Sunday, August 29, 2010

quote of the week, august 29-september 4, 2010

If we grasp a little better where we fit into the Bible's story line, how God looks at our sin, what our own rebellion rightly deserves, then although not all our questions about evil and suffering are answered, we are likely to face the wounding times with less resentment and indignation, and with more gratitude and trust, than would otherwise be the case. (Carson 2006:46)

Carson, D. A. (2006). How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (Original work published 1990)

Friday, August 27, 2010

faithful in all things

"Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all his house. For He has been counted of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house..." (Hebrews 3:1-6a)

When understanding the meaning of any particular passage, it is indeed beneficial to consider the intended audience so that we might arrive more closely at the author's intention. In this way, we can (by one among many methods) guard against eisegesis - importing our own ideas into the text as apposed to drawing the truth out - and ultimately work towards overcoming one of the many "gaps" that loom in between us and the Bible (though, unfortunately, they are all too often ignored). This is an important point to recognize and admit, since, whether we like it or not, we all come to the text of the Bible (or any text) as interpreters. Moreover, since we are dealing with a rather unique book, that is, one inspired by God through human agencies, then it is necessary to understand His divine purposes and truths in Scripture as well as taking into account the author's original intention(s), as far as we can recover them. With regard to the Epistle to the Hebrews, we have little explicit internal evidence as to the identity of the initial readership, except perhaps most obviously in the phrase "to the Hebrews" as indicated by the title. Further internal signposts evidenced by various exhortations to the primary audience, descriptions of their spiritual circumstances/condition, and commentary on their social milieu (such as the possibility of temple worship still in place or experience of persecution; see, for example, Hebrews 8:4; 10:32-34) pairs well with external evidence to paint a clearer picture of the first recipients of this letter. Namely, a theme that resonates in many commentaries is the proposition that these Christians to whom this letter was first written and sent were Jewish believers in Jesus Christ that had undergone mild persecution (thus, most likely before Nero) and were considering abandoning the Christian Gospel in favor of its (and their) Jewish heritage. Thus, we should not be surprised to encounter exhortations toward perseverance and steadfastness and the need to not "shrink back" or reject the all-sufficient voluntary Self-offering of Christ (10:39). As the writer states at one point later in the epistle, "you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised" (10:36). Though the object of their faith was not wavering, their faith in Him was, and so they were encouraged to consider the nature of His Person and work so that their faith might be strengthened by the (re-?)realization of what Jesus accomplished and fulfilled.
If these inferences are correct, then it is apparently the burden of the author to convince the audience of the excellencies of Christ, but also with special attention paid to how principles established/revealed in the Old Covenant are in actuality shadows that relate to a greater and more meaningful substance, Jesus (8:1-5; 9:23-24; 10:1; Colossians 2:16-17). With this in mind it is no surprise that the first two chapters of this epistle are largely doctrinal, with heavy Christological emphasis. As has been discussed in previous posts, the author definitively maintains both the deity and the humanity of Christ in accordance with His hypostatic union. But, returning to the points mentioned above, we might ask the following: If the author is indeed trying to convince unstable Christians who are contemplating returning to Judaism (and thus denying Jesus as both Messiah and God), what arguments could the writer propound in order to turn their hearts and minds to the truth found in Jesus? The answer to this question, as it pertains to the epistle to the Hebrews, is really quite similar to a dilemma that Jesus Himself posed to certain Jews that doubted His validity:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me (John 5:39, emphasis added)

Yet the dilemma itself is not truly presented in the above statement. Instead, it appears in the loving criticism that follows: "and you are unwilling to come to Me that you may have life" (5:40, emphasis added). This is the question with which these readers were confronted, and one that we, too, must answer - Am I willing to come to Jesus, the One of whom the Scriptures testify, so that I may have life?
Consequently, in chapter 3 the author of Hebrews embarks upon a journey through prominent people and principles in the Scriptures (the Old Testament) in order to assure the readership of the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, rather than focusing on the temple (which may have still stood at the time of writing), the writer chooses to highlight a more unifying concept and one that essentially possesses primacy, that of the tabernacle and its "regulations of divine worship", such as the Levitical priesthood, the various articles in the tent, and the sacrificial system (Hebrews 9:1). All these necessarily relate to the Covenant that God established with His people on Mt. Sinai, when Moses was called by God to mediate between Himself and the people of Israel. Therefore, the first verses in chapter three involve a comparison between the Person and work of Jesus, and the person and work of Moses. In a sense, then, we might say that the writer begins this portion of the argumentation by inviting the reader to consider what or whom they are really left with if they abandon Christ.
Recall that in the prior chapter, the author urges the believers to whom the letter is written to "pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it" (2:1). What "we have heard" is the testimony of "so great a salvation" that is found in Jesus alone. Moreover, we might infer that the in some way the readers were being tempted by their doubt, and thus were in need of hearing about the infinite ability of Jesus "to come to the aid of those who are tempted" evidenced by the incarnational reality of Jesus' suffering. The proposed remedy for ensuring stability (i.e., not drifting) and overcoming temptation is strikingly simple: "consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession" (3:1). Why consider Him? The answer that comes makes sense to a believer in Christ who has a Jewish background: "He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house" (3:2, emphasis added). At this point it seems as though the writer is only concerned with (roughly) equating Jesus' ministry with that of Moses, that is, just as Moses was faithful over God's house, so was Jesus. But the writer presses on to a greater truth with even greater immediacy, namely, that Jesus "has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses" (3:3). The force of this second claim in the context of a Jewish Christian audience - especially one considering departing from Christianity - should not be easily overlooked. The comparison is not arbitrary, and neither is the declaration of Christ's supreme glory.
The point, however, is not so much to diminish the importance and significance of preeminent individuals such as Moses (Jesus, for example, constantly referred to Moses and Moses' authority as proof of the validity of His claims). Rather, major the point is to understand their importance and significance in relation to the Person and work of Jesus Christ "who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23). That is, Jesus Himself is the locus of understanding Moses and his ministry, and the subsequent covenant which God established with Israel through him. Turning again to the Gospels, we find that Jesus clearly did not diminish the persons of the Old Testament along with its laws, but Jesus always centered them around the supreme Person of Himself, the work He came to do, and the covenant that He inaugurated. For example, Jesus declared that He was greater than both King Solomon and the prophet Jonah (Luke 11:31-32). He also expressed His eternality when He claimed that He actually preceded the patriarch Abraham (John 8:58). Moreover, in another passage, we find God declaring in an audible voice the exclusive preeminence which Jesus held over and above Moses and Elijah:

Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." For he [Peter] did not know what to answer, for they [the disciples] became terrified. Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!" All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone. (Mark 9:2-8)

Again, this is not to depreciate the value of any individual like Moses, but God helps us understand the proper value of any person by situating them in relation to Christ. Moses was indeed faithful in things pertaining to God's house, but Christ was more faithful still. Moses' disobedience was quite rare and not characteristic of his ministry, but Jesus "always do[es] the things that are pleasing to [the Father]" (Numbers 20:8-12; John 8:29). Moses was faithful "as a servant," Christ is faithful "as a Son" (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses was a member of the house, Christ, being a Person of the Triune God, is its builder and architect. Moses served "for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later," Christ is the content of that speech which is the Christian Gospel (3:5). As Jesus said, "if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me" (John 5:46). Admitting the reality of Christ's supremacy does not negate Moses, but rather believes him. "If [we] do not believe [Moses'] writings, how will [we] believe [Jesus'] words?" (see John 5:47). Moses was "made perfect" by the same means as we who presently believe in Jesus, for Moses "consider[ed] the reproaches of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward" (Hebrews 11:40, 26, emphasis added). Moses "endured, as seeing Him who is unseen" (11:26).
At this point, perhaps many of us who do not individually come from a Jewish background may struggle to grasp the relevance of this passage (and, thus, what follows, as well) to our own lives. The relevance and application, however, can be made manifest by considering three points. First, we might state the obvious that since Jesus was Jewish it ought to matter to us. If we consider the words of Christ in the Gospels, or the entirety of the New Testament, we can only understand the Gospel with greater fullness by understanding the significance of Moses and his writings. Still, as both Jesus and the New Testament writers urge us toward, we must interpret Moses (and others) in light of Jesus now that He has come. Second, Moses as a key figure of Judaism would be an example of what the readers would be left with if they rejected Christ and returned to their Jewish heritage, ignoring the reference to Him. As we are aware, Moses indeed pointed to Christ, but this group was potentially going back to Moses without considering the One to whom he directs them. The author makes clear that they are losing infinite worth by departing from Christ and, consequently, not really going back to Moses in the fullest and truest sense. For us, we might do well to contemplate the value of what we are left with if we reject Jesus, for who or what would be left to fill such an amazing void? The reality we must face is that there is no one and no thing left to turn to; only Christ has the "words of eternal life" (John 6:68). The third point is that, since Moses is one example of a shadow whose substance is Christ, we must consider what the consequence will be if we overemphasize the shadows and deemphasize the substance (e.g., the law or the Levitical system of worship in comparison to the New Covenant and the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ). This cannot be succinctly answered here, but is the focus of much to come in the epistle to the Hebrews. And, as we read in Hebrews 3:1, the way to rightly (re)orient ourselves is constant, we must "consider Jesus."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

quote of the week, august 22-28, 2010

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever. (Piper 2003:17)

Piper, John. (2003). Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. (Original work published 1993)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

musings on the temple of God

What if we could indeed go back in time, say, to the early part of the first century, when Herod's temple still stood in Jerusalem? What would our reaction be at the sight of it? It would not take much effort to recognize it. Perhaps we would be overcome with a sense of wonderment at the material beauty of the temple and its adornments. Perhaps we would be filled with excitement knowing that this was the place where the True God was worshiped; this was the place where the presence of God dwelled on earth; this was the place where the high priest entered annually into the most holy place behind the veil to make atonement for the sins of the people. Could we even contain the response of being filled with awe at the mere sight of such a place?

Permit me to indulge in one more hypothetical. Whether it involved tenuous notions of time travel or not, what if we could now see Jesus face-to-face (as we do with other people) as He was when He walked the earth? What would our reaction be at the sight of Him? It would probably take great effort to recognize Him. Perhaps we would be confused if not offended at the simplicity of His material possessions, homelessness, and lack of adornments. Perhaps we would not even sense the excitement we ought to feel at being in the presence of the True God who humbled Himself for our sake, not only to become one of us, but to bring us back to God. Perhaps we would not even realize that the presence of God dwelt bodily before our very eyes. Perhaps we would not understand that He was the true temple of God who was raised in three days, who entered not into the copy of the most holy place but, through the veil of His flesh entered into heaven itself, making enduring purification for sins once for all for the sins of the world, then to be seated at the right hand of God? Would we even have a response at the mere sight of such a Person?

Why is there a disconnect?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

quote of the week, august 15-21, 2010

It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. This surrender can take place - and actually does - in all Christian confessions, although it is differently "colored" in a nondenominational suburban "community church" and in a traditional, hierarchical, confessional and liturgical parish. For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols, and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this "key" that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members and confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him "more help" - not more truth. (Schmemman 1973:109)

Schmemman, Alexander. (1973). For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (Original work published 1963)

Friday, August 13, 2010

those who are tempted

"Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted." (Hebrews 2:17-18)

In these final verses of the second chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the author recalls the theme that resonates throughout chapter 2, that of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As the writer is in various parts of the epistle deeply concerned with supporting the supremacy of Christ, we find that just as Jesus is "better than the angels" as the Son of God, so He remains supreme as the Son of Man; His incarnation in no way depreciates His nature (Hebrews 1:4). In verse 18 we find an additional argument to buttress the previous assertion of the absolute necessity of the incarnation, that is, we read that Jesus "had to be made like His brethren in all things" (2:17, emphasis added). In addition to the goal of "becom[ing] a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people," we now encounter the notion that Jesus' authentic temptation and suffering enables Him in a unique way to "come to the aid" of humanity, who is beset by constant temptations and, because of our fallen nature, without intrinsic capability to overcome such temptation(s) (2:18). Thus, these verses not only continue the major theme of chapter 2, they also recall the notion of Christ's suffering mentioned in verse 10, wherein the author states that God "perfect[ed] the author of [our] salvation through sufferings" while "bringing many sons [and daughters] to glory" (2:10). In the immediate (textual) context of these present verses, then, Hebrews highlights the incarnational reality of Jesus' being "made like His brethren in all things" and His ability to offer humanity enduring relief as a result of His demonstrating (and not mere willingness to demonstrate) His love toward us.
In order to establish the effectiveness of Christ's help for humanity and our temptations, what follows here will perhaps appear to be in reverse order. That is, instead of beginning with Christ's perfection, I will instead begin with humanity's dilemma, and this is done so as to avoid a basic error with regard to the nature and purpose of the temptations and sufferings of Christ. The error (that Jesus was Himself in need of perfection) as well as the essential truth (that Jesus is innately perfect and lived a perfect sinless life as a human) both stem from attempts at answering the same questions, namely a) How is it (i.e., in what manner was it) that Jesus was "made perfect" through sufferings?, and b) Did Jesus (need to) suffer for His own sake, or just for ours? Other passages in Hebrews seem to exacerbate our predicament, for although in chapter 1 the author lucidly and definitively argues for the deity of Christ, elsewhere the reader encounters statements such as "[Jesus] learned obedience from the things which He suffered," or "having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation" (5:8, 9). Are these real or apparent contradictions? And, if they are only apparent ones, how can we reconcile these truths in light of the eternality and immutability of Jesus that is evidenced in chapter 1?
So, as mentioned above, I will begin with humanity, with "those who are tempted." But what does it mean to be tempted? What type of temptations do we face, and how serious are they? And why are we in need of "aid" for temptation? (brief note/disclaimer: In this post, keep in mind that I will not be able to address sufficiently the semantic and theological issues regarding the differences and subtle nuances between 'tempt/temptation' and 'test/trial,' etc.) Consider the following excerpt from a recent book by Shirley Rose, who exhorts us to guard against a conceptualization of temptation that is too narrowly constrained on only one type of temptation[1]:

[W]hen most of us think about temptation, we immediately think about sexual temptation. And for good reason. Sexual immorality is rampant in our postmodern society, and it affects women as well as men. The allure of sexual sin must be taken seriously. However, it's not always about sex. Most women [and I'll add, many to most men] struggle with other temptations on a more regular basis. Left unchecked, these areas of temptation can lead to serious sins of the spirit. I propose there are other temptations women [and men] face in the day-to-day business of living that are just as lethal to a close, fulfilling relationship with God and a fruitful ministry. (Rose 2006:11, emphasis original)

Crucially, we must note three elements from this passage in regards to temptation. First, temptation by itself does not equal sin, though succumbing to temptation does lead to sin as we are "carried away and enticed by [our] own lusts" that "when [...] conceived, it gives birth to sin" and eventually "brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). As we read in Scriptures, Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and as Hebrews 2:17 states, "tempted in that which He suffered," but He completely overcame these temptations and lived a sinless life (therefore, temptation does not necessarily equal sin). Second, temptation that gives way to sin, because it is/becomes sin, ruptures the relational intimacy that God has granted between Himself and His children. Indeed, it stands as a barrier between God and humankind that only God Himself could destroy, and verily did so in the Person and work of Jesus. Still, if the purpose of God's creating humanity is to have fellowship/communion with Him, and sin consequently breaks that fellowship, then through Christ we have need to participate in His sinless life; thus He enables us to be in a relationship with God. Third, temptations are manifest in many aspects of our lives, including regular "day-to-day" experiences. Thus, these temptations can take many forms, in line with what Paul terms "the deeds of the flesh":

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

In light of these manifold actions and thoughts (along with how tragically commonplace they are in our lives), we recognize the desperate need we have for "aid" since, in and of ourselves, we lack the ability to propitiate for the sins that separate us from the living God, who Himself is our greatest joy. Moreover, we must take care that we guard ourselves from a wide array of temptations that are not exclusively tangible and material.
Apart from what we have just discussed, there are also "temptations" that are, to some degree or other, divinely ordained (though bear in mind James 1:13) with the ultimate goal of our good and God's glory (and, perhaps we might even say that all temptations may serve the ultimate purpose that we, in and through Christ, overcome them). Job is more or less the quintessential example of this, for early in the book we learn that the Adversary, despite being an enemy of God, necessarily has to request God's permission, and thus admit to God's authority, in order to assault Job with various ailments and trials. God, who remains sovereign and intrinsically possesses all authority, allows that Job suffer, for in His absolute benevolence He knows that it will produce a deep and abiding transformation as eventually (and by God's ability), Job moves from imperfection toward a greater perfection. Peter is yet another paradigmatic model of God's sovereignty in human temptation. Before Jesus went to be crucified, He poignantly declared to Peter:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)

Though Peter would deny Christ three times in the course of the evening, Jesus strengthened Him through His intercession, and even sought Peter to encourage Him after He rose from the dead and appeared to His disciples. Though the temptation was painful and even resulted in Peter's temporary denial of the Lord Jesus Christ, the product that resulted from overcoming temptation by the merits of Christ far outweighed and outlasted Peter's failings and shortcomings (note that, Peter did not overcome temptation in the original instance itself, but his life and death as a martyr are a testimony to his having overcome). Truly, as James, the brother of our Lord writes:

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)

This "weight of glory," as C. S. Lewis argues in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, is the approbation of God that culminates in the precious words "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21, 23, ESV; Lewis 2001). Still, we can only give glory and honor and praise to the great high priest who comes to give "aid" to "those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:18, NASB). So, as with Job and with Peter, Satan received permission to bring about suffering and temptation. And, as with Job and Peter, the ability to overcome rested in the strength of God and of His Christ, evidenced, for example, by Jesus comforting Peter with the words "but I have prayed for you."
To further illustrate the importance and intention of transformation through divinely ordained temptation and suffering, allow me to share a hymn that I enjoy entitled I Asked the Lord (this was originally written by John Newton, and a beautiful remake is sung by Laura Taylor of Indelible Grace Music):

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face

Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair

I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest

Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part

Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low

Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
"Tis in this way" The Lord replied
"I answer prayer for grace and faith"

"These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."

Now, in the above hymn (and the aforementioned examples of Job and Peter) it is clear that suffering and trials can in many cases be, in a sense, divine incidences and circumstances that God utilizes to achieve sanctification. That is, as it is His goal to make us "partakers in the divine nature," God often disciplines us, which frequently takes the form of suffering and trials by means of temptation, "so that we may share in His holiness" (2 Peter 1:4; Hebrews 12:10). These latter examples of temptation are perhaps more similar to the explicit mentionings of the temptations of Christ in the Scriptures, for example when He was directed by the Holy Spirit to be tempted of Satan in the wilderness, or when He "was tempted in that which He [...] suffered" by His obedience to the divine will even unto His death on a cross (Matthew 4:1; Hebrews 2:18; Philippians 2:8; John 6:38). Yet, does this transformation that human beings experience through suffering and temptation extend to the Person of Christ, who was Himself both fully God and fully human? In other words, is transformation what it means for Christ to have been made "perfect [...] through sufferings" (2:10)?
What I wish to propose (though, of course this is no novel idea), and what I believe to be supported biblically, is that this type of transformation does not extend to Jesus, for He in no way moved from imperfection to perfection, as He is Himself divine and, in His incarnation wherein He became human, He was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary - thus, free from original sin. As the writer of Hebrews later maintains, Jesus was tempted "as we are, yet without sin," so He retained sinlessness throughout His life on earth (4:15). Also, Jesus, the eternal high priest, is, according to Hebrews, "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens" (7:26). If it is indeed proper to speak of "movement" in the type of perfection that Jesus as Son of Man attained, it would only be, from our temporal perspective, movement from incompletion to completion. Jesus' "perfection" in the sense of being made "perfect" through sufferings, relates to what I have alluded to in previous posts, namely, that Jesus was not merely willing to demonstrate His love, but that He demonstrates His love for us in a genuine incarnation, a genuine self-sacrifice, and a genuine resurrection. So, He is "made perfect" by His perfection and completion of the task set before Him - indeed, He "for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down [= completed work] at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:2). Therefore, our transformation and ability to overcome temptation is predicated upon His innate and proven ability to overcome sufferings and offer up Himself as a pure and spotless Lamb to God on our behalf. Without a genuine, incarnational means of overcoming sin and suffering, God would effectively be resigning His fallen creation, Himself, and His own power to the temporal, inferior power of the devil. Why? Because He would be admitting that the purpose for which we are created is an impossibility. But Jesus Christ not only renders it "possible," He ushers in a new reality predicated upon His own Person and work, and in and through Christ we are invited to participate.
The beautiful truth expressed in these verses is that Jesus' ability to condescend to our estate, taking our human nature upon Himself, in a unique and singular way completes Jesus' innate ability to come to our rescue and offer us aid in our distress. This theme is repeated a few chapters later in Hebrews, where it is written:

For we do not have a high priest that cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

Our confidence to "draw near [...] to the throne of grace" is predicated upon the reality of Christ's incarnation, and the validity of His human experience, even while He fully retains His deity. Thus, He uniquely relates to humanity by His having been tempted, yet without sin, and He simultaneously offers to God perfect humanity in His own body. For this reason, for Jesus' willingness-cum-demonstration, and for His authentic temptation and suffering that characterizes His demonstration of love toward us, He can and does offer us the rescue that we need and long for.
What temptation(s) are we facing? It is never so great that Jesus has not already conquered it. In and of ourselves, we are utterly weak and helpless, but God is "our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). Recall the intercession Jesus made on behalf of Peter; the same is available to us now, since Jesus "save[s] forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). Though we be tempted, yet through the living Christ we are empowered to overcome temptation by the aid that He gives - the perfection of Himself. We only have need to be found in Him, and although we may think we have a firm grasp, it is He that holds us and makes us one with Him.

[1] To be honest here, I have not read this book entirely (though the first chapter is available to view online), which is rare for me with books/authors I quote. This particular book is, after all, one principally written to and for women, which is why I have included (i.e., added) "men" to the above quotation so that it applies (as I intend it) across gender. The quote referenced above I heard mentioned on a Christian radio program.

Lewis, C. S. (2001). The weight of glory. In The Weight of Glory: And Other Essays. New York, NY: HarperOne, 25-46. (Original work published 1949)

Rose, Shirley. (2006). The Eve Factor: Resisting and Overcoming Temptation. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

I Asked the Lord is copyright (2004) of double v music.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

quote of the week, august 8-14, 2010

Why is our faith and hope and love so pallid and weak and boring? Because it is not sensitive to beauty. (Kreeft 2008:53)

Kreeft, Peter. (2008). Jesus-shock. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

merciful & faithful

"Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." (Hebrews 2:17)

(note: this post comes closely on the tail end of a three part discussion of the incarnation of Christ; click here, here and here to read these posts)

One manner in which it can be beneficial to understand the truth and content of a particular state, or proposition, or event, or action, etc., is to consider the consequences of the same had it been another way. That is, we can (potentially) learn about reality by contemplating possible alternatives to that reality, whether they are or were indeed possible/actualizable or not. With that in mind, What would be the consequence of the following statement, if indeed it were true?

a. Jesus Christ was/is willing to offer Himself for the life of the world (but, He did not or has not yet done so)

Would this mere willingness-without-demonstration depreciate or augment the Christian gospel? Hopefully, it does not take any convincing to recognize that the former of these consequences would result, and not the latter. Narrowing closer on the present topic, that of the goal of the incarnation of Jesus, consider a second, but similar proposal, What would be the consequence of the following statement, if indeed it were true?

b. Jesus Christ was/is willing to become human for the sake of humanity and for the glory of God (but, He did not or has not yet done so)

The reason I here invoke these possible "alternative" circumstances (that are, of course, totally fabricated) relating to Christ's incarnation is so that we might understand more fully (to the extent that we are able) not just the reality, but also the necessity of Jesus becoming incarnate: "He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:17, emphasis added). The claim of Christianity is not just that it is a historical fact that a man named Jesus, who is called the Christ, lived on this earth and died for the sins of the world. It is much stronger than that. Christianity asserts, in conjunction with historical reality, that it was necessary for Jesus, who is the Christ, to become human, live a perfect and sinless life, suffer and die for the sins of the world, rise again on the third day to conquer death through death and ascend into heaven to be seated "at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (1:3). In a sense that we will explore below, Jesus was obligated to "partake" of the very "flesh and blood" that "the children [His brethren] share" (2:14).
But now we have introduced a notion that demands clarification, for, how can Jesus, being Himself God, be obligated towards anything? This can be answered in (at least) two ways. One response is to say that it is (although at first it may seem contrary to what I have just claimed) wholly correct to maintain that the Triune God, and all Persons of the Triune God, are not obligated to do anything. Obligations often come from something external to the self, and God is the only eternal Person who is entirely self-existent and, therefore, in no position to be obligated by His creation. For example, He created the universe and all that is out of complete freedom and love, and not out of any need or obligation. The only way in which God may be said to be properly obligated toward anything (though this statement needs careful consideration and perhaps refining) is that He is (self-)constrained by His own eternal nature. For example, we know from God's self-revelation to humankind that, among many other things, God is love, God is merciful, God is just, God is eternal, God is immutable, and God is holy. Perhaps, then, we may say that God is obligated to be love, to be merciful, to be just, immutable and holy. God is obligated in that He, in a sense, constrains Himself - He cannot be, for example, unholy.
This brings us to the second response to which it may be possible for any or all Persons of the Trinity to be obligated towards something. That is, given the exigencies of a particular situation, something could not be another way (and this, in turn, could relate to principles of God's creation that God instilled or embedded into it). So, for example, given that God created (among everything else) humanity, and that humanity not only disobeyed God, but also "ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone," perhaps it is necessary from these circumstances that God should enter into humanity in order to redeem us (Schmemman 1973:18). Thus, as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes, "[Jesus] had to be made like His brethren in all things" - it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to become incarnate. Still, now we are confronted with yet another dilemma, and we may ask, Why was it necessary? This is the point to which the author brings us, and this can be understood by reference to the aforementioned hypothetical situation, wherein Jesus possessed willingness to become human, but did not actually do so.
This question of "Why was it necessary?" in light of the possibility of mere willingness-without-demonstration takes us back to the beginning of creation, wherein the eternal, loving, omniscient, merciful, and holy Triune God created all things and then blessed them as being "good" (Genesis 1:1-31). Among the creation, humanity was also blessed with a unique position among the created realm, so that we who have been made in the image of God might enjoy His creation, returning it to Him in thanksgiving, communing with Him and enjoying Him forever (for which purpose we were created). Yet, although sin was not initially introduced into creation by humanity, Adam and Eve failed to see God as their all-sufficiency and thus disobeyed Him, transgressing against His loving words (which were for their good) and rupturing the intimacy and communion for which they had been created. As a result of this action, "sin entered the world, and death through sin" (Romans 5:12). Moreover, even until now, we actively participate in such rebellion universally (3:23).
Our sin, therefore, puts us in quite a singularly devastating predicament, whose effect is twofold. We cause(d) the separation that exists between ourselves and God, and, therefore, we (humanity) have the responsibility and (even individual) accountability to reconcile the rift we have created. Yet, paradoxically, we are not able, in and of ourselves, to draw near and reconcile ourselves to a holy God. Thus, our circumstance demands reparation and restoration that is initiated by us, but, simultaneously, we are now universally and individually in no position to effectualize the perfection in us that we so desperately need in order to fulfill the requirement that enables us to again commune with the divine. Communion, again, relates to the purpose of humanity in relation to the purposes of the divine will, and this intimacy with Him is what provides us with utter satisfaction and enjoyment, for we participate in a direct and meaningful relationship with the One who is above and before all things. Still, we are presently confronted with our complete helplessness.
How does God remedy this broken relationship? One possibility is that He perhaps grants automatic cleansing of sin and therefore there is no need for the incarnation. However, let us not even go so far as to say there is no need, for we can reject this proposition by treating a similar one, namely, that God (i.e., Jesus) was willing (but did not actually) become flesh and blood; instead, God enacts reconciliation without such drastic means and just offers reconciliation in a (seemingly) straightforward manner. At this point we might ask the question, Does this really remedy the problem? According to Hebrews 2:17, according to Christianity - and if these truly have their origin in God Himself then we may also be bold enough to declare, and according to God - this neither does nor could produce the salvation of which we (i.e., all of humanity) are in need.
According to Hebrews 2:17, the reason for this relates to the role of Christ as the "merciful and faithful high priest [...] to make propitiation for the sins of the people." Though we will return to the concept of high priest when we discuss various points in Hebrews 5-10, a basic "definition" that will be important to bear in mind is that "every high priest taken from among men is appointed on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins" (5:1). Also important to the present verse and its mentioning of certain purposes of the incarnation is that Jesus "make[s] propitiation for sins" (2:17). And, though it seems quite obvious to state this, if there is an act of propitiation then there must first exist a need for that propitiation such that the particular act in question can alone offer satisfaction. This need was instantiated by the fall of Adam and Eve, which spread to all of humanity, and so brought death to all humanity. Sin causes separation between us and an all-holy God, and as He is holy and just we incur a just wrath that obligates satisfaction and appeasement for, being holy, God cannot ignore or overlook sin.
But this becomes the beautiful truth of the Christian gospel: God does not ignore sin. Even though we caused ourselves to be left in an utterly helpless estate, God is not so powerless nor is He without mercy and love that He allows us to remain without the highest good that we can possess: Himself. God, even though He is holy and pure (and, thus, not only sinless but not capable of sin) actually and directly initiates reconciliation on our behalf through Jesus Christ. As we consider the verse in Hebrews 2:17, and the truth of the incarnation and Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, we must contextualize these verses in the prior argumentation (especially chapter 1) wherein the writer definitively and unambiguously maintains the deity of Christ. Therefore, by God Himself condescending and taking our flesh and blood upon Himself, He effectively overcomes the seemingly impossible barrier that we have erected: God remains all-powerful, merciful, sovereign, holy, loving, and all-sufficient, yet by entering into humanity and offering Himself as a pure sacrifice He is able to fulfill the demand placed upon us as the result of our sin. The work that Christ came to do, the salvation that He Himself inaugurated, demanded a genuine incarnation wherein God dwelt among us in human flesh in order to, as we read later in Hebrews 9-10, offer up Himself as a perfect sacrifice for the life of the world. As a result, it is in no way arbitrary, nor is it for mere expediency that Christianity upholds the glorious truth of the incarnation which is (in part) treated in Hebrews 2:17. Rather, Jesus was, in this sense, obligated to become God incarnate: "He had to be made like His brethren in all things." Moreover, it is not truly possible that Christ merely desired or was willing to become incarnate without genuine action. For this reason:

God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:8-11)

So we may say that it was absolutely necessary for Christ to become human, to offer Himself as a perfect sacrifice by blood that was His own, and to rise again so that He would, by way of humanity, conquer death that spreads to us all as a result of sin. In his death, the death which He verily died as a human, He reconciles us to God, overcoming the separation between us. And furthermore, in His resurrection, He invites us to experience communion with God in newness of life - life in Him and through Him.
At times it amazes me how wont people have been throughout history to deny the essential truths of the incarnation. Such activity usually focuses narrowly on only one aspect of the twofold truth expressed in the hypostatic union (the union of two natures in one Person, Jesus Christ). For example, some admit to the human Person of Christ, but deny any possibility that the divine could, say, co-mingle with fallen and sinful humanity. This may at times be in a supposed effort to preserve the holiness of God in His work of salvation, but it effectually renders Him passively operative by only having some degree of indirect involvement in salvific work. On the other hand, some admit to the deity of Christ but reject His having dwelt among us in physical, bodily form. This, too, may be in an effort to preserve some aspect of Christ's Person, namely His deity, but it fails in that it falsely conceptualizes God's relation to the physical world and the purposes He has for it through Jesus Christ. A biblical doctrine of the incarnation necessarily admits to the reality of the hypostatic union in spite of its mystery (or it may be better stated, because of its mystery), for it proclaims that someone other-than-human became clothed in human flesh. This Other Person was and could be no less than God Himself who became incarnate in holy condescension, so that it might be truly said that with God - who is holy, loving, just, merciful, and righteous - all things are indeed possible.

Schmemman, Alexander. (1973). For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. (Original work published 1963)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

quote of the week, august 1-7, 2010

This post inaugurates a new weekly trend that I will (hopefully) attend to on a regular basis, since, as the name indicates it is the "quote of the week." I intend to post a variety of statements, verses, passages, etc., some of which may be at odds with one another, but all of which will (if successful) serve to encourage, challenge, instruct, and transform us so that we may continue to "Give unto the LORD the glory due to His name [and] worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness" (Psalm 29:2, KJV). My apologies to the nature of this endeavor, as it only provides us with glimpses of an author's thought(s) by way of reference to decontextualized quotes. Nevertheless, without further ado, then, I will (from no particular order) turn to the late 19th and early 20th century Dutch Reformed pastor, Andrew Murray:

In the temple and presence and worship of God, everything is worthless that is not pervaded by deep, true, humility toward God and men [...]. What a solemn thought, that our love to God will be measured by our everyday fellowship with men and the love it displays. [...] It is easy to think we humble ourselves before God. Yet, humility toward men will be the only sufficient proof that our humility before God is real. [...] The great test of whether the holiness we profess to seek or to attain is truth and life will be whether it produces an increasing humility in us. (Murray 1982: 30, 43, 51, emphasis original)

Murray, Andrew. (1982). Humility. New Kinsington, PA: Whitaker House.