All posts by Cliff Wall

About Cliff Wall

Married, father of five, and pastor and preacher.

Who is this Jesus?

In Mark 4:35-41 we find this story of Jesus being awakened by his terrified disciples while he is asleep on a boat in the midst of a life-threatening storm. After he is awakened Jesus “rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (v. 39). Afterwards Jesus chastises his disciples for their lack of faith, and leaves them wondering among themselves, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41)

As Richard Hays so astutely observes in his book, “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” (2016, pp. 66-69), one immersed in the Scriptures of Israel would readily pick up on the clues embedded in Mark’s story, that is the echoes of specific passages in the Old Testament (see Ps 107:23-32; Job 38:8-11; Ps 89:9; Ps 106:8-12; Is 51:9-11; Ps 44:23). These echoes are especially resonant when you look to the Greek translation of the Old

Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Rembrandt – 1632

Testament (the Septuagint) which is what the New Testament writers quote much of the time. These same echoes are present in Matthew’s account too, but there he leaves us with the question, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him? (Matt 8:27).

The answer from Israel’s sacred Scriptures indicates that it was the Lord (Yahweh) God himself who commanded the wind and the sea (see also the story of Jonah). So this man Jesus wasn’t just another ordinary man! He was indeed a man, as the New Testament makes clear in many ways (i.e. he ate, slept, prayed, learned, laughed, loved, cried, suffered, and even died). Yet he was more than just a man. Mark and Matthew both indicate that Jesus controlled the forces of nature just as God is described as controlling the forces of nature. Hence, Jesus doesn’t here pray to God the Father to rebuke the winds and the sea, he rebukes them himself as Yahweh (the Lord) is described rebuking the Red Sea for the sake of the terrified Israelites in the exodus (Ps 106:8-12).

This question of Jesus full identity posed by his disciples in Mark 4 follows a similar question posed by some of the scribes in Mark 2. There, after Jesus declares to a paralytic man that his sins are forgiven, some of the scribes saw this as blasphemy as they rightly asked, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). Jesus, discerning their thoughts, insisted that as “the Son of Man” he shared God’s authority to forgive sins (v. 10).  So by the time we reach Mark chapter 4 – the gospel supposedly with the “lowest” Christology – we know that Jesus possesses God’s authority to forgive sins and to control the forces of nature.

Most of the debate regarding Jesus’ identity often centers around several proof-texts, much of the time without regard to the wider context. There are a few places in the Bible where Jesus is specifically referred to as God. Because they are few, those who are opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity often discount them because they are few in number. This is fallacious thinking. Just because something is only mentioned explicitly a few times in the Bible does not diminish its significance. Sometimes those opposed to the teaching of Jesus’ divinity also attempt to downplay the significance of Jesus being referred to as the Son of God. Some will say, for instance, that all believers are referred to as God’s children, as are angels and that doesn’t make all believers and every angel God. But this line of reasoning neglects to do justice to the fact that Jesus is described as the Son of God in a singularly unique sense. John 3:16 of course calls him the “only begotten Son” (KJV). And Hebrews 1 clearly distinguishes him from angels who are said to worship him (v. 6). Matthew 11:27 testifies to the unique relationship between Jesus the Son and the Father, as does Luke 10:22.

 “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Luke 10:22

John’s gospel reveals this unique relationship much more explicitly throughout culminating in Thomas’ confession of Jesus as “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28). At any rate, limiting the “proof” for Jesus’ divinity to specific verses where he is referred to as God is misleading. It is prudent to consider all that Jesus shares with God the Father.

Jesus shares so much more than the authority to forgive sins and authority over natural forces. He also shares divine titles including but not limited to God and Lord, as we have already seen. The most common title that Jesus shares with Yahweh of Israel’s Scriptures is “Lord” (Greek – kurios). Kurios is the Greek translation of Yahweh, the name of the God of Israel, in the Septuagint. Some argue that this is just a title of respect offered to Jesus because of his role as the messiah-king. Kurios is used for human authority figures like Abraham and David as well. But, as with any word, context determines the meaning of any given use.

When Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord as cited above, he obviously paired that title with the title of God (Greek – theos) applying both to Jesus. Some still might argue that he applied those to Jesus in a lesser sense, although what is said of Jesus in John 1 and elsewhere in John (see 8:58; 10:30 and the context of each) would work against that line of reasoning. Nevertheless, Hebrews 1 also applies both the title God and Lord to Jesus. In Hebrews though those titles are applied to Jesus in a context where the entirety of Psalm 102:25-27, which refers to the “Lord” as the unchanging Creator (cf. Heb 13:8), is applied to him as well.

Jesus also shares other divine titles such as “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17; 22:13), which is how Yahweh refers to himself in Isaiah 44:6. In Isaiah 45:23 Yahweh says “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” The apostle Paul readily applies very similar language to Jesus in Philippians 2:10-11, after saying that Jesus has been given “the name that is above every name” (v. 9). Paul says that not only will every knee bow at the name of Jesus, but every tongue will “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” The way Paul attributes the title/name Lord to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 8:6, which echoes Deuteronomy 6:4, indicates that he means much more than Jesus is a lord. He means Jesus is the Lord, who shares in much more than the titles and name of God. Jesus receives the same allegiance that Yahweh in the context of the Isaiah passages cited above reserves exclusively for himself.

“yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  1 Corinthians 8:6

This level of allegiance for Jesus would be idolatry unless Jesus is more than a mere mortal creature. See how that same verse also indicates that Jesus shares in the creative power of God the Father. Jesus work in creating the cosmos is indicated in other places in the New Testament too (Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17; Heb 1:1-3, 10). Yet Jesus shares even more with God the Father.

Jesus shares the role of God as the Shepherd of God’s people who seeks after the lost and heals the wounded (Ezk 34:11-12). He shares in God’s role as the Savior of his people (Is 43:11). Jesus also shares God’s role as the final judge of the nations (Mth 25). Moreover, he shares God’s role as the one who sends the Holy Spirit to empower his people. Like God the Father, Jesus receives the prayers and the praises of God’s people (Acts 7:59-60; Rev 5). Additionally, Jesus declares that he along with God the Father is to be the object of the faith of God’s people (Jn 14:1), and he, without hesitation, receives worship that belongs to God alone (Mth 28:17; cf. Mth 4:8-10) and likewise shares in the glory that belongs to God alone (Jn 17:1-5; cf. Rev 4-5). As with the word of Yahweh, Jesus boldly claims that his words likewise will never pass away (Is 40:8; Mth 24:35). Moreover, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15 which clearly echoes Dt 6:5ff). Like Yahweh promised his abiding presence to Israel, so too Jesus promises his abiding presence to his disciples (Dt 31:6; Matt 28:20).

The problem really isn’t that the New Testament is murky in terms of Jesus’ divine identity. Even the Old Testament hinted that God himself would come to save his people. See Ezekiel 34 where God says emphatically, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out”(v. 11) in contrast with the corrupt human leaders whom he had appointed to shepherd his people (cf. Jn 10; Matt 15:24, 18:11; Lk 19:10). Ezekiel 34:23-24 does indicate that God would does this through the coming messiah figure, there referred to as his “servant David.” Would this figure, though, be merely a man through whom God would work like the kings and prophets before? Or would this figure be more than a mere mortal, in some way sharing God’s divine identity?

Malachi, echoing Isaiah says, “Behold I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me (God). And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; …” Isaiah 35:4 says, “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” Isaiah 40:3-5, which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all partially quote and apply to John the Baptist as the forerunner who was preparing the way for Jesus. Take a look at the full quote from Isaiah.

 “A voice cries:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
 Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” Isaiah 40:3-5

There were hints throughout the prophets that in some way God himself was going to come to save his people, shepherd them, and reign as king over them (see Zech 14). How exactly would he do this? The New Testament indicates that God did this in Jesus, not by indwelling the body of a mere man, but by becoming human himself. God didn’t do this through simply indwelling the body of another, but by creating his own human body, soul, and spirit. As John put it, the divine eternal word who shared in the work of creation became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:1-14). As Matthew (1:20) and Luke (1:35) put it, the human Jesus was not the byproduct of the ordinary sexual union of a man and a woman, but the creative work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of  the virgin, Mary.

What was murky in the Old Testament becomes clear in the light of the revelation of Jesus in the New Testament. In Christ God really did show up to save and shepherd his people. The promised human messiah king was in the same person the Lord of all.

The issue really isn’t that the Bible is unclear on the divine identity of Christ, although, indeed, the incarnation and the revelation of God in Scripture presents us with mind-boggling paradoxes. One God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Two natures, divine and human, in one person? These are certainly things beyond full human comprehension. But the Bible does declare that there is but one God, and that the Father, the Son (the Word) and the Holy Spirit are each distinct persons with subject/object relationships who are each God by nature. The Trinity is the Church’s best effort to faithfully hold together all of these things revealed about the One True God in Scripture. And what I’ve shared here barely even scratches the surface of the multitudinous, often subtle, sometimes overt, ways that Scripture reveals the divine identity of Jesus, especially as the New Testament is properly read with the Old Testament background firmly in mind. After all, Jesus insisted that Israel’s Scriptures were all about him (Jn 5:39). As Richard Hays put it:

“The more deeply we probe the Jewish and Old Testament roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel.” Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels p. 363

Still there will be many who will object. In some cases there are unitarians who insist that the church has really just misinterpreted the Bible. I used to be one of them. In reality they start with what seems more reasonable to them, and then bend Scripture to fit a unitarian framework. In most cases they make arguments against a docetic modalism while thinking they are making arguments against the Trinity. They do this by pitting Jesus’ human nature against his divine nature in an either/or fashion. They also conflate the person of the Son with the person of the Father. If Jesus was God, they ask, then who did he pray to? This is an honest question. I just had a 7th grade confirmation student ask the same thing because he was genuinely confused. But as a human Jesus certainly prayed to God the Father. Again he was both human and divine. Moreover, as the divine Son who is a distinct person from the Father, he could also direct communication and love to the Father, as also the Father communicated and expressed love to the Son (Mk 1:11). Admittedly these are difficult things to grasp. Ultimately, it requires humility and faith to believe what we can’t fully comprehend.

In other cases, there have been rationalists like the deist Thomas Jefferson, who recognize that the Bible really does teach that Jesus is God. They just reject these claims as legend. They accept Jesus as a great moral, very mortal teacher, perhaps, but nothing more. They know the Bible teaches these things, they just don’t believe they are true. There are many progressive Christians today who usually accept that the Bible teaches the divinity of Christ, but would interpret those teachings as a metaphor for Jesus’ attainment of the highest level of God-consciousness or something of that sort, probably conceived of within the framework of a deistic, pantheistic, or possibly even an atheistic worldview.

In the case of Islam, which is staunchly unitarian, the Quran presents mixed messages. On the one hand there are passages in the Quran that indicate that Christians have simply misinterpreted the Bible (Surah 3:78). There are appeals for Christians to just read the Gospel to see the truth that Jesus is not the divine Son of God (Surah 5:46-47). On the other hand, there are Muslim apologists who insist that the text of the Bible itself has been changed to be misleading, based on other verses in the Quran (there is no evidence of this, by the way). In either case there is a flat out rejection of the belief that Jesus is the divine Son of God or that God is a Trinity. In case of the later, however, the author of the Quran seemed to think the Christian Trinity consisted of Jesus, Mary, and God (Surah 5:116).

 Who is this Jesus? As hard as it may be to believe, the Bible reveals Jesus to be the fully human embodiment of the God revealed in the Old Testament – fully human and fully divine. Therefore Jesus deserves all the glory and honor that he rightfully shares with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, a glory that Yahweh declared he would never share with any other (Is 42:8; cf. Jn 5:23; Jn 17:1-5; Rev 4-5).
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Passing on the Faith: Confirmation

Last week I started a confirmation class at our church. We’ve got a group of six middle-schoolers. This is the fifth group of confirmands I’ve taught in 10 years of pastoral ministry. It is such a joy to pass on the faith to another generation. That’s one of the most important, absolutely vital aspects of the role of pastor.

Over the years I’ve struggled with what resources to use. One curriculum – I think it was “Claim the Name” – provided too much information and too many options – to me anyway. Other years I developed my own basic curriculum centered around the basics of Christian discipleship that I often teach for adults. To it I added a couple of lessons on Trinitarian theology and church history. It was heavy on practical discipleship, but probably a little too light on the content of the Christian faith.

While planning the class for this year I chose the “We Believe: Basic Belief Studies for Youth” curriculum, which seems to strike a very good balance between theology, history, and practical discipleship. I also ordered copies of Tim Tennent’s short catechesis, “Thirty Questions” for each student. The “We Believe” lessons should take the students about 30 minutes to go through on their own each week and about 45 minutes for us to review together during our sessions. The “Thirty Questions” lessons should take less than 10 minutes. I asked the students’ parents to read those lessons with their children 5 days a week, and look up at least one of the suggested scripture readings at the end. I wanted to have the parents involved as much as possible, and the catechism lessons will benefit them as well. The students may also need a little help as the reading level required may be a little higher than where they are. My prayer with this is that it will spark some good conversation between the students and their parents, and be a blessing to both. 26857302_2008374092511242_735649468_n

The total number of weeks for confirmation class is 13. They will complete the catechesis about half way through. For the remainder of the time I will ask them to read a chapter from the Gospel of John each day with their parents as well.

I would love to be able to take the confirmands and their parents on a pilgrimage to the holy land, but I think we might settle for a day trip to Lake Junaluska and the World Methodist Museum along with the other youth. I’ll also strongly encourage them to go on our youth district mission trip this summer as part of their response.

What a joy to pass on “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)! I’ve earnestly asked the church to be in prayer for our confirmation class. It’s about so much more than just learning facts and knowing about God. It’s about experientially knowing God through covenant relationship in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, that doesn’t negate the importance of learning the details of the content of the faith, the right answers to life’s most important questions.

I watched a video a couple days ago of Peter Enns, a professor of Biblical Studies. In it he said when it comes to the Bible it’s not about “getting it right.” He even said, the Bible doesn’t intend to provide us answers. If that’s true then I suppose what I said above is … wrong? I suppose the premise of Tim Tennent’s catechesis is also wrong, that there are questions for which God has revealed answers. My question for Professor Enn’s would simply be is his approach to the “messiness” of the Bible the “right” approach? Is the fact that supposedly the Bible is not concerned about providing answers the final answer on the subject? I would certainly agree that there are no easy answers and there is much more to the reality to which the Bible points than we will ever fully comprehend, but what exactly is Professor Enns trying to say?

The truth is that over and over again the Bible does convey the importance of getting life and our relationship to and with the God who created us right. The Bible does offer answers to life’s biggest questions. Just think of Daniel’s prayer on behalf of his people in Daniel 9. A good summary of his confession would be, “Lord, we got it wrong and you are in the right!” Just think of Hosea calling Israel to repentance and God telling them: “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hosea 4:6 ESV). Was Jeremiah wrong to call Israel back to the “ancient paths, where the good way is”? What about Jesus who clearly said there’s a right road and a wrong road, the difference between life and destruction? (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul too sure did think the Galatians and Corinthians were getting it wrong!

I’ve also had an enjoyable time over the past several weeks working with ministry candidates, one in our own church who is seeking to become a certified candidate soon, one fine young man, who is going before the conference board for commissioning and two others who will be interviewing soon for Elder’s orders. Are they just wasting their time trying to get it right? People from all points on the theological spectrum all certainly seem to have ideas about what is good and what is bad theology.

In reality there is no such thing as a content-less faith, even if it is a faith that rejects orthodoxy. In that case there has just been an exchange of one set of specific beliefs for another.

The call of Jude 3 is an important one. We are called to contend for the faith passed down from the apostles, and pass it on to others, especially our children. That has always been an important calling for God’s people. I think “We Believe” and “Thirty Questions” are excellent tools to that end. May God forgive us where we have fallen short and help us to do better in living up to that great calling in the future.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

“And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you— for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

 “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord …” Deuteronomy 6:4-18b

 

What Christmas Reveals about God

As with so many words, the word God when used by different people may mean very different things. Below is a general sketch of some of the different ways God is conceived in the minds of different people.

  1. Theism – the view that God is a transcendent, intelligent, and personal being who created our universe and remains actively involved in and concerned with our world. God is also concerned with human moral behavior and will judge humans accordingly.
  2. Deism – the view that God is an intelligent being who created the universe, but who allows the universe to run its course through the cause and effect processes that God set in place. In other words, God does not remain directly involved or intervene in the world God created. Historically, some deist have also denied a future judgment for humankind, while others have held to the view of a future judgment of some sort.
  3. Pantheism – the view that the universe itself and/or the material properties of which it consists are eternal and is pervaded by a mystical, impersonal, co-eternal divine force that manifests itself within the universe in a plethora of ways such that everything and everyone is tinged with the divine. With this view all beings, humans on earth or the gods in the heavens are less than the overall unifying force of the universe but are a part of it. In this view God is not distinct from the universe.
  4. Atheism – generally a materialist view of the universe that rejects the belief in God or gods or other supernatural beings. With this view the universe is the result of natural, random forces, and processes period. Although, it may seem odd to imply that this is what some mean by the word God, there are people who consider themselves Christian Atheists. In this case an atheist “Christian” would use the word “God” to refer to something along the lines of the natural force that gives rise to all existence, “the ground of all being” (See Article: “What Does it Mean to be a Christian Atheist? here). Practically, it might be difficult to distinguish this view from some versions of pantheism. The militant atheist Richard Dawkins basically conceded in a debate with John Lennox that he could believe there might be a deistic or pantheistic sort of being, but not a personal god who would care about sin and morality (see debate here). One of the most infamous atheist “Christians” was the cult leader, Jim Jones, a communist progressive, who, for a short time, was a Methodist student pastor. He went on to found to be ordained by the Disciples of Christ denomination and founded The People’s Temple. In time Jim Jones came to believe in God; unfortunately he believed it was he himself who was God.

The meaning of the word God, as with any word, is determined by more than a basic dictionary definition. Context, in a profound way, also determines the meaning and significance of any particular word, and not only a single word but also sentences and entire passages of a particular text.

For example, take the scenario of a man who leaves home jogging. He runs a little ways and turns left, then runs a little farther and turns left again, then a little farther and turns left again, only to return home to find two masked men waiting for him. What’s going on?

Given this scenario most will guess a robbery or kidnapping is taking place, or perhaps even a political assassination or a mob hit. This very well could be the case, but let me give you one word to “bring it all home for you:” baseball. That one word provides the framework for you to understand that the guy who took off jogging from home hit a home run and the two masked men are the catcher and the umpire. If I gave you the word mobsters or espionage you would know that we were talking about something very different. Context determines meaning.

In the context of the Bible God is revealed to be the Sovereign Creator of the Universe who created the world by speaking it into existence. This God is distinct from the universe and in no way subject to forces within the universe and outside of himself; he exercises sovereign control over all that he has made. He is revealed to be the Creator of the whole world and every nation of people within it. The God of the Bible created humanity in his image with limited freedom to have dominion over the earth. And he cares about what we do. The God of the Bible didn’t just set things in motion with no care or concern for what the creatures within his creation do. God cares, not only for humans, but also for animals and the rest of creation over which he gave humanity dominion (see Jonah 4:11; Luke 12:6).

With a world of humans in rebellion against his reign over the universe and blinded to his will by idolatry and the distorted conception of the divine that goes along with it, God called a special people out of the rest of the nations and made a special covenant with them. He called them to be a bright witness for the one true God to the rest of humanity. This witness included the witness of a moral life to which God called them. Through Israel God sought to reveal himself, who he really is and what he is really like, and to call the rest of humanity back into relationship with him. He is a personal and a relational being.

He called Israel out of a pantheistic worldview and the worship of many gods through idols. Throughout its history Israel struggled unsuccessfully to maintain the worldview, and the holy and moral life that goes with it, for which God called them. They were continually lured back into idolatry and its consequent immorality. They continually failed not only to love God above all; they also failed to truly love and care for each other as God had commanded them. The Church too has always faced the same temptations.

Even during their best of times, one of the most renowned of Israelites, King David, at times even wondered how such an awesome and majestic Creator could actually care for individual human beings, who are less than a speck of dust in the whole scheme of things (Psalm 8). Israel certainly wondered whether God really cared during their worst of times when it seemed as if God had abandoned them completely. I would imagine that many of them wondered whether the God of their ancestors really existed at all.

Does the Creator really care? What if God is really just an impersonal force to be harnessed through impersonal spells, rituals, and incantations? What if God really doesn’t care about what we do in terms of morality and behavior? And if God really doesn’t care about what we do, could he really care about us at all. Could you say a parent who really doesn’t care about what his children do really cares about them?  Is a caring and personal God really with us and for us? Or are we simply subject to capricious impersonal forces that might or might not bring us good luck and fortune, or worse yet the indifferent, impersonal random forces of nature?

The unique revelation of the Bible, is that the God who gave us life, cares about how we live. He cares about morality. As Saint Augustine noted in The City of God and as John Oswalt notes in his book, The Bible Among the Myths, pagan religions were really not concerned with morality. Morality in the pagan world was determined relative to who held political power, and the concern was to establish order to secure that power. Pagan religion was about attracting the favor of the gods who were often quite capricious and just as immoral as any human being, as Saint Augustine argued with regards to the Roman pantheon. Pagans worshiped to attract the favor of the gods through rituals, sacrifice, spells, and incantations among other things, but not through moral obedience.

The God of the Bible is unique in insisting that his blessing comes through obedience to his will, especially in terms of moral behavior. God cares not only about how we relate to him, but also how we relate to each other, every human being created in his image. And the God of the Bible doesn’t just care from a distance, he dwells among his obedient people. He meets with them. He miraculously intervenes on their behalf. Indeed he does demand obedience, but not as a pitiless taskmaster. He is a gracious and merciful God who forgives and provides the means of forgiveness for his people.

After exile and the departure of the glory of God from the temple, which was eventually destroyed, Israel wondered if God had forgotten them, had he abandoned them for good. Through prophets like Isaiah he assured them he had not.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15 ESV

Christmas is the confirmation that God did not forget us. God has not and will not abandon us to our own devices or to the impersonal forces of the universe. In Jesus Christ God has come to be with us in the most intimate and personal of ways.Star-of-Bethlehem

Christmas is not just the celebration of the birth of a legendary religious leader. Christmas is about the incarnation of the one who created us. That is, Christmas is about a God who cares, who loves us so much that he became one of us. In Christ God became human to saves us and to guide us a our Shepherd. The first Christmas was replete with miracles, but the greatest miracle of all is that God became human. Jesus wasn’t just the greatest prophet; he was God in the flesh as the first chapter of the Gospel of John reveals. And he wasn’t just God in the flesh in a generic sense, but the particular God revealed in the words of Israel’s sacred Scriptures.

Because of the paradoxes that emerge when we begin to contemplate how the infinite was combined with the finite in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, over the centuries many have objected that Jesus could not really be both fully divine and fully human. Some have erred by exalting his divinity at the expense of his humanity; others by exalting his humanity at the expense of his divinity. But the human Jesus was the embodiment of the God of Israel. (In a later post I’ll explain in more detail how this is revealed in the Bible).

Christmas is a reminder that God really does care about us. He cares about what we do because he cares about us. Therefore, even when we fall short of his will, he is gracious and merciful, plenteous in patience and abundant in forgiveness. In Christ we not only know that God is with us, our Emmanuel, we also know that God is for us. He doesn’t abandon the wayward to their own devices; he doesn’t abandon his sheep to the whims of cruel and selfish shepherds. As he said he would do in Ezekiel, God, himself, in Christ seeks his lost sheep.

“For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”  Ezekiel 34:11

My wife and I have five kids and one on the way, due in June. With so many kids sometimes things can get a little confused. Once when we returned home from somewhere, my wife got our youngest daughter out of the van, and I thought, one of our older kids had grabbed our 3 year old son. I was wrong. We had left him for just a couple of minutes alone in the van in the garage. When I went to get him, he was not only terrified, but also emotionally hurt. Crying, he said, “Daddy you left me!!!”

“Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isaiah 49:15 b

The message of Christmas is that God has not forgotten us. Jesus, is a revelation like none other, that God really is with us, and that he really does care about us. In Christ, our Emmanuel, God really is with us and he will never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 1:23 & 28:17-20).

Christmas is about a revelation of God, the eternal Word who became flesh (John 1:1-18).  This was not just any kind of god in some generic sense, and not just about one manifestation of God among many. Christmas is about the revelation of the merciful and gracious God who is described in the pages of Israel’s sacred Scriptures, the one who claims to be the one and only true God and the Creator of heaven and earth, the one who is greater than and wholly other than the universe, yet intimately involved in it. The meaning and significance of the Word in the flesh is determined by the context of the Bible.

The message of Christmas quite simply is that we are loved. We are loved! and eternally so by our eternal, all powerful, yet intimately personal God.

Merry Christmas!

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Jeremiah 31:3 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

 

 

Mercy for Christmas

We didn’t get the sermon recorded this morning, so I thought I’d share the essence of the message I preached this morning here.

As you read through Luke chapter 1, especially Mary’s song of praise during her visit with Elizabeth who was in the third trimester of pregnancy with her son John the Baptist and the prophecy of John’s father, Zechariah, the word mercy appears repeatedly. As the virgin mother, Mary, who was just a few months behind Elizabeth in her pregnancy with the Messiah, Jesus, extols the virtues of the Lord she refers to God’s mercy twice. Mary and Elizabeth

“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Luke 1:50 ESV

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, ..  Luke 1:54

Zechariah, as his tongue is mercifully released after being stricken mute by the angel Gabriel, also praises God. Zechariah too describes God’s action in bringing the Messiah into the world as an act of mercy (1:72, 78). In both cases, Mary and Zechariah speak of future deliverance as if it had already happened, interestingly as does the prophet Isaiah in his prophecy of the child to be born who would inherit the throne of David and reign in justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:1-7).

The mercy of which Mary and Zechariah spoke was an essential part of the fulfillment of long awaited promises made to their ancestors, Abraham and the long line of his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. The fulfilled promise of mercy brought great joy, and with it the promise of greater joy still to come.

Christmas is about God’s gift of mercy, given in the most intimate and personal of ways. In fact Christmas reveals and confirms that the God who made covenant with Israel for the blessing of the whole world, really is a God of mercy. Mercy is at the heart of who God really is and what God is really like. And this is what God claimed to be like all along. As he reveals himself to Moses after making covenant with Israel in the first place, God describes himself thus:

….. “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:6-7

Although grace seems to get more attention, mercy and grace are really two sides of the same coin. Grace is divine unmerited favor and blessings. Grace is receiving something good that we do not deserve and could not earn. Mercy, on the other hand, is the withholding of or relief from deserved punishment. Mercy is the removal of something bad that we do deserve.

Neither mercy nor grace should ever be used as an excuse to continue in sin, although it often is. We see warnings about that very thing all over the New Testament itself (i.e. Romans 6; Jude among other places). It’s certainly not true that God really doesn’t care about what we do. God does indeed care what we do. He does because he really cares about us. God cares about what we do, but not as a pitiless taskmaster who just wants to get all the personal benefit he can out of us.

One of the most important aspects of the Gospel, the Good News, is that God really doesn’t need us anyway. Now that may leave you wondering how that’s good news, but it really is. God is by nature a personal being, one God in three persons, a tri-personal being, who is completely sufficient in himself. God needs nothing outside of himself. God doesn’t need us, but the good news is, God really wants us because he loves us. Creation wasn’t born of any necessity in God; creation was born of love, you and I are the product of love when it comes to the Maker of us all.

God loves us, therefore God has compassion for us, knowing our frailties. Knowing our sin and rebellion, every bad thought, desire, and deed we’ve ever done, he loves us anyway and offers us mercy.

Mercy is about relief, relief from suffering and punishment because of sin in the world in general or specific sins in our own lives individually. Jerry Clower told the story of coon hunting with his friend John who liked to climb trees to knock the raccoon out amongst the coon dogs. Once when John had climbed a really tall tree to knock the coon out, he soon realized it wasn’t a coon at all; it was a wild cat! After a long struggle, John yelled down for somebody to shoot the thing. They said, “No! We can’t really see good enough; we might shoot you.” John yelled back, “Well, just go ahead and shoot up here amongst us anyway, ’cause one of us has got to have some relief.”

God’s mercy is about relief, but it’s better than what Jerry Clower’s friend was asking for! On Christmas day, mercy was born and could be found in a manger. On Good Friday mercy pleaded from the cross to which he had been sentenced and nailed unjustly by those he came to save, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)

Do you need mercy! “Mercy there was great and grace was free!” (Hymn “At Calvary”) God in Christ offers each of us, who deserves far different, the gift of mercy.

Sometimes, even at our best, we feel like we just haven’t quite done enough, that somehow God loves us less because we haven’t perfected our performance. In times like this we need to remember God’s mercy. It’s not about the perfection of our performance, it’s about the sincerity of the efforts that we make in faith. All of us will fall far short of perfection in our attempts to please and represent God. We will make mistakes. But God’s love for us is none the less. God looks own our hearts and our efforts and rejoices as much as parents or grandparents do over their own portraits drawn by their small child or grandchild. Even before we’ve done anything at all, God’s loves us, and he knows our frail frames and has compassion (see Psalm 103).

Mercy is never earned – it is a gift – but it must be received. Even when we sin egregiously and give into temptation, mercy is still there for us. When we repent and confess our sin, God in his mercy forgives us (1 John 1:9). But mercy is received in the presence of God. We must turn away from sin and turn back to him! And mercy is all that we will receive! Justice is what we get when we refuse to repent and confess our sin, when we continue to try to justify ourselves rather than seeking to be justified by God. Justice and punishment only happens outside of the presence of God; in God’s presence there is only mercy (Luke 15) and therefore joy!

R.C. Sproul, the wonderful Reformed theologian and teacher of the faith who recently went home to be with the Lord, said this of mercy:

“God does not always act with justice. Sometimes he acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see nonjustice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”

In Christ God provides all of us mercy! It is never earned and never deserved. That would be justice. Mercy is God’s gift. It’s a gift that must be received. And it’s also a gift that must be given and shared with others. That’s one way you will know you’ve trully received God’s mercy in the first place (see Matthew 18:21-35), when you are eager and willing to extend mercy to others, even those who have hurt you or seek to hurt you or the Church deeply. Even when it comes to people who actively conspire against the Church and the people of God, we are called by God to offer mercy in compassion. Mercy is a gift to be received and a gift to share with others.

How ’bout a little mercy for Christmas this year. Receive it and give it in the name of Jesus and for his sake.

This doesn’t mean that we pretend like evil actions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that we should not speak against sinful actions or demand that perpetrators cease and desist from committing evil. Indeed, mercy would demand that we warn evildoers about the consequences of their actions and the judgment to come. We can renounce evil actions without hatefully condemning evildoers to life devoid of our compassion and mercy. Whether it is received or not we are called to offer it. After church today, I saw a report that radical Muslim suicide bombers attacked a Methodist church in Pakistan. I pray for the victims’ families, and also the terrorists. I pray that the victims may be comforted by the hope and peace of Christ. I also pray that the terrorists would be convicted of the sin of murder in their hearts and repent and receive the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Contempt long harbored in the heart can quickly metastasize into hate, and hate will eventually consume all who stew in it.

The one born and laid in a lowly manger (Luke 2:7) grew in the wisdom of God (Luke 2:52), and eventually taught:

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-36

How about some mercy for Christmas this year?

Uniting Methodists: A Catholic Spirit?

Earlier this week a group called “Uniting Methodists” convened in Atlanta. The stated purpose? To “be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.” The movement is purported to be a centrist one to allow space for traditionalist, moderate, and progressive United Methodists to continue together under the proverbial bigger tent. But I don’t think there is really anything new here.

For a movement that’s supposed to unify both traditionalists and progressives, they still seem intent on alienating, marginalizing, and negatively labeling those of us who hold to traditional views regarding sex and marriage. For instance, they continue to compare the debate over sexual ethics with past debates over slavery, race, and women in ministry. How is it unifying to continue to compare traditionalists with proponents of slavery, racists, and misogynists?

The Uniting Methodists movement shows few, if any, signs of actually respecting those with opposing views on Christian sexual morality and marriage. One prominent advocate for the supposed centrist position in my own conference talks about the LGBTQ movement as if it is just a forgone conclusion that the church just needs to accept in light of the cultural and political changes that have taken place in the United States. He also continued the comparisons to race, slavery, and women in ministry, and said the only reason conservatives won’t go along is because of fear and ignorance.  I’ve heard these kind of arguments for years from the upper echelons of leadership, most of whom claim to be centrist. Either the progressive~centrists really don’t understand why traditionalists believe what they believe, or they just don’t want to lend any credibility to traditionalist views and, thus, seek to caricature them.

Bishop Ken Carter, who is supposed to be a moderator of The Way Forward Commission charged with presenting possible solutions to the Council of Bishops, also took on the role of a progressive advocate while claiming to be centrist. In a video he released he made pretty much the same arguments that Uniting Methodists are making. He implied that unity is the only absolute non-negotiable. He even argued that’s because it is Biblical as he rattled off a few proof-texts. He then went on to talk about the LGBTQ movement as a forgone conclusion and implied that the only way the church can be in ministry with all people is to accept the beliefs and practices advocated by the LGBTQ movement (find summary here). He also continued the fallacious race comparison in an interview with Bishop Woodie White, posted on the Facebook page for the “UMC Commission on a Way Forward.”

Bishop Carter’s role as a moderator has certainly not been a neutral one. He doesn’t even indicate that conservatives have any objections to the race comparison, much less plausible ones.

Why is “unity” a non-negotiable because the Bible says so, but Biblical sexual holiness isn’t? Have centrists considered the possibility that not only do we have contradictory visions for holiness, but also of unity. Unity is not something that we can create through waving a legislative wand, it is a gift of the Spirit. Conservatives do not believUnitye real unity can be achieved apart from a unified vision of what it means to be a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. As David Watson argued recently, it seems “we lack not only a common vision for the church, but a common vision of the church. Put differently, it’s not just that we disagree over what the church should do. Rather, we disagree over what it means to be a church.” (see my thoughts here for why unity must not be separated from the other marks of the church).

I see a lot of contempt, not much respect, for the views of traditionalists like me coming from the centrist~progressives. If you really want to be a unifying voice that makes space for conservatives and progressives under the same tent, you might want to stop comparing conservatives to defenders of slavery and racists. Neither is it unifying to accuse conservatives of killing people with their views. This kind of labeling and accusation makes it really hard to believe that it’s remotely possible for conservatives and centrist~progressives to peacefully co-exist under the same tent.

As far as being a clarifying voice, I don’t really see that either. It still looks like the same old smoke and mirrors game. The centrist~progressives claim to represent 80% to 90% of United Methodists, who supposedly don’t think views regarding sexuality should divide the church. I’d like to see the research methodology that revealed those numbers. I doubt they were derived from a random, representative sample of United Methodists, clergy and laity from around the globe. Polls of United Methodists who can easily access email and social media would hardly be representative of the global church. If 80% really do believe we should remove the restrictions regarding sexuality from the Book of Discipline, then the petition that my own conference put forward in 2015 to have General Conference remove those restrictions should have passed easily. But, in fact, it failed. But majorities in terms of numbers of people is not the best way to gauge faithfulness to the one who calls us to follow the narrow path to begin with (Matthew 7:13-14).

Moreover, it’s not clarifying to continue to put forward the idea that issues regarding sexual morality are indifferent matters like whether or not one eats certain foods or observes particular Sabbath days as Paul writes about in Romans 14 (see article making this fallacious comparison on the Uniting Methodists website here). I suppose it’s better than comparing views regarding sexual morality and whether a clergy person wears robes and stoles or not as one retired Bishop did a few years back or comparing it to people in the same family who support different sports teams as did another prominent pastor. It’s still, nonetheless, a confusion of categories that the apostle Paul himself would not recognize. Just look at what comes right before Romans 14.

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”                       Romans 13:13-14 ESV (compare Galatians 5:16-24 and the dire warning there)

How can you on the one hand compare conservative views to the support of slavery and racism, and also say that views regarding sexual ethics are indifferent matters? That’s not clarifying; that’s confusing to say the least. At my own Annual Conference in 2014, during a panel discussion where James Howell advocated for the indifferent position, a progressive layperson, the wife of a pastor, said she could not understand how the status of homosexuality could be treated as an indifferent matter. To her it would be like treating racism or slavery as an indifferent matter. There is nothing new about this position; neither is there anything really clarifying about it. And to suggest that our view of the nature of God is all that we need for unity belies the call of that same God for us to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16).

It’s also not clarifying to continue to suggest that homosexuality is the only issue that divides us. To be sure that has drawn the most attention because of the specific restrictions found in the Book of Discipline. But conservatives are not just concerned about sexuality. Just take the case of Karen Oliveto, for example. She is married to another woman and has performed dozens of same-sex weddings in defiance of church law. In 2016 she was elected bishop out of the Western Jurisdiction, even though she is not technically qualified to even be a pastor. Conservatives are rightly concerned about the fact that she flouts our official standards for sexual morality. However, we are also concerned that she feels free to set herself up as a corrector of not only the apostles and prophets, but Jesus himself. She argues that the Bible has benefits and flaws. She says the Bible’s language about election and separating the sheep from the goats is wrong because it is exclusionary. This she says in spite of the fact that Jesus himself talked about the elect and that he himself would separate the sheep from the goats at the final judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Seeing Jesus as sometimes needing to be corrected is apparently no big deal at all to Oliveto.  A few weeks ago she drew criticism for suggesting that the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to deliver her daughter from demon possession, actually corrected Jesus and helped him to change his mind to let go of prejudice and bigotry. Instead of seeing a divine test of faith from the sinless God-man, as John Wesley did, Oliveto sees Jesus here as an example of  someone repenting of bigotry. But at least she didn’t criticize him for casting the demon out of the woman’s daughter as she did with the apostle Paul who casts a spirit of divination out of a young girl as recorded in Acts 16:16-24. Here Oliveto echoed the same criticism leveled against the apostle in a sermon delivered by the progressive former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Schori, in addition to criticizing Paul for depriving the young girl of what she called a valuable spiritual gift, said:

“Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!”  (See report here)

For her part Schori stood by her criticism of Paul and the Bible in general as sometimes needing to be corrected by postmodern readers like herself (See NY Times report here). Oliveto also stood by her assessment of Jesus as needing correction initially, although her controversial Facebook post was eventually removed. John Lomperis, however, did save a copy of her post in his own report (here).

What some have called a generous orthodoxy has just turned out to be a clever, albeit misleading, name for heterodoxy, and what Wesley would call a “speculative latitudinarianism” (Sermon 39, Catholic Spirit 3:1). One of the leaders of my conference posted a promotion of the Uniting Methodists movement followed a little later by a promotion for an event featuring the ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. I noticed that a lot of the centrist~progressives were ecstatic. As I have written before, I read Bolz-Weber’s book, “Pastrix” in which she says she sometimes needs to hang out with God’s aunt, the Wiccan goddess, among other troubling things.

As a matter of fact, about three months ago Bolz-Weber responded to the release of a conservative Christian statement regarding sexual morality called “The Nashville Statement” with a very detailed statement of her own, which she called “The Denver Statement.” Bolz-Weber’s Denver Statement not only denied that homosexual practice is sinful, but also affirmed and denied the following:

“WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices.”
Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/#oWc7oDYElmsDIoTe.99

As far as I could tell there was nothing but contempt for the Nashville Statement coming from the centrist~progressive types, and an abundance of praise for the Denver Statement.

So is it really clarifying to suggest that our views regarding homosexuality are the only obstacles to unity? Perhaps the most prominent leader among the Uniting Methodists, Adam Hamilton, argues that the Bible is no more inspired than the writings of other Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, Hamilton believes there are certain portions of Scripture that were never really worthy of God as revealed in Jesus (see Brent White’s analysis here and here). Whereas Psalm 19:9b says “the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether,” Hamilton says they are true and righteous for the most part. Our differing views on the authority of Scripture alone are a major obstacle to unity, not to mention, to use Bolz-Weber’s words, those who would push for the legitimization of the “endless variety” of sexual expression. As for me, I’ll stick with John Wesley’s assessment that:

“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”  ~ Preface to New Testament Notes

**I would recommend David Watson’s new book, “Scripture and the Life of God” on why this is still important, especially if you’re wrestling with how to make sense of the more difficult parts of Scripture.**

I would suggest that it is the centrist~progressive view of what unity is itself that stands in the way of real unity. We have different views of unity. The centrist~progressive view of unity is inextricably tied to their commitment to theological diversity, the pluralism that got us into this mess to begin with (see Drew McIntyre’s assessment of that here). The traditionalist view of unity is tied to a commitment to the other marks of the church, namely holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Centrist~progressives seem to be committed to a view that makes room for just about any view other than the traditional orthodox view of a unity firmly grounded in the other marks of the church.

And quoting Wesley out of context to support a view of unity grounded in a commitment to a theological diversity that Wesley himself would call a “speculative latitudinarianism”, an “indifference to all opinions”, which is “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (Sermon 39: Catholic Spirit, 3:1) simply won’t do. It is neither unifying nor clarifying. For Wesley the main branches of Christianity include not only our views on the nature of God, but also holiness grounded in the holy and perfect moral law of God revealed in Scripture (Sermon 39:1:16).

In short, the centrist~progressive view of unity is not Biblical, not matter how many proof-texts from the Bible or Wesley they line up. I would say it is a unity conceived in the flesh with a commitment to theological diversity, not one born of the Spirit with a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. The proof is in the fruit (see again Galatians 5:16-24).

I’ll conclude with the wider quotation from Wesley on what he did NOT mean by the phrase “the catholic spirit.”

“One inference we may make from what has been said. We may learn from hence, what is a catholic spirit.
There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied, than this: but it will be easy for any who calmly consider the preceding observations, to correct any such misapprehensions of it, and to prevent any such misapplication.
For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”    Sermon 39: 3:1

 

The Scariest Thing of All: Damnation and Hell

About three years ago I was standing in a long line with my son waiting to board “The Nighthawk,” a roller-coaster at Carowinds. The wait ended up being a little more than an hour – it was a busy day. A 15 year old young man in line immediately in front of us struck up a conversation.

First he asked me, “does your son live with you or his momma?” He was surprised to learn that he lived with both of us together. As the conversation continued, about 20 minutes in, it suddenly took a chilling turn. The young man began to talk about how he would kill himself if he were to carry out a school shooting. He talked about it as if it was a newly discovered strategy that would bring him victory in a video game. There was quite a bit of glee on his face as he pictured the ghoulish scene in his mind’s eye.

The three college-aged kids in front of him, a couple of young women and a guy, looked like they’d just seen a ghost when they comprehended the words flowing so effortlessly from between this troubled young man’s lips. As I leaned in to respond all eyes within earshot of this disturbing conversation were firmly fixed on me.

I asked the young man if he was serious. Nervously stuttering and stammering, he said he wouldn’t really do anything like that; he was just speaking hypothetically. To me it sounded like he was describing a “cool” horror movie in which he would play the starring role. I wasn’t convinced that he wasn’t really serious.

I talked to him about the incalculable value of human life because we’re all created in the image of God, about how murder is evil and nothing to be glorified, even in fantasy. I asked him if he believed in God. He said he did, and that he had gone to church on occasion. I could tell he knew only enough about grace to be dangerous. When he assured me he was a Christian, I asked if he thought he would still go to heaven if he were to carry out such a horrific plan. He thought he would because he had been saved, he said. He didn’t go to church anywhere regularly but had prayed to become a Christian at some point and had been baptized. Yet, most of the words about most things he said revealed a heart that had not been transformed by the love of God.

I told him about the importance of true faith and being born again. I also warned him about false assurance and the judgment to come and the possibility of hell and eternal damnation (Matthew 7:15-27). I asked him to consider the possibility that if he did such a thing that he would just go into an eternal inferno rather than out in a blaze of glory. I told him he needed to renounce his dark fantasies rather than finding enjoyment in them (1 Corinthians 13:6). I told him that God loved him so much that He sent His Son so that he would not have to perish but so that he could be delivered from evil and set free to live for God and with God forever. His countenance began to change and so did that of the other young people who were very attentively eavesdropping on our conversation. I sensed some remorse, and a more sober attitude. He said he understood. A few minutes later we were being strapped into “The Nighthawk.” I had never met the young man before and I haven’t seen him since. If I never see him again in this life, I hope to see him again in the kingdom of God.

Many, including many in the church, find the idea of hell distasteful, even offensive. A lot of pastors and churches avoid talking about it at all. Even orthodox evangelicals, who may mention it from time to time, often downplay its horror – I have myself. Some so focus on supposedly helping people have their best life or society now that they ignore the dark side of eternity entirely, if they believe there is such a thing at all. I know some will argue that the church attendance will suffer if we talk about such gloomy things, but isn’t the mainline church in pretty big trouble any way? It’s certainly not because mainline pastors have warned about hell too much. In reality it seems the more we ignore the reality of hell in the afterlife, the more likely we are to have the conditions for hell on earth in this life, sometimes in gulags and concentration camps.

I’ll never forget the woman who came to me after I preached a sermon in early 2008 in which I just mentioned the possibility of eternal damnation in passing, a tangent of about 30 seconds or less. She came to me afterwards with tears streaming and dripping onto her blouse and said, “Thank you! We really needed to hear that! We haven’t heard anything about hell from the pulpit in over 30 years.”

Some will argue that idea of God condemning anyone to an eternity in hell is incompatible with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But they can’t really be referring to Jesus as he is revealed in the New Testament. It’s just not true that Jesus is different from the God of the Old Testament, who often warned about and carried out judgment against the wicked. In many ways the preaching and teaching of Jesus just magnifies the judgment of God.

The first words out of Jesus’ mouth when  he began preaching were not, “I’m okay; you’re okay; we’re all okay” or even “God loves you,” although the genuine love of God was implicit in his words. The first words Jesus uttered when he began to preach were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven  is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).

With this proclamation Jesus echoed the message of the book of Daniel, which talks about worldly kingdoms founded on the sinking sand of “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16) that rise as a high-rise house of cards. A house of CardsAll of these kingdoms of human pride inevitably fall. There is only one kingdom that will last forever, the kingdom of God (see Daniel 2 & 7). The kingdom of God lasts forever because it is founded on self-giving, self-sacrificial love. Jesus began his ministry by summonsing his hearers to come out of the doomed kingdoms of the world and to enter into the kingdom of God (see Revelation 18). Those who don’t heed his summons on God’s terms will be left out in the cold so to speak, in “the outer darkness. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:1-14).

“He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” Luke 13:22-28

In fact, Jesus was alluding to Daniel 12:1-3 when he warned about the final judgment for which we must be prepared when he said at his second coming he would separate the sheep from the goats, and the latter would “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

The fact is Jesus warned about eternal damnation more than anyone. And Jesus’ warning did not just apply to those outside his inner circle in general or just to the hardhearted religious leaders who opposed him; they also applied to his closest followers. Indeed, some of his most terrifying warnings were directed toward his own disciples. To them he said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). This was to encourage them not to deny him or be ashamed of him and his words even if their lives were threatened by worldly human authorities (see Matthew 10:16-33; also Mark 8:31-38). This, basically, is the gist of the message given by the resurrected and exalted Jesus to the churches in the book of Revelation. According to Jesus there is a fate worse than physical death when it comes to compromising with evil.

Fear in itself is not a bad thing. It’s when we fear men more than God that it’s a problem. Fear properly directed toward God in faith is the beginning of wisdom (i.e. Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10), which keeps us out of real trouble. It is the lack of the fear of God that deceives one into thinking he can commit sin and perpetrate evil with impunity (i.e. Psalm 36). Fear is the beginning of wisdom; love is its goal.

The message of Jesus is not a threat, but a warning. To me the basic difference is a threat is issued out of a desire to coerce one against one’s will for selfish ends in order to use and manipulate. A warning on the other hand, is to appeal to one’s free will to choose a better path for themselves out of a sense of love for the person and concern for the person’s best interests in the long term.

Too often these teachings of Jesus are approached from how they make us feel. But the best approach is to ask ourselves, not whether we like what Jesus is saying, but whether or not the content of Jesus’ warning is true?

Jesus’ message was that we need to repent, change the orientation of our lives, turn away from sin and return to God, to come out of the worldly kingdoms of darkness and come into the kingdom of God because eventually the kingdom of God will be the only truly safe place left. The question is not whether we like it or not, the question is, is Jesus telling us the truth? IF we trust him then we are going to make our way into the kingdom on his terms. If we don’t we will either reject Jesus altogether, or we may try to reinterpret his warnings so as to soften them, which really just amounts to the same thing in the end I’m afraid.

Hell is just the end result of continuing in sin, which already cuts us off from the abundant life available through relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Sin renders us dead to God (Ephesians 2:1-3). Continuing in that state without repentance and faith in Jesus and his words leads to what Revelation calls the second death (2:11; 21:8).

Of course when it comes to hell there is much that is symbolic. When Jesus used the word that is translated “hell” in most English translation, most of the time it is the Greek, “gehenna.” Gehenna was a burning dump for trash and refuse down in one of the valleys outside the city walls of Jerusalem. In times past it had been the sight of child sacrifice to pagan gods like Molech when Israel fell into apostasy. Jesus used this literal sight as a symbol for the horrors of a real place for those who refuse to enter into the kingdom of God through repentance, faith, and the new birth. The symbolism in no way indicates that hell is not real, but points to a reality that is beyond full human comprehension.

When it comes to eternal damnation and the fate of the damned, there is much mystery. There are indications that even in hell there is some measure of mercy; as Jesus implied that there are varying degrees to the punishment therein (see Luke 10:14).

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Matthew 23:13,15

Dante’s Inferno,” written in the 14th century, follows this idea of varying degrees of punishment for the wicked allegorically. Nonetheless, compared to the kingdom of God any level of hell is nothing less than a horrific tragedy of eternal proportions.

Finding the thought of eternal, conscious existence in hell unreasonable, many have resorted to the idea that hell, if it exists at all, is only temporary. Some insist that all will eventually be saved and welcomed into the kingdom (universalism); others have insisted the wicked are immediately or eventually put of existence (a state of no consciousness) altogether (annihilationism). At one time, I was in the latter camp. Both cases seem to me to be an exaltation of reason and emotion above the revelation of God’s word. Both are hopeful speculation at best. I think if either is actually the case it will be a surprise, and we should just leave it at that. Who are we to ignore or downplay Jesus’ warnings?!

Rather than holding out the hope of universalism or annihilationism, we should place our hope in “nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness [and] dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name” (from the hymn “My Hope is Built” – Edward Mote 1834).

For some the scariest thing is death. But according to Jesus what should scare us most is hell, cutting ourselves off from the life of God forever. What may actually be scarier than the idea that the way we live now doesn’t really matter in the end, is that it really does matter for eternity. God takes no pleasure in the death and judgment of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) – he does not desire that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Anyone who turns from sin and returns to Him, he will never turn away!

But neither does God take pleasure in his prophets refusing to warn the wicked of the judgment to come.

“If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 3:18

** For further study see: “Hell: The Logic of Damnation” by Jerry Walls and “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

Dealing with the Demonic: Deliverance from Evil

I had just delivered my first sermon at a new appointment. I shared my testimony of how God had reached me at a very dark time in my life. I shared how he had miraculously intervened to eventually deliver me from the grip of the evil one when I finally surrendered my life to Jesus Christ, bowed my knees to him and confessed with my tongue that he is Lord (see Philp 2:9-11 and Isaiah 45:23) (You can find more about my testimony by scrolling down to the first 6 articles on this blog). A woman came to me after the service – tears streaming – to tell me how much my testimony had moved her. She said she had a son in his early 20’s that she was also very concerned about. She said he was into witchcraft and was at times exhibiting very disturbing and frightening behavior. Sometimes he would get a very strange look in his eyes, which sometimes rolled back so all you could see was the white, and at times he seemed to speak other languages.

My first response was to encourage her to continue to pray for him. I also assured her that I would pray with her. We began our prayer together for her son right then and there. I tried to reassure her by telling her that my mother, as well as many others, had prayed for me for a decade until I finally surrendered my life to God through faith in Jesus. I hoped it wouldn’t take so long for her son.

A little over a month later I had the opportunity to meet the young man at the funeral of a relative. I introduced myself shortly after I gave the benediction for the committal service in the cemetery. My first encounter with Ronnie (not his real name) was a bit intense. After I introduced myself, he tilted his head back slightly and responded with the typical pleasantries, but in a strange tone of voice reminiscent of a hiss.

Later at lunch with the family I sat with Ronnie and some other family members and just tried to talk to get to know him a little bit. Things were much more mellow at this point. He told me about where he worked and some of his interests. I told him a little about myself and invited him to come to church sometime. I also asked if he’d like to get together sometime to talk. He said he would and gave me his phone number.

One day I called to see if he’d like to go to lunch. He said he would. Over some Chinese food I shared my testimony with him and why I am a follower of Jesus. Ronnie said he thought Jesus was pretty cool, but not a lot of his followers. He also objected to the idea that Jesus could be the only way of salvation. He thought of Jesus as only one of many ways to ultimate reality and happiness. I understood where he was coming from, but tried to explain that Jesus himself precluded that possibility by claiming to be the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and that the general context of the Bible, which claims to reveal the one and only true God who alone deserves to be worshipped as God, makes the interpretation of Jesus statement pretty straightforward. As the argument of C.S. Lewis implies, (Mere Christianity, p. 45), based on his own claims Jesus must be viewed as a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. Ronnie wasn’t really buying it though.

After this, nevertheless, he did come to church some. I remember one sermon – although I can’t really remember the topic – where he seemed to respond quite enthusiastically. Again we planned a time to get together to talk. One day he came by the church and we talked in the fellowship hall for a few hours. Ronnie brought a small velvet bag with gems that he used for power, as he explained to me. In response I asked him about praying to the One who made all things, including those gems. He acknowledged the possibility, but went on to talk to me about “the law of attraction,” a technique he also used to try to bring positive things and power into his life.

I explained how I had also believed in just such a technique in the past, although I called it “the law of believing” in a nominally Christian context. The idea is that through thinking and speaking positively you can attract the good things into your life, positive vibes from the universe in new age circles or the blessings of God in churches that practice these principles. But I also explained that through surrendering my life to Jesus as he is revealed in the Bible, I learned that life is not about me getting everything I want, but giving everything I have for the one who died for me. I shared how Jesus actually taught not to concern ourselves with our own desires but to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:19-34), and how blessings from God follow obedience to God’s will (i.e. Psalm 1). Ronnie was intrigued, but far from convinced.

Over the course of a few months we talked a few more times privately, sometimes at great length. Ronnie continued with his occult practices and kept singing their praises to me. Yet he also grew more and more comfortable with me and enjoyed talking with me. One day he opened up to me about how he had witnessed something incredibly horrifying and traumatizing when he was a little boy. He also shared other struggles in his life. On more than one occasion he asked me what I knew about demons. He said, he had a friend who had a troubling and increasingly disturbing “dark presence” he couldn’t get rid of. Ronnie talked about looking into spells that might make the “dark presence” go away, but also wondered what I thought.

I knew enough to know that we can give the demonic too much attention and credit bordering on a spiritually unhealthy obsession, or we can deny the existence of the demonic altogether. As C.S. Lewis said in the beginning of “The Screwtape Letters,” demons “themselves are equally pleased with both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” But I also believed that only the power of God Almighty can ultimately and conclusively deliver anyone from spiritual captivity under the power of the evil one. I suspected right off the bat that Ronnie wasn’t really just asking for a friend. I talked about the need to surrender to God. As James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (ESV).

Ronnie, however, wasn’t yet willing to surrender his life completely to the one true God. But neither was he ready to stop talking to me and coming to church on occasion. I invited him to join us for a class designed to introduce people to the Christian faith and explore the possibility of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ called “Alpha.” He gladly accepted the invitation and never missed a session over the course of 14 weeks.

After one of those sessions when we were talking about prayer Ronnie told me about a friend of his, Jack Door (not his real name), who really needed some help. He said I didn’t know his friend, but I had met Jack’s mother when she came by the church for help with food and for prayer. Ronnie, said Jack needed to get his car repaired so he could get his job back and get out of a bad situation at home. I told him I would pray for Jack and, in fact, prayed right then and there.

Immediately after that, I took my mother home. On the way back to my house I saw a young man walking on the other side of the road headed in the same direction. As I passed by him, I suddenly felt like I needed to turn around. I did, and I pulled up next to the pedestrian. As I rolled the window down, he bent over so he could see into the passenger side car window, and I said, before I even realized what I was going to say, “Is your name Jack?” “Yeah …” responded the young man. “Jack Door?” I asked. “Yeah …” he responded somewhat perplexed. I said, “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I was just talking to a friend of yours, Ronnie, and I prayed for you earlier today and God just told me to turn around and pick you up.” He said, “yeah, that sound’s pretty crazy man!”

Crazy but true! I offered Jack a ride and he accepted. He was headed to his grandparents house about 20 miles away after having a big fight with his dad at home. I told him a little  more about what Ronnie had shared with me and Jack filled in the details. I talked to him about Jesus and invited him to come to church. I got his cell number as I dropped him off.

A couple of days later I felt led to give Jack some money, even though things were financially quite tight in my own household. My wife and I prayed about it, and decided on an amount. It was just enough for Jack to get his car fixed so he could get his job back and get his own place. Jack came to church one Sunday after that, but with his work schedule wasn’t able to make it much after that.

Ronnie was pretty amazed by it all when he heard about it, but still wasn’t willing to give God all the glory. He was still clinging to the idea that Jesus was just one way among many possible ways to human happiness  and spiritual enlightenment and power.

During the Alpha session on the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, Ronnie actually prayed along with others to receive the Holy Spirit. Afterwards, though, I could tell that nothing much had really changed for him. I suspected that he had only prayed to add another power source to the mix of what he was still determined to cling to. He was just trying Jesus by addition rather than submission it seemed.

Nonetheless, it was quite remarkable that Ronnie, a guy who was practicing witchcraft, was there for every single Alpha class session, while long time church members couldn’t say the same. Nonetheless, he never really surrendered his life to God through Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life.

Eventually Ronnie moved and we lost contact. A couple of years went by before I heard from him again. Then out of the blue one night he sent me a text message, which just simply said, “Hello Cliff how are you?” I replied that I was well and asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m okay. I’m not where I want to be, but I’m thankful that I’m not where I used to be.” I said, “Where are you now? Physically and spiritually?” His reply … “Physically, I’m still in ______ county. Spiritually, I’m trying to walk with Jesus as best as I can.” My reply, “Praise God!” I assure you there were more exclamations marks in my soul than there were in my messenger app.Deliverance mark-5

A few days later we got together for lunch again. He told me he was the one who was plagued by that “dark presence” and after he surrendered his life to Jesus Christ as the way he was finally delivered. There was an obvious and truly very positive change in him. He was humble to the word of God. He had become a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). I just talked to him earlier today and he’s still walking with the Lord. Interestingly, however, there were many things that he didn’t remember clearly from all of the time we had spent together years before. One of those things was the incident that God orchestrated with his friend Jack, (again not his real name), although Ronnie was quite amazed by it at the time.

At any rate, there are several degrees of demonic possession or oppression, some more direct, personal, and intense than others. Generally speaking possession can be thought of more in terms of an internal struggle and oppression as more of a struggle with an external presence. Traumatic experiences of evil and its effects, occult practices, and heavy alcohol and drug use, among other things, can make one more susceptible to direct possession or oppression. While the more direct personal cases are rare, Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist, reported in the Washington Post mid 2016 that the number of identified cases of demonic possession in the U.S. has been on the rise over the last decade or so. Unsurprisingly, this is concurrent with an increase in drug and alcohol abuse and participation  in occult practices  among other things. (For another psychiatrist’s account of evil and demonic possession see Dr. M. Scott Peck’s books, People of the Lie and Glimpses of the Devil). 

But bondage to the forces of evil is not just an individual issue. Whole cultures can find themselves in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Just scanning the list of the seven deadly sins would tell you that American culture, including much of the American church, is very unhealthy spiritually.

Jesus used the analogy of an individual plagued by demonic possession to warn about the fate of the Jewish people as a whole at the time.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

In fact, 1 John 5:19 tells us “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” As Ephesians 2:1-3 indicates all of us, everyone born into this world dead in sins, before we are delivered through faith in Christ, live under the influence of the prince of darkness, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). In a sense every non-believer is in need of deliverance from the powers of darkness, to be delivered from “the domain of darkness and transferred [into] the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

That deliverance may come through a combination of various practices: preaching, teaching, witnessing, personal study and prayer, or through more intentional rituals of exorcism in some of those rare cases. But in every case ultimately the only way is through surrender to God through faith in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

In some of the accounts of revival meetings during the “Great Awakenings” there were reports of people convulsing, screeching, screaming, and, even, howling. I suspect there were many people delivered from direct forms of demonic possession, not that all cases would be that stark and dramatic. The Gospel believed brings deliverance in more ways than one, but ultimately there is only one way out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Followers of Jesus are called to continue this ministry of deliverance by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith in him. It’s needed now more than ever. Jesus said, those who believe in him would do the works he did and greater (John 14:12). And “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” and “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). God has called us and equipped us to do the same, knowing that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Victory over the devil comes through surrender to God through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. To God be the glory!