Sunday, September 26, 2010

quote of the week, september 26-october 2, 2010

It is all too easy to read the traditional interpretations we have received from others into the text of Scripture. Then we may unwittingly transfer the authority of Scripture to our traditional interpretations and invest them with a false, even idolatrous, degree of certainty. (Carson 2002 [1996]:17)

Carson, D. A. (2002). Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. (Original work published 1996)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

while it is still called 'today'

"Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, 'Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts..." (Hebrews 3:7-8a)

I have a quaint memory from my younger days of a certain bar sign displayed in a restaurant that my family ate at every once and a while. Albeit, this may seem strange for a "childhood memory," but, nevertheless I'll proceed with the description: this sign hooked its viewer with the enticing phrase "Free beer tomorrow" prominently displayed in large, bold lettering. What was the catch? Just a minor caveat detailed in the fine print towards the bottom: "Tomorrow never comes." Now, this is, of course, no starting point for developing a robust philosophy of time, but it still resonates with me regarding the subtle deceptiveness of supposed future expectations and fulfillments. This last statement needs qualification; it should not be taken as though the future holds nothing for which we might long, and this is especially the case for the believer in Christ. For, the imminent, but (from our perspective) still future prospect of His glorious return provides the Christian with an unparalleled sense of hope at the thought of being united with Him in an even fuller sense than we now know, that of seeing Jesus "just as He is" (1 John 3:2). We have great and enduring hope in Him who we will soon see "face to face" with utter lucidity, and not as in a "dim mirror" (1 Corinthians 13:12). And, assuredly, "this hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us" (Hebrews 6:19-20a).
But this is in no way what I have in mind by invoking "supposed future expectations and fulfillments." The assuredness of Christ's future return and our being gathered together with Him (in perfect fulfillment of His High Priestly prayer [see John 17, especially verse 21]) are not merely "supposed," they are grounded in Christ's eternal faithfulness, which He can never deny as it would be a denial of His eternal Self (2 Timothy 2:13). The type of expectations to which I am referring are not so grounded, for they are ultimately based in a false sense of reality. That is, often we hold ourselves as principally sovereign individuals in control over our own "destiny." As such, we feel we have more or less a "right" of individual self-determination, including, say, putting off certain decisions under the pretense that we can in some way validly enact a guarantee of the future. If we were to carefully consider our own lives, I'm sure that we would discover that the tendency to delay some particular action - the attitude of "I'll get to it on the dawn of the evasive tomorrow" - hauntingly pervades much of what we fail to do. Fortunately, most of these instances we would find to be rather mundane and, taken individually and in isolation, to be of little or no consequence (except as it might pertain to our character). But, What is the consequence of applying this mindset toward weightier matters? What is the consequence of applying this mindset toward perhaps the weightiest matter that pertains to us as individuals - the response of a believing heart that falls into the hands of the living God?
This mindset that I speak of is at the root of those that harden their hearts against God and do not hear the Holy Spirit's invitation to hear God's voice today. This mindset evidences an attitude of unbelief and disobedience (see Hebrews 3:7-19). This is the mindset which the epistle to the Hebrews urges its original readership, and urges us today, not to participate in. Why is it so dangerous? Primarily, because it deafens us to hearing and accepting the purposes for which God has created us; it numbs us to the ability to, by God's grace, be a part of Christ's "house' (3:6). One striking feature of this particular verse is the content of its conditional nature. We ought to note carefully that it reads, "if you hear," and not "if He speaks." The implication, which accords with the reality, is that, God the Holy Spirit has already spoken and continues to speak today. We are strangely quick to admit that we would believe or obey God if He were to speak, but we do this to the betrayal of our consciences. Furthermore, we do this to the explicit denial of God and His Self-revelation. This is why failure to "hear" in Hebrews 3 is equated to a hardening of the heart. Here it is important to recall that the primary audience are already believers in Christ. Therefore, it is not due to an inability to hear that the heart is hardened, it is rather a direct refusal that makes the whole of our being callous to the voice of God. Still, He speaks, He reveals, He beckons, He draws; and all while it is still called "Today" (3:13).
Somewhat recently, I heard a sermon from Pastor Alistair Begg who mentioned the following rather astute observation:

"The devil's favorite word is 'tomorrow'; the Bible's exhortation is always 'today'" (Begg 2010)

Additionally, C. S. Lewis expands on this notion (though in a completely different manner) by communicating the idea of the devil's desire that we should idolize the future so that we may forget the present:

To be sure, the Enemy[1] wants men to think of the Future too - just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow's work is today's duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is not straw splitting. He [that is, Christ] does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of his posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future - haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth - ready to break the Enemy's commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other - dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present. (Lewis 1943:78-79)

Thus, we must remember that we have an adversary that is all too willing (and wanting and waiting) to perpetuate our propensity to wait. The devil wishes us to be so enraptured by the future because, if we are, it will draw us away from that which God has presently given to us, including the words that He speaks. The devil wants us to begrudge the elusive nature of "today" (for it will not always be called such) so that we become fixated upon a future that overlooks what God has given to experience and obey now. But, God is stronger, and it is of great encouragement to remember that "greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4). Despite this elusive nature of "today," which will soon become yesterday, it is (at present) the very temporal vehicle through which we experience God's presence and promises, and through which we respond in obedience by grace through faith. When it comes to calling of God in our lives that we, by His strength, remain faithful to the end, the stakes are too high to give in to the weak tempter whom Christ has already definitively defeated and made an open spectacle through His victorious cross. We have no overbearing burden to seek and grope after God in the dark; He has shined His glorious light and illuminated our hearts (John 1:4-5). He has revealed Himself, and He has indeed spoken. Even the temporal reality itself that presently bears upon us all urges us to respond to the loving God who is there and is not silent. Today, we must make a decision; then, we will rest in the faithfulness of God, who has and does keep us, in the eternal day without evening which is to come.

[1] For those who have not read Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, it is crucial to note here that he is writing from the perspective of a demon/devil named Screwtape training his nephew, Wormwood. In this unique context, then, "the Enemy" refers to Christ (as the enemy from Satan's perspective).

Begg, Alistair. (2010). Who Do You Say that I Am?, Part A. (ID# 0117). Aired on July 20, 2010.

Lewis, C. S. (1943). The Screwtape Letters. New York: NY, The MacMillan Company.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

quote of the week, september 19-25, 2010

[T]he God we must see is not the utilitarian God who is having such a run of popularity today, whose chief claim to men's attention is His ability to bring them success in their various undertakings and who for that reason is being cajoled and flattered by everyone who wants a favor. The God we must learn to know is the Majesty in the heavens, God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, the only wise God our Saviour. He it is that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, who stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in, who bringeth our His starry host by number and calleth them all by name through the greatness of His power, who seeth the works of man as vanity, who putteth no confidence in princes and asks no counsel of kings.
Knowledge of such a Being cannot be gained by study alone. It comes by a wisdom the natural man knows nothing of, neither can know, because it is spiritually discerned. To know God is at once the easiest and the most difficult thing in the world. It is easy because the knowledge is not won by hard mental toil, but is something freely given. As sunlight falls free on the open field, so the knowledge of the holy God is a free gift to men who are open to receive it. But this knowledge is difficult because there are conditions to be met and the obstinate nature of fallen man does not take kindly to them. (Tozer 1978:114-115)

Tozer, A. W. (1978). The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in the Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins. (Original work published 1961)

Friday, September 17, 2010

firm until the end

"But Christ as a Son over His house; whose house we are, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." (Hebrews 3:6)

I have noticed that, among the (small subset of) Christians that I have either talked with or read their works or listened to their letures or sermons, discussion about the place of obedience and steadfastness in relation to the Christian life is often reduced to and exclusively treated in regards the relationship between obedience and (initial) salvation. Put another way, when we hear terms such as 'obedience' and 'faithfulness' it is all too easy to synonymize this with "works" and, thus, especially in Protestant discourses, focus exclusively on the role or non-role of works in (initial) salvation. This is, indeed, quite warranted, given the various extremes that have been expressed and held in the history of the Church. Yet, if we (purposefully or otherwise) hold to such an exclusive treatment of this element in relation to Christian life as only pertinent to entry into life in Christ (even in light of the importance of such discussions), we potentially lose sight of its continual significance after the event we (that is, some of us) refer to as "salvation." This often creates a bit of a confusion among many (at times, myself included) Christians when we encounter exhortations towards obedience, faithfulness, steadfastness, perseverance, and the like, which abound in the New Testament. To give a concrete example, Jesus tells His disciples during the "upper room discourse," "If you love Me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15, emphasis added). Soon after, He reiterates this principle by emphasizes not only "having" His commandments, but "keeping" them, and this is evidence of our love towards Him (see 14:21, 23-24; 15:10). But, so many times we are at a loss with regards to how these apply for the Christian who believes in Christ, since we relegate things like "obedience" and "steadfastness" and "faithfulness" to the category of "works" that is not necessary for "salvation." This can result in an extreme position of rejecting these mindsets in our lives, since we fear that we might espouse a "works-based salvation" (again, referring mainly to initial salvation with disregard to its processual characteristics [see, for example, Philippians 2:12; 1 Timothy 4:16; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 1:5, 9; 2:22]). Thus, without an understanding of obedience in love (see John 14:15), many of us are or have been in the position of those in the 1st century church in Rome, to whom Paul was obliged to pen the now infamous rhetorical question, "Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" (Romans 6:1). We are (often), therefore, utterly ignorant of how to apply the biblical concept of obedience in the Christian life, which, by God's grace, we enter in through Christ ("by grace through faith," see Ephesians 2:8).
With this in mind, I would like to pause briefly on the conditional clause "if we hold fast" in Hebrews 3:6. For, similar to prior exhortations aimed at encouraging obedience and perserverance (see 2:1; 3:1), it sets a trend for a series of content similar exhortations to "believe" and "obey" (or "not disbelieve/not disobey") in the third chapter and beyond. Hebrews specifically, and the New Testament generally, are rife with such exhortations, which out to impel us to seek God for an understanding of how this ought to operate in regards to the life He has given us in Christ, which we now presently experience. The conditional element "if we hold fast" relates back to the expression that we who believe in Jesus are part of His/God's "house." Therefore, we can perhaps maintain that this type of steadfastness and, in a sense obedience by faith (which becomes clear as we read on in Hebrews), is extremely important if not to some degree necessary for being counted among those who comprise Christ's house. This imagery is explained in greater detail by Peter in his first epistle:

And coming to Him as a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: 'Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.' This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, 'The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone,' and, 'a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense;' for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:4-9, emphasis added)

This passage serves as the substance by which Peter urges his readership towards faithfulness and obedience (see, for example, the rest of chapter 2), although their relationship with Christ (being in Him) is not predicated on such. Note the similarity in language between Peter's epistle and the epistle to the Hebrews: just as we are the "house" of Christ "if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end," as in Hebrews, so we are "built up as a spiritual house" with Christ as the chief cornerstone so that we might "offer up spiritual sacrifices" and "proclaim the excellencies" of God. In short, both of these passages resonate with the importance of, to use Jesus' language in the book of John, "keeping" His "words" and "commands" if indeed we love Him. Does this in any way mean that our initial salvation, our entrance into Christ and His body, depends upon obedience and faithfulness, which is perhaps to say, "works"? I maintain that biblical Christianity will clearly and definitively dictate that the answer to this is "no." For, as Paul writes, we are not justified by works of the Law (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16). Or, to use the quintessential Pauline example, we agree that Abraham was justified by faith since he believed God (see Romans 4).
But this begrudgingly brings us back to our original predicament: What is the role of obedience in the life of a Christian if it is not necessary for (initial) salvation? If we do not understand the answer to this question as properly as is possible for us, we will not understand the exhortations in Hebrews (and elsewhere in the NT) which are directed toward believers in Christ to persevere and obey. Not without irony, I believe the resolution to our conflict is found in a somewhat paradoxical passage in James that appears to be in direct opposition to Pauline soteriology. Speaking of the relationship between faith and works, James writes that "faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself" (James 2:17). And he pushes the relationship further still, declaring that "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24). If you didn't catch the supposed contradiction, reread that verse along with Romans 4, and then return to James' discussion of Abraham, of whom it is said that "as a result of [his] works, [his] faith was perfected" (2:22).
This last verse gives us a glimpse of hope in understanding this issue (to the degree that we can), maybe not by "resolving" it per se, but allowing for the mystery and admitting the mutual compatibility of these passages in a biblical framework. Justification is truly grounded in faith (and that in Christ), but the genuineness of our faith is manifest and, in some way as James indicates, "perfected" by works and obedience. Therefore, it is not surprising that, as we read Hebrews and consider its original audience who appear to be believers in need of encouragement and perseverance, we find multiple exhortations aimed at producing steadfastness and obedience that relates to our being part of Christ's "house." We, just as they, who are believers in Christ who are saved "by grace through faith," have continual need to press on "firm until the end;" we need to "take care" that we do not, by an unbelieving heart "fall away from the living God;" we need to not follow an example of "disobedience" (Hebrews 3:12, 14, 18-19; 4:11). And, lest we think that we have anything in and of ourselves about which to boast, we must always remember that, as did Abraham and all the great "cloud of witnesses" before us, we too should "work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us], both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Hebrews 12:1; Philippians 2:12-13). This second aspect, which itself has primacy, can never be forgotten when we consider the importance of the former part. Everything in our life as Christians - belief, initial salvation, love for God, sanctification, obedience, steadfastness, faithfulness, holiness, etc. - is recursively dependent and saturated with God's grace and mercy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

quote of the week, september 12-18, 2010

"We know not what we shall be"; but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like pencilled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun. (Lewis 2001:111)

Lewis, C. S. (2001). Transposition. In The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses, New York, NY: Harper One, 91-115. (Original work published 1949)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

to know & be known

About a year ago, when I first began this blog, I referenced a work by A. W. Tozer that was, and still is, quite influential in shaping my approach to theology (click here for the original post). Specifically, I brought up his notion that he develops in The Knowledge of the Holy that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. Here is part of his opening chapter where he immmediately discloses this concept:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.
The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man's spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God.
For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. This is true not only of the individual Christian, but of the company of Christians that composes the Church. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.
Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, "What comes into your mind when you think about God?" we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think about God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the Church will stand tomorrow.
Without doubt, the mightiest thought the mind can entertain is the thought of God, and the weightiest word in any language is its word for God. Thought and speech are God's gift to creatures made in His image; these are intimately associated with Him and impossible apart from Him. It is highly significant that the first word was the Word: "And the Word was with God, and the Word was God." We may speak because God spoke. In Him word and idea are indivisible.
That our idea of God correspond as nearly as possible to the true being of God is of immense importance to us. Compared with our actual thoughts about Him, our creedal statements are of little consequence. Our real idea of God may lie buried under the rubbish of conventional religious notions and may require an intelligent and vigorous search before it is finally unearthed and exposed for what it is. Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.
[...] The heaviest obligation lying upon the Christian Church today is to purify and elevate her concept of God until it is once more worthy of Him - and of her. (Tozer 1961:1-2, 4)

Now, since I have quoted Tozer at length, I am aware that I have introduced not only the principle argument, but several additional arguments and sub-arguments, as well. However, I wish here to focus exclusively on the main thought that is threaded throughout: the idea that what we think about God is the most important thing about us.
If we take this to be true then we must accept to some degree or other the striking burden this places on the individual person to formulate a proper conceptualization of God (in the sense of responding rightly to what God Himself has revealed). Before we react strongly against this, we must, in all fairness to Tozer, consider that he does not have in mind that such ability really originates with humankind, but instead originates with God who initiates His Self-revelation to those He created in His image. So, for example, Tozer would not support the claim that the perfect knowledge of God to which he exhorts us is in any way possible by intellectual pursuit. For Tozer, this type of knowledge is a divine grace made available to all who will grab hold of it through Christ Jesus, who, as part of the Trinity, perfectly reveals the Godhead. Nevertheless, we are still unable to avoid the somewhat anthropocentric nature of his claim, though we must temper any tendency to take this too far.
Recently I was forced to confront the validity of Tozer's assertion anew when, a few months ago, I read for the first time The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays and sermons by C. S. Lewis. In the very essay by the same title, Lewis adamantly rejects any formulation of "glory" that places undue burden on human thought (or belief, etc.). Instead, Lewis emphasizes glory that is "conferred" by God instead relates directly to how He thinks about us, not vice versa:

In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or the other [i.e., satisfaction/appreciation or disappointment], either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. (Lewis 2001 [1949]:38)

For Lewis, the most important thing about us is the reward we receive by God's "divine accolade, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant'" (2001 [1949]:36, emphasis original). This glory is not really from any property that is intrinsic to humanity, but instead is bestowed upon by God, to whom all glory is veritably and inevatibly due.
The question we are to ask ourselves now is, Are these views as mutually exclusive as they first appear, that is, are they really irreconcilable? Interestingly, although Lewis rejects a strong formulation of the view that overemphasizes what man thinks, he alludes to potential resolution in his statement, "how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us" (2001 [1949]:38, emphasis added). To this point I am immediately willing to concede and, again with respect to Tozer, the wealth of his writings seem to be in accordance with such an emphasis as well. The resolution seems to be that both views are reconcilable, and both are important, but God always has primacy. For example, even if we take Lewis as our starting point we must at some point recognize that God approves of those who think rightly about Him, that is, who have responded to God's Self-Revelation in a way that is in accordance with His nature and works itself out towards obedience in love. When we speak about the notion that what we think about God is the most important thing about us, we must always bear in mind that a true understanding of this is first and foremost in deference to the Sovereign God who desires to make Himself known and, consequently, is the fount of any true knowledge regarding Him. When we speak about the notion that what God thinks about us is the most important thing about us, we must always bear in mind that it pleases Him to think rightly about Him (which, perhaps, is why He goes to great pains to explicitly reveal Himself). These views are (at least to some degree) recursive in the manner in which one relates to the other.
Not surprisingly, the tension that the above points, when taken in conjunction, illustrate is manifest in the Holy Scriptures. For example, while entrance into God's eternal joy is indeed predicated upon the acclamations that God alone can confer (see Luke 19:17), and thus is the reward and glory of humanity, still, "without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6, emphasis added). This verse in particular (especially when considered in its immediate textual context) is striking because it places import on both points - thinking rightly about God (one must "believe" both "that He is" and "that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him") and the weight of glory ("that He is a rewarder"). Perhaps, then, these views are not so contradictory after all. Additional examples might include the well-known story of the good samaritan, whose actions revealed that his conceptualization of God rightly included (or, resulted in) love for all peoples, or the woman at the well whom Jesus encouraged to have a proper understanding of the God who seeks worshipers to worship Him in spirit and in truth and not in a particular location. We could, in fact, discuss many instances in Scripture or history where a false conceptualization of God (one that, for example, denies His eternality, holiness, mercy, justice/righteousness, omnipotence, omniscience, etc., or some combination of these) results in dire consequences internally (e.g., with regard to a person's spiritual state) and/or externally (e.g., with regard to the effect of such on others). Thus, the goal, in relation to this topic, is twofold: to know, and to be known. Both are by God's grace and His initiative, and for this reason we give glory to Him alone. And if we "have come to know God, or rather to be known by God" we ought to not "turn back again" to things contrary to His nature; instead, we are urged on towards obedience in love as we rightfully (for God deserves no less) "by the mercies of God, present our bodies a living and holy sacrifice" to Him (Galatians 4:9; Romans 12:1). As we respond to the knowledge of Himself that He reveals and provides (for we cannot know Him apart from His Self-revelation), we long to receive the divine accolade wherein we are found, by God's grace and strength, to have been faithful. And, far from relishing in a false sense of our blessed obedience that exalts us, our response will be like that of the twenty-four elders, and the company of all who worship in the heavenly liturgy:

And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of your will they existed, and were created." (Revelation 4:9-11)

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing." And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the sea and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, "To Him who sits on the throne, and unto the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever." And the four living creatures kept saying, "Amen." And the elders fell down and worshiped. (5:11-14)

Lewis, C. S. (2001). The weight of glory. In C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Essays. New York, NY: HarperOne. (Original work published 1949)
Tozer, A. W. (1963). The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God: Their Meaning in Christian Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

quote of the week, september 5-11, 2010

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of the birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches - how empty and devoid of comfort would life be! (Kierkegaard 2006:14)

Kierkegaard, S. (2006). Fear & Trembling. New York, NY: Penguin USA.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

of our confession

"Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession..." (Hebrews 3:1)

Before having first read (or just read) the above verse, How would you have filled in the blank for the following?:

Jesus is the Aposlte and High Priest of our __________ .

There are several quite reasonable (and perhaps many more quite unreasonable) responses, but again let me turn to the question, What would we answer? Consider a few options, such as:

1) Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest of our salvation
2) Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest of our lives
3) Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest of our faith
4) Jesus is the Apostle and High Priest of our God

Perhaps there is a good degree of truth in some or all of these options, but we must consider why these (or any others) are not chosen by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews. When I read the verse Hebrews 3:1, though this may be due to my more nondenominational, Evangelical background, the answer there provided is, to me, rather striking. In much of the Evangelical world the main emphasis is on initial conversion (though this is, of course, not the only truth proclaimed), and therefore, confession is frequently associated with this single event, often referred to as "salvation" (though, this indeed has processual and transformative elements and is not merely a distinct point in our own past). In all honesty, not having read this at some prior point, I doubt I would have answered the aforementioned question by placing "confession" in the blank. I would most likely be apt to answer (1) above, sort of in line with an important thought already expressed in Hebrews, namely, that Jesus is the "author" of our "salvation" (2:10). I have to admit that in certain ways this concept of "confession," of which Jesus Himself is "the Apostle and High Priest," is very foreign to my life in Christ (in the sense that it is typically not a primary emphasis for me), though in reality it ought to be central to it.
There are several meanings of "confession" that are both in use today and have more traditional, historical roots. For example, in the 4th century, Augustine inaugurated a sense of writing that is typified by a more personal journal/diary style (e.g., Augustine's Confessions). Prior to that, within the Church there were several applications of the term that were not unrelated to one another: confession of sin(s) in either a public or private manner (e.g., the Confiteor, or confessing our sins one to another [James 5:16], or confessing our sins to God [1 John 1:9], or what some consider the sacrament of penance, or confession and renouncing of sins at baptism, etc.), or confession as a statement and assertion/articulation of belief(s) (e.g., the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed) that was held individually and corporately, and often expressed publicly. These two aspects, confession of sins and profession of belief/faith, are quite related because any true confession of sins is always a confession of Christ, for in Him and through Him alone is there forgiveness and remission of sins. This is why in many Christian traditions, for example, one both renounces sin and confesses Christ at baptism.
Interestingly, confession in the Christian framework has an inherently personal dimension, and we can see this in the following four elements: 1) we often confess to one another or in the presence of one another as members of the Body of Christ, 2) we ultimately confess to the Person of God who hears us through Christ, 3) the nature of our confession places (in a sense) some burden on the one who confesses, and 4) the value of our confession relates to the One whom we confess. These last two points are especially relevant to the content of the one we are exhorted to "consider" in Hebrews 3:1. That is, again (as discussed beforehand in other posts) we should bear in mind as we read the entire epistle how many instances of encouragement and exhortation we come across, for it is evident that the author wishes that the reader remember the foundation that was laid upon the Person and work of Christ, and their belief in Him. So we read:

For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard (2:1)

[C]onsider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession (3:1)

Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God (3:12)

[L]et us be diligent to enter into that rest, so that no one will fall (4:11)

[L]et us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find help in time of need (4:16)

[L]eaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity (6:1)

[S]ince we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus [...] let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith (10:19, 22)

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering (10:23)

[D]o not throw away your confidence (10:35)

[Y]ou have need of endurance (10:36)

Though we could include a wealth of other exhortations in Hebrews, these help us to understand that the concern of the writer was to constantly remind these believers of the confession that they had made. Thus, it makes sense that here we find it said of Jesus that He is "the Apostle and High Priest of our confession," because this places to some degree the burden on those who have and do confess in order to remind them of the firm foundation and anchor that stabilizes their souls, Jesus Christ (3:1; 6:19; 10:39).
As alluded to above, the second point we might note about this verse, which itself actually has primacy, is that our confession is deeply rooted in the One whom we confess, who presides over it as "the Apostle and High Priest." When we consider confession in the sense of "confession of sin(s)," as Christians we cannot separate this action from the very Person from whom we expect forgiveness of sins (and our expectation is predicated upon and validated by His faithfulness; see 1 John 1:9). Jesus is the One who was sent by God (thus, Jesus is the Apostle) to mediate (as High Priest) between God and humankind so that He might voluntarily offer Himself for the life of the world as the propitiation for our sins. Moreover, when we consider confession in the sense of "profession of faith," neither can we truly separate this from the One in whom all faith is placed. This type of confession is not merely intellectual assent to a set of abstract principles, nor is it purely a past event. Confession can and does refer to a past event, but it is also an ongoing process; it is something we actively and continually participate in and engage. Our admission of "the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints," that is, our confession of that faith, is rooted deeply and intimately united to the very Person who Himself serves as the substance of that faith (Jude 1:3).
The value of our confession, therefore, is no greater than the value of the One confessed. And we know that Christ, who is Himself fully human and fully divine, is by virtue of His deity the highest being that exists. We rest in the derived value of our confession that is conferred by His intrinsic value, rooted in His eternal nature. When we, as Christians, maintain and declare that, among other things, we believe that "for our sake and for our salvation" Jesus "came down from heaven" to become incarnate, we profess His Apostleship. When we, as Christians, maintain that we believe that He was born, lived, died, crucified and was buried, but rose again and ascended into heaven, "for the remission of sins," we acknowledge His role as the Great and eternal High Priest, who, "[w]hen He had made purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). He is the Apostle because He was and is God's most perfect messenger, revealing the things that the Father spoke and taught with utmost fidelity (John 8:28, 38; 20:21). He is exalted as High Priest because, having been seated, His work of defeating death and sin is forever and definitively finished, forever and definitively established - it is indeed "once for all" (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18). With all this in mind, then, if we find ourselves in the circumstances like those to whom Hebrews was written, we, too, can be encouraged by the exhortation to "consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession."