Friday, December 5, 2014

"Jesus Loves You"

Q: I've encountered a lot of teaching and Christians who believe that saying, "Jesus loves you!" is a valid form of evangelism. Do you disagree with this? If so, why? It seems like a loving way to reach out and to encourage those who are not believers.

A: What a great question! There are certainly a lot of materials and teachings that encourage Christians to use the phrase, "Jesus loves you" as an outreach and evangelistic tool. Much of this teaching, that I've encountered, emphasizes following the lead of the Holy Spirit and claims that the Holy Spirit will often lead Christians to say this to non-believers to encourage them and try and lead them to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Fourth Year Ministries does not teach this as a valid evangelism strategy, but it's not because we don't want it to be valid! Truth be told, we would love for this to be a good practice for Christians. It would certainly open some more doors for us and lead to less push back from many in the professing church!

This is a complicated issue, so I will do my best to tackle one issue at a time. My prayer is that by the end, you will be able to see that our reason for denying such tactics as valid for Christians to use when speaking to the lost is not because we are mean-spirited and hateful, nor is our reason because we like to make big deals out of things that don't really matter. This is a big deal. Like, a really big deal.

First, though, I want to be as clear as possible that the love of God expressed through Jesus is a wonderful and awe-inspiring reality. The church would do well to consistently and constantly pray for each other along the same lines as the Apostle Paul:

that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:16-19, NASB)

Paul prayed that the Lord would grant to believers, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened in our inner man (the eternal part of our being which is being renewed by His Spirit, not the external part of our being which is currently under the curse and steadily moving towards death each day). He prayed that we would be strengthened with God's power through His Spirit. He prayed that Christ would dwell in our hearts through faith. He prayed that we would be rooted and grounded in love. He prayed that we would be able, along with all the saints, to comprehend the unknowable breadth, length, height, and depth of Christ's love. He prayed this, so we would be filled to the fullness of God.

Awesome!

Christians must understand the love of God that is in Christ. We should strive to build our lives upon this amazing love. We can never know it fully, which is good news! We will never come to the end of it, so we can always be assured that pursuing a better understanding of it will be rewarded and will never come up short.

However, this is for Christians to understand. It is for those who have been reconciled to God through repentance and faith in Jesus. You'll notice that Paul does not pray that unbelievers would understand or know this love, but that all the saints would know and understand it.

This is important and significant. If Paul has to pray that believers would know and understand and be rooted and grounded upon this truth, it means that we don't really understand it. Not yet. Not fully.

So, how can an unbeliever understand this statement correctly?

The sober reality is that they can't. When a believer tells an unbeliever, "Jesus loves you," the unbeliever is very often mislead into believing wrong conclusions about the love of Jesus.

I have to emphasize, I do not believe that this is often the intention of the Christian. I believe that many sincere Christians have mislead countless unbelievers by mistakenly following bad teaching on evangelism and the validity of telling non-believers that, "Jesus loves you." Hold this thought, because we'll come back to it in a bit.

Secondly, I want to acknowledge that in some very limited circumstances it is possible that the Holy Spirit may lead a Christian to tell a non-believer that "Jesus loves you" with good results. I do not claim to be the keeper of the Holy Spirit nor do I have infallible knowledge of His ways and methods. The Holy Spirit does as He wills, which is a good thing.

However, it is important to note that throughout the biblical revelation the Holy Spirit never (never!) led anyone to witness to a non-believer by walking up to them and saying, "Jesus loves you!" You can search the Scriptures for yourself to see ... and if I am missing an example of such a thing, I will gladly thank you and even give you $100 out of my own pocket in gratitude! You won't find it. It's just not there.

You can find passages that say Jesus loved people (e.g., Mark 10:21). You can find passages where Jesus asked people if they loved Him (e.g., John 21:15-19). You can find passages that state that we must retain the sound words we've received in the faith and love of Jesus (e.g., 2 Tim 1:13). You can find passages that urge Christians to keep themselves in the love of God as the Day of Judgment draws closer and closer (e.g., Jude 1:21).

No examples of believers either telling non-believers "Jesus loves you," or being taught to do so.

None.

So why should we be convinced that such methods today are "Holy Spirit led"? It seems that this is a stretch which requires some basis beyond the one teaching such things! When a teacher begins teaching things that are not found in Scripture, should we not be cautious? We are commanded to test our doctrines and ways by the word of God - to hold fast to what is good and to reject what is not.

With all that being said, let's examine this more closely. Here are the top six reasons I reject such a method as biblically valid and think it is dangerous for the church. I offer these criticisms with the hope that the church will refine our practices and live in a way that is honoring to our God and worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27).

1. Saying, "Jesus loves you," to a non-believer is misleading.

I briefly mentioned this above, and want to develop it a bit further. I've heard people testify to me that they've led people to Christ by saying this simple phrase. I have no doubt that many have made some profession of faith after hearing such a statement.

I also have no doubt that some people have actually been converted.

So, why does such testimony not convince me that this is valid for Christians?

First, making a profession of faith and actually becoming a Christian are two different things entirely (e.g., Titus 1:16). We can't confuse these two things. Lots of bad methods can get people to claim to be a Christian for a little while, but this doesn't make them valid. If I told every single person I met that Jesus would fix all their problems and make them healthy, wealthy, and wise ... I guarantee I could get some people to give Jesus a try. Problem is, when they experience the persecution that comes along with following Him (which I failed to mention), they may jump off the boat as soon as they jumped on.

Professions of faith are not the goal of evangelism. Therefore, we cannot judge our methods by what produces "professions." A genuine conversion will result in a changed individual who endures until the end. Anything less is false fruit.

Secondly, in my street ministry I have met several people who would describe themselves as those who "believed" in Jesus as a result of the "Jesus loves you" message, but who now were living fully in the world (and two, who were now professing devil worshippers!). They had either been so disillusioned by the bad things that happened in their life after hearing "Jesus loves you" that they promised themselves to the devil because they believed Jesus to now be a liar, or were completely comfortable living in unrepentant sin because "Jesus loves me just the way I am", or they had just given up on "Jesus" because they said they gave Him a try and He didn't really work for them.

Although the end product was varied, these results are all a fruit of the same thing. They were mislead by the person who told them "Jesus loves you" - because the person failed to explain what Jesus' love is and means.

A worldly view of love thinks of Valentine's Day, candy, balloons, and warm-fuzzy feelings. When we think of "love" in these terms and hear that Jesus loves us, we think He is going to give us gifts and make us feel warm and fuzzy.

The Bible says: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8, NASB)

Without explaining sin, through the Law, the person to whom you are speaking has no frame of reference for why a guy dying on a cross 2000 years ago demonstrates in the present tense how God loves us. Therefore, if we are going to tell people that Jesus loves them, we must go much further by actually explaining what this love means and implies.

The love of Jesus has radical implications. It implies that everyone who repents of their rebellion against God and turns to Jesus through faith will be saved from the wrath that is to come and is rightfully due to them (Ps 2; Nah 1:1-8; John 3:16-36; 2 Thess 1:5-12). Sadly, most professing Christians are not willing or equipped to go this far with non-believers. As a result, the message is distorted and our hearers are misled.

2. Using non-biblical methods contributes to disunity.

Jesus emphasized unity in His church. He prayed for unity. He prayed for unity, because by our unity the world would know who He is (John 17:13-26).

When Jesus sent out His earliest followers, He sent them with a unified message.

The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel.

The implications of this gospel were more immediately apparent to the original audience, because they lived under the Roman empire. In modern America, we don't really understand the power of a king. We have free speech and can speak out freely against our elected leaders. Not so with a king.

The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion; He who provokes him to anger forfeits his own life. (Prov 20:2, NASB)

Under many kings, if they even suspected you were speaking against them, they would hunt you and execute you. The King of kings and Lord of lords is amazingly gracious and compassionate. He is patient with rebels, not desiring that any perish, but that all would come to repentance (2 Pet 3:3-13). However, His patience will not endure forever.

The gospel today is the same: The kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus Christ is Lord. Repent and take refuge in the Savior. Or, you will perish under His wrath.

When many (perhaps the majority) of professing Christians in the land begin preaching a gospel without repentance - which is essentially what "Jesus loves you" means to non-believers - then the professing church is not in unity.

I have met countless people who have heard the Jesus loves you message. When they are told of their need to repent, they often scoff at me, because they recognize immediately that this message does not match what they've heard previously. They've heard Jesus loves them as they are. Repentance requires them to change. If Jesus loves them just the way they are, then they don't need to change. See the problem?

This is not unity.

Since this is not unity, we must examine the biblical precedent for both messages. With the "Jesus loves you" message we find no biblical precedent or support. With the "repent and believe" message, we find multitudes of passages and examples teaching this. Therefore, we must embrace the message that Jesus has given through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in His Bible. Further, we must reject the other messages, no matter how nice they may sound. We are not more loving than Jesus! Jesus testified of the truth (John 18:37). He testified of the wickedness of humanity and our need to repent (John 3:36, 7:7, 14:6; Luke 13:3-5). He demonstrated His love through dying on the cross (Rom 5:8).

3. If this is not biblical and leads to disunity, it is not from the Holy Spirit but is from the flesh.

I understand the desire to preach a gospel that will not result in persecution. The message "Jesus loves you," is definitely more well received on a regular basis and carries very little danger of causing us to be martyred for proclaiming it!

But shouldn't we be alarmed that the message the modern professing church is proclaiming carries no such danger? Why did this message result in the death of Jesus, the Apostles, and so many of our brothers and sisters throughout the centuries, including in the modern day in other places around the world? Clearly, we have changed the message!

To preach a "safer" gospel is still to preach no gospel at all (Gal 1:8-9). To turn from the gospel is to turn from Him who called us in the first place (Gal 1:6). While we can understand the reasons for doing so, we still must recognize that such a trend is sinful.

What's even worse, is that some who say this unbiblical method of evangelism is following the Holy Spirit is attributing to the Spirit of God the works of the flesh! This is dangerously close to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and should be resisted by the church by all means.

4. Embracing this method causes us to follow after men, who teach this on their own authority.

Christians are warned of false teachers in the New Testament.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Tim 4:3-4, NASB)

The time has come. Many in the professing church are not enduring sound doctrine regarding the mission of the church to make disciples of all nations and to preach the genuine gospel to every creature under heaven. We have accumulated teachers for ourselves who tell us what our ears want to hear: we can preach a gospel that poses no danger to our relationships or material comforts. This is false. But it certainly is what we want to hear.

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Pet 2:1-3, NASB)

Whatever destroys unity and compromises the integrity of the gospel is a destructive heresy. The method of evangelism embraced by many in the professing church of saying, "Jesus loves you" to those dead in their sins certainly fits this mold. I can testify as someone who witnesses to hundreds of people every year that this methodology is causing the way of the truth to be maligned. I can also tell you that it is easy to profit off of selling such materials, because teachers who tell us what our ears want to hear are selling us what we want to buy.

"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30, NASB)

By teaching false doctrine, these teachers teach on their own authority (since the method cannot be validated or taught from the Scriptures) and therefore lead people away after themselves. It is a dangerous thing indeed to follow after anyone who is teaching on their own authority, separated from the truth of the Scriptures. "Jesus loves you" as a valid evangelism proclamation is just one example of such a false teaching. However, how can such a method be taught unless it is asserted on the authority of the teacher themselves? There are no biblical passages which give us this example or which teach such an approach. Therefore, to embrace such methods is to follow after the men (or women) who are teaching us, not following the Holy Spirit.

5. Straying from God's methods attempts to take glory and power away from Him and gives it to us.

The gospel message itself is both the power and wisdom of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18-25). When we stray from His methods, we are demonstrating with our actions that we believe we know better than God. We are demonstrating with our actions that we believe we can do a better job of leading people to Him than how He told us to do it. When we boast of "leading someone to Christ" through our own methods and means, then we get the glory and praise. We supplied the power for their "coming to Christ" because the methods described in Scripture may have seemed distasteful to them, but we found a message that was sweet to their ear.

Such a view is clearly a deception.

When we speak God's message, God's way, it is powerful to effect change that no human can bring. It raises the spiritually dead to spiritual life (John 5:24)! They are genuinely a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17)! Only God can do such things (Isa 55:1-13; Matt 19:25-26) - to Him alone be the glory, honor, and praise.

6. It causes us to commit treason against the King of glory by taking unauthorized liberties with His gospel.

Second Corinthians 5:17 describes the glory of all who are in Christ being a new creature. Second Corinthians 5:18-21 describes the primary ministry responsibility of all these "new creatures" - we are ambassadors for Christ.

Ambassadors are officials in the government who represent the message and person of one who is of a higher rank. In this case, we are ambassadors in the kingdom of heaven for the King of kings! When we take liberties with the message He has given us - a message that testifies of the wickedness of humanity, the reality of coming judgment, God's plan for reconciliation being available only through Christ through Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection in fulfillment of the Scriptures, and the urgent need for all people everywhere to repent and trust in Christ - and exchange it for a different message - "Jesus loves you" - we are taking liberties that are not ours to take.

If we did this as earthly ambassadors for an earthly government, we could be tried for treason. How will we escape such a charge against the King of heaven?

For any who think this is overly harsh or lacks "grace" - consider the reality that Jesus taught concerning those unfaithful stewards and servants who were casual in this life with what we have been entrusted in places like Luke 12:35-59. You should read that carefully and prayerfully, because Jesus says the unfaithful slave will be assigned a place with the unbelievers. Yikes!

Similarly, the Apostle Paul spoke clearly and strictly when discussing the love and severity of God in Romans 11:20-22. The author of Hebrews also stresses the importance of faithfulness with this amazing gift of salvation in Hebrews 2:1-4.

Our God is worthy of our utmost devotion. He has given us everything we need to successfully advance His kingdom and glorify His name on the earth.

He does not need our help in adjusting the means for advancing His kingdom to methods that are more "culturally acceptable." Taking such liberties does not help us, it only hinders us as the people of God.

Based on these six reasons, I hope you see that Fourth Year Ministries teaches against such methods not because we want to be divisive, but because we want to be unified! We love our God and we love His church, therefore we teach what Jesus and the Apostles taught for disciples of Christ to follow and do. Unless and until the people of God are willing to lay down our own ways and walk in His, we will continue to drift further and further apart and will bear a bad witness to this lost world.

Of course our gospel proclamations to the world should include the great love of Jesus who laid down His life for all who will believe. We should magnify and declare the love of God for His creation to the best of our ability. However, we cannot neglect to keep this love in its proper context for the benefit of our hearers, for the unity of Christ's church, and for the praise and glory of His name.

Get equipped. Obey your King. Glorify your God.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Law of God

Q: Has God's Law passed away and is it irrelevant for Christians today? I often hear the biblical passage, "We're not under law, we're under grace!" tossed around, but I also know that Jesus said the Law would never pass away. What am I missing?

A: The more time I spend sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, the more often questions like this one come up. Certainly, many different views about God's Law are available. So what does the Bible have to say about it?

First, and perhaps most importantly, the Bible is clear that the Law is not something that Christians are supposed to argue about, because such arguments are foolish, unprofitable, and worthless according to Titus 3:9. Some think that this passage means that we should not even discuss the Law, but this is not what Paul was expressing. Look carefully at what Paul writes:


But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:9-11, all Scripture citations from the NASB)


What Paul is actually arguing for is for Christians to agree on the purpose of the God's Law, and not to waste time arguing about its purpose because it is clear. Instead, if someone rejects the sound understanding of the purpose and use of God's Law after a first and second warning, then that person is to be rejected. That's strong language!

Since Paul thought the purpose and intention of the Law was so clear, what did he say about it?

Paul stated plainly that the Law is good.

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:12)

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully (1 Timothy 1:8)

That second passage indicates that the Law is good, if it is used for its lawful purpose, which Paul explains immediately following:

realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:9-11)

According the the Apostle Paul, the lawful use of the Law is to be used by Christians for those who are non-believers and still dead in their trespasses and sins. The Law has not passed away, but it is also not for righteous people, but for unrighteous people. This is where the misunderstanding lies and is why Christians often are duped into arguing with each other about the Law. The Law is not for anyone to earn their salvation by keeping, since if salvation were by works of the Law then we would have no need for Jesus (Galatians 2:21). Instead, the Law of God is a diagnostic tool that is used by followers of Christ to demonstrate to those who have not confessed their need of a Savior why they need Him.

While it may not be immediately apparent, Paul explains explicitly what the Law does. It exposes and defines sin.

because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." (Romans 7:7)

Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. (Galatians 3:19)

When Christians proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, part of the message includes that a Day of Judgment is coming and that those who have broken even the least of God's commandments are storing up wrath for themselves on that coming Day (e.g. John 3:36). God has declared that there are transgressions against His Law and He made His Law explicit so that we can see the reality that we have transgressed against Him! Without the Law, we can think we have done nothing wrong simply because we are unaware of the standard against which we are to be judged.

Unfortunately, our present fallen condition leads most human beings to profess their own goodness and to compare themselves to other fallen human beings instead of against God's holy standard. As a result, most people think they have nothing to fear when they stand before the Lord. Exposing them to the Law of God shows them how radically they have fallen short of God's standard of righteousness, which is the only standard that actually matters.

The Law serves as a mirror to reflect the fallen nature of a human being and must be administered according to its lawful purpose, which is a loving act from a Christian to a non-Christian, to show them the relevance and importance of confessing their need for salvation from their violations of God's Law, turning from their rebellion toward the living God, and trusting fully in Jesus Christ as their Savior on the Day to Judgment. Only after understanding the depth of their sin and their need for a Savior, will they understand their genuine need for repentance and faith. Paul states it succinctly:

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)

As a God ordained tool in the hands of His Ambassadors, the Law is surely a good thing. If you want to lead people to Christ that they would be justified by faith, then the Law is the best tool available to you! Sometimes people think that talking about the Law in this way diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing conviction, but really the opposite is true. The Holy Spirit is able to work most powerfully through the people of God using God's ordained means and methods of evangelism. Conviction from sin comes most powerfully through exposure to the Law. Does this mean that God has never saved anyone without the Law being administered? I'm not the judge of such matters. What we can say is that our experience should not trump the word of God, lest we want to be like the Pharisees who elevated their own traditions above the word of God.

To be as clear as possible, the Bible teaches that the Law is not for believers to take upon themselves in order to attempt to earn their salvation. This heretical idea of salvation by works was clearly taught against in Galatians 2:21 and 3:1-5 and also in Acts 15:1-11. Therefore, to quarrel over these things, saying the Law is not to be used by believers in exposing and explaining sin to non-believers to lead them to Christ or that it is for believers to try and earn their own salvation is foolishness and anyone advocating such ideas should be warned up to twice if necessary and then rejected if they persist in these erroneous beliefs.

Hopefully understanding this clear distinction between lawful and unlawful uses of the Law will help Christians to understand how the Law has been fulfilled by Jesus (Matthew 5:17) and His righteousness is applied to all who confess, repent and believe in Him and walk according to the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:4). The good news of the gospel calls those who are under the wrath of God and under the Law (because all are shut up under sin according to the Law, see Romans 3:19-20) to come out and find refuge in the grace of the Savior. For those who respond with repentance and faith and who are born-again by the Spirit of God, they can genuinely profess that they are no longer under Law, but under grace (Romans 6:14-15)! This is good news!

Despite the reality that we who have believed are no longer under Law, we must not draw the wrong conclusion that the Law has therefore passed away or is irrelevant. Now, we uphold and establish the Law as a tool for leading others to life in the Savior:

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Romans 3:31)

The Law is not meant to be a matter of contention for believers. Instead, it is a powerful tool for leading people to faith in Christ. May the body of Christ be equipped to share God's message in God's way, since He is Lord and we are not.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Questions About Jesus

Q: 1.How do you answer the question, "If Jesus was God, why did He pray?"

2. Furthermore, are "God the Father" and "the Son of God" equal? I have came across some material from Jehovah's Witness's and I found all kinds of stuff about Jesus being the "Son of God" but questioning those of us who believe that He IS God. Here are some scriptures that I saw being used:

John 5:41 "I do not accept praise from men..."

If he is God why does he not accept praise?

John 12:49-50 "For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say."

This was being used to say if Jesus was God then why did he need to be told what to say or to be commanded at all?

John 14:28 "...for the Father is greater than I."

John 20:17 ..."to my God and your God."

In the case of someone who is taught that there is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit but not all are equal... Could you please address this in more depth?


A: These questions strike at two huge theological concepts: the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. For those unfamiliar with these doctrines, the Trinity is the Christian doctrine that the God of the Bible exists as one Being (or essence), who exists co-eternally and co-equally in three divine Persons. These three divine persons are distinct in their roles, but are equal in their divinity. Each divine person, although distinct from other divine persons, is fully and equally divine. The Bible affirms that these three persons are not three “gods” nor are they separate manifestations of the one God (a heresy called "modalism"), but are all the One God, both individually and collectively. The common names for these three divine persons are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christianity (not the denomination "Orthodox" which accompanies the Eastern churches, but "orthodox" meaning "right worship") believes and teaches that the Father is God, that the Son is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God. Further, Christians believe that the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is God (not gods; please note that the grammatical use of “is” instead of “are” is intentional).

The Hypostatic Union is a doctrine relating specifically to the Son, Jesus Christ, and His incarnation. The Bible teaches that the Creator God became a man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in genuine history. The theological understanding of how the divine nature of the Son and the human nature of the man, Jesus, dwelt together in the person of Jesus Christ is referred to as the Hypostatic Union and it asserts that within the person of Jesus there are two natures instead of one, which exist simultaneously and without mingling. Therefore, Jesus is both fully God and fully man at the same time without either nature affecting or "diluting" the other. Jesus is not, therefore, some unique nature of God and Man intertwined, but possesses a fully divine and a fully human (albeit, not a "fallen" human) nature at once and will continue to do so forever.

While we certainly won't be able to deal with every nuance and passage relating to these theological strands, we can certainly address the main points and dive a little deeper into the specific passages that were raised and look at a few others. I'll do my best to link to some other good resources along the way, so the interested reader can keep travelling down this theological bunny trail as far as they'd like to!

Knowing some church history is helpful for these particular questions, because the church wrestled with these very same issues for a good part of the 4th and 5th centuries! There truly is nothing new under the sun. As human beings attempt to understand the Creator God, we often go astray in the same types of ways.

If we take the claims of the Bible seriously, the faith that is laid out is a "revealed" faith - that is, it was revealed to humans through direct divine revelation. The Creator of the universe literally broke into space and time and spoke to real people throughout history. Part of this revelation includes the fact that God is beyond our comprehension, and therefore what can be known about Him must come through His telling us instead of our trying to "figure Him out" (e.g. Genesis 6:13, 12:1; Exodus 20:1-26; 1 Samuel 2:27, 3:21; Isaiah 55:8-9; Hebrews 1:1-2).

What happens when we try and figure out God without relying on His own self-revelation is that we necessarily begin to make mistakes. This is not to say that we can't use our brains in understanding what He has revealed... we are supposed to do just that! However, when we stray from the biblical revelation, or become choosy with which parts of Scripture we emphasize and which parts we ignore (or submit ourselves to teachers who do this, whether we realize they are doing it or not!), we begin to make the same types of errors as those who have gone before us.

The first question asked strikes at the heart of the Hypostatic Union, a doctrine which was clearly defined by the early church at the council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. The historical figure who featured most prominently in fleshing out the orthodox understanding of both the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union was Athanasius, who became Bishop of Alexandria in 328. Although he did not likely pen the creed that bears his name, the Athanasian Creed was heavily influenced by his writings and study and deals directly with the heart of both the doctrines of the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union. (*It is important to note that anyone reading these creeds must not read backwards into them the modern understanding of "Catholic church" under the Pope - instead, "catholic" means very literally "universal" and the definition of the "Catholic faith" that the Athanasian Creed defines is doctrinally related to the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union, not submission to the Bishop of Rome or the participation in the sacraments as dispensed by the Roman Catholic clergy. The "universal church" accepts the Trinity and the Hypostatic Union, while only the "Roman Catholic church" accepts the authority of the Pope and the sacramental economy of grace.*)

Both of the next errors relate to the Trinity. The Questioner mentioned that some of the material that they've encountered recently is from modern-day Jehovah's Witnesses. This group makes the same error that Arius, Bishop of Alexandria made. His view, dubbed Arianism was condemned as heresy in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicaea. Jehovah's Witnesses are essentially modern-day Arians who do not claim their doctrine from this source, but who fell into the same error by following teaching that tries to make sense of the Trinity with human reasoning and unbalanced handling of the Scriptures. You can read the Nicene Creed, the canons, and the condemnation of Arius and his teachings in full here.

A related error in understanding the Trinitarian nature of God is called subordinationism and is the idea that the divine Persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) in the God-head are inherently "ranked" in their essence or being. This is essentially the second question that the Questioner has raised. The Nicene Creed, which was reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, likewise demonstrates that the early church condemned these theological views as heresy. The resulting creed, canons, and letter from Constantinople may be read in full here.

If you're still with me, let's move past the historical considerations and look towards the Scriptures. History is helpful in many cases, especially in dealing with theological issues, but creeds and councils are only as helpful they agree with the Scriptures. There are many cases where councils could be cited to show theological errors and not the orthodox understanding of the faith as revealed in the Bible.

So, 1.How do you answer the question, "If Jesus was God, why did He pray?"

Notice how this question fails to understand the Hypostatic Union and frames the question in a way that is designed to generate the answer it wants? I know that this question is being asked in order to cause doubt on the orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus as God. So I'd answer it two ways: First, this question fails to recognize that God is a personal Being and this attribute does not rely upon anyone or anything outside of Himself. What I mean is this: God has been eternally personal - but to what and to whom would He relate if there were not a plurality of Persons within His divine essence?

Without a triune God, His attribute of being "personal" would be an accident or a response to His creation. What's more, it would mean that God had changed from being an "impersonal" being to a "personal" one! But God doesn't change (Malachi 3:6). So, if Jesus was [is!] God, why wouldn't He talk to the Father? That's all prayer is, and the Son has been communicating with the Father for eternity... why would He stop during the Incarnation? This question needs to assume that the Trinity is false in order to have its weight be felt, but that is a logical error called "begging the question" where you assume your conclusion in your premises. In reality, this question doesn't undermine the doctrine of the Trinity, but instead it upholds it and even shows the truth of a personal and unchanging eternal God!

Secondly, I would point out that while Jesus is God, He is also Man. As a man, why wouldn't Jesus pray? Jesus became a Man to live a perfect human life... would this not include prayer?

This question is at best a demonstration of complete biblical ignorance on the fact that Jesus was fully human (I don't mean this as a put-down, but am using ignorance in the most literal sense of being unaware that this is what the Bible teaches) and at worst is a dishonest attempt to undermine biblical teaching through rhetorical trickery. If it's the latter, I can do better: If Jesus was God, then why did He get wearied if God can't get weary (compare Isaiah 40:28 with John 4:6)? If Jesus was God, then why did He sleep when God doesn't (compare Psalm 121:4-5 and Mark 4:38)?

Of course, the answer again is that Jesus was [is!] a man, and it was the fully human man, Jesus of Nazareth who became tired and slept. This isn't a "cop-out" - it's the clear teaching of Scripture:

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5, emphasis added).

In fact, this is no small doctrine or minor theological nuance. The Apostle John stated clearly that denying the humanity of Jesus was the spirit of the antichrist and such teaching only comes from false prophets!

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:1-3)

We simply cannot take the time or space to look more fully into the humanity of Jesus, but certainly these two passages alone are enough to demonstrate that the Bible teaches the full humanity of Jesus. Since this is true, the question becomes much less pointed: If Jesus was fully human, why did He pray?

Some fully human atheists pray, even though they don't believe anyone is listening.

Of course the fully human Jesus prayed! He was sure God was listening!

"Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour '? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name." Then a voice came out of heaven: "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again." So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, "An angel has spoken to Him." Jesus answered and said, "This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes." (John 12:27-30)

Moving on to the second question, are "God the Father" and "the Son of God" equal?

The scriptures indicate that both the Father and the Son (as well as the Holy Spirit) are all fully divine Persons, and as such are all equally God and worthy of worship, adoration and praise. Since this is the biblical position, the first question regarding Jesus' statement in John 5:41, "I do not accept praise from men..." is a good one! I usually quote from the NASB, but since the Question was raised with the NIV let's go with that:

"If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is valid.You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved. John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father's name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?" (John 5:31-47)

If we keep this passage in its context (always a good practice when interpreting... anything!), we see that Jesus is not claiming that He isn't God through not accepting their praise (somewhere, an English teacher just got a migraine from this triple negative!). On the contrary, He is telling these religious elitists that both Moses (5:45-46) and the only God (5:44) both testify and praise Him, so what does He care about the "praise" of men who do not have the love of God in their hearts? Not much, apparently.

This sort of "proof-texting" once again betrays either a complete lack of awareness as to the actual teaching of the Scriptures (both in this passage and elsewhere) or, even worse, a malicious twisting of the truth to suit their own agenda.

It is right for men (cf. Acts 14:13-15) and even angels (cf. Revelation 22:8-9) to refuse worship, because it is only befitting to worship the one true God (e.g. Exodus 20:1-6). If Jesus were not the God of the universe in human flesh, then accepting worship would be out of the question! The fact of the matter is, Jesus did accept worship while He ministered on earth.

After demonstrating His divine power, Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God." (Matthew 14:33)

Another came to Jesus, And he said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped Him. (John 9:38)

If Jesus were not God, this type of behavior should have been stopped immediately and severely rebuked! However, in both examples Jesus accepted their worship.

The specific question about "praise" is actually weaker than "worship," but Jesus received "praise" too: And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. (Luke 4:15)

It cannot be overstated that the passage cited to try and demonstrate that Jesus didn't receive praise was ripped out of its context and forced to try and cast doubt that Jesus did, in fact, receive worship and praise without any qualms or reservations. Only God can do that without being in terrible danger of judgment (e.g. Acts 12:21-23).

The final three scriptural examples all suffer from the same misunderstanding as to the reason for the Incarnation of Jesus and the role of the Messiah in fulfilling God's plan of redemption. Jesus willingly submitted Himself to the will of the Father in order to fulfill the righteous requirements of the Law (Romans 8:3-4) and to take the curse of sin upon Himself in order to redeem a people for His name and glory.

Perhaps the most important passage which teaches this truth is found in Philippians:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

You'll notice that Jesus humbled Himself willingly despite His equality with God the Father in His divine essence, taking the form of a man and obeying the will of the Father by going to the cross. This was the path that Jesus would take in fulfilling the plan of redemption of fallen human beings, and a path that would result in Jesus being exalted back to His rightful place as King of kings and Lord of lords.

It's important to also notice that the quotation - "EVERY KNEE WILL BOW" - from the Old Testament is from Isaiah 45:23, which is God the Father ("Yahweh" or "Jehovah") speaking about Himself. This isn't a problem if you're a Trinitarian, but here's the quotation from the 2013 updated New World Translation:

Make your report, present your case.
Let them consult together in unity.
Who foretold this long ago
And declared it from times past?
Is it not I, Jehovah?
There is no other God but me;
A righteous God and a Savior, there is none besides me.
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth,
For I am God, and there is no one else.
By myself I have sworn;
The word has gone out of my mouth in righteousness,
And it will not return:
To me every knee will bend,
Every tongue will swear loyalty
And say, ‘Surely in Jehovah are true righteousness and strength.
All those enraged against him will come before him in shame.
(Isaiah 45:21-24)

According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus will be the fulfillment of Jehovah's promise, because Jesus is "Jehovah"! Either the Apostle Paul is a false teacher, or those who deny the full divinity of Christ are!

Another prophecy from Isaiah that demonstrates that Jesus is "Jehovah" from the Old Testament revelation: A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3, cf. the NWT: A voice of one calling out in the wilderness:“Clear up the way of Jehovah! Make a straight highway through the desert for our God.)

John the Baptist's ministry was to be "the voice" from Isaiah's prophecy about Jesus, meaning John was declaring the way for Jesus/"Jehovah" (e.g. Matthew 3:1-17)! Likewise, Jesus understood this even more fully and declared that John was not only "the voice" but he was even "the Elijah" that was to come from the prophet Malachi's prophesy:

As these men were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings' palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.' Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come." (Matthew 11:7-14)

In the above passage, Jesus quotes Malachi 3:1 and says that John the Baptist was the messenger, meaning that Jesus Himself is the one true God who has come in the flesh to His temple! Jesus claims to be the God of the Old Testament in the flesh, clearly viewing Himself as "equal" with the Father. In His humanity, Jesus did not "grasp" or "cling" to that status, but He willingly submitted Himself to the Father and accomplished His will.

This is the reason for all of the last three passages being true without sacrificing the full divinity of Jesus. In His humanity, Jesus submitted to the Father and only did what the Father told Him to do. In His humanity, Jesus could easily point to the glory of the Father - a glory that Jesus left when He became incarnate (John 17:5) and resumed when He was exalted after the resurrection (Daniel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:1-12; Revelation) - as being greater than His in comparison (because at the moment, He is clothed in flesh and is speaking prior to the crucifixion).

Similarly, a Trinitarian understanding of the God-head causes no problem with Jesus stating plainly that the Father is God or even His God - that's true! This in no way diminishes Jesus' status as God nor does it require that Jesus be a lesser "god." Our fallen world often views status and submission incorrectly. Submission to authority is a godly characteristic, and submitting to your boss at work doesn't make you less valuable as a human being! Submission to authority points to roles, not essence. As human beings, all are equal in worth, value and dignity. Likewise, Jesus willfully submitting to the Father in eternity for the redemption of a fallen race and the glory of God does not diminish the essence and nature of Jesus. To draw that conclusion requires a leap in logic and necessitates the conclusion that every boss is more human than their employees, which is clearly absurd.

There is much more that could be said about the biblical teaching of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. However, to venture out into those waters will only be done if there is a follow-up. The above hopefully addressed all the main elements of the questions that were asked and should demonstrate that the Bible teaches the Trinity and full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ. Both doctrines should be accepted and studied in depth, as they have tremendous implications for the Christian faith.

Since Jehovah's Witnesses were mentioned specifically, they serve as a good example of how denying the full divinity of Jesus Christ causes the entirety of biblical Christianity to crumble and fall - even though they profess to be "Christian." This was the conclusion of the Arian controversy as well. To deny Christ's divinity and challenge His nature as a Savior requires tugging at His sufficiency and merit, and causes the decline into moralism and works-based salvation. In other words, it's no longer Christianity.

Who you believe Jesus to be matters - but there is only one Jesus, and if you're "Jesus of faith" does not match up with the "Jesus of history" you will find yourself in the wrong line on Judgment Day (see Matthew 7:15-23). We should all (myself included!) take this soberly and be sure that the Jesus we serve is the same Jesus that lives and reigns!

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:11-14)

Amen.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Is The Holy Spirit a "She"?

Q: I came across a video on YouTube that quickly made my spiritual guard go up. So instead of turning it off as i maybe should have, i prayed for discernment and continued to watch. I did quickly close it however, after i heard "Ruach Ha Kodesh" referred to as a member of the Trinity (which i soon gathered was appropriate as this is the Hebrew term for The Holy Spirit), BUT the gentleman used the pronoun "SHE" in reference to Ruach Kodesh.

I will admit i only briefly attempted to find credibility in this. I was floored by all of the material and sources that share this view. I usually feel well equipped to poke around and strengthen my faith by reading opposing views, but this seemed exceptionally evil. Maybe because of the stern warning from Jesus about blaspheming The Holy Spirit, i don't know. Anyway, I am hopping that this is a topic on which you may have already done the research.

Question: Is there any validity to the belief held by some, that The Holy Spirit is female or both male and female, and therefore the comforting and nurturing member of The Trinity?

Thank you, your time and wisdom is much appreciated.


A: I still remember the last day of my first semester of Greek in seminary when my Professor proudly said to all of us who had completed the course, "Congratulations! You all officially know enough to be dangerous!"

While using humor, his comment was really a warning to us - we had learned enough about this biblical language to make it sound like we knew what we were talking about, but we didn't know enough about the language ourselves to actually know anything yet!

One of the areas that drives me most crazy as a teacher of the Bible is when I see people using tidbits from the original language to try and demonstrate some "secret" or "new teaching" that has been missed or obscured due to translation. Certainly there are some interesting things to learn from a careful study of the original languages, but a fact of the significance that this question is pointing to? Not likely.

Without a link to the particular video, it is impossible for me to evaluate the exact claims of it or the related research that was done which turned up the surprising amount of material and sources that share the view that the Holy Spirit of God is either a female, or both genders. To anyone who is interested, I'm sure you can find your own bunny-trail to travel down through the miracle of Google search!

Instead, let's try and take the whole issue at once - which will hopefully shed light on the errors of all of these sources simultaneously.

Unfortunately, since the answer lies in grammar and syntax, I have to warn you up front that the answer is kind of boring... nothing you can do about that. It won't sell as many books, but it is more accurate!

A description of gender as it is used across a variety of languages suggests that grammatical gender does not primarily denote sex in animate beings and "analogous" features of inanimates. Rather, gender is primarily a matter of syntax. The relevant linguistic arguments are diverse; taken together, they point toward a properly linguistic notion of gender. (Waltke & O'Conner, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, 99)

What this means is that "gender" in languages is not the same thing as "gender" in persons and/or objects. Languages that denote gender either denote two (male and female) like Hebrew or three (male, female, and neuter) like Greek. Other languages do not have any classification of gender for nouns, pronouns and verbs (i.e. Chinese), but may make use of other systems of classification for these (i.e. nouns, pronouns and verbs) parts of speech.

This is where we can become "dangerous" - we learn that Hebrew has gender as part of their language system and look at the verbal form of Genesis 1:2 and see that, *gasp*, the "Spirit of God" that is hovering over the water has a feminine verbal form! Perhaps the "Spirit of God" is a woman! In fact, we begin to search for all of the references of the "Spirit" of God in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian "Old Testament") and discover that the majority (though certainly not all) of verbal forms that describe the activity of this spirit take the feminine form.

Without an understanding that the "gender" of nouns, pronouns and verbs is more a product of syntactical relationships between words than it is a commentary on the "gender" of the grammatical objects being described, it is easy to draw faulty conclusions that the text of the Bible is clearly declaring that the third Person in the Trinity is a female. But this conclusion is faulty, none-the-less.

But stop for a moment and consider our own English language. If you were to take a stroll down a pier and speak to some boat owners, you'd find that many of them have named their inanimate floating vehicles feminine names and even refer to "taking her out" ... so, would you draw the conclusion from such feminine nouns and pronouns that these boats are, in fact, females?

Not likely.

This phenomenon is not unique to English and Hebrew.

The error of the idea that gender is attached to an object according to certain perceived qualities is further illustrated by comparing the genders of words in one language with those in another. For example, in the Romance languages 'sun' is masculine and 'moon' feminine, but in German the situation is reversed. Indeed, even for animate nouns the referential feature can be weakened or absent. Thus there are nouns in French that, though feminine in form, refer to men, for example, la sentinelle 'the sentinel,' la vigi 'the night watchman.' In French, most occupational terms are feminine, even if the person referred to by the terms is generally male. On the other hand, some nouns designating professions are masculine (le professeur, le medecin) even when referring to a female; thus, the following sentence is possible in French: Le professeur est enceinte, 'The professor [masculine in form] is pregnant.'

In German similar clashes of sex and gender are found. Amused that Rube 'turnip' is feminine, while Madchen 'girl' is neuter, Mark Twain concocted this dialogue in A Tramp Abroad:

Grethchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera. (Syntax, 99-100)

Many more examples could be given ... but these should suffice to demonstrate that "gender" when it comes to language is not the same as "sex" when applied to persons and/or objects. Therefore, no matter how much "evidence" is cited that points to "the Spirit of God" or "The Holy Spirit" taking a feminine verb form demonstrates not that the Holy Spirit is a "she" but instead that the one who is making such claims is not properly understanding the syntactical reality that ruach in Hebrew is a common noun form which takes both masculine and feminine verb, pronoun and noun forms naturally without being a commentary on the sex of the ruach (breath, wind, spirit) itself. In fact, in biblical Hebrew, the syntactical preference of ruach is the feminine form of agreement, although certainly there are exceptions.

As with virtually everything in Scripture, the context is important. Words mean nothing separated from each other - they require context to gain their meaning. Words on their own have a range of meaning, but they take on a specific meaning when arranged with other words in sentences. How these words are appropriately arranged and related together are based on rules of grammar and syntax, and "gender" is more a function of concord or syntax than it is of meaning.

What is more interesting in a study of this type (that is, if a study of grammar and syntax can ever be described as "interesting" outside of the few small circles that find linguistics to be fascinating!), is not the places where the "gender" rules of syntax are followed, but where they are ignored. In these cases, the natural rules of "correct speech" are being ignored for some reason. In these cases, it is more likely that some sort of "commentary" is being made because otherwise the syntactical agreement would have been followed.

For example, Greek has a three gender system instead of the two employed by Hebrew; so Greek has nouns and pronouns that are marked as either masculine, feminine, or neuter. The Greek and Hebrew languages have a virtually interchangeable word that covers the same semantic range of meanings in both languages: Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek both can mean: breath, wind, spirit. The major difference is that Hebrew (2 genders) has a common form (meaning ruach can syntactically be related to either gender, but more commonly feminine) while the Greek pneuma is neuter.

As a neuter noun, the appropriate syntactical pronouns would likewise be neuter ('it') but we find examples like this in Romans 8:16 where the syntactical agreement is ignored and 'he' is used (despite the fact that the neuter 'it' is available and natural if the 'sex' of the spirit is tied to the gender of the noun form):

The Spirit himself [not "itself"] testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. (Romans 8:16)

This example from Romans 8:16 is a more powerful argument for the identification of the Holy Spirit as a 'he' than all of the possible examples of the Holy Spirit being a 'she' from other verbal forms, simply because all of those examples follow the rules of syntactical agreement while this one violates it. In order to violate the syntactical arrangement, you would need a good reason to do so - for example, to point to the person-hood of the Holy Spirit (in contrast to the erroneous view that the Spirit is the impersonal force or power of God).

Also noteworthy is that the syntactical disagreement of the type found in Romans 8:16 is never found in the reverse, that is, there are no examples of feminine pronouns being used for the Holy Spirit in the Greek scriptures, which is what we would expect to find if the Holy Spirit were, in fact, a female Person.

In conclusion, we must always remember that context is important. The cultural context of the Hebrew people who received the revelation of God in the Hebrew Scriptures were under no misconception regarding the "sex" of God. They were comfortable with the overwhelmingly masculine language that was used to describe God the Father in their Scriptures, and as a result would have never been swayed into a strange idea like the Holy Spirit of God being a woman by the syntactical agreement of their verb forms when used to describe the activity of God's Spirit - just like you would never be swayed into thinking that your friend's boat is actually a woman simply because he keeps on talking about "taking her out for a spin"! The context of an inanimate object overrules the grammatical and syntactical agreement of "gender" in our discussions, knowing that such talk is not intended to define the "sex" of the object being discussed.

One final note: we must always resist the urge to make God in our image, and instead understand that we were made in His. Included in this is understanding that the "we" who were made in His image are both male and female:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

To separate "comforting" and "nurturing" as elements of human personality and disposition, and then attribute them (primarily) to the female sex, and then to define God according to this separation is a mistake. It may be true that human females are more comforting and nurturing as a general rule, but this does not mean that God would need to be female to be nurturing and comforting! Instead, God made both sexes in His image and it is only when combined together that we see the most complete picture of who God truly is!

While a discussion of grammar and syntax may not be exciting, it is helpful to understand that God's revelation of Himself uses masculine language. However, God is Spirit and as such his "sex" is not like the human sexes.

"So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female..." (Deuteronomy 4:15-16)

The Holy Spirit has been revealed (along with both the Father and the Son) with masculine pronouns and to remove them from Scripture is dangerous. Equally dangerous is to think that God is a "man" just like us ... He's not. Even though He's not like us, we should take His self-revelation seriously and resist the false teaching that attempts to see God as an "it" or a "she" - because this is not how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

Thanks for the question! This one took me a little longer than normal ... searching through and studying every reference to the Spirit was time consuming but beneficial to me personally, so thanks for the opportunity! :)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Sign of Jonah

Q: Jesus Himself states, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

According to John 19:31, it seems as though Jesus died on the "day of preparation" which was immediately followed by the sabbath, and then followed by the first day of the week. This leads us to when Mark 16:2 happened, the ladies went to the tomb "very early on the first day of the week". It was at this time that the empty tomb was discovered.

My question is, according to history and maybe even Greek text, is there any explanation as to why Jesus said that He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights when as I am reading the accounts, I am not coming up with three days and three nights?


Thank you, as always!


A: This question has been raised by many people and numerous "answers" have been put forward. The reasons for asking this question are good ones, and the reasoning presented in the question itself seems to indicate a real dilemma when trying to make sense of what Jesus was talking about and the time-line that most professing Christians accept and celebrate: namely, that Jesus participated in the Last Supper with His disciples on Thursday, was executed the following day (Friday - the Day of Preparation), buried and in the tomb through Saturday (the Sabbath), and then rose from the dead early on the first day of the week (Sunday).

This is the traditional understanding of events and is the reason for most liturgical calendars and timing of celebrations in Christian denominations all around the world.

If this is what happened, then no matter how we reckon the days and evenings, what Jesus said in Matthew 12:40 about being in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights becomes difficult to reconcile. If Jesus died on Friday and was buried on the evening of that day (on the Jewish reckoning, the evening would be the start of the next day - either way, this is the first "evening"), stayed buried for the following "day" (Saturday) and "evening" (still Saturday on our understanding of a "day" - according to the Jewish reckoning this is the start of the next day, Sunday), and then emerged from the tomb alive on the next morning, that's only 2 evenings and 2 days.

Some have tried to answer this question by appealing to the fact that according to the Jewish system of counting "days," any part of the day would be counted as a full day - so if Jesus died on Friday during the day, this counts a full day, then He was dead all day Saturday (a second day), and was dead into the third day upon which He rose, for a total of 3 days being deceased. While this answer satisfies some, the question that the Questioner points out is still unanswered, because Jesus didn't simply say that He would be physically dead for three days, but instead said that He would be in the heart of the earth (that is, buried) for three days and three nights.

"...for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:40).

If we allow for Jesus' statement to be that He would simply be dead for "three days and three evenings" then we get closer on this common timeline, but still not all the way there. We're really only adding another "day," which brings the total to three days and two evenings, which is close but not exactly what Jesus said. To say that the Jewish reckoning of "days" would include the evening of Friday (which would be prior to the crucifixion, since the Jewish reckoning of a "day" is "evening and morning" so their "Friday" begins in what we would consider the evening of Thursday) seems like a stretch.

These "solutions" are less than satisfactory to me, especially if we want to maintain the inerrancy of Scripture.

Another possible solution that is presented in order to "get around" this particular difficulty of having a literal fulfillment of "three days and three evenings in the heart of the earth" is to take Jesus' statement as a figure of speech instead of as a statement which is intended to be taken literally word-for-word.

Figures of speech are common in our day and they were certainly used throughout the Scriptures. Good interpretive practice involves understanding the intent of the inspired writings, which means that context is important. Another way to put it is that the Bible is literally true, even when it's not true literally. A figure of speech, a metaphor, a parable, and a proverb all communicate truth, even if they do so in different ways. To take everything absolutely literally - especially if it isn't meant to be taken literally, but is perhaps an exaggeration for emphasis ("hyperbole") - can actually be an abuse of the text. If I exaggerate to make a point, I want my point to be understood - which means I want you to understand that I'm exaggerating so that you'll understand the point of my exaggeration.

You with me, still?

In this way, if Jesus is using a figure of speech, then it's possible He wasn't intending to communicate that He would literally be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, but was simply alluding to His death, burial and resurrection in a more generic sense.

The problem with this is "solution" is that we have no justification from the context to believe that Jesus is speaking metaphorically or with a figure of speech. Instead, this interpretation only arises in order to get around the seeming problem of what actually happened in history! To re-interpret biblical passages because they don't seem to fit reality is bad interpretation.

Quite frankly, if Jesus was using a figure of speech, He picked an analogy (i.e. Jonah) that obscured His point, rather than making it. He didn't need to bring Jonah in at all!

It seems to me that neither of these possible solutions are justifiable or satisfactory, but instead they fail under scrutiny.

In my opinion, there is a better option for those who want to take what Jesus said at face value, and that doesn't violate what is written in the Scriptures. However, it does violate our "traditional" understanding of the events of Jesus' crucifixion. Before diving into the details, the solution is this: Jesus was crucified on Thursday, not Friday, and therefore was buried on Thursday evening (the beginning of Friday according to the Jewish reckoning), was buried all day Friday (the first "day" and second "evening"), buried all day Saturday (the second "day" and third "evening"), and rose early in the morning and exited the tomb on the third day, fulfilling exactly what He said: He was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

Of course, the Questioner points out that the biblical text indicates in John 19:31 that Jesus died on the day of Preparation, which is the day before the Sabbath. However, does this mean that Jesus died on Friday?

It would if Saturday was the only Sabbath.

However, the Jewish calendar had a regular Sabbath, which occurred every week on the 7th Day (Saturday), but also has "special Sabbaths" which corresponded to certain holy days and celebrations... like the Passover, which was happening near the crucifixion (more on this in a minute).

Let's look very closely at John 19:31 -

Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (John 19:31)

What's the purpose of the parenthetical comment included by John, "for that Sabbath was a high day"? While this language does not occur often in the Scriptures (this particular phrase is more often used to refer to the "Great Day of the Lord" - the coming day of judgment), the reason for the explanation that the coming Sabbath was a "high day" is in explaining that the "day of Preparation" and "the Sabbath" that are being discussed are in relation to the festival of Passover, and not based on the normal weekly pattern.

The Jewish calendar was based on a 360-day year. Since 360 is not evenly divided by 7 (the number of days in a week), each year would have the same "dates" occurring on different "days." Our current calendar of 365 days presents the same issue - my birthday occurs on the same date each year, while occurring on a different day of the week from one year to the next.

Similarly, the Passover was celebrated on a particular date with the feast of Unleavened Bread having a special Sabbath on the first day and the last day of the feast, regardless of which "day of the week" these feast days fell on. Therefore, it is a very real possibility that the beginning of the Feast in the year of the crucifixion fell on a Friday, which would have resulted in two "Sabbaths" in a row - the First day of the feast as a special Sabbath, and then the next day being a regular Sabbath. If this is true, John's statement that it was the Day of Preparation (i.e. the day before the Sabbath) need not mean that it was the 6th day of the week (i.e. Friday), especially if the parenthetical comment regarding this "Sabbath" being a "high day" is intended to help his 1st century recipients of this Gospel understand that this was a feast day Sabbath, instead of a normal Sabbath day.

In John's Gospel, if the day of preparation fell on a Thursday instead of a Friday because the timing of the beginning of Passover put the start of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on Friday, then the execution would have occurred on Thursday (a special day of preparation), Jesus would have been buried that evening (the start of Friday on the Jewish reckoning), and John's recounting of the events simply skips straight through the three evenings and three days of burial to the beginning of event on the third day of the resurrection and empty tomb:

Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. (John 19:42-20:1)

Notice, John skips over the entire burial period with a simple, "Now" to keep the readers/hearers moving forward with the account.

Further issues arise in trying to reconcile John's telling of the events of the crucifixion week with the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In those gospels, it seems that the Passover began earlier in the week making this proposed timeline of the crucifixion taking place on Thursday impossible, and making the start of the Passover on Friday also impossible, because in those accounts Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover together at the Last Supper (e.g. Matthew 26:17-29).

Settling these discrepancies becomes a little more complicated. Some believe that John's telling of the events is not really historical, but is more "theological" in focus. What this means is that John is taking a bit more liberty with the facts and is painting a different picture simply in order to bring about belief (see John 20:30-31) and not to give an historical account of the events he is describing. It's John who describes Jesus as the "Lamb of God" and no other gospel writer does the same, and it's John's Gospel which has Jesus being executed with the Passover lambs, while the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have the Passover beginning earlier in the week and Jesus is executed during the festival, but not simultaneously with the slaughter of the Passover lambs.

For skeptics, this becomes an easy target for accusations of contradictions. However, the discoveries at Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided an excellent look into the history of Israel that once again provides helpful information in bringing an historical reconciliation to these seemingly irreconcilable differences.

During the time of Jesus, anyone who has read the Scriptures is aware that there were two major groups in leadership of the Jewish people: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. However, these were not the only groups around! The third major party at this time were known as the Essenes, and it was their library that was discovered at Qumran. (There were other groups, too, like the Zealots - cf. the description of Simon in Matthew 10:4.)

The Gospel accounts record Jesus' strong rebukes of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, yet there is no recorded interaction and/or rebuke of the third largest group at this time, the Essenes ... why would this be? Some historians have come to the conclusion that this is because Jesus demonstrated many Essenic tendencies, and that He and His disciples identified more closely with the Essenes than any other prominent group at the time.

Ordinarily, it wouldn't make much sense to discuss this, as Jesus never intended to make anyone an Essene, but always wanted to call people to follow Himself - so why even bring it up here if it was never mentioned in the Scriptures? One of the additional discoveries at Qumran, beyond many important manuscripts of biblical and extra-biblical documents, was the discovery that the Essenes had their own calendar and enjoyed their own Temple privileges separate from the priestly calendar used by the Sadducees and Pharisees. If Jesus and His disciples followed the Essenic calendar, it's entirely possibly that the synoptic gospels represent the viewpoint of the disciples and Jesus, and it makes sense that their reckoning of the start of Passover would not match the priestly view described in John's Gospel, which would have been the celebrated by the majority of Jews in that time.

If these historical reconstructions are true, they represent two differing perspectives of the same events, which then do not contradict each other at all. Jesus could have celebrated the Passover with His disciples at the Last Supper on Tuesday or Wednesday of that week in accordance with the Essenic calendar, and then afterward been arrested, convicted, and executed on Thursday, the day of preparation for the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread/Passover for the priestly calendar, which would have begun on Friday, a special sabbath.

Unfortunately, I can't say for sure that this is what happened. I do believe that this makes the most sense of the biblical and historical data, that it beautifully reconciles seemingly contradictory events in a historically and interpretationally sound way, and that it best explains how Jesus meant exactly what He said when He declared, "for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." The only thing this interpretation and reconstruction violates is the traditional understanding that Jesus was crucified on Friday ... and I'm comfortable forsaking tradition when it doesn't fit the biblical data. I'm aware that not everyone is willing to violate tradition so easily.

However, since the Scriptures do not say, "Jesus was killed on Thursday," I must admit that it's possible I've made an error in my historical reconstruction or that other historians who have come to the same conclusion have done the same. This is not a hill I'd be willing to die on, but it's the best answer I can give you! Hope it helps!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The "Jesus Myth"

Q: Unfortunately, I stumbled across some pagan god named "Mithra" while looking at pinterest posts regarding "redemption" which I thought shouldn't be simply looked over just because I don't want to deal with it.

I have never heard of this pagan god and am alarmed at how many similarities it has with Jesus Christ. I know I should do my own research, but frankly I just do not feel comfortable delving into that area.

The similarities that I read are things like this... they were both born on December 25th ( I know Jesus was not actually born on this day), they are both born of a virgin, both have 12 disciples, both called "the way", "the truth", "the light", "the life", "the redeemer", "savior", "messiah", both sacrificed themselves and "ascended into Heaven".

Of course no one is directly saying these things to me face-to-face, but I am wondering how you would go about responding to this without having to read all that mysticism garbage online?


A: Those familiar with "Apologetics" (essentially, the "defense of the Christian faith") have likely heard of the Lord, Liar, Lunatic Trilemma made popular by C.S. Lewis and thoroughly presented by Josh McDowell in his Evidence That Demands A Verdict.

The gist of the argument is this: people have to do something with the person, Jesus of Nazareth, simply because of his impact on history and culture. The decisions that people can make are one of the three - they can either dismiss Jesus as a real person who made all of his claims up (i.e. he was a Liar), or he was a real person who thoroughly believed all his claims, but his claims were still false (i.e. he was a Lunatic), or he was a real person who believed everything he claimed and his claims were all true (i.e. he is Lord).

Of course, those who deny the Lordship of Christ are not always convinced by such arguments, and have entered a fourth option to the famous Trilemma, which makes the conclusions of that apologetic argument moot. What if Jesus wasn't a real person at all? What if he was just a myth or a legend? What if he was a real person, but never claimed any of the things his current followers believe, but was a simple man whose legend ran amok?

The question at the top of this post has hints of the "Jesus Myth" problem, because clearly the Questioner doesn't believe that the pagan god Mithra is real or worthy of worship, yet the similarity between this false god and the true God, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ, is raising some concern.

It's important to raise the Jesus Legend problem, whether or not the Questioner actually cares about addressing the issue, because if we deal only with the claims of Mithra, then what about those who point to other mythological figures/deities such as Krishna and Osiris? Although the particulars are slightly different, for the sake of completeness I want to open the box a little more than just for Mithra, because cases are made that "the Jesus Myth" borrowed from all of these other myths and is, therefore, no more reliable than any of them.

I commend the Questioner for their desire to actually "deal" with this confrontation to the faith, instead of simply over-looking it because they just "don't want to deal with it." In fact, that is the basic premise of this blog. We have to be wise about how we spend our time - and certainly reading a bunch of false beliefs about made up people, places, and things is not always a valuable investment of time! However, this is the same objection that many people make about reading the Bible on the basis of dismissing Jesus as simply another made-up god along the lines of Krishna, Osiris, and Mithra.

So, the question is how would I respond to this?

First, I would have to point out that similarities may be significant in some cases, but more important are differences. For example, microwave ovens and jet airplanes have many similarities: they are made with metal, glass, and electric wiring. Both have moving parts. Both require electricity for proper functioning. However, the differences are fairly significant (duh!).

If I tried to convince you that microwave ovens were really no different than jet airplanes because of the 5 similarities I mentioned above (and I could come up with more) and yet I failed to acknowledge the myriad differences, then I would be the fool. You would only be a fool if you were convinced by such poor reasoning!

The fact of the matter is that the differences are significant. This is where we should spend our time. And, we must remember that the Jesus of "faith" is not exactly the same as the Jesus of "history."

The Questioner mentioned it already, but the "fact" that Mithra is similar to Jesus because they were both "born" on December 25 is failure by those making the claim to realize that neither was actually born on that day - Mithra, because he's imaginary and was never born and Jesus, because the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25th is not a reflection of his actual date of birth, but a decision made by men much after the fact to assimilate worshippers of other false gods into Christianity! We must never make the mistake of comparing the "Jesus of faith" - that is, the person that many people believe Jesus to be - because in many cases, this "Jesus of faith" is a legend! The birthday of December 25th is a perfect example, since the historical Jesus was certainly not born on that day, so the "Jesus of faith" whom people believe was born on this day (to be clear, not everyone who celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25 also believes that this is Jesus' actual birthday) is not real, and the "similarity" is pointless.

The Questioner expressed a desire to not spend a lot of time reading about Mithra (or Krishna or Osiris), but you'll find if you decide to read everything you can about them, that these stories read much differently than the biblical narratives concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The most important difference, is that the narratives about Jesus claim to be written by eye-witnesses of his life, ministry, death, burial, and resurrection! In stark contrast, the writings about Krishna, Osiris, and Mithra all read much more like legend and myth, with no eye-witnesses writing what they "saw" and "heard."

Sometimes a big deal is made about the dates of these "stories" - saying that most of these legends pre-date Christianity, so the "Jesus Legend" incorporated elements from these other stories and attributed them to Jesus. Perhaps he was a real person, but the legend of Jesus does not tell who he really was because his followers "borrowed" from Mithra, Krishna, and Osiris to make Jesus seem more important than he really was.

However, the prophecies concerning Jesus go back thousands of years before the historical person - Jesus of Nazareth - was born, crucified, and risen from the dead. It becomes much more difficult to claim which came first when we take into account the fact that belief in "Jesus" didn't start with Christianity... the people of God were proclaiming the coming Messiah for millennia prior to his actual coming! In fact, the first prophecy concerning the coming Messiah is made at the Fall of humanity in Genesis 3:15 - meaning that every culture to come afterward would be influenced by the Judeo-Christian perspective.

Of course, skeptics won't accept this time-line. As a result, it is better to focus our attention upon the historical person of Jesus, because if his claims were true and he is, in fact, Lord, then the rest falls into place. The historicity of the person of Jesus is difficult to deny - yet people still try. In the same way, there are those who claim that the Holocaust never happened. Given enough time, future generations will point to these voices from the past and say, "See! The Holocaust was just a myth!" Just because some people make foolish claims, doesn't mean that they are credible. The historicity of Jesus is easy to prove through Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources.

Read through passages like Luke 1:1-4; John 1:14; Acts 1:3; 2:22-24, 32; 4:20; 17:31; 26:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:5-8; Galatians 3:1; 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:7; 2 Timothy 4:4; and Titus 1:14. How could such documents have gained any credibility historically if the people who lived during the time Jesus lived were confronted with statements like these unless Jesus was a real person who made these amazing claims? If someone wanted to convince you of events happening within your lifetime about Krishna, Osiris, or Mithra, would it be easier for them to claim it was happening now or a long time ago in a place far, far away? With Jesus, although the claims were difficult to believe, the ones promoting the view that Jesus was risen from the dead were brutally executed and tortured for their claims - a sentence they could have easily avoided had they just said, "whoops ... just kidding!" Instead, they took their sentences to death and torture with joy, continuing to proclaim the reality of the events that they witnessed with their own eyes.

The differences are significant.

To deny that similarities exist would be foolish and it would be a waste of our time to try and diminish or eliminate any and all similarities to the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus with others. Instead, one last example should be noted to demonstrate the failure of similarities between fiction and reality to diminish the truth of reality: the fictional sinking of the Titan and the historical sinking of the Titanic.

If you're not familiar with this example, there was a fictional novel written 14 years prior to the sinking of the Titanic with many similar details. Clearly, the fact of a fictional story pre-dating the historical occurrence does not invalidate the historical fact that the Titanic sank and was a great historical disaster. No one could find a copy of Futility, the fictional book, and convince you that the Titanic didn't sink simply because this false story has some comparable details and came before the Titanic sunk, right?

In the same way, no matter how many "similarities" can be trotted out, we must always focus our attention on the differences, because they are most significant. Many have claimed to be the Savior of the world, but only Jesus stands the test of scrutiny. The historical resurrection demonstrates with power that He was, and is, who He claimed to be (Romans 1:4). And there is forgiveness of sin and redemption available in no one else. Jesus alone, after investigation, can claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Truly, no one comes to the Father except through Him.