Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Monday, December 30, 2019

Al Mohler's Misguided Critique of Bethel Church


Al Mohler recently critiqued Bethel Redding, calling Bethel "not a church," and "heterodox." Here are Mohler's two articles about this. I give my responses in [BRACKETED BOLD CAPS]. 

PART I
Amidst all the tumult of recent days comes a series of headlines from California. The New York Post ran an article with the headline, "California mega church tries to resurrect two year old girl through prayer." Yesterday's print edition of USA Today offered an article with the headline, "Church seeks to bring girl back to life."
Damon Arthur is the reporter for USA Today and he tells us, "After the sudden death of their daughter last week, one family has taken the unusual step of enlisting others at a California mega church to attempt to bring the child back to life. Since Saturday,” we are told, “members of Bethel Church in Redding had been using prayer, music and singing in the effort.” [NOTE: THE PARENTS WANTED THIS. WHO WOULDN'T? NOTE ALSO: NO ONE AT BETHEL PROMISED THIS WOULD HAPPEN. IT WAS, AS MOHLER WRITES, AN "ATTEMPT."]
The reporter goes on to tell us that the two-year-old girl who died was Olive Alayne Heiligenthal. Her parents are Andrew and Kalley, and of course they are grieving parents as well we can understand. The little girl, age two, was absolutely beautiful as the photographs testify. There is no doubt that the grief of her parents is beyond estimation and understanding. There is no report about how the child has died, but only the two year old died and that her parents who were involved with Bethel Church in Redding, California have turned to the church to ask for the church to act in order that the child would be resurrected from the dead.
A statement released by Bethel Church on Tuesday stated, "Bethel Church believes in the stories of healing and physical resurrection found in the Bible and that the miracles they portray are possible today." [I AGREE. ME TOO. I BELIEVE, AND HOPE FOR, THE KIND OF THINGS THE EARLY CHURCH SAW, AND WHICH JESUS SAID HIS DISCIPLES WOULD DO. BUT TO BELIEVE IN THESE THINGS IS NOT TO GUARANTEE THEM. I CAN BELIEVE IT IS GOING TO RAIN. I CANNOT GUARANTEE IT IS GOING TO RAIN.]
Kalley Heiligenthal, the mother of the child, is associated with Bethel Music with which she is both singer and songwriter, and much as is the case with Hillsong music from Australia, the music of this church in Redding, California, has spread far beyond the theological movement that gave the church birth.
But we need to look at that theological movement and understand what is going on here. Bethel Church in Redding has become rather well known, infamous might be another word, for its unique brand of prosperity theology that is centered on signs and wonders, on the special gifts and miracles, some of them far beyond human reason or for that matter acceptance. [THIS IS NOT “PROSPERITY THEOLOGY.” THE SIGN OF PROSPERITY THEOLOGY IS NOT AN EMPHASIS ON SIGNS AND WONDERS, AND MIRACLES, SINCE THAT WOULD MAKE JESUS A PROSPERITY THEOLOGIAN. AND, IT’S OK TO GO “BEYOND HUMAN REASON,” RIGHT? FAITH GOES BEYOND HUMAN REASON, CORRECT? THE MIND OF CHRIST GOES BEYOND HUMAN REASON, RIGHT? THE STANDARD OF "ACCEPTANCE" IS NOT "HUMAN REASON." AND, BTW, THIS IS NOT TO DENIGRATE HUMAN REASON. I TAUGHT LOGIC AT OUR COMMUNITY COLLEGE FOR SEVENTEEN YEARS, AND VALUE CRITICAL THINKING. BUT THE PRESENCE AND ACTIVITY OF GOD CANNOT BE CAPTURED IN THE STEEL NETS OF LOGIC.]
Bethel Church is actually heterodox. It teaches what historic Christians would recognize to be heretical teachings. [I DON'T BELIEVE THOSE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS CHURCH WOULD FIND SUCH THINGS ODD. THEY WOULD, I THINK, FIND THE ABSENCE OF SUCH THINGS ODD.] The founder of the church Bill Johnson holds to what he calls a “Jesus is perfect” theology, and in that theology he claims that it is always God's will to heal someone, someone who is ill, someone who has had an accident, or for that matter someone who is dead. [BJ DOES NOT BELIEVE IT IS ALWAYS GOD’S WILL TO RAISE SOMEONE, BACK TO THIS EARTHLY EXISTENCE,  WHO HAS DIED.]
Now, this is not something completely new in the history of Christianity. It is not even new in the history of this kind of fringe movement going back over the last several decades in the United States. Several years ago in Pensacola, Florida, there was a movement known as the Brownsville Revival and similar kinds of teachings and patterns were evident then. In the Jesus is perfect theology [DOES THIS MEAN: OUR THEOLOGY {OUR WORLDVIEW}] SHOULD SYNC WITH THAT OF JESUS? THAT'S GOOD THEOLOGY, RIGHT?], again that's what Bill Johnson calls it, he teaches, "How can God choose not to heal someone when he already purchased their healing? Was his blood enough for all sin or just certain sins? Were the stripes he bore only for certain illnesses or certain seasons of time?" He went on to say, "When he bore stripes in his body, he made a payment for our miracle. He already decided to heal. You can't decide not to buy something after you've already bought it." [THIS IS THE TEACHING THAT HEALING IS IN THE ATONEMENT. A LOT OF GOOD FOLLOWERS OF JESUS ADHERE TO THIS. MINIMALLY, LET'S NOT CALL SUCH PEOPLE HETERODOX, OR NOT PART OF THE CHURCH.]
Now when you look at that, you recognize this is a certain use of Scripture, taking Scripture out of context, but it is also an active fight against human rationality [SO…??? AS MUCH AS I VALUE HUMAN RATIONALITY {PHD IN PHILOSOPHICAL THEOLOGY}, DO NOT THE WAYS OF GOD MASSIVELY TRANSCEND HUMAN RATIONALITY? MOHLER, IT SEEMS TO ME, HAS BEEN ENLIGHTENMENT-IZED.] and not only the teachings of Scripture, but what might be defined as the normative Christian experience and normative Christian teaching over the course of the last 2000 years and more.
What are we talking about here? Well, we are talking about a health and wealth and prosperity gospel that goes far beyond what is normally found even within that context. In the teaching of Bill Johnson, the founder of Bethel Church, is the claim that God wills to heal everyone unconditionally, or at least every Christian, but that simply is not so. That is not what we are promised in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here's the big issue. Biblically minded Christians need to recognize that in the gospel of Christ, we are not promised less than Bethel Church promises, we are promised more. [ONE OF THESE PROMISES IS FROM JESUS: WE WILL DO THE THINGS HE HAS BEEN DOING.] There can be no doubt that in the Bible there are several dead people who are raised to life. Think of the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Think of the apostle Paul with Eutychus who fell out of the window and was dead until the apostle Paul stretched himself out upon him and the Holy Spirit brought him back to life. Think, of course, most famously of Lazarus coming out of the grave as Jesus called him out of the grave, but you can also think of incidences such as Jesus healing Jairus's daughter who had also been dead.
Here's the point: Jesus does not promise that that experience will be our experience in this life. [REALLY? WHAT ABOUT JOHN 14-16? HERE JESUS TELLS HIS DISCIPLES THEY WILL DO THE THINGS HE HAS BEEN DOING.] Instead, Jesus Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life and whom the Father did raise from the dead for our salvation, he promises that there will be a resurrection and that every single one of us will be raised to everlasting life, but he does not promise to us no sin, no sickness, no accident, no death. [LADD’S THEOLOGY HELPS HERE. ULTIMATELY, I SITUATE BETHEL'S THEOLOGY WITHIN THE SPHERE OF LADD'S THEOLOGY.] He does not promise to us resurrection in this life to a continuation of this life on earth. Rather, he promises us resurrection to eternal life in his kingdom, amongst his own, his redeemed.
But one of points we need to understand here is that you do not arrive at this kind of argument out of a vacuum. It comes out of a far larger, contorted and misformed theology. For example, in Bill Johnson's book entitled The Physics of Heaven, he writes, "There are anointings, mantles, revelations and mysteries that have lane unclaimed literally where they were left because the generation that walked in them never passed them on. I believe it's possible,” he wrote, "for us to recover realms of anointing, realms of insight, realms of God that have been untended for decades simply by choosing to reclaim them and perpetuate them for future generations." [OK. BUT THE CURTAIN, THE VEIL, IS TORN, AND WE NOW HAVE ACCESSS TO HIS PRESENCE. THERE IS AN "OPEN HEAVEN."]
Now, one of the things we need to note is that when you are looking at a phenomenon like Bethel Church in Redding, it comes from a misunderstanding of Scripture, a miss teaching of Scripture, a contortion of biblical theology. It comes from a corruption of the gospel of Jesus Christ from eternal life and the promise, most importantly, if forgiveness from sins to the promise of health and wealth and prosperity, and it comes in very strange forms at Bethel Church. [THIS IS INACCURATE. ONE OF THINGS AT BETHEL IS BELIEF IN THE WORDS OF JESUS ABOUT HIS KINGDOM, THAT WE ARE PARTICIPANTS IN WHAT GOD IS DOING, AND THAT WE WILL DO THE THINGS JESUS DID. SEE ALSO, E.G., DALLAS WILLARD. FOR EVIDENCE SEE THE MANY PAGES IN KEENER'S MIRACLES, WHERE HE CATALOGUES MIRACULOUS HAPPENINGS.]
For example, there have been claims that during worship at Bethel Church, there has been the experience of gold dust falling from the air. There has also been the claim that during the course of worship, angel feathers have come out of the air and materialized within the center of worship. They have claimed that at the center of worship, there is often what they identify as a glory cloud. That is to say something that looks like a collection of dust and smoke that they claim is nothing else than the Shekhinah glory of God present in the congregation in a cloud form. [I HAVE NEVER SEEN THIS. BUT PEOPLE IN THE BIBLE SAW STRANGE, BEYOND-RATIONAL THINGS. WHY DON'T WESTERNIZED, SECULARIZED, ENLIGHTENMENT-IZED CHURCHES SEE SUCH THINGS AS WELL?]
Over the course of the last several years, we've seen several bizarre headlines come out about this church and its movement. One stated, "Meet the young saints of Bethel who go to college to perform miracles." It's interesting to note that the reporter for USA Today clarified, "Attempting to bring someone back to life is not widely accepted in the Christian faith, but may be more particular to Bethel Church." That's a citation attributed to Patrick Blewett, who's identified as dean of the A. W. Tozer Theological Seminary at Simpson University in Redding. Now, that's a university that's associated with the charismatic and Pentecostal movement located right in the proximity of this church.
This professor went on to clarify, "This fits more into Bethel Church and to what they're teaching." This shows you just how far outside even of modern charismatic and Pentecostal circles Bethel Church actually operates. For example, the USA Today article states, "The Bible associates miracles of resurrection in reference to Jesus either through his own or in bringing others back to life,” and attributes that teaching again to professor Blewett there at Simpson University in Redding. But he went on to say that he and others at the university are praying for the family during its time of grief. You will notice what's absent from the professor's statement. Even coming from historic Pentecostalism, he is not stating that he and his colleagues are praying for the child to be raised from the dead in this life.
PART II
Writing for Christianity today, Craig Keener, a prominent New Testament scholar who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary wrote, "Miracles are a foretaste of a perfect future, but they remain a foretaste. They offer present signs of the kingdom, but not its completion." That's an extremely important statement. Indeed, miracles are a foretaste of the kingdom of Christ to come, but they remain a foretaste. That's a very careful statement and it is a very accurate statement. We are not taught in Scripture that we should expect that we or our loved ones are going to be resurrected from the dead in order to continue this life on earth. That is not the promise. [OK… BUT…   HAS MOHLER READ KEENER'S BOOK MIRACLES?]
There are miracles of resurrection unto continued life in the Bible, but they are themselves extremely rare, and the point in every one of them is that these rare occurrences point to the work of God, the sovereign work of God, in such a remarkable way that in this extremely out of the ordinary circumstance, whether it be in Elijah's ministry or Elisha's or the apostle Paul's or most importantly in the life and ministry of Jesus, they are pointing to not the normative experience of that kind of resurrection, but rather something that is far greater, and that is the absolute promise to every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ of the fact that Christ’s resurrection from the dead shall be our own experience, but not in order to continue this life on earth, but rather to know the perfect life with Christ in his kingdom yet to come.
When we look at this story, we see absolute heartbreak and our hearts are with these parents and with the entire family. Our hearts are even with all of those who are grieving in this church, but I just used the word “church” and actually, by biblical definition, I do not believe that Bethel Church is a church. [!!!]
I understand that sociologically when you look at headlines it's going to be referred to as a church, but it fails the test of the reformer Martin Luther when he rightly identified the first mark of the church as the right preaching of the Word of God [BUT NOTE THAT THE WORD OF GOD TELLS US WE WILL DO WHAT JESUS HAS BEEN DOING. WE ARE GIVEN AUTHORITY. THERE ARE OTHER CANDIDATES FOR "FIRST MARK OF THE CHURCH," SUCH AS: GOD'S PRESENCE, EXPERIENCED; LOVE; POWER; ETC.], which as Luther made clear means that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly preached from Scripture. That is what is absent from the picture at Bethel Church. [I GREW UP IN THE LUTHERAN CHURCH, AND AM NO LONGER LUTHERAN, FOR THEOLOGICAL REASONS {WHILE REMAINING GRATEFUL FOR THE MANY THINGS I DID RECEIVE FROM THE LUTHERAN CHURCH}.]
We also need to note something else. The theology of Bethel Church actually detracts from the gospel of Jesus Christ. [ACC. TO MOHLER. IS HE A CESSATIONIST? IF SO, CESSATIONISM, AS I UNDERSTAND IT, "DETRACTS FROM THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST." I BELIEVE CESSATIONISM IS FALSE THEOLOGY. BUT I'M NOT WILLING TO MAKE THE MOHLER-MOVE OF CALLING CESSATIONIST CHURCHES "NOT A CHURCH."] It also sets up the reputation of the Christian Church for an incredible humiliation and embarrassment when promised miracles do not happen. [I’M NOT SURE BETHEL IS “PROMISING” SPECIFIC MIRACLES. I’M NOT EMBARRASSED WHEN I PRAY FOR A HEALING MIRACLE AND DON’T SEE IT HAPPEN. IF YOU ARE MY FRIEND, AND YOU ARE SICK, I AM PRAYING FOR YOUR HEALING. IF IT DOESN'T HAPPEN THE WAY I AM PRAYING, "EMBARRASSMENT" IS NOT SOMETHING I FEEL. THAT WOULD BE ABOUT ME, NOT YOU, NOR GOD.] As some have pointed out, the grief of these parents and the death of their child is likely to be multiplied by the grief that comes when a resurrection they believe they are promised does not happen, when the miracle that they believe is promised does not come.
Just a couple of final thoughts on this. One of them comes down to this: I was called by a reporter years ago for a major American secular newspaper who asked me on background to identify who I thought was the most credible amongst the faith healers than operant in America. I stated that I wouldn't consider anyone to be credible in the so-called field of faith healing unless they were, oh, I don't know, something like 200 or 300 years old. [SO, ALL JESUS’ DISCIPLES ARE EXCLUDED? BY THIS ABSURD STANDARD, EVEN JESUS IS EXCLUDED. BTW - THE MANIFESTATION OF THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF HEALING IS GIVEN TO THE CHURCH. IT'S NOT ABOUT INDIVIDUAL "FAITH HEALERS." IT MANIFESTS, BY THE SPIRIT, WHEN THE COMMUNITY GATHERS.]
What was my point? The faith healers tend to die right on time. [BUT... SO DID THE DISCIPLES. WHICH MEANS..., WHAT? SEE, E.G., LADD'S THEOLOGY OF THE KINGDOM FOR ONE RESPONSE TO THIS, AND THE PURPOSE OF HEALINGS. MOHLER'S CESSATIONIST LOGIC LOOKS LIKE THIS: 1) THE DISCIPLES PRAYED FOR THE SICK AND SAW PEOPLE HEALED. 2) BUT THE DISCIPLES THEMSELVES DIED. 3) THEREFORE, THE DISCIPLES WERE NOT CREDIBLE. THE HIDDEN ASSUMPTION IS: IF SOMEONE PRAYS FOR A SICK PERSON AND SEES THEM HEALED, BUT THE PRAYING PERSON EVENTUALLY DIES, THE PRAYERS OF THE PRAYING PERSON ARE INVALIDATED. ] ] They who are promising the power of even resurrection from the dead and the continuation of this life, who are promising in the gospel of Jesus Christ, healing from all of our diseases, they tend themselves to die right on time. So do those who are attracted to their religious meetings. [OF COURSE. NO MEANINGFUL POINT FOLLOWS FROM MOHLER'S THINKING HERE.]
But even as our first response is heartbreak for these parents and this family, we are also heartbroken for the damaged reputation of the gospel that comes by this kind of headline. But there's something else we do need to note, and there's a bit of common grace in this. These headlines and these news stories tend to have to state explicitly, this is not a common normative definition of biblical Christianity because even secular reporters have to ask the question, “Why isn't this going on at every church?” [THAT IS A GOOD QUESTION. MOHLER USES IT TO SUPPORT HIS CESSATIONIST THINKING. BUT THE TYPICAL SECULAR REPORTER IS USING IT TO INVALIDATE THE WESTERNIZED CHURCH. SO, MOHLER MISAPPROPRIATES THE QUOTE. SO, AGAIN, WHY ARE THERE MANY MIRACLE CLAIMS IN NON-WESTERNIZED CHURCHES, EVEN RAISINGS FROM THE DEAD, BUT LITTLE TO NOTHING IN THE AMERICAN CHURCH? SEE, E.G., KEENER'S MIRACLES.] 
Finally on this story, let's just remind ourselves that we cannot possibly understand how anyone would survive the experience of this kind of loss, the death of a precious little girl, unless we genuinely believe that all of Christ's promises are truer than true, and that all that he has done for us and promised to us will indeed happen. In that resurrection, everything will be made right, and as the Scripture says, everything will be yes and amen. Every eye will be dry and every tear will be wiped away. His promises realized then in truth will be far infinitely greater than the confusions of his promises that are in this case communicated to the entire world through the words of a grieving set of parents and a very biblically confused congregation.
[BUT, I {AND BETHEL-TYPE PEOPLE} ARE CONFUSED BY CESSATIONIST THINKING, AND DO NOT FIND IT BIBLICAL. NOR DO WE WORSHIP "HUMAN RATIONALITY" THE WAY MOHLER SEEMS TO. WE SEE THAT AS RESIDUE FROM THE ENLIGHTENMENT.]

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Surrender Your Children to God

(Frost, on our car window)

Even though our boys are adults, Linda and I never stop thinking of them and praying for them. We are so thankful for who they are becoming! And, we have to discern when to let go, and what to let go of. Even Dallas Willard struggled with doing this.

Willard writes:

The surest way to know what you haven’t surrendered to Jesus is to consider what you’re worrying about. It took me a long time to surrender our first child to Jesus. It took me a long time. At last, I’ve been able to do it. Thank God, I’ve been able to do it. It was a problem from the very beginning when he was born and I held him in my arms as a little boy. I thought he was so beautiful, so wonderful. And I couldn’t accept the fact that this little creature was going out into a world over which I had no control. . . . You know you never get over being a parent. You can’t divorce your kids. But you can surrender them to God. You can give them to God. And it is one of the greatest challenges of parents to do that. You have to surrender your children to God. You have to surrender your future, your mate, your job, yes, your own righteousness and everything about you.

Moon, Gary W.. Becoming Dallas Willard (p. 140). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Power of Influence

(Room, in our home.)


I’m not entirely against starting a movement, 
but most movements don’t amount to very much, 
frankly. 
On the other hand, people who know how to stand, 
and stand in the Spirit of Christ, 
change people all around them. 
They never fail. 
They never fail. 
When you have that, 
it will never fail to change people all around you. 

Dallas Willard, “How to Be 
in the World but Not of It”

(In Gary Moon, Becoming Dallas Willard, p. 175). 

This is the power of influence. It's not about trying to change people's hearts. But as your heart is broken in the right places, you will see breakthrough in people around you.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Salvation as Living With God in the Present Moment

(Sterling State Park, Lake Erie, Monroe)

I'm slow cooking in Gary Moon's Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower.

Moon says that, for Dallas, salvation was more than making a decision. Salvation "meant a new way of living, healing of the soul, living with God in the present moment." (P. 165)

I thank God for saving me! 

God gave me a new way of living that continues to this moment,
he healed my soul,
I experience God-with-me in the present moment, every day.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Study Jesus This Christmas Week! (Some Resources)

Here are posts I have written about the Real Jesus.

Study Him this Christmas, so as to know Him more fully.

Merry Christmas!

***
CONTENTS

Jesus Is the Pre-existent Son of God

Jesus Is the Agent of Creation
Jesus Was Born of a Virgin
Jesus Descended Into Greatness
Jesus Existed
Jesus Grew Up in Galilee
Jesus Is "Immanuel"
Jesus is God and Man
Jesus Was a Jew Who Wore Torah on His Sleeve
Jesus Was Baptized by John the Baptist
Jesus Taught About the Kingdom of God
Jesus is King
The Method of Jesus
Jesus Mentored 12 Disciples
Miracles Were Performed Through Jesus
Jesus Cast Out Demons
Jesus Is After the Human Heart
Jesus's Views on Money Were Negative
Jesus Had a Preferential Option for "the Least of These"
Jesus Restored Purity Outside the Sacrificial System
Jesus Reinterpreted the Jewish Festivals in Terms of Himself
Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath
Jesus Reinterpreted the Temple
Jesus Is the Messiah
Jesus Bore Our Horror on a Cross
Jesus Was Raised From the Dead
Jesus Will Return to Restore Heaven and Earth
Jesus Instructed His Followers to abide in Him
Jesus Comes to Heal the Wounded Heart



***
Jesus Is the Pre-existent Son of God

A major difference between Christianity and the other major world religions is that, in Christianity, God came to us. In the other world religions we are left on our own to try to discover God (or achieve enlightenment, as in Buddhism).

Christmas is about God coming to us, in the form of his Son. This is called the "Incarnation." (Which means: "in flesh.") At Christmas God descended the honor/shame hierarchy and took on a human body.

We see this in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. It reads: 

In the beginning was the Word,and the Word was with God, 
and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning
(John 1:1-2) 

Who was "the Word?" We find out in John 1:14: 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, 
who came from the Father, 
full of grace and truth.

The Word, the one and only Son, came to us from the Father and took on human flesh. This is the language of God as a Trinity of persons. God is a "triune" being: Father, Son, and Spirit.

Godis a three-personed being. Imagine a 3-headed person: 3 heads, 3 distinct personalities, sharing the same body.

The idea of God as a Trinity makes conceptual sense of the idea that God is love. This is because love requires relationship. In the very being of God there is, and everlastingly has been, loving relationship. God, in his being, is relational. I love this way of thinking about God! It is so rich and wide and deep and long and high.

Early Christians came up with a word to express the 3-personed being of God: perichoresis. The prefix "peri" means "around." Like the peri-meter of a circle. "Choresis" is the word we get "choral" from, which can mean to sing, but also to dance, as in a "chorus line." "Perichoresis" is to dance in a circle. With this word our 3-Personed God is described as Father, Son, and Spirit engaged in an everlasting circle dance. I like to refer to this as the Big Dance, into which we are invited (John 14,15, and 16).

God the Son has existed everlastingly in the Big Dance that is the being of God. Then, in the infant Jesus, God brought the Dance to us by becoming one of us.

To understand the the Real Jesus we must begin with the Incarnation of God the Son, in whom there is neither beginning nor end. Jesus is the pre-existent God the Son, who has existed everlastingly.


***
This view of God as Trinity has been called "social trinitarianism"; viz., that in the being of God there is a "society" of three persons. See here, for academic ideas on this. But not, of course, for Islam, which vehemently denies the Christian idea of God as a Trinity of 3 Persons. Islam misunderstands this, as Judeo-Christianity has never claimed there are three Gods.

I also love the book The Shack as a way of figuratively expressing Trinitarian theism - i.e., God as a 3-Personed Being.

Two excellent Trinitarian resources are:



In my next book How God Changes the Human Heart I will explain the importance of Trinitarian Theism in our spiritual formation.

***
Jesus Is the Agent of Creation

Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of God the Son. God became one of us. 

Years ago I heard an analogy that still makes sense to me.

If you were an architect observing ants build an anthill and wanted to share your architectural knowledge with them, what would be a good way to do this? It would be to become an ant, live in the ant world, and communicate in ant language to them. You would take on "ant flesh."

By analogy, this is what God has done for us. God, in his Son, took on human flesh and lived among us.

I am still captivated by the brilliance and beauty of this divine strategy. What makes this story so stunning is what God the Son gave up to come to us. The One through whom all things were created took on our flesh-and-bone, ever-so-limited humanity.

The everlasting supremacy and majesty of the Son is seen in John 1:3, where we are told that through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. God the Son is the agent of creation! New Testament scholar writes that John 1:3 "describes Jesus as the agent of creation, and action that Genesis attributes to god alone. Thus, the Johannine narrator starts his story by claiming that Jesus does what the one God does, is eternal as the one God is eternal, and, as the Word, 'was God'." (Larry Hurtado and Chris Keith, Jesus Among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Kindle Locations 1037-1039).

Paul understands this when he writes:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 

16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 
17 He is before all things, 
and in him all things hold together. 
(Colossians 1:15-17)

During this Christmas season, orient your heart and mind towards Christ, who is God the Son come to earth in the form of a person. Think of his supremacy and majesty.

Think of his creational agency

***
Jesus Was Born of a Virgin

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, 

“The Holy Spirit will come on you, 

and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. 
So the holy one to be born 
will be called the Son of God.

- Luke 1:34-35

Father Stephen Rooney, a local priest in the Monroe area, graciously invited me to speak at the Roman Catholic Unity Service in January 2001. I will never forget that event for two reasons.

First, that was the evening my father died. He was suffering and dying as I was speaking. My friend Stephen knew about this, and was praying for me as I spoke.

Second, St Michael's was packed out as I spoke on the Jesus-unity Father Rooney and I have. I used the "Stations of the Cross" that encompassed the sanctuary to illustrate this. I affirmed the truth of every "station" except for the "Veronica" story (the woman who, according to legend, wiped Jesus' bloody face with her cloak). One of my affirmations was, of course, the virgin birth of Christ.

The Pope at that time was Benedict. He had just published a book that defended, among other things, the virgin birth. Benedict reasons like this. (From The Infancy Narratives.)

1. Christian teaching affirms that "Jesus was the son of God and was not conceived through sexual intercourse but by the power of the Holy Spirit, one part of the divine trinity."
2. The story of the virgin birth is not just a reworking of earlier Greek or Egyptian legends and archetypal concepts but something totally new in history. (Contra the intellectually embarrassing "Zeitgeist" mini-phenomenon.)
3. God is a Creator. God creates. God invents. This is part of the nature of God.
4. God is omnipotent.
5. Therefore, God's creative word is able to bring about something completely new. (See my post God's Commands are Authoritative Words that Have Illocutionary Force.)

Benedict's reasoning is grounded in the understanding of the power of God. An all-powerful being is, by logical extension, able to bring about any logically possible state of affairs. "If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God," Benedict writes. "But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation."

Could the story of Jesus' virgin birth been invented by early Christians to spice up the Jesus story? New Testament scholar Ben Witherington writes:

"I would argue that it is highly unlikely Christians would make up a story about a virginal conception, precisely because it would lead to the charge of Jesus' illegitimacy by opponents of the Christian movement. There must have been some historical substance to this tradition for both Matthew and Luke to refer to the matter, independently of each other and in differing ways." (See Witherington, "Misconceptions About the Virginal Conception: Our lack of access to narratives about Jesus' birth shouldn't led us to assume the miracle of his conception didn't happen.")

Jesus was born of a virgin. This is an unequivocal truth of Christian faith.

***
Jesus Descended Into Greatness

While most people are trying to move up the social honor-shame ladder and thus be upwardly mobile, the Word (God the Son) moved down when he became flesh and tabernacled (dwelt) among us. That was a move downwards. The Word exercised downward mobility. Love came down.

This act of downward mobility is called the "kenosis," after a word in Philippians 2:7. Phil. 2:5-11 expresses the entire idea.
 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;rather, he made himself nothing (Greek kenosis; ἐκένωσεν ]
by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
 

New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem writes:

"The best understanding of this passage is that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that were his in heaven. He did not "cling to his own advantage" but "emptied himself" or "humbled himself" for our sake, and came to live as a man." (Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, 240)

In John 17:5 Jesus spoke of the "glory" he had with the Father "before the world was made." In the kenosis he gave up that glory (status, privilege),  but would regain it upon his return to heaven.
I like how Paul expresses this in 2 Corinthians 8:9: -


For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, 
that though he was rich, 
yet for your sake he became poor, 
so that you through his poverty might 
become rich. 

Here we have Christ, who temporarily gave up the privilege and honor he deserved, for you and I.

Today think of the glorious status Christ gave up, for you, when he humbled himself and took on the form of humanity.

Think of Jesus descending into greatness.

***
Notes

The issue of what Christ emptied himself of has been a by the preexistent divine Son, whereby in "becoming human" he took the "form" of a slave - one who expressed his humanity in lowly service to others." (Grudem, 384)

See also Gordon Fee's article in Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God, ed. Stephen Evans. Fee writes:

"An orthodox biblical Christology almost certainly must embrace some form of a 'kenotic' [emptying] understanding of the Incarnation, that the One who was truly God, also in his Incarnation lived a truly human life, a life in which he grew both in stature and in wisdom and in understanding (Luke 2:52), learned obedience through what he suffered (Heb. 5:8), and who as Son of the Father did not know the day or the hour (Mark 13:32). (Grudem, p. 43)

***
Jesus Existed

Several years ago I received a phone call from a high school girl who came to Redeemer. She was crying as she told me about her biology teacher. He had challenged his class by declaring, "There is no evidence that Jesus ever existed." 

This shocked a number of students. The teacher then said, "If you can show me evidence please feel free to bring it to class."

I suggested to her that she bring me into the class to present the case for the existence of Jesus. I wrote a letter to the teacher. When I learned his name I realized he was, at that time, a student in my MCCC Philosophy of Religion class!

When the time came for me to speak on the existence of Jesus at Monroe High School so many students had heard about this that it was decided to hold the event in the school auditorium. 175 students filled the auditorium as I spoke for 90 minutes, making the historical case for Jesus' existence. 

There was a Q&A after my talk. Many students asked questions. They were so interested in the subject of Jesus! Now, years later, I've had people who were in the auditorium that day tell me how much it impressed and influenced them. Some of them enrolled in my college philosophy classes as a result of this.

Perhaps you have heard, or read on the Internet, the claim that Jesus never really existed, and that the figure of Jesus in the Bible is all made up. That claim is false. As small a point as it seems to be, Jesus actually existed. No reputable New Testament scholar believes otherwise (actually, maybe one does, but he is in the extreme minority). Even the skeptical Bart Ehrman believes Jesus existed.

If you want to read some more check out:

"Jesus Existed," by Craig Keener

See my "Jesus Existed (but of course...)" 

***
Jesus Grew Up in Galilee

I hope one day you will get to travel to Israel. Linda and I were privileged to do this ten years ago. We landed in Tel Aviv, and went first to Mount Carmel. Then to Tiberias, located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We spent three days touring the Galilee area, to include Capernaum.

Then we traveled south along the Jordan river. We stayed for 2 days on the Dead Sea, from where we saw Qumran (famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the incredible fortress at Masada.

We ended up with four more days in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, to include Bethlehem.

One of the many highlights for us was a visit to Nazareth, which is west of Tiberias in the area of Galilee. We were walking on the very ground Jesus walked on. Amazing! And insightful. To understand the Real Jesus we must know about the land he lived in.
Jesus grew up in Galilee, in an insignificant village called Nazareth, close to the major city of Sepphoris. It was home to fewer than four hundred people, almost all farmers.
A house from the time of Jesus was recently excavated. With two rooms, and a courtyard where a cistern collected rainwater, it is probably the sort of modest home Jesus’ family would have owned. Many of Jesus’ parables and sayings are influenced by the rural agricultural context in which he grew up.     (See Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 28)

Jesus of Nazareth was born around 4 BC. Jesus’ mother was related to the priestly families, and Jesus had a cousin, John, who in the ordinary course of events would have worked as a priest.
Jesus’ mother’s husband, Joseph, was from the ancient royal family, the family of King David, of the tribe of Judah, though by this time there was no particular social status attached to such family membership.

We know very little of Jesus’s early life. One of the gospels tells a story of him as a precocious twelve-year-old, already able to ask big, deep questions, and debate with adults.
His later life tells us that, like many Jewish boys, he was taught from an early age to read Israel’s ancient scriptures. By adulthood he knew them inside out, and had drawn his own conclusions as to what they meant.

The strong probability is that Jesus worked with Joseph in the family business, which was the building trade.

So far as we know, Jesus never traveled outside the Middle East. And, he never married. Even though some today speculate that Jesus was married, N.T. Wright says that there is not the slightest historical trace of any such relationship, still less of any children. 
From a life of near-total obscurity Jesus suddenly came to public attention in the late 20s of the first century, when he was around thirty years old. Almost everything we know about him as a figure of history is crammed into a short space of time. It’s not easy to tell if it lasted one, two, or three years, but pretty certainly it wasn’t any longer.    (I've here quoted and slightly adapted from N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, Kindle Locations 228-238)

One more thing. Eventually Jesus walks from Galilee south into Jerusalem. Jerusalem was seen as the center of the world, because that’s where all the pressure was concentrated. N.T. Wright says: “That’s where the fault lines all came together, where the tectonic plates ground relentlessly into one another, as indeed they still do. And it is to Jerusalem that we have to go to understand Jesus of Nazareth. That’s where the real perfect storm took place. That’s where all the dark forces converged, one spring day in, most likely, the year we call AD 30 (or, less likely, 33).”   (Ib., 27)
Jesus was a Galilean, a Nazarene who, at the age of thirty, began his ministry in northern Israel around the Sea of Galilee, and eventually made his way to Jerusalem, a world center of religious activity, focused on the Temple.

***
Note: two excellent books on Jesus are Wright's Simply Jesus and Bauckham's Jesus: A Very Short Introduction.

***
Jesus Is "Immanuel"


Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: 
The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son,
and will call him Immanuel.
- Isaiah 7:14


All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, 
and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
- Matthew 1:22

Robert Wilken writes:

"Among the ancient Jewish prophets Isaiah was the most beloved, the most esteemed, and the most quoted by early Christians. His book contained all the mysteries of the Lord, his birth from a virgin, his miracles, his suffering, death, and resurrection, as well as prophecies from the Church's mission to the nations. Augustine said that Isaiah contains more prophecies of Christ and of the Church than all the other prophets. Over time Isaiah's soaring language and unforgettable imagery were woven into the tapestry of Christian worship, life, and thinking." (Wilken, Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian Medieval Commentators, xx)

Isaiah has been referred to as the "Fifth Gospel" because the Messianic prophecies point so clearly to the description of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. See, e.g., 
The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology (eds. Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser). If this interests you then see the entire article from this book by the great Messianic Jewish scholar Michael Brown - "Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53."

In Isaiah 7:14 the birth of the promised Messiah is prophesied, whose name shall be "Immanuel." J. Alec Motyer says that "the title Immanuel is peculiar to Isaiah but the thought is part of the Davidic-Messianic fabric." (Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 85)

I like how Motyer then explains this amazing verse. He writes:

"It is impossible to separate this Immanuel from the Davidic king whose birth delivers his people (Isaiah 9:4-7) and whose complex name indicates the designation Mighty God (Isa. 9:6). Following these pointers, we have a sign that lives up to its promise. Heaven and earth will be truly moved. Isaiah foresaw the birth of the divine son of David and also laid the foundation for the understanding of the unique nature of his birth." (Ib.)

"Immanuel," as we see in Matthew 1:22, means "God with us." Michael Brown says that the term "Immanuel" is unique to Isaiah - it is "a name found nowhere else in the Bible or the Ancient Near East." (Michal Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections, 25)

Brown continues: "We ask again, who was this Immanuel? He was a king promised to the line of David - with an important, symbolic name - whose birth would serve as a divine sign." (Ib., 26)

Today think about God who loved us so much that he came to us, tabernacled among us ("pitched his tent with ours," "dwelt with us"), and is with you.


***
Notes

For an explanation of the meaning of the Hebrew word alma ("virgin") in Isa. 7:14, see J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 84-85. Motyer writes: "Isaiah thus used the word which, among those available to him, came nearest to expressing 'virgin birth' and which, without linguistic impropriety, opens the door to such a meaning." (85)

For a lengthy, detailed study of alma, see Michael Brown's Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Messianic Prophecy Objections. Section 4:3.

***
Jesus is God and Man

Back in the 1970s I read German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg's magnum opus Jesus: God and Man. I was so inspired by Pannenberg's study, especially his analysis of the resurrection of Christ, that I incorporated his thinking into my doctoral dissertation. 

My studies began focusing more and more on the matter of the nature of Christ, and led to a doctoral qualifiying exam on what the early Church Fathers said about Christ as both divine and human, and the eventual development of the great Christological Creeds. (See, e.g., J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines and Early Christian Creeds.)

I grew up in a Lutheran Church (ELCA), and on Sunday mornings we recited The Nicene Creed. The word "creed" is from the Latin word credo, which means "I believe." The Nicene Creed begins with "We believe..." 

It reads:
We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

As I read this today, I see that I still believe it, now more than ever. In Jesus, true God was made man. Here's a brief look at this.

Jesus is True God

In the four Gospels we see many places where Jesus acts like he is God and even claims to be God. This is recognized by the religious leaders, who accuse him of claiming to be God. They pick up stones to throw at him, viewing his claim as blasphemous.

For example, Jesus claims to forgive sins. From the ancient Jewish point of view, only God can do this. This still holds today. 

Imagine you are in a heated conflict with someone. I walk by, see you arguing, and invite myself into it. I raise my hands before you both and say, "Why not use some conflict resolution and anger management techniques to work this thing out?" Presumably, you would not have a problem with me saying that. 

But if I said to you, "I forgive you both for acting this way," you would wonder, "Does John think he is God?" 

The religious leaders asked, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus walked around doing that. He went to a bloody death because of that and to accomplish that. Jesus was speaking and acting as if he were God.

N.T. Wright explains this God-thing about forgiving sins in his excellent book Simply Jesus. Wright writes:

"How does God normally forgive sins within Israel? Why, through the Temple and the sacrifices that take place there. Jesus seems to be claiming that God is doing, up close and personal through him, something that you’d normally expect to happen at the Temple. And the Temple— the successor to the tabernacle in the desert— was, as we saw, the place where heaven and earth met. It was the place where God lived. Or, more precisely, the place on earth where God’s presence intersected with human, this-worldly reality." (Wright, N. T., Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, pp. 79-80)

There are many examples in Scripture where Jesus acts like he is God. He claims such an intimate relationship with the Father that it causes the religious leaders to accuse him of making himself equal with God. (For example, Jesus said, "I and the Father are one.") Their accusations were on target. In Jesus, God's very presence intersected with earth in the form of humanity.

Jesus is Human - The Humanity of Jesus
For this reason he had to be made like them, 
fully human in every way, 
in order that he might become 
a merciful and faithful high priest 
in service to God, 
and that he might make atonement 
for the sins of the people. 
Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
- Hebrews 2:17-18

"What if God was one of us? 
Just a slob like one of us?"
- Joan Osborne

Jesus is fully and completely human. He was conceived in a human womb. Jesus had a physical, human body, like we have. Jesus got tired (John 4:6), hungry (Matt. 4:2), and thirsty (John 19:28).

Jesus went through a learning process, as we do. We read: 

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, 
and in favor with God and man. 
(Luke 2:52)

Jesus felt a variety of different emotions, as we do. He marveled (Matt. 8:10), he wept (Jon 11:35), and he was inwardly troubled (Matt. 26:38; John 12:27).

Jesus was like us in every way except one. Jesus was without sin (1 Peter 2:22).

OK. Jesus was fully God. But why did he have to be also fully human? Wayne Grudem writes: "Jesus had to be fully human to serve as our perfectly obedient representative... If Jesus wasn't fully human, his obedience in our place would be meaningless. Just as Jesus had to be human to live in our place, he had to be human to die in our place."

Hebrews 2:17 says: 

It’s obvious, of course, 
that he didn’t go to all this trouble for angels. 
It was for people like us, children of Abraham. 
That’s why he had to enter into 
every detail of human life. 
Then, when he came before God as high priest 
to get rid of the people’s sins, 
he would have already experienced it all himself—
all the pain, all the testing—
and would be able to help 
where help was needed. 
(The Message)

I have always loved and held closely to Hebrews 4:15:
 -We don’t have a priest 
who is out of touch with our reality. 
He’s been through weakness and testing, 
experienced it all—
all but the sin. 
So let’s walk right up to him 
and get what he is so ready to give. 
Take the mercy, accept the help. 
(The Message)

In Jesus full God-ness and full human-ness converge. The everlasting, world-creating Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Christmas is coming, and I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, true God from true God, who came down from heaven and was made man.

***
Jesus Was a Jew Who Wore Torah on His Sleeve

Linda's mother, Martha, was Jewish. One of her lifelong dreams, which was never fulfilled, was to travel to Israel and see her homeland. 

I'll never forget when Linda and I got to go to Israel. I remember flying over the Mediterranean, and seeing Tel Aviv below us. We looked at one another - "We are in Israel!" For Linda this was fulfilling a dream, and was a way of honoring her mother as well.

When you visit Israel you walk the very land that Jesus walked. Why did Jesus walk there? Was he a tourist who flew in from some other country, only to visit? No. Jesus was Jewish. In order to understand the Real Jesus we must understand this.

A few years ago I read Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Of this book Ben Witherington writes: "The Misunderstood Jew is simply the best book ever written about the Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers. This book is such a seminal work that it makes us all reexamine what it really means to be a Jew or a Christian." (From the back cover.) 

Levine writes:

"Jesus had to have made sense in his own context, and his context is that of Galilee and Judea. Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears." (Levine, 20) 

Just as I could not understand you apart from understanding the ethnic, social, and temporal context into which you were born and now live, so we will make a big-time mistake if we try to understand Jesus from our current cultural perspective.

For example, Jesus spoke, at times, using parables. "Parables" are from first-century Jewish culture, not 21st-century North American culture. 

Here's another example. The healings of Jesus made sense and were assessed according to the first-century Jewish worldview, not our Western anti-supernaturalistic worldview. 

And another: the debates going on in the four Gospels about how to follow Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) only make sense within Jewish first-century legal parameters and ways of talking, not our legal system and modern language. Levine writes: "To understand Jesus' impact in his own setting - why some chose to follow him, others to dismiss him, and still others to seek his death - requires an understanding of that setting." (21)

The Gospels are more relevant and powerful when we uncover their meaning as it was understood and apprehended within their first-century Jewish worldview. I like how Levine expresses this. She writes: "When Jesus was located within the world of Judaism, the ethical implications of his teachings take on a renewed and heightened meaning; their power is restored and their challenge sharpened." (21)

Here is another example. Jesus dressed like a Jew (but of course, right?). He wore tzitzit, or "fringes." The book of Numbers instructs all Israelite men to wear fringes, and today many Orthodox Jewish men still wear them. They can be seen on the prayer shawls Jewish men wear in the synagogue during worship. Numbers 15:37-40 reads:
The Lord said to Moses, 

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 
‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, 
with a blue cord on each tassel. 
You will have these tassels to look at 
and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them 
and not prostitute yourselves 
by chasing after 
the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 
Then you will remember to obey 
all my commands 
and will be consecrated to your God.

These tassels (tzitzit) were the WWJD bracelets of the time. Levine writes: "Just as the bracelets remind their Christian wearers to ask, "What would Jesus Do?" so the fringes remind Jewish wearers of all 613 "commandments," or mitzvot. The Gospels do not shy away from the fact that Jesus wore these fringes." (24)

Those were the fringes the woman with the twelve-year bleeding touched in hopes of a healing (Matthew 9:20). Wherever Jesus went, people begged to simply touch the fringe of Jesus' cloak (Mark 6:56). And Jesus, in Matthew 23:5, accuses the Pharisees and scribes of making their fringes long, which suggests that Jesus' fringes were shorter. Levine concludes: "Jesus thus does not dismiss the Torah; in the modern idiom, he "wears it on his sleeve."" (Levine, 24; emphasis mine)

Jesus dressed like a Jew, ate like a Jew (see Levine pp. 24 ff.), and spoke like a Jew. In Jesus, God came to us and took on, specifically, Jewish flesh. 

The Christmas outcome for us today is that, in and through the death and resurrection of Christ, we Jesus-followers gain family status "God's chosen people, holy and deeply loved" (Colossian 3:12, which is a very Jewish way of speaking as it reduplicates the family status of Deuteronomy 7:6 and applies it to us).

Rejoice, rejoice
Immanuel
Shall come to thee
O Israel

***
Jesus Was Baptized by John the Baptist

I was baptized by one of my campus ministry leaders, Ray Anderson, in a Wesleyan church in DeKalb, Illinois. I was 21. My parents came to witness this.

For all of us this was a great day. Baptism is an identification rite. I had cast off the old clothing of my life in the kingdom of blindness and put of the new garment of Christ. (Colossians 3:12-15) This was a joyful and serious thing, and its effect continues in me today.

Baptism is serious and joyful business. I found this out when I was teaching at an Assemblies of God Bible college in Singapore. One of my Chinese students was named Kek (pronounced 'cake'). I asked Kek a question: "What was the hardest thing for you when you left primitive Chinese religion and becamae a follower of Jesus?"

Immediately Kek said: "It was when I was baptized. Then my parents knew I was serious. They knew I would not be a son who bowed before their graves. They knew I would not be a son who kept a family offer and offered sacrifices and prayers to them after they died."

This is baptism as revolutionary activity.

Jesus got baptized. To understand the Real Jesus we must understand his baptism, in the River Jordan, by John the Baptist. New Testament scholar Michael McClymond writes:

“The story of Jesus’ adult life begins with John the Baptist… [T]he beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of the gospel message lie in John and his preaching. John the Baptist is part of Jesus’ identity... John is important for understanding Jesus because the gospel accounts consistently portray Jesus’ baptism as a major transition… Once he had been baptized by John, Jesus began to announce that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).” (McClymond, Familiar Stranger, 66)

Jesus, in allowing himself to be baptized by John, identified with John's cause. So... who was John the Baptist, and what was his mission? McClymond nicely summarizes for us.

“John was the leader of a sectarian baptizing movement centered in the wilderness of Judea – a place with eschatological as well as ascetic associations. Like earlier prophetic and apocalyptic figures, John announced the imminent end of the world and the time of divine judgment. John also spoke of a “Coming One” who would carry out the judgment. He summoned people to repentance because the remaining time was short, and the end was drawing near… " (McClymond, 62)

John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. To repent is to turn and go in the other direction. Jesus, in submitting to John's baptism, identified with the idea that our world is a freight train rushing headlong towards destruction.

Eventually, John was imprisoned. Jesus left Nazareth, withdrew to Galilee, and lived in Capernaum. "From that time on Jesus began to preach, 'Repent......'" (Matthew 4:17)

Today think about Jesus as your Rescuer, who turned your soul away from death, and called you to run in the other direction towards life.


***
Jesus Taught About the Kingdom of God

In my Philosophy of Religion classes at MCCC I teach, at times, on the major comparative religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). When it comes to Christianity I have asked students the question: "What was the main thing Jesus taught about?" They give a variety of answers, but no one ever gets this right. The correct answer is: Jesus' main message was about "the kingdom of God."

The parables of Jesus were all about this kingdom. Many begin with Jesus saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like..." (Note: "kingdom of God" and "kingdom of heaven" mean the same thing. Observant Jews of the time would prefer "kingdom of heaven" so as not to say the sacred name of God [YHWH].) In the Lord's Prayer Jesus tells us to pray for God's kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven. After Jesus was baptized and tempted in the wilderness he began to preach "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 4:17))

What, to Jesus and his hearers, did "kingdom of God" mean? It did not mean a place, or a location. It meant, and means today, the rule or reign of God.   Because Jesus said, “If you see me cast out demons by the finger of God then the kingdom of God has come to you.” (Matthew 12:28) By this Jesus does not mean a place. Further, Jesus said his kingdom “is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

Few things have impacted me as deeply as coming to understand the kingdom of God. New Testament scholar Michael McClymond writes that this term “is meant to conjure up the dynamic notion of God powerfully ruling over his creation, over his people, and over the history of both… the kingdom of God means God ruling as king. Hence his action upon and his dynamic relationship to those ruled, rather than any delimited territory, is what is primary.” (McClymond, Familiar Stranger, 74)

N.T. Wright asks: What would it "look like if we really believed that the living God was king on earth as in heaven? That, after all, is the story all four gospels tell." (Wright, N. T., How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, K62) What would it look like in your life, in your church family, in your community if, in the midst of it all, the reign of God was established?

When I understood more about the kingdom of God I began to pray The Lord's Prayer in a different way. Now I pray like this, because I believe this is how the early Jesus-followers understood it.

God, let your kingdom come...,
not only in the future,
but here
and now.
God, reign over my heart and mind
NOW.
As I am typing this sentence
As I take my next breath
As I walk into whatever this day has for me
Let things be here
in my home
in my church family
in my community
and beyond,
on this earth,
as things are in heaven.

Truly!


***
Jesus is King

When you read the four Gospels you discover that Jesus thinks and acts like he is a king. N.T. Wright says that “throughout his short public career Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge.” (Wright, Simply Jesus, K292)  Jesus “behaved suspiciously like someone trying to start a political party or a revolutionary movement.”  (Ib., K296) For example:

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups 
on the green grass. 

- Mark 6:39

This verse is about Jesus feeding the 5,000. To understand what's going on here we need to realize that this is a highly politicized situation. It’s volatile in Galilee under Roman rule. Imagine a country under the rule of a foreign government. The people are oppressed. Four Jewish political groups are offering their various suggestions. There’s an undercurrent of Zealot sympathies.

Their immediate ruler is Herod Antipas. He calls himself "king," but he’s not actually a king. Yet, he really wants to be king and have that power. Antipas is an adulterer, a child pornographer, a drunken party-guy who mostly sits in his palace far to the south of the sea of Galilee where he spends part of his time cutting off the heads of prophets.

Enter Jesus. He sees the oppressed people living in their own land like it is a foreign land. Jesus views them as “sheep without a shepherd.” Can you see why? The four Jewish political groups didn’t have a solution. And then there’s Herod Antipas…

Jesus views the people as leaderless, “kingless people.” He has compassion on them, not simply because they are hungry.

So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.

- Mark 6:40

Jesus instructs the disciples to organize the crowds into groups, to get ready for the meal. They were eating in prasia – literally, “garden plots,” or “flower beds.” New Testament scholar R.T. France says this is “a remarkably visual impression of the scene, with men lined up in groups like plots of vegetables on the green grass... The vivid description suggests the eyewitness account of someone who was present at this extraordinary picnic.” (France, Gospel of Mark, 267)

Jesus has the people sit down in ranks, in groups of 50s and 100s. He formally organizes them. They look like military troops. N. T. Wright says, “Anybody watching this might be asking, “Who does this man think he is?”"

This explains John 6:14-15:

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, 
they began to say, 
"Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." 
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

R.T. France sums this up: a strong case can be made for a political, and indeed military, character to the outcome.
 
When Jesus feeds the 5,000, what he does is a kingly, militaristic act. The people pick up on this, and try to force Jesus to be their king.
Which he is. 

Jesus is King. But not the kind of king they were looking for.
"Who is this king of glory
Who consumes me with His love?"
- Third Day

***
The Method of Jesus

Several years ago, at Redeemer, we preached through the four Gospels chronologically. This took almost seven years! Then, we preached through the Pauline Epistles, 1 and 2 Peter, the book of James, Hebrews, and (for over one year) the book of Revelation.  

Verse by verse, bit by bit, brick by brick, we have been laying a foundation for our people, building a Jesus-literate house to live and move in.

Whenever I preach I expect God to do something. It wasn't always this way for me. I wasn't taught this. Now I expect the proclamation of God's Word to be accompanied by demonstrations of his love and power. 

Proclaim and demonstrate.  

If Jesus had a method, that was it. Jesus' words had authority. Jesus' actions validated that authority. (I do believe that God's Spirit does things in the hearts and minds of people as his Word is simply proclaimed. But it is instructive to note that, as Jesus' words had illocutionary power, Jesus also acted in demonstrations of power. Kind of like "tell and show.")

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes: 

Jesus "saw the kingdom arriving in the sorts of things he was doing: bringing God’s healing and forgiveness into the lives of people he met, reaching out to those who were pushed to the margins of God’s people, gathering a community in which service would replace status. These are the sorts of things that happen when God rules."  (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 38. Emphasis mine. This is a beautiful little book on the Real Jesus. Tolle lege!!!)

George Ladd writes: 

“Jesus’s ministry and announcement of the Good News of the Kingdom were characterized by healing, and most notably by the casting out of demons. He proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and He demonstrated the Good News of the Kingdom of God by delivering men from the bondage of Satan.” (Ladd, Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God, 47. Emphasis mine.)

Pick up your Bible and read. Expect Jesus to demonstrate his love and power in your life today.


***
See also Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study.

***
Jesus Mentored 12 Disciples

Anyone remember the game "Trivial Pursuit?" Christians came out with their own version, called "Bible Trivia." I played both these games. I was not good at either. For at least two reasons. 

First, I tend to be slow. When asked a question, I often ruminate on it. The dial in my brain gets set to 'slow cook', and my chin tilts slightly downward while being held in my hand. I am....    thinking....  about this....  question.


Secondly, I am not very good at remembering and memorizing Bible facts. Like:

Q: "Which of the two dreamers in prison with Joseph was executed?"

A: The "chief baker." (Gen. 40:22)

Fortunately, my status as a child of God does not depend on answering these kind of questions.

I've had difficulties naming Jesus' 12 disciples. I never took the time to memorize them. I do know that Jesus called twelve to follow him, told them to leave everything for the sake of his kingdom mission, and that none of them had graduate degrees.

I also know - and this is what really interests me - that Jesus "discipled" them, mentored them, to do the things he was doing. This is more important to understand than what their names were. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham explains:

"By accompanying Jesus at all times, they were to learn from him how to continue his own mission: to heal and to exorcize, to bring the good news of the kingdom to the destitute and the outcasts." (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 51)

(Pastors - instead of trying to attract people and grow a big church, mentor some disciples. Twelve would be enough.)

These twelve no-name Jesus-followers began to do what Jesus did. Jesus equipped them and gave them authority. He taught them to testify, proclaim, and demonstrate. He taught them to tell and show, show and tell.

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, 
he gave them power and authority 
to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 
and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God 
and to heal the sick... 
So they set out and went from village to village, 
proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. 
(Luke 9:1-2, 6) 

I may not remember the names of "the Twelve." I do remember what Jesus mentored them to do. This so impressed me that at Redeemer we changed our mission statement to read:


THE MISSION OF REDEEMER FELLOWSHIP CHURCH IS TO:
HEAL THE SICK
DELIVER THE OPPRESSED
RAISE THE DEAD
and
PROCLAIM THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS AND HIS KINGDOM

Jesus and his followers came to proclaim the good news, drive out demons, and heal people everywhere.

***
Miracles Were Performed Through Jesus


"For general purposes used here, 
a 'miracle' may be defined as an extraordinary event with an unusual supernatural cause."


I have witnessed miracles. Here's one that happened with us at Redeemer, which Craig Keener records in his book Miracles, and Lee Strobel share in The Case for Miracles

Craig writes:

"In March 2006, after a spiritual retreat in Branson, Missouri, Carl [Cocherell] was checking the oil in his car when he stepped down and felt a sharp crack. Although he was a Vietnam veteran, he says that he had never felt such pain, and he fainted. X-rays in the emergency room in the Branson hospital revealed such a serious break of the ankle that after setting the break the orthopedist ordered him to stay overnight. During that night, though, Carl recounts that he experienced a voice from the Lord assuring him that his foot was not broken. After putting Carl's foot in a cast and warning that he would need months of therapy, the doctor referred him to his family physician.

Carl's wife drove them back to Michigan, and the next day his family doctor sent him to the hospital for some more X-rays. After receiving the X-rays, his doctor called him into the office and explained that there were no breaks, or even tissue indicating where the break had been. "You never had a broken ankle," the doctor explained.

Carl pointed out the X-rays from Missouri. "That is a broken ankle," the doctor admitted. But now there was no sign that he had even had one, so the doctor removed the cast right away.

Apart from the ankle being blue for a couple of days, Carl had no problem with it. At church that Sunday, where he used no crutches or other support, he testified how God healed him. Carl provided me with the radiology reports from before and after the healing supporting his claim."
- Keener, Miracles, 440

I'll add that Carl is especially sensitive to his feet, since he is a long-distance runner who has run the Boston Marathon. And, I have the radiology reports sitting next to me in my office at home.

Jesus performed miracles. "Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus's historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus. Indeed, it is estimated that more than 31 percent of the verses in Mark's Gospel involve miracles in some way, or some 40 percent of his narrative! Very few critics would deny the presence of any miracles in the earliest material about Jesus." (Ib., 23-24)

Western culture, influenced by David Hume's arguments and the Enlightenment, dismisses the possibility of miracles. Thomas Jefferson, architect of the "American Jesus," insisted that miracles "were an affront to the demands of reason and the laws of nature, and Jesus had performed not a one." (Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, p. 23).
One of the innumerable strong points in Keener's book is a thorough debunking of Hume's argument against the possibility of miracles, thus clearing the way for their possibility and, in examples such as mine, their actuality. Miracles were performed through the Real Jesus. They were central, Kingdom-confirming signs and wonders. In my 47+ years as a Jesus-follower I have seen a number of miracles, which I have recorded in my journals, spoken publicly about, and written about.

Today, remember that all things are possible with God, as you connect with Christ. 

***
Jesus Cast Out Demons
I had only been a Jesus-follower for a year when I had my first physical encounter with a demon. It happened this way.

I was working as Youth Leader at Tabor Lutheran Church in my hometown of Rockford, Illinois. One day the pastor invited me to a meeting. A few of our long-attending members had been exposed to the charismatic movement and were now speaking in tongues. They wanted to talk with church leadership about this. I was unfamiliar with charismatic phenomena, and brand new to the study of Scripture, so I just listened to the conversation.

The people shared their newfound spiritual experiences. Our leaders listened and responded. After a lot of dialogue, questions, and interaction we prayed. This is when it happened.

I can't remember who prayed out loud. I do remember that, as we were praying, I felt like my soul and body were being assaulted by something evil. I had never felt anything like this before. I didn't know how to interpret it. I do remember silently calling out, crying out, "Jesus! Help!"

After the meeting I called Linda. I was dating her at the time. As I shared what had just happened to me I was crying. "I am really weirding out on her," I thought. I did not know how to interpret this. Experientially, it was real. Something did just happen, something I had never experienced before.  I told her words I had never spoken in my life: "I think I was attacked by a demon." 
As I said this I thought, "This is crazy - I don't even know if I believe in demons!" (In retrospect I have arrived at an interpretation of that evening that satisfies me, which I do not feel led to share here.)

Jesus believed in demons. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes: 

"Jesus’ exorcisms had the special value of dramatizing his power to overcome the forces of evil and to rescue those who were enslaved to them. He said: If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. (Luke 11:20) Though Jesus was by no means the only Jewish exorcist, so far as we know he was the only one to link his exorcisms with the new thing that God was doing: the coming of the kingdom. For this to have been at all plausible, he must have been an exceptionally successful exorcist, something which is also suggested by the fact that other exorcists apparently took to using Jesus’ name as the word of power with which they drove out demons. Jesus’ success as an exorcist provoked his enemies to find an alternative explanation for it. They said that Jesus was in league with the powers of evil and was himself possessed by the prince of the demons." (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 40)

From the beginning of the Gospels to their very end, Jesus lived with a warfare worldview. The real battle for him, as the apostle Paul knew, was not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual principalities and powers. (Ephesians 6:12)

After my encounter with a demon I began to consider their actual existence. Now, many years later, I reason this way.

1. Textually, I find the stories of Jesus's demonic encounters to be historical.
2. Jesus-followers in non-Westernized cultures affirm the reality of satan and demons, and angels as well. I've been in these countries, and am friends with Asian and African scholars (including some Fulbright scholars) who embrace the reality of a supra-natural realm. (= beyond what is natural) Belief or disbelief in satan and demons (and angels) is a matter of worldview, not intelligence.
3. The worldview of Christian theism sees reality as more than merely physical. I embrace that worldview. I am not under the Enlightenment spell of metaphysical naturalism. I am not an anti-supernaturalist who denies the reality of miracles and non-physical realities.
4. In the Gospels Jesus encountered and cast out demons. Why wouldn't we do the same?

And defeat them, as Jesus did, in Jesus' name.
Dear friends, 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. 
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 
but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus 
is not from God. 
This is the spirit of the antichrist, 
which you have heard is coming 
and even now is already in the world.

You, dear children, are from God 

and have overcome them, 

because the one who is in you 
is greater than the one who is in the world.
- 1 John 4:1-4

***
FOR FURTHER READING

Greg Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict; and Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy.

Charles Kraft, Defeating Dark Angels: Breaking Demonic Oppressions in the Believer's Life. Note: See Kraft's Christianity with Power: Your Worldview and Experience of the Supernatural. Kraft is an anthropologist (formerly at Michigan State University) and missiologist at Fuller Theological Seminary. When I read Clark Pinnock's introduction to this book I knew I needed to read it. See esp. the chapter "Jesus Had a Worldview." It's scholarly and readable.

M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie. For me it was chilling to read this book, written by Peck the psychiatrist as he tells clinical stories of demon possession.

I am not a philosophical naturalist or physicalist. Therefore, I do not believe reality is only physical. Once one admits there are non-physical elements of reality the door is open to logically believe in spiritual beings, such as angels and demons. To examine problems with philosophical naturalism see, e.g., texts such as: Naturalism, by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro; The Waning of Materialism, by Robert Koons (ed.) and George Bealer (ed.); and The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism, by J.P. Moreland.

***
Jesus Is After the Human Heart

I was meeting with one of Detroit's Muslim leaders in his office in Dearborn, at the Islamic Center of America. He picked up a Qur'an and said, "The Qur'an is a rulebook. If I didn't have this rulebook to tell me what to do and what not to do, I wouldn't do the right thing." 

He shared some specific Muslim rules, and emphasized that God gave these rules to prevent us from doing wrong. For example, the Qur'an instructs people to pray morning, noon, and night. My Muslim friend said, "If the Qur'an didn't tell I am supposed to pray I would not pray. So I am thankful that God gave me these rules."

While he was sharing I couldn't help thinking how different Christianity is from Islam, and how very different Jesus is from Muhammed. Jesus didn't come to articulate some rules for living, he came to change the human heart. If a person's heart could be changed, then rules wouldn't be needed. If a person loved God, and understood prayer as conversation with the God they adore, they wouldn't need to be commanded to communicate with him. Out of heart-desire, they would pray.

Dallas Willard expresses this when he writes:

"The Revolution of Jesus is in the first place and continuously a revolution of the human heart or spirit. It did not and does not proceed by means of the formation of social institutions and laws, the outer forms of our existence, intending that these would then impose a good order of life upon people who come under their power. Rather, his is a revolution of character, which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and to one another." (Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ)

This, says Willard, is the "Revolution of Jesus."

There are so many examples of this in the Gospels that it's hard to choose among them. For example, Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also." (Matthew 6:21) Commenting on this New Testament scholar Craig Evans writes: "The type of treasure that one accumulates is a reliable indicator of what one values." (Evans, Matthew, 154) 

In other words, look around at your stuff; there you will see your true heart. Or, look at your datebook and what you do with your time; there you will view your true heart. 

If Jesus can wrap himself around your heart and transform it, your life and choices and things and goals will look different because they are different, due to a radical change of heart. As Proverbs 4:23 says, "Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life."

The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Matthew 12:34) Jesus came to fill our hearts with himself.

Willard writes: "He saves us by realistic restoration of our heart to God and then by dwelling there with his Father through the distinctively divine Spirit. The heart thus renovated and inhabited is the only real hope of humanity on earth."

***
Jesus's Views on Money Were Negative

While flying to Bangkok I had many tear-filled moments. I was reading Richard Stearns's heartbreaking, hopeful The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?, and Siddharth Kara's soul- troubling Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.

In Kara's book the poorest of the poor are bought and sold as sex slaves to satisfy the desires of the rich. In Stearns's book we see rich Christians watching flat-screen TVs and viewing the world's poor suffer.

Something is wrong with this picture.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus...
                                          i.    ...was not wealthy. While foxes have holes and birds have nests, Jesus didn't have a roof over his head. Jesus didn't have closets packed with robes and sandals for every occasion. (Matthew 8:20)

                                        ii.    ...was not impressed with the rich and famous. Jesus mostly viewed the rich and famous as spiritually bankrupt. It's near-impossible for the rich to come under the rule of God, taught Jesus. (Mark 10:23) Note: "Anyone earning fifty thousand a year has an income higher than 99 percent of the people in the world. Simply stated, by comparison the average American is, well, wealthy." (Stearns, 266)

                                       iii.    ...did not come to raise money for his ministry. Jesus didn't carry cash. Jesus was always giving away to others. Ironically, Judas carried what little money the entourage of Jesus had. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. (John 13:29)
                                       iv.    ...did not come for the express purpose of multiplying your finances. To the contrary, Jesus said: Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:32-34) Jesus came to tell us what true riches are.
                                        v.    ...did not operate according to cultural honor-shame hierarchies. Jesus climbed down the ladder, took on the form of an "expendable," and descended intio greatness. This is the upside-down kingdom of God. It permeates the Gospels. For example, in Mary's song of amazement: He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-56)

                                       vi.    ...was not self-seeking. Jesus came, not to be served, but to serve others. (Matthew 20:28)
It was Jesus who told us in Matthew 6:24 – “You can’t serve both God and Mammon.” (‘Mammon’ is the Aramaic word for riches or wealth.) Riches, said Jesus, put a chokehold on the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:13-15) Riches prevent the releasing of God's reign.

Scott Rodin writes, in his book Stewards in the Kingdom:

"We must never for single moment lose sight of the stark realization that whenever we deal with money, we are dealing with dynamite. That is the one day that which we control, the next day becomes the controller. Such dynamite must be defused, and the greatest defuser that we as Christians have at our disposal is the opportunity to take that which seeks to dominate us and simply give it away. Think about it. There is not greater expression of money's total lack of dominance over us or of its low priority in our lives than when we can with joy and peace, give it away for the Lord's work. You cannot worship the God of mammon and be a free and cheerful giver. Likewise, you cannot serve the living God and be a hoarder of his resources. Giving, both how we give and how much we give, is the clearest outward expression of who our God really is. Our check stubs speak more honestly of our priorities than our church memberships." (Quoted in Stearns, 212)

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
- Paul, advising Timothy, in 1 Timothy 6:10


***
A few reviews of Stearns's book:

"With passionate urging and earnestness, Rich Stearns challenges Christians to embrace the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ by embracing the neediest and most vulnerable among us. After reading the moving stories, the compelling facts and figures, and Stearns' excellent application of scripture and his own experiences at World Vision, you will no doubt be asking yourself: What should I do?" ----Chuck Colson, Founder, Prison Fellowship

"Read this compelling story and urgent call for change-Richard Stearns is a contemporary Amos crying 'let justice roll down like waters….' Justice is a serious gospel-prophetic mandate. Far too many American Christians for too long a time have left the cause to 'others.' Read it as an altar call." -- --Eugene H. Peterson, translator of The Message, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver, BC

"This book is a clarion call for the church to arise and answer the question, Who is my neighbor? If you read this book, you will be inspired, but if you do what this book is asking, you will be forever changed." --- T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Potter's House of Dallas

***
Jesus Had a Preferential Option for "the Least of These"

I have read through the four Gospels many times. Their words are both familiar and unfamiliar to me. 

They are familiar. I have read and heard and taught and preached the words of Jesus many times. 

They are unfamiliar. I have many moments, indeed I often wonder if they are not increasing, where I am stopped in heart and mind and think, "I've never really seen this or heard this before." It happened to me several years ago when reading Matthew chapter 25.

The fiery passion of Jesus is seen in Matthew 25:31-46 when he talks about actively loving and caring for "the least of these." When I read these words I have wondered, who are the real followers of the Real Jesus? If you can, stop now before reading further and slow-read these verses.  

And tremble. 

Behold Jesus, the "Familiar Stranger."


You don't need to be a hermeneutical genius to understand these words. Jesus separates people into two groups: "goats," and "sheep." "Goats" are people who see hungry, needy, sick, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned people but do nothing to help them. "Sheep," on the other hand, are the real followers of Jesus who thereby, obviously (since it is Jesus whom they are following), actively help such people. Jesus himself was tight with the "least of these."

N. T. Wright says that Jesus “ate and drank with all sorts and conditions of people, sometimes in an atmosphere of celebration. He ate with ‘sinners’, and kept company with people normally on or beyond the borders of respectable society… This caused regular offence to some of the pious.” (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 149) 
"Goats" are religious, pious people who know about the suffering of others (and who doesn't today in our media-saturated world?), but don't actually follow Jesus into the slums of the world. "Goats" don't actively and sacrificially help the people who are low on the honor-shame hierarchy. The fate of the goats is clear: "they will go away to eternal punishment." (Matthew 25:46). 

"Sheep" are actual Jesus-followers. They sacrifice their lives for others who are "less" than they are. They are the "righteous," and their destiny is "eternal life." The sheep of the Shepherd are always moving downward into their surrounding culture.

There's a great, separating, spiritual-litmus-test going on here, a Christ-defining either-or. The level of seriousness is intense. Jesus came for the least and the lost. Not to actively do the same is to be a goatish unbeliever. Because someone who doesn't actually follow after Jesus is an unbeliever, right? True belief always leads to active following; theoretical-religious belief is dead because it lacks deeds.

I am the judge of none of this. But I can read.

“For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.”
- Matthew 25, paraphrased by Richard Stearns, in The Hole in our Gospel, 59.

For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes

But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
- Bruce Cockburn, "Cry of a Tiny Babe"

***
Jesus Restored Purity Outside the Sacrificial System
When I was growing up, my parents did not allow a deck of playing cards in the house. Card-playing was wrong, it was sin, and therefore made us spiritually impure. I didn't know why this was so. As a child I didn't question it or find it weird. 

When I became a Jesus-follower I began to wonder where this purity law came from. I found out that, among the Finnish Lutherans of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my family was from and where I was born, card-playing was associated with drinking and gambling. Someone who was a Christian didn't drink, gamble, or play cards. We were to be "set apart" from such things because they were impure and brought stain to our souls. Put biblically, we were to be "holy" (Greek hagios, 'set apart'). God would be pleased if we kept the cards out of our house.

This is called a "holiness code." Every culture has one, with accompanying purity laws. Purity laws are lists of religious 'Dos' and 'Don'ts'. For example, during Jesus's time, one could not touch a dead body lest it make you ritually impure. Or eat certain foods.

"Impurity" is a sort of invisible dirt that people pick up through contact with various things. In ancient Judaism one contracted impurity through contact with things like corpses, sexual fluids, other genital discharges, skin diseases, and, in the case of women, through childbirth.

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes: 

"Originally, in Judaism, purity and impurity only really mattered when one visited the Temple. God’s presence in the Temple made it a kind of pure space that would be defiled by someone in a state of impurity.  But by the 1st century AD, there was a tendency to think that, since purity was a good thing, one should aim at being pure as much as possible. 

All over Palestine, archaeologists have found ritual baths [mikvah], which indicate that it was not just groups such as the Pharisees who cared about purity. Many ordinary people evidently took care to remove impurity when they contracted it. It was part of the desire to be the holy people of the holy God." (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 23)

Jesus violated many of the existing purity laws. In doing this he clashed with the religious leaders of his time. Larry Hurtado and Chris Keith write:

"Jesus’s healing and teaching caused turmoil for Jewish leaders because it created a point of access— Jesus himself— to forgiveness and purity outside the sacrificial system and the temple. It also therefore created alternative definitions for who is in God’s community, who is out, and who decides. Jesus placed himself at the center of God’s restoration of Israel, a place that Jewish tradition reserved for God. These symbolic claims from Jesus, among other aspects of his ministry, are what infuriated the Jewish leadership in the Gospels." (Hurtado, Larry; Keith, Chris, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Kindle Locations 992-996; emphasis mine)

Jesus redefined purity, giving us a new way of attaining it before God. Many impure people, hearing of this, sought out Jesus. Jesus was now the road, the door, the Way, the point of access, into the family and presence of a holy God.

The hemorrhaging woman was impure according to Leviticus 15: 25; the ten lepers were impure according to Leviticus 13– 14; the woman who washes Jesus’s feet, if a prostitute, was impure according to Leviticus 15: 17– 18; and Zacchaeus was likely considered impure because he consistently came in contact with impure gentiles and handled their money. Jesus’s healing of the bleeding woman, lepers, and sinful woman restored their purity, just as dining with Zacchaeus as a legitimate “son of Abraham” symbolically restores Zacchaeus to Israel. (From Hurtado and Keith, K986-991; emphasis mine)

Bauckham says the key question for Jews during this time was how to maintain purity and be God's holy people in the situation of the hyper-impure Roman occupation. Facing this situation, the Pharisees "greatly extended the purity rules in the Torah and made purity a major concern of daily life" (Bauckham, 25)
Into this world came Jesus, who stood against the social, economic and gender stratifications of his society. He fought against Judaism's purity codes. 
Purity codes are about distinctions, divisions, and separation. Jesus broke down the walls of separation from God and others as he proclaimed and lived out the new reality of the Kingdom of God.  He ate with the poor, with outcasts, and sinners. Jesus touched and healed the sick -- the leper, the demoniac, the hemorrhaging woman. 

In doing this he shattered and subverted ritual law. Jesus disregarded the existing purity taboos and approached both women and Gentiles, thereby demonstrating his contempt for the prejudices of purity.

Jesus moved outside the prevailing religious system of atoning sacrifices, and independently - in himself and by his authority - proclaimed the forgiveness of sin and thus restored purity and holiness to people. 

A man with leprosy came and knelt before him 

and said, “Lord, if you are willing, 
you can make me clean.” 
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”
Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 
Then Jesus said to him, 
“See that you don’t tell anyone. 
But go, show yourself to the priest 
and offer the gift Moses commanded, 
as a testimony to them.”
- Matthew 8:2-4

The Real Jesus came to make people clean, holy and acceptable to God.

***
Jesus Reinterpreted the Jewish Festivals in Terms of Himself

The following story is not true.

On July 4, 2018, as America was celebrating Independence Day, John Piippo drove into Washington, D.C. in a rusty, beat-up car. A million people had gathered in the National Mall. A breathtaking display of fireworks was coming to a close as the military band led the people in the singing of the National Anthem. 

Piippo walked through the crowd and made his way to the top of the Lincoln Memorial. As the singing ended he grabbed the microphone and cried out, "You who have ears to hear, listen! I am the way to freedom! All who want Independence, follow me!" 

From that day on our government leaders made plans to put Piippo to death.

False. How absurd to view oneself as the fulfillment of over 200 years celebrating America's greatest holiday!

But... consider Jesus. "The Festival of Dedication then took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon's portico."
-John 10:22-23

Uh-oh. It was Hanukkah. What is Jesus doing? Two things. He is attending the Festival as an observant Jew. And, he will interpret the Festival, indeed every Jewish Festival, in terms of himself. Craig Keener writes:

John's "Gospel connects Jesus' mission with features of each of the festivals: Jesus is portrayed, for example, as a (probably) Passover lamb. Likewise, he appears as the foundation stone from which living water would flow, a hope specifically celebrated at the festival of Tabernacles. John's Hanukkah passage might also make a similar point. Some scholars suggest that this passage depicts Jesus as consecrated or dedicated to God the way this festival celebrated the altar's rededication (cf. 10:36; elsewhere this Gospel connects Jesus with the temple)." (Keener, Jesus and Hanukkah: John 10:22-23)

Jesus takes Israel's "Fourth of July" and sees himself as its real meaning, as that which it has always been pointing to. N. T. Wright writes: “Understand the Exodus, and you understand a good deal about Judaism. And about Jesus. Jesus chose Passover, the great national festival celebrating the Exodus, to make his crucial move.” (Simply Jesus, 33)

As the cries of Passover lambs are heard in Jerusalem, Jesus hangs on a cross atoning for the sins of humanity. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! And before that, recall how Jesus ate that last Passover meal with his disciples, and radically reinterpreted the wine and the bread in terms of his own life and death.

Jesus is the "new Moses" who is leading his people in a "new Exodus" to freedom. 

***
Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath

I was born in the first half of the last century. In 1949. Some things were very different then. Like the Sabbath laws.

I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, in the 1950s. Then, no one shopped on Sundays. Restaurants and grocery stores were closed. Gas stations took Sundays off. Every restaurant was "Chick Fil 'A." Only a little over fifty years ago, that was one way we "remembered the Sabbath to keep it holy."

Sabbath. Shabbat! (Hebrew) Which means: Cease! Remember the Sabbath Day by setting it apart. (Exodus 20:8) 

In your weekly planner set aside one day a week especially dedicated to God. Which meant, for observant Christians and Jews, do no work on this day. Which raises the question: How does one define 'work'?

Linda and I were in Jerusalem on a Sabbath Day. It was here that I learned something about the meaning of work. We stayed in a beautiful hotel, on the 25th floor. What a view of the city we had! The hotel had six elevators. 

One day I rode an elevator non-stop to the first floor, got some food, and then boarded a different elevator to ascend. A Hasidic Jewish man got on with me. The elevator stopped on floor one, but no one was there to get on. The door closed. Up we went, only to stop on floor two. Again, no one got on. I peeked outside the elevator to see if someone had pushed the button. No one was there. 

This elevator stopped on every floor. The Jewish man got off on floor 22. I had three more stops on my way to the 25th floor. I had boarded a special "Sabbath elevator." The reason it stopped on every floor was because pushing an elevator button was seen as "work," and Jews are to do no work on the Sabbath. Think of this as you read the following.


They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind.  Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud 
and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath.
- John 9:13-14

Uh-oh. You don’t make mud on the Sabbath, because that’s doing work! This irritates the religious leaders. How does the man feel about the fact that he can now see? Answer: very, very good.

Welcome to what scholars call the "Sabbath Controversies." Jesus was controversial.
 
Therefore the Pharisees also asked him 
how he had received his sight. 
"He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, 
"and I washed, and now I see."
- John 9:15

The former blind man has to tell the story a second time, now speaking to a new audience, and adding the dramatic note that it was the Sabbath. The crowd, understandably curious, wanted to know how the healing had happened.

The Pharisees ask the same question but with different intent. They want to determine whether any Sabbath laws have been broken. The man recounts his healing with great brevity (v. 15). 

Many scholars see in this an exasperation with having to retell his story. Perhaps the now-seeing man senses their displeasure and sticks to the bare facts, as peasants have a tendency to do when interrogated by the junta--not an inappropriate image for this story, as we will see.
1Some of the Pharisees said, 
"This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath."

      But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided. 
- John 9:16

Jesus is seen as a "sinner," He's off the mark. Why? Because he works on the Sabbath. The Pharisees only show interest in the Sabbath violation. This is wild… because A BLIND BEGGAR JUST GOT HEALED!!!! Here is an example of how rules and structures – while they can be good and even necessary – lock people out of what God may be doing.
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, 
the Jews persecuted him. 
- John 9:16

The controversy gets white-hot in Mark 2, when Jesus makes a shocking self-referential claim. We read:
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, 
and as his disciples walked along, 
they began to pick some heads of grain. 
24 The Pharisees said to him, 
“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”


25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did 
when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 
26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, 
he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, 
which is lawful only for priests to eat. 
And he also gave some to his companions.”


27 Then he said to them, 
“The Sabbath was made for man, 
not man for the Sabbath. 
28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

New Testament scholar Michael Wilkins writes that we have here, coming from Jesus, "a remarkable clarification of his identity and authority." (Wilkins, The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 441)

Jesus is Lord of all.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.

***
Jesus Reinterpreted the Temple

One Sunday morning this past summer I saw a person I did not recognize at Redeemer. I went to her and asked her name. "Is this your first time with us?"

"I've been here before, but it's hard to get here since I have to walk."

That morning was cold, rainy, and very windy. "Where did you walk from?"

"LaSalle," she said. "When I am in this building I sense the presence of God."

This woman walked 5 miles in the cold, wind, and rain to be in the presence of God!

For ancient Israel the place to be, when it came to experiencing God, was the Temple. Observant, God-seeking Jews and Gentiles would travel, sometimes for hundreds of miles, to the great festivals held in Jerusalem that were centered around the activity of the Temple. Richard Bauckham writes:

"The Temple was the symbolic center of Jewish faith and it was also the place where God was accessible to his people in a special way. It was God’s holy presence in the Temple that made Jerusalem the holy city and Palestine the holy land. It was God’s presence in the Temple that made it the only place where sacrifice could be offered." (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 21).

New Testament scholar Michael McClymond adds:

“The overriding importance of the Temple in first-century Judaism becomes apparent in the persistence of the Jewish people in rebuilding and maintaining the Temple and in the large place given to it in ancient literature. Bruce Chilton notes that the Jewish Temple was renowned throughout the world and was perhaps “the largest religious structure in the world at that time.”” (McClymond, Familiar Stranger, 53)

In Jesus's final weeks on earth we see him in Jerusalem, walking daily up the mountain to teach and stir the religious pot in the Temple courtyards. Jesus intimately referred to the Temple as "my Father's house." It was part of his family estate. 

The Temple was the House of God, the spatial locale where God especially manifested his presence. It was always intended to be a House of Prayer, where the dialogue happened between God and the people of God. It was a most holy, set-apart place. But, sadly, no longer.

As Jesus the Light of the World stood in the courtyard, the Temple had become a place of spiritual darkness. Nothing more devastating could be said than Jesus's words in Matthew 23:13: 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to."  
(This is, BTW, the real meaning of "Church"; viz., the corporate, flesh-and-blood sanctuary 
wherein the presence of God abides.)

Because of this, Jesus said the Temple is going down. People won't worship God on this mountain anymore. Not one brick of this magnificent structure will be left standing. It is hard to grasp the enormity of what Jesus was saying. Imagine someone walking in the outer courts of the White House in Washington, D.C., openly proclaiming its impending ruin.

This Temple will soon be gone. It happened in 70 A.D. But the Temple will remain. Because Jesus has already said, with jaw-dropping self-referential clarity:
I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.
- Matthew 12:6

And:
I am able to destroy the temple of God 
and rebuild it in three days.
- Matthew 26:61

But the temple he had spoken of was his body.- John 2:21

Jesus reinterprets the Temple in terms of his own self. Jesus hosts the presence of God. As we abide in Jesus, corporately and individually, the followers of Jesus become portable sanctuaries that host God's manifest presence. 
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple 
and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?
1 Corinthians 3:16

***
Jesus Is the Messiah


One little sentence can say a lot. Here's a sentence that says much about the Real Jesus.

Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦθεοῦ]. 
Which translated into English reads:
The beginning of the good news 
about Jesus the Messiah, 
the Son of God,...
- Mark 1:1

New Testament scholar Chris Keith  writes:

"Seemingly insignificant, this short sentence is packed with important information concerning Jesus. It identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Christ (christos, “Messiah”) and Son of God. With both these titles, Mark taps into Jewish expectations of a kingly deliverer who would rid Jews of foreign domination and reestablish Israel by reestablishing God’s reign in Jerusalem." (Chris Keith, "Jesus Inside and Outside the New Testament," in Hurtado and Keith, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Kindle Locations 835-842; see Keith's The Jesus Blog, highly recommended by Ben Witherington)

The word "Christ" (Χριστοῦ) means, literally, "anointed one." From this we get an English word that's not so much used anymore, "to christen," which can mean:

chris·ten  
tr.v. chris·tened, chris·ten·ing, chris·tens 
1. 
a. To baptize into a Christian church.
b. To give a name to at baptism.
2. 
a. To name: christened the kitten "Snowball."
b. To name and dedicate ceremonially: christen a ship. (See here for a recent "christening ceremony.")
3. To use for the first time: christened the new car by going for a drive.

Jesus of Nazareth was "christened" by the Father at his baptism when heaven opened, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

Jesus is like a ship constructed for the purpose of sailing stormy seas to save people who have made shipwrecks of their own lives. At Jesus' baptism the Father launched the Christ into the dark waters of corrupted human existence.

Jesus is Messiah, "the Christ."


***
NOTE:

The book if Isaiah has been referred to as "the fifth Gospel" because of its Messianic expectations that fit the historical Jesus. Here's an excellent book to enter into this discussion -The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser. Some very good scholars contribute essays, to include Bock, Michael Brown, Craig Evans, and Walter Kaiser. See the book reviewed here.  

***
Jesus Bore Our Horror on a Cross


Jesus died on a cross. He died as he lived; viz., below the bottom rung of the honor-shame ladder. 

Jesus, the Supreme Somebody, was viewed as a nobody, and crucified as a nothing.

"Jesus was executed in the manner regularly reserved for insurrectionists."
- N.T.Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 148)

The crucified Jesus, wrote philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams, is the horror-bearer. (Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God)

God identified with the abandoned and godforsaken because Jesus the Son was executed in a manner regularly reserved for such people. The Word became expendable flesh and died as one of us. Tim Keller writes:

"Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. On the cross, he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken." (Keller, The Reason for God, 29-30)

Life without God is, as many atheistic existentialist philosophers have acknowledged, absurd and meaningless. Enter Jesus.


On a cross, God suffered. Can God suffer? The brilliant theistic philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes:

"As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine." (Alvin Plantinga, "Self-Profile," in Alvin Plantinga, ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter Van Inwagen, Profiles, vol. 5, 36)

He bore our scandal. Jesus wore our horror. And, by his wounds we are healed.  

***
Jesus Was Raised From the Dead

Christians didn't celebrate Christmas for the first few hundred years. But they did celebrate the cross and the resurrection. 

There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). 

Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time. As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point. 

Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” 

In about 400 A.D., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation." (For more see "How December 25 Became Christmas." And note: the popular idea that December 25 is rooted in paganism is itself a myth - see the cited essay for this, too.)

However, early Jesus-followers did celebrate Easter. The cross and the resurrection of Christ were the primary realities of the Jesus-life.

I believe in the birth of Christ. I have not invested as much study time in Jesus's birth as I have in his resurrection. The Cross and Resurrection are THE BIG ONES. 

I have spent the better part of my lifetime studying these realities. As Paul himself wrote, "If Christ is not been raised, then our preaching is useless and so is your faith." Faith rises and falls on the matter of the historical resurrection.

Rewind forty-seven years. I am 21, and a brand new Jesus-follower. One of my pastors, and one of my two theistic philosophical mentors (William Lane Craig and John Peterson) presented me with a historical argument for the resurrection of Christ. I present it to you below.  

One more thing: I am not, nor ever have been, a philosophical naturalist/materialist/physicalist. I am convinced of the poverty of philosophical physicalism. I believe - more now than forty-seven years ago - in a God who is all-powerful and can resurrect dead people.

So, I believe...  

1. There is a God.

2. God raised Christ from the dead.

3. All who are "in Him" shall rise with Him.


*****
This historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus is from William Lane Craig's work, with other scholarship added as I saw fit, plus my own comments.
DID JESUS RISE FROM THE DEAD?

(Adapted from William Lane Craig, debate with Richard Carrier; Question 103 at reasonablefaith.org; “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” at reasonablefaith.org)


A FEW PRELIMINARIES:

· Focus on the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus.

o Argue NOT from the Bible as God’s Word, but argue HISTORICALLY using the ancient texts as historical records, historical documents.

· All historical truths are probableistic (inductive). The historian asks, re. historical facts – what is the best, most probable explanation for the facts? This is called abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation. 

· Presuppose the existence of God.

o An atheist will not share this presupposition.

o The atheist will assume, therefore, that supernatural events are impossible.

Defend two major contentions.

#1 – There are 4 historical facts that must be explained by any historical hypothesis.

· Jesus’ burial (Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb)

· The discovery of his empty tomb

· Jesus’ post-mortem appearances

· The origin of his disciples’ belief in the resurrection

#2 – The best explanation of those facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.


#1 – the following 4 facts are accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars. (NOTE: If a person wants to study the historicity of the New Testament documents, read the works of New Testament scholars. But aren’t they biased? And, if they are biased, can we trust them? 
Two points: 1) everyone is biased; 2) bias is helpful, even necessary.

Fact 1 – after the crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.

Evidence: Jesus’ burial is multiply-attested in various independent sources. 

This does NOT mean the burial stories are in the four Gospels. It means that the source material Mark used is different from the source material of Matthew and Luke, and they are all different from John, and these are all different from Paul’s sources.

The burial account is part of Mark's source material for the story of Jesus' Passion. 

This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus' crucifixion. (See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Moreover, Paul in his first letter to the church of Corinth also cites an extremely early source for Jesus' burial, which most scholars date to within a few years or even months of the crucifixion.

Independent testimony to Jesus' burial by Joseph is also found in the special sources used by Matthew and Luke and in the Gospel of John. Historians consider themselves to have hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event. But we have the remarkable number of at least five independent sources for Jesus' burial, some of which are extraordinarily early.

Mark's Passion source didn't end with Jesus' burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial account verbally and grammatically. 

Moreover, Matthew and John rely on independent sources about the empty tomb. Jesus' empty tomb is also mentioned in the early sermons independently preserved in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36), and it's implied by the very old tradition handed on by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have multiple, early attestation of the fact of the empty tomb in at least four independent sources. (See reasonablefaith.org, Question 103)

Craig writes:

Notice the focus is on the early, independent sources used by the New Testament authors.

First and foremost is the Passion source which Mark used in writing his Gospel. Whereas most of Mark's Gospel consists of short anecdotal stories strung like pearls on a string, when we get to the final week of Jesus' life we encounter a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread through Jesus' burial and empty tomb.

The events of the Last Supper, arrest, execution, burial, and empty tomb were central to the identity of early Christian communities. According to James D. G. Dunn, "The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels. This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them" (J. D. G. Dunn,Jesus Remembered, 2003, pp. 765-6.)

The dominant view among NT scholars is therefore that the Passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony (Mark Allen Powell, JAAR 68 [2000]: 171). Indeed, according to Richard Bauckham, many scholars date Mark's Passion narrative no later than the 40s (recall that Jesus died in A.D. 30) (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006, p. 243). So we're dealing here with an extraordinarily early source.

Matthew and Luke, re. the burial story, draw on resources different from Mark. Craig writes:

Now Matthew and Luke probably knew Mark's Gospel, as you note, and used it as one of their sources. But the differences between Mark and the other Synoptics point to other independent sources behind Matthew and Luke. These differences are not plausibly explained as due to editorial changes introduced by Matthew and Luke because of (i) their sporadic and uneven nature (e.g., Mark: "tomb which had been hewn out of rock"; Matthew: "tomb which he hewed in the rock"; (ii) the inexplicable omission of events like Pilate's interrogating the centurion; and (iii) Matthew and Luke's agreeing in their wording in contrast to Mark (e.g., Matt. 27.58 = Lk. 23.52 "This man went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus." Also the phrase translated "wrapped it in linen" is identical in Matthew and Luke. How could Matthew and Luke have independently chosen exactly the same wording in contrast to Mark? They both probably had another source. Indeed, as we'll see when we get to the empty tomb account, differences between Matthew and Luke emerge that suggest multiple sources.

What about the Gospel of John? Craig writes:

John is generally believed to be independent of the Synoptic Gospels. As Paul Barnett points out, "Careful comparison of the texts of Mark and John indicate that neither of these Gospels is dependent on the other. Yet they have a number of incidents in common: For example, . . . the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea" (Jesus and the Logic of History, 1997, pp. 104-5).

Paul:

Finally, the old tradition handed on by Paul to the Corinthian church, which is among the earliest traditions identifiable in the NT, refers to Jesus' burial in the second line of the tradition. That this is the same event as the burial described in the Gospels becomes evident by comparing Paul's tradition with the Passion narratives on the one hand and the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles on the other. The four-line tradition handed on by Paul is a summary of the central events of Jesus' crucifixion, burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, and his appearances to the disciples.

As a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that was against Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention.

NT scholar Raymond Brown says burial by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable. Why? Because: It is almost inexplicable why Christians would make up a story about a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who does what is right by Jesus.

So most NT scholars say it is highly likely that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

Fact #2 – on the Sunday after the crucifixion the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of His women followers.

Most NT scholars also agree with the fact of the empty tomb.

Some who argue against this claim that the story of the empty tomb was a fictional, literary creation of Mark.

1 – The historical reliability of the burial account supports the empty tomb.

If the account of Jesus’ burial is accurate, then the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Jew and Christian alike.

In that case it’s a very short inference to the historicity of the empty tomb.

Because in that case, the tomb must have been empty when the disciples began to preach that Jesus was risen.

Why? Because the disciples could not have believed in Jesus’ resurrection if his corpse still was lying in the tomb.

As long as the corpse of Jesus lay in the tomb, a Christian movement in Jerusalem, founded on the resurrection of Jesus, would never have arisen.

If the disciples went around preaching “Jesus is risen from the dead,” but his body lay in the tomb, hardly anyone would have believed them. Remember that early Christian belief in the resurrection flourished in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified.

More than this, even if a lot of people believed this while the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, the Jewish authorities could have exposed the whole thing by pointing to Jesus’ tomb, even perhaps exhuming Jesus’ dead body.

2 – the empty tomb is multiply attested in independent early sources.

The account of Jesus' burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea is part of Mark's source material for the passion story. This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony. (Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Kindle Locations 6492-6493).
Moreover, Matthew and John rely on independent sources about the empty tomb.

The empty tomb tradition is independently preserved in the early sermons in the book of Acts.

And, it’s implied in the very old tradition cited by Paul.in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

Thus we have multiple early attestation of the fact of the empty tomb, in at least 4 independent sources.

So, the story of the empty tomb can’t be a literary creation of Mark.

Craig writes:

What about the empty tomb account? First, it was also part of the pre-Markan Passion narrative. The empty tomb story is syntactically tied to the burial story; indeed, they are just one story. E.g., the antecedent of "him" (Jesus) in Mk. 16:1 is in the burial account (15:43); the women's discussion of the stone presupposes the stone's being rolled over the tomb's entrance; their visiting the tomb presupposes their noting its location in 15.47; the words of the angel "see the place where they laid him" refer back to Joseph's laying body in the tomb.

As for the other Gospels, that Matthew has an independent tradition of the empty tomb is evident not only from the non-Matthean vocabulary (e.g., the words translated "on the next day," "the preparation day," "deceiver," "guard [of soldiers]," "to make secure," "to seal"; the expression "on the third day" is also non-Matthean, for he everywhere else uses "after three days;" the expression "chief priests and Pharisees" never appears in Mark or Luke and is also unusual for Matthew), but also from Matt. 28.15: "this story has been spread among Jews till this day," indicative of a tradition history of disputes with Jewish non-Christians. Luke and John have the non-Markan story of Peter and another disciple inspecting the tomb, which, given John's independence of Luke, indicates a separate tradition behind the story. Moreover, we have already seen that John's independence of Mark shows that he has a separate source for the empty tomb.

The early sermons in Acts are likely not created by Luke out of whole cloth but represent early apostolic preaching. We find the empty tomb implied in the contrast between David's tomb and Jesus': "David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day." But "this Jesus God has raised up" (2:29-32; cf. 13.36-7).

Finally, the third line of the tradition handed on by Paul summarizes, as I have said, the empty tomb story. The German NT critic Klaus Berger concludes: "Without a doubt the grave of Jesus was found to be empty, and, moreover, the texts about it are not in general dependent upon Mark" (ZKT, 1993, p. 436).

Thus, the burial and empty tomb of Jesus enjoy multiple, early, independent attestation. While some of these traditions could be variations on a common tradition (such as Luke and John's tradition of the disciples' inspection of the empty tomb in response to the women's report), they cannot all be so regarded because they narrate different events. Even in the case of variations on a common tradition, we are pushed back so early, as Dunn emphasizes, that we must now ask what events occurred to leave such an early impression on the tradition, and the obvious explanation is the burial of Jesus in the tomb and the discovery of the empty tomb. While multiple, independent attestation alone would not render the burial and empty tomb "virtually certain," keep in mind that this is but one line of evidence among many, so that the cumulative case for these facts is very powerful, indeed.


3 – The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded.

In fact, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus says that, on account of their boldness and levity, women should not even be allowed to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law.

In light of this fact how remarkable it is that it is women who were the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb.

Any later legendary account would surely have made male disciples find the empty tomb.

The fact that it is women rather than men who are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the discoverers of the empty tomb.

The Gospel writers faithfully record what for them was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

4 – the story of the empty tomb is simple and lacks theological embellishment.

Mark’s story of the empty tomb is uncolored by the theological and apologetical motifs that would be present if the story was a Christian creation.

For example, it’s remarkable that in Mark’s account the resurrection of Jesus is not actually described at all.

Contrast later, forged “gospels,” in which Jesus is seen emerging from the tomb in glory to multitudes of crowds.

In Mark we have little or no embellishment. At most, the critical historian might want to call the angel a later embellishment.

But Mark’s account of the resurrection is stark. Simple.

Mark’s story has all the earmarks of a very primitive tradition which is free from theological and apologetical reflection.

This is powerful evidence against those critics who argue that Mark’s account of the empty tomb is a literary creation.

5 – The early church polemic presupposes the empty tomb.

In Matthew 28 we find a Christian attempt to refute a Jewish polemic against the resurrection.

Disciples of Jesus were in Jerusalem proclaiming “Jesus is risen from the dead!”

How did Jews respond to this?

By saying Jesus’ body is still in the tomb?

By say the disciples are crazy?

No – what they did say was this: “The disciples stole away the body.”

Think about that for a moment.

The earliest Jewish response to the situation was itself an attempt to explain the fact that the tomb was empty.

Fact #3 – Jesus’ post-mortem appearances.

On different occasions and under various circumstances individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus now alive from the dead.

This is a fact that’s acknowledged by virtually all NT scholars, for the following reasons.

1 – Paul’s list of resurrection appearances guarantees that such appearances occurred.

· Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to his chief disciple, Peter.

· Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to the 12.

· Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to 500 at once.

· Paul tells us that Jesus ten appeared to his younger brother James, who apparently at that time was not a believer.

· Paul then tells us that Jesus appeared to all the apostles.

· Finally, Paul adds, “Jesus appeared also to me.” And Paul was at that time still an unbeliever.

Craig writes:

Undoubtedly the major impetus for the reassessment of the appearance tradition was the demonstration by Joachim Jeremias that in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5 Paul is quoting an old Christian formula which he received and in turn passed on to his converts According to Galatians 1:18 Paul was in Jerusalem three years after his conversion on a fact-finding mission, during which he conferred with Peter and James over a two week period, and he probably received the formula at this time, if not before. Since Paul was converted in AD 33, this means that the list of witnesses goes back to within the first five years after Jesus' death. Thus, it is idle to dismiss these appearances as legendary. We can try to explain them away as hallucinations if we wish, but we cannot deny they occurred. Paul's information makes it certain that on separate occasions various individuals and groups saw Jesus alive from the dead. According to Norman Perrin, the late NT critic of the University of Chicago: "The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based." This conclusion is virtually indisputable.

Given the early date of Paul’s writing this, plus Paul’s personal acquaintance with the persons involved, these appearances cannot be dismissed as unhistorical.

NOTE: the early date ensures that the appearance stories cannot be “legendary.” Legends take many years to develop. Craig writes: “For in order for these stories to be in the main legendary, a very considerable length of time must be available for the evolution and development of the traditions until the historical elements have been supplanted by unhistorical.”

2 – The appearance narratives in the Gospels provide multiple independent attestation of the appearances.

The appearance narratives span such a breadth of independent sources that it cannot be reasonably denied that the original disciples had such appearances.

Even the skeptical scholar Gerd Ludemann says it cannot be denied that these early followers of Jesus did have such experiences.

N.T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, gives a 7-step argument in support of these two claims. 
  1. When early Christians are asked why they believed in the resurrection of Christ, “their answers hone in on two things”:
    1. Stories about Jesus’ tomb being empty.
    2. Stories about Jesus appearing to people, alive again.
    3. These stories were formulated within the context and worldview of Second-Temple Judaism. “No second-Temple Jews came up with anything remotely like them.” (688)



  Neither the empty tomb by itself, nor the appearances by themselves, would have generated early Christian belief in the resurrection.
  1. The empty tomb, by itself, would be a puzzle and a tragedy.
i. Perhaps, e.g., the grace had been robbed? “Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.” (688)

ii. “Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.” (688-689)

iii. “Certainly… the disciples were not expecting any such thing to happen to Jesus.” (689)


    1. The appearances, by themselves, would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well known in the ancient world.
    2. Individually, the empty tomb and the appearances are insufficient to explain the belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
  1. “However, an empty tomb and appearances of a living Jesus, taken together, would have presented a powerful reason for the emergence of the belief.” (Ib.)
    1. Together, the empty tomb and the appearances provide a sufficient reason for early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
    2. “From




  “The meaning of resurrection within Second-Temple Judaism makes it impossible to conceive of this reshaped resurrection belief emerging without it being known that a body had disappeared, and that the person had been discovered to be thoroughly alive again.” (Ib.)
  Alternative explanations for the emergence of the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead do not have the same explanatory power.
  “It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.” (687)
  The past and most important question is: What explanation can be given for these two phenomena?Fact #4 – The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead despite them having every predisposition to the contrary.

Think of the situation these followers of Jesus faced after his crucifixion.

1 – Their leader was dead. Jewish Messianic expectations had no idea of a Messiah who would triumph over his enemies by being humiliated and executed by them as a criminal.
2 – Jewish beliefs about the afterlife did not allow for some individual to rise from the dead before the expected general resurrection from the dead.

But the early disciples felt so strongly that God had raised the individual man Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief.
Then… the question arises… what caused them to believe such an un-Jewish, outlandish thing?

N.T. Wright says – “That is why, as an historian, that I cannot explain the arising of Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind.”


SUMMING UP

The following 4 facts are agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars.

1. Jesus’ burial

2. Jesus’ empty tomb

3. Jesus’ post-mortem appearances

4. The origin of the disciples’ belief

This brings us to the second major contention, which is: the best explanation for these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.

6 Tests Historians Use to Discover What Is the Best Explanation For a Given Historical Fact (from historian C.B McCullough)

The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all of these tests.
1. It has great explanatory scope – it explains all 4 of the facts before us

2. It has great explanatory power – it explains each fact well

3. It is plausible – give the historical context of Jesus’ own life and claims, the resurrection occurs as divine confirmation of those claims.

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived – it requires only 1 additional hypothesis; viz., that God exists.

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs – the hypothesis God raised Jesus from the dead does not conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead.

6. It far outstrips any rival theories in meeting conditions 1-5. No natural hypothesis does as good a job at explaining the 4 facts.

I think the best explanation for the historical facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.


*****
ADDITION - N.T. Wright on the Resurrection of Jesus, from his The Resurrection of the Son of God.
These two things must be regarded as historically secure:

1. The emptiness of the tomb

2. The meetings with the risen Jesus

“These two phenomena are firmly warranted.” (686)

Wright gives a 7-step argument in support of these two claims.

1. When early Christians are asked why they believed in the resurrection of Christ, “their answers hone in on two things”:

a. Stories about Jesus’ tomb being empty.

b. Stories about Jesus appearing to people, alive again.

c. These stories were formulated within the context and worldview of Second-Temple Judaism. “No second-Temple Jews came up with anything remotely like them.” (688)

2. Neither the empty tomb by itself, nor the appearances by themselves, would have generated early Christian belief in the resurrection.

a. The empty tomb, by itself, would be a puzzle and a tragedy.

i. Perhaps, e.g., the grace had been robbed? “Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.” (688)

ii. “Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.” (688-689)
iii. “Certainly… the disciples were not expecting any such thing to happen to Jesus.” (689)

b. The appearances, by themselves, would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well known in the ancient world.

c. Individually, the empty tomb and the appearances are insufficient to explain the belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

3. “However, an empty tomb and appearances of a living Jesus, taken together, would have presented a powerful reason for the emergence of the belief.” (Ib.)

a. Together, the empty tomb and the appearances provide a sufficient reason for early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

4. “The meaning of resurrection within Second-Temple Judaism makes it impossible to conceive of this reshaped resurrection belief emerging without it being known that a body had disappeared, and that the person had been discovered to be thoroughly alive again.” (Ib.)
5. Alternative explanations for the emergence of the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead do not have the same explanatory power.

6. “It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.” (687)

7. The past and most important question is: What explanation can be given for these two phenomena?

***
Jesus Will Return to Restore Heaven and Earth

As a new Jesus-follower way, way back in the early 1970s, I was taken by a book called The Late, Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. Lindsey talked about a "rapturing" of Jesus-followers who would be taken away to heaven when Jesus comes again. Some, unfortunately, will be "left behind." Now, 44 years later, I no longer believe in "the rapture" (because it's not biblical). But I do believe Christ is coming again to restore these heavens and this earth. Scripture affirms this. The Jewish hope was for THIS created world to be reclaimed. Genesis 1 – God created…and saw that it was good.

Isaiah 65:17
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it

an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child…


When Jesus comes again there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Scripture supports this.

a. Eph. 1:8-10 - "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment— to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ."

b. Col. 1:19-20 - "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

c. 2 Peter 3:11-13 -"Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

d. Rom. 8:18-21 - I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God."

e. On Rev. 21-22 N.T. Wright says: – “When we come to the picture of the actual end in Revelation 21-22, we find not ransomed souls making their way to a disembodied heaven but rather the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, to earth, uniting the two in a lasting embrace." (N.T. Wright)

i. Rev. 21:1-4 - Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

But what about 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17? 

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven 
with a shout of command, 
with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. 
The dead in Christ will rise first; 
then we, who are left alive, 
will be snatched up with them on clouds 
to meet the Lord in the air; 
and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Wright writes: “When Paul speaks of "meeting" the Lord "in the air," the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (p. 133)

This is Jewish wedding language. We will go to meet the coming Bridegroom, and escort him onto the new earth to be with his Bride.

Ben Witherington says that, in ancient Roman culture, when a royal person arrived to their city, a greeting committee would go out and escort him back into the city. In Jewish culture, when the bridegroom approached towards where the bride was, a welcoming group went out with their lamps and escorted the groom into the wedding place. “The classic texts thought to refer to the rapture, especially 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, say nothing about saints being taken suddenly into heaven. Rather, they go forth to meet Christ in the sky when he is returning, and then they return with him to the earth to reign.” (BW, Revelation, 261)

Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. (NTW)

Further, we read in Matthew 24: 

That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.40 
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be
grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Rapture theory assumes being “taken away” is a good thing. It is not. (Being "taken" is not necessarily a good thing, right?)

So, God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever. We, the Bride of Christ, will go forth to meet him when he appears, and lead the celebratory parade of the Bridegroom to his transformed earth. 

A few years ago, at our summer conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin, YWAM's Dean Sherman was preaching about these things. Speaking of life after this life he said, "I don't want heaven to have streets of gold. I want heaven to look like Green Lake."

Me too. 

Paul said, "the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed." (Romans 8:19) As beautiful as Green Lake, Wisconsin, is, how much more shall it be when Christ returns and the kingdom of heaven is established in all its fullness!

***
N.T. Wright quotes from: Surprised by Hope.

Ben Witherington quotes from: Revelation.

***
Jesus Instructed His Followers to abide in Him

A dying man's last words are said to be important.

I was in India, riding in the back seat of a car on a 5-hour ride from Hyderabad to Kurnool along one of India's major highways. I could not sleep, even though I was jet-lag tired. India, by their own admission, leads the world in road deaths

I thought I was gong to die a hundred times or more on that trip. My driver was a crazed man in a land of psycho-drivers. He would routinely pass cars while going up a hill, or driving around a curve. Occasionally he played "chicken" with an ongoing car, and sometimes with an oncoming truck. The game was to see who would "chicken out" first and swerve aside. This is beyond ridiculous, I thought, as my Indian friend and host slept soundly next to me through it all.

One time we passed a car going round a curve and came face to face with a truck. My driver swerved at the last moment. When I saw the truck coming at us I said the following profound, almost-last-words-of-a-dead-man: "Oh no!" Had I died, whoever would do my funeral would have to say, "John the theologian's last words were, "Oh no!""

Jesus's Final Words, aka his "Final Discourse," were profound and continue to guide my life to this moment. We hear them in John chapters 14-16. The disciples are wondering what they will do when Jesus is gone. Jesus instructs them, and us.

He does not say "form some committees and think of strategies to keep this thing going." He tells them: "Abide in me." Jesus says:  

Because I live, you also will live. 
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, 
and you are in me, 
and I am in you. 
(John 14:19-20) 

Call this "reciprocal abiding." God comes to make his home in the heart of every Jesus-follower. Every Jesus-follower is to tend this inner fire by making his home in Jesus like a branch connects to a Vine.

As we abide in Christ we...
·                      do the kind of things Jesus has been doing (John 14:12)
·                     do greater things than Jesus has been doing (John 14:12)
·                     are taught and led by God himself (John 14:26)
·                     are immersed in Trinitarian peace (John 14:27)
·                     live lives that will bear much fruit (John 15:5
·                     live lives of true, God-love (John 15:9)
·                     are flooded with the kind of joy Jesus experiences (John 15:11)
·                     receive the Father's wisdom (John 15:15)
·                     bear fruit that will last (John 15:16)

Jesus's last teaching was, simply: 

Connect. 

Dwell. 

Remain. 

Abide. 

To Him. 

In Him. 

The result is that He lives, in and through you. 

A few years ago some film students at the University of Michigan were making a movie about Southeast Michigan. They interviewed me as part of their project. I remember two of their questions. 

They asked: "What is the #1 problem you see in Southeast Michigan?"

I answered: "Me."

They asked again: "What is the #1 thing you need to do, as a pastor, for your people?"

I answered: "The #1 thing I need to do for my people is to stay attached to Jesus, to continually abide in Christ." Because what my people need is Jesus, not me. Jesus is all they need. Jesus is all any church needs.

Let us sing these words together. 
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
O, come to us
Abide with us
Our Lord, Emmanuel

MERRY CHRISTMAS!