Urban Legends of the Old Testament: Radical Islam Has Inherited Ishmael’s Violent Spirit (Genesis 16:12)

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The dismissal of Hagar  by  Pieter Pietersz Lastman .

The dismissal of Hagar by Pieter Pietersz Lastman.

He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.
— Genesis 16:12

The Legendary Teaching on Ishmael and His Descendants

Abraham’s lack of faith and patience that led to the birth of Ishmael through Hagar is the cause of the perpetual conflict between Arabs (the descendants of Ishmael) and Jews (the descendants of Isaac) in the Middle East today. The Bible informs us that the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac would be never ending. Arabs, as the descendants of Ishmael, have inherited his rebellious (“like a wild donkey”) and violent qualities (Gen 16:12), and the existence of radical Islam and violent jihadism is proof that “the spirit of Ishmael” still exists among Arab peoples today. 

 

Countering the Legendary Teaching

The portrayal of Ishmael as a “wild donkey” conveys a positive message that even resembles the portrayal of the twelve tribes of Israel in Genesis 49. The Bible never prophesies a perpetual conflict between the sons of Isaac and Ishmael, and Ishmael’s descendants even have a vital role in the working out of salvation history and a share in the covenantal blessings given to Abraham and extended through Isaac.

 

Birth Announcement and Hope for an Oppressed Woman

The declaration that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 appears in the context of a birth announcement designed to offer hope and encouragement to a beleaguered slave. Tony Maalouf explains, “Having been the recipient of a special revelation from the ‘God who sees’ everything and cares for everyone, it would become much easier for Hagar to accept her circumstances.”[1] The angelic announcement concerning Ishmael in Gen 16:10–12 was a positive message concerning the future of Hagar’s son.

Readers today understandably read “like a wild donkey” as an insult. Referring to someone in this way in our culture would likely lead to an angry confrontation. Comparing someone to a donkey might seem to convey the qualities of stupidity, stubbornness, or contentiousness. As part of this comforting announcement to Hagar, however, the image likely is a promise that Ishmael and his descendants would enjoy the freedom and independence of living as roving nomads, in spite of the difficulties that such a lifestyle would also entail.

The term wild donkey (pere’) appears only ten times in the Hebrew Bible. It is not always clear whether the connotations associated with the wild donkey are positive or negative. The prevailing ideas associated with this animal appear to be “freedom, isolation, and wilderness habitat.”[2] Gordon Wenham states that the wild donkey is a figure for “an individualistic lifestyle untrammeled by social convention.”[3] The wild donkey lives in barren areas (Job 24:5; Isa 32:14; Jer 14:6; Hos 8:9). In Job 39:5–8, the wild donkey lives in the wilderness and laughs at the noise of the city and, unlike his domesticated counterpart, never has to endure the abusive commands of a taskmaster.

            The second statement about Ishmael in Gen 16:12 does refer to hostilities that would exist between Ishmael (and his descendants) and surrounding peoples. The Hebrew reads: “hand-to-hand with everyone and everyone hand-to-hand with him” and is somewhat ambiguous in meaning because of the lack of a verb. Nevertheless, in twenty-seven of the thirty-three instances in which the noun hand (yad) is followed by the preposition be (“in, on, upon, against”) that has a person, people, or inhabited area for its object, the sense is adversarial and denotes conflict (e.g., Exod 7:4; Josh 2:19; 1 Kgs 11:26–27).[4] The NET Bible even reads, “He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him.” A people at perpetual odds would seem to be disagreeable and violent, but this statement needs to be read in light of the surrounding context. We have two other important uses of “hand” in this context that inform our understanding here. In Gen 16:6, Abram says to his disgruntled wife Sarai concerning Hagar: “your slave is in your hands” (be + yad) and that she could do with Hagar as she wished. Sarai then mistreats Hagar so that she flees from Abram’s household. In verse 9, the angel of the Lord instructs Hagar to return to Sarai and to submit “to her authority” (tahat + yad; lit. “under her hand”).

The statement in verse 12 about Ishmael’s “hand” being against everyone should then be understood at least in part as a promise of the reversal of Hagar’s powerlessness in verse 9. Ishmael would not be subjugated to others in the way that Hagar was to Sarai, and he would have the strength to stand up to others when wronged. Maalouf explains, “Constant roaming of the bedouin tribes in the desert, with no established legal system and clear civil law code, put them in a state of conflict with each other, and set others against them for fear of their raids, since nomads dislike the settled life.”[5] The point is that Ishmael would be able to contend for himself in these disagreements and confrontations.

The final statement concerning Ishmael in verse 12 that he would “settle near (‘al pene) all his relatives” is also open to interpretation. Because ‘al pene does have an adversarial sense in other passages (e.g., Job 1:11; 6:28), some English translations (NIV, NRSV, NLT) view this statement as also referring to perpetual conflict between Ishmael and his neighbors The NIV reads that Ishmael “will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” The preposition ‘al pene more often has a spatial nuance and likely refers in Genesis 16 to how Ishmael would live away from other peoples because of his Bedouin lifestyle. The fact that ‘al pene has this spatial meaning in Gen 25:18 with reference to Ishmael’s descendants suggests the same meaning is intended here.[6] This last description of Ishmael says nothing about violence or hostility.

            The announcement that Ishmael would be like a wild donkey parallels the depiction of a number of the tribes of Israel in Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis 49. Judah is like “a young lion” (v. 9), Issachar “a strong donkey” (v. 14), Dan “a viper” (v. 17), Naphtali “a doe set free” (v. 21), and Benjamin “a wolf” (v. 27). The portrayals of Judah and Benjamin as a lion and wolf are violent in nature and would seem to depict these tribes as violent—predators tearing apart their prey (vv. 9, 27). Judah would subjugate his enemies so that the nations would give obedience to him (vv. 8, 10), and this promise ultimately points to the dominion of the house of David and the future Messiah. Under attack from archers, Joseph’s bow would be strong and agile (v. 23).[7] Military strength would be essential for Israel’s survival and security as a nation in the violent world of the ancient Near East. These portrayals, however, do not infer that Israel was a vicious, warmongering people, and we should avoid drawing similar conclusions about Ishmael and his descendants on the basis of Gen 16:12. We would not suggest from Genesis 49 that the “spirit of Judah” or “spirit of Benjamin” is responsible for the present-day conflicts in the Middle East.

 

Isaac and Ishmael in Perpetual Conflict?

Christopher Heard notes that, contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament never prophesies perpetual animosity between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac.[8] The two brothers are never in conflict as adults and join to bury their father in Gen 25:9. Isaac subsequently lives near Ishmael, suggesting cordial relations between the two. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders who take him to Egypt (Gen 37:25–29), but Joseph’s own brothers are the ones who act in hatred. Only two passages in the Old Testament refer to Ishmaelites committing acts of violence against Israel. Ishmaelites carry out raids against Israel during the time of Gideon (Judg 8:24), and Ishmaelites and Hagrites are mentioned as enemies that conspire against Israel in Ps 83:6. Heard writes, “Although Christians commonly claim that Isaac’s and Ishmael’s descendants have fought constantly since Isaac’s birth, it is hard to sustain that claim with biblical evidence.”[9]

 

God’s Blessing of Ishmael and His Descendants

Ishmael is not the promised child through whom God’s covenant promises to Abraham would be fulfilled, but this fact does not minimize God’s blessing of Ishmael or negate his redemptive concern for Ishmael’s descendants. The circumcision of Ishmael in Gen 17:23 demonstrates that he was included in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The name Ishmael (“God hears”) is testimony to how God had been attentive to the cries of Hagar when she was alone in the wilderness after Sarai sent her away when Hagar was with child (Gen 16:11). The promise that Ishmael would have many descendants (Gen 16:10) parallels the promises to Abraham that he would have numerous offspring (Gen 15:5; 17:20; 22:17).

The blessing of Ishmael would in fact help to bring fulfillment of specific covenant promises to Abraham—that he would be the father of many nations (Gen 17:4–5) and that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Isaiah 60:6–8 specifically mentions the inclusion and participation of Ishmael’s descendants (Midian, Kedar, Nebaioth; compare Gen 25:13; 28:9; 37:28) in the future kingdom when the nations stream to Zion to worship the Lord. Ishmael’s descendants will bring their wealth as tribute to the Lord and their flocks and herds for sacrifices to the Lord.

            Other specific literary features in Genesis point to favorable and sympathetic readings of the characters Hagar and Ishmael. The birth announcement from the angel concerning Ishmael is the first of such annunciations in Scripture, and similar annunciations in the Old Testament anticipate the birth of a special or promised child (including Isaac, Samson, and Samuel). Hagar’s experience when God intervenes to deliver Ishmael from death in Genesis 21 parallels Abraham’s as he prepares to offer Isaac in Genesis 22.[10] Both Hagar and Abraham take a journey to a desolate place, and both hear an angel from heaven announcing God’s intervention on behalf of their sons (Gen 21:17; 22:11–12). 

 The depiction of Ishmael in Genesis also invites comparison with Joseph in that both are expelled from their home because of their master’s wife.[11] Sarah expels Ishmael because she observes him “laughing” (mocking?) (tsahaq) at the feast for Isaac’s weaning (Gen 21:8–10), and Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempting to rape her and thus “mocking” (tsahaq) his master’s house (Gen 39:14–17). In spite of their unfair treatment, both young men prosper because God is “with” them (Gen 21:20; 39:2, 21). These favorable comparisons with other individuals who are part of the covenant people of God suggest that we should also view Hagar and Ishmael as positive characters, not as the ancestors of Israel’s perpetual enemies.

 

Application

Christians have often used wrong interpretations or simplistic readings of Scripture to justify prejudice or hatred toward specific groups of people. Identifying the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15 as the curse of black skin or equating Native Americans with the Canaanites to justify their extermination are two prominent examples of such readings. Attributing the conflict in the Middle East to “the spirit of Ishmael” or the lack of evangelical compassion toward Arab refugees in our current environment reflects a similar misreading of the Bible. The genealogical relationship between Ishmael and present-day Arabs is complex to begin with, and the statement that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 does not characterize Arab peoples as violent. Ishmael plays a strategic role in the working out of God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen 12:3), and the descendants of Ishmael will be among the people of God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Loving the descendants of Ishmael is a reflection of the heart and character of God himself.

 


Annotated Bibliography

Books

 Maalouf, Tony. Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003. Helpful treatment from an Arab Christian of the role of Ishmael and Arab peoples in the working out of God’s kingdom purposes.

 

Commentaries

 Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1–15 and 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Scholarly evangelical commentary with two volumes on Genesis, here presented as one volume.

 

Articles

 Heard, Christopher. “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael.” Interpretation 68 (2014): 270–85. Argues for a more charitable Christian reading of the figure of Ishmael.

 

Websites

 Rishmawy, Derek. “I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake.” Patheos, Christ and Pop Culture (blog). February 27, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/02/i–am–not–abrahams–mistake/. Argues that popular evangelical theology about Arabs often contradicts biblical teaching.

 

 


[1] Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003), 65.

[2] R. Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Dislection: Ambiguities in Genesis 12–36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-exilic Judah, Semeia Studies 39 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 69.

[3] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 11.

[4] Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 69–70.

[5] Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, 72.

[6] Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 72.

[7] A strong case can be made for an alternate reading of Gen 49:22 that translates the verse as depicting Joseph as the “son of a donkey” (ben porat) in a manner that recalls the depiction of Ishmael “like a wild donkey” (pere’ ’adam) (rather than “a fruitful vine”). The noun son (ben) is never used with a plant elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible but does appear with animals (Gen 18:7; Ps 29:6). See S. Gevirts, “Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford,” Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 35–49.

[8] Christopher Heard, “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael,” Interpretation 68 (2014): 276–77.

[9] Heard, “On the Road to Paran,” 279.

[10] For fuller development of the Hagar-Abraham parallels, see S. Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael as Literary Figures: An Intertextual Study,” Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001): 221–29.

[11] Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael,” 232–41.

John Wesley: Brand Plucked from the Burning

The rescue of the young John Wesley from the burning rectory. Mezzotint by  Samuel William Reynolds .

The rescue of the young John Wesley from the burning rectory. Mezzotint by Samuel William Reynolds.

Thinking he was dying, Evangelical Awakening leader John Wesley penned his epitaph, “John Wesley, a brand plucked out of the burning.” Brother Charles Wesley quipped, “Not once only.”  The ‘brand plucked’ phrase encapsulated the reality upon which not only his but many of his spiritual descendants’ spiritual and moral transformation hinged.  Recount with me the life events that prepared John Wesley for the signal manifestation on 24 May 1738 of his coming to saving faith two hundred and eighty one years ago this year.

At age 23, John Benjamin Wesley read Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s book, Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying.  It deeply affected him.  He said, ‘Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words and actions.’  The next year he read the Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis’s book The Imitation of Christ.  There John Wesley saw that to give his life to God meant giving ‘my heart, yea, all my heart to him.’  John Wesley became what is called a ‘f-a-n-a-t-i-c’ or, same thing, a ‘Methodist’!  Theologian Albert Outler with others following suit argues the 1725 event was John Wesley’s conversion.  Granted, it was a change.  Nevertheless, it was neither the relational change of justification with God nor the new birth from above.  Dedicating his life meant to John Wesley becoming an Olympic religious athlete/monk (like Simon Stylites the ancient ascetic monk who lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years). Still, he was in dead earnest about bringing all of himself – all thoughts, all words, and all actions – and then some – into perfect conformity with religious righteousness – a.k.a. the rich, young ruler. 

His brother Charles and another friend Robert Kirkham responded to Oxford University’s Vice-Chancellor’s call for students to keep university rules.  What a novel idea!  They started a club in answer to the Vice-Chancellor’s call and made John its leader.  The club aimed at nothing short of “perfection.”  They kept track of every hour’s activity – was it done to God’s glory?  They read the Greek New Testament; fasted; prayed continually; took communion once a week; visited prisoners in the Oxford jail (I visited the cell in the 1980’s); and went to daily worship.  Fellow students called out ‘nerd alert’:  here comes the “the Holy Club,” the “Bible Moths,” and the “Methodists” – likely a pun.  Methodius was a primitive church father and the Methodists followed a stringent, methodical, Christian discipline.

Meanwhile, things were not going particularly well vocationally with John.  Though he was a tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford, some parents were reluctant to send their sons to be taught by the oddball, “Mr. Primitive Christianity.”  Moreover, his brief experience of pastoring a church was lackluster.

When the invitation came to go to Georgia as a missionary, he was ready for a “New World.”  He would oversee the English colonists and evangelize the Indians.  In crossing the Atlantic, Wesley’s tiny ship, the Simmonds, encountered a raging hurricane.  Waves vaulted the ship and smacked its wooden hull. Each time they hit, John thought the ship would be dashed into a thousand pieces.  The turmoil was not just outside.  Inside he asked himself, “Why are you so afraid to die? ... How is it that thou hast no faith?

Meanwhile, German Moravian Lutherans on board quietly served the passengers and calmly sang through the valley of the shadow of death. They were on their way to Georgia to escape religious persecution.  Intrigued, Wesley after the storm asked a Moravian, “Were you not afraid?  Thank God, no,” was the answerHow about your women and children?” “No, they are not afraid to die.”

When John arrived near Tybee Island, Georgia, Moravian leader August Spangenberg asked him point blank a question he had never considered. “Do you know Jesus Christ?”   Wesley paused.  Then he said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.”  Spangenberg shot back, “But do you know He has saved YOU?” “I hope He died to save me,” said Wesley.  “But do you know yourself?” Spangenberg insisted.  “I do,” said Wesley.  He later confessed, “But, I fear those were vain words.”  Indeed.

Undaunted, still hot from the Holy Club culture, John Wesley was determined to make the American colonists into an Oxford Holy club – an admixture of Catholicism and Protestantism.  The colony would not.  A friend told John, “They (the parishioners) say they are Protestants, but as for you they cannot tell what religion you are of; they never heard of such before.”

In the meantime Wesley was forming a close attachment to the magistrate’s niece, Sophie Hopkey.  Long story short, she married another man.  Wesley refused to serve her communion because he said she deceived him and had not repented of it.  Her uncle the magistrate served a warrant for Wesley’s arrest.  One night Wesley quietly slinked away through the Georgia swamps.  England bound sounded pretty good.  So much for being a missionary.

Sailing home, he was dejected.  He had lost a potential wife.  His congregation was not “holy” – just irate.  His rigorous religion was giving him cold comfort.  “I have a fair summer religion,” he confessed to himself.  “Let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled”… “I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore!”  He mused, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me!”

He could not by all the rigors of self-denial, prayers, fasting, and good works make himself acceptable to God.  After all his strenuous, spiritual athletics, he could not rid himself of sin and guilt.  Should he die, he feared meeting God.

A couple of months after returning to England, in March 1738, he wrote in his Journal, “I was, on Sunday the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.”  Moravian Peter Bohler counseled him to preach faith until he received it. The Moravian Lutheran understanding of justifying faith is that it is a gift which God gives and one receives.  One decides for it but God sends faith in his own time.  In April John Wesley realized he was a sinner without recourse.  Several times he wept privately over his state.  By now he had no intellectual objections to the nature of evangelical faith.  He accepted it as a sure trust in God that through the merits of Christ one’s sins are forgiven and one is reconciled to God’s favor.  However, was saving faith instantaneous like the Moravians claimed?  He studied Scripture and concluded it was instantaneous.  But was it for today?  Moravian leader Peter Bohler gave him many current witnesses who testified to it.  He was beat out of that retreat.  Intellectually and willfully he had accepted justification by faith.

Several weeks later on 24 May, 1738, after soul searching, Bible study, discussion with the Moravians, and a great sense of his spiritual lack before God, John Wesley went very unwillingly to a religious house group meeting in Aldersgate Street, London. (Nazi bombing in WW II destroyed the house.)  At about a quarter before nine, someone was reading Martin Luther’s Preface to his commentary on the Book of Romans.  As Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt “my heart strangely warmed.”  He said, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even MINE, and saved ME from the law of sin and death.”

Once he had been providentially plucked from his bedroom in flames.  Now he was rescued from the fires of God’s wrath.  As a child, he was helpless to get out of his flaming room.  Now he conceded he was helpless to make himself righteous.  Two men had to snatch him out of his childhood inferno.  Only Jesus Christ and his mercy offered in the atoning cross could save him from his sin.  Only Jesus could declare him acceptable to God.

Wesley scholars will forever debate the nature of the Aldersgate event.  Was Aldersgate just another step in his Christian pilgrimage?  Was it more assurance of faith than justifying faith? The bottom line is that that night in a room on Aldersgate Street John Wesley’s inner, spiritual ear heard Christ forgive him and accept him.  He went from knowing Jesus as Exemplar to knowing Jesus as Savior.  He no longer trusted in his own but Jesus’ merits.  Aldersgate is the landmark event that notes a change in status having occurred in John Wesley’s life: once a child of this world he was now a child of God; once guilty he was now forgiven; once unrighteous he was now declared righteous.  Now holy living really began.

Aldersgate was the hinge of John Wesley’s spiritual and moral transformation.  May many, many others today have their own similar Aldersgates.  Our hope is that our children and children’s children will not only be retelling his and ours, but theirs as well.

 


TomThomasStaffPhoto.jpg

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.

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.

Evil in the Book of Job

Job and His Friends  by Ilya Repin (1869)

Job and His Friends by Ilya Repin (1869)

Job is an excellent, and terrifying, book, and through it we can learn much—if we have the fortitude to patiently endure its deeper lessons.

While there are many small lessons throughout the book, there are three main things I believe we should learn from Job:

1﷒     The righteous will suffer, and sometimes they will suffer because of their righteousness—just like our Savior.

2﷒     Even though Job was “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil,” he still had faults that needed to be corrected.

3﷒     God cares enough about his children to perfect and prepare them for perfect fellowship in the ages to come.

Lesson 1: The Righteous Will Suffer

God brags about Job—wouldn’t it be awesome if the same could be said about us. And, as the first two chapters of Job make clear—he was in a right relationship with God. The author introduces him as one who was “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil.” The Lord amplifies this when He speaks of Job saying, “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” And to seal the deal, even The Satan (The Accuser) does not have anything to accuse Job of, he only has an assumption of what Job might be like given the right circumstances.

There should be no debate at this point in the story, Job was in a right relationship with God. And because of Job’s right relationship with Him, God supernaturally protected and blessed him. The Accuser complains that The Lord had built a hedge of protection around Job where he could not break through and wreak havoc; however, The Accuser was certain that if The Lord removed this protection, and if Job’s material blessings could be taken from him, that Job would “curse You to Your face.” In other words, The Satan accused Job of being righteous not because of his character—who he was, but only because of the good stuff God had given him—what he got. The accusation is: Job gave obedience only because he got good stuff from God.

Now comes the first terrifying part of the book—especially for those readers that are in a right relationship with God and that are living a somewhat comfortable life—God removes His protection from Job. With this, The Accuser is now free to bring about destruction in Job’s life and to test/prove the quality of his character. One important thing to remember at this point is that while Job was righteous he was not sinless. Later in the book Job will confess that neither he nor any other human who had lived to that point was sinless before God. Just as believers in Christ are in a right relationship with God while none of us are sinless, so it was with Job. Also, as we learn in Colossians, Job (like the rest of us) was born into the “domain of darkness” where the “god of this age” has significant freedom to inflict its inhabitants. The Lord’s hedge of protection about him was not something that Job earned but a grace gift that God freely bestowed upon him. God in His righteousness could have withheld all of these material blessings and Job’s life could have been filled with pain all along, but because of the free gift of God it was not.

In his first severe test Job understands this. After his properties and possessions and children are all taken from him Job responds,

         “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
         And naked I shall return there.
         The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away.
         Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Once The Accuser had his first restrained access to Job (The Lord still protected Job’s person), he violently removed all of the things that he believed accounted for Job’s righteous behavior. But as we just saw from Job’s amazing response, the first test only proved God’s point and Job’s character—Job was righteous and that there were none like him.

The next time The Accuser stands before The Lord, God again brags about his servant Job and highlights the fact that Job’s love for God was not based upon the material blessings He had given him. Not one to be dissuaded by the facts, however, The Accuser makes his next accusation: Job really only loves you because you have given him health, if that is removed he will “curse you to your face.” And with this, the second phase of Job’s testing begins.

The Accuser now is granted more access to Job (although still not unrestrained) and uses the opportunity to inflict Job with “sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” After inflicting this state of constant pain, The Accuser caps his attack against Job by using what should have been Job’s last source of comfort—his wife—against him. The Accuser incites Job’s wife to try to help bring about his prediction. In her pain, she tells Job to “Curse God and die!” But even through this extreme testing, “Job did not sin with his lips.” Job has withstood the examination and his righteous character has been fully tested and proven.

Now, if the main point of the story was to show Job’s faithfulness in passing the test, I would have expected the story to have immediately jumped to Job 42:10: “The LORD restored the fortunes of Job…,” but given the extra forty chapters between where we are and that point in the book, it looks as if the main point of the story is still to come. So while we will have to dive in deeply to get to the main point, we have already learned some important lessons.

First, we learned that this is the type of universe where, even though a perfect Judge sits as sovereign, the righteous can still suffer. If the story of Job is looked at in isolation, this is true but not very comforting. However, if we look at this story (as we should all of the Old Testament) as a pointer to Jesus in some way, then we can learn an important theological truth: If the sovereign, righteous God never allowed the righteous to suffer on the earth, then Jesus—the Righteous One—would not have been allowed to suffer and die in our place. Jesus was the only sinless person, the One who justly should never have experienced the suffering brought about by sin; however, He suffered extensively (in our place). The atonement requires innocent suffering and Job shows that this is possible. This is a profound lesson we need to learn from Job (and it is one Job’s friends needed to learn also).

Second, the book of Job doesn’t directly answer the question: Why do the innocent suffer?—and, there is no single answer. If it did, the best potential answer offered would be because God was bragging about them. If this was the main point, the story could have happily ended by pasting the end of chapter 42 onto the end of chapter 2. Also, I don’t believe that The Accuser tricked God into allowing Job to be tormented. While a simple reading may seem like The Satan got the best laugh when God said, “although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause,” God’s omniscience—and the other forty chapters in the book—lead me to believe there is a deeper story. God allowed this initial test not only to prove Job’s character via a trial (which it did), but as we shall also see, this was just the first phase of the greater test that Job was about to face.

And this point leads us to the third lesson: Even though Job was in a right relationship with God, and he was proven through trial to be “a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil,” Job still had a character flaw that needed to be purged. In the next article we will see that while he was righteous, Job had a defective theology and that this in combination with a character flaw would lead him to act foolishly, but only under certain circumstances.


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Dave works in the software industry and has a background in both biology and computer science. He has interested in both of these areas, especially where they intersect. He holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from UC Irvine, an M.S. in Computer Science from West Coast University, and an M.A. in Apologetics from Biola University.

 

 

Dave Sidnam

Dave works in the software industry and has a background in both biology and computer science. He has interested in both of these areas, especially where they intersect. He holds a B.S. in Biological Sciences from UC Irvine, an M.S. in Computer Science from West Coast University, and an M.A. in Apologetics from Biola University.

Editor's Recommendation: The Doctrine of God by John C. Peckham

Editor's Recommendation: The Doctrine of God by John C. Peckham

Recommended by David Baggett

Laudably even-handed and researched, elegantly written and explicated, Peckham’s eagerly anticipated, student-friendly contribution is a treasure trove. Exploring God’s existence is valuable; asking who God is priceless. Peckham investigates the latter by deftly navigating an expansive, philosophically and theologically sophisticated literature to mine substantive doctrine with fertile and far-reaching implications.
— David Baggett, Executive Editor

More Recommendations

No Longer in Glimpses: In Memory of My Mother Joan F. Decker

Touched by the Hand of God  by Jayt74

Touched by the Hand of God by Jayt74

Richard Decker is a second-year English master’s student at Liberty University. His eulogy for his mother, on her recent passing, speaks to God’s transforming grace and the hope we have as Christians that God’s love will fully restore us to our true selves, made in his image and for eternal communion with him and our fellow creatures.


When I think back to the good that my mother did during her lifetime, what comes to mind is a person who, despite everything, made it clear that she loved me and was on my side—no matter what. My mother showed me how important it was for me to stay strong and to break the cycle. She gave me a love for music and for people. She taught me the importance of being down-to-earth and open with one’s thoughts and feelings, and she always made it clear to me that I could tell her anything. I believe what I am trying to say is that through all the cloudiness, I was still able to see glimpses of a person who loved and cared so much for me and for others and did her best to show that love. But as I said, these were glimpses.

Joan and Richard Decker

Joan and Richard Decker

 For when I would look at old pictures and hear stories of my mother when she was young, I must admit it was always a surreal experience for me. Because the young woman in those pictures and in those stories—the young woman that many of you knew and loved so well—I knew only in photo albums—in glimpses.

As my mother and I would tell jokes with one another, I would see glimpses of that young woman who walked the hallways of Cider Ridge High School, laughing and having a good time with her friends. As I read my mother’s cursive on my Christmas and birthday cards, I would see glimpses of that young woman who loved sending similar cards and letters to her friends and relatives. As I would see my mother dressed up for a get-together with family, I would see glimpses of that young woman who aspired to be a model—and had her aunts and uncles drive her to modeling classes. As I would watch my mother tidying up the house, I would see glimpses of that young woman who would babysit her cousins and clean up their house solely for the sheer joy of seeing things tidy. As my mother showed me the ills of addiction, I would see glimpses of that young woman who wanted so much to be a nurse so that she could care for and look after others. I would see that young woman, every now and then, through these small actions that my mother would take—and I loved her for that.

And above all, my mother knew Christ and trusted in Him. And I know that she is now with Him in a state of peace—no longer afflicted by the demons of this world—no longer consumed by its cloudiness. You know, I heard once—mostly through rumors—that when people enter heaven, they tend to look like their younger selves. I do not know how much I trust such an idea, but I believe I do trust the symbolism behind it: a symbol of purity and innocence that reveals that we as believers are able to see each other as our greatest selves when we are once again with our Heavenly Father.

I believe that such an idea is close to the truth because I also believe that when my time comes—when I, too, am with my Savior—I will also be with my mother again, and I will be able to not only see her but also that loving and caring young woman—no longer in glimpses, but in a full, bright, and beautiful image—to whom I will say, “Joanie! Mom! There you are! I knew you were there that whole time—and I love you for that.”

Adoption, the Children of God, and the Spirit of Supererogation

Adoption, the Children of God, and the Spirit of Supererogation

Jeffrey R. Dickson

The Bible illustrates the wonder of redemption in many captivating ways—all of which demonstrate the goodness of a loving God. One analogy that has become especially meaningful to my family is that of adoption. The apostle Paul writes,

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent for the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal. 4:4-7)

Recently our family adopted a beautiful little girl and this process has provided us with a new appreciation for what God has accomplished for sinners. This growing admiration for what Christ has completed for the lost has come by means of several parallels that might be drawn between our family’s personal adoption story and Jesus’ program of redemption. To be sure, any comparison between Christ’s salvific work and my family’s experience should not be taken as a suggestion of congruency between the two. However, several similarities do exist that elucidate the heart of spiritual adoption, something of the abundance of God’s grace, and its implications for the believer.

First, my wife and I were under no obligation to adopt. In fact, prior to our newest addition we already had three children of our own. Though we tragically lost our third child (a son) a couple years ago, the only motivating factor behind our desire to adopt a new baby stemmed from a deep and mysterious yearning to show love to another child. Similarly, God was not obligated to redeem lost sinners in a way that would bring them into his family. As God is perfect and (as the passage above intimates) exists in triune community, there is no insufficiency, loneliness, or incompleteness that adopting sinners could possibly satisfy. Instead, it is his mysterious desire to share love, particularly for his Son, with others that motivates him to grow his family. If supererogation is defined as the performance of a work or activity that transcends what duty or obligation requires, God’s spiritual adoption of the sinner is supererogatory in excelsis and par excellence. (Admittedly, some would argue that God himself has no duties, in which case he can’t go beyond his duties, since he doesn’t have any; even if so, though, there’s something of the spirit of the supererogatory at play here in God’s unspeakable grace. Language of duties alone is inadequate to the task of capturing God’s great love.)

That God’s grace is beyond explication in terms of duties alone in adopting anyone manifests in several additional parallels that can be drawn between our family’s experience and the experience of redeemed sinners everywhere. For instance, the offer of adoption is not always reciprocated. For my wife and me, the process of being matched with a birth mother involved sharing our carefully crafted profile with several potential women. Five of these women passed us over for someone else in spite of what we believed was a fairly attractive and convincing presentation. Though we thought we had produced a convincing appeal to raise their biological children, they decided to choose another family. In the same way, Christ’s offer of adoption into the family of God is not always accepted either. This is especially curious given all the convincing proofs of his ministry (as witnessed, for instance, in the compelling case for the historicity of his resurrection), his glory (as seen in the beauty and design found in creation), and his goodness (as evidenced in common grace throughout the world and moral tendencies within the human person). In fact, God’s case for adoption includes the most compelling profile of all, rendering the proposition of passing it over for something/someone else especially grievous and tragic.

Adoption also comes at an unusually high price, often requiring great sacrifice. This was true in the life of our family as we counted the cost and sacrificed plans and pleasures to satisfy what was required to bring our girl home. Added to legal costs were traveling fees and other accommodations as we were made to go a long distance and remain a couple of weeks before being reunited with our older children. Even further, there were multiple hoops through which we were made to jump in order to bring our adoption to finalization. However, what was true in a financial, emotional, geographic, and legal sense for our family is even truer of Christ who, in providing for the adoption of sinners, was required to pay the ultimate price—his life. Not only that, but Christ traveled much farther in his efforts to arrange for sinners to be invited into the family of God and ripped through far more red tape.

. . .although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5b-8)

This passage highlights not only the special and sacrificial barriers Jesus crossed, but also demonstrates the myriad of hoops he jumped through, as it were, in order to pave the way for the spiritual adoption of the redeemed.

Finally, for our family (and most others who adopt children), our new baby girl will not be considered a second-class child nor will she even be introduced as “my adopted daughter.” We consider her as much ours as our other children and her status as one of ours will never change. She has become another member of our family in every way for as long as God leaves us on the earth. In fact, she stands to inherit a portion of what little my wife and I may leave behind along with our other kids. Similarly, God’s adopted children are called “sons and daughters of God” in every meaningful sense. Their legitimacy as children in God’s family is further confirmed by the inheritance they will one day share—“therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7). This would have proven especially meaningful to the first century reader as most adoptees were adult males and the reason for adoption was usually to pass on one’s inheritance [Hugh Lindsey, Adoption in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 25, 28]. Finally, their status as one of God’s children is permanent as Jesus says, “and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29). Again, first century readers would have no doubt appreciated the connotation of permanence associated with adoption as under Roman law a man could never disinherit an adopted son but could more easily put away a naturally-born child [Ramsay, A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 353)].  

Perhaps this is why the adoption image is utilized in the scriptures to speak of Christ’s redemptive work, for, in it, the unspeakably gracious nature of God is on full display, the high cost of Christ is in full view, and something of the permanence of the familial relationship that is forged as a result is adequately celebrated. All of these considerations demonstrate, among other things, the desperately helpless state of the adoptee (lost sinners) and something of the overwhelming benevolence of the adopter (the Lord God). Much as our little girl was helpless, if left unto herself, to enter a good home, so too are lost sinners without a relationship with Christ. That said, praise be to God that he arranged a program for adoption, provided for its cost in the giving of his Son, and paved the way for full and final inclusion in the family of God.


Jeff Dickson.JPG

Jeffrey Dickson, PhD studied Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University where he now serves as an adjunct professor of Bible and theology. Dr. Dickson is also the senior pastor of Crystal Spring Baptist Church in Roanoke VA where he lives with his wife Brianna and their children.

 

Can We Know Anything about the Historical Jesus?

Can We Know Anything about the Historical Jesus?

Yes, and It’s Much More Than You Think

Brian G. Chilton

In 2000, I made the difficult decision to step away from my faith. I entered into what I call theistic-leaning agnosticism, one step removed from pantheism. I believed that some kind of God could possibly exist. However, I didn’t know that a person could know if that God really did exist and most certainly could not know anything about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. These doubts were brought on the claims of the Jesus Seminar who held that less than 14% of the sayings attributed to Jesus were actually his own. The Seminar claimed that the rest of the sayings were inventions from the apostles. Couple the Seminar with PBS’s show From Jesus to Christ which claimed that the Christ of faith evolved over time from the Jesus of history, then one could see why I needed some serious answers. When I asked Christian leaders about how I could know if Jesus was accurately portrayed in the Gospels, I was met with scorn and hostility. Add to that the nepotistic hypocrisy I often saw, then stepping away from the faith was pretty easy.

            However, everything changed in 2005. I was introduced to the writings of Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, and Gary Habermas. This past week, my journey came full circle. I had the honor to have one of my apologetic heroes, Gary Habermas, once again as a professor. The class investigated the New Testament creeds which is the material in the New Testament that predates the New Testament writings. It is thought even by skeptical scholars that many of these creeds date to no later than 35 AD when Paul met Peter and James in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-20). The NT creeds tell us much about the historical Jesus because this information is located at ground zero. The creeds tell us about the message of the earliest church which in turn came from the historical Jesus of Nazareth. So, what can we know about the historical Jesus of Nazareth from these creeds?

 

Creeds Tell Us about the Nature of the Historical Jesus. As fascinating as it is, the creeds provide us with high Christology. In fact, the earliest church had the highest Christology. This decimates the claims that the church evolved the nature of Jesus from a prophet to a divine God-man over time. For instance, consider the Philippians hymn. The Philippians hymn notes that Christ Jesus “existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity” (Php. 2:6-7a, CSB). The sermon summaries of Acts, all thought to be extremely early, denote the deity of Jesus as one who “has been exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33, CSB). Don’t forget about the Colossians creed where Christ is said to be the “invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col. 1:15, CSB and see following Col. 1:16-20). One may say, “Okay, but this shows the church’s theology, not the historical Jesus of Nazareth.” In response, one must note that there is no historical presence of evolutionary development, not even legendary development. The earliest church held an extremely high view of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus of Nazareth must have taught something about his divine nature, backing them up with miraculous works.

 

Creeds Tell Us about the Life of the Historical Jesus. While the majority of the creeds focus on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, the creeds do provide details pertaining to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The creeds note that Jesus was born a descendent of David (Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3). Jesus was noted to have been a Nazarene (Acts 2:22; 4:10; 5:38). Jesus of Nazareth performed numerous miracles (Acts 2:22; 10:38) and fulfilled several Messianic prophecies (Acts 2:25-31; 3:21-25; 4:11; 10:43). From the creeds, the researcher begins to see a similar pattern of Jesus of Nazareth’s life that is portrayed in the biblical narratives concerning him.

 

Creeds Tell Us about the Death and Resurrection of the Historical Jesus. The majority of the creeds are based around the earliest kerygma of the church—that is, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Most notably, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 denotes the resurrection appearances of Jesus, even stating that 500 people witnessed the risen Jesus at one time (1 Cor. 15:6). The sermon summaries of Acts also provide the same formula in that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. The Acts 13 sermon summary even gives a nod to the empty tomb. For Paul’s early message stated that “When they had carried out all that had been written about him, they took him down from the tree and put him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and he appeared for many days to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people” (Acts 13:29-31, CSB). The creeds denote the numerous witnesses who saw the risen Jesus. They sometimes provide details that other sources do not, such as Simon Peter’s private interaction with the risen Jesus (Lk. 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5) and James’ private meeting with the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7).

 

The early creeds are impressive in what they tell us about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Some will skeptically hold that since the creeds speak of the miraculous and the divine that they must be thrown out. However, such attitudes show more of an anti-supernatural bias than they do a quest for historical truth. At the very least, these early creeds tell us what the earliest church believed about Jesus. At the most, the early creeds give a fascinating description of whom Jesus was, is, and forever will be. The creeds tell the life-changing truth that Jesus is risen. Will you allow this truth to transform you?

 

Brian G. Chilton is the founder of BellatorChristi.com and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University and is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Brian has been in the ministry for close to 20 years and serves as the Senior Pastor of Westfield Baptist Church in northwestern North Carolina.

 

© 2019. BellatorChristi.com.

Be a Zombie for Christ!

Be a Zombie for Christ!

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

          O. K., I have your attention.  What could the guy be thinking.?  Isn’t a zombie a dead person inhabited by some alien life form?  Well, the idea of a Christian application of this bizarre concept came right from the Apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  And further, “. . .  if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:10-11).

          Let’s think a few minutes about the implications of this jarring metaphor of Christian “zombies.”  None of us would desire to become like the zombies in movies, who move about mindlessly, controlled by an inhabiting animation or by some magical power.  But in reality, unless we have accepted Christ as Lord, we are in a similar state of being, for we are governed by what Paul calls “the flesh,” by which he means not just the meat that covers our bones, but our fatal attraction to putting our slowly dying bodies in the driver’s seat of our lives.  We are urged by Jesus not to invest in that which is temporary, but in that which is eternal (see Matt. 6:25-34).  If we hold on inordinately to these decaying bodies we live in, we submit to a truly terrifying kind of zombieism, which Paul describes in more detail. 

In our natural condition, Paul says, we are “dead in [our] trespasses” (Col. 2:13).  “For while we [are] living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, [are] at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Rom. 5:5).  But does not God’s law direct us how to live for Him in moral perfection?   How then can it be the source of our being controlled by sin?  Because in trying to keep that Law perfectly, we find ourselves in a battle that is unwinnable using only our natural resources:

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (Rom. 7:13-17)

We are not fully aware of the horrors of this captivity until we have been “crucified with Christ” and thereby delivered from our sinful slavery to these dying carcasses.  “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).   

Here is a kind of take-over of our bodies that we can embrace just as a captive rejoices at being delivered from prison.  What a scandal it would be if we were to act as if we were still incarcerated after being freed from jail.  Rather, we are told,

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.  (Rom 6:12-14)

Or, as Paul sums it up in Romans 8:2, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

          Far from being a threat to our welfare, being a “zombie” for Christ offers us freedom from the “death in life” that we are born into as fallen creatures.  If we are to be taken over by an outside force, much better to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit than by the decaying spirit of the flesh.

 

 

 

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.)

On Sin as a Corruption of Language

On Sin as a Corruption of Language

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

 

          From the beginning of creation, God manifested Himself as a user of language, One Who spoke things into being and then named them.  Each act of creation was a result of His Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  His next act was to separate the light from the darkness, and to name them, Night and Day (1:4-5).  God continued this process for the next five days of creation, speaking into existence the Heavens, the Earth, and the Seas and giving them their generic names.  In the process of creating plant and animal life, God designed each species to reproduce “according to their kind,” thus giving each of them unique characteristics that enabled them to be identified by name.  Finally, on the sixth day of creation, God had a conversation with Himself (i.e., between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit): “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).  Thereby, the pinnacle of creation, human beings, were to be sentient, aware of themselves and of God, and, unlike the beasts of the field, capable of speech.

          The first man, Adam, was given mastery over all the rest of God’s creation, and a part of that responsibility was to name the various animals (Gen. 2:19-20).  In doing so, he manifested a key characteristic of his bearing the image of God; that is, he used language to define what had already been created, as God did for the Earth and the Seas and the Heavens.  It was also by verbal commands that God informed Adam of his responsibilities and warned him against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16-17).  In the unfallen state of the original creation, language was an emanation of the nature of God, with a direct, unambiguous, perfect relationship between speech and the referents of speech.  There was no need for symbol or metaphor.  God spoke and material things came forth exactly as He spoke them.  Adam named the animals and that was their distinctive nomination.  God gave His commands to Adam and Eve, and His words were fully comprehended and happily followed.  Truth reigned in creation and gave perfect balance and coherence to the new world that God had pronounced good (Gen. 1:31).

          All was well until by Satan’s power a lying serpent was introduced into the Garden of Eden.  With his deceptive speech, he tempted Eve.  “He said to the woman, ’Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the Garden”?’” (Gen. 3:1b).  When the woman replied that God forbade only eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Serpent made a direct assault on the veracity of the Word of God, so that the woman accepted the Serpent’s word rather than God’s Word.  Satan used corrupted, lying speech to sow doubt about God’s perfectly truthful speech.  After she had eaten the forbidden fruit, Eve in turn persuaded Adam to partake of the fruit as well.  As Eve was condemned for listening to the Serpent rather than to God, so was Adam condemned for listening to his wife rather than to God (Gen. 3:17).  As a result, humankind’s communion with God was broken because they accepted the perverted language of their evil Adversary rather than God’s truth.

          It is significant that from then on, sin was compounded by the failing of humans to listen to, believe, and obey the Word of God, and by the continued corruption of language through lying.  Cain ended up slaying his brother Abel because he would not listen to God’s warning against being angry with him (Gen. 4:6-7).  Cain “spoke to his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8) and lured him into the isolation of the field so that he could kill him there.  Mankind became increasingly evil afterward, leading to God’s sending a flood to drown all the sentient life He had created except for Noah, his family, and selected animals.  Several generations after Noah, mankind pridefully used their unity of language to raise an idolatrous tower to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).  In response, God went down and confused their language, “so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7).

          What follows in the Old Testament is the sordid account of God’s Word being rejected, even when He issued it in great detail in the form of the Law issued to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  It is significant that two of the Ten Commandments explicitly address sins of the tongue (taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness); in addition, implicit in honoring one’s parents is the obligation to listen respectfully to their words and not to speak ill of them (see Mark 7:10). Throughout the O. T. books of poetry and the Prophets, false speech is at the root of people’s rebellion against God.

A good number of the Proverbs inveigh against sins of the tongue, such as “crooked speech,” and “devious talk” (Prov. 4:23-24).  Another proverb points out that

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:19-21).  The prophets also regularly detail sins of speech among the wicked acts of the people.  Isaiah excoriates those who tell such blatant lies that it’s like turning things on their head and despising the Word of God.

 

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! . . .  Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 5:20-24)

 

          Jesus warned in his teaching that sinful speech is at the root of alienation from God and is subject to His judgment.          

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.   (Matt. 12:34-37)

The epistle of James makes even more graphic the peril of the tongue as an untamable source of evil:

6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

 

When God finally sent the remedy for all of this sinful disease into the world, His Son Jesus Christ, He was described as the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  

(Jn. 1:1-4, 14)

 

“The Word became flesh.”  The Word that created the world in the first place--the essential and pure language of God if you will—brought light and salvation to the fallen creation that was corrupted by humans listening to the wrong word.  Only by this supreme and ultimate sacrifice could the consequences of thousands of years of corrupted hearing and perverted speech be eradicated.

          The book of Revelation presents a picture of perfectly restored language in the Kingdom of God.  The book begins with messages from God the Spirit to seven churches (chapters 2 and 3); each message is introduced by the phrase “the words of” and ends with “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  Chapters 4 and 5 depict the words and songs of praises to “him who is seated on the throne” (4:9) and to “the Lamb who was slain” (5:12).  After a cascade of catastrophes to be brought by God on a wicked earth (chapters 6-18), we are ushered into the concluding chapters of Revelation in which God’s original purposes for the world He created are finally brought to fruition.  Chapter 19 begins with more words of praise to God and preparation for the great wedding feast between the Lamb and His bride, the Church, those have been faithful to their redemption by the blood of the Lamb.  But the Lamb of God is also a conqueror, and He is depicted in Rev. 19:11ff as the righteous Judge who makes war.  We know this is the Son of God who lived, died, and conquered death, because His unique name is “the Word of God” (19:13).

          We do well to remember the power of words for good and ill, and to realize that the gift of language we take for granted is God’s tool for communicating His will and our tool for spreading His Word about that will.  We even have the power to share in God’s creative power of words by shaping language into beautiful poetry or narratives of history or imaginative fiction.  In a practical way, we use language to share our understanding of God and the world He created.  But like all gifts from God, language can be used responsibly only when sanctified by His Spirit.  Like Isaiah when he saw God and heard His command to speak to the people (Is. 6:1-7), we are “of unclean lips” and are in need of an application of God’s purifying fire to our lips so that we may speak not merely our words, but His.  Our enablement is incomplete now, but we have the hope of being eternally in the presence of the Very Word Himself.

 


Elton_Higgs.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.)

         

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.)

Holy Fear

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant  by  Benjamin West , 1800

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant by Benjamin West, 1800

In Christian Bible classes we sometimes hear people discuss the meaning of the biblical admonition, predominantly found in the Old Testament, to “fear God.”  Does not the New Testament present God as our loving Father, whom we are privileged to address familiarly as “Papa”?  But the Old Testament clearly sees fearing God in a different light.  The “Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, for example, sums up his treatise by asserting that we are to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14 [ESV]).  But in the New Testament, disciples are frequently told not to fear, and in I John 4:18 we have a radical negation of fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  How do we get from the O.T. fear based on God’s judgment to the N.T. saying that Christians (the new Israel) should have no fear of judgment?  The fear of God still has its place in the N.T., but it is a fear embedded in the fact that Jesus Christ has bridged the gap for us between the austere fear of God and the joyful trembling that comes from being in the Presence of an awesome, loving, and gentle Father who accepts us as brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus.

Those under the Old Covenant were acutely aware that to be in God’s Presence was dangerous because of His perfect holiness and His fearsome judgment on human sin.  Three passages from chapters 6 and 8 of Isaiah and chapter 33 of Exodus illustrate this reaction, even in men who were being called by God.  In Isaiah’s vision of God “high and lifted up” in all His glory and holiness; the prophet’s immediate reaction is fear that he is going to die because he has “seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5).  Even though he is a prophet of God, he is terrifyingly aware of his sinfulness, and in order for his life to be preserved and for the conversation with God to continue, Isaiah has to be purified (depicted figuratively by the application of a burning coal from the Temple altar to his lips), so that his “guilt is taken away, and [his] sin atoned for” (v.7).  Moses has a similar experience (Ex. 33:18-23) when he asks God, “Show me your glory” (v. 18); whereupon God allows him only a glimpse of His back, and even that could be granted only with God’s protective hand covering Moses, for “man shall not see me and live.”  Human beings do well to fear the Presence of God, for the fiery holiness of that Presence will consume them unless God Himself offers protection.

          The transition between the O.T. fear of God’s judgment and the N.T. casting out of fear by Love is provided by the visitation upon the sinless Lamb of God of all the wrath of the Father deserved by rebellious mankind.  With God’s judgment satisfied, we can be empowered to serve and obey Him without the fear engendered by our sinfulness.   As Paul expresses it, when we accepted the liberating blood of Christ, we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but . . . received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"  Thereby we have the liberty to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).  As Paul points out in Gal. 3, the final deliverance of mankind from sin was not to be accomplished through obedience to the Law, as necessary as that obedience was.  As he concludes in that chapter, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:24-26).  God’s love, fully manifested toward humankind by the sacrifice of His Son, is the instrument for transmuting human fear into effective fear of God. 

And so we come back to the statement in I John that “perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (I Jn. 4:18).  What a glorious privilege is granted to us who live under the New Covenant, that we may glory in standing before God without fear of punishment for our sins.  Although we no longer tremble in physical terror as Moses and the people did when they encountered the fiery Presence of God at Mt. Sinai, we are nevertheless admonished to approach Him in Mt. Zion, the Heavenly Jerusalem, “with holy fear and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb.12:28-29, NLT).  We still need the protective covering of the blood of Jesus to keep from being consumed by the Fire of God’s judgment.  Thus we are able under the New Covenant to fear God perfectly and joyfully.


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.)

         

 

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.)

Book Review: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

Introduction

In this review I summarize and engage What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (hereafter, WIM) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.[1] Here are a few general comments before I present a more focused discussion below. First, I found the book immensely helpful as a logical argument in service of an apologetic for the traditional view of marriage (hereafter, TVM), even though it was tough reading at times simply because of the design of the work as a legal brief. The challenge was not that the book is unnavigable due to a lack of clarity or poor writing quality, but that I had to stretch my mind to think in the closely argued and sometimes tedious manner of legal parlance, though I did find the stretch quite enjoyable once I adjusted my expectations. Further, I had to remind myself (and a classmate!) that this book was not intended to provide a biblical or theological argument in favor of TVM, at least not explicitly, though the authors certainly provide implicit arguments for the value of general revelation and natural theology, which are both part of the Christian message. So, the apologetic benefit was primarily the role it serves in bolstering the traditional view of marriage through philosophical argumentation without appeals to special revelation. The book is nothing short of impressive simply as an example of the giftedness of the authors, especially Girgis, whose work on the book and in other contexts related to the TVM discussion reminds me that apologists come from varied backgrounds and sometimes appear in cultural and intellectual contexts that some in the church are tempted to conclude are territories long ago lost to the enemy. I have in mind here Girgis’ academic circumstances at Yale and Princeton, neither one a bastion of Christian orthodoxy or cultural conservatism, and yet, there he is defending the TVM.

Summary and Engagement

The authors begin by stating that, “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage. It is not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is.”[2] Given the timing of the book’s release (pre-2015 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States), I find something poignant about these words, especially since most of my experience as a pastor regarding the TVM debate has centered more on homosexuality and less on marriage. Only now have I and other Christian leaders realized we may have had our guns trained on the wrong target, missing the opportunity to focus on marriage and make a positive apologetic argument about it because it was too easy to pick-off the low-hanging fruit of homosexuality through a negative apologetic engagement with the more extreme advocates of same-sex relationships. It appears the enemy’s diversion was somewhat successful, especially as the Christian army now scrambles to reorient itself to the new realities it faces amid its waning influence on Western culture. Not that I have lost hope, but the task before us is daunting and fraught with difficulty, which makes WIM’s insight about the need to focus on the nature of marriage all the more pertinent.

            Thus, to help focus the discussion on marriage, the authors distinguish between two views of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist view. The conjugal view “is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.”[3] The revisionist view offers “a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.”[4]

            There are at least two striking differences between these views. First, the revisionist approach to marriage—though sharing with the conjugal view an emphasis on the place of a loving bond within marriage—reduces to something that is ultimately subjective and impermanent, based on an emotional fulfillment that is sometimes ephemeral and at least given to wax and wane according to the challenges faced by the couple. Second, whereas the conjugal view implicitly entails a heterosexual understanding of marriage based on its emphasis on bodily union and family sharing, the revisionist view does not require any specific expression of human sexuality since the focus of the marriage becomes emotional fulfillment and nothing specifically procreative.

            These differences in understanding what marriage is provide the opening that advocates of same-sex relationships took advantage of in making their case for gay marriage by reducing the discussion to something that is both real and helpful for a relationship, i.e., the emotional bond, and around which a rallying cry was easy to develop: Who are you to tell me who I can and cannot love? The approach worked and an entire cultural norm has been changed, making sexuality and gender fluid constructs of little consequence in the rush to defend the value of emotional bonds as the locus of the marriage definition. As the authors of WIM labor to make clear, the problem is that the revisionist view introduces an intractable instability into its new definition of marriage. When emotional fulfillment becomes the determiner of permanence there is nothing permanent about marriage—feelings change, and relationships begin and end accordingly.

            The outcome, and one that becomes more obvious as the societal implications of the revisionist view work their way into everyday life, is that “any remaining restrictions on marriage [become] arbitrary” and “genuine marital union” is lost along with the culture dependent upon it.[5] At this intersection of culture and the revisionist view of marriage there are a number of pernicious implications, and this is where I find what I think is one of the most compelling aspects of WIM’s argument. The authors identify several outcomes from the revisionist view of marriage: spousal well-being declines; child well-being declines; the possibility diminishes for substantive friendships between those of the same gender; religious liberty is infringed for those holding the conjugal view of marriage; and the state’s role expands to intrusive levels.[6]

            There is a sense of clarity and foreboding that build as the authors make their case across the seven chapters of WIM: clarity regarding exactly what marriage is and what the revisionist view entails, and foreboding regarding the seeds of destruction sown by the revisionist redefinition of marriage adopted by the Supreme Court in the years following the publication of WIM. The authors make a penetrating and prescient statement in their concluding chapter, explaining that “there is no neutral marriage policy.”[7] Nor is there anything neutral about the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, and this is the point of WIM—marriage is not some inconsequential ad hoc societal construct that one may take or leave based on preferences. “Almost every culture in every time and place has had some institution that resembles what we know as marriage…. Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.”[8]

Relevance for Apologetics

At this point I would like to highlight that the Christian apologist can learn a few valuable lessons about apologetics from WIM’s approach. First, regarding apologetic methodology, what WIM’s authors provide is a cumulative case approach to the discussion of same-sex marriage. Notice how their case builds based on clear definitions, well-thought out implications, and appeals derived from the positive and negative conclusions warranted by the discussion. Rather than a merely deductive approach, there is a certain appeal in the abductive build-out of the argument for the conjugal view of marriage; a certain let-this-sink-in-for-a-moment momentum that has a potentially powerful epistemic effect on all sides of the discussion. Christians concerned about this topic would do well to follow this pattern, especially in our increasingly affect-driven, truth-claim-suspicious culture.

            Second, by delineating the negative effects resulting from the revisionist view, the authors of WIM heed the biblical command to “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:5) as they expose the unavoidable outcome of redefining marriage according to emotional fulfillment.[9] This aspect of the argument pairs nicely with WIM’s positive articulation of the conjugal view and its definition of marriage as “a comprehensive union of persons.”[10] In this regard the authors of WIM also obey the Bible’s command “do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), as they make their strong case for the conjugal view. Thus, there is a certain apologetic flow to the presentation in WIM, moving from challenging the revisionist view by articulating the conjugal view, and then teasing out the implication of the revisionist view for individuals and culture.

             Third, and this is more of an ecclesial and less apologetic observation, as Girgis explains in a presentation to church leaders about the topic of same-sex marriage, the church has the answer that the revisionist definition seeks to address.[11] The church is the community in which meaningful emotional bonds can and should be formed, and the church has a special calling to those who think they can only find this type of relationship in same-sex marriage. It is the church that gives special significance to the ultimate and mystical meaning of marriage as an eternal bond between Christ and his bride, and it is within the context of the church that all other relationships have a place that is also ultimate and mystical, though marriage need not be redefined for these relationships to be enjoyed.

Conclusion

Sadly, since the publication of WIM, the revisionist view of marriage has won the day in the United States and the implications are staggering. Ironically, the very ones most concerned to see their welfare affirmed and their relationship freedoms enshrined will only continue to find that they are attempting to fetch water from a dried-up well. Thus, the views of the authors of WIM are as important now as ever, and the conjugal view of marriage can and should be explained, defended, and sought to be restored to the culture so dependent upon it. God, help us.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.


Notes


[1] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2012), Kindle.

[2] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 70.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 78.

[5] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 162-169.

[6] Ibid., Kindle location 162-193.

[7] Ibid., Kindle location 1369.

[8] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 1411-1419.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).

[10] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 371.

[11] Sherif Girgis, “Better together: Marriage and the Common Good,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, podcast audio, August 23, 2016, https://erlc.com/resource-library/erlc-podcast-episodes/better-together-marriage-and-the-common-good.

Cardio-Circumcision

          We are used to seeing various kinds of body piercings and skin adornments displayed in public, but have you ever seen anyone with circumcised lips?  Or circumcised ears?  Probably not, since we have trouble even visualizing what such physical alterations would look like.  The source of this terminology comes from Scripture (Ex. 6:12; Jer. 6:10), but it is obviously intended to be interpreted metaphorically, along with the often-repeated references to circumcision of the heart (e.g., Deut. 5:16).   This turning of circumcision into metaphor is bold, even a bit shocking, but it is a revealing instance of using physical reality as a bridge to spiritual truth. 

Like any metaphor, figurative circumcision is rooted in physical circumcision.  Although the practice of excising the male foreskin, particularly for newborn infants, is now a common medical procedure, its religious significance has its origin in God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, first instituted by God as a sign of His Covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14) and later reinforced under Mosaic Law (Josh. 5:2-6). Since the ritual inherently applies only to males, the question arises as to how it signifies God’s Covenant with all His people, male and female.  I would suggest that seating this procedure in the male reproductive organ carries significance in two ways.  First, in the patriarchal society of ancient Jews, men bore the primary responsibility for seeing that the meaning of the Covenant was passed on to the next generation; the circumcision of their male sons at eight days old was a commitment to teach those sons what it means to serve God.  Second, circumcision of the foreskin betokens a dedicated channeling of male libido under the Lord’s discipline.  The man is not free merely to pursue his own lust, but is to dedicate this intimate part of himself to honoring God, through marital fidelity and self-control, thus assuring the perpetuation of a pure line of God’s Chosen People.  So we see that the rite of circumcision betokened much more than the physical marking that took place in infancy.

Scripture actually places more emphasis on circumcision of the heart than on physical circumcision.  Even in the Old Testament, where physical circumcision is required, there are more references to inner circumcision than to physical circumcision.  Circumcision of the heart, as presented to the children of Abraham, involves above all submission to God’s will and obedience to His commandments.  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” Moses tells the Israelites in Deut. 10:16.  He also tells them that “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).  What begins as a command for outward obedience to God’s law ends up as a challenge to go beyond the outward process of being physically marked for the Covenant to being spiritually marked by the Covenant.

Under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the requirement of circumcision was laid aside, along with the rest of the ritual laws about animal sacrifice and Temple worship.  Nevertheless, some Jewish Christians from among the Pharisees insisted that circumcision was still necessary for those accepting Christ and the New Covenant.  This issue came to a head in the Jerusalem Conference of all the Apostles and leaders of the church (see Acts 15:1 ff.), at which it was determined not only that circumcision was not required of uncircumcised Gentiles who became Christians, but that the core of the New Covenant was salvation by grace, not by meritorious works of law-keeping.  Peter testified how God had shown him that the Good News was as much for the Gentiles as for the Jews, and God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15: 9-11).

Thus, under the New Covenant of salvation by grace, not only was circumcision not required, but it actually became a stumbling block to new Christians, for it came to represent a dangerous emphasis on salvation by works.  Paul thundered against this heresy in his writings, as in Gal. 5:1-6:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. 

Nevertheless, the figurative, deeper meaning of circumcision is still very much in evidence in the New Testament, as in Col. 2:11-15:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

 

In this passage, baptism, like circumcision under the Old Covenant, marks one as a participant in the New Covenant; and though it is a physical act, it signifies and expects an inner change that equates to “circumcision of the heart.”

          We conclude, then, that even a God-ordered ritual has no spiritual value within itself; it becomes significant only when it represents, and results in, an ongoing ordering of the mind and heart toward God.  The Lord wants to make His mark not just in our bodies, but in our souls.  The command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” is still relevant.

 


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.)

 

           

 

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.)

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

A Twilight Musing

 

          A while back a friend who spends part of each year in France responded to some great difficulties I was having with the French word of encouragement, “Courage” (pronounced “koorage,” as in “garage,” accent on the last syllable).  Recently I found that a similar sentiment (“take heart,” or “be of good courage”) is prominent in the Bible, and I would like to consider the theological significance of the idea behind those phrases.

          In the Old Testament we find exhortations to the people to “Be strong and courageous” (Deut. 31:6, Josh. 1:8) and to “take courage” (II Chron. 15:7-8) in going about what God has told them to do.  In the New Testament, Jesus Himself several times encouraged those to whom He was ministering to “take heart” because He was going to meet their need for healing or for the forgiveness of sins (or both).  In the case of the man let down through the roof by his friends (Matt. 9:2-3; see also Mk. 2 & Lk. 5), Jesus said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  When blind Bartimaeus cried out for help to the Master and Jesus responded, the blind man was told by the disciples to “take heart.  Get up; He is calling you” (Mark 10:49).  To the woman who timidly touched His garment in order to be healed, He said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22).  The point of a parable told by Jesus about a persistent widow asking a judge for justice is that his disciples “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

 Jesus established the principle that “taking heart” is an attitude of trust that God is willing and able to strengthen us and to meet our needs.  Such encouragement (you see “courage” embedded in that word?) urges boldness to replace reticence and assurance to replace doubt.  When Paul is threatened with assassination, God assures him that he will be protected: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome" (Acts 23:11).  

Paul, in turn, assures the Corinthians that we can be buoyed up even when we are experiencing bodily suffering.  His own suffering is mitigated by the assurance that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (II Cor. 4:14).  Consequently, “We do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16).  Moreover, God has “given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  So we are always of good courage. . . , for we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5:5-7).

We may wonder when we suffer hardship if we are loved by God, but the writer of Hebrews tells us (quoting from Proverbs), “Do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,  because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:5-7).   

          We can draw some helpful conclusions from all of this for our daily living. 

1.    God knows and empathizes with our struggles, and He wants to encourage us not to give up, but to persevere and be strengthened by the experience.

 

2.    God has not engineered us for failure, but for success in spiritual growth.  He calls us to Himself to experience healing and forgiveness.

 

3.    Taking heart and being of good courage consists of consciously choosing the way of faith—complete trust in the goodness of God and confidence in the future if we leave it in His hands.

 

So when we are under stress and feeling discouraged (again, that embedded word), we can remember that God admonished the fearful Israelites to be bold in going in to conquer the promised land: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh. 1:9).  And we can recall that Jesus tenderly raised a man paralyzed by his sins by saying, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2).  Strength and healing come from the courage God gives us when we need it most.

           


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.)

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.)

Urban Legends of the Old Testament: God Created Evil

God Created Evil

Isaiah 45:7

Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.

The Legendary Teaching on Isaiah 45:7

Isaiah 45:7 teaches that God is the cause of moral evil in our world. The KJV of Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the Lord who does all these things.” On his blog “Daylight Atheism,” Adam Lee refers to Isaiah 45:7 as one of “the most shocking” passages in the Bible because it reminds us that, “Evil exists because God created it.”[1] Theologians attempting to resolve the dilemma of how and why evil exists in a world under the control of an all-loving, omnipotent, and omniscient deity “can pack it in and go home now,” because this text (and others like it) inform us that evil comes directly from God.[2] Christians mistakenly believe that God is pure and holy when their own Scriptures teach the opposite.

 

Introduction and Countering the Legend

A rather simple matter of translation corrects the mistaken idea that Isaiah 45:7 views God as the source and creator of evil in the world. The majority of modern translations do not follow the KJV in translating the Hebrew word ra`ah in verse 7 as “evil” but instead offer the translation “calamity” (ESV, NAS, NET, NKJV) or “disaster” (CSB, NIV). The point of the passage then is that God brings or causes “disaster” when he acts in judgment. The blog mentioned above accuses the modern translations of attempting to soften the actual teaching of Isaiah 45:7, but the fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can refer both to moral “evil” and “disaster/calamity” is recognized in all Hebrew lexicons and easily demonstrated from the biblical text.[3] John Oswalt notes that the range of meaning for the Hebrew word ra`ah  is similar to that of the English word “bad” in that it can refer to moral evil, misfortune, or that which does not conform to a real or imagined standard.[4]      

The Old Testament prophets often made word plays based on the semantic range of ra`ah. On more than one occasion, the Lord commands the people through the prophet Jeremiah to turn from their “evil” (ra`ah) way so that he might relent from bringing upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had planned for them (cf. Jer 26:3; 36:3, 7). The word play effectively communicated how the Lord’s punishments would fit their crimes and justly correspond to the people’s actions. The same idea is found in Jonah 3:10, which states that when God saw that the Ninevites had turned from their “evil” (ra`ah) ways, he did not bring upon them the “disaster” (ra`ah) he had threatened to bring against their city.

              The translation of ra`ah as “calamity” or “disaster” in Isaiah 45:7 also makes sense in light of the message of the entire oracle found in 45:1–7. In verses 1–4, the Lord promises to raise up the pagan ruler Cyrus, the future king of Persia, and to enable him to subdue nations as a means of gaining Israel’s release from exile in Babylon. The Lord would remove every obstacle that stood in the way of Cyrus and would give to him the treasures of the peoples he conquered. Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. and issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland in 538 B.C. The Lord would accomplish his purposes through Cyrus because he is the one true God over all of history (v. 5). Yahweh’s ability to announce his plans in advance and then to carry them out would demonstrate his sovereignty and incomparability to all peoples (vv. 6-7). Verse 7 concludes the oracle with a powerful assertion of the Lord’s control over both nature and history. He is the one who created the light and darkness, and as the creator, he is also the one who uses both “success” (shalom) and “disaster” (ra`ah) in the working out of his plans within history.

The fact that ra`ah carries the meaning of “disaster” or “calamity” is further reflected by how it is contrasted here to shalom, which means “peace, health, or well-being.” As Ben Witherington explains, the text is not saying that God created good and evil, but rather that “he brings both blessing and curse, even on his own people.” [5] The Lord had brought “disaster” on his people in the judgment of exile, but he would also bring the shalom of restoration and return. Israel’s shalom would also mean “disaster” for Babylon. This understanding of Isaiah 45:7 also accords with the clear teaching of James 1:13–17 that God is not the author of evil.

Rather than attributing the origin of moral evil to God, Isaiah 45:7 instead offers a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty. Gary Smith comments, “Everything that happens in the world is connected to God’s activity, whether it appears to be good or bad. It all works together to fulfill God’s purposes, even if people do not understand or accept these things as the work of God.”[6] God is sovereign over all things but not in a mechanistic way that removes human ethical choices and responsibility. Even when the Lord “raises” or “stirs up” kings and armies to carry out his divine judgments (cf. Isa 9:11; Jer 51:1), these entities acted because of their own evil desires rather than divine compulsion and were fully culpable for their crimes (cf. Isa 10:5–14; Jer 50:29; 51:7, 33–39). In Zechariah 1:15, the Lord states that he is “fiercely angry” at the nations who had gone too far in executing punishment on his own people with whom he was only “a little angry.” The fact that God holds these nations responsible for their actions reflects that they acted on their own accord and that they exceeded God’s intentions. Terence Fretheim comments, “The exercise of divine wrath against their excessiveness shows that the nations were not puppets in the hand of God. They retained their power to make decisions and execute policies that flew in the face of the will of God.”[7]

 

By David A. Croteau, Gary Yates

Proverbs 16:4: Has God Created Wicked People to Destroy Them?

              The fact that the Hebrew word ra`ah can be translated both as “evil” and “disaster” is not only the key to a proper understanding of Isaiah 45:7, but also helps to clarify the meaning of Proverbs 16:4, another passage dealing with God’s sovereignty over humans and the world he has created. The verse reads, “The Lord has prepared everything for his purpose—even the wicked for the day of ‘disaster’ (ra`ah).” The verse does not mean that God causes wicked people to do evil things, and it is not teaching that God creates the wicked to accomplish his purposes or that he predestines them to do evil so that he might glorify himself by their destruction, as some have claimed.[8] The verse does not explain why God creates wicked people but rather states that God governs his world by making sure that deeds and consequences correspond.[9] The verb “to do” (pa`al) means “to work out, bring about, accomplish,” and most English translations reflect the idea of God working out everything “for its purpose” or “for his purpose.” The word “purpose” (ma`aneh) actually means “answer” (cf. “answer [ma`aneh] of the tongue” in v. 1), and “for its answer” actually refers to how God causes every action to the appropriate consequence as its “answer” or counterpart. God operates his world so that the wicked will ultimately experience their “day of disaster” as punishment for their deeds.[10] Even when judgment is delayed, this ultimate time or reckoning is inevitable and unavoidable. No one is exempt from judgment or accountability to God.             

              This interpretation of Proverbs 16:4 fits with the larger message of Proverbs that the path of wisdom and righteousness leads to life and blessing, while the path of folly and wickedness leads to cursing and death. This understanding also fits with the contextual focus in Proverbs 16:1–7 on how God administers justice to the righteous and the wicked. The Lord “weighs motives” to determine a person’s true nature (16:2), he will not allow the arrogant to go unpunished (16:5), and he causes others to be at peace with a righteous man (16:7).

 

Application

God’s people can trust that even when evil appears to be winning the day, the Lord remains in control and directs the course of history. If God used the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to accomplish his purposes in the ancient world, we can rest assured that God remains sovereign over the chaotic world that we live in today. Injustice, violence, terrorism, and even the threat of nuclear war will not prevent God from bringing history to its desired end when he rules over all in the new heavens and new earth. God’s sovereignty is such that he uses even the evil plans and actions of sinful humans to accomplish his purposes without in any way being the cause or source of that evil. God is not only all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and holy with no taint of evil in his character. Believers can trust that the one in charge of human history is “too pure” to even look at evil (Hab 1:13).

 


Bibliography

 

Commentaries

Oswalt, John N., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. Scholarly evangelical commentary with clear explanation of meaning of Isaiah 45:7 and why this verse does not teach that God is the creator of moral evil.

 

Websites

Witherington, Ben. “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses-Isaiah 45:7.” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/. Accessed December 20, 2016. Evangelical NT scholar provides brief explanation refuting idea that Isaiah 45:7 presents God as the creator of evil.

 

 

 


[1] Adam Lee, “Little-Bible Verses V: God Creates Evil,” January 21, 2007. Accessed December 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2007/01/little-known-bible-verses-v-god-creates-evil/

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the entries on ra`ah in BDB, 949 (categories 2 and 3); and HALOT Study Edition, 2:1262–64 (categories 4 and 5).

 

[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 204–5.

[5] Ben Witherington, “Mistranslated and Misquoted Verses—Isaiah 45:7,” February 20, 2016. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2016/02/20/mistranslated-and-misquoted-verses-isaiah-45-7/.. Accessed December 20, 2016.

 

[6] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, NAC 15B (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258.

 

[7] Terence E. Fretheim, “’I Was Only a Little Angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets,” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, ed. M. J. Chan and B. A. Strawn (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 173–74.

 

[8] John Calvin (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960, 1995], 207–8] writes on this verse: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.”

 

[9] Allen P. Ross, “Proverbs,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 6, rev. ed., ed. T. Longman and D. E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 144.

 

[10] Ibid.

9 Evidences for the Resurrection of Jesus

Resurrection_Pilon_Louvre_RF2292_MR1592_MR1593.jpg

Christianity begins with Easter. Without the resurrection, there is no Easter. According to the apostle Paul, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and our faith is in vain,” meaning that if the resurrection of Jesus never happened, then Christianity as a whole crumbles (1 Cor. 15:14).

How can we know that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened? Is our faith in Christ firmly placed and supported by evidence, or is our faith misplaced and in vain? In an effort to demonstrate that our faith is well-placed in Christ, I will share nine brief evidences for the resurrection of Jesus, each of which begins with the letter “E.”

 

1)     Early accounts. The majority of scholars believe that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in 30 A.D. The four Gospels were written within just a few decades of the death of Jesus (70-95 A.D. according to critical scholars). Most of Paul’s letters were written prior to 60 A.D. Additionally, Paul records an ancient creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which notes the appearances of Jesus to individuals and groups; this creed can be traced all the way back to within a few years of the resurrection itself (this creed dates to 30-35 A.D.).[1]

 

The sources for Jesus are remarkably early, especially in comparison to sources for other ancient historical figures. For example, consider Alexander the Great, one of the greatest leaders and military minds in ancient history. The earliest sources for Alexander are nearly 300 years after his life; the best sources (Arrian and Plutarch) are even later (400+ years after his life), yet they are still considered trustworthy. With Jesus, we have sources within 10 years of his life, and a number of other sources within 20-70 years.

 

2)     Eyewitness accounts. According to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, over 500 people saw Jesus alive, in addition to Peter, James, Paul, and the rest of the disciples. At the time Paul reported these events around 55 A.D., many of the individuals Jesus appeared to were still alive and could be interviewed (this was roughly 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

 

In addition to the people who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion, eyewitness testimony is foundational for the New Testament as a whole, with every book either being written by an eyewitness or by someone under the direction of an eyewitness. One of the greatest examples of this is 2 Peter 1:16, which reads, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”[2] In other words, Peter wasn’t just reporting news that he heard, but rather something he saw with his own eyes.

 

3)     Extra-biblical accounts. The events surrounding the resurrection of Jesus are mentioned by numerous individuals (Christians and non-Christians) from outside the New Testament. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus is referenced by more than ten ancient sources (Tacitus, Josephus, Mara-Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Talmud, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, etc.). The disciples’ experiences with the risen Jesus are reported by several extra-biblical sources as well (Josephus, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, etc.).

 

4)     Embarrassing details. When dealing with historical events, one piece of evidence that lends credibility to an account’s authenticity is the inclusion of embarrassing details. All four Gospels mention that several women were the first to find the tomb empty, which makes them the primary eyewitnesses (Mt. 28:1-8; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-10; Jn. 20:1-2). This is significant because in first century Jewish and Roman cultures, women were looked down upon by men and their testimony was frequently regarded as untrustworthy. If the writers of the Gospels were making up a story that they wanted people to believe, they would have stated that men were the first to find the tomb empty. Why didn’t they do that? Because they wanted to tell the truth (women were really the first to find the tomb empty).

 

5)     Enemy attestation. Even Jesus’ enemies didn’t deny that the tomb was empty. They had an alternative explanation for how the tomb became empty (the disciples stole Jesus’ body; Mt. 28:11-15), but they acknowledged that the tomb was empty nonetheless.[3]

 

Enemy attestation is a powerful form of testimony that involves an enemy stating something in favor of the opposing view. Enemies have nothing to gain when they do this. In the case of Jesus, the enemies of Jesus certainly didn’t have anything to gain by reporting that the tomb was empty – but they did so anyway.

 

6)     Empty tomb. There are a number of reasons to believe that the tomb was empty,[4] one of which involves its location in Jerusalem. The Romans, Jews, and Christians knew where Jesus was buried; the location of his tomb was no secret. When Christians began spreading the news (in Jerusalem) that Jesus had risen from the dead, the Romans and/or Jews could have simply removed the body of Jesus from the tomb and displayed it in order to shatter the “hoax.” However, Jesus’ body was never produced; if it was we would have certainly heard about it from the critics of Christianity, particularly the second century skeptic, Celsus, who wrote against the resurrection.

 

7)     Emergence of the church. No historian would deny that thousands of people began following the life and teachings of Jesus in the first century shortly after his “alleged resurrection” (Acts 2:41). This number continued to grow rapidly throughout the remainder of the first century (Acts 2:47). There are several extra-biblical accounts to verify the emergence of the early church (Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Suetonius, etc.). How can the sudden emergence of Christianity be explained apart from the resurrection of Jesus?

 

8)     Entirely changed lives. Prior to Jesus’ death, and for three days while he was in the grave, the disciples were skeptical and afraid (Lk. 24:21; Jn. 20:19).[5] However, after Jesus’ resurrection, the lives of the disciples were entirely different; all of them were persecuted and many were martyred as a result of their belief in the risen Christ. James (the brother of Jesus) and the apostle Paul experienced radical conversions as well. Like the disciples, James and Paul also subjected themselves to persecution and martyrdom because they were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.[6]

 

Skeptics may comment that the transformation of these individuals (the disciples, James, and Paul) is insignificant, since it is normal for people to convert from one set of beliefs to another. However, the cause of these conversions is different. People usually convert to a particular religion because they hear the message of that religion from a secondary source and believe the message. The reason for the transformations of the disciples, James, and Paul is quite different; they are the result of what they actually saw with their own eyes: the risen Jesus.

 

9)     Expected event. On numerous occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus predicted that he would die and rise again (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:21; Mk. 8:31; Lk. 9:22; Jn. 2:18-22; 10:17-18). In fact, Jesus predicted these events so frequently that his predictions actually became common knowledge (Mt. 27:62-64; 28:6). It’s one thing to make a prediction; it’s another thing to predict something that actually happens. Jesus’ predictions regarding his own death and resurrection suggest that he really is the Son of God and risen Lord.

 

Despite the amount of evidence provided above, let’s remember that the resurrection is more than a fact to be proven; it’s the culminating event in God’s redemptive plan on behalf of mankind – and it has incredible implications for our lives today. The shed blood of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead are not distant events in history, they are present realities that make it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins (Heb. 9:22), experience and enjoy an intimate relationship with God (1 Pet. 3:18), undergo radical transformation (Gal. 1:23), and carry out all that God has called us to do in our lives (Mt. 28:20). The resurrection of Jesus also gives us hope for the future – since death was not the end for Christ, we have hope that it won’t be the end for us either (1 Cor. 15:22, 35-58).

 

Happy Easter! Enjoy celebrating the risen Jesus this weekend, knowing that your faith in him is well-placed and supported by a vast amount of evidence.

“He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. Prior to his current positions, Stephen served as youth pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in State Road, North Carolina. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


 *Note: This article was a community effort; it would not appear as it currently does without the thoughtful help of several of my apologetics students at Liberty Christian Academy, including: Kaadia Preston, Drew Thomas, Olivia Jerominek, Gillian Howell, Savannah Summers, Keana Starbird, Sarah Nelson, Jackson Downey, and Hunter Krycinski.


Notes:

[1] A New Testament creed is a statement of faith that was often recited verbally by groups of early Christians, most likely when they gathered for worship in house churches. Here are a couple of modern day examples of “creeds” or statements that we are well aware of due to the number of times we have heard and repeated them ourselves: (1) secular “creed” – “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall… (Can you finish the rest of this statement?); and (2) Christian “creed” – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” (Can you finish the rest of this statement?). In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul records a creed like this – it was one that was very familiar to early Christians due to the number of times they heard and repeated it themselves. What is interesting about this creed is that it predates, or comes before, Paul recording it in 1 Corinthians in 55 A.D. Scholars actually trace this creed to 30-35 A.D.

[2] Also consider these verses, which further support the claim that eyewitness testimony is foundational to the New Testament as a whole: Luke 1:1-4; 24:44-49; John 1:6-7; 21:24-25; Acts 1:6-8; 2:23-24, 32; 3:15; 4:20, 33; 10:39-42; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 John 1:1-3.

[3] This is also referenced by the second century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr.

[4] Here are a few additional reasons to believe the tomb was empty: (1) several women found the tomb empty and told others about it – this is an embarrassing detail (see evidence 4); (2) the enemies of Jesus verified the tomb was empty and spread the news that the disciples stole his body in order to explain its emptiness (see evidence 5); (3) if the tomb wasn’t empty, then no one would have believed the disciples when they claimed the tomb was empty (see evidence 7); and (4) if the tomb wasn’t empty, the lives of the disciples wouldn’t have been transformed (see evidence 8).

[5] This is another embarrassing detail. The fact that the disciples doubted and denied Jesus is a detail that doesn’t paint the disciples in a positive light. Embarrassing details usually increase the perceived credibility of a historical source.

[6] The transformation of the disciples is referenced in several extra-biblical sources, including: Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Clement of Rome, and Pliny the Younger.

Help is Come!

Rembrandt van Rijn -  Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Rembrandt van Rijn - Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb

Reliable rumors circulate a dark lord has arisen.  He is seeking to strengthen his power.  He is annexing peaceful lands; building large armies; and manufacturing weapons at breakneck speed.  His ultimate prize is the last gold ring.  With the last gold ring his dominion will be complete.

By torturing a captive, the dark lord Sauron learns of the ring’s whereabouts.  It’s in the possession of a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.  A hobbit is a hafling – a little person of small stature and large feet.  Hobbit Bilbo Baggins dwells in a rural Shire in Middle Earth.  The dark lord Sauron dispatches wraith-riders to the Shire to seize the ring.  Oblivious to it all, the rural dwellers of Hobbiton throw a great birthday party for Bilbo.  Meanwhile, dark wraiths are riding to the Shire.

Before their arrival, a wizard galumphs down the road into Hobbiton.   In a donkey-drawn cart the wizard Gandalf comes wearing a dull, pointy, felt hat, a long grey beard and grey tunic.  He has come to help Frodo Baggins receive the ring and take it to safety.  The grey wizard comes with one motive:  to save the land from tyrannical evil. 

This story imitates the greater, true story.  We live in perilous times.   It certainly was then.  Judea was ruled by a foreign, world-empire, Rome.  There was no independence for the locals.   Disease was rampant.  ‘Doctors’ only made the ill worse.  Demonic activity was present but unrecognized.  Sin ruled personal and social relationships.  Sin wasn’t acknowledged but accepted as the way things are.  People lived in guilt.  There was little means of obtaining forgiveness.  Houses of worship were led by religious leaders interested more in themselves than God’s glory.  Death could strike at any time, even among the young. 

Though disease is moderated, the same dynamics are still present today.  Empire- building tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Muslim terrorists threaten us.  Once Christian Europe and America have lethal elements working within to expunge God from public life.  Sin is destroying the personal and social fabric of society.  Many today – even the churched – don’t recognize sin as sin.   Everyone reading this sees its effects in your lives.  Philosopher Etienne Gilson observed, ‘A world which has lost the Christian God cannot but resemble a world which had not yet found him.’  Someone please help us!  Help!! Help!!

Help has come!  A Rescuer is at hand!  A Deliverer is here!  Like the grey wizard Gandalf showing up in the village - but ten times better - ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1: 15).   Indeed, ‘the true light, the light that enlightens all, was coming into the world’ (John 1: 9) and ‘I have come as a light into the world’ Jesus says (John 12: 46).   Perk up your ears!  Hear the joyful news! Celebrate it!  Help has come!  Help is here!  ‘Ye blind behold your Savior come, and leap you lame for joy!’

Is it too good to be true?  What are the motives?  Who offers help without expecting something in return?  What’s the catch?  Is it for personal gain?  No. Jesus’ estate was a cloak for which soldiers gambled.  Was it for power?  Does the God of the universe need power?  Jesus had no institutional power.  The church hierarchy excluded him. Rome crucified him.  Was it for reputation?  For glory?  Called an illegitimate son, a false prophet and a fraud, Jesus died a criminal.  Even followers forsook him.  Don’t think so.

What’s His motive?  Love.  ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…’ and ‘to Him who loves us’ writes John.  When Jesus saw the crowds, he pitied them.  Our Helper has a heart to shepherd us lost souls through this dark world.  “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness’ (John 12: 46).   More, Jesus wants to overcome death with life.  ‘I came that they may have life…’ (John 10:10).  He does not want me a sinner to die in my sin alienated from God.  ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.

Jesus helped us by accomplishing salvation through His death on the cross.  His death removed my sin the offense standing between God and me. His death removed my offense and fulfilled my sentence.  The novel I Am David takes place seven years after World War II.  The Communists take a little boy David from his mother.  David is put into a Stalinist labor camp in Bulgaria.  An older man Johannes befriends and mentors David.  Johannes prepares David to escape from prison.  He wants him to be reunited with his mother.

One day when David is twelve, the guards force the prisoners into a line-up.  Someone had stolen a soap bar.  The authorities will flush out the offender and shoot him.  The commander began to go down the line.  Little David had stolen the soap bar.  He held it in his hands behind his back.  He didn’t know what to do.  The guard brandished a pistol ready to shoot whoever held the soap.  His mentor Johannes, standing next to David, saw David had the soap.  Johannes slipped his hand secretly over David’s and took the soap from him.  No sooner had Johannes done so then the guard discovered Johannes held the soap.  Quickly pointing his pistol he shot Johannes dead.  David was spared.  Johannes covered David’s theft.  He made David’s wrong his own and took the judgment.  But having learned from Johannes, David escaped.  David lived and was reunited with his mother.  Jesus said, ‘The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.’

You are in great danger.  You’re holding the gold ring.  The soap bar is in your hands.  Jesus has come to rescue you.  Picture Him as in Holman Hunt’s oil painting, ‘The Light of the World’.  See the figure of Jesus standing at night at your cottage door.  Holding a lantern in one hand, with the other Jesus knocks at your door.  His lamp illumines the vines growing up by your door.  Hard times have come to you.  Night is upon you.  But here Jesus is… at your door: the Light of the world, your Rescuer, your Savior, the Son of God, at your door!  The door has no handle on the outside.  Only you can open it from the inside.

“He came to his own home, but his own did not allow him to enter’.  Do not be like the passengers Seaman Leslie Morton saw in 1915 on the deck of the sinking Lusitania.  The Lusitania, the twin of the Titanic, fifteen minutes earlier was struck off the coast of Ireland by a Nazi U-boat torpedo.  The sea was filling the ship at a steady pace.  Seaman Leslie Morton lowered a lifeboat to some passengers.  Strangely, they were afraid to let go of the sinking ship.  They held tightly to the ship’s ropes and deck rails.  They more trusted the big sinking ship than the lifeboat that would save them.

Be persons who receive.  Even if you received Jesus twenty years ago, reaffirm you receive Him still.  To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives the right to be His children.  See Jesus before you…at your door… your Savior come… ready to help you…able to save you.  Let go rebellion.  Let go of yourself.  Throw yourself onto Him.  Help is come!  


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  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.

 

 

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.

Risen from the Dead? A Sample Sermon Manuscript for Apologetic Preaching

            Here is a sermon manuscript (albeit another brief one!) based on the STEPS model for apologetic preaching, as applied to positive apologetics, i.e., where the apologist focuses on reasons why someone might believe, rather than focusing on what is wrong some particular belief or religion. To help understand the “flow” of the message, the manuscript is in five parts based on the STEPS acrostic.

Specify the Apologetic Topic

            What reasons are there to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? That question may surprise some of you, since you already believe Jesus rose, and you have never felt the need to develop a list of reasons for your belief. If that describes you, then I invite you to simply listen and consider why you believe what you believe. Remember, faith involves evidence and certainty, so what you hear today can be a help in growing your faith. Plus, you never know when the Lord is going to give you the opportunity to talk with someone who is not as sure as you about Jesus’ resurrection, and you will be able to help them along after hearing this message.

            Maybe, though, you are new to the Christian faith and hunger to know more about your faith, or possibly someone has recently posed a question or objection about the resurrection that you would like to be able to answer with confidence. In either case, this message is for you, too. It’s also offered with the seeker in mind, the one who is looking for answers and thinks Christianity may be where to find them. Whoever you are and whatever your situation, let’s make a journey together and discover reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Tell the Topic’s Significance

            Before considering the biblical and rational basis for believing the resurrection occurred, consider a few of the theological and practical reasons the topic is significant. From a theological perspective the resurrection is an essential part of the gospel message. As Paul explains in 1 Cor. 15:3-4, “I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” In this passage we learn that the gospel is about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection—all three are fundamentals of the good news, but especially the resurrection. This is why Paul goes on in 15:14 and 17 to declare that “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty, and your faith is also empty…. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” Clearly, the Christian faith depends upon the resurrection.

            Likewise, the resurrection is a practical help when considering our own mortality and the death of our loved one who are Christians. Jesus’ victory over death holds a promise of future things for all who believe, since every Christian, too, will one day rise from the dead if they die before Jesus returns. Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:20, 52 and 54 are especially helpful in this regard: “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep…. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible…. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” What is the basis of this hope? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead! Death is not the final word. Resurrection is. Eternal joy is coming because Jesus rose from the dead.

Explain the Biblical and Rational Basis Concerning the Apologetic Topic

            The biblical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is plentiful. Paul’s testifies what Jesus “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over five hundred brethren at once…. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also” (1 Cor. 15:4-7). Concerning the five hundred brethren Paul describes, he explains that “the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6). Why is this significant? Only because Paul was making a public claim that many who saw Jesus after his resurrection were still alive at the time the letter to the Corinthians was written. Paul was appealing to eyewitness testimony writ large. Further, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all give accounts of the resurrection in their gospel narratives, each providing specific details about when the empty tomb was discovered, who was there, as well as accounts of the encounters they and others had with Jesus after he arose. These examples indicate there is strong biblical evidence to support Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

            What about other reasons to believe the resurrection account? Consider the historical testimony of leaders in the early church after the time of the apostles. Men like Origen, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr—sometimes referred to as Church Fathers—all testify to the resurrection of Jesus as both historical fact and having pastoral significance. Consider also the personal changes in the apostles after the resurrection, how Peter went from denying Jesus to boldly proclaiming him as the risen Lord, and how Paul went from persecutor of Christians to missionary for Jesus and defender of the resurrection. Finally, if the resurrection did not happen, they why didn’t the Jewish authorities simply produce the body of Jesus and end the early church’s growth and influence? They didn’t do so because the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. He rose from the dead, just as he promised. This isn’t all the biblical and rational evidence for the resurrection, but there is certainly much that is worthwhile in what we have considered. The evidence is in, and there is good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Practically Apply the Apologetic Topic for the Hearers

            Amid all this talk of biblical and rational evidence there are also particular practical benefits to the resurrection for each of your lives. Perhaps you are struggling with a sinful habit and you seem to always make one step forward but two steps back. As a Christian you can gain the victory because of the resurrection of Jesus. That’s right! According to Rom. 8:10-11, “if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” Without the resurrection you are powerless, but with the resurrection comes power through the Spirit. You can overcome sin in your life because Jesus rose from the dead.

            Another benefit to believing the resurrection relates to the brokenness in our world. Do you ever find yourself thinking that the news is always bad, that things just seem to get worse and worse? You are not alone, and the world is a dark place in many ways. However, because of the resurrection of Jesus there is hope that one day the world will be put to right. Concerning this hope, Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 15:22-25 are comforting: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the  first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.” These verses remind us that the resurrection of Jesus is more than a doctrine, more than a historical fact, it is the final hope for an end to suffering and the beginning of a better world.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            We started by asking about the reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. We have considered this question in several ways, including its theological and practical importance, the biblical and rational case for believing the resurrection, and how the resurrection matters in particular circumstances of our lives. I trust that you feel the weight of the evidence concerning Jesus’ resurrection, and that your faith is strengthened. If you are seeking answers, I pray you give sincere consideration to those offered here.

            As we conclude I would like to give this simple invitation. Christian, the resurrection is central to your faith. Perhaps it is time to give yourself to serious study of its reliability, asking God to give you opportunities to share the evidence for the resurrection with others. Will you do that today? Someone in your life needs to hear about the resurrection, and you are the one to tell them. What about you, the seeker who came today looking for answers? As I just stated, I pray you give sincere consideration to those offered here. Jesus died for you, and was buried and rose again, all for you. He offers to give you new life, resurrection life. Will you accept his offer today?


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

If God, Why Evil?: A Sample Sermon Manuscript for Apologetic Preaching

            Here is a sermon manuscript (albeit a brief one!) based on the STEPS model for apologetic preaching, as applied to negative apologetics, i.e., where the apologist is playing defense…seeking to remove obstacles to belief. To help understand the “flow” of the message, the manuscript is in five parts based on the STEPS acrostic.

Specify the Apologetic Challenge

            If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world? A tsunami destroys several coastal villages, sweeping entire families into the sea. A military dictator decides a neighboring people are a threat and orders his troops to kill them all in a merciless genocidal purge. A car spins out of control on a patch of black ice, crashing into a ravine and leaving a mother and her infant son dead. These are real examples of evil in the world around us, and each one brings heartache and brokenness in its wake. Such instances leave many unsure how to reconcile the existence of God and the existence of evil, and some even conclude that in a world of such pain God cannot exist.

            Maybe you agree with them and sit here today not believing in God, or at least you are not sure if God exists. You have experienced evil, and know of others who have, too, and now the idea of God seems more of a fairy tale than a reality. Surveys of religious beliefs, and specifically about whether God exists, show that you are not alone in your conclusion and questioning. Not everyone believes in God, and often the reason is related to so much evil in the world. Let’s think about this together. Does evil in the world prove that God does not exist?

Tell the Critic’s Best Argument

            Before I present what I think are good reasons to believe in the existence of God in spite of the evil in the world, I want to talk a bit more about what many atheists have argued in defense of the conclusion that evil rules out God’s existence. The atheist begins by acknowledging the presence of evil in the world. Consider, for example, what I discussed earlier. The tsunami that kills thousands; a tyrant who commits genocide by killing an entire neighboring people; the mother and child who die in a car crash—these are examples of evil in world. The tsunami and car crash represent what may be called natural evil, and the genocide is an example of moral evil.

            If God exists, the atheist continues, then surely he would be powerful enough to stop evil, both natural and moral. God is all-powerful, right? Further, if God exists, then surely he would want to stop evil. God is all-good, right? Yet, evil still exists, both in natural disasters and in the wicked choices people make. So, the atheist concludes that God is either not powerful enough to stop evil, or he is not really good, since he does not stop evil. Therefore, since evil exists, God must not exist, at least not an all-powerful and all-good God. This is especially challenging for the Christian conception of God, which considers God’s power and goodness as essential to his existence. Thus, if the atheist is right, and evil proves God is not all-power or all-good, then what of the Christian God?

Expose the Weakness of the Critic’s Argument

            But wait a minute. Before we conclude that the presence of evil in the world is proof that God does not exist, and if he does then he is weak, wicked, or both, I think there are some problems with the atheist’s argument. Let’s consider these as questions. What if God is all-powerful and all-good, but he refuses to override human free will? While we can certainly imagine a world without moral evil—without genocidal military dictators, without child molesters, without rapists—such a world would also be somehow less than human if free will were taken away and the only reason for no moral evil was because there was no human freedom. True freedom implies choices, the freedom to choose good or to choose evil.

            Further, if God does not exist, then where does the atheist get the ideas of good and evil, of right and wrong? If the atheist responds that each person must decide what is right and wrong, then possibly what the rapist does is actually right in his own way of thinking. Even if the atheist refuses to go along with such relativism, insisting that there are actual moral facts, a real and objective right and wrong, they have no ultimate standard from which to make this conclusion. Moral laws require a moral lawgiver, but the atheist does not think one exists. There are other questions to ask the atheist who believes evil and God cannot coexist, but these represent what I think are the ones especially important for now.

Present the Answer to the Apologetic Challenge

            What does the Christian faith teach about God’s existence, especially considering the presence natural and moral evil in the world? For starters, the Bible explains that God made the world and everything and everyone in it, and that when he did this he made humans as his special representatives. Genesis 1:1 declares that, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and in 1:27 that, “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” However, as the Bible goes on to reveal, the first humans chose to disobey God in the very area we are discussing—in the area of good and evil. Genesis 2:15-17 describes how “the LORD God took the man and put in in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

            Perhaps you have heard how this all turned out, how the man and woman chose to disobey God and eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how that resulted in several far-reaching consequences. These include a breakdown in human relationships and, eventually, the first murder. Likewise, the natural world became a difficult place for the man to work and live. What are we to make of this? It seems reasonable to me that the misuse of human freedom goes a long way in explaining the presence of evil in the world that God created. The account doesn’t stop here, though. No, far from abandoning the world to evil, God began redeeming it, promising one day that he “will wipe away every tear…there shall be no more death, no sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” (Rev. 21:4). Thus, it also seems reasonable to me that God will one day bring an end to all evil and, though I am not immune from its effects, that God’s existence is a key to understanding evil in the world.

Summarize and Transition to a Related Invitation

            I don’t pretend that this brief message answers every question related to the presence of evil in the world and whether God exists. There are other aspects of the topic to discuss, and you may have even deeper, more personal questions. However, what we have heard does offer a possible solution to the dilemma created by evil. Yes, evil exists. There have been and will likely be more terrible natural disasters, more evil regimes, and more fatal crashes. Natural and moral evil are part of the world we live in, and they touch all of our lives. Does the Christian faith offer a solution? Absolutely, though it is not a simple, quick fix. The Christian faith not only explains the presence of evil related to human freedom and the promise that evil will one day be fully dealt with; the Christian message is also one that includes God’s own struggle with evil. Jesus Christ was the victim of moral evil. He was murdered in a most ruthless, painful manner, even though he had done no wrong. Jesus took evil personally, dying a criminal’s death on a Roman cross, centuries ago. The Christian faith does not teach that it ended on the cross, though. Rather, as an example of how God will eventually overcome evil, Jesus rose from the dead and will return to earth someday.

            What does all this mean to you as you struggle with evil and God’s existence? Maybe it means that you have begun to consider that evil is not all there is, that God really does exist. If that is you, I hope you will continue to wrestle with these matters and let the evidence build. Talk with the person who invited you here today or talk with me after the service. There is more to know about evil and God and the hope of the Christian message. Maybe you are that person here who has decided it is time to stop doubting and start believing. The evidence makes sense. You’ve heard this message and others like it, maybe even read books and talked with others, and now you are ready to follow the evidence where it leads. It leads to Jesus, and in just a moment we will offer you an opportunity to talk with someone about taking the next step in your journey of faith.

(Next week’s article will give another sample apologetic sermon outline, one that focuses on positive apologetics.)


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.

Mailbag: The Best Progressive Arguments for the Acceptance of Homosexuality and a Traditionalist Response

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, we shared an article, “African Methodism will not bow the knee to US progressivism”, on social media. Charlie commented the following:

So, I would consider myself for this topic to be part of the aforementioned US Progressives. However, this article, while being very pointed, seems to a good job representing the African Church. 

I do have a request though, would it be possible for you guys to release an article on the, honestly, strongest argument presented the conference for the One Church Plan? I feel like they're missing the component of the opposing argument and I would really appropriate the honest response to the US Progressive camp from an evangelical perspective as opposed to an article very caught up in the political side (money, power, etc)

We asked our resident Methodist scholar, Dr. Tom Thomas, to give a reply.

Thank you very much for asking for the best arguments for the acceptance of homosexual practice, marriage and leadership in the church and an evangelical response.  That you are interested in thinking through this difficult issue by examining both the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ encourages me.  Too often today both sides of an issue are not given fair opportunity for rational interaction.  Permit me to make this proviso: our subject is way too long for a piece this short.  Nonetheless, your request is a worthy exercise.  Let us try to drill down to main arguments.  May this piece spur your study of fuller treatments.   

The determinative factor of both the progressives (those advocating acceptance of homosexual practice) and traditionalists (those advocating sexual relations only between one man and one woman in marriage) viewpoints is their take on the shared text:  Holy Scripture.  One’s assumption here is the basis of a continental divide between whether Scriptural commitments on homosexuality run east, or west!  Progressives reassure traditionalists ‘we love the Bible’ and ‘believe in its authority’.  ‘Good’, says the traditionalist, ‘but cannot one also love the United States Constitution and believe in its authority’?  Is not the paramount question whether the Holy Scripture is the God-breathed Word to human authors who unfailingly express what God desires written; or, whether it is a record of humanly, gifted people’s reflections of their experiences of God?  The traditionalist sees Scripture as God’s revelation to his people; the progressive as human revelation of God-experiences.  For the traditionalist the issue is not Scriptures’ authority but its supreme authority.  Is or is not the Bible God’s inspired, infallible word preeminent over every authority? While progressives privilege ‘the totality of human experience’ and subject all texts to it, the traditionalist submits every authority to Scriptural authority.

In assuming this, therefore, the progressives can say the debate over homosexuality is not about words in the Bible but about what the words ‘mean for us today’.    The GC 2019 Delegate newsletter of the pro-acceptance United Methodist group ‘Mainstream UMC’ says the meaning of the Bible’s words change over time.  Much of the Bible is ‘descriptive truth’ which means what was ‘true’ in former times and cultures is not ‘true’ today.   The traditionalist responds the authors’ words mean today just what they meant then, in South Korea or Kansas.  The meanings’ ‘significance’ may vary and continuing research enlightens the contexts, but what God meant to say then God means to say today.

You can see this play out in specific biblical texts (called ‘clobber texts’ because they are overwhelmingly negative regarding homosexuality) invariably at the center of the debate.    Leviticus 18: 22 (also, 20:13) states, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’  Receiving accolades for his recent theological argument for same sex covenantal partnerships, Durham University Professor Robert Song acknowledges with traditionalists that it is difficult to see any other reference here than to homosexual anal intercourse.   However, Professor Song and other progressives typically discount the force of the prohibition.  They are seen privileging contemporary experience over Scriptural authority when they argue such a law as the above was part of an Old Testament Jewish ritual, purity code fulfilled in Christ.  Like ritual, dietary laws (eating pork), they are no longer binding on Christians today.  Traditionalists in a long tradition beginning in the New Testament distinguish between Jewish purity practices which are obsolete for Christians and Old Testament moral prescriptions such as homosexuality which are not.   The New Testament renews and reinforces these moral prescriptions (not ‘descriptions’) in the manner of Jesus who said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

 A second major passage in the homosexual debate is Romans 1: 18-32. Herein the apostle Paul describes how rather than honoring God as God, persons rebelled against Him and exchanged the worship of the Creator for the creation.  This idolatry subverted the creative order God established in Genesis 1.  God constituted the nature of ‘Adam’ (Man, humankind) in His image and likeness, gender-differentiated, opposite-sex pairings, male and female.  Human revolt against God results in a dishonorable disordering of creation plainly demonstrated in males having sexual intercourse with males and females with females. Professor Robert Song basically agrees.  However, Professor Song says, the reason same-sex sex is a sin for Paul is only because it is non-procreative sex.  Procreative sex producing children is the only reason for gender differentiation.  Paul rejects homosexuality on the grounds it prevents offspring.  Professor Song declares Paul’s concern for procreative sex of two opposite genders is now superseded.  Christ’s resurrection has brought in a new, eschatological order, a new age, which reorients male-female procreative sex.  Jesus, speaking of this new age says, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage’(Luke 20: 34f).  A new vision of resurrected life makes the old age heterosexual marriage with its procreative sex obsolescent.  Resurrection life envisages a trajectory of life beyond marriage and procreative sex.  Song comments that same-sex covenantal partnerships might have been impossible for Paul and the New Testament.  Are they not now possible for us?

A traditionalist’s response is threefold.  First, the complementarity of gender differentiation of male-female pairing is not limited, as Song says, to the difference in male-female genitalia (responsible for children).  They run as deep as every cell’s sex chromosome pairings, whether xx (female) or xy (male).  The implications of gender differences of anatomy and physiology extend well beyond the necessity of procreation.  Second, Robert Gagnon, acclaimed New Testament scholar who has written exhaustively on homosexuality, notes Paul, in contrast to others of his day, recommended sexual intercourse in marriage not just for procreation but for mutual satisfaction of desire that might otherwise result in promiscuity (1 Corinthians 7: 2-5). Third, when Jesus speaks of those who ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage’, he is speaking not of the ‘in between times’ in which we Christians now live but the end of time when mortal death is no more and ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ have come.  The new creation has not transcended heterosexual, procreative sex!

Progressives submit the possibility of accepting same-sex covenantal partnerships on account of the church changing its mind over the years on such social issues as slavery, women’s issues, and divorce.  Logically speaking, this argument digresses from the moral issue at hand, homosexuality.  Further, every one of these subjects is a distinct issue which must be discussed in its own right.  The Church may be, and has been, at variance and back and forth on certain positions but God’s Word is constant in its meaning.  However, as Robert Gagnon states, where churches have moderated positions you can usually find a New Testament trajectory that has opened a countervailing possibility. Nevertheless, for instance, in regards to slavery, the New Testament never affirms slavery is a good institution.  New Testament scholar Ben Witherington shows Paul takes God’s people where they are but like Philemon, moves them to realize the Gospel’s implications and treat Onesimus as a free brother in Christ.  The early church worked to emancipate slaves but some churches in the nineteenth century did not.

Be that as it may, the Church and its theologians with roots in Old Testament teaching have never wavered, until very recent times, and always regarded the practice of homosexuality a sin. 

Progressives claim Jesus never spoke of homosexuality and the word is not even in the Bible.  They say the issue is not important to the New Testament.  Traditionalists respond Jesus reinstituted the natural, created order of marriage of Genesis as a biological, spiritual and interpersonal union of the complementary pairing of one man and one woman.  Jesus’ statement on marriage excludes the legitimacy of homosexual behavior, or, for that matter, any extra marital sex.  Indeed Jesus condemns porneia (fornication) in Matthew 15: 19 denouncing any sexual intercourse outside of the marriage covenant.  True, the actual word ‘homosexual’ is not used in the Bible (neither is the word ‘trinity’) but a rose by any other name is still a rose.  In another critical passage, 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 Paul says ‘male prostitutes (malokos), sodomites (arsenokoitai)…none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.’   Progressives assert Paul is not here condemning loving, same-sex partnerships but only homosexual prostitution.  This follows what they deem is the problem in Genesis 19 - homosexual, gang rape and not consensual, homosexual acts when the men in the town seek to have sex with the visitors in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Their contention Paul is condemning unloving, brutal homosexual acts centers on Paul’s use of two debated Greek words, malokos and arsenokoitai.  Malokos means ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ and is likely a young male posing effeminately as a woman as the passive partner to attract another male (often for prostitution).  The second word arsenokoitai is literally translated ‘men who take males to bed’ and means active, consensual partners in homosexual intercourse. When one considers Paul’s Jewish, religious culture’s aversion to homosexuality, traditionalists affirm with New Testament scholars and Robert Gagnon these two terms together comprehend every conceivable passive and active type of same-sex intercourse which Scripture altogether condemns. To summarize, Paul in 1 Corinthians 6: 9 and elsewhere with Jesus condemns all forms of sexual intercourse outside the marriage of a man and a woman.

A prominent, persistent narrative of progressive and homosexual proponents is that homosexuals are ‘born that way’.  I have no doubt homosexuals feel this way.  Professor of Medicine Emerita of the University of Kansas Dr. Barbara Lukert states ‘there is consensus among human sexuality researchers and therapists that homosexuality is unchosen and in most cases unchangeable.’  National proponent for homosexual inclusion in the United Methodist Church, the Rev. Tom Berlin states, ‘We believe sexual orientation is a way a person is created by God rather than a sin they commit against God.’  Believing that this is an immutable, human quality like skin color, progressives assert the church is discriminating against and excluding, oppressing, and hurting homosexuals as it has other minorities.  As a traditionalist, I feel their passion about this; yet, I know of no traditionalist pastor who either desires or acts to exclude any member of the LGBTQIA community.  Pastors want any body and every body to be in worship on Sunday!  In fact, most traditionalist pastors have homosexuals in their church.

Nevertheless, truth and falsity are not emotional categories.  Though progressives are highly motivated to land this argument, truth and falsehood deal with what is and is not, regardless of how one feels.  In the 1990’s William Byne and Bruce Parsons of Columbia University reviewed the entire literature on the biology of homosexuality.  Their conclusion: there is no biological or genetic theory for homosexuality which has scientific consensus.  The New Atlantis journal reported in 2016, ‘Some of the most widely held views about sexual orientation, such as the “born that way” hypothesis, simply are not supported by science.’  The American Psychological Association states: there is no scientific consensus on the cause of homosexuality.  Objectively speaking, we cannot claim homosexuality is inherent.  Even if there were some biological connection, as is suggested in alcoholism, the Bible speaks not of one’s proclivity or orientation, but of one’s behavior. The progressive lament that traditionalists by their rejection of homosexual behavior are oppressing and discriminating against homosexuals whom God has created this way is neither scientific nor biblical but emotionally manipulative.

Nevertheless, progressives contend those who disallow homosexual behavior are ‘judging’, condemning and rejecting homosexuals as unacceptable and to be excluded.   Indeed, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God but Jesus welcomed and accepted all sinners.  Jesus said, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone...‘do not judge in order you may not be judged’ he said.  Traditionalists agree with progressives Jesus sought out and radically loved marginal persons (including sexual sinners).  Traditionalists are heard to be condemning the practice when they say ‘no’ to homosexual behavior.  Often they are in a position of having to condemn the practice before they are able to show they accept the person.  Our heart is to accept the person though not the practice.  Is not this Jesus’ emphasis?  Like the woman who interrupted his dinner, she had been a notorious sinner, guilty.  She left a cleansed sinner forgiven. Jesus said to her, ‘Go and sin no more’.  At this point progressives and traditionalists part company.  For the reasons recited above, when they say Jesus loves and accepts homosexuals, they mean ‘lock stock and barrel’ – person and behavior.  We love the sinner - but hate the sin.

Indeed, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1, ‘Judge not’.  That is, do not be a judgmental person putting dark constructions on ambiguous situations.  Do not pronounce eternal condemnation on anyone.  Nonetheless, Jesus says in Matthew 18: 15 ‘rebuke’ those who sin.  Bring their sin to light.  Point it out so that it may be forgiven.  ‘Open rebuke is better than hidden love’ says Proverbs.  Identifying same-sex sex as sin is not judging.  It is trying to bring to bear grace and mercy. 

Our differences range over Scriptures’ absolute authority, textual interpretations, theology, and even science.  At the end of the day, through such interchanges as this, the clarity of truth will shine like gold in a stream and the fullness of grace will come.

 

 


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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.


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.