100 Answers in 100 Days

More questions answered on this blog:

Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Monday, January 31, 2011

#31: Is there a difference between tongues in Acts and Corinthians?

In my last post I focused on those occasions in the Book of Acts in which people spoke in “tongues”, or “foreign languages” (that's what “tongues” literally means). I came to the conclusion that these were one off, miraculous events, where people spoke these languages that they had never learned. This was in order for God to communicate that the Holy Spirit had been given (in Acts 2), and that the Gentiles were included in God's kingdom to receive salvation no less than the Jews (Acts 10). There is another occasion in Acts where disciples of John the Baptist also begin speaking in tongues. This seems to have occurred because these were disciples of John and had a lot of knowledge about the coming Christ, whom John prepared them for, but had not yet put their faith in Jesus Christ. It showed that the Old Covenant, which they were under, would not save them; but that they had to put their faith in Christ.

Now, if this were the only mention of tongues in the Bible this would be a closed case. But when we read the letter to the Corinthians, we find tongues spoken of in several places, and even a chapter dedicated to the subject. It seems as though “tongues” were spoken frequently in this particular Church. Amongst those who hold the position I do; that tongues are not supposed to be part of the Christian experience today, there seem to be two main explanations for this. The first says that tongues was indeed practised by some of the early Christians up until the completion of the New Testament canon; (or more precisely, up until the last of the Apostles died). The reason for this was that, until the canon was complete, the early Christians needed this as a substitute for the completed canon. The main proof text for this is the following...

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

This was written before the last of the New Testament books was authored. So “the perfect”, they suggest, is the completed canon of Scripture. When I was first confronted with the idea that tongues was not applicable today, this was the argument I was told. But in reading my Bible and thinking about it, it simply didn't make sense for a number of reasons. Firstly, as I showed yesterday, tongues were one-off signs, and never revelatory. The words spoken by someone speaking in tongues are never referred to as inspired, or put on the same level as Scripture. And I don't see from a straight forward reading of the Text that “the perfect” should be understood as the closed canon. There is a second alternative. This is the view that the tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians are not miraculous. It can be difficult to shake the assumption that they were miraculous as they were in Acts, but there is actually no reason to read it that way. The word “tongues” simply means “languages”. Essentially, the problem at Corinth was that the sermons and the Scripture readings were probably being given in Hebrew, but the majority of the people didn't understand Hebrew – they understood Greek. Because the Old Testament had been given to mankind by God in Hebrew, the Jews probably felt that it was not right to translate them. But the Apostle Paul is telling them that there's no point in reading the Scriptures, or giving a sermon, if someone cannot understand you. And so we have comments in 1 Corinthians such as this:

If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)

It's comments like this that clearly deny the applicability of tongues today. But it also denies the applicability of tongues in the early Church, which is another reason that I don't accept the first view; that tongues were in use until the completion of the canon. There is no sense for a miracle where one would speak in a foreign language that they hadn't learnt, only to have someone else interpret what they'd just said. It's pointless.

This view is also held by a former Charismatic, Mark Haville. You can hear one of his sermons on this (in three parts) here: (1, 2, 3). Now, while this sermon might answer many of the questions that arise over the Text, Mark Haville does seem to stop short in his sermon. He deals at length with 1 Corinthians 14, but he doesn't speak much on chapters 12 and 13. However, with how I'd already come to understand chapters 12 and 13, along with a little thought and study, things readily fell into place. The gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians aren’t necessarily miraculous, (such as teaching), and to have learned to speak another language is a gift from God much like having learned any skill with which we serve Him. “The perfect” of 1 Corinthians 13:10 is not the completion of Scripture, but the glorification of the saints... when we are “perfected”. In the resurrection, God will give us new bodies, and remove our sinful nature altogether. We will not “know in part”, as we do even now, but will know in full because we'll be free from the nature which limits our knowledge and understanding. “Knowledge will cease” (according to the 1 Corinthians 13 passage quoted above), in the sense that one person won't know more than another; we will all know and understand everything. This issue of one boasting greater knowledge than another was an issue for the Corinthians, as we see in 1 Corinthians 8, and this problem of people feeling superior because of their gifts is precisely what Paul is dealing with in this chapter; even that superiority the Jews may have felt because of their heritage.
But what does it mean that “tongues will cease”? Will there ever be a time when we won't have language? Well, when God first created mankind, there was just one language. But as we read the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, we discover that God gave us many languages there, and this was in fact a judgement on mankind for their sinful idolatry. But when we are perfected, language barriers would no longer be an issue; we would understand and know all languages. But it may even be more literal than that. Zephaniah 3 speaks of this time, and says:

For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)

This would be a full reversal of the tower of Babel; perhaps even literally giving mankind one common language. So until tomorrow, I leave you with a passage of Scripture...

For through him we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:18-20)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

#30: What is the gift of tongues?

Yesterday I spoke about the “gifts of the Holy Spirit”, which I suggested were our God-given abilities. One might have expected that I would talk about what are often called the “miracle gifts”, one of which is the “gift of tongues”. If you're unfamiliar with the phenomenon of tongues, it is the supposed ability to speak in a foreign language which one has not actually learned to speak. This phenomenon is most typically practised by a particular branch of Christianity called the “Charismatic movement”, which gets its name from the Greek word “charisma”, which translates to “gifts”. But generally speaking, outside of this branch of Christianity, Christians are of the view that the gift of tongues is not Biblical. So this is an area in which there is some disagreement amongst Christians. As usual, I will share my own conclusions on the matter, but we are all personally accountable to God for what we believe. You must draw your own conclusions from Scripture.

I was brought up in a Christian home, and the Church our family attended was a charismatic Church. All my life I grew up amongst people who spoke in tongues. In fact, it wasn't until I was born again and started attending a local Church which did not believe in the gift of tongues that I even had any idea there were Christians who didn't believe in tongues. When I did find out, I did not take it well. My own mother speaks in tongues, and what am I to believe – that she is faking it? Or that she is deceiving herself? Tell any Charismatic that there is no gift of tongues and they will not believe you because nobody wants to be told that they've played the fool for so long. How can they accept that? But they will all say “You don't understand because you haven't experienced it!” But nobody's experiences, should they fail to align with Scripture, should be counted as having greater authority than Scripture. I determined to read my Bible to discover the truth of the matter, and it was ultimately the Bible alone which convinced me.

But the Bible does speak of people talking in tongues, so why should I say that it's not right for people to speak them today? Well, the Bible also speaks of Moses parting the Red Sea, and of prophets who called down fire from heaven, and those who were thrown into a furnace but were unharmed. These things are decidedly unusual, even at the time they occurred. That's why they're recorded in Scripture and grab our attention. In the New Testament the Apostles healed the lame, raised the dead, and spoke in tongues. Again, these things are not the norm. Rather, when such miracles occurred, they were a visible sign to authenticate the God-given authority of the one who did them. In the case of tongues, it was a visible sign which communicated the commencement of the New Covenant. On the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2, we read of the first occasion in which people spoke in tongues...

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1)

Later, Peter preaches the gospel to those who witnessed this, and the record says:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. (Acts 2:41-43)

Let's focus our attention on that last part... “and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” The distinct impression one gets is that those just converted did not carry on speaking in tongues; otherwise “signs and wonders” would have carried on through all, not just the apostles. We read of two other occasions in the book of Acts in which tongues were spoken. In particular, in Acts 10, Peter is told to go to the home of a Gentile family. When this Gentile family hears the gospel they are converted, and begin to speak in tongues. Peter recounts the event to the other apostles...

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way? When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:15-18)

The purpose of this visual manifestation of tongues seems quite clear. The apostles understand clearly, having seen this, that “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” The event was God's way of communicating the inclusion of Gentiles into His kingdom; symbolically, the language barrier being made of no consequence. In the record above it refers to being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (or receiving “the same gift” of the Holy Spirit), rather than to the tongues themselves. And they understood it to be associated with the moment they believed and were converted. All believers, when they are saved, receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’s “indwelling”. This is certain, for the Bible says, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Romans 8:9). But people who are saved today do not begin speaking in tongues. Some Charismatics, though not all, claim that if a person doesn't speak in tongues it means that they are not saved. But this is certainly not Biblical, as Paul says: “Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?” (1 Corinthians 12:30) The question is rhetorical, and the answer is “No, not all speak in tongues.”

Well, I must leave off for today. Until tomorrow...

If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:37)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

#29: What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

Yesterday we considered how to discern the will of God, and we looked at Romans 12:1-2...

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Romans 12 goes on to talk about the way in which God has given each person their own strengths, or gifts...

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8)

We're all different in many ways. As it relates to ministry, an extroverted person might be a preacher, whilst an introverted person might drop gospel tracts in letterboxes. A technical person might run a Christian website, and a musically talented person might go and play hymns in a retirement home. But the will of God is to live our whole lives for Him, in every aspect of our lives. We could say that just because you aren't involved in a specific ministry doesn't mean you don't have a God-given gift, or a gift that you're not using. But I think it is more correct to look at it this way... we are all involved in “ministry”. “Ministry” isn't just being a preacher, or dropping tracts. Even a “stay-at-home-Mum” ministers every day to her family, as well as to her friends and neighbours. There is not a single Christian who can’t be involved in “ministry”. It may not be official, Church-organised ministry, but each and every one of us is called to be “a light to the world” at all times, in every aspect of our lives. And we are all equipped by God with our various gifts and talents to minister to others. We ought not feel that if we are not involved in a Church-related ministry that we're failing to fulfil our calling, or that we're failing to do God's will. There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven, and as Paul says:

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? (1 Corinthians 12:15-17)

We exercise our God-given talents to seize opportunities and do the things that God desires. Now we all must teach the gospel to others, but some will do that differently, and we might say that a preacher has a particular strength, or gift for that, whilst others, not neglecting to do it altogether, will not be as confident in doing so. We all must exhort one another, but some will do that more naturally than others. We all must care for the poor, and whilst some are more able than others or have a greater sensitivity to the plight of others around them, this is something that God puts on the hearts of all Christians. We cannot claim that the lack of a certain gift excuses us from any part of the Christian life. But we should be aware of our gifts and talents, and offer our service in those areas where we can be of great benefit.

Now there was a woman who held Bible studies in her home, and people all agreed that she was very good and really knew her theology. One day she offered to teach the children in Sunday school. Her pastor explained that it was a very different situation... children don't sit still for an hour and listen to Biblical exegesis! They need to be stimulated with visuals and illustrations. Well, she went away and thought about it. Later she came back and, having considered it, she agreed that she would not do well in Sunday school. She realised that this was not her gift, and she accepted that. When we feel as though God is calling us to something specific, we ought to consider it carefully. This woman who turned down the Sunday schooling was wise; but she could have been foolish. She could have let her pride get in the way, and say “No, I'm too good a Bible teacher... nobody can teach those kids like I can!” We need to be sober-minded, recognising our strengths and weaknesses. It is very human to see ourselves as something we're not... as more charismatic than we are, or more intelligent than we are. But it is no good saying “I will write a book of theology” when we frankly wouldn’t pass high school grammar. And it is no good saying “I will preach to hundreds” when we can barely give a speech at our daughter's 21st birthday party because we're so nervous. We need to be humble and honest with ourselves. God has given each of us a gift, and exercising it will simply involve being who we are. This isn't to say that whatever our gift is, it comes perfectly naturally and needs no effort on our part to improve. No, the writer ought to study literature, and the preacher ought to study public speaking. But essentially they would only be pursuing their interests in undertaking such study. Even if you can’t pass high school grammar now, you can study to learn it. And if you were committed enough to take it that far, it would be evidence that writing were truly a passion that God has given you.

Serving God doesn’t only ever involve doing what we enjoy, or what comes naturally. No, as I said before, “not having a certain gift” never excuses us from a particular kind of service which God desires of us. But there are helpers; we are one body with many members. Bringing people together is why we all have different gifts. We can consider the story of a certain youth pastor who, when he started out, had very little help. He had to do everything; from preaching, which he loved, to administration which he hated. But as time went on there were those who volunteered to do administration, and that was something they loved to do. Sometimes we have to do things that aren't the most enjoyable things for us. But whatever we do, we do it all for Christ and for His glory.

Until tomorrow...
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Friday, January 28, 2011

#28: How do I know God's will for my life?

A Christian’s natural desire is to do the will of God. Even as a “new born” Christian I felt this overwhelming desire; but I struggled to understand how we were to discover what God's specific will should be for each of our lives. How, for example, does a missionary discover his calling to be a missionary? Or a pastor his calling to be a pastor? And as for me... what would God have me do, and how will I know? Figuring that this was something God would show me as time went on, I simply determined to live my life according to the manner in which God has shown us that we ought to live; according to His Word, the Bible. As time went on I discovered that this, in fact, was just about the whole answer to my question! How do we know God's will? God's will is for us to live according to His Word. If we do that, everything else will seem to fall into place.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

As we read the remainder of Romans 12, Paul tells us that we each have our different gifts, or God-given abilities. He then describes to us in brief what the Christian life ought to look like. The point is this; that living “the Christian life” is the will of God... to love our neighbour, to give to the poor, to encourage those who feel dejected, to comfort those who are going through trials, to share the gospel... When we do all of these various things we are doing God's will.

In the Old Testament there were prophets and they typically received the Word of God directly and passed His instructions on to others; particularly the kings of Israel. But when the fullness of God's revelation came and all of the 66 books of the Bible were complete, such prophets essentially disappeared. This is because God has given His Spirit to all who believe, and the fullness of His Word to live by. If we think that it might have been better for us in a time when prophets received the direct Word of God and would pass it on to us, I think we make a mistake. Back then, if a man claimed to be a prophet, how would we know that he genuinely was one? The answer given by Scripture is essentially that what the prophet said shouldn't contradict the Scriptures that they did have, and that they should watch to see whether the prophet's words would come to pass. But now, with the completed Scriptures in our hands, we don't need prophets any more, of whom we would have to verify against the Scriptures anyway. We have no “middle man”. We all stand personally accountable to God for what we do in this life, and we cannot say “But the prophet told me...” Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:48) We are held accountable for our obedience to Christ's Word, given in the Bible. If we live in obedience to the Bible, then we can rest assured that we have done all that God has asked of us. How this affects our lives will differ for each person, so that some will have been missionaries, some pastors, and some may have simply been a spiritual role model for their children. But all will have been "good and faithful servants."

So what can we say about those more specific questions like “Should I be a missionary?” or “Should I start an orphanage?” How God “enlists us” for the various ministries we find ourselves in is always going to be different for each person. But I think that, usually, we simply look for opportunities. Opportunities to share the gospel, give to the poor, build one another up, and so on. God brings opportunities into our lives all the time. Doing His will is recognising those opportunities and taking advantage of them. I remember the story of one Seminary professor who was asked how he was called to be a Seminary professor. It was simply this... “I wanted to learn more about the Bible so I went to Seminary. While I was at Seminary, I guess I just made friends with the right people, did well enough in my studies, and the opportunity came up to get into more academic roles. One thing led to another, and 'here I am.'” All that he had done was follow his own God-given desires, all of which fulfilled “the Christian life” that the Bible tells us to live. Doing God's will is really about making yourself available for God to use; “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice” as we read above. So many times I have found myself essentially doing ministry that I never planned; I simply saw opportunities and did what was in my heart to do.

Finally, if it is God's calling, He will confirm your feelings about a particular ministry opportunity to you. Confirmation usually comes from God's Word, or from fellow Christians; though God can use any means He likes. A certain Scottish man, living in Australia, had been desiring to travel back to Scotland and start a Church there. With this desire on his mind, he was reading his Bible one day and read this: “Then the LORD said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.'” (Genesis 31:3) For him, this was confirmation of what he already desired to do. Obviously, this verse doesn't instruct us all to return to our native land and start a Church. But this man had already felt this desire to minister to the Scottish. Sometimes I will go to Church and someone will say something which confirms what I had already been thinking. Usually when we begin some ministry there is no doubt that it is God's will. If there is doubt, then wait... God always makes our calling clear to us, one way or another.

It takes wisdom and experience to discern the will of God, which is why the passage cited above says that “by testing you may discern the will of God.” We will often get it wrong, and sometimes we will even take something to be confirmation of God’s will when it isn't. But a sure thing is to align all that we do to the Word of God – every deed and every motivation should be thoroughly grounded in the character of Christ, which we come to know through our Bible, for it is the revelation of Christ. As we grow in our understanding of God’s Word, so does our understanding of Christ grow; and so naturally our discernment of God’s will improves.

Until tomorrow...
Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother. (Mark 3:35)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

#27: Why doesn't God answer my prayers?

We left off yesterday with the following passage:

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)

We could also consider the words of Jesus:

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

We are promised that our prayers will be answered. But taking the whole counsel of God into consideration, this is always qualified by the idea that our prayers must be according to God's will. In the 1 John passage we see this... “if we ask anything according to his will...” and in the John 14 passage, “Whatever you ask in my name...”; which implies “alignment” to His character and will. (How, for example, would you dare pray for someone's misfortune in Jesus' name? It suggests you don't even know Him.) Or another passage we might consider... “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:22). “If you have faith” is not to say that I can ask for whatever I want to, and if I would just have enough faith it will be given to me. Rather, if I have faith, then what I ask for should be in alignment with God's will. Even Jesus, when the Devil told Him to cast Himself off the temple roof in Luke 4, would not pray for God’s protection and did not do it, knowing it was not the Father’s will.

Now we, besides the fact that we are never perfectly mature in faith, do not have God's perspective on the world around us. So we often don't know what to pray for because we can't possibly know. In times of trouble, for example, should we pray for deliverance or for endurance? We often don't know, and can't know. Romans 8 tells us:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)

The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, which is why Paul then goes on to say “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) All things work together for good because the Holy Spirit has been interceding for us the whole time, praying for our endurance when that is God's will, or praying for our deliverance when that is God's will. God’s will is for us to be like Christ, and God knows what it is that will achieve this end.

Sometimes we pray for one thing, and it seems it should be perfectly in line with God's will, yet our prayer is not answered because, perhaps unknown to us, God thinks otherwise. And this should seem perfectly right because we are not as wise or as omniscient as God, and God is not going to do our bidding. I read an article on the Internet once by an atheist trying to prove there was no God. He argued that if Christians prayed sincerely that cancer would be healed over night it wouldn’t happen, which makes Jesus a liar since He said “Whatever you ask in my name...” But what if I prayed for every atheist to be killed this instant? I don't mean that vindictively; but let's say that a Christian genuinely thought this was a right thing to pray for? After all, they lead people away from Christ, which from God’s perspective has got to be the worst sin of all, right? People would say, “Such a prayer ought not to be answered! You clearly don’t have the wisdom of God!” And they’d be right. I would never pray such a prayer! Though sometimes we think we’re praying according to God’s will, we really aren’t. God’s will is that none should perish, and He waits patiently giving all people time to repent. And so likewise, though I might think that praying for the end of cancer tonight is praying according to God’s will, I don’t have the wisdom of God, and such a prayer ought not to be answered. Prayer is not a means for my will to be done, but is to help me learn the will of God. However, it is God’s will that cancer will some day be put to an end, and it is God’s will that His enemies will some day be punished. And we do pray for such things when we pray “Thy kingdom come...” This prayer will be answered; God’s kingdom will come. And when that happens, God’s enemies will be “put under His feet”, and there will be no more sickness. But to pray for this to happen tonight is not to pray according to God’s will, for no man knows the day nor the hour of Christ's return. God's will is for us to care for the sick, and for many to come to faith through our preaching of the gospel.

Now the Bible says “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” (Psalm 66:18). And “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” (John 9:31). To me these passages seem to say nothing more than what I have said already; that prayers according to God's will are answered, but prayers which oppose God's will cannot be answered, such as sinful prayers. But there are others who see this as saying that, even if I pray the right prayer but I am aware of, and holding on to some unconfessed sin in my life, God will not listen to my prayer. Well, we know that we are all sinners and we can wrongly come to the conclusion, based on this idea, that none of our prayers will ever be answered because we always have sin in our lives. On 1 John 1:9, which says “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” I heard one man say “But God doesn't always answer prayer... what if He doesn't answer my prayer for forgiveness!?” We are freed from the bondage of sin; let it not so cripple us that we don’t even feel that we can pray to God! Hebrews says:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

James says “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” In the midst of our sins we are to pray, and despite our sins God will answer them, but “the prayer of a righteous person has great power...” Of course it does, because a righteous person's whole life is far more aligned to the will of God, which is righteousness. Until tomorrow...

Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

#26: Why pray?

If God knows what we need, and want, and even what we really need and want despite what we think we need or want; then we might wonder, What is the point of praying to Him? It is clear that Jesus wants us to pray; and He taught us how to pray when He gave us “The Lord's Prayer”...

Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Speaking from experience, I find prayer to be an excellent gauge of my own spiritual maturity. If you hear someone praying for a Ferrari, they're probably not the most spiritually mature person you'll meet. Such a person shows that they probably don't know God very well; they're treating Him like some kind of genie in a bottle who grants wishes. Yet the Bible says “You do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2) We should ask God for the things we need or want, but we need to ask ourselves what kind of things we should want, and why do we want them? The same passage goes on to say “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” (James 4:3) What is a worthy thing to ask of God? Or if I, or someone I know, is suffering, what should I pray to God? Should I pray for quick deliverance, or for endurance through this trial? Maybe both; but what is the Biblical justification for how I should pray? Or if I have come into some great fortune, financial or otherwise, do I recognise that it is a gift from God by giving a prayer of thanksgiving? Or if I am about to begin some task, whether small or great, do I acknowledge that my ability to perform any task comes from God, and so pray for His strength, and guidance, and wisdom? You see, as we pray we are exercising faith; and learning what to pray is how we grow in faith. When we return to the Bible and read something like the Lord's Prayer, and we see there that we should pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, and we think to ourselves, “That's something I almost never pray for...” (that is, our day to day needs), then this is how we have a gauge on our spiritual maturity when we examine our own prayer lives.

So prayer is the exercising of faith – it is a behaviour that is the natural result of faith. When you truly believe that God is your provider, you will naturally thank Him for the things you have. When you truly believe that God is your comforter, you will naturally pray to Him for comfort in trying times. As we grow in faith our prayer life changes. As we grow in faith we should be praying quite differently from when we were “less mature” in faith. Not only that, but I find that prayer is how we grow in faith. As we think about what we ought to pray, and as we try to put into words our petitions to God, we grow.

Jesus Himself prayed to the Father often, and prays still today, in fact, according to Hebrews 7:25. The Holy Spirit also prays to God (Romans 8:26). Why would God, Himself, pray to Himself? These are, of course, members of the Trinity speaking to one another. One says “let's do this” and the others agree that this is right, since they always pray according to the will of God. Conversation is a natural quality of being in a relationship. Our prayer is no different in the sense that it is the result of being in a relationship with God.

Prayer isn't just about what we might learn from the exercise of praying. Prayer is actually effectual. Our prayers are answered by God, and our prayers do change our circumstances when they are answered. Just as our actions are not meaningless – the repentance of Nineveh really did change the destiny of that city which God was about to destroy. The Bible repeatedly makes reference to God hearing the prayers of His people, and delighting to answer them. Once again we are up against the mystery of God's sovereignty and human responsibility, but prayer is no less a part of the Christian life than good works and repentance. It is the natural result, or “effect”, of true faith and a relationship with God.

Tomorrow we'll think about why our prayers are not always answered. Until then...
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

#25: What is predestination, and does it deny my free will?

To summarise yesterday's post, we all have a sinful nature which leads us away from God and into disobedience. But God intervenes in our lives to reveal His Law to us, His holiness to us... to reveal Christ to us. The sinful nature in us, or the “flesh”, is always opposed to God. Yet we all still do good things. This is the work of Christ in people’s lives as He “draws all people to Himself.” (John 12:32). The Bible says “The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Likewise, we read how God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)

Yet we cannot deny certain passages which speak of “predestination” to salvation...

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)

There is admittedly a spiritual dimension to this issue which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for us to understand. But as for predestination affecting our free will, I don't see it as necessarily affecting it at all. Let's consider it this way... I go out to the mall, and while I'm there I feel hungry for a Subway sandwich. But there isn't a Subway at the mall. Though I want Subway, I settle for McDonald's instead. My will is limited by my circumstances. Next, I'm walking along the bottom floor of the mall, but I can look up and see the electronics store I want to visit on the second floor. I can take the elevator, or I can take the escalator... but I cannot leap up to the second floor. My will is limited by my ability. When we read about some being “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”, we are reading about being given that new nature which replaces our old, sinful nature. The new nature replaces our very wills, and those wills are then subject to different limitations. These limitations are not physical abilities, such as being able to leap to the second story of a building. Instead, our sinful nature limits our ability to submit to God and to obey God. Instead of physical limitations they are spiritual ones, but are just as much an attribute of a created being as our arms or legs are. Jesus offers to replace our sinful nature with a new one, and promises to also replace our physical bodies with new ones as well! But in a sense, the freedom of our will is not affected, if we consider that we maintain the freedom to will within the limits of our nature.

But if one is predestined to receive this new nature, then was their salvation their choice at all? I would say that it was their choice, but that they were only able to make this choice because they received the new nature which took away a limitation of their ability to choose. The new nature renews our very wills so that we desire to follow Christ and to submit to Him and to do His will. Our love and obedience for Christ is not against our will; it is precisely our will – the will that God has now given us. As Christians, we exercise that will every day. As the Bible says, we are “set free”...

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)

So we might say “This isn't fair... to put it in physical terms, if God needs me to leap to the second story in order to be saved, but hasn't given me the ability to do it, why am I condemned by Him?” Answering this very objection, Paul says:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18).

Now you object “But I thought the Scripture said that God 'desires all people to be saved'? (1 Timothy 2:4)”. Oh, He does. Pharaoh, deserving condemnation as we all do, was used by God to glorify God through the hardening of Pharaoh's heart, rather than through the repentance of Pharaoh. God is glorified even in the condemnation of the sinner as we see His righteous justice. Furthermore, God did this to Pharaoh “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God did no wrong – He gave Pharaoh the condemnation he deserved, He was glorified, and He used the events of the Exodus to spread the knowledge of God far and wide so that people might turn to God and be saved. God will be merciful on whom He will be merciful; and He is merciful to all to some degree, else we'd all be sent to hell the moment we first sinned. But condemnation is justly given to all who have not been given a new nature, because even the old nature has the ability to choose evil.

And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.  (Joshua 24:15)

Monday, January 24, 2011

#24: If God made me a sinner, how am I held accountable for my sins?

I was watching a TV program once in which they were speaking to a gay man. He said, “When I was young I used to go to Church, and they would talk about how homosexuality is wrong. It made me feel terrible and guilty for the feelings I was having towards other men. But you know what I realised... God made me this way, and He loves me as I am!” Well, the whole audience applauded and cheered at what he'd said. And of course, this realisation of his allowed him to justify his thoughts and behaviours, and to continue in them. And whilst God most certainly loves this man, God does not love his behaviour, according to the Word of God. Can we say "I sin because God made me a sinner"?

The Bible says:
Let no one say when he is tempted, I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:13-14)

The Bible is explicit that we do each have our own desire. But when we find ourselves in a certain circumstance, and then we sin in that circumstance, then that sin is purely our own reaction to that circumstance. The same goes even for our God-given talents; we can use them to glorify God, or we can use them to do evil. The “right thing” is often to deny our own inclinations and desires, wherever they may come from, for the sake of doing what God desires. Do my own sexual desires for a woman excuse me if I commit adultery or rape? There is no difference between any of us and that gay man I referred to above. Sexual sin is a problem for us all, heterosexual and homosexual alike. Think of how David was on his rooftop, and he looked down and saw Bathsheba bathing. This enticed him to call for her and commit adultery with her. Did God cause David to sin by making him a man with sexual interests? No. Imagine, instead, that Jesus was standing on a rooftop and saw a naked woman bathing. Jesus, who was without sin, would have exercised self control and lust would not have entered His heart. We cannot blame our circumstances for our sins, or our upbringing, or God. The thing that we all must realise is that the way we are is not as God intended. We have a sinful nature as a result of the fall, corrupt and not at all God's intention for mankind. Jesus came to save us from that, to restore in us the nature that God intended.

All people are born with a sin nature, and this causes us to sin. God created us, but this is our nature, not His, which God has given us over to as a consequence of the fall. This is the punishment for sin; God gives us over to our sinful desires. When we first sinned it would have been just for God to send us straight to hell. To be given over to a life of sin with the possibility of God saving us from it is not something we can really complain about. We are all destined to perish, but Christ came that we might not perish (John 3:16). God's desire is for us to hate our present state of sinfulness and come to Him; and He will give us a new nature which is willing to obey Him. This is God's purpose; that through experiencing the destructiveness of sin we might desire Him, and salvation from sin through Him.

The Bible says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44). Our sin nature prevents us from seeking God. That is, from desiring to have a relationship with Him. Jesus later says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32). There seems to be this idea that Christ overcomes our inability to seek Him. God works in every person's life, revealing Himself to them; beckoning, or drawing them to Himself. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

Those who have a sin nature only; (that is, they haven't been born again and given a new nature), can most certainly be obedient to God. Consider, for example, how the diviner Balaam prophesied according to the words of God in Numbers 23-24. And we have the words of Romans 2:14 “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” I see this as God's working in people’s lives to reveal Himself to them. Even with our sin nature we are able to be influenced by the Spirit of God. In Romans 8:7 we read “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.” It cannot because it is set on the “flesh”, or sin nature, which by definition opposes God. But we can hate our sin and desire a new nature. God seeks to redeem us all from that sin nature and He intervenes in all of our lives, each day, to turn us toward Himself so that He might give us a new nature which will enable us to be obedient to Him by that very nature.

Are we to blame God for not intervening “enough”? Let me ask you, how much intervention would one consider to be “enough”? I believe in Christ and His gospel; so what Christ did in my life was obviously “enough”. But did He do more in my life than in anyone else's? Jesus holds us all accountable for accepting or rejecting Him...

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (Hebrews 12:25)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

#23: Is the doctrine of the Trinity Biblical?

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He was baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. The account reads this way...

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)

In this passage we hear God (“the Father”) referring to Jesus as His “beloved Son”, and we also see the Spirit of God descend on Him. There are three persons... the Father, the Son, and the Spirit of God, often referred to as the Holy Spirit elsewhere in Scripture. Yet each of these three (clearly separate) persons are all, in fact, God. We know this when we consider all that Scripture has to say about each of these three persons. The Holy Spirit, for example, was involved in Creation:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

Jesus Christ was also actively involved in the Creation:

For by him [the Son, see v13] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16)

The Holy Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture to write the very Words of God:

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

But we see that this same Spirit is also called the “Spirit of Christ”...

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ 
and the subsequent glories. (1 Peter 1:10-11)

Each member of the Trinity participates in the works of God, and each member shares all of the attributes of God.

From the very beginning, God said “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), indicating a plurality of persons in the Godhead. The Bible tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). That is to say, one of God's essential characteristics is love. This characteristic has always been true of God, even before He created mankind. But love can only exist between persons. Before God had created any persons, how was He able to love? You see, the Trinity is essential to the Bible's claim that God is love. God's characteristic of love was exercised throughout all eternity between the three members of the Trinity. You cannot have an eternally loving God unless you have a plurality of persons in the Godhead, having co-existed eternally.

It is beyond our ability, being limited mortal beings, to comprehend the Trinity. Many analogies have been put forth... perhaps we can think of a man who is a “husband”, a “father” and a “son” all at the same time. But this is not sufficient in describing the Trinity, because this is just one man in three roles, and not three distinct persons. Or perhaps the Trinity is like water having three states; solid, liquid and gas. But a body of water is not all of these at the same time. Some have seen the Trinity as different “modes” of God's existence, much like the water illustration. They would say that God the Father ceased to exist when God became incarnate as the Son. And then the Son ceased to exist when He ascended to heaven and became the Holy Spirit. But we've already seen that this is false, as all three were clearly seen to coexist at the same time on the occasion of Jesus' baptism (see passage above, Matthew 3:16-17). The truth is that there is no analogy we can make to describe this spiritual reality. It is a mystery of God.

Tomorrow I'll spend some time on another perplexing mystery of God; the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Until then...

I and the Father are one. (John 10:30)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

#22: How can Christ be both God and man?

In the gospel of John we read:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14)

The Apostle John says “the Word was God. ... And the Word became flesh...” God became a man. Jesus was both God and a man. Christ has always existed, as God has always existed. But He became a man. As a man He felt hungry, He became tired, He felt physical pain, just as any other man. As being God He was able to forgive sins, heal the sick by a verbal command, and in like manner raise the dead. The Bible says that “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). This is explicit... Jesus was “fully God” and “fully man”. But this verse is present tense, after the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus still is fully God and fully man. The God-man, Jesus Christ, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, and did not cease to be either God nor man to this present day. The disciples saw Jesus ascend as a man, and they were told that they would see Him return in the same manner as He left (Acts 1:11); that is, a man who is also God will return.

It is difficult to comprehend how a person can be both God and man at the same time. After all, God is everywhere, but a man can only be in one place at a time. So to be both God and man at the same time seems logically impossible. This is something that theologians have struggled with since the beginning of Christianity. It is a supernatural, spiritual reality that is beyond our understanding. The truth is that we simply cannot properly understand it. It is one of the “mysteries” of the Christian faith. Other mysteries are the Trinity – how God can be three persons and yet one God; or how God's sovereignty and human responsibility can both be true. Attempts to explain these things tend always to fall short because they are logically impossible in our world. But we need to remember that there is a higher dimension to our reality; the spiritual dimension. But we, living in the physical world, cannot fully understand these spiritual realities which God has revealed to us.

So regarding the deity and humanity of Christ, we are usually at risk of error when we try to emphasise or defend Christ's deity at the expense of diminishing His humanity; or we try to emphasise His humanity at the expense of diminishing His deity. When we consider the humanity of Christ, we know that He was not omnipresent – He was not in all places at the same time. We also know that He was not omniscient – there were things that He didn't know. For example, He didn't know the time of His own return to the Earth. (Matthew 24:36). However, we cannot say that Christ did not have these attributes. It seems, rather, that Christ had all of His divine attributes, but exercised them only according to the will of God, the Father. There are times, for example, when Jesus did demonstrate knowledge of things beyond the reach of a man's senses. He often knew the thoughts of the people around Him, or the events which would take place shortly, such as His betrayal by Judas. When the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he told Him to turn the stones into bread to satisfy His hunger, but Jesus refused. We know that Jesus could have done this; Jesus turned water into wine, and on another occasion He turns a few loaves into enough for thousands to eat. But it seems that Jesus was, as I said, only exercising His divine attributes according to the will of God, the Father.

To try to understand how Jesus was both God and man, many ideas have been put forward in the past. One analogy might go something like this: Imagine that an engineer creates a whole bunch of little robots. They are very advanced, intelligent robots; even “self aware”. But even as advanced as they are, they are still only imitations of the engineer. But one day the engineer creates a robot into which he is somehow able to transfer his own mind. We see this idea in science fiction all the time. We could say that this particular robot is the engineer; but it is also a robot. This is an appealing illustration, but we have to be careful. God did not “possess” a human being, somehow remaining a separate kind of puppet master. There is no separation between the humanity of Christ and the deity of Christ. When people spoke to Jesus, they were speaking to God Himself, for He was God. Jesus said to His disciples, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). His very existence was a “revelation of God” - that is, a revealing of the person and character of God Himself. It is mind boggling to us. Some have denied Christ's humanity, saying that God only appeared to be human; for how could God become a man!? But it is that amazing! And when we consider that He did this for our sake so that we might be saved, it is all the more wonderful!

Tomorrow, we'll consider the Trinity. Until then...
For we do not have a high priest [ie, Jesus Christ] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

Friday, January 21, 2011

#21: What are the essential beliefs of the Christian faith?

Coming to a complete knowledge of God and a complete understanding of the Bible is something we, as Christians, spend our whole lives doing. And we never come to a complete understanding in this life. So it's plain that one does not need a perfect knowledge of God to be saved. Many Christians understand parts of the Bible a little differently to one another as well. But not all differences mean that one is a true Christian and the other is not. But there are some essential things which one must genuinely believe in order to be saved, and then there are details of the Bible which we can interpret differently; but such differences only count as examples of our imperfect understanding of God. Even those essentials need not be understood to the depths of their complexity, where all implications are known.

In creating a list of essential beliefs, the aim is not to specify a bare minimum you must believe in order to be counted a Christian, as though you can happily reject everything that is not considered essential. But such a list is helpful as a sort of "first-pass test" for genuine faith. One's attitude should always be to believe all that the Bible tells us, and to gain a fuller and truer understanding of it. I would have liked to put the first essential as the belief that the Bible is God's inerrant Word. When Christians disagree on doctrine, usually they both agree that the Bible is God's inerrant Word, and what they disagree on is their understanding of God's Word. They will both maintain that the Word of God is absolutely right, and we need to rightly understand it. But I don't see this as essential because I think a person can be saved through someone’s preaching and never even own or read a Bible; as is often the case on the mission field. It’s more a belief that the things they’ve heard are true that is essential.

So the first essential of the Christian faith is to believe in Jesus Christ. But what about Jesus must we believe? There are three things which I consider to be absolutely essential; else one is not saved. These are:

   1. That Jesus Christ is both God and man.
   2. That Jesus will judge the world.
   3. That Jesus died as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, and was resurrected.

These three things actually presuppose a few other things which many add explicitly to their list of essentials. For example, to believe that Jesus will judge the world, one must acknowledge that their own sin will be judged. And if you don't believe that you are a sinner, how will you believe that you need salvation? But to believe that Jesus died as an atonement for our sins, one must believe that Jesus provides salvation from sin and the consequences of sin. But this judgment and the provision of atonement is only possible because Christ is both God and man. Many believe that they are sinners in need of salvation; but not all believe that salvation is found in Christ alone. Many people believe that they can atone for their own sins. But only a sinless substitute will ever be a satisfactory atonement for our sins. We cannot save ourselves. So I have put in this list all that we must know about Jesus Christ. If He were not sinless, He could not atone for our sins. If He were not God, He could not be sinless. If He were not God, He would have no right to judge the world. If were not a man, He could not have died for our sins. And if He were not resurrected, He would be dead and incapable of saving us.

The next essential belief I want to list is that:

   4. Salvation is by grace, through faith.

What does this mean? Is it like saying “It is necessary to believe that belief is necessary?” That sounds like a redundant statement. No, what I mean by “grace, through faith” is this... When we say “by grace”, we emphasise that salvation is not earned. Salvation is given to us freely. Anyone who ultimately believes that their good deeds will get them into heaven, whether they claim to believe in Christ or not, is actually lost. In fact, we cannot truly believe that Christ is our atonement if we believe that salvation is anything other than a free gift of grace. We cannot trust in our own deeds, for even the noblest of our deeds is tainted by sin. And when we talk of faith, we don't mean a mere internal belief; like an intellectual acknowledgement of some concept or idea. Faith is a trust in God’s salvation which affects one's whole life... everything we do and think, and even feel. So whilst salvation is not gained through what we do, faith does affect what we do.

So, in the spirit of this blog, I have not regurgitated someone else’s “list of essentials”. This is my own attempt at summarizing what I see as the essentials of my own faith. But you can find many other examples like this on the Internet, I’m sure. However, I don't think there could possibly be an organisation which affirms all of these things, and yet we would call them a cult. You need to consider that a lot of things follow from these four things. If you deny that Christ will return, for example, then you really deny point 2. And if you believe that salvation is through faith, then good works will follow. There are certainly many more things that all true Christians ought to acknowledge and believe, but I think that if a person learned just these four things about Christianity, confessed a genuine belief in these things and then died before they learned anything else, they would be saved. But of course a Christian who believes these things should also believe in the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of believers, the inerrancy of Scripture, and all of the other doctrines taught by Scripture.

So until tomorrow...
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

#20: Can't the Bible be wrong, since it was written by men?

Let's first consider how Christians view the Bible. As I mentioned yesterday, the Bible is God's Word to us. God Himself, who is sovereign over all, has given us a message in the form of the Bible. Most Christians see the Bible as “inerrant”, which essentially means that it is completely trustworthy... it doesn't distort the true message that God wants to express to us. If the Bible says that Christ is both God and man, and that He has the power to save us from eternal judgment, then we can trust and believe that the Bible is true on these matters. The form in which God's written message is expressed to us can differ, but it is always in a form we can understand. For example, the Bible contains historical narrative, poetry, logical arguments, and so forth. We have to understand the message God is giving to us as they are expressed in those forms. Poetry, for example, uses imagery which we don't take literally, but figuratively. Historical narrative describes events which we can accept as having actually taken place. Or there’s rhetoric; where sometimes the Bible builds a false argument in order to refute it with the truth, and we need to be careful to consider the whole context of the things we read so that we don't get half the picture. But all of these means of expression allow us to understand God. Some people are able to read academic journals easily, but others can't get their heads around the formal and technical terminology. It is good that the whole of the Bible isn't written like that; but there are areas where it is a bit like that, and some people just “get” that kind of writing. Some people love poetry, and the imagery it creates expresses far more to them than dull descriptions of things. But others can't get their head around poetry, and can be frustrated that the writer can't just describe things plainly. Well, all kinds of expression can be found in the Bible so that all kinds of people can understand God's message.

In God's great wisdom, we find that He has spread His message throughout the entire Bible. As we study theology, we usually build our understanding by considering passages from various places in the Bible. Unlike the way we might write a text book, you won't find a chapter on this topic, and then a chapter on that one. The things that the Bible teaches us are spread throughout the Bible so that all of God's truth is expressed in some way to all kinds of people at all times in history. This also means that when one part of the Bible fails to catch our attention, we won't entirely miss the truths of the Bible; we can pick them up in other parts as well.

As we consider how the Bible is written in this way, we begin to see the wisdom of God behind it. It is very difficult, for example, for anyone to pull out or make unavailable all of the Scriptures which establish a particular doctrine. They're spread throughout the whole Bible, appearing as parts of history, parts of rhetoric, or parts of poetry. The Bible was written by many different authors over many hundreds of years, and yet the message of the Bible is spread out this way with no possibility of the various authors collaborating on the truths about God which are expressed. God was wise in sending His message to us in this way; over hundreds of years, through many authors, so that we might believe it is genuine as we study it for ourselves and come to the conclusion that such consistency in the things taught is not humanly possible. Theologians engage in a discipline called “Systematic Theology” in which they try to arrange all of the truths of the Bible into a logical order; so that we do have a chapter on “this”, and a chapter on “that”. So by and large, through this discipline called “Systematic Theology”, theologians have shown time and again that such a logical ordering is possible, and can be done without finding any significant contradictions. True, we often find things that appear contradictory at first, but as we study further we often resolve such contradictions.

Now, as a Christian, I know that the things I write about God ought never to be taken as inerrant. What makes my thoughts about God prone to error, but the thoughts of the Apostle Paul, for example, inerrant? The Bible says:

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

The important thing to read here is that the people who wrote the Bible were expressing the message which the Holy Spirit wanted to express. The message was not “produced by the will of man” - the thoughts and ideas expressed about God did not come from within the mind of the author. We might say that the form of expression the author used was his own (whether poetry or history or rhetoric), and the manner in which he expressed it was his own, but the message itself was from God.

Now, anyone could say “I have a message from God”, and even genuinely think that they did, yet not truly be speaking by the Holy Spirit. Even in the time of Moses, God's people were warned to be discerning about anyone who claimed to be speaking by the Holy Spirit as a prophet. In Deuteronomy 13, for example, Moses warns the people to consider the words of a supposed prophet – if they tell people to worship other gods, then that prophet is not a true prophet. God will not contradict prior revelation, encourage His people to sin, or deny His own character. In the New Testament we are told to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). The Books of the Bible which we consider the true Word of God have survived such testing by the Church. But we all, personally, must decide for ourselves. Even some notable Christians, such as Martin Luther, had their doubts about certain books of the Bible. It's not wrong to have such doubts; we ought to be fully convinced in our own minds. As we read yesterday, however, “we [born again Christians] have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12) Part of being convinced that the Bible is true is having the Holy Spirit within us who confirms for us the truth of His Word.

Until tomorrow...
They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:5-6)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

#19: Why don't we have clear evidence of God?

Many people feel that the world lacks strong evidence for the existence of God. Part of their feeling is that if God were truly there, why doesn't He come and show His face? Why don't we see Him... if we could only see Him, we could believe. So let's think; if God were to do that, what would it look like? Do you suppose it might look like a man walking around the cities of first century Palestine, turning water into wine, healing the sick and raising the dead? Or perhaps it might look like a sea parting down the middle, or a pillar of fire in the wilderness, or water pouring out of a rock? Of course, all of these things have happened, and the people who saw them wrote about them. But even at the time when people saw them, many did not believe as a result. What is it exactly that you would need to see in order to believe? Each day I see a sun rise over my head to keep me warm. I see plants grow up out of the ground for me to eat. I see my pets and marvel at how they are wondrously made. All of these things are gifts from God, and they are evidence of His handiwork, and of His love for us.

In the book of Luke we read a parable of a man who dies and goes to hell. As well, another man which he knew dies and goes to be where Abraham is, and we know that Abraham was not condemned to hell. But from hell he is able to speak to Abraham, and he says to him...

“Then I beg you, father, to send him [the righteous man who also died] to my father's house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)

Abraham's comment is very astute, (or rather, Jesus' comment, as He was telling the parable). Jesus Himself was someone who did rise from the dead; yet even many of those who saw it with their own eyes at the time did not all believe. Abraham says “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The Bible, which is really what Abraham is referring to, ought to be sufficient for anyone to believe. In this day and age, people would rather believe the story that they think dead bones are telling than the story that living witnesses of Christ wrote down. But the Bible documents more than just historical events in which God has manifest Himself to mankind... the Bible is the Word of God Himself. If you wanted God to convince you Himself, then you would want God to speak directly to you. That is precisely what reading the Bible is like, because God speaks to us through the Bible. The Bible is God's Word, written to each of us personally so that we might know Him.

Many will say, “It is impossible for you to convince me of that.” Well, I probably can’t. You need to be convinced by God Himself, and God speaks through His Word. So how will you be convinced if you don't read the Bible for yourself? I have told you how I came to be a Christian in an earlier blog post. It was solely through reading the Bible and discovering for myself that this is a message from God. The preaching of God's Word is how people come to faith because they are hearing God's own Word. Preachers need to be very careful that they are indeed preaching God's Word, and not some distortion of it, or their own ideas about the world we live in and who God is. If their message is not grounded in Scripture it will not produce genuine faith in anybody. Paul wrote:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. [That is, he wasn't just going to say things that sounded good and convincing but weren't true or relevant.] For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)

Now, I know that unbelievers have read the entire Bible. I know of one man who tells me he's “read parts”... and I asked him, “What did you think of it?” He said, “I don't know... it's about a nation trying to establish itself.” I don't know whether he's read any of the New Testament, but all he saw was a nation trying to establish itself. The fact that God Himself was intimately involved in the affairs of Israel didn't seem to leave any significant impression on him. Paul writes about many of those in his day who read the Old Testament Scriptures...

But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:14)

We've spoken before about how “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6). And that the Bible is Spiritual (Romans 7:14). The Bible says that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14). How can what is flesh understand what is Spiritual? As the passage above says, “only through Christ is [“the veil”] taken away.” In previous posts I have written that if we would seek God, He will reveal Himself to us. When you go to read the Bible you possibly won't find God unless, in your heart, you are seeking Him. If you do, in fact, want God to reveal Himself to you personally, then pray and ask Jesus to “remove the veil” as you read the Bible, and you will begin to see Him in the pages of Scripture.

So until tomorrow, I urge you to start reading. Even Christians, before they read their Bibles, ought to pray for Christ to give us understanding of them; that we not read through our “fleshly eyes” but through our Spiritual ones. I leave you with this...

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:12)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

#18: How does the Holy Spirit make a difference to our lives?

I have said over the past few days that the significant difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is that a Christian is given a “new nature” - a supernatural change takes place in them, and this enables them to be obedient to God. What we cannot draw from this is the idea that a non-Christian is incapable of doing what is right according to the law. And when I say “law” here, I mean the things that God approves of as right, whether we know it explicitly from reading the Bible, or whether we know it instinctively. In Romans 3 we read:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Romans 2:14)

Here it is telling us that people know by nature what the law requires, and they do it. When one reads the Ten Commandments, they acknowledge that these things describe good virtues. The commandments of God make explicit the kinds of things that we already know to be true. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God brought Israel out of Egypt where they were slaves, and brought them into the land of Canaan to establish themselves as a nation. As they travelled from Egypt to Canan, God gave them the law. If you put yourself in the mind of those Israelites, it's like this... “We've been set free and we're going to become a nation and establish our own government. What's more, God Himself is our king, and God is telling us what the law of the land should be...” And as they would hear the law that their government should have being told to them for the first time, they would have been nodding their heads saying, “Yes! This is good! This law is wiser than the law of any other nation. It is good, for it comes from God Himself!” They would have heard each of God's precepts and said, “Yes! This is right”, because we all know what is right and what is wrong. After all Cain, who lived long before the Exodus, knew he'd done wrong when he killed his brother.

The written law of God in the Bible is not exhaustive. It does not serve to answer every legal question. King Solomon knew this, which is why he asked God “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). There are hard cases which take wisdom to judge, but what we have in the written law are examples of righteousness; to be enforced, certainly, so that people might learn righteousness and that evil might be restrained. Because we are fallen and want to rebel against the law, we must be reminded of the law, and the law must be enforced.

Now on our inability to keep the law, Paul writes this in Romans 7, after writing about how he himself has broken the law...

So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:12-15)

We spoke yesterday about the flesh and the Spirit. That which is “Spiritual”, in this context, is anything that the Holy Spirit would approve of, or lead us to do Himself. The law is Spiritual because it was given by God to reveal to us His character. We are to be like God in character. One who is like God in character obeys His laws which demonstrate His character. But, as the passage above says, we are “of the flesh”. We know what is right, but we do the very thing we hate. We do all hate sin in the sense that we know it is wrong, and while we often excuse ourselves of it, we hate it when others do those same things, especially when they do them to us!

When we speak of Christians as being under the New Covenant, as we spoke of a few days ago, and having the Holy Spirit which enables them to obey God, it is right to object that unbelievers are not incapable of being moral. The Bible affirms that they can be, as we've seen here today. Whilst it is often the case that an unbeliever will obey the law purely to avoid the consequences of disobedience, it is also true that unbelievers can genuinely want to do what is right; out of genuine compassion for people, or a true sense of what is right or wrong. So what is the difference between the Christian and the unbeliever? The difference is that God works “with” unbelievers, but “in” believers. What does this mean, and is this a significant difference?

Let me explain it this way. The Bible refers to a “restrainer” of evil (1 Thessalonians 2), which we can identify to be the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the Bible it says that the Holy Spirit will “convict the world of sin” (John 16:8). The Holy Spirit shows all people what is right and wrong, and through that, as He speaks to your conscience, evil is restrained in the world. His purpose is to draw all people to Christ. When my children do wrong, I tell them what is right, and I encourage them to always do right simply because that is what's right. Later in life as they learn more about Christ they will be able to identify with Him as the One who's very character is perfectly righteous; One who always does right because that's who He is. If they were left to do evil, completely unrestrained, they might never come to know Him. But nobody is left to do evil completely unrestrained, because the Holy Spirit is that restrainer, speaking to your consciences about what is right. His purpose is to draw all people to Christ, and so He works with all people to that end. But He works in the Christian to transform them more and more into that perfect image of Christ. (Not that we ever reach that goal in this life while we are still in this corrupt world.)

Until tomorrow, I leave you with this...
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)

Monday, January 17, 2011

#17: What is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

We can pick up here where we left off yesterday. Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, gave us the promise of God that He would put His spirit within His people...

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

What does it take for a person to obey God, because by nature we are sinful and disobedient? What it takes is a new nature... a new heart and a new spirit. This is why God is here promising a new heart and a new Spirit, so that we can “walk in His statutes and be careful to obey His rules.” Jesus discussed this issue with Nicodemus...

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)

Being born again refers to receiving a new nature. Nicodemus' response is understandable; we often fail to understand the things Jesus says when He talks of being “born again”, or where later He speaks of Himself being the “bread of life”, because Jesus is trying to communicate spiritual realities. So He uses illustrations. He says “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” This is a direct allusion to the Ezekiel passage. Being “born of water” relates to Ezekiel's saying “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses”. It speaks of the forgiveness of sins. All who put their faith in Christ are forgiven of their sins, and He will “remember them no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Then we read of being born of the Spirit which, as we have discussed, enables us to obey God. Jesus continues...

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6)

Throughout the New Testament we read of references to “flesh” and “Spirit”. We are all “born of the flesh” and must be “born again”. Christ promised the indwelling of the Holy Spirit would commence after His resurrection and ascension to heaven...

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

We know that all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, as Paul says...

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8:9)

However, as Christians it is true to say that we have two natures... the old and the new. This is as it must be until Christ returns to gather us together. In many places in the New Testament we are encouraged to live according to the Spirit; to be led by the Spirit, and not to “grieve” the Spirit. I would never say that a Christian is not capable of sin because he has the Spirit of God and a new nature... that's un-Biblical and untrue. But a Christian certainly ought to display a life of righteousness; of love and compassion for others, and of doing what is right, not out of fear of condemnation but simply because that's who they are inside.

Until tomorrow, I leave you with this...
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

#16: What's new about the New Testament?

Our Bibles are split into Old and New “Testaments”. The word “Testament” is really the same as “Covenant”, which is really what the Old and New Testament division is about. God, in the Bible, made various Covenants with mankind and the nation of Israel. One in particular is what we consider the “Old Testament”. And when Christ came, He established a new covenant, which is why our Bibles are divided into the Old and New Testaments, or Covenants.

So what is a covenant? And what is the “Old Covenant” - we'll need to understand a little bit about that in order to understand what's new about the “New Covenant”. In simplistic terms, in order to be brief, the Biblical covenants are a sort of formal relationship between God and man. In the Old Covenant, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and He said that if Israel would obey those laws, God would bless the nation. But if they would break those laws, God would curse the nation – they would suffer poor crops, defeat in battle, and ultimately, if they would continue to be unrepentant, they would be driven from the land altogether, just as the Canaanites were when Israel conquered them. Now, we'll talk more about these laws at another time, but for now we need to understand this key point... Every nation needs laws. But I'm sure you know the attitude that so many people have... that they will break the law for as long as they can until they get caught; and then they'll suffer the consequence and go right back to breaking the law again. You see this with people who always speed in their cars... if they get a fine, they'll pay it, but it doesn't change their behaviour at all. Getting caught is just a hassle one has to deal with. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, and I know that people can be moral and law abiding because they genuinely believe in the law and want to do what's right. But you'll agree that no government would be in their right mind if they simply said “This is the law...” and didn't also establish a police force to enforce that law. The fact that we need police shows us that to merely state a law, even one that we all agree to (for even those who speed agree that speeding is dangerous), won't change the behaviour of people. Well, this is precisely what the Old Covenant was designed to show. God had given the law to Israel, and the entire history of Israel demonstrates failure after failure to keep the law, even despite the promise of blessings if they were obedient, and the deterrent of cursings if they didn't. They would fall into idolatry, God would punish them, they would repent, and then before you know it they had fallen back into idolatry again... until finally they suffered the harshest of God's "cursings"; they were conquered and driven out of the land, first by Assyria, and then by Babylon.

So what's new and different about the New Covenant? We read of the New Covenant which was promised to God's people in the prophetic writings of Jeremiah...

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers ... I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

This is an incredible promise. What the Old Covenant did not provide was the internal desire to obey the law of God. Where it says that God will write the law on their hearts, it signifies that God will give them that internal desire and ability to be obedient to the law of God. Jesus said “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery...” (Mark 7:21). That is, our behaviour is a result of who we really are on the inside. We might comply with the law to avoid getting caught, but if there were no chance of getting caught, we would do whatever is in our hearts to do. God is saying that this New Covenant, which was yet to come at the time of Jeremiah, would give people a genuine desire to be obedient to God's laws from their very heart. We've spoken about this before a few days ago where I spoke about “regeneration”.

What we also find new about the New Covenant is something we call the “indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” Ezekiel, who also prophesied regarding the New Covenant, wrote this:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Speaking clearly of the same New Covenant, Ezekiel says that “[God] will put [His] Spirit within you...” This “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit we shall explore tomorrow. Until then...

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

#15: What is the Bible about?

There are various ways we could give a brief outline of the Bible; and being a blog post, this will be brief indeed. But rather than summarise all of the historical events of the Bible, I want to take the approach of looking at the main theme of the whole Bible, which is God's plan of salvation for mankind and how this plan unfolds throughout history.

In the beginning, God created man. The Bible says that God created man “in His image” (Genesis 1:26). We learn what this means in the passages of Genesis as God puts mankind in authority over creation. He is told to name all of the animals, which signifies his dominion over them. And he is told to “work” the garden (Genesis 2:15); to care for God's creation. Essentially, man was to be an “image” of God, imitating God's characteristics of dominion over creation, care for the creation, and so forth. To imitate God, or to share the character of God, is how God intended for mankind to be. This is how God created mankind; “in His image.”

But as we're all familiar with the story; the Devil tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God, and mankind sinned in doing so. The motivation behind this sin demonstrated a distrust of God, and also a lack of love for Him. These are not characteristics of God. That sin, and any sin we do today, always runs contrary to the character of God, and is an act which runs contrary to the way we are supposed to be; to the way God intended us to be. The result of this sin was death. Adam and Eve didn't die physically that moment, but were sentenced to death along with all of their offspring forever more. And from that moment their bodies began to die. Death and decay is something that was introduced into the world by sin. It was never part of God's original creation. In that sense, death is completely unnatural. Nobody is supposed to die; that was not God's intention for mankind.

So man, having put himself in this situation, needed a Saviour. Who could deliver him from death? God, being loving and merciful, promised to provide a means for their redemption. The earliest record of this promise is found in Genesis 3:15...

I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15)

This sounds cryptic and confusing, but it does speak of a particular man of the woman's offspring who would essentially restore the right relationship between God and man by destroying the Devil, who is ultimately the god of sinners. The Bible often speaks of people as being either “children of God” or “children of the Devil”. To sin necessarily identifies oneself with the Devil rather than to be imitating God. We are always imitators of the things we worship (See Psalm 115, v8 in particular).

Well, we haven't even moved beyond Genesis yet, but what we've looked at here is the essential foundation for all of the rest of the Bible. The Bible follows the history of the line of Jesus Christ, from Adam, through to Noah, through Abraham, and on. We learn about the formation of the nation of Israel, which is central to the Bible because Jesus Christ was born to an Israelite woman. We follow the line through Ruth and Boaz, and through David and his descendants. We learn a great deal along the way about mankind's desperate need for a Saviour, and of God's character; His continuing grace and mercy, as well as His loving discipline and justice. Israel serves as an example, both for good and for bad, for all humanity for all time. But the central figure of all Scripture, and of all history, is Jesus Christ.

When we get to the New Testament, we read the account of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died to save mankind from the curse of sin; death and decay. Jesus understood the predicament we are in, and He had compassion on all people. He loved sinners and He dwelt among them, and showed them the path to their redemption, which was Himself. He grieved over the state of mankind... He saw sickness and death and had compassion, healing the sick and raising the dead. These things are not as God intended creation to be, and Jesus showed that He was here to restore mankind to the way God intended. When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, He begins a transformation in us, transforming us into the image of Christ who was a man not corrupted by sin; a man who was perfectly in the image of God and the way God intended for us all to be. This is really what the whole Bible is about.

Until tomorrow...
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Friday, January 14, 2011

#14: How does the Old Testament predict the life of Jesus?

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God, who became a man in order to die on the cross so that through His death and resurrection we might have eternal life. Now, we know this from New Testament passages. But phrases like “in accordance with the Scriptures” are repeated a great many times in the New Testament to show how the life of Jesus was a fulfilment of the Old Testament. For example...

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

The “Scriptures” here must refer to the Old Testament. So we are right to ask where, exactly, does the Old Testament predict these things? Let's look at one Old Testament prophecy by way of example...

For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:16-18)

Well, we know from the gospels that Jesus was crucified, which meant that a company of evildoers encircled Him and pierced his hands and feet. The gospels also record how the Roman soldiers cast lots (like playing a game of dice), where Jesus' tunic was the prize (John 19:23-24). This is just one example where the gospel writers often cite Old Testament passages which are fulfilled in the life of Christ. This prophecy seems very straight forward, but this Psalm was written by king David, and it's written in the first person. It really seems to be a Psalm which David writes about himself. So we do wonder whether it's supposed to be predictive, as we would expect a prediction about Christ to read something like “A company of evildoers will encircle him, and they will pierce his hands and feet...” Well, this is a kind of prophecy called “foreshadowing”, in which the actual events in history (like something which happened to king David) are themselves predictive of future events which happen to Christ. David wasn't crucified, but he went through some kind of experience which made him write as he did. God uses actual historical events as predictions to demonstrate His sovereignty over all history. This kind of prophecy seems strange to us at first, but once we begin to see it in Scripture we begin to recognise the great wisdom of God in doing things this way, because we see all the more how everything in this world is subject to Him, and all things happen according to His will and purpose.

Sometimes there are far more direct predictions of Jesus, and sometimes prophets saw visions, and what they saw were symbolic and somewhat cryptic. Often God's intention was not to show the people at the time clearly what they ought to expect, but rather so that when those things came to pass, those who saw them come to pass would understand. And that they would understand because they knew the Scriptures and could see them becoming clear. This is what it would have been like for those living at the time of Christ. As they saw the events of His life unfold, Old Testament Scriptures would be recognized as prophetic of these events, and this would authenticate that Jesus was, in fact, the Saviour.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the Old Testament contained passages which had no meaning until their predictions came to pass. We also find passages in the Old Testament that have a “double fulfilment”. For example, in Isaiah we find a message given to king Ahaz that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”. This was to be a sign to Ahaz at that time to confirm God's word to Ahaz regarding the attack of their enemies. At that time, it may have meant that a woman who was that day a virgin would shortly announce that she was pregnant and the child's name will be Immanuel. That would have been the sign to Ahaz. But this same passage most certainly refers to the virgin birth of Christ later in history (Matthew 1:23). The name “Immanuel” means “God with us”, which is precisely who Christ is; the incarnation of God quite literally with us.

This is how Old Testament prophecy often works. And all of this is to show the absolute power and authority and sovereignty of God who is in command of all things. The more we consider the marvellous ingenuity of God's Word, the more we are amazed by His infinite wisdom.

Until tomorrow...
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)