Our Suffering King

So far, the Letter to the Hebrews has established two things very clearly: there is a supernatural reality to our world that God created, and Jesus rules over it. But for people like us, living in a world where the natural seems all too real and powerful, that might be tough to swallow. To paraphrase a common objection from our atheist neighbors, belief in the supernatural doesn’t always seem possible in a world with high-speed air travel, genetic engineering, and free WiFi. And even if we grant that there’s more to the world than meets the (scientific, naturalistic) eye, who’s to say that Jesus is really in charge? With wars of religion on one hand and natural disasters on the other, can we really be blamed for wondering if someone is asleep at the wheel?

For me, one of the most persuasive arguments for trusting the Bible is the way that it acknowledges our doubts and questions like this. It doesn’t just gloss over the hard questions of skeptics — it deals with them head-on. Listen to this:

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.’ In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
— Hebrews 2:5-9

At this point in his letter, the writer continues arguing that Jesus is better than any of God’s angels. But he does it in an intriguing way: he admits that this isn’t as obvious as some might like. In fact, one could argue, if Jesus were so great, how could he be a human? And even more important: how could he have suffered like he did?

The writer’s response, quite frankly, blows me away. Like many other great thinkers throughout history, he turns the objection on its head and shows that what appears to be a great weakness in Christianity is actually one of its greatest strengths. “Yes,” you can hear him say, “your objection is valid. But have you considered that, instead of disproving me, it might just make my case stronger?”

Here’s what he’s saying: the full humanity of Jesus is a given. As we’ll see again throughout the next few chapters, Jesus really and truly war a flesh-and-blood human being. But this isn’t a sign of his inferiority, since (by quoting Psalm 8, an Old Testament prediction of this) it proves that he is the long-expected Messiah, who had to be a human being. “The son of man,” in some ways, really was “lower” than angels because of the physical limitations of humanity. But that was a key qualification for the Savior of all mankind, who himself had to be a man.

And the suffering and humiliating death that Jesus went through? That’s no sign that he was inferior or substandard. As the Old Testament passage hinted, he was crowned with glory and honor, not despite his low estate, but precisely because of it! A savior who does not suffer, according to the Bible, is no savior at all. And because God graciously allowed Jesus to taste death for everyone, there is no one who without the hope of experiencing the solid joy and lasting treasures won by Jesus.

So what do you see when you look at the world around you? A chaos of sin and weakness, governed by an absentee ruler (if anybody)? Or do you believe the writer of Hebrews, who says that Jesus, because of his suffering and death for sinners like us, is the King over all? By faith in what he says, do you see that?

Don’t Ignore the Gospel

In our last post examining the Letter to the Hebrews, we saw how real the supernatural is. As Hamlet told an old college buddy, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yet even those spiritual beings and realities that our eyes haven’t (or can’t) see are subject to the rule and control of King Jesus. He is not an absentee king, and he uses the spiritual beings of our world — both good and evil — to do his good and perfect will.

But the author of Hebrews wants to do much more than persuade us that angels and demons exist. In the beginning of chapter 2, he answers that most serious question: “So what?” Why should I care that Jesus is better than the angels? This is his answer:

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
— Hebrews 2:1-4 (NIV)
In these verses, the writer shows us that a smart person’s reaction to the news of Jesus’ kingship should include a fair dose of sober self-examination. Is it good news that Jesus is better than anything else? Absolutely — there is no better news! But it also shows that Jesus is a king to whom the world owes absolute loyalty and devotion.

Left to ourselves, we don’t “pay more careful attention” (2:1) to Jesus. Instead, our tendency (and it is a dangerous one) is to “drift away.” We’re called to set our course and stick to it, to aim everything in our lives toward loving and obeying the High King of heaven. But what do we do? We get caught up in the daily grind of living in a corrupted world full of pain and confusion. Our jobs are hard. Our relationships are tiring. Our desires go unfulfilled. And slowly, day by day and hour by hour, we drift off course, away from the only safe port in a stormy and unpredictable sea.

Of course, this is exactly what our King told us would happen: life presses hard on us, and many who claim to be his subjects will abandon him because of it (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). He isn’t so harsh as to leave us without a warning of the dangers we face — he loves us! We see that in the way his love warns us against the great danger our souls face of drifting away from knowing him and obeying him. Yet the warning is serious: the church in the Old Testament was held responsible for obeying a message of salvation from God delivered by angels (see Acts 7:53 for the same point and two examples in Exodus 32:25-28 and Leviticus 10:1-2). The salvation was real, and so was the punishment for ignoring it. If the angelic messengers turned out to be trustworthy, aren’t Jesus and his message to be believed all the more?

As if the mere word of Jesus weren’t enough, he loves us enough to give us corroborating testimonies. God himself is a witness to the truth of the gospel, and he affirmed its reliability “by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (2:4). He also allowed the original readers of this letter to hear eyewitness accounts supporting the claims of Jesus and his apostles. Could there be any more convincing witnesses? Could the evidence have been any clearer? If not, could the truth possibly be ignored? Sadly, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

We need to remember that this warning is primarily for those who have affirmed their belief in Jesus and claimed him as their king. The warning is for us so that “we do not drift away” (2:1). Through this passage of Scripture, God wants us to ask whether our lives need a course correction. Do we say one thing about our relationship with God while unknowingly doing otherwise? Are we like so many of the believers of the Old Testament who heard the message of deliverance from sin and misery only to drift away from it? Their punishment should lead us to change — to repent — and to renew our attention to God’s message. Don’t ignore such a great salvation. And don’t ignore the Son of God, the King of angels, who died to deliver it to us.

Jesus and the Supernatural

Do you believe in the supernatural?

A survey from 2004 showed that thirty-nine percent of those living in the UK consider themselves atheists or agnostics.(1) Yet a more recent poll found that, while many of those in Britain are abandoning Christianity, their interest and faith in spirituality hasn’t gone anywhere. Over half (fifty-five percent) of those surveyed professed belief in the supernatural and superstition; twenty-nine percent claim to be able to see into the future; and a similar number reported that they had knowledge of past lives or possessed telepathic powers. In comparison, less than ten percent attend a Christian church weekly.(2)

In the US we have our own national fascination with the supernatural. A 2007 poll found that a significant number of Americans believe in UFOs (thirty-four percent) or have personally encountered a ghost (twenty-three percent). Lest we think that a lack of education is to blame, Americans with at least a college degree were more likely to believe in ESP (fifty-one percent) than those with a high school education (thirty-seven percent).(3) And of the top ten most popular TV shows last year, five were based on the premise that the supernatural is real and at work in our world.(4) At the same time as more and more of our neighbors are claiming no religious faith (or claiming to be opposed to it entirely), our interest in the weird and bizarre has stayed put. One could even argue that the decline of Christian belief has led to an increased appetite for the paranormal.

Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this, since the Bible reveals our world to be chock-full of beings and realities that transcend the scientific definition of “natural.” Aside from God himself, spiritual beings like angels and demons are unapologetically presented as real and relevant to human life. Heaven and hell are not metaphors, and their inhabitants play as much of a role in the affairs of our lives as flesh-and-blood people — if not more.

Yet that is not to say that the spiritual world is an angelic Wild West. Hebrews 1:1-3 has already shown that Jesus, having accomplished the earthly work necessary to save his people, is now seated in heaven “at the right hand of the Majesty.” In other words — the King is on his throne, and the spiritual world is subject to him:

So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
Hebrews 1:4-14 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews affirms what many post-Christendom Westerners believe (and what the overwhelming preponderance of the citizens of the Majority World have always believed): there exists a world that our minds can only barely comprehend. Yet he goes further to say that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rules over it all and directs its affairs. He quotes multiple passages from the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) to show that this has always been true — the eternal Son of God has eternally ruled over angels, who were created through him (1:2).

So are we crazy for believing in the supernatural? Not at all. But more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether we submit to the rule of the King of the supernatural. Do we acknowledge Jesus, not only as the Ruler of the angels, but as the Ruler of our hearts? We’d be crazy not to.

 


1 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/pdf/wtwtogod.pdf
2- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2590349/God-Were-likely-believe-supernatural-Number-people-think-sixth-sense-higher-regularly-attend-church.html
3 – http://www.christianpost.com/news/how-many-americans-believe-in-ghosts-spells-and-superstition-29857/
4- http://www.imdb.com/search/title?title_type=tv_series

Jesus Is Better

There’s a lot we don’t know about the Letter to the Hebrews. In fact, some of the most basic facts about the epistle (for example, the author and its original audience) still aren’t clear to us today. While the church has always appreciated it for its elegant style and sophisticated presentation of the gospel, Hebrews can be a puzzle to those who study it. (But then again, who doesn’t love a puzzle?)

For all the mystery and complexity that makes Hebrews a special part of the New Testament, the letter is very easy to summarize. In various ways, the author writes to convince us of something perfectly simple: Jesus Christ is better than every possible rival. No one can compare to who he is, and nothing can match the power of what he’s done for humanity. Since that’s true, rejecting him and his message is the most foolish and dangerous decision that a person can make.

The writer doesn’t waste time in his introduction to the letter:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
—Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV)

In just three verses, the author makes a number of profound points. First, Christianity accepts and depends on the truth of the Old Testament. Those who accuse the New Testament of being antisemitic can find no support here! Rather than denounce them as corrupt or write them off as “un-Christian,” Hebrews says that the Jewish Scriptures accurately communicate God’s word to God’s people. But secondly, the writer goes on to say that God’s message in the person and work of Jesus is even more authoritative and more relevant. If the Old Testament is good, then the message of Jesus and his apostles is even better. Any why is that? Because (thirdly) Jesus himself is a more perfect and more powerful representative of God than any other figure in history. He is the perfect prophet, teaching us God’s will better than anyone else. He’s the perfect priest, dying for his people’s sins and praying for them effectively and continually. And he’s the perfect king, ruling over all things that he himself created with an authority that is both total and incorruptible. In short, he is everything we need. Calling him “the best man who ever lived” or “the wisest teacher in history” is an insult, not a compliment, to Jesus. Is he both of those things? Yes — but he is so, so much more. And because of that, his message is all the more important. Do you believe it?

 

 

Is It Still Good News?

This post was written by Christian Crouch of SC.  He writes of himself:

“Christian, a native Tennessean, is the pastoral assistant at Grace Fellowship Church, an independent Reformed congregation in Irmo, South Carolina. He is the grateful husband of Chelsey and the proud father of Stephen and Cohen. Christian is a graduate of the University of the South and Reformed Theological Seminary. Among his other interests, he especially delights in seeing people understand, love, and obey the good news of Jesus Christ.”


Several years ago I played hooky from church so I could go to church. That is to say, I skipped my own congregation’s Sunday service and headed a few blocks over to another local church, where a visiting speaker was scheduled to preach. The speaker was also an author and had written several books that, as a brand-new Christian, I had devoured for their clear explanation of the Bible and warm, fatherly writing style. In my mind, he was a hybrid of John Calvin and Mike Brady. And believe me, if you knew somebody like that was preaching six blocks away, you would’ve played hooky, too.

What I discovered was something considerably less entertaining (but substantially more helpful) than that hybrid (a “Crady”? A “Bralvin”?). The author (who is not an ordained clergyman) began his sermon by reading a quote from a famous pastor (you’d know him) that went along these lines: Becoming a Christian is an act of God’s sheer grace, a totally undeserved gift;  however, your progress and growth as a Christian are completely up to you. The dramatic pause after he finished reading seemed to last forever. Then he simply asked, “Is that true?” How would you have answered?

After another awkward silence, he read the following verse from the Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
—Galatians 3:3

In a measured tone, the speaker carefully explained the message of the apostle, a man who had been personally sent by the Lord to preach the good news of Jesus (see the Book of Acts for the full story). Having proclaimed Jesus to people with little to no knowledge of the Bible, and having seen many come to a life-changing faith in Jesus, Paul was dumbstruck that these same people were now denying the basis of that good news: the simple power of trusting Jesus alone as the only means of rescue from sin and misery. By saying, in effect, that their maturity as disciples of Jesus depended entirely on their own hard work and dedication was, to the apostle Paul, a sign that the Galatian Christians had forgotten one of the most basic truths of the faith.

I wonder if you see yourself as guilty of the same mistake. I certainly am. And so are many of the Christians I know. Ask yourself: Does the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done feel important to you right now? Or was it something that really only applied to you before you became a Christian? To put it another way, is the gospel still good news, or is it just news?

Christians need to hear Paul’s message loud and clear: You still can’t save yourselves! You can’t try hard enough, succeed enough, or grow enough apart from God’s undeserved love. The gospel doesn’t just get us out of the principal’s office; in the words of one pastor, it brings us all the way home. Put another way (and in the words of yet another pastor), the gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. If you know Jesus, you still need daily reminders that you are not able to save yourself and must depend on God’s promised help for any progress in your efforts to be more like him. That is good news for people who, when faced with the hard realities of following Jesus in our broken world, are tempted toward the exhausting hamster wheel of self-righteousness. The power of the Holy Spirit is always necessary to change sinners, even those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. But the good news is this: He loves to change us and is even more willing than we are to see that change happen.

Bible Reading Plans for 2015

For those of you who feel led to read your Bible on a consistent basis this coming year, there are many helpful programs out there to guide you.  Some plans are laid out to help you get through the Bible in one year, others, like the Robert Murray M’Cheyne program, will get you through in one or two years depending on the track you choose.

Ligonier Ministries has published online an excellent compilation of many various programs with PDF file downloads, websites, and apps all accessible at the click of a mouse.  Click here to go to their page Bible Reading Plans for 2015.

There are few greater blessings than consistent Bible reading.

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

Is the Book of Jonah Historical?

Saint Augustine in the 5th century remarked that the story of Jonah was the “laughing stock of the pagans.”  Skepticism towards the book and the Bible as a whole continues to this day in even greater intensity.

John R. Sampey comments on the views that most modern “critical” scholars hold regarding the book of Jonah (critical scholars generally hold a much more skeptical view towards the Bible than others): 1

Most…since Kleinert (1868) and Bloch (1875) have regarded the Book of Jonah as a work of the imagination.  Some prefer to call it an allegory, others a parable, others a prose poem, others a didactic story, others a midrash, others a symbolic book… Radical critics boldly set aside the teaching of Jesus as erroneous. 2

Even some more conservative scholars like L. C. Allen today suggest that the book should not be read in a straightforward historical fashion but as a parable.  They argue that there are elements in the book that signal to us that the author intended the book to be read in some other way.

Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard note that there is a level of vagueness in the world found in the story.  For example, Jonah is the only character in the text with an actual name.  Even the important “King of Nineveh” is left nameless; that alone is somewhat unusual given the fact that Nineveh was not a kingdom itself but only the capital city of the Assyrian empire. 3

Some of the book’s literary features too seem to imply a kind of fiction, the most famous being the “repentance of the animals” in chapter 3:7-8.  Some commentators also see the lack of oracles or prophesies like in other prophetic books as being evidence for this view.

The Historical View

Advocates of a historical view, however, find these elements not only possible, but reasonable when one assumes that God exists and takes the whole text seriously.  For example, the repentance of the animals can be explained by the fact that the Ninevites declared a fast and did not allow “man, beast, herd or flock taste a thing.”  The text says they even covered the animals in “sackcloth” (see verses 3:7-8) the traditional ancient symbol of repentance and mourning.  So the animals really did participate in the rituals of repentance.  And if you deny an animal water and food for a time the animals will wail and show signs of mourning just like a human.

Against the parabolic view, historicists will say that parables are usually short, simple and accompanied by an explanation.  Jonah is too lengthy to be a parable, has complexity at points, and lacks any explanation.

Other apologists will point out that this is not the only recorded incident of fish/whales swallowing humans.  Even John Calvin some 500 years ago mentions accounts of men being discovered in the stomachs of great fish with their whole suits of armor on 4.  See this article written by Probe Ministries for an interesting discussion on the possibilities.

But maybe the most powerful argument to a historical reading of the text is the fact that Jesus referred to Jonah, Nineveh, and the event of the fish in a historical way (see Matt. 12:39-40).  We know that Jonah was a historical figure who lived during the time of King Jeroboam II (see 2 Kings 14:23-27) and the language that Jesus uses in Matthew 12 seems to imply such as well (“this generation” vs. the generation of Jonah’s day).  It seems a bit of a stretch to say that one biblical context was historical and the other parabolic.

Conclusion

With Dillard and Longman I agree that it is hard to be dogmatic either way about the historicity of Jonah 5.  There are solid arguments on both sides of the debate.  Those who reject the historicity of Jonah out of hand simply because of the fish incident however need to provide ample reason for why they presuppose the impossibility of miracles, which also requires the proof that either there is no Creator God or that he has no interaction with the world he made.

But I do feel that it is a slippery slope for Christians to imply that it is not a historical book.  To do so seems to open the door to all sorts of debatable interpretations to other books of the Bible which provide essential theological pieces to the Christian worldview (specifically I’m thinking of Genesis 1 through 3).

 

  1. James Orr says this of critical scholars in the 1976 version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Criticism is more than a description of phenomena; it implies a process of sifting, testing, proving, sometimes with the result of establishing, often with that of modifying or reversing, traditional opinions.  Criticism goes wrong when used recklessly, or under the influence of some dominant theory or prepossession.  A chief cause of error in its application to the record of a supernatural revelation is the assumption that nothing supernatural can happen.  This is the vitiating element in much of the newer criticism both of the OT and of the NT” (p. 749)
  2. “The Book of Jonah,” in ISBE, 3:1729.
  3. Found in their An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 444.
  4. See Calvin’s Commentaries on Jonah chapter II.
  5. An Introduction, 445.

“My Very Dear Friends”

My church has been going through 1st Corinthians since late January of this year.

This week we found ourselves in the middle of a text warning the Corinthian church that their actions were dangerously reminiscent of Israel’s during their wilderness wanderings (1 Cor. 10).  Paul says even though Israel enjoyed a unique relationship with God their position did not shelter them from all the consequences of sin; “God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (verse 5).

Apparently some of the Corinthians thought that their Christian liberty was so great that there was no need to be mindful of the peril their actions might represent to themselves, or the “weaker” believers in the Corinthian fellowship.  “Therefore,” says Paul, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (verse 12).

As I was studying this difficult passage I stumbled across the words “my dear friends” in verse 14 (as in the NIV).  The New American Standard renders this phrase “my beloved” because the word here for “dear friends” (or “beloved”) comes from the Greek word agape, which means love, or “Christian love” (as the Aland Greek New Testament dictionary, 4th edition has).  The King James has a combination reading of the phrase: “my dearly beloved.”  The author of the most definitive commentary on 1 Corinthians I’m aware of to date writes that the popular translation “my dear friends” should be strengthened a bit; he suggests “my very dear friends.”

In the midst of a firm warning, there is tenderness.

Too often we read our definition of love into many Biblical passages and the result is either a distrust of the Bible itself, or a skewed theology and practice.

Our culture here in America largely defines love as affirmation.  While love may at times need to be affirming, it also sees a place for warning and even rebuke.  The Bible never condones truth without love (Ephesians 4:15).

But the reverse is true as well.  Love shares truth.

Next time we read a difficult biblical passage in the Bible, we need to remember the loving God that stands behind them.  We need to remember that often the words of warning or rebuke are preceded by words like “my very dear friends.”