In Love with Union’, Nov. 6, 2017, http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/news-media/press-center/documents/BishopOughAddressNov62017.pdf

[ii]F. F. Bruce, gen. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 19 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), The First Epistle to the Corinthians by Gordon D. Fee,  p. 260.

[iii] Frank Baker, editor in chief, The Works of John Wesley, 34 vols. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1975 - ), Vol. 2: Sermons II, ed. by Albert C. Outler, pp.  87, 90, 94.  See, Howe O. Tom Thomas, ‘John Wesley: Concept of “Connection” and Theological Pluralism’, Wesleyan Theological Journal, 36: 2(Fall, 2001), p. 98.

[iv] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), p. 368.

Comment

Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

Photo by  Hieu Vu Minh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash

The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing

It may surprise those outside of the field of biblical studies that there has been intense debate in recent decades over the meaning of the handful of passages in the Bible which seem to condemn same-sex sexual activity. These passages, sometimes referred to as “clobber” texts, since it is often said they have been used to “clobber” LGBT persons (and they unfortunately have), have maintained a fairly stable interpretive history (at least as far as these things go) in the church until the sexual revolution resulted in their revisitation. It may also be surprising that with several of these passages there are legitimate questions regarding the meanings of words and phrases, as the terminology is not always completely clear, even from the context of the passage. Thus there have been some good reasons for the debate, even though there have also been some overly-creative interpretive approaches attempted as well. Having done a fair amount of reading on the matter (though by no means considering myself an expert on all things related), I remain convinced that the texts do indeed forbid same-sex sexual activity.

Notice I did not say they forbid “homosexuality.” The way that term is used today usually refers to sexual orientation, or to one’s basic sense of attraction. While conversion therapy in its heyday sought to redirect homosexual attractions into heterosexual attractions, most now recognize that the therapy largely did not work, and that orientation is not easily changed.[1] Though some still suggest the possibility of conversion therapy’s success,[2] most within the evangelical community have abandoned it. While I do not think the Bible speaks clearly (if at all) about “sexual orientation,” it does speak (and I think with greater clarity) concerning same-sex sexual activity.

To recognize this distinction is to recognize a difference between our context and the biblical context(s). The Bible was written in places, times, and cultures vastly different from our own. When we come to the text, our goal should be to interpret it, as much as we are able, in its own context rather than ours. This does not remove its relevance for today’s Church, but it does mean we must consider that relevance with a great deal of thought and care. Though I can develop the case only briefly here, I wish to suggest that it is that very ancient context which makes it highly plausible that the New Testament authors, and Jesus himself, would have understood same-sex sexual activity as sinful.

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

First, and perhaps most famously, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 state:

You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination (Lev 18:22, NASB).

If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them (Lev 20:13).

Leviticus 18 and 20 are both concerned with inappropriate forms of sexual activity. Forbidden here are various forms of incest, adultery, and bestiality. The basis for the condemnation of this behavior is that it is an abomination (Heb: ʿēbâ; Gr: bdelugma). This term, which has been argued is restricted to a cultic/purity usage and thus is not applicable to Christians, refers to something offensive to God which makes a person unclean. Such activity would defile Israel in ways the surrounding nations had been defiled (cf. Lev 18:4ff.). Language of “clean” and “unclean” is less common in the New Testament than the Old, and is indeed transformed in a sense (e.g., Mark 7:19; Acts 10:11-15; 1 Tim 4:1-5), but this in and of itself does not mean the entire passage is no longer applicable (more on that below). The term (ʿēbâ; bdelugma) also carries a similar ethical connotation in Revelation 17:4, where it is connected with “sexual immorality” (more on that notion below as well).

Often what constitutes “sin” in the Old Testament (and the New) is that which disrupts the intended function given by God. We learn in Levicitus that it is not just the individual, but the community and the land itself, which would be corrupted by these forbidden activities. There are communal and ecological consequences for disrupting the divinely established parameters for human flourishing. Just as God is “otherly,” his people must act “otherly,” distinguished from the surrounding societies, as he has set them apart to do (cf. Lev 20:26).

Second, while it is frequently claimed that Jesus is silent on issues concerning same-sex sexuality, there are implicit indications in Jesus’ words which indicate otherwise. Two texts (among a few others) in the Gospels seem to point in a different direction.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Mark 10:6-9, NASB).

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (Matt 19:3-12, NASB).

What makes us think Jesus here is implicitly (NOT explicitly) suggesting same-sex sexual activity, or more broadly, any form of sexual activity outside of a male-female marital relationship (which, for Jesus, would include sexual activity among the illegitimately divorced)[3] is condemned? If we remind ourselves that Jesus was a first century Jew, who grew up within Second Temple Judaism and shared major affinities with Judaism[4], we can see that Jesus shared a common thread with traditional Jewish beliefs about sexual activities. These beliefs, largely derived from Leviticus 18-20, among other places, viewed all forms of incest, adultery, and same-sex sexual activityas causing defilement and out of step with the divinely intended pattern. They were actions which, if not repented of and “put off,” merited consequences, both immediate and eschatological. As Preston Sprinkle has summarized succinctly, “Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations.”[5] Jesus, within the context of first-century Judaism, and only validating male-female marriage (cf. Mark 10:6-9) or celibacy (cf. Matt 19:10-12) as the available options, stood squarely within that Jewish context. There is no hint that Jesus deviated from the traditional, widespread Jewish belief. None.

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[6] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.”[7]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.

For those who do not accept the Bible as authoritative, discussing exegetical nuances (see Parts 1 and 2) likely offers little reason to change their view. I would not expect it to, nor would that be my intent. However, for those who do believe in the authority of the Bible for faith and yet would challenge its prohibitions against same-sex sexual behavior, I think we must ask, in what sense, then, does the Bible offer any ethical norms? In other words, if cultural movements and individual stories can override the prevailing opinion of Second Temple Jews (the NT’s context), Jesus and Paul (the NT’s central sources of doctrinal information), the earliest “Christians,” and the majority view of the Church throughout its history, in what sense can we find any ethical norms in Scripture or tradition? Is it all fair game and to be redefined as culture changes? Would the same principle apply, for example, to illegitimate divorce, or lying, or stealing, or drunkenness?

A possible retort might be here that what is being argued for (same-sex unions) falls under the hermeneutic of “love,” which Jesus (Mark 12:28-31; Matt 22:37-39; Luke 10:27), Paul (Rom 13:8-10 ; Gal 5:14), and James (Jas 2:8-13) all affirm as central to Christian obedience. However, these commands come from a combination of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (Love neighbor). The irony here is Jesus, Paul, and James affirm the validity of Leviticus 19 for Christian practice. If their basis for establishing the centrality of love for Christian obedience is rooted in Leviticus 19, would we expect them to then be ignoring Leviticus 18 and 20? Clearly not. If these three chapters informed both their sexual ethics and their commitment to the centrality of love, can we so readily rend them apart? It seems to me this runs roughshod over sound and sensible hermeneutical principles. To claim the centrality of love is to stand upon Jesus, James, and Paul and Moses (cf. Lev 19). Erasing the validity of Leviticus from the foundation of ethical norms likewise erases the foundation for the centrality of love of neighbor which permeates the New Testament. Let’s not throw Moses out with the bathwater.

This does not mean, of course, that the Church, even if it stands on reasonable ground historically and exegetically for holding that same-sex sexual activity, and all sexual activity outside of male-female unions, has handled these matters well. The numerous failings, offenses, and outrages are well-documented. In fact, we have inverted the matter entirely. It appears that both Jesus and Paul value the primacy of celibacy for religious service and offer marriage as a concession. Jesus seems to imply this in Matthew 19:10-12, which we examined above, and Paul states it outright in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 (“Now I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire” (LEB).).

In our efforts to establish the validity of our position on marriage, we have established it as the norm to be attained and ignored completely the value of celibacy, perhaps even reinforcing the misguided idea that the primary function of marriage is sexual pleasure and gratification. Celibacy is to be praised rather than seen as an unfortunate outcome for those unfit for marriage. Celibacy frees followers of Jesus to dedicate their life and relationships to ministry and service. Celibacy does not entail loneliness. It entails a sacrifice, of course, but the Christian life is paradigmatically a life of sacrificial cruciformity. In fact, as Joseph Hellerman has argued,[8] we seem to have gotten Jesus’ (and Paul’s) priorities out of order. For Jesus, the “fictive kinship” offered in the family of God was to be the central place of community and relational nourishment for God’s people. The Church was the family. When Jesus places following him over blood-relation ties, this is what he means. We frequently hear it said that our priorities should be God-family-church, but Hellerman argues Jesus’ priorities were God-church-family. This does not mean the family is to be neglected, and ideally the biological family will overlap with the spiritual family. However, the New Testament suggests, perhaps clearer than we have recognized, that the primary place of relational sustenance was to come from the community of faith. The Church family. We do not offer the church, then, to those who we think should pursue celibacy as the way to follow the teachings of Scripture, as a lesser good. Rather, it is the primary good which we have regrettably made secondary.

The Church for too long has singled out same-sex sexual activity as the ultimate offense. If we were consistent, we would view adultery (including remarriage in cases of illegitimate divorce and dwelling on sexual thoughts toward a married person), pre-marital sex, consumption of pornography, and other forms of porneia with the same rejection as same-sex sexual activity. Perhaps we have found the LGBT “other” an easier target than the offenses of adultery, pornography, and cohabitation which permeate the church in the West today. Whatever the case, this lopsided aggression toward same-sex sexual activity in the larger culture at the expense of ignoring more prevalent issues in the Church must end. This means we should openly acknowledge that the Church has regrettably promoted disrespect, hate, and an unequal measure of condemnation on the LGBT community. Repentance is in order. We can and should maintain our position, but we should maintain it with consistency, taking into account the entire biblical witness and the whole picture of what human flourishing should look like. And we should maintain it with love. We need not separate Leviticus 19 from 18 and 20.

Rather than maintaining a theologically informed and balanced sexual ethic, too often evangelical believers have depended on a “yuck” factor to bolster their negative depictions of homosexuality. Without a more biblical and rigorously honest rationale undergirding their proscription of homosexual practice, there is little wonder that so many Millenials today (even professing Christians among them) have been remarkably resistant to the idea that same-sex sexual activity is a sin.

Our society largely judges “freedom” as the ability to follow one’s every whim and desire. As Christians, we rightly view this as bondage. Unfettered freedom is ultimately destructive. The teachings of Jesus and his apostles and the rich traditions of the Church, like the Law before them, provide parameters for human flourishing. We err when we selectively pursue the parameters which best serve our purposes or are most easily implemented. Full human flourishing requires full submissive obedience to the revelation of God and to the Revealed One.

 

[1] See Bobby Ross Jr., “No Straight Shot: More Evangelical Therapists Move from Changing Orientation to Embracing Faith Identity for Gays,” Christianity Today, September 14, 2009, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/october/1.10.html and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Gay, Christian, and Celibate: The Changing Face of the Homosexuality Debate,” On Faith, August 4, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/08/04/gay-christian-celibate-the-changing-face-of-the-homosexuality-debate/33482 and “Evangelical Leader Russell Moore Denounces Ex-Gay Therapy,” Religion News Service, October 28, 2014, accessed June 30, 2015, http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/28/evangelical-leader-russell-moore-denounces-ex-gay-therapy/.

[2] John Piper, “Same-Sex Attraction and the Inevitability of Change,” Desiring God, September 19, 2012, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/same-sex-attraction-and-the-inevitability-of-change.

[3] To flesh this out would take us too far afield of our topic. I bring this up since the New Testament makes concessions for divorce in certain cases (i.e., sexual unfaithfulness). I think theologically a case can also be made for abusive relationships and perhaps other situations. Beyond this, divorce because “it didn’t work out,” or “we grew apart,” or “we fell out of love” is simply not allowed in the New Testament view of marriage. Jesus says this is a hard teaching for a reason.

[4] He does not reject Judaism as a failed religious system as older Lutheran and Bultmannian traditions assumed.

[5] Preston Sprinkle, “The Sin “of” Homosexuality?” Theology in the Raw, April 20, 2015, accessed June 30, 2015. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theologyintheraw/2015/04/the-sin-of-homosexuality/

[6] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[7] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1.

[8] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009).

Comment

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies and an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. Chad completed his PhD in Theology and Apologetics through LBTS with an emphasis in biblical studies. His areas of academic interest include ancient Christianity, apologetics, biblical languages, Second Temple Judaism, New Testament studies, Old Testament studies, and theology. He is the author of a forthcoming title (IVP Academic) on the Jewish background of the apostle Paul’s election texts. Dr. Thornhill lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Caroline and their two children.

Top 10 Posts for 2017

Photo by  Jez Timms  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

Thank you for supporting Moral Apologetics in 2017! We have had an exciting year and it has been a privilege to host some exciting content in 2017. As a way of looking back, we wanted to share with you the list of the most read posts for the year.

1. "On Psychopathy and Moral Apologetics"  By David Baggett

2.  "Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity"  By David Baggett

3.  "God’s Goodness and Difficult Old Testament Passages"  By Michael Austin

4.  "The Most Reluctant Convert: C. S. Lewis Onstage"  By David Baggett

5.  "The Failure of Naturalism as a Foundation for Human Rights" By Angus J. L. Menuge

6.  Good God Panel Discussion with Baggett, Walls, Copan, and Craig

7.  "What to Make of a Diminished Thing: Poeticizing the Fall"   By Corey Latta

8. "Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s 'Holy Sonnet 15'" By Holly Ordway

9.  "Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture" By Joshua Herring

10. "Living Life All the Way Up”: Hemingway’s Moral Apologetic from Absence" By Corey Latta

 

Image: "Happy New Year" by A. Verde. CC Licence. 

Incarnation: The Intersection of Two Universes

Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg

A Twilight Musing

The word “incarnation” gets a lot of use this time of year, and like most frequently-used terms, its full meaning tends to get lost in its commonness. Literally, it means “being manifest in bodily form,” and it can refer to any disembodied entity assuming physical shape. However, when Christians say “The Incarnation,” they are of course talking about the Son of God being born and living out an earthly life as a human being. That bare fact would be astounding even if God had taken human form in the perfect world of the Garden of Eden; but His being incarnated in a world corrupted by sin betokens a cosmic intersection between changeless Divinity and the ever-changing sin-diseased heavens and earth. When the apostle John wrote the prologue to his Gospel account (John 1:1-18), he called the part of God that took human form “the Word,” which “was God” and was “with God” (v. 1) before He “became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). Deathless Eternity was enveloped by mortal flesh, locking them in a battle from which either Eternal Life or endless Death would emerge victorious. Praise be to God, we know the outcome of that battle won by the Savior Jesus, whose incarnated flesh suffered death, but was raised in glory, the firstfruits of the victory over Death.

Both of the poems below reflect the process of the Word being encased in flesh, but then also emerging from flesh to become the Eternal Word again, having triumphed over Sin and Death. In the first poem, I have assumed a symbolic correspondence between the “swaddling clothes” in which Mary wrapped Jesus at His birth and the customary shroud in which His crucified body was buried. Although there was great rejoicing at Jesus’ birth because of the promises associated with His Advent, the lowly circumstances surrounding that birth indicated that His earthly existence would not fulfill the conventional expectations of powerful king and conquering hero. Just as His birth hid the death embedded in it, so His death was the womb of the Life embedded within it.

The second poem traces the same cycle of progress from the absolute and timeless Presence of God, to the extension of His Essence into the original creation of Earth, and finally to that Essence taking on human form, but without the corruption of sin. Through that Birth, Earth will be delivered from its corruption once again to embody the Essence of God’s original purpose for it, thereby empowering it to be the dwelling place for God’s eternal Presence.

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

1985

Immanuel

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence.

Elton D. Higgs

Nov. 12, 1977

May the wonder of the Word becoming flesh be made real to each of those who rest in its redeeming power; and may each of those inhabited by the Spirit of Christ know with assurance that “this flesh . . . clothed in wordless death” is being transmuted to the “Word restored.”

 

Image:"Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)" by Gerard van Honthorst - Google Art Project. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg#/media/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)