Romans 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The West Virginia Southern Baptist

The latest edition of the West Virginia Southern Baptist is available for download here. The latest link is always available in the sidebar of this blog.  In addition to church and mission news from around the state, this edition includes an article from our Executive Director, Dr. Terry Harper, concerning the SBC Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Interim Report that was released in February.  Also included is information on how to become a messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention this year in Orlando.

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The Son of God

As Christians, we have referred to Jesus Christ as the Son of God all of our spiritual lives. The assumption is that those three words connote the same meaning for non-believers as for believers. Unfortunately, this is not true. A regular, historical-grammatical reading of the Bible makes it easy to distinguish the times when “Son of God” speaks of the divine nature of Christ as opposed to mankind, angels, or other created beings. The problem comes when humanistically biased forms of literary criticism are used to interpret the Bible. When this happens, ghosts of contradiction are “seen” lurking behind every page. The simple explanation is that the title “Son of God” has more than one meaning. To say this solution is not without precedent would be stating the obvious to the point that it would insult even the most modestly intelligent. When Jesus is referred to as the Light of the world, no one confuses that with the light God created on the first day. Furthermore, He is not confused with the light that caused the shadow to go backwards for a sign to Hezekiah. Even more absurdly, who would confuse the light of the darkened sun during the Tribulation as equaling Christ?

Jesus used previously identified titles to refer to Himself such as “Son of man” and Son of God”. Some of the time, the context of His usage was ambiguous enough to keep the legalistic, word-parsing Jews at bay. Just as His parables were not given for everyone to clearly understand, His self-references to deity were partially veiled. Interestingly enough, He did not refer to Himself as the Angel of the Lord, a name that commonly designates pre-incarnate appearances of Christ in the Old Testament. There were times, however, when Jesus lifted the veil and plainly told others who He was. You can recognize those times in the Gospels as the times when the Jews picked up stones. John 8 is the classic passage. Jesus started by claiming to be the light of the world – from the perspective of the Jews, bold, but not blasphemous. Jesus was just getting warmed up. Then, He laid a nice foundation for equating Himself with His Father without telling them who His Father was. Then Jesus did a curious thing – He told them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM and I do nothing of Myself; but as My Father taught Me, I speak these things. And He who sent Me is with Me. The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do those things that please Him.” You can almost hear the Jews saying amongst themselves, “Did He just say what I think He said?” In that statement, Jesus continued building the foundation of identifying Himself with His Father, but with a unique twist. He threw in the line, “then you will know that I AM” (most English texts incorrectly add He). He subtly called Himself Yahweh, the Tetragrammaton. He equated Himself with His Father, then called Himself by the name of God. Many people immediately understood and believed in Him. Jesus pushed the envelope even farther – He told those who did not believe, they were sons of Satan. He topped that off by telling them, “He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.” Once again, you can hear the Jews asking, “Did he just say that when He speaks, God is speaking?” That brought the confrontation level up a notch. Jesus ended the conversation by telling them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Finally, they got it! It reminds me of how, when I really wanted to get my point across, I would hold my son’s face in my hands and talk very slowly to him. It is as if Jesus finally broke it down enough that they could grasp that He was claiming to be God. They understood, because they picked up stones to execute Him for what they saw as blasphemy. They did not believe Him, but they unmistakably understood His claim. When Jesus made His most unveiled proclamation of deity, he said it in the context of being the Son of God.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Jesus Is God

The deity of Christ has been under attack since the incarnation. As a matter of fact it was questions about His deity which led to His crucifixion. Throughout the generations of church history, heresy after heresy has arisen denying Jesus’ divinity. Even today, groups like the Unitarians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that Jesus is God. Strangely enough, one of the first heresies (and one with the most profound impact) affirmed the divinity of Jesus, but actually denied His humanity. The Gnostics were dualists who believed Jesus was a type of avatar who simply appeared to be human. It would be nice to say that the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon put the controversy surrounding the issue of Jesus’ divinity to rest, but that has not been the case.

An early heretical group which denied the divinity of Christ was the Arians. Arius was an early fourth century presbyter from Alexandria. He was very articulate, passionate, and had a large following. He, however, did not have a good relationship with his bishop, Alexander. Some histories account this strained relationship to the fact that Arius was jealous of Alexander and wanted his position. Regardless of the personal conflict, they disagreed on key doctrinal issues. The story is told of one day when Alexander was addressing his congregation, telling them that Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, is of His same essence, and is His co-equal, Arius vehemently disagreed. He stated his belief that there was a time when the Son did not exist, since he had been begotten by the Father. This “church feud” was the start of a rift that would ripple through church history for several hundred years. The rift was such that it spread like wildfire throughout Christendom. Finally, to preserve peace in his kingdom, Constantine called the first ecumenical council in 325 – commonly called the Nicean Council. At the council, Arius presented his case which was summed up by his quote: “The Father is a Father; the Son is a Son; therefore, the Father must have existed before the Son; therefore once the Son was not; therefore he was made, like all creatures, of a substance that had not previously existed.” The matter was resolved on paper in the council with the adoption of what has come to be known as the Nicean Creed. The creed affirmed the Biblical notion that Jesus is, “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Despite the clear teaching of Scripture and the affirmation of orthodoxy, the embers of Arianism continued to smolder for several hundred years. Even today, many modern cultic religions bear witness to the beliefs of Arius.

In contrast to the heresy of Arianism, the creed adopted by the council of Nicea testified to the Biblical fact that Jesus is God. Notice that the Nicean Creed did not create new truth – it affirmed the truth previously laid out in the Bible. Across its pages, the Bible affirms that Jesus is God in every way. As the second Person of the Trinity, He is one God in three persons – co-eternal, co-existent, and sharing the same attributes, qualities, and powers. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have existed in perfect relationship for time immemorial. Countless Scriptures confirm Christ's divinity, including Isaiah 40:3, Matthew 3:3, and John 3:31. Jesus disclosed his own deity several times in a discourse with the Jews in John 8. He culminated that discussion by boldly proclaiming, “before Abraham was, I AM (YHWH).” Though many who read the English translations might not recognize the impact of that declaration, the Jews did. They were so incensed, they immediately took up stones with which to execute Him for blasphemy. Paul went on to further elucidate the doctrine in what is perhaps the most emphatic, concise Christological passage in the Bible – Colossians 1:15-20. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.” To deny the deity of Christ is to deny the very existence of God. Likewise, the only way to deny that Jesus is God is to deny the Bible as truth.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

The Real Jesus of History

Those such as John Dominic Crossan and his colleagues on the Jesus Seminar who have tried to “demythologize” the Bible have done so largely under the auspices of pursuing the quest for the historical Jesus. One has to look no further than the History Channel or Discovery Network for apparent documentaries that seek to discover who Jesus “really was”. This is not a new endeavor. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most revered founding fathers of this nation published a “gospel” wherein he attempted to separate the ethics of Jesus from His deity. Needless to say, it was only a few pages long and was cold and hollow. Few people have heard of Jefferson’s Bible and in another generation, Crossan will only be a short footnote in history. This is because their self-inspired humanist mission is impossible. One cannot separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of the Bible. When man attempts to have a Jesus that is removed from history, he inevitably will fall into one of three camps. Interestingly enough these three camps have existed as heresies since the earliest days of church history.

The first camp is total denial of the person and work of Jesus. People in this camp are rare and usually consider themselves hard-core Atheists. As self-proclaimed atheists, they have put blinders on with regards to all historical and philosophical evidence of the existence of the three members of the Godhead. They are philosophically dishonest in the face of overwhelming evidence.

The second camp is made up of those who accept that Jesus was a person who lived in Palestine in the first century A.D. (Those who believe this way typically use the more “tolerant” C.E. designating “common era”). Usually these people believe there was a charismatic young rabble-rousing Jew who lived in Palestine in the first century. He was wise, made some good ethical statements and had a small contingent of followers, but he was merely a man. He lived, died (we don’t exactly know how), was buried (Crosson believes he was eaten by dogs and scavengers), and rotted in the grave like all other men. According to them, Paul is the one who made Christianity into a religion. If Jesus is made to be a mere man, not only do you have to eliminate the Pauline epistles, you have to eliminate the Gospels as well. The Gospels are peppered with examples of Jesus claiming to be deity. If one denies the divinity of Jesus, he is faced with the dilemma so clearly stated by C.S. Lewis: if Jesus isn’t Lord, he is either a liar or a lunatic. The Jesus seminar escapes Lewis’ polemic trap by denying the validity of most of the statements Jesus made in the Bible. They did this by introducing a new kind of textual criticism never before used on any literary work. The members of the Jesus Seminar polled themselves as to whether certain statements of Jesus claimed by the Bible and other documents were, in their opinion, made by him. Judgments were made solely by their perceptions, biases, and opinions. You see, in order to separate Jesus the man from Christ the Divine, man has to destroy history and resort to speculation.

Finally, the third camp contains those who, while they say a person like Jesus might have lived, there is no way we can know anything about him. What is important is the message and the concept of Jesus. These are modern day mystics who attempt to syncretize their “spiritual” concept of Jesus with the spirit of man and the spirit of the world. This was prominently seen in several ecumenical services held during the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In Asheville, NC, where I lived at the time, there was a service at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, that featured a well-known local Baptist preacher, a Muslim Imam, a Wicca Priestess, a humanist poet, and what was billed as an African spirit drummer. All were spouting the venomous rhetoric that all religions were essentially the same and we just needed to tap into the spirit within ourselves to overcome evil in the world. The fact remains that when the anchor point of history – the history of the Bible – is removed, Jesus can be defined as anything. Modern New Age spiritists can define Jesus with the same meaning as Gaia or Buddha or Shiva or Shirley MacLean. If Jesus has no propositional grounding in history, he can be anything man wants to make him.

God chose to reveal Himself in history (Hebrews 1:1-2). He chose to reveal Himself in the flesh, as Immanuel, in a particular point in space and time. God the Son co-existed with God the Father in eternity, but humbled Himself to enter history, take on flesh, and become like me—except without sin. Then, 33 years down a specific, real, and measurable timeline, He willingly gave His life in the most excruciating death possible. His crucifixion happened at another specific point in space-time. The specific, real, and measurable timeline continued another three days while He lay in a specific, physical, locatable, identifiable tomb. Finally, at another specific point in space-time, He physically rose up out of that grave. His physically nail-scarred feet took actual steps and walked out of that tomb. He placed one foot in front of the other, each gathering dust and making a measurable, identifiable footprint. Had God not chosen to reveal Himself in that way, how could we have a relationship with Him? Without acknowledging the historicity of Jesus, it is impossible.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

The Unchanging God of the Old and New Testaments

God chose to reveal Himself very clearly in certain ways in the Old Testament. Since orthodox Christianity holds to the fact that God is immutable, it would stand to reason that He would reveal Himself in the same ways in the New Testament. Were that not the case, it would lend credence to those heretics and cynics who claim the God described in the Old Testament is entirely different than the so-called Platonic, Hellenistic God of the New Testament. In fact, the God revealed in the Old Testament is the same as the God revealed in the New Testament. That is made clear by the many parallel descriptive names and references common to both texts. For the purpose of this essay we will concentrate on only four.

The first way in which the Father’s self-manifestation parallels between the Old and New Testaments is in His name “El Elyon”. El Elyon was the name used by Melchizedek when he blessed Abram: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High (El Elyon), possessor of heaven and earth; Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” This was a declaration of God’s sovereignty and was an acknowledgement of God’s control of Abram’s victory on the battlefield. This name for God was used by several others in the Old Testament, including by Daniel. When Daniel was called in to Belshazzar to interpret the meaning of the divine writing on the wall, he referred to God as the Most High God: “O king, the Most High God (El Elyon) gave Nebuchadnezzar your father a kingdom and majesty, glory and honor.” Once again, the name signified God’s absolute control over circumstances. In the New Testament, the name is also used several times. It is used several times by those people possessed by demons who recognize the presence of God. The one from Gadarenes who was possessed by Legion called out to Jesus, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Later, a demon-possessed woman followed Paul and his company announcing, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” The most significant use of this name of God was in Luke, when Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the coming Messiah. He described Jesus as, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.” The use of “Son of the Highest” directly equated Jesus with God the Father, the sovereign King of the universe.

The second parallel is seen in the use of the qualifier, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. This title is seen throughout the Old Testament and was meant to give immediate historical context to who God is and what He has done. It spoke of His faithfulness and gave concrete, point-in-time reference to His eternal presence. Likewise, in the New Testament, “the God of Israel”, or “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is used as a historical anchor point and a testimony of God’s faithfulness. Even though it was short-lived, the multitudes who followed Jesus “glorified the God of Israel” as He healed many through the Decapolis and Sea of Galilee region. Where it shows up mostly is in the preaching of the disciples after the resurrection. Peter used these words when he preached to the people outside the temple in Solomon’s portico: “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go.” Later, after Stephen was accused of blasphemy, he addressed the high priest with one of the earliest recorded Christian apologetic statements. In it he traced God’s plan of salvation from the call of Abraham, through the patriarchs, Moses and the Exodus, to Jesus Christ. Each step of the way, he identified God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There was no doubt in the high priest’s mind the point that Stephen was attempting to convey – that Jesus is God. That’s what angered them enough to stone him.

The third parallel is between the use of Jehovah and Alpha and Omega. Once again, orthodox Christianity holds to the truth that God is timeless. That attribute is found in His name He revealed to Moses in the burning bush – I AM. I AM has been phonetically transliterated variously as Yahweh or Jehovah. Jehovah (I AM) is a profound statement of God’s timelessness. Jesus equated Himself to God when He stated to the Jews, “before Abraham was, I AM.” The parallel is continued in timeless statements of God’s character throughout the New Testament, especially in the Book of Revelation. Jesus is referred to as the “Alpha and Omega, the First and Last.” The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet are analogous of the eternality of Jesus Christ in His Trinitarian relationship with (and as) Jehovah.

Finally, God’s steadfast love and mercy permeates both Testaments of the Bible. Those who futilely attempt to create schism between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament often declare they have different character traits. They claim the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is a God of love. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s character qualities remain consistent because He is immutable. The Psalmist perfectly describes the God of steadfast love that some would have us believe doesn’t show up until the New Testament. According to many Hebrew scholars, hesed (steadfast love and mercy) is the thread that weaves through and binds all the Psalms together. Additionally, Revelation pictures the God of wrath that those would say disappeared (worse yet, evolved) after the Old Testament.

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