Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Genealogy of Jesus

My father and my wife both do genealogy.  I find it interesting to hear about the various people I'm related to and to learn who I'm descended from in my family tree, but overall, as much as I love history, I don't really get terribly involved in genealogy.  Yet one thing remains true in my family tree, from the work both my wife and my father have done: every one of my ancestors has only and exactly two parents.  Now, this doesn't mean that I don't have polygamists, divorces, widows, or adoptions in my family tree, I certainly do.  Genetically though, all of my ancestors have only two parents, even if we aren't sure who those parents are.

I bring this up because when you look at the genealogy of Jesus, unless there is something seriously missing within the text, you would almost have to wonder how many parents Jesus had and how many parents each of those listed in the genealogies would have had.  For instance, Luke 3, in telling the story of Jesus ancestry, lists a different father for Joseph than Matthew 1 lists.  From Jesus' grandfather through several generations the lines are different, until we reach Zerubbabel and Shealtiel, then they differ again until we get to David, where they are the same until Abraham.  So, unless Jesus had two fathers named Joseph we run into a bit of a genealogical snag when we look at Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

However, what this presents is an opportunity to do further research.  One thing I have learned through talking with both my father and my wife is that we often find some tangles in our genealogy.  It isn't uncommon to find that one person who thought was the son of another person really wasn't related to him at all.  And sometimes you find that what appears to be conflicting information in the genealogy is really just a miscommunication or an error that crept in due to a lack of records.

In the case of Jesus' genealogy we have the records.  Both Matthew and Luke provide a record of the family line.  So, how do we reconcile the differences?

There are multiple theories offered to resolve the conflict, but before I get to the theories I want to pause to point out the wisdom of the past.  What I mean is that we aren't the first generation to read the bible.  In fact the bible wasn't originally written in English.  People have been reading the bible for thousands of years.  And, thousands of years ago, believe it or not, people were having children, and they understood how children came to be and that a child could only have one father and one mother.

My point is: the people who originally put the bible together, the church fathers, knew about the differences between Matthew and Luke.  The differences didn't bother them.  There was no great conspiracy to clean up the genealogies.  And from all the records we have, the differences in genealogy didn't seem to be a major problem for them in taking the bible to be true and accurate.

This alone does not resolve the problem, but it does council us not to think that the problem cannot be answered.  Even if we are not happy with the answers we currently have, we have reason to believe that those who originally handed the manuscripts down understood the differences and understood how the passages were reconciled.  It is possible that it was something that was so widely understood that there was never any thought given to needing to explain it.  Certainly the early opponents of Christianity could have made a big deal about the genealogies, and yet it doesn't appear that this was ever a problem in the earlier history of the church.

So, how do we explain it?  If it was something that the early church found easy to explain, shouldn't we understand that today?

Okay, there are two competing theories that I think are the best explanations for what we have going on in Matthew and Luke.  First, there is the levirate marriage possibility.  In this case the explanation issued is the Matthew is giving the physical ancestry of Jesus and Luke is giving the legal ancestry of Jesus.  This would have occurred because Joseph was the legal son of Heli but the physical son of Jacob.  It gets somewhat complicated to explain as we don't use the levirate method of marriage today (siblings across America are sighing with relief that they don't have to marry the siblings of their spouses), but, it is an actual possible explanation of the text and would have been a common enough practice in Jesus' time that people would have understood it without confusion.

The second possibility is that Matthew is tracing Jesus lineage through Joseph, but Luke is tracing his genealogy through Mary.  Now, the difficulty in this explanation is that the text does not say, "Jesus, son of Mary, daughter of..."  Yet, at the same time Luke does say, "Jesus, the son of Joseph, it was thought..."  Some scholars take this as a hint that Luke is giving the actual genealogy of Jesus through Mary because he wasn't really the son of Joseph biologically.

To add weight to this view we can also note that in Jesus time it was not uncommon for a son-in-law to simply be called a son.  This would be especially true in the case where a man had no sons of his own, so his son-in-law would be his legal heir, or in the case where a son-in-law lived under the roof of his father-in-law.  Either could be the case with Joseph and Eli.

In addition, the use of Joseph could be because it was improper to give the genealogy of the mother when noting ancestry.  Yet, as Mary was now under Joseph, Luke chose to give her ancestry as a more accurate account of Jesus' origin, and so listed Jesus as son of Joseph and Joseph as son of Eli because this would have been an accurate description of Joseph's relation because of his marriage to Mary.  Culturally it would have been very odd to give the genealogy of a woman, but that wouldn't be the only thing odd about the life of Christ.

Remember, the bible had a very high view of women, more so than the surrounding culture during the time it was written.  The bible had the women as the first witnesses of Christ's resurrection, which testimony would have been invalid in courts of the day.  The bible noted that there were wealthy women who supports Jesus' ministry.  The bible also records the names of women in the genealogy of Jesus.

There are other arguments for why Matthew and Luke may be different, but I think these two are the strongest contenders when you examine the evidence.  At the end of the day we cannot give an absolute answer, but we can be confident that the question is not without an answer.  Yes, believing that this conflict can be resolved takes faith, but if you want to argue about something as minor as Jesus' genealogy lets argue about something that requires real faith: the idea that a man died and rose again from the dead, and that this man was God incarnate, and that sinners are redeemed through his blood.

Is there a reasonable answer as to the differences between Matthew's and Luke's genealogies?  Yes, there are in fact at least a couple of reasonable answers.  Can I tell you, with certainty, which of those answers is the right answer?  No, I can't.  But, still we can hold that the bible is absolutely true in all it says, and this question is not the death knell of Christianity.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Calvinism the Heresy?

I like to watch posts over at The Lighthearted Calvinist.  Recently, in the FAQ post a commenter by the name of Arthur Adam Haglund made the argument that Calvinists are heretics.  His argument, as I was able to ascertain, is that Calvinists teach a different gospel (one that requires belief in Calvinism for salvation) and that Calvinists make God into the author of evil.  I wanted to post a reply to him for a while, but I never found the time to do so, and now, unfortunately, he has been asked not to post at that site anymore (I leave it to you, dear reader, if you want to peruse the comments in the FAQ to determine why, the issue is moot to me).  Therefore, I have decided to post my reply to him here, at my own site and invite him to reply if he would like to.

My goal in this post is not to bring shame to anyone, nor to attack anyone.  My goal is to honestly engage the question as to whether or not Calvinists are heretics.  I do this because I think there are many who believe as Mr. Haglund does, and I would like to offer an honest and logical argument to the contrary.  I do not wish to argue that those who holds opposing view points are heretics, but rather to demonstrate that there is sufficient room within the borders of orthodoxy and logic that the two groups may both recognize one another as Christians.  This is not to say that there are not those who are heretical within Calvinism, but rather that Calvinism in and of itself is not necessarily heretical.

In order to address the issue I begin first with the allegation that Calvinists teach a separate gospel.  In this I would agree with Mr. Haglund, with an "if".  If someone were to teach that without a strict belief in Calvinism one cannot be saved, then that man is presenting a different gospel.  The gospel is that we are sinners who have offended a holy and righteous God, and that because of our sin we are damned to hell and in need of a savior.  Because we cannot save ourselves we find ourselves in a horrible predicament, which can only be rectified by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.  Because Christ was the perfect offer for our sins, the only Son of God, and because he died for sin, those who place their faith in him will not die but will have everlasting life.  Because Christ rose from the dead, we therefore have hope that we too shall be raised from the dead.  This is what we are called to have faith in, not any specific set of doctrines that discusses issues like "irresistible grace" or "perseverance of the saints," "total depravity" or any other point of Calvinism.

If anyone teaches that without a thorough grasp of Calvinism that one cannot be saved, that man is foolishly making the work of man a necessary part of salvation.  The idea of election is not in Scripture to save the lost, it is there to comfort the saint.  Growing in grace in knowledge is what happens after we are saved, as we walk with Christ.  And even then there are those who disagree with Calvinism.  Calvinism is not necessary for either salvation or orthodoxy.  There are many, both Arminian and Semi-Pelagian who are saved and in the family of Christ, and there are probably Calvinists who know the 5 points and could argue them convincingly who are as damned as anyone because they do not truly know nor have a relationship with Christ who is their Lord and only savior.

But, the more interesting argument, in my opinion, comes from the question as to whether or not Calvinists are heretics because they make God the author of sin.  Here Mr. Haglund notes that, strictly speaking, Calvinists argue that God has ordained everything that happens, including sin.  This is because Calvinists see God as totally sovereign, so that nothing happens without God willing that thing to happen.  Therefore, if God has ordained sin, Mr Haglund argues, God is responsible for sin.

Now, the Calvinist would respond that God uses secondary Causes, and therefore God is not responsible for sin.  That is to say, God ordains what will happen, but he also ordains how that event will happen.  In regards to sin God so acts so that the secondary cause (either men or angels) do what they want without him being morally responsible for what they are doing.  So, when a man commits murder, God has ordained the death of the man, and the manner of the man's death, and even the one who would kill him, yet at the same time God is in no way responsible for the moral decision the man made to sin by committing murder.

It seems Mr. Haglund's response to this is that it is foolishness to argue that God is not morally responsible.  In the case of any primary cause acting so as to bring about the event through a secondary cause, we always hold the primary cause culpable for the event.  To use an example from Mr. Haglund:  Suppose I shot a man and fatally wounded him.  He is rushed to the hospital where the doctor realizes the man has very little blood left and so orders an immediate transfusion.  For whatever reason the doctor orders the wrong type of blood and so the man goes into shock as his body rejects the blood that has been forced into his body, and thus dies.  Now, the cause of the man's death is that the wrong blood was given to him, but this is only the secondary cause.  The primary cause of the man's death, the one responsible for the man's death, is the fact that I shot the man.

However, in the case of God we are not so arguing from unintentional secondary causes, but rather what we are arguing is that God acts in such a way that men choose to bring about the very events which God desires.  And God does this without over riding the moral autonomy of those men.  Such an example is seen in Scripture where we read:  "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:23) And, "for truly in this city were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."  (Acts 4:27-28)  Thus we see that the disciples themselves argued that the crucifixion occurred according to God's plan, but was carried out by evil men acting in their own will.

Another example we see of God using secondary causes would be the story of Joseph in Genesis 37.  Joseph first has a dream where he sees his brothers bowing down to him.  Then he has a dream where he sees his brothers, his mother, and his father, all bowing to him.  He tells these two stories to his family and the dreams make his brothers hate him even more than they already did.  In fact, the two dreams seem to be the tipping point that leads to his brothers eventually selling Joseph into slavery.

When Joseph goes to see his brothers in Shechem (he actually finds them in Dothan) they see him coming from far off and say to one another, "Here comes this dreamer."  It is the dreams that finally caused Joseph's brothers to determine that they can stand him no longer and want to kill him.  We even see them mocking Joseph's dreams by commenting on how his dreams will come to nothing after they have killed him.

However, after Joseph was sold into slavery, God used the same gift that so angered his brothers to lift him up in Egypt.  Joseph was able to rise to great power in Egypt because he understood dreams and had been given wisdom by God in how to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh.  And, just as God used that which angered his brothers to lift him up, so God also used the famine of the land to bring Israel to Egypt.  Once in Egypt, Joseph became the one who provided for his family by telling them what they should say to Pharaoh in order to get the grazing land they desired.

Finally, after Israel dies, Joseph's brothers come to him and tell him that their father asked him to forgive them of their cruelty to him.  Whether or not his brothers were lying is left unmentioned by the text.  However, Joseph has no intent to harm his brothers because of what they did to him, but loves them very much.  So Joseph addresses them with a powerful line and says to them:  "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good."

What this story shows us is that God was using secondary events all along in Joseph's life.  First, God used Joseph's pride as he recounted the dreams he had, which came from God, to bring about the anger of Joseph's brothers.  Then, God used the anger of Joseph's brothers to bring Joseph into Egypt.  Then, God used Joseph in Egypt to save his brothers and his family.  Thus, God ultimately used Joseph's pride, his brothers' anger, and Joseph's slavery and imprisonment in Egypt, all as a means to accomplish his goal of bringing Israel into Egypt to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years.

As to the counter argument:  God does not ordain sinful events, however, he looks through time and uses those events as part of his plan.  This argument seems good on its face, but there are logical problems with the argument.  Bear with me and I'll explain.

First, let us assume the argument is true.  God looks through time and simply knows what people will do in the world he has created.  He does not ordain the sinful actions of man, but he does know them and he so arranges the world and his plans so that the things he does ordain take into account the sin of humanity.  In this case God still brings about events such as Joseph entering Egypt, but he never ordained that Joseph's brothers would enslave him or hate him.

Yet, there is a problem with that argument.  If God ordains that Joseph will rise up into Pharaoh's service out of slavery, but does not ordain that Joseph will be a slave, then there is a logical failure there.  That is to say, if God ordains that Joseph will rise up out of slavery then it becomes logically necessary that Joseph must first be enslaved.  Thus, while we may argue that God does not ordain that Joseph will be a slave, in fact God makes it logically necessary for his plan that Joseph be a slave.

Thus, while we're saying God is not ordaining Joseph be slave, at the same time we are saying it is logically necessary and part of the required plan of God that Joseph will, in fact, be enslaved.  It seems thus that God must necessarily ordain that Joseph be enslaved as he has ordained his response to Joseph being enslaved.  The only way to avoid this conclusion would be to say that God has ordained what he will do "if".  But, the problem is that if we say God's plan is only "if" then we must assume that God is not all knowing.  As soon as we allow that God is all knowing we must also admit that God has planned every event that will ever happen, and that every event that happens must happen as part of God's plan.

Thus, God ordains every event that happens.  God does not override the moral decisions of his creations in ordaining what they will do.  God does not become the author of sin in ordaining that certain sins will, or must take place.  Man is still fully responsible for the choices he makes, and God still, rightly, holds him responsible and judges him according to those choices.  And yet, the choices of man are not outside of the dominion of God.

Are there other ways that one can interpret the passages of Scripture I chose to look at?  Perhaps, but I would be interested to see how anyone would be faithful to both the text of Genesis and Acts and still argue that God did not ordain the specific sinful choices in view of those texts.  This is not an easy to wrap our minds around, it is not an easy doctrine to agree to because it makes us nervous about what we are claiming, and it certainly makes me want to defend the character of God.  However, if God so chose to reveal himself in this way, and chose to make it clear that he ordained the choices of Joseph's brothers and the men of Israel who crucified Christ, and yet he also holds them accountable for the actions they took and the sin they committed, though it brought about his purposes without their knowing it, if this is the God of Scripture and his power, then who am I to complain against him?  He is God,  I am man, and his ways are above mine, his power is not for me to complain against, but rather to trust in, knowing that in his goodness he will accomplish every good purpose he has intended, all to his glory.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

We are sons of God

Previously I began to look at John 3:16 for a friend of mine.  As part of that discussion I looked at the title "Son of God" and how that title is used and what it means.  However, part of the question my friend asked had to do with how the Son of God is different from sons of God.  That is, what makes Christ so terribly important compared with anyone else who might be called a son of the living God?  To answer this question we have to first understand who Christ is, only then do we understand the importance of what it means that we are called sons of God.

Now, in part, I've already written my thoughts on what it means that Christ is the Son of God.  There is much to be said on this issue, and while I'm not familiar with any, I'm sure there are books devoted to the issue of Christ being the Son of God.  There is no way I could, in one post, one day, one week, or even in one life time, truly explore every facet of Christ as the Son of God.  So please be aware that this will be an imperfect post.  There are some things I might write here that are not as theologically accurate as they could be, or should be, and there are going to be many things I will not say that are still very important.  I want to encourage you, my dear reader, to be thoughtful on this subject, explore it as there is a vast richness in thinking on Christ and seeking to know both the Son and the Father.

First of all, the fact that Christ is the Son of the God points to his own divinity.  Christ is God incarnate.  This is a unique statement about Christ that cannot be made about any other man, ever.  The fact of the trinity is seen in the fact that the Son who comes from the Father, is just like the Father.  As men have sons who are like them, so the Son of God is like the Father, he is God.  We looked at this somewhat previously when we considered the title "Son of God" and noted the way the early church chose to express this:  "True God from True God."

Christ is also the beloved of the Father.  John Piper once said that God is not an idolater.  I don't care how much you may agree or disagree with Dr. Piper, here I think we must all agree.  God is not an idolater, therefore he does not worship anything other than God, and he does not love anything more than he loves God.  Thus, again, the trinity becomes crucially important for us to understand Christ as "Son of God."

You see, as Christ is God, he is also the Son and not the Father.  Therefore the Father, in his holiness, loves the Son completely, for he loves God.  And the Son worships the Father and gives him glory (as we see in Luke 4:8 in his response to Satan).  The Spirit, who acts to bring us to Christ and who remains with us as the counselor and comforter that was promised, thus points us to the triune person of God, so that we should worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the eternal God.  Without understanding (as far as we may) the trinity we would not rightly understand the reality of the relationship of the Father and the Son.  This understanding of how the Son worships the Father, and the Father loves the Son, is not all that may be said, but it is a sufficient place for us to begin understanding who we are in Christ.

What we have so far is that Christ is God, and that Christ is loved by God and in perfect relationship with God.  As the only begotten Son of God these are unique characteristics of Christ, but they are also, in part, passed on to those of us who are sons of God.  Theologians have long differentiated between what may be called the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God.  There are also, as a way of speaking, communicable attributes of the Son of God that are passed down to those who are called "sons of God" by the Father.  These are attributes that we gain from God.

While we may not have divinity, part of what it means to be one of the sons of God is participate in God's holiness.  The Eastern Orthodox Church has long understood this and has embraced the teaching in a way that is absent from much of the Western Church, and I would say this is particularly true of the Protestant church.  Consider that Peter says in 2 Peter 1:4, we have become partakers in the divine nature.  Now, the Eastern Orthodox Church, essentially, argues that we become as holy as God himself, but I think that may be stretching matters a bit.  Yet, Christ himself said that we are to be holy as our Father in Heaven is holy.  So, we are to participate in God's holiness, through the Son.  In becoming sons of God we are made into holy creatures, separate from the world around us (in the world but not of the world).

Not only do we have holiness because of our relationship with Christ, but we also have relationship with the father.  This is the most obvious of the meanings of "sons of God."  This title is not shared by all humanity, that is not all men are sons of God.  All men are made by God, but only those who are adopted through the Son may be rightly called sons of God.  Therefore, only those who have been adopted by the Son, through the work of the Spirit into the family of God have the right of claiming special relationship to the Father, all others, while they can claim to be offspring, made by God, are alienated from the Father by sin, and therefore may not, and indeed will not, draw near to God.

As part of our unique relationship with God we have access to the love of God in a special way.  God calls us to prayer, desiring to hear and answer our requests.  He draws us to himself through the Spirit, desiring our presence with him and enjoying our praise (for he is worthy).  The Father cares for us, inviting us to eat with the Son at the great wedding feast prepared for the guests of the groom.  And the Father sees us as the image of Christ, disciplining us and building us up that we might one day participate in his glory.

To be one of the sons of God is an amazing thing.  It is nothing to be haughty about though, as Paul points us that we have nothing that we were not given.  Our salvation which began our sanctification and guaranteed our eventual resurrection was not something we earned or somehow purchased, but rather it was given us a gift of God.  We were sinners, vile, unholy, and detestable; the very enemies of God and at war with him.  Yet God, in his kindness, chose us in the Son, calling us to himself and giving us faith that we might believe and be saved.  "For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast."

We are the sons of God who have been redeemed by the blood of the Son.  Let us so walk and so act.  Let us not glory in ourselves but glory in him who saved us.  We are in a special position; but our position is nothing to be haughty about, for we must take care to be sure we stand, lest we fall.  It is not for our glory that God adopted us or has promised to one day share his glory with us, but it is because this will result, somehow, in even greater glory to the Father that he has so ordained.  Humility constrains us not to brag but to graciously share the truth of God and, with reverence, to enjoy the relationship that God has given us who are his children.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Notes on Names and Nomenclature

So, one of the questions that was asked of me is why the King James Version bible, in discussing the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, says that Jacob "begat Judas" and his brothers instead of what we read in most modern bibles (including the NKJV) where Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.  Understand first of all that I am not in this post making an argument for any particular translation of the bible.  Personally I use multiple translations, but I also try and understand the philosophy of translation behind the English versions of the bible I read.  In this case the answer is simple, so I thought I'd write a simple post explaining it today.

The KJV translates the name as Judas because, simply put, that's what the text says.  Most modern English translations use the name Judah because that is what the text says.  While you're scratching your head trying to reconcile those two sentences let me make it easier for you: Judas and Judah are the same name.

In the Greek alphabet there is no "H".  There is a mark that indicates a breath sound at the beginning of certain words that is translated into the English as an "H", but in the classical Greek alphabet in which the New Testament was written, there is simply no letter "H".  So, when translating Hebrew names from the Greek, names that ended in "H" were often transliterated (not translated, just copied over from one language to another) with an "S" at the end.  This is not as foreign or odd as it seems, and it occurs in multiple places in the New Testament.  (I note this as something that was done with Hebrew names because I'm familiar with Scripture, I'm not familiar enough with other textual traditions to say whether or not this "H" to "S" transliteration was something that was common among them as well.)

For instance, while the name "Jesus" is well known to most in the Western world as the name of the Christ, the fact is he was never called that in his time, nor did anyone else use that name for him until much later.  The Spanish tradition of pronouncing the "J" as an "H" is closer than the English version of pronouncing the "J".  A true transliteration of the name of Jesus from the Greek would look like this: Iesou (in this case the "I" should be pronounced as a "Y" and the "E" as a long "A" and the "OU" as an "OO" like in "zoo").  Likewise a true transliteration of Judah or Judas would read: Ioudan.

The reason for the pulling of the "S" over from the Greek has to do with how the names are developed in Greek.  For instance even though the name of Jesus is spelled "Iesou" in Matthew 1:1 we see it spelled "Iesous" in 1:16.  Thus the name we most commonly translate as Jesus could also be translated from Greek as "Jesu".

The use of the names Jesus, Judah, Judas, Joshua, and basically any other name with an origin in the Hebrew that we spell with a "J" also indicates that these names traveled through Latin into our language.  Neither the Greek nor the Hebrew has a "J" sound.  So when we use a "J" to start a name from either Greek or Hebrew, we have to first bring it through a language that uses a "J".  Latin was the lingua franca through which we got the names we use today, and in Latin they used the "J" at the beginning of a name instead of a "y".

In fact, even today the German does not use a "y" sound the same way we do in English.  The "y" in German is "Upsilon" and is pronounced as "u".  ("Gymnasium" is pronounced "Gumnasium" where the first "U" is a long vowel sound.  And just so you are aware, the word means "school" or "prep-school" in German.)  So, where we might use "I" or "Y" the Latin commonly used "J" to transliterate the Greek "I" at the beginning of names.

Following all of this we get the following: Iudah (Hebrew) becomes Iudas (Greek) becomes Judas (Latin) becomes Judah or Judas in the English, depending on which personage we are referring to and which tradition of translation we follow.  Likewise Yehoshua (or Y'hoshua) in the Hebrew becomes Yeshua as a shortened form, which becomes Iesou or Iesous in the Greek which becomes Jesus in the Latin and is most often translated as Jesus in English.  Yet, when we read the Old Testament we usually transliterate more directly and take Yeshua in the Hebrew to Joshua following the pattern of the "Y" to "J" transliteration of the Latin tradition.

So, Judah equals Judas, and Joshua equals Jesus when we follow the steps through how the names came to be in our language.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Getting to John

So what about John 3:16?  In my last post I discussed, briefly, what it means that Christ is the Son of God, but I noted that the question was asked in reference to John 3:16.  So, this time I want to look at what it means when we say, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in should not perish, but have everlasting life."  (John 3:16 KJV)  While this is one of the most well known verses of Scripture, I wonder sometimes if the common use of the passage has dulled us to its meaning.  So I would like to try and look at this passage in light of what I wrote in the last post, to hopefully help us come to a greater appreciation of what God has done for us.

First off, I want to look at the language of this post.  As has been commented on numerous times in the past (by other commentators), the English language has changed since the King James Version of the Bible was written.  This passage, as simple as it seems, is one of the passages where the change in language actually effects our understanding of the meaning of what is written.  You see, we no longer use the word "so" as commonly in the way the authors of this passage use the word.  A better understanding of the passage would be for us to read it thus:  "For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life."  The idea is God is showing us the manner in which he loved the world, not the magnitude with which he loved the world.

Okay, so we're looking at a passage that demonstrates the manner of God's love.  But we're also looking at a passage in context of a conversation.  Jesus had just discussed the bronze serpent that Moses made as is recorded in Numbers 21.  Just as the serpent was the means by which God showed his mercy to the people of Israel, Jesus is here telling us the method by which God will demonstrate his love to the world.  On the one hand those who were bitten by serpents had but to look upon the one who was lifted up, the thing which was the embodiment of a serpent, and they would live.  In the other instance we have much the same thing, we, who have been contaminated with sin, bitten by the ancient serpent and are thus hopelessly headed toward death and damnation, have but to look upon him who is lifted up, who became the embodiment of the curse that plagues humanity, and we will also live, just as he does.

So the point of the text is that God demonstrates his love in that he gives his Son so that we who are condemned to death can look upon him and live.  Yet, the weight of the text comes here in the middle of the text.  That God gave his only begotten Son.  The ESV and HCSB both translate this as "one and only Son."  While a strict reading of the Greek renders the words "only begotten" I think these interpretations grasp something that can otherwise be lost in the English:  This is the Son, the only Son, and he alone comes from God.

I think the weight of the text is found here because of what it means when we consider the words of the text.  Here we have a passage that lays out the simple truth that God gave his Son as a payment for sin.  Anyone who looks upon the Son and believes in him will not perish, but we will have eternal life.  This is God's way of showing his love for us.  And this is powerful, weighty, wondrous truth.

Think about this with me:  Christ is the Word incarnate, the second person of the trinity, God in the flesh.  Christ is also the eternal begotten Son of God, he has been and will be eternally in fellowship with God.  Yet, as a demonstration of his love for us, God the Father placed his Son upon the cross so that the Son would be a curse on our behalf.  God, who cannot tolerate sin in his presence took the sin of the world upon himself so that he, willingly and without compulsion, broke his own perfect fellowship and sentenced his Son to death, so that he might reconcile the world to himself.

True God from true God bore the sins of the world, showing the world his love by doing so.  The reality of this is incomprehensible to us.  How can it be that God would allow his image to become the very image of sin in order to redeem humanity who had so wallowed in sin that there was none left righteous?  How can the one who can not tolerate sin allow his son to be so corrupted by the presence of sin so as to be a curse on our behalf?  How can the God who loved his Son perfectly be willing to allow him to bear our sin, so that instead of experiencing the endless love of God he bore the full wrath of God and endured the suffering of this wrath on our behalf?

The human mind cannot fully comprehend all it means that God demonstrated his love by giving his only Son.  Instead, all we can do is be thankful that God has done this on our behalf.  We can be thankful, giving praise to God for this amazing love, and recognizing that we have done nothing to earn such kindness.  We can respond in faith, looking upon him who was crucified and calling out to him for forgiveness, knowing that he has borne sorrow that we might know his joy.

What is the significance of John 3:16 in light of the fact that Christ is the only begotten Son of God?  Its significance is great and humbling.  There is nothing in us that forced God to choose to save us, there is nothing that made us worthy or deserving of love.  Yet, God is a God of love, showing mercy to those he chooses.  And to demonstrate that love to us he willingly sent his Son, who willingly came, and glorified himself by letting the Son of God become an object of ridicule, not only despised by the world, but also an object of the wrath of the Father.  This is the God we serve, one who could crush us, one who rightly sentences all men to death because of their sin, and one who, in great mercy, has called to the world and said, "Here is your only means of salvation, any who will may come."

Praise his great name forever.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Son of God and John 3:16

What does “the Son of God” mean, and how is this important in John 3:16, where we read that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would have eternal life? As a first note we may begin with the fact that the phrase “Son of God” is only used in the New Testament, and it is only used as a title for Christ. Certainly there is Old Testament precedence for the term, and prophetic indications of the idea, but the term itself is a uniquely New Testament one. In addition we need to recognize that there are instances where we read of “sons of God” in the Old Testament, and the New, and that these are used of both angelic beings and humans. But, this still leaves the fact that Christ is unique in that he is called the only begotten Son of God, and he alone is used as the object of the phrase when it is put in the singular.

So, what is the significance of the phrase, or title, “Son of God”? First we need to look at the passages where it is used. The phrase Son of God is used approximately 40 times in the New Testament, with nearly half of those being recorded by or written by John (including one in Revelation). In the gospels the term appears 23 times, 6 in Matthew, 2 in Mark, 6 in Luke, and 9 in John. Among the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) the title is used in many of the same instances. Each of the writers also uses the Son of God in a way that indicates they all had the same theological idea in mind, and in every instance the person who is referred to by the title is Jesus.

The idea that seems to be expressed by the title “Son of God” is that of the Messiah. For instance, in Luke 4:41 we see that demons were trying to make public Christ's identity, while he was intending to reveal himself on his own schedule. Thus we read, “Also, demons were coming out of many, shouting and saying, “You are the Son of God!” But He rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew He was the Messiah.” (HCSB) And in John 11:27 we read, “Yes, Lord,” she told Him, “I believe You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.” (HCSB) So the first connotation is that the title indicates the messianic identity of Christ.

This is in line with the prophetic declarations of the Messiah, as the New Testament will point out. For instance we read in Psalm 2 that the nations plan to shake off the rule of God and his “anointed one” (the Hebrew word is the same translated as Messiah). And then we read that God has established this messiah as a king, and God says that the messiah is his son. Also we read in Isaiah that a son will be given to us and he will be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” These verses are part of the link to the “Son of God” showing that this term is a messianic one that has Old Testament roots.

But John seems to take the term a little further—or flesh it out more—than the other gospel writers. Luke hints at what John seems to make more explicit. In Luke 3:38 we read, “son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” Thus Luke ties the identity of Christ back to the first Adam, showing that he is the Son of God and the beginning of a new creation. John, on the other hand, gets even more explicit showing the theological power of the title. In John 10:36 we read the the Jews were accusing Christ of blasphemy because he said he is the Son of God, and in John 19:7 we read that the Jews appealed to the Law to stone Christ, saying that he deserved death because he made claims that he was the Son of God.

The way John uses the term, “Son of God” shows that he intended it to have more weight that just a messianic title, though such a use would by no means be light. The people would not be accusing Christ of blasphemy just for claiming to be the messiah. That is, if Christ was claiming that God had sent him and that he was a prophet, or that he was the one who was sent to save Israel like the judges did in the Old Testament, they may have accused him of insurrection, of being a false prophet, or something of that nature, but blasphemy is specifically a sin against God, by claiming something about God that is not true. In this instance the title “Son of God” would have to be understood more literally. That is, John was literally saying that Christ was the Son of God, begotten by God. As the Nicean Creed puts it: true God from true God.

In this context the reason for the specific use of the singular as a title that always applies to Christ makes sense. Only Christ can specifically claim to be the Son of God in the truest sense of the word. As John says, he is the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He became flesh and dwelt among men, and he has made the Father known. This does not mean that there are two gods, for again we see that John says that the Word was God, and the Word became flesh. There is only one God, and he is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all three persons and only one God. No other being or person can ever claim to be God, or to have the relationship that Jesus has with God, this is a unique relationship that is different from all else.

According to John 1:3 and Hebrews 1:3 and 10, Jesus is the one who made the earth, the heavens, and everything else. John says that all things were created through him, and nothing that was made was made without him. Hebrews says that he upholds all things by the power of his word and that he is the one who established the earth. This echoes back to Genesis 1:1 where we read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the called the creator in the Old Testament, and here we see that these same descriptions are applied to Christ. This is a unique status, no other being—that is none this not God—can make the claim to have created all things.

So, why is Jesus called the Son of God? For the same reason that God is called the Father. You see, God does not change. He has always been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son has always, eternally, been the only begotten Son of God. His relationship to the Father has always been that he is the Son, because that relationship, in human terms, is the one that describes the relationship that exists in the Godhead.

Creation was made the show the glory of God. Yet, at the same time, God is not a creature to be put in a bottle. As the creator of all things there are some truths about God that creation simply cannot adequately and completely express, such as his trinitarian relationship and reality. Yet, the family relationship of son and father does, in a perfect world, come close to expressing the relationship that God the Father and Christ the Son have. So let's look at that relationship to try and understand what the term “Son of God” would be expressing in the relationship between the Father and the Son.

First we see that the Son comes from the Father, not the Father from the Son. Christ is eternally begotten by the Father, yet the Father is not from the Son. Yet, this is an eternal relationship. It is not appropriate to say that the Son came from the Father, but rather that the Son is eternally from the Father; hence why I used the verb “come” in a present active form in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Next we see that the Son does the will of the Father. Notice how in Genesis 1 we read the God created the heavens and the earth, yet in John and Hebrews we see that Christ is said to have made all things. This is explained by the fact that God did make all things, and that one he made all things through is the Son. That is the Son does what the Father wants, always and in every situation. Even Christ himself said, “I always do what pleases Him.” (John 9:29) Again, this is just as the perfect relationship between a father and son should be.

Finally (for this short statement) we see that the Father and the Son love one another. We read in John 3:35 that the Father loves the Son. Again we see this in John 5:20; 10:17; 15:9, 10; and 17:24. In addition we read that the Son loves the Father in John 14:31. The relationship between the Father and the Son is one of love. The Father loves the Son and delights to give him glory as his beloved, the Son loves the Father and delights to do his will. This is the perfect relationship of a father and son, if creation could ever see such a thing.

So, how does all of this impact our reading of John 3:16? Let's get into that tomorrow. This letter is already long and I still need to get some sleep tonight.
God bless you and yours!

Monday, December 30, 2013

An observation on cartoons

An observation:  The parents of "Dora the Explorer" are some of the most irresponsible adults in all of cartoon history.

Here their daughter is, talking to animals, including a monkey, a bull, and a squirrel, and they don't even blink an eye.  Daily, it seems, she is getting into dangerous situations, such as jumping over sharks in a boat, climbing a mountain, running from a dragon, and riding on a train with missing parts in the tracks.  In all of these situations she has nothing more than a backpack and a map along with some various friends to help her get through them.  Her parents are apparently too busy having tea and biscuits to be aware of the danger their daughter is engaged in.

At the same time, the cause of much of these problems happens to be a fox who steals her belongings and then endangers her life by placing the things he steals in hard to reach places.  The police are apparently unheard of in this world and theft is so common that children are left to their own devices in getting their belongings back.  Child endangerment and reckless behavior are the flavor of the day.

In such a world, any sane parent would never let their child go unmonitored outside for a minute.  Ever.  Yet Dora's parents not only allow it, but in one episode seem to encourage it by asking her tell the "funny" story of the time they had to chase after babies who were helplessly caught in run-away strollers and ended up right next to a volcano.  Of course the volcano erupted with a harmless result, but that is hardly reassuring when you consider that the whole family was unable to catch up to their run away strollers, and on more than one occasion the babies went through situations that would normally be considered life threatening.  Once again this illustrates the gross irresponsibility of Dora's parents, along with their callousness in that they thought it was a "funny" story.

Of course no child looks at cartoons in this way, but upon consideration I have to say that Dora's parents are horribly scary people.