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!  


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.

 

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

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

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.

 

 


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.


1 Comment

Tom Thomas

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

Lighten Our Darkness

Lighten Our Darkness

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

Read More

Mailbag: Does Christianity Fail as a Moral Guide?

Editor’s note: This reply is part of a longer conversation. The first part may be found here. Here Randy replies to Heath’s latest comment:

Moral Apologetics: Thank you kindly for your lengthy response and interest. I admit I am somewhat flattered by this. You wrote a long reply here and I read through it several times. But in the end I found it unpersuasive. The original premise “If humanity’s deep and unshakeable moral intuitions are correct, the “Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response.”

The rational observer would first question the premise that humanity has ever held “deep and unshakeable” moralities. The historical record just doesn’t support this. I hope that sometime in the future we will have such deep, unshakeable morals. But clearly we do not.

Christian theology, in my opinion, has been an abject failure as a moral guide. I find it impossible to believe that a world filled with evil is the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. I find Christianity to be among the greatest enemies of morality, first by setting up factitious excellencies— belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies not connected to the good of humankind. These are accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues.

And then there is the problem of a redeemer. In this unseemly dogma, the son of god suffered and “died” for our “sins.”

Vicarious virtue. If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.

Hello Heath,

I have read your response to the answer Jonathan gave and thought I would chime in!

The original premise is an if-then conditional, meaning that someone can affirm it even if the antecedent (the “if” part) is false; one should really only reject the premise if you think the moral intuitions are correct but that people shouldn’t embrace Christian theism in response (or, rather, are not rational in doing so). This means that questioning whether there is such a morality isn’t, strictly speaking, relevant to the truth of the original premise.


It seems your argument against objective morality is that history doesn’t support this, and we “clearly” do not have them. Perhaps you have misunderstood the original claim. The original claim is simply that the common human experience is that there is some X such that X is good, and there is some Y such that Y is evil, and so on. The claim is not that we all share the same content of those moral beliefs (as that is what is historically false). In fact, it seems you implicitly recognize there is a perception of evil and good when you later claim the world is “filled with evil”—how could it be filled with something that so clearly does not exist? The original claim is that if our intuitions are correct, then Christian theism is the way to go—and our intuitions are that some things are really good and some really evil. Even if we’re mistaken about the implications—the content—it doesn’t follow that we’re mistaken about the reality of the categories at all. In fact, if we reject the categories of good and evil, then an interesting result is that we’ve never made any moral progress: it makes no moral difference whether we have African-Americans as slaves or not; it makes no moral difference whether we bully homosexuals for fun or not. The (morally horrible) list goes on.

The next claim is that Christianity has failed as a moral guide. That is, Christianity has failed to tell us the correct ways to live. You list the problem of evil, but this isn’t directly relevant to this claim of Christianity being a moral guide (it could turn out that someone who is deeply evil or hypocritical could nonetheless give you great moral advice). Within this same claim, you mention that “belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies” are “not connected to the good of human kind.” But why think this? It seems you suggest these are “substitutes for genuine virtues.” But Heath, remember, your view commits you to saying there are no virtues! But in any case, we can amend the claim to saying that if there were virtues, the ones that Christianity would espouse are replaced by creeds, feelings, and ceremonies. But the mere fact that Christianity embraces creeds, feelings, and ceremonies doesn’t entail that they replace any virtues whatsoever! In fact, there is a long and rich tradition, both intellectual and existential, of virtue ethics and living the right kind of Christian life. I’m afraid you may be taking late 20th and early 21st-century stereotypes of Western Christianity and applying them to the entire foundations of the church.

But let us also not forget that these kinds of activities do not at all seem to be divorced from the good of human kind. Consider the creeds: the creeds encapsulate essential Christian doctrine, and reinforce common but perhaps non-essential doctrines. From these creeds and their entailments and associated doctrines, we commit to believe and practice the idea that all are made in the image of God, that Jesus came to live among us in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice for humans, that we should be involved in caring for the poor (see much of the Old Testament and James 1), and that we ought to live in community with others’ needs placed before our own (Philippians 2:4). Next, let us consider “devotional feelings.” It’s not perfectly clear to me what is meant here, but I suspect the idea of reading one’s Bible and praying—perhaps even having an emotional experience while doing so—is in view. If so, I can assure you that many people have had their attitudes and conduct changed by these habitual activities. Given that none of us is a social island, becoming a virtuous person does in fact connect to the good of all. Although I am not sure what ceremonies you reference, I can say that participating in ecclesiastical activities is designed to bring us closer to each other (and hence our communities) and closer to our God. This brings us to the last point: if Christianity is true, then God is the highest good (and its source). Being involved with and close to him is the highest good, and will in turn precipitate the highest goods if we do so.

I’d like to return to the problem of evil. Your formulation is apparently that, given omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the world should not be “filled” with evil. I take “filled with evil” to mean something like “there is a large amount and high degree of evil in the world.” One of the common responses to this is called a “free-will defense.” People have freedom, and they sometimes (often!) exercise it for evil instead of the good. Omnipotence does not entail the ability to do the logically impossible, and forcing someone to freely do something certainly qualifies. If a loving relationship requires freedom to enter it (as I and many others think it does), then what this means is that God typically allows free choices to be made, and God cannot force a free decision (since this isn’t a thing to be done, and omnipotence entails the ability to do all things). The result is the world we have. But the good news is we aren’t left with such a world: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the “down payment” ensuring that one day the evils of the world will be rectified. One day, God will make everything right: this is referred to as redemption and restoration. Christian theology provides for the restoration of all that had once gone wrong, and redemption for those who have wronged each other and God; how beautiful is that?

This leads us to what you have called “the problem of a redeemer.” You have stated that “If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.” True enough. But the basis of that forgiveness is Christ’s paying the penalty for sins. So perhaps you mean if Christ pays the penalty for sins but I sin against another human (by, say, stealing her wallet), this doesn’t give her back her money. True enough again! All sins are ultimately against God (in other words, stealing the wallet is against the woman, but also against God). The penalty for sin is separation from God; the remedy is life through the Son of God. The sin is paid for by Christ; if a person does not accept, they endure separation from God. Suppose you do not accept and are separated by God. Justice is served since you are “serving your sentence.” Suppose you do accept, and restore her wallet. Justice is served, since Jesus died in your place and he had lived a perfect life on the Christian story; further, the woman has her wallet. Suppose you are unable to restore her wallet. The good news is that this affects your justice in no way; Christ’s perfect sacrifice is still perfect. What about her? She’s in the same boat—she can accept or reject Christ. If she accepts him, the effects of being with God forever far outweigh anything that can happen in this life. If she rejects him, it will be due to sins that she will be separated from God (for example, the sin of understanding and yet rejecting Jesus).

So, to recap, we’ve seen there isn’t a reason against accepting that we have the sense that there are objective categories of good and evil, that Christianity does contribute to the good of human kind, the problem of evil has a reasonable response dealing with creaturely freedom and the expected restoration of all things, and that salvation is offered through the perfect sacrifice of the God-man, Christ Jesus. I hope this at least points you in the right direction, and if you are interested, I’d love to talk more!

Randy

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

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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

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

                 The Husbandry of God

                        (Luke 1:26-35)  

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God's planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

 

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

 

                             Immanuel  

 

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence. 

 

 

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

 

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

 

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

 

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

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

The Goodness of God after the Loss of My Son

rise.jpg

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

When Goodness Doesn’t Register

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

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

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

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

 

Other Goods and Cumulative Apologetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goodness of God

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

Suffering: Richard Dawkins Contra Jesus

Photo by  Stefan Kunze  on  Unsplash

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Hebrews 12: 2

[3] John 16: 21

Comment

Tom Thomas

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

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

Photo by  Hillie Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hillie Chan on Unsplash

 

Introduction

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

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

 

Biblical Reality of Hope in Suffering

Human Examples of Hope in Suffering

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

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

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

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

 

Divine Example of Hope in Suffering

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Huey, Jeremiah, Lamentations, 473.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Ibid., 522.

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

[15] VanGemeren, Psalms, 746.

 

Dead but not Deaf

Photo by  Greg Rakozy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do not be dead - and deaf!

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

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

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

Photo by  Hieu Vu Minh  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hieu Vu Minh on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Texts Addressing Same-Sex Sexual Activity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

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

Jack Reacher, Superheroes, and Jesus Christ

joey-nicotra-510944-unsplash.jpg

Jack Reacher is a former military policeman. With neither permanent address nor credit card this formidable 6’5” martial arts tactician drifts in anonymity. Wherever he goes he finds helpless victims caught in powerful webs of evil. Against insurmountable odds Reacher comes to their aid.

Author of the super popular Jack Reacher novel series, Lee Child, discussed with writer Steven King at Harvard University the derivation of his character ‘Jack Reacher’. ‘Jack Reacher’, he said, is his iteration of the ageless longing for the superhero.

This Advent season we Christians reflect on the coming into the world of the promised Prince-King-Savior, Jesus Christ. Is he, like Jack Reacher, just another construct of wishful human thinking? So skeptical critics since the nineteenth century have argued. They discount Jesus Christ as just another myth in the long line of human longing for the super hero – the deified Man. Such critics have taken their cue from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who said God—substitute Jesus Christ—is a human invention. He is the deified essence of Man. Jesus Christ is humankind’s highest ideals, hopes, and imaginations fictionally personified. Namely, Jesus, just like Jack Reacher, is a projection of the human imagination.

Feuerbach’s and the skeptical critics’ contention is as unsuitable as it is an inadequate explanation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was enough unlike the profile of a hoped-for messiah-savior that not only his own Jewish people but the world did not recognize him. Let me point out why Feuerbach’s claim is off base and show the disparity between the human, idealized super-hero and Jesus Christ.

The imagined deified heroes embody what we are not but wish we were. They fill up our cosmic inadequacies. Fantasize with me about an archetypical super-human. What is your god or goddess’s profile? The idealized deified idol is endowed with super-human strength. Muscular, attractive, with enhanced intelligence, he or she is a champion who knows what to do in all circumstances. Endowed with an indomitable spirit, the conqueror is virile, generous, and has a streak – just a streak – of good. With death-defying acts, the divine hero surmounts improbable odds to triumph over every impossible predicament to save helpless persons. In the superhero, evil meets its match. They right wrongs, fight for justice, and defend the public from the catastrophic machinations of tyrannical, psychopathic villains. You know their names: Hercules, James Bond, X-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, et cetera. We cannot forget Superman! In 1935, two New York City taxi-cab-drivers imagined a superman who could defeat crime and fight for truth and justice. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Is it a bird? – Is it a plane? – No, it’s SUPERMAN!” Possessing X-ray vision, he has extraordinary, muscular strength, good looks, and, yes, he is honest and humble.

He was a model for this American male. I had my Superman suit with the big ‘S’ on my chest. I waited for that suit to arrive for two months. Mom said it was only two weeks. I went “flying around” – I mean, running around – our backyard. I could not bend steel, or outrun the dog, but I was hopeful.

Superman is made to be seen! His stupendous saving acts are performed before the eyes of the watching world. Who can miss a man flying down Wall Street in royal blue tights, a giant red ‘S’ centered on his chest, and a red cape flapping behind him? Humankind dreams of heroes who flex their muscles, and make the spectacle of their superiority resoundingly clear. At the end of the day, no one is left in doubt who wields the greatest strength, the superior intelligence, and the supreme prowess.

Contrast the hero tradition with the coming Ruler, Messiah-King, Jesus Christ. Does Jesus match their profile? He is born in an animal shelter to a craftsman family in an obscure country. The prophet Isaiah says of him, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He did not possess the unusually attractive Grecian star-quality looks of Hercules. We’re told nothing of his looks, or the color of his skin, in fact, but plenty about his character. Moreover, contrary to Superman, his great works were performed not in the great cities like Rome or Athens but in the rural, country villages of Galilee … the Big Islands and Tight Squeezes of this world. His miracles were always awesome, but often not sensational. He was not Hercules holding up the world or Batman swooping down from a skyscraper in Gotham City’s searchlight. Though there were exceptions, He worked in understated and invisible ways to leave room for doubt … and faith. Though the results were overwhelming, one saw very little flash. When religious or secular leaders asked him for the spectacular sign of a ‘superman’, he refused to give it.

The Gospel writers make clear in Jesus’ own as well as the Gospel writers’ minds his culminating glory was the scornful cross! What human fantasy would ever conceive it? What hoped-for human imagination would envision the ideal hero-god’s climaxing achievement a humiliating public execution by his enemies on a cross? Shall the ideal superhero die like a dog an excruciating and humiliating death stretched out naked publicly in front of his enemies?

Jesus Christ is distinctly different from human fictions. Contra Feuerbach and the skeptical critics, human authors could not imagine him. His profile is not a construct of wishful, human thinking. He is not the fantasized superhero. Jesus Christ is beyond human fantasies. He is from elsewhere. ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.’

And yet none like Him so deeply satisfies our yearning for a Savior, for in allowing Himself to be broken, He offered the world its only chance to be healed.

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

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

Peter Goodwin Heltzel, summary of “Prophetic Ethics” of Christian Ethics: Four Views

As Heltzel observes the contemporary moral sitz em leben he recognizes a need for the abandonment of what he refers to as a “one-sided emphasis on personal ethic to an ethic that is both personal and social.” To this end, he advocates for prophetic ethics that he defines as a moral theory that is committed to action, discipleship, embodiment, mission, justice, and love.

The Source and Shape of Prophetic Ethics

Heltzel claims that the Holy Scriptures in general and Jesus’ teachings/practices in particular, are the primary source of prophetic ethics. The contents of Jesus’ message and the character of his activity encouraged “shalom justice” and proclaimed “the kingdom of God” all in the context of “a Spirit led movement fueled by the fire of revolutionary love.” Stories of Jesus’s dealings with others ought to, according to Heltzel, steer Christians toward empathy for those who are “the least of these” and galvanize disciples toward compelling action in the context of transformational communities.

This requires that Christians know themselves and the context in which they live. If believers are to involve themselves in the justice movement, they must understand where they fit “within the travail and tragedy of human history, which is also the history of redemption.” In so doing, Christians are to take their cue from Christ’s example and act as moral agents who are sensitive to local conditions, events, circumstances, and actions.

Such moral activity is supported by Heltzel’s interpretation of Micah 6:8. Therein, the prophet Micah challenges the people of God to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse satisfies what Heltzel believes are the three characteristics of prophetic ethics: faith-rooted organizing (acting justly), empathetic solidarity (loving mercy), and daily prayer (walking humbly with God). While these characteristics describe the praxis of prophetic ethics, Heltzel argues that such practices are rooted in the Hebrew Scripture’s imperative for justice and righteousness. When these two terms (tzadeqah and mishpat) are juxtaposed (see Psalm 33:5 and Jer. 9:23-24 for examples), Heltzel and others like Tim Keller believe that they convey the idea of social justice. As a result, what the Hebrews Scriptures advocate and what Jesus illustrates is a call not just to personal morality, but to appropriate social relations. Taking from Christ’s example, the believer ought to fight for the same in his/her context.

The Application of Prophetic Ethics

Though Love and justice most nearly categorize the moral norms of prophetic ethics, improvisation is its method. “Like a jazz musician improvising on standards,” Heltzel believes that “Jesus improvises on Scripture when he preaches and teaches.” This is most clearly witnessed in his exposition of the Old Testament law in Matthew 5-7. There, Jesus provides his commentary on the law and preaches a revised ethic that offers love and justice to an oppressed and broken people.

In similar ways, contemporary Christians ought to take the themes of love and justice that are articulated in the example of Jesus and improvise on their themes in a way that can speak to the issues that people are confronting.  Though the Black Lives Matter movement, death penalty opposition, and Martin Luther King Jr. are cited as examples of how this looks, prophetic ethics is satisfied anytime Christians “empathetically enter the experience of…fellow humans, especially the marginalized who are victims of violence,” and bring love and justice with them. Ultimatley, Heltzel and the prophetic ethic movement is calling Christians to prayerfully shrug off a deleterious preoccupation with personal righteousness and strive for social sanctity.

Virtue Ethics Response

Brad Kallenberg is sympathetic to Heltzer’s assessment of the church as overly individualistic and largely ignorant/avoidant of social involvement. Kallenberg also concurs with Heltzel’s emphasis on ethics as active and performative. However, Kallenberg believes that Heltzel’s system is not prepared to answer why this is the case. Also, using his own musical metaphor, Kallenberg criticizes prophetic ethics for not identifying any unifying/fundamental theme by which the many variations of moral improvisations Heltzel calls for can be rightly understood and applied.

Natural Law Response

Along with the other contributors to the volume, Claire Brown Peterson agrees with prophetic ethics’ call for a just society and prayerful, coordinated, open, and nonviolent campaigns to that end. However, she criticizes prophetic ethics in general and Heltzel in particular on three fronts. First, while advocating for social justice, prophetic ethics does not elucidate how the requirements of justice must reference human nature and flourishing. Second, in its appeal for society, Heltzel largely ignores the necessary private dimensions of ethical consideration. Finally, Heltzel’s iteration of prophetic ethics makes it appear as those collective organization and embodied solidarity are the only appropriate responses to injustices when more choices are, in fact, available.

Divine Command Theory Response

Divine command theorist John Hare widely concedes the crux of what Heltzel has offered inasmuch as prophetic ethics is predominately based on prophetic commands divinely given in the Scriptures. However, Hare wonders if Heltzel does not draw an unnecessary dichotomy between personal purity and concern for others. Also, while Hare appreciates Heltzel’s emphasis on Jesus “prophetic” work, he wishes that prophetic ethics would not dismiss his roles as priest (committed to holiness and sacrifice) and king (exercising stewardship over the created realm). Finally, Hare questions whether or not it is appropriate to describe Jesus’s preaching as improvising on the Scripture and if more work needs to be done to improve this analogy.

Different Bodies: Part One

  A Twilight Musing

I have long been intrigued by the question of how things would have developed had Adam and Eve not eaten of the forbidden fruit and been banished from Eden.  One can exercise some inferential imagination by envisioning a world without the known consequences of sin. Attached to those inferences are some questions: Would Adam and Eve and their descendants have lived forever, absent the penalty of death?  Would the innocence of universal nakedness have continued?  If so, it’s hard for us fallen people to imagine there being no sexual desire except for one’s mate.  God arranged the union between Adam and Eve; how would the monogamous coupling of their descendants have been arranged?  Would reproduction be unlimited?  With no need to produce food by the sweat of their brows, would human beings have been engaged in other activities, such as creative, artistic, and scientific pursuits?

These questions may seem to be idle speculation, but I think they lead into matters of some significance.  All of the questions I have posed above are based on the assumption that there existed in the pristine world of Eden an expectation of purposeful and orderly development over a period of time.  God Himself looks in this direction when He tells the newly-created man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).  Things in the original creation were expected to change in ways designed by God to fulfill His nascent purposes for this new world of His.   Since any kind of change requires the observed passage of time, it seems legitimate to infer that there was a kind of positive temporality in the prelapsarian world that in the postlapsarian world became a degenerative penalty.

Perhaps the best way of getting some sense of God’s original plan for Edenic fulfillment is to consider the implications of the two trees placed in the Garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9).  We find out after Adam and Eve have eaten from the forbidden tree that God took precautions against their also eating from the Tree of Life.

Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—" 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Gen 3:22-24)

To me, this passage implies that, had Adam and Eve not disobeyed God, there might have been a time for them to partake of both trees under God’s direction.  It seems not unreasonable to conjecture that the Lord wanted unfallen mankind, under His timing and direction, to become aware of the presence of evil in the universe so that He could equip them to partner with Him in the final defeat of that evil, and thereby be ready in the full maturity of their existence to eat of the Tree of Life.

At any rate, I think that God created the physical world as a kind of theater in which to do battle with the Devil.  We have some biblical hints of a battle in Heaven between God and his angels and Satan and his cohorts, in which God by His superior power cast a rebellious Satan down from his exalted position in Heaven (see Ezek. 28:11-19; Rev. 13:7-12).  The most familiar literary rendition of this battle is of course in Books V and VI of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Although his narrative of the epic battle in Heaven exercises the privilege of poetic imagination, it nevertheless presents a drama that may very well have taken place in some form before the creation of Eden.  This was a victory of God’s power, but it remained to provide a setting in which Satan could be confronted with the moral superiority of God, which could take place only in an arena where God’s love could be triumphant over Satan’s hate.  Exactly how that would have worked out if the Creation had not been corrupted by human sin, we don’t know, of course; but it’s hard to imagine how it could have had more dramatic or emotional impact than God’s “backup plan,” in which He participated in the suffering of the sinful world, even becoming a mortal human being and dying in order to redeem the fallen world.

This little essay (Part One) represents a refinement of ideas I have held in rough form for some time.  My central point here is that God’s created world, both before and after the Fall, is in marked contrast to His eternal being, which has no beginning and no end and is perpetually and always the same, yesterday, today, and all possible tomorrows.  As God’s inherent nature is immutable, so is the place where we will dwell with Him in resurrected form for eternity (see the description of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22).  “Heaven” is where all divine purposes have been realized, and there is no longer the need for change toward an objective.  The catalyst for this refinement of my ideas on original and fallen creation was a rereading of Paul’s discourse on the Resurrection in I Cor. 15, in which he details the radical contrast between the temporal bodies of the first humans and the eternal bodies that we will share with the resurrected Christ.  Part Two is an analysis of this passage, with application of the principles Paul enunciates to the larger matter of the radical difference between the temporal earth and our eternal dwelling place with God.

Image: By William Blake - William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7735228

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

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

What Sort of _______ Is This?

 

A mystery seized the disciples.  The mystery’s answer unlocks the door to the Book of Matthew; it unscrambles the Gospel itself; and it opens the gate to your life – to its present satisfaction - its eternal future.  The disciples wondered, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ On that occasion their boat is caught in a Galilean sea windstorm.  Waves are lapping over their fishing vessel’s sides.  They are being swamped.  They panic.  They fear they are sinking. Then Jesus speaks to the winds telling them to be silent.  The sea hushes.  There is dead calm.  The disciples gasp, ‘What sort of man is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ The original language of the text does not have any noun after the ‘what sort of’.  Literally, it’s ‘what sort of____’ is this that even the wind and sea obey him?’.  One has to supply the noun.  That is, the question: what sort of ‘one’, what sort of ‘person’, being, is this to whom the wind and sea are subject?  It’s the same question I want to put to you.  ‘What sort of “one” is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?’  I trust you have already responded to it.  Answering this question is a confession one continually reaffirms.  Answer it for yourself again.

Ancient people answered it similarly.  The weather – rain, wind, thunder, and lightning – said the Canaanites is controlled by Baal, the Canaanite god.  The Egyptians said the weather was controlled by Horus, the falcon-headed god.  The ancient Greeks said it was Poseidon, the god of the sea.  Poseidon controls the oceans and the seas.  The Romans answered it was Jupiter.  The Jews said in Psalm 107 the Lord God ‘made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.’

The ancients all agree controlling the weather is the domain of a god – not of a human.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins or theologians like Rudolf Bultmann say ruling the weather is not the work of a god. They do agree it is not the province of a human, either.  Upon this we’re all are agreed:  commanding the weather is not in the province of a human.  The disciples’ rhetorical question, ‘What sort of’, one, person, _?__ , is this that even the winds and the sea obey’ - anticipates the answer.

What sort of person this is again is highlighted just two chapters later in Matthew 10: 34-39.  Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’  This is jarring! The Lord’s anointed has not come to bring peace but a clash.

He declares he will turn son against father; divide daughter and mother; and daughter in law against mother in law.   He will deliberately split life’s most enduring, affectionate and necessary bonds.   Elie Wiesel and his family were Jews who just got off the Nazi train at Birkenau.  A Nazi SS officer wielding a club barked, ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’  Suddenly, Elie was separated from his mother and sister.  He watched his mother and sister disappear into the horizon.  That was the last time he ever saw his mother.

Jesus separates family members. He claims there is a deeper, more necessary bond than the familial bond.   There is a relationship more primary than family.  The relationship with Him is greater than the familial bond.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.  He inserts love for himself between that of son and father; daughter and mother.  Love for Him surpasses the primary human love.  Love for Him is more fundamental and transcendent than human love.  Who ranks above the love for your father?  Who ranks above the love for your daughter? Or your mother?  Jesus says whoever loves mother more than me is not worthy of me.

My late mother Betsy had a college friend in Lynchburg who she kept up with over the years.  They would talk.  My mother inevitably got the conversation around to church.  ‘Claire, come to worship.  You belong there.  We miss you.’  But, Claire would remind her worship was at the time her family went to brunch.  My mother said, ‘Then change the time of brunch.’  Is that what you say? What sort of one even claims preeminence over life’s primary priority?

Jesus was leaving a large crowd.  One from his larger group of disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  (Then I will follow you.)  To bury your father is one of those things you do to fulfill the commandment, ‘Honor your father’.  Some think the disciple was not speaking literally but meant he needed to care for his aged father.  After his father died and was buried, the disciple would be free then to follow Jesus.  Either way, Jesus’ response remains: ‘Follow me and let the dead bury the dead.’  The spiritual dead will take care of the physical dead.  First things first…following Me takes immediate priority.  Nothing – not even burying one’s father - comes before this One.

Jesus demands to be loved preeminently above your human loves.  In fact, if you love your father more than Jesus, you do not deserve Jesus; you are not suited to Him; and you cannot belong to Him.  ‘What sort of’ person is this that demands such exclusive love? 

Perhaps the greatest claim Jesus made was the one in Matthew Chapter Eleven.  He said, ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ (Matthew 11: 27-28).  Here Jesus claims ‘all things’- literal word is ‘all’ – all has been handed over to him by ‘my Father’.   The ‘all’ is inclusive.  Nothing is excluded from the set of ‘all’.  ‘Handed over’ is to turn over, deliver to or entrust to.  At my mother’s death, everything of hers and my late father’s – everything - clothes, address book, furniture, photograph albums, files, bank account, bills, and their 1820 Eli Terry clock – were handed over to my sister and me.  Everything.  What is handed over to Jesus?  Some contemporary scholars say it was John claiming this for Jesus not Jesus Himself.  Really? Jesus defines the Father- who- has- turned-everything-over- to-Him:  He is ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’.  What all does the ‘Father, Lord of heaven and earth’ have to entrust to Jesus?  Heaven? The Milky Way?  The Sun?  The earth?  All its inhabitants?  You? What’s not included?  Jesus said plainly, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.’

Jesus tells his disciples the reason they know hidden things and the wise and intelligent do not:  ‘no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  The Father and Son share knowing exclusive to themselves.  We expect the Father to know the Son.  What is shocking is that Jesus says ‘no one knows the Father except the Son’.  In the original language, the word ‘know’ is intensified:  knows exactly, knows completely, and knows through and through.  Jesus is claiming He is the only One who knows God through and through; exactly as He is.  Who is it who knows God’s mind exactly?  Who is the only one who knows completely Tom Thomas’ mind? Who is buried in George Washington’s tomb?!

The second part of this is ‘no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’.  Jesus is the only one who mediates and reveals God.  Revealing God is at the Son’s discretion and according to His own prerogative.

Jesus’ claim was on trial in a recent Senate hearing.  Russell Vought was being interviewed for a deputy position in the White House Office of Management and Budget.  Bernie Sanders took him to task for an article Russell wrote for his college newsletter.  Russell said Muslims ‘do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ His Son, and they stand condemned.’  Sanders asked him if he was being respectful of other religions.  Vought in his words was echoing Jesus.

Jesus is not disrespectful.  He is making an exclusive but truthful claim.  ‘No one – not the Buddha, Mohammed, the guru, the Imam, or Moses – knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’  No one can know the Father who does not first know the Son.  Who is it that makes such an absolute claim?  What sort of person is this?  Who is it the weather obeys? Who demands love surpassing all human love? Who knows completely the inner mind of God?  Who have you said Him to be?  Who do you now say Him to be?  He is the Person to whom I submit my body, my soul, my fame, my fortune, my friends, my reputation, my life, and my all!  You too?

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

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

Freedom in Christ

A Twilight Musing

As on every July 4, we heard a lot earlier this week about “freedom,” which in the context of the holiday refers to the political freedom gained by the American colonies breaking away from an oppressive British government.  The justification for that action was eloquently and nobly expreessed by a Declaration of Independence.  However, “freedom” is often used more for its emotive content than its precise definition.  It frequently embodies a self-congratulatory attitude, as in identifying the U. S. as one of the nations of “the Free World.”  The term also commonly refers to the rights of individuals to do as they wish, being under no legal restrictions in making their choices, as in the popular catch-phrase, “a woman’s right to choose,” referring to abortion.  However, as the founders of our republic understood, the exercise of freedom requites a foundation of moral law.

The Bible has a great many references to freedom, but they are not primarily (and sometimes not at all) concerned with political or civil freedoms.  In fact, the concepts they convey are often counterintuitive to human reason, for, particularly in the New Testament, they are presenting the paradox of people who are apparently politically or personally free being in bondage, while the freedom that God wants to give His people is spoken of as slavery.  In fact, our fallen human condition means that we are enslaved in our natural state, and that our only deliverance from that bondage is to become slaves to Christ:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.  When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.  (Rom 6:17-22)

This is worlds away from the idea of “freedom” as something we have a right to.  Jesus made this distinction clear when he imparted His radical truth to the Jewish leaders:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."  They answered him, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, 'You will become free'?"   Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Freedom, Jesus tells them, is not something they can claim as a part of their “rights” as Israelites, children of Abraham.  Rather, it is something granted by the Son of God, completely His to give or withhold.  As Paul says, the only thing we fallen humans can claim as our “right” is death, whereas “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

It’s appropriate to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of our “free” country, with its constitutionally defined Bill of Rights.  But no amount of political or personal freedom in the society of mankind can bring us the freedom that we most need, the God-defined and grace-granted freedom “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Let us principally rejoice in that which makes us “free indeed.”

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

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

The Ministry of Reconciliation

A Twilight Musing

Then I consider the difficulty of mending broken human relationships, I’m reminded of the nursery rhyme about how “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/ Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”  Any professional counselor is able to relate cases of marital or other interpersonal conflicts where the alienation of the parties from each other is so deep as to seem irreparable.  In such cases, the counselor will try to help each party to understand how the matter appears to the other person or persons, since the conflict developed in the first place and deepened because each side assumed that its way of seeing things is the norm.  Therefore, each one interprets every action and argument of the other to be either dishonest or perverse.  If the two are to come together again (that is, be reconciled), one or both of them must take the risk of reaching out toward the other.

Matt. 5:23-25 lays out the importance of reconciliation among humans who are spiritual siblings: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  These words are addressed to people who purport to be followers of Jesus and therefore are expected to respond to His words as a spiritual command.  In that light, it is significant that the person who knows he is alienated from his brother has an obligation that goes beyond whether the “something against you” is valid or not.  Even if (in the honest opinion of the one being accused) the brother who has taken offense is wrong, it is so important to take steps toward reconciliation that one is not even to participate in a worship service until every effort is made to bring about reconciliation.  This is a step that goes beyond the common sense of trying to settle a dispute out of court, rather than run the risk of losing a lawsuit.  What Jesus commands in this case is in the same spirit of not insisting on one’s own right that is commonly referred to as “going the extra mile” (see Matt. 5:28-32).

There is no way in human terms to understand the basis of Jesus’ teaching about selflessness in the Sermon on the Mount without reference to a much larger and more significant reconciliation that has been brought about by God’s initiative.  It is only as a reflection of that move of God toward us that we can effectively carry out reconciliation between humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom. 5:8-11)

Paul uses this truth as a rationale for how we as believers are to act:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

John pointed out that we love (indeed, are even able to love) only because God has first loved us (I Jn. 4:7-12), even to the extent of sacrificing His Son when we didn’t deserve it.   In the same way, we also seek reconciliation with others because God has first gone more than “the extra mile” to be reconciled with us, even while we were fallen creatures.  Another aspect of basing our response to others on what God has done for us is demonstrated in the parable of the ungrateful servant who, though forgiven an unpayable debt by his master, refused to forgive a much smaller debt owed by a fellow servant (Matt. 18:21-25).  Jesus pronounces God’s judgment on the unforgiving servant, and He states this condemnation even more bluntly in a comment attached to His giving of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:14-15): “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Loving our siblings in Christ, even beyond what is reasonable, forgiving them beyond what they deserve, and seeking them out for reconciliation beyond what seems justified are God-enabled reflections of His unlimited desire to be in fellowship with us.  These principles are especially difficult to apply in a culture and a society which places a very high value on standing up for our rights, but if we are to have the privileges of fellowship with God, the price is a willingness to give up our “rights,” if necessary, in order to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Note: A word of caution is in order about applying the normal principles of reconciliation outlined above.  A desire for reconciliation should never become a means of enabling an abusive person to continue his or her behavior.  Nor should an abusive person be allowed to use emotional blackmail to pressure a tender-hearted reconciler to submit to abuse. Being a willing victim of physical or emotional abuse is never an acceptable price to be paid for some kind of surface reconciliation.

Comment

Elton Higgs

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

What Women Want

King Arthur’s Queen Guinevere baffles him.  Like Arthur every other man is perplexed too.  We don’t know what makes her tick or what she wants.  In the Broadway play ‘Camelot’ King Arthur muses to himself.  He cannot figure Guinevere out.   I so identify with him.  King Arthur remembers Merlin the Magician teaching him about the animals.  Merlin turned him into a beaver to teach him about beavers.  Arthur says, ‘I should have had the whirl to change into a girl to learn the way the creatures think’.  ‘How to handle a woman?’  he wonders.  ‘Ah, yes’ he remembers.  Merlin said, ‘The way to handle a woman is to love her, love her, merely love her…’

The prolific crime and mystery novelist Ruth Rendell knew what woman want.  The hero in her novels is Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford.  Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford exemplifies what woman want in man.  She used to get tons of female fans telling her they wanted to marry Chief Inspector Wexford.   Ruth knows the reason: Chief Inspector Wexford answers what woman want (1) he makes them laugh (2) he ‘likes women very much and always has time for them’. (W Post, Obituaries, May 3, 2015)

Jesus fulfills a woman’s deep want and need more than any man.  Why have so many women over history followed Him?   He did what Ruth Rendell said:  he shows he likes women.  A revolution occurred because He dignifies them.  He accepts women as having standing.  As men, Jesus gives women access to Himself.  He always has time for them.  He pays them attention.  I want to try to show how the account of Martha, Mary and Jesus makes this clear.   How their want of Him made Him the one thing necessary in their lives.

Jesus entered Martha and Mary’s village of Bethany.  Bethany is just over the crest of the Mt. of Olives.  Martha ‘welcomed’ Jesus into her home.  Martha is the only woman I can think of who invited Jesus into her home.  Taking the initiative to do so took self- confidence.  It tells us she was friendly toward Jesus and his ministry.  Jesus did not decline Martha because she was a woman.  Perhaps Martha could do it because her home was large enough to accommodate Jesus and his disciples.

Martha’s sister Mary was also there.  When Jesus entered, Mary followed the Lord.  She took her place at His feet.  She begins listening to what he was saying.  This is radical.  Jewish teachers were generally opposed to women learning.  Jesus not only lets her sit at his feet. As we shall see, he expects her, a woman, to listen and learn.  This is still controversial in 2017.  The Taliban says the Moslem Quran does not allow women to be educated.  If Jesus entered your house, would you be sitting there with him?  Where was Martha?

Martha was ‘distracted.  She is overburdened by the various tasks of hosting guests.  She is anxious to provide a fine dinner and comfortable hospitality for her special guests.  Every host knows the tension between being with your company and attending to the ongoing preparation for dinner.  Guest’s hands and feet need washing; heads need oil; towels for drying;  fire for cooking tended; meat prepared and cooked; the vegetables, the bread, the deserts, and water drawn.  The tables have to be set with your best utensils and crockery/china.  The candles filled with oil and lit.  Flowers put in vases.

Our first Thanksgiving dinner as newlyweds Pam and I hosted my parents.  It was nerve-wracking for Pam.  Pam had never prepared a turkey in her life.  This was her first dinner for the in-laws.  She knew none of the recipes my parents enjoyed.  She baked a cake from scratch.  It was three layers.  When I cut the cake, it crumbled into bread crumbs.  She had iced the outside, but forgot to ice between the layers!

After all, Martha is entertaining Jesus!  The Prophet who taken the world by storm!  Martha is just plain stressed out.  She wants to give him an impressive dinner.  But she is feeling put upon.  With all that needs to be done, her sister is sitting there with Jesus.   Martha leaves her preparations and makes her way to Jesus.  If she appeals to Jesus, Jesus will tell Mary to help.  Mary will listen to the Master.  The Holy One will enlighten Mary to her injustice and selfishness. ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?’ Tell her then to help me’.  ‘Tell her to do her share.’  Tell her to pitch in.  ‘Many hands make work light’ my mother would say.

But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha’.  Saying her name twice shows his strong interest in her.  There are many people around him but He considers her.  ‘Martha, Martha, you’re worried and distracted about much.’  You’ve been thrown into undue disorder and trouble.  These ‘worldly’ matters are too much oppressing you.  Things have gotten out of perspective.   You’re in overload.  For a lot of people, life moves at a chaotic clip.  It’s an all too typical woman’s – yes, man’s too – but particularly a woman’s concern today.  She is working a stressful job; she’s trying to be a good mother/wife. Women typically bear the brunt of the responsibilities of family and home.  Maybe she is also taking a night class to work on her degree.  I heard of a single woman holding two jobs; her father had Alzheimer’s in a care facility; her mother who lives with her has a health issue; and she is raising children.  ‘Martha, Martha’.

Was Martha ‘multi-tasking’?  She was trying to juggle multiple tasks.  ‘Multitasking’ is our word for today for juggling the overload of many duties.  ‘Multitasking’ is doing two or more cognitively complex things at the same time.  Dr. Frances E. Jensen, a U of Penn neuroscientist, says ‘multitasking’ is a myth.  Yes, you can chew gum and watch the baby at the same time.  That’s not multitasking.  But you cannot make cordon Bleu and solve a problem with your boss on the phone at the same time. If you try to do them at the same time your brain has to switch back and forth constantly.  You do neither well.  Focusing on more than one complex task is virtually impossible.  If you’re a teen – or Tom Thomas – it is impossible!

‘Martha, Martha, you’re worried and distracted about much.’  Are you too? Jesus continued. ‘But one is necessary’; ‘there is one need; ‘there is need of only one thing’.  Simplify.  ‘Mary has chosen the good portion’.  The word ‘portion’ connotes ‘food’.  Jesus puns, ‘Mary has chosen the better food.’    What food did Mary choose?  Jesus…the bread of life.  She chose to sit with and listen to Him.  What food did Martha choose?  The bread…of the kitchen.  Given the choice between life’s duties, responsibilities, vocations, and avocations and Jesus, Jesus  ranks above them all.  Which are you choosing?  Which is your practice?  Which is your first priority?   Is everything else second to Him?    What if Martha had done that? Driven, Type A people are asking who would have provided the beautiful arrangements of food and drink?  Better to have Jesus and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich than a Better Homes and Garden banquet without him.   Jesus consistently messages this: to the rich young ruler: sell everything, give to the poor, then come and follow me; to the man who wanted to bury his father before following Jesus.  Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead, follow me.’ Martha doesn’t realize who is in her midst.  Few people do.  In him is ‘the fullness of deity dwelling bodily’…the One who is before all things… ‘the one who is to have first place in everything’ .

Here is the man women want – the man women need; a man who likes women; loves women; wants them to learn from Him, to be with Him and He with them.  He would rather have Martha than a well- appointed home; He would rather have Martha than appetizing cuisine; He would rather have her than fine hospitality.  He wants Martha for herself; not for anything she can give him.  Where have you heard of such a man? Where have you heard of such a holy man, or spiritual leader?  Take the holy one the Buddha as an example.  The Buddha said to his disciple Ananda: ‘Women are stupid, Ananda; that is the reason, Ananda…why women have no place in public assemblies…’

Jesus shows as much interest in her as a man.  He invests in her worth: invites her to join his circle; wills her to be his disciple; believes she is just responsible as a man to God; just as capable of hearing, understanding and learning as a man.  This is a watershed for woman in history.

Women respond to Jesus.  He’s what they want.  He’s what they need.  They’ve heeded his word to Martha.  They have made Jesus their first portion –the one thing necessary.  He has fulfilled their deep want and need.  Probably in greater numbers in church history than men…in different ways: as wives…as mothers…a martyrs…as activists…as writers…as teachers…as evangelists…in mission…to great effect.  Perpetua was a 22 year old new mother.  She was imprisoned by the Romans with her infant for declaring she followed Christ.  The proconsul told her he would release her if she said, ‘Caesar is lord’.  Her father begged her to lie. She would not.  She said, ‘Jesus is Lord’.  She so wanted Jesus, when made to decide, she chose him above her father, her child, and her own life. Her witness lives on today.

Mademoiselle De La Mothe, better known as Madam Guyon, was a teenage girl in Paris.  She was smart and beautiful.  She was tall and well built.  She had a Grecian countenance, high forehead and brilliant eyes, and a noble sweetness.   She thought a lot of herself.  She spent a good part of the day in front of the mirror.  At 17, she fell deathly sick.  She was not expected to live.  As she languished, her sins haunted her.  She realized her self had been her religion.  She knew she was out of favor with God.  She recovered.  See sought God.  The only way she knew to try to get God’s acceptance was earn it:  she began to do good works.  It didn’t take away her sorrow for her sin.  Then she came to understand loving Jesus Christ is a matter of the heart.  Then she came to know personally Jesus Christ not by doing righteous works, but by faith.  Now, she said, ‘For I had now no sight but of Jesus Christ’ .  She was sorrowful of her wasted past.   Why was she so late in finding Jesus?  ‘Why’ she wondered, ‘have I known thee so late?  Alas, I sought you where you were not, and did not seek you where you were!’  She wrote the name of her Saviour in large characters and attached it to her person.  She wanted to be reminded continually of Him. She wrote poems and letters for Christ.  She influenced circles of Christians and mystic theologians like Francis Fenelon.

What do women want?  What do you want?  They want the One who accepts and honors them; the One who wants to be with them; who wants them to be in his company and they in his;  the One who loves them - they want Jesus Christ!  He is the one thing necessary.  Is He for you the One necessity?

 

  Image by Georg Friedrich Stettner († 1639) - Van Ham Kunstauktionen, Public Domain, Link

Comment

Tom Thomas

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

Our Double Baptism

A Twilight Musing

We’re all familiar with the first baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist, who had to be assured that it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized, in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).  Jesus set the pattern of baptism as a mark of the beginning of the Life that God gives, and a special manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit after His baptism was seen as it descended “like a dove” and came “to rest on Him” (v. 16).  That was followed by a heavenly voice saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (v. 17), archetypically reflecting our purity before God as we begin our walk with Him.

But Jesus spoke of a second baptism that He had to undergo, concerning which He was anxious, even while He recognized its necessity:  "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Lk. 12:49-50).  He mentioned this baptism again when He responded to James’ and John’s request to have special seats of honor beside Jesus when He comes into His kingdom.  Jesus answered,

You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”  And they said to him, “We are able.”  And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.  (Mk. 10:38-40)

This passage establishes a link between Jesus’ second baptism and the cup of suffering that He prayed fervently to be delivered from in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk. 22:39-46).  Obviously, Jesus saw His coming suffering as a second kind of baptism, and when we couple this with statements in the epistles about not only the inevitability but the appropriateness of suffering by followers of Jesus, we see that we, too, must expect to go through a second baptism.

John the Baptist seems to be contrasting the two baptisms when he says of Jesus, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:11-12).  I take the reference to the baptism in the Holy Spirit to be the water baptism that Peter promised his hearers in Acts 2:38 would be accompanied by “the gift of the Holy Spirit”; and the baptism in fire to be the second baptism, the suffering that purifies and tempers and makes stronger the character of Christians.  Submitting to the first baptism is cause for rejoicing and praising God, and new Christians are often appropriately exuberant, feeling the reality of having been cleansed from all sin.  But just as Jesus had to go through a second and very different baptism before His walk on this earth was done, so we who follow Him must embrace the baptism of suffering that brings us to maturity in Christ.

Jesus tried to instruct His Twelve Disciples about what lay ahead for Him (and them), but they were obtuse and spiritually insensitive.

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."  (Mark 8:31-33)

Believers often share Peter’s resistance to the progression from the joy of the first baptism to the second baptism of mature suffering.  It’s significant that later on, after many years of leadership in the early church, Peter speaks with great perceptiveness about the fire of the second baptism: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (I Pet. 4:12-14).

So, just as Jesus experienced His first baptism and the accompanying endowment of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of a new life of service and ministry, so we who confess faith in Him experience the rite of baptism and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as a joyful entry into our new life with God.  But God also calls us to share His Son’s experience of the second baptism, which is the necessary entrance into the completion of God’s purposes for our lives on earth.  Jesus told His disciples that they would suffer with Him (“If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” [Jn. 15:20]), and those who preached the Gospel afterward also made clear that confessing Christ and being baptized in water will eventually, as the believer matures, lead to a second baptism of suffering.   Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17).  And again: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).

What a pregnant clause, “It has been granted to you.”  The gift of suffering in the likeness of Christ is as much a manifestation of God’s grace as the gifts of eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we received in our first baptism as new believers.  The second baptism in the fire of trial is redemptive rather than destructive only because our Savior has been there before us and sanctified our suffering.  He was willing to be born in the flesh so that He could be anointed in power in His first baptism; and He was willing to submit to the “second baptism” of innocent suffering and death for the sake of all mankind.  It is following his path from baptism in water to baptism in fire that marks us as fully redeemed children of God and sisters and brothers of Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

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

Tuesdays with Tom: "They Didn't See Him"

Suppose I returned to Spring Hill cemetery several days after burying my father?  I reach his plot. I noticed the grave was disturbed; the marker overturned, and the clay dirt scattered around the sides.  Inspecting closer, I saw the casket opened.  The body was missing.  What would I conclude?  What would you conclude?

Suppose you were among those who went to pay your respects to Jesus?  Upon reaching the tomb, you saw the gravestone rolled back; the tomb disturbed, and the buried body missing.  Do you, like the disciples, have grave difficulty with the empty tomb?  Have you thought about Jesus’ bodily appearances?  Is your heart slow to believe?  You can identify with the disciples.  You can surpass their difficulty.  Let me consider the resurrection narrative.

It was the first day of the week, Sunday, at early dawn.  A group of women walked in twilight to Jesus’ tomb.  Go back three days to Friday.  Some of these accompanied the priest, Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus’ body.  To leave a person without a burial shows gross disrespect.  I officiated in Long Beach, CA at the funeral of a man who had no one to bury him.  Joseph of Arimathea would see Jesus buried.  Joseph was a wealthy member of the Jewish Council.  He was also a secret disciple of Jesus.

The Roman governor Pilate gave Joseph Jesus’ body.  So Joseph removed Jesus’ body from the cross.  He would inter Jesus in his own never-before-used tomb carved out of rock. Would you let Jesus use your tomb?  It would be a good deal.  Jesus only used it three days but its value rose thereafter.

Joseph and another priest, Nicodemus, wrapped the body.  They use an expensive, linen shroud with spices of myrrh and precious aloes.  They hurried to complete the work before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. A handful of men rolled the huge, flat stone over the tomb’s entrance.  This kept thieves and animals out.  Later, Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and cordoned off.  He placed a guard of soldiers at the grave.  The tomb was now a site under state control.

At early dawn, Mary Magdalen; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s manager; Mary the mother of James the apostle, and other women walked to the tomb.  They wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ corpse.  The women had not been thinking too clearly. How would they get into the tomb?  They couldn’t move the massive stone.  Going a little further, they looked up and saw the stone already rolled back.  Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had already arrived.  They ventured in the tomb’s darkness but saw no body – not even Jesus’ corpse.  They stood there perplexed, at a loss for answers.

Had the gardener moved him?  Had the authorities removed him?  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two strangers appeared beside them.  The strangers’ clothing gleamed brilliantly - like the whiteness of lightening.  The dazzling intensity spoke for itself.  The frightened women could only bow their faces to the ground.

The angels searchingly asked the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  That is, ‘Why are you seeking the living one among the dead ones?”  The question was a gentle rebuff to the women’s accepted philosophy of reality.  Is it a rebuff to yours?

Imbedded in the angel’s question is the mark of history - not fiction.  The women went to the tomb thinking as I would to my dad’s grave.  One out of every one dies…and never returns.  Absolute fact.  The women went to the tomb knowing Jesus died.  They thought as you think – He’s gone forever – never to return.

Ever wondered where we get this philosophy?  From common, human experience.    Could there ever be a specific case, sometime, somewhere, that is different from what is generally thought to be the case?  An anomaly, an exception to the rule?  Suppose a scientist did an exhaustive investigation.  The scientist observed 30 kinds of flies, ten kinds of beetles, four kinds of wasps, and six kinds of grasshoppers.  The scientist generalized, ‘All insects have three pairs of legs’.  The next day a caterpillar sauntered by.  It has all the properties of an insect. Except it doesn’t have three pair of legs – it’s all legs! An exception to the rule.  Now the scientist goes back and revises his conception.

Many modern intellectuals – among them many theologians – say there is no example of a literal resurrection happening in common human experience. So a bodily resurrection can’t be.  Isn’t Jesus’ resurrection such an exception to common human experience?  But it can’t be, they say, that He rose from the dead.  There are no examples of such things in common experience!  This is circular reasoning.  It assumes as valid what one is trying to prove.  It won’t allow what doesn’t fit with what you have already determined to be the case.

It’s like our insect scientist saying he/she has already determined what insects are.  A caterpillar can’t be one.  It doesn’t fit his/her preconceived notion of what an insect is.

The angels gently reproach the women.  The women are surprised to hear Jesus is alive.  How about you?  Does God reproach you for looking for the Living among the dead?  Many still consign Jesus to the dead.  He’s a great religious figure; an inspired prophet; a great example; and one in whom divine consciousness lived.  Nonetheless, He’s gone the way of all other great religious teachers and philosophers.

A missionary was speaking in Northern India.  A Muslim came up to him afterwards and said, “You must admit, we have one thing that you do not – and it is better than anything you have.”  The missionary was interested to hear more. Muslim said, “When we go to our Mecca, we find at least a coffin.  But when you Christians go to Jerusalem, you find nothing but an empty grave.”  The missionary replied, “That’s just the difference.  Mohammed is in his coffin.  Jesus Christ is risen!”

Pam and I were on vacation in the California Gold Rush country.  We visited Sutter Creek’s cemetery.  We read the epitaphs on the tombstones.  One grave had a pillar - like the Washington Monument rising out of a block of granite.  At the top of the pillar was a clinched fist with the index finger pointing upward to the sky.  The deceased was saying to me, “Don’t look here, look up.”  Don’t look for Christ in the grave.  ‘He is not here.’

The women flee out of the tomb. They tremble in fear and astonishment.  They run to tell the giants of the faith, the eleven apostles, the news.  If anybody would believe, these guys would.  They watched Jesus do miracles for three years.

The woman relayed to the disciples their experience at the tomb - every last detail.  A woman’s testimony in a Jewish court was questionable.  Here is a group of women, having come from a resurrection, hysterical, trembling, pale from fear, unable to contain themselves as to all they had seen and heard.  They reported the news.  The disciples took it like the Editor of the New York Times:  ‘Uhh, huh – Sure!’  The men summed up the women’s words: “an idle tale.”  “Idle tale” is a medical term used for wild delirium.  They’re on drugs!  Rubbish!  Fantasy!

So some have thought ever since.  Paul preached Jesus’ resurrection.   “Some of them sneered”. (Acts 17:32)  Martin Luther spoke of the resurrection.  Luther noted the reaction, “To this day there are many who laugh all the more at this article, consider it a fable ….” An ‘idle tale’ thought Jesus’ disciples: a resurrected Jesus did not fit their framework of reality.  Jesus could break out of a rock tomb.  He couldn’t break out of the disciples’ rock hearts and rock minds!

Later that same day, two were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a village about seven miles west of Jerusalem.  The two were absorbed in conversation about the women’s report of the empty tomb and angels.  While they were discussing this, a man overtook them.  He fell into their stride.  He said to them, “What is that you are talking about?”  They stopped still in the road.  They were full of the tragedy of Friday.  Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days.  The stranger asked, “What things?”

Cleopas said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mighty prophet in words and actions.  How he was condemned and crucified.  We were hoping that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  They went on.  “Yes, this is the third day, and some women of our company amazed us.  Earlier they went to the tomb and didn’t find his body.  They came back saying they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive.  Peter and John went to see for themselves.  They found the tomb just as the women said.  But they didn’t see him.”  I can almost hear Cleopas voice trailing off when he said, “They didn’t see him.”  There’s the catch – whether 30 AD or 2017 – ‘they didn’t see him.’ Neither empty tomb nor women’s report convinced them.

“O foolish men!” the stranger upbraided them with strong emotion.  You are ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Wasn’t it necessary that Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?” the stranger asked.  Didn’t they have the words of the prophets from the Old Testament?  And didn’t they have the words of Jesus prophesying he would rise again?  Now they heard first hand testimony of the women …and angels…yet they didn’t believe.  You’ve got all that.  Do you believe?  The stranger called them “unintelligent and dull of belief” – that is, slow in believing.  The stranger then explained how the Old Testament applied to the Messiah.  They liked what they heard. They begged the stranger to stay and eat.  He took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks.  They suddenly recognized him!  He was Jesus whom they knew.  Then “he became invisible from them.” They recalled to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he explained the scriptures?’ Believers through history have testified to burning hearts.  I have felt a burning chest the night I gave myself to God.

Preacher John Wesley put it in classic words.  He was in a fellowship/study group.  There he felt Jesus Christ.  Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed … I felt I did trust Christ.”  You don’t have to see Him to feel Him.  Your eyes may be closed, but you feel the warmth of the sun.

What it took to get the disciples to believe! I can hear people say, ‘If it was hard for them, how much harder for us?  At least they got to see him’.  This is Cleopas’ attitude which Jesus reprimanded: ‘But they didn’t see him’ Cleopas said.  ‘O people slow to believe!’  You now have the testimony of the Old Testament; the testimony of Jesus; the testimony of the women and the disciples, the evidence and testimony of Paul; and the experience of hundreds of years of burning hearts!

In some ways, we have more than the disciples had that first Easter morn.  The risen Jesus has been established by sight, by voice, by touch, by reasoning argument, by historical evidence from genuine and moral men and women, and by centuries of ‘warm hearts’.

Why are some of you still troubled by Him?  Why do some question?  Why do you dispute Him in your hearts?’  Jesus says, ‘Stop doubting and believe’. (John 20:27)

 

Comment

Tom Thomas

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