One is not like the other …

The Septuagint (“LXX”) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, dating to sometime in the mid to early 2nd century B.C. It came about because many Jews living abroad, particularly in Egypt, had lost much of their ability to read and speak Hebrew. They need a translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) in their own language. The Mediterranean culture was heavily influenced by Hellenism at this time; a legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests. So, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek.

This Greek version of the Tanakh was the version Jesus and the apostles used. The majority (but not all) of their Old Testament citations are from the Septuagint. This means the Septuagint is important.

I’m preaching from Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1 next week, as our congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper. This passage contains the famous prophesy about the Israelites looking to Jesus, whom they pierced (Zech 12:10). This “piercing” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, and echoes an earlier prophet, Isaiah (“but He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities …” Isa 53:5).

But, there’s an interesting problem. The LXX is different from the Hebrew!

One of these is not like the other

Here is the difference between the two:

To be sure, there are a lot of similarities. Both have a transition statement (“and”) to let the reader know a new, related subject is coming. Both have Yahweh declaring that He’ll “pour out” onto David’s house and those who are living in Jerusalem a spirit characterized by grace and mercy. These are things that describe this spirit; it’s merciful and full of grace.

But, here is the difference. The Hebrew clearly has a reference to someone whom the Israelites pierced. They’ll look at Yahweh, who they pierced, and they’ll be ashamed. This isn’t in dispute. Look at some other English translations:

  • KJV: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced …”
  • RSV: “when they look on Him whom they have pierced …”
  • NASB: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NET: “they will look to me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NIV: “they will look on me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NKJV: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NLT: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”

What does the LXX say? It says this:

Then they’ll stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded, because they treated me with hate.

The “look upon” part is still there; I just translated it in a more colloquial fashion (“stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded”). It’s the second part that’s different. The LXX says the Israelites will be astonished because they treated Yahweh with so much hate. How did they do this? Well, presumably, they treated Him with hate (or, despitefully) by rejecting Him for so long … until they didn’t.

The rest of the verse clarifies:

And they’ll grieve for Him, crying as for a loved one. And they’ll be in terrible, painful anguish, like for a firstborn son.

Because they treated Yahweh with so much hate, they’ll grieve for Him. You could translate the pronoun as it, but only if you believe the antecedent is an impersonal object, like the hateful treatment. But, if that were the case, the rest of the verse wouldn’t make too much sense. How can you mourn and grieve for an impersonal object like you would for a loved one, or even a firstborn son? The New English Translation of the Septuagint agrees, and so did Brenton’s translation. The Lexham English Septuagint, however, goes with “it,” but this deliberately a very literal translation.

The best way to understand this is as a third-person, personal pronoun (Him). But, who? Yahweh is talking in the first-person about Himself, but then shifts to third-person and says the Israelites will mourn for Him. This person is Jesus, who the Jews will turn to in the last days when the Spirit is poured out upon them, to convert them to the New Covenant.

Why the change?

The Greek text was clearly changed. The translators messed with it. The Hebrew reads “pierced,” and the Jews who did the translation altered it on purpose. They changed it to read “because they treated me with hate.” Why did they do it?

Maybe because they didn’t like what it said. How can someone “pierce” God? How does that even work? So, they changed it.

But do we know they being malicious? Not really! Perhaps it was more convenient to take this “piercing” in a more figurative sense. You know that feeling you get when someone you care about betrays you in an awful fashion? Isn’t it like having a stake driven right through your heart? Perhaps God felt that way when the Israelites hated Him, so this “piercing” was more metaphorical and poetic. In a colloquial way, the Israelites “cut God really deep” with their actions. Maybe that’s how they justified the change.

“Here, now,” they might have thought, “this is getting to the idea of being treated with malice and hate, so let’s just spell it out plainly, and drop the ‘piercing’ imagery!”

In a parallel way, the NET did a similar thing when it rendered Deuteronomy 10:16. See a comparison:

  • NET: Therefore, cleanse your heart and stop being so stubborn!
  • ESV: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

The more literal rendering is to “circumcise” your heart. The NET decided that was too literal, and tried to get to the heart of the phrase by dropping the figurative imagery. That’s not necessarily a problem … unless you’re wrong about what that figurative imagery means!

In this case, assuming I’m right about why the LXX translators changed it, they were certainly wrong about what the imagery meant. It wasn’t imagery at all; Jesus literally was pierced (i.e. died). 

Am I right about the reason for the change? I’ve no idea. Nobody knows why it was changed, so I might as well speculate right along with the commentators. Their guess is as good as mine. When a good textual critical commentary on the LXX of Zechariah comes out, then maybe we’ll have a more informed opinion! After all, there is no monolithic “one Septuagint.” There are many versions of the Septuagint floating around!

Bottom line

The LXX is neat. The LXX is helpful. The LXX is necessary. If you’re a pastor, and you took two years of Greek, you can muddle your way through the LXX. If you took more than the two years of Greek, you can stumble your way through it, like I do.

The LXX of Zechariah 12:10 is different, but it still conveys the same essential meaning. There are two people in the verse; Yahweh and the Person the Israelites will mourn for when they come to faith. This verse is a small snapshot of our triune God.

Holy, Holy, Holy (Revelation 4)

This is a series of short articles on Revelation 4-21. 

This vision takes place directly after the well-known messages to the seven congregations (Rev 1-3). John sees a door open in heaven above; sort of like an open invitation (Rev 4:1), and it’s Jesus who invites him up to see something very special. We know Jesus is speaking to John, because John says “the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said …” (Rev 4:1). At the beginning of this book, this figure with the trumpet-like voice is Jesus, the Son of Man, glowing with an ethereal holiness (see also Ezek 1:26-28), who John falls down to worship (Rev 1:10-20).

Jesus beckons John to come see “what must take place after this,” (Rev 4:1). John has shown us the glorified and risen Messiah, and the state of seven contemporary churches. Now, he tells us about the future.

John feels himself being taken by the Spirit up to heaven, through this open door, to see the mysteries up above (Rev 4:2; compare Ezek 8:1-4). This is an ecstatic trance; John did not literally fly to heaven. Some dispensationalist commentators claim the “rapture” of the church occurs here, but the text suggests no such thing. Only someone with an agenda could make a dogmatic claim, here. 

Someone is on a throne in heaven (Rev 4:2). He sparkles and shines like a precious jewel, and his throne is encompassed with an emerald rainbow (Rev 4:3). This is very similar to what Ezekiel saw, in his own vision of God (Ezek 1:26-28). Surrounding this large throne are 24 smaller ones, perhaps in a circle. Upon each throne sits an “elder,” clad in white, with a golden crown (Rev 4:4).

Rumbling thunder and flashes of lightening come from the central throne, which suggests God produces this awesome sight (compare Ex 19:16-18). His throne is ringed with seven flaming torches. John says these torches are “the seven spirits of God,” but doesn’t explain (Rev 4:5). Before the throne, extending outward for an unknown span, is a clear, smooth surface likened to crystal (Rev 4:6). This naturally gives an impression of purity and “otherness;” any other meaning is (at best) a wild guess.

The lighting, the flaming torches, the emerald rainbow and the sparkling, jeweled appearance of Yahweh would all reflect and rebound off this crystal sea, adding to the otherworldly effect. This scene is where the hymn writer Reginald Heber found inspiration for his famous song, Holy, Holy, Holy! (“Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore Thee; casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea …”).

The number “seven” is notoriously common in the Bible, and many commentators rush to assign profound meaning when this number appears, especially in prophet literature. For example, Zechariah mentions a mysterious stone with seven eyes or facets, upon which He engraved a cryptic inscription for Joshua the high priest, who prefigured his namesake, the Son of God incarnate (Zech 3:9). In this case, John doesn’t tell what these “seven spirits” are. A good guess would be that the “seven spirits” are representations of the Holy Spirit (compare Zech 4, but that is a notoriously difficult passage). 

Four mysterious creatures are stationed around the central throne (Rev 4:6-8), and form the nearest of the two concentric circles of the heavenly host who praise Yahweh night and day. Their appearance (and their speech) are similar to those Isaiah described in His temple vision, as he was commissioned to preach (Isa 6:1-3). They’re also very similar to the strange angelic beings Ezekiel saw in his own visions, although Ezekiel had much more detail.

Too many commentators and too many Christians spend too much time wondering about the strange appearance of these creatures. John and Ezekiel don’t explain the significance of their features, so it’s pointless to guess. We do know they’re divine, angelic beings. That should be enough. It isn’t John or Ezekiel’s point to focus on them; John wants us to focus on who they’re giving worship to. He tells us these angelic hosts sing praises to God on His throne. “[D]ay and night they never cease to say” that Yahweh is holy (Rev 4:8). They also confess that Yahweh is eternal; He has always been, is, and will always be in existence (Rev 4:8). As John goes on to note, God “lives forever and ever,” (Rev 4:9).

As the angelic beings make this confession around the circumference of the throne, the 24 elders do likewise from their own thrones, which are arranged in the second concentric ring, further back. They fall down from their own thrones, remove their golden crowns, and bow before Yahweh in worship. They confess He is worthy “to receive glory, honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” (Rev 4:11).

Who are these elders? John doesn’t say, but they are seated on thrones around Yahweh’s throne, and give Him worship forever and ever. They are likely angelic beings, like the stranger ones Ezekiel also saw. Some commentators believe these elders are members of the Church, or Israelites. The text says nothing like this, and doesn’t even suggest. If we want to indulge in idle speculation, we may also suppose Marvin the Martian is present, too! No; these elders are angelic beings who, along with their winged brethren, exist to give glory to God.

What does it mean?

Why does John show us this vision? What does it mean?

Well, it shows us that God is holy. The winged beings praise God for who He is; they praise Him because He’s eternal and because He’s holy. He’s pure, perfect, righteous, just and noble. He is perfection, and epitomizes justice and righteousness – because He defines and gives these attributes shape and form.

The description of God in heaven is deliberately otherworldly; completely at odds with the pagan counterfeits of the time. The one true God is not a “god” of wood, or stone, or marble. He is not a venerated fertility goddess, or a Roman emperor of flesh and blood. He is unique and, as Dr. Henry Jones’ friend Sallah tells us, He “is not of this earth.”

Likewise, the elders confess God is worthy to receive glory, honor and power. What are these things? We’re used to seeing them in this context, but what do they mean? In a way, they’re near synonyms for one another. God is worthy to receive all the acclaim in the world because of who He is and what He’s done. The elders explain; “for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” (Rev 4:11). The only reason you exist is because God made you; your parents were only the intermediaries! This world, this galaxy, the solar system – the whole host of heavens and earth are God’s handiwork.

If that’s the case (and it is!), then the visions that follow are a comfort for John’s audience. The God who made the sun, the moon and the stars can handle the Roman Empire, just like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and the Seleucids before it. From our perspective in 2018, He certainly kept His promise, and He’ll continue to keep it! Jesus is the Savior who has already overcome the world (Jn 16:33).

And, we shouldn’t forget the implications for this scene (and the ones which follow) in light of the terrible judgments which are about to be unleashed on a evil, wicked and rebellious world. God is just. God is holy. The angelic host say so! This means God is justified when He brings divine judgment upon a world that hates and rejects His Son’s Good News. He loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, so that the one who believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). But, for the one who rejects this offer, the wrath of God abides on Him (Jn 3:36).

The angelic host also remind us that worship is not merely a cerebral, academic exercise. The strange creatures sing continuously, and the 24 elders prostrate themselves and cast their crowns on the ground in a show of honest humility. God makes us all different, and different people show their emotions indifferent ways. I’m a cerebral guy, and show little outward emotion. When I preach, you can tell I’m excited if I begin pacing a foot or two from the pulpit! The point is that we’re different, and it certainly isn’t a sin to worship the Lord in a way that expresses outward joy and exuberance, provided it’s reverent.

Of course, this brief glimpse of heaven is just the opening act. John continues his adventures in the next chapters, and we’ll follow right along with him … next time!

God and the Naughty Assyrians

maze_choicesIn his book entitled Chosen by God, R.C. Sproul spent a lot of time explaining why human freedom and God’s freedom are both true, and yet aren’t paradoxical. He wrote “God is free. I am free. God is more free than I am. If my freedom runs up against God’s freedom, I lose. His freedom restricts mine; my freedom does not restrict his.”1

This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which is really part of the doctrine of providence. I discussed this briefly in an article entitled, “A Guy Named Sihon.” The Scriptures show us people do what they want, but God works in and through our own innate, sinful desires to infallibly accomplish His will. Many times, we aren’t even aware God is using us!

He even uses unbelievers for His own ends, and they’re blissfully ignorant. People sin. People do wicked things. God doesn’t merely permit this activity; He directs and channels it. I don’t intend to present a philosophical case for this position. But, I will discuss a passage that shows us this clearly and unmistakably.

Israel and the Assyrians

God send Isaiah to the Israelites, even though they wouldn’t listen. God intended Him to be a prophet whose message hardened and repelled the people (Isa 6); just like Jesus (Mk 4:10-12; Jn 12:39-41). And, that’s what happened.

King Ahaz ignored Isaiah, who told him the Assyrians would destroy the Syrians and the northern kingdom of Israel (Isa 8:5-10). God warned Isaiah that He, their covenant God, would be a “stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” to the Israelites (Isa 8:14). Nevertheless, one day Yahweh would raise up a mighty ruler, descended from David, who would rule over the whole world (Isa 9:1-7).

However, as is his way, Isaiah turned the tables suddenly from this cheery future and unleased on his people. Soon, he warned, God would destroy the unbelievers among the Israelites; “for everyone is godless and an evildoer, and every mouth speaks folly,” (Isa 9:17). And still, they won’t repent! With every rebuke, they dig their heads further into the sand. “For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still,” (Isa 9:17).

But, what of the Assyrians? What does this have to do the concept of compatibilism? Everything. Listen to what God says:

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury! (Isa 10:5).

The Assyrians are the instrument God intends to use to punish His people. Their staff executes His will and dispenses His fury. They act, but God is really the actor. They’re merely an intermediary to execute His will.

But, if that’s true, then why does God have Isaiah pronounce a woe upon them? Is it their fault? Why is it their fault? Are the Assyrians helpless puppets; pawns bent to do Yahweh’s will against their own better judgment?

Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets (Isa 10:6).

To God, the northern kingdom is “godless.” That’s rather harsh! They’re the people of His wrath, and God commands the Assyrians to “take spoil and seize plunder.” He wants them to trample the Israelites into the mud, like so much gutter trash.

You could get the idea the Assyrians are helpless to resist God’s command. Like soldiers following orders, how can they refuse Yahweh? Does God assign culpability and intent to the Assyrian’s actions? Does He absolve them of moral responsibility for the actions they’re undertaking at His command? This is the question, and the answer is profound. See what God says …

But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few (Isa 10:7).

God commands, but the Assyrians are clueless. They don’t know God, and they don’t know what He wants them to do. What they do know is their own innate desire to destroy and conquer other nations. The Assyrians want to do this, and God is simply channeling and using their own sins to accomplish His holy will. The Assyrians don’t intend to do God’s will, and in their hearts they don’t think they are. But … they are! This is compatibilism.

for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?” (Isa 10:8-11).

This is pride and arrogance. The Assyrians believe in their commanders, and they’re confident because of past military victories. What is Jerusalem? What is Samaria? They’re nothing. They’re nobodies. They’re pushovers. Again, they don’t know they’re being used. They do what they want. But, God does what He wants, too.

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes (Isa 10:12).

God does assign moral responsibility to human actors – even when He’s channeling, directing and using that evil for His own holy purpose. What have the Assyrians done? Why are they arrogant? Isaiah tells us:

For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped,” (Isa 10:13-14).

They attribute their success to their own strength and cunning. Here is the philosophical paradox that confounds so many of us – people freely act, God directs and channels these wicked actions for His own ends, and still holds people responsible for those actions. It’s difficult to grasp. But, there it is.

Isaiah concludes:

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! (Isa 10:15).

We’re the creations. God is the Creator. We can’t ever forget that relationship. The Assyrians did. Some Christians do, too.

Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down (Isa 10:16-19).

And, that’s the eventual end of the Assyrians. God won’t totally destroy them, but He will end their empire. He’ll use the Babylonians to do it. But, in the end, the Babylonians’ turn will come, too. “Behold, I am stirring up the Medes against them …” (Isa 13:17).

This doesn’t solve the paradox of human freedom and divine sovereignty, of course. But, it does further explain it. Berkhof wrote, “The divine concursus energizes man and determines him efficaciously to the specific act, but it is man who gives the act its formal quality, and who is therefore responsible for its sinful character. Neither one of these solutions can be said to give entire satisfaction, so that the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery.”2

True, but we must not play the “mystery card” too soon, like some Christians do. We all do what we want. But, God works in and through our own sinful acts to accomplish what He wants. We’re often not aware of it. Judas certainly wasn’t. Neither were the Assyrians.

I’m glad we serve the one true God, who is in total control of this world, and our lives.

Notes

1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1986), 43.

2 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 175.

 

Augustus Strong on the Existence of God

strongAugustus Strong has a good discussion on the existence of God. The last edition of his systematic theology text came out in 1917, so you’d think his material is a bit dated.

Kind of.

Strong doesn’t pin his discussion on the doctrine of Scripture, which may be a problem for some Christians. In other words, he doesn’t say (1) the Bible says God exists, (2) therefore God exists, and (3) we know this is true because the Bible says so.

To be sure, presuppositional, Reformed apologists argue convincingly and well that this isn’t necessarily a circular argument. After all, one has to start somewhere. You can read John Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God for more on this. But, Strong doesn’t start there. He says everyone intuitively knows God exists, there are various “proofs” one can examine which, compounded together, form a cumulative case for God’s existence, and the Scriptures tell us who this God actually is:

It is to be remembered, however, that the loss of love to God has greatly obscured even this rational intuition, so that the revelation of nature and the Scriptures is needed to awaken, confirm and enlarge it, and the special work of the Spirit of Christ to make it the knowledge of friendship and communion (pg. 67).

This makes good sense. Here, I’ll briefly explain Strong’s case.

First truths

We all know God exists:

Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning. Chronologically, only reflection upon the phenomena of nature and of mind occasions its rise in consciousness (pg. 52).

God’s existence is the foundation of  all true knowledge; “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Prov 1:7). This means that, in order to really understand the creation He created and the laws that govern its existence, we need to acknowledge who made it.

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
    and the clouds drop down the dew (Prov 3:19-20).

He’s the reason we see a world that’s designed, why we’re hard-wired with an innate sense of morality, justice and fairness. There’s no foundation for logic and reasoning unless we presuppose a Creator who defines and shapes the very ideas of “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong;” who defines “logical” and “illogical.”

But, are people usually introspective enough to think about this? No, they aren’t. That’s why Strong said this idea only rises in the conscience upon reflection. But, make no mistake, the very idea of “God” is a necessary “first truth;” something humans intuitively assume in order to make sense of the world. Strong explains:

A first truth is a knowledge which, though developed upon occasion of observation and reflection, is not derived from observation and reflection,—a knowledge on the contrary which has such logical priority that it must be assumed or supposed, in order to make any observation or reflection possible (pg. 54).

Something qualifies as a “first truth,” Strong says, if it’s (1) universally believed, (2) logically necessary for practical, everyday life and (3) presupposed by the mind. This sounds a bit heavy, but it’s actually pretty simple. If, on a practical basis, everyone assumes something is true in their day to day actions, and such an assumption is logically necessary for normal life, then it’s a “first truth.”

Now, someone might not be consciously aware of her presuppositions, but that’s irrelevant. A baby isn’t consciously aware of the maxim “oxygen is necessary for life,” but it surely depends on it and tries to get it!

Why God’s existence is a first truth

God is real, and cultures throughout history worship a deity of some sort. People know they’re dependent on a Being higher than themselves. Fact.

Even the fetich-worshiper, who calls the stone or the tree a god, shows that he has already the idea of a God. We must not measure the ideas of the heathen by their capacity for expression, any more than we should judge the child’s belief in the existence of his father by his success in drawing the father’s picture (pg. 56).

Even if people claim they don’t have or worship a “higher power,” the way they live their lives shows this isn’t correct.

This agreement among individuals and nations so widely separated in time and place can be most satisfactorily explained by supposing that it has its ground, not in accidental circumstances, but in the nature of man as man (pg. 57).

So far, so good. But why are people’s ideas about God so different?

The diverse and imperfectly developed ideas of the supreme Being which prevail among men are best accounted for as misinterpretations and perversions of an intuitive conviction common to all (pg. 57).

In troubled times, people instinctively reach for something high than themselves. That is, we’re hard-wired to worship God:

In times of sudden shock and danger, this rational intuition becomes a presentative intuition,—men become more conscious of God’s existence than of the existence of their fellow-men and they instinctively cry to God for help (pg. 58).

Have you ever considered why some people are driven to hate God so much? Why are entire organizations consumed with a pathological hatred of Christianity, Jesus and the God of Scripture (e.g. the Freedom from Religion Foundation)? I heard one apologist observe, “I don’t believe in unicorns. But, I’m not driven to write a book entitled, The Unicorn Delusion!” This is a reference to the atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion.

Why, indeed! In fact, Strong argues, we implicitly acknowledge God exists in everything we do:

The validity of the simplest mental acts, such as sense-perception, self-consciousness, and memory, depends upon the assumption that a God exists who has so constituted our minds that they give us knowledge of things as they are (pg. 59).

This is an early version of the transcendental argument for the existence of God, an approach often employed by Reformed apologists. The late Greg Bahnsen wrote:

The best, the only, the absolutely certain proof of the truth of Christianity is that unless its truth be presupposed there is no proof of anything (Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith [KL 1021-1022]).

This means that, if the unbeliever wants to be consistent and defend and establish what grounds he has for believing and understanding anything, without borrowing from the Christian worldview, he couldn’t do it.

The fool must be answered by showing him his foolishness and the necessity of Christianity as the precondition of intelligibility (Bahnsen, Always Ready, KL 1025 – 1026).

Why do you think it’s wrong to beat up old ladies? Why is it wrong to cheat on your husband? To kidnap little children? Are these social constructions that just so happen to be universal in every culture and society? Or, is there something deeper, here? If you don’t have God and His word, what is your logical foundation and basis for understanding anything?

[W]e can believe in the universal authority of right, only by assuming that there exists a God of righteousness who reveals his will both in the individual conscience and in the moral universe at large (pg. 61).

That’s what modern presuppositionalist apologetics presses home, and it’s what Strong was getting at here, too. It’s why he wrote this:

The more complex processes of the mind, such as induction and deduction, can be relied on only by presupposing a thinking Deity who has made the various parts of the universe and the various aspects of truth to correspond to each other and to the investigating faculties of man (pg. 60).

The very idea of “logic” presupposes order, rationality, and a unifying Being who gives shape and structure to these concepts. Where do “laws of logic” come from? Why can I read a theological text written by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and it “makes sense” to me – even though he lived about 900 years ago, in a different culture, with a different language?

In assuming that there is a universe, that the universe is a rational whole, a system of thought-relations, we assume the existence of an absolute Thinker, of whose thought the universe is an expression (pg. 60).

Proof?

Strong doesn’t believe you can “prove” God exists, in an absolute sense.

We cannot prove that God is; but we can show that, in order to the existence of any knowledge, thought, reason, conscience, in man, man must assume that God is (61).

Instead, God is a revealed reality. All the “arguments” and “proofs” in the world won’t get you anywhere; a cold intellectualism is not saving faith:

The arguments for the divine existence, valuable as they are for purposes to be shown hereafter, are not sufficient by themselves to warrant our conviction that there exists an infinite and absolute Being. It will appear upon examination that the a priori argument is capable of proving only an abstract and ideal proposition, but can never conduct us to the existence of a real Being (pg. 66).

Strong continues:

Knowledge of a person is turned into personal knowledge by actual communication or revelation. First, comes the intuitive knowledge of God possessed by all men—the assumption that there exists a Reason, Power, Perfection, Personality, that makes correct thinking and acting possible. Secondly, comes the knowledge of God’s being and attributes which nature and Scripture furnish. Thirdly, comes the personal and presentative knowledge derived from actual reconciliation and intercourse with God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit (pg. 68).

Indeed, the Bible never attempts to “prove” God’s existence at all; the authors presupposed Him and wrote according to that worldview. “The preacher may confidently follow the example of Scripture by assuming it. But he must also explicitly declare it, as the Scripture does,” (pg. 68).

Finis

With that, Strong finishes his discussion. He moves immediately to a discussion of four classical “proofs” of God’s existence, and stresses these arguments form a cumulative case that should direct the thinking man to Christ and the Scriptures.

Is Strong’s section on “the existence of God” worth reading, today? Not really, but that’s not Strong’s fault. The world has moved on, and our Western context is quite different today. The arguments have had to become more rigorous, as the attacks have become sharper.

His discussion about why God’s existence is a first truth is particularly weak. But, Strong lived in a different time. Theological revisionism was largely happening in the seminaries and, to some extent, in the pulpits. It hadn’t happened in the pews to great extent, yet.  Strong assumes a theistic worldview in his comments, and today’s future pastors need something more rigorous. They need a defense against the “new atheist” tactics. Again, this isn’t Strong’s fault – it’s just a different time, now.

The issue of “does God really exist” is really more about epistemology and worldview, than anything else. If this is something you want to read more about, you should start with these three books:

  • Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Doug Groothuis. This is the best most comprehensive one-volume book on apologetics a thinking Christian can get. It’ll make you more grounded in your faith at an intellectual level.
  • Always Ready by Greg Bahnsen. A classic and essential book on apologetics by a renowned Reformed scholar.
  • The Ultimate Proof for Creation by Jason Lisle. A wonderful, deep book on apologetics from a presuppositional perspective. Perhaps a bit more accessible than Bahnsen.

Strong’s discussion on God’s existence was good in 1917. It’s not bad today, but there’s better discussions out there.

Baptismal Chaos!

Many Christians (and some Baptists) don’t realize that Baptists have a completely different view on baptism than most other Christians. What are the differences? I’ll tell you. We believe baptism is only for believers. This means we don’t baptize babies or other children who are too young to understand and obey the command to repent and believe the Gospel. We believe baptism is by immersion, because, well … that’s what the word “baptize” means! The Scripture also shows us Jesus coming up out of the Jordan River (Mk 1:10), which means He originally went out into the river, which wouldn’t be necessary if he was sprinkled. The early churches understood baptism was by immersion, because they wrote and told us so, and that’s why ancient churches have been found with baptisteries! There are other reasons, too. We also don’t believe baptism does anything to the person. Instead, we believe Scripture teaches baptism is an outward picture of a spiritual reality that’s already happened. You don’t become a Christian by being baptized. You’re baptized to show that you already are a Christian. I say all that (and, to be sure, there’s a lot more to be said!) so you have a context to understand why I’m going to criticize this (below). It’s a short excerpt from the Book of Common Prayer, which is a product of the English Reformation, in the mid-16th century. The first edition was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, a faithful believer and Archbishop of Canterbury who was later killed for his faith. The Church of England has largely folded like a paper doll on the moral and ethical issues of the day, at least at the higher bureaucratic levels. Its cousin in the USA, the Episcopal Church, is not really a Christian organization any longer (there are local exceptions). But, the official doctrine of the Church of England is thoroughly conservative. Though some quarters of the Church of England has largely given up following or caring about its doctrine, on paper, at least, they have a conservative, Bible-believing theology. The 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer says the following about baptism. There are a few things that are so good here. But, there’s also a lot that’s so bad. See what you can spot:
Dear Lord, forasmuch as all men are conceived and borne in sin
Too true. Good.
and that no man borne in sin can enter into the kingdom of God (except he be regenerate, and born again of water and the holy ghost),
Why is this mentioned in the context of baptism? Well, because of John 3:5, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, ““Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” (Jn 3:5). As early as the mid-2nd century, Christians began misinterpreting this verse to be referring to a synergy of baptism + Holy Spirit. No. Both references (water + Spirit) are referring to the Holy Spirit. See, for example, the numerous passages about the New Covenant that refer to the Spirit as a water that cleanses the recipients from sin and unrighteousness (Ezek 36:24-29). Mark tells us that John the Baptist understood these references to be a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would cleanse Israelites from all their sins (Mk 1:4, 8). The Apostle Paul adopted these water metaphors, and spoke about how Christians are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,” (Titus 3:5-6). Again, note the water metaphor.  But, you see, many Christian denominations still believe baptism “does something” to the recipient. This is what the Book of Common Prayer assumes. This is terribly wrong. Wrong every which way you slice it. It’s what the Church of England still teaches. Consider what their doctrine says about baptism:
BAPTISM is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Nope. But, we return to the excerpt we were discussing previously:
I beseech you to call upon God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bountiful mercy he will grant to the children that thing, which by nature they cannot have, that is to say, they may be baptized with the Holy Ghost and received into Christ’s holy Church, and be made lively members of the same.

These are instructions for the priest to utter during the baptismal ceremony for babies being brought for baptism. The priest is supposed to call upon those present to ask God to grant forgiveness of sins and spiritual life to the baby as she is baptized.

No. No. No. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who aren’t Baptists. They’re just so terribly wrong about this whole matter. The Book of Acts doesn’t show unbelievers being baptized. Never. The Book of Common Prayer is a beautiful piece of literature, and it’s shaped much of Christian liturgy in the English-speaking world. But, it’s wrong here. What you think about the church matters. Being a Baptist matters. Ciao.

A Guy Named Sihon

mazeChristians can get tangled up when they consider the knotty conundrums of God’s divine sovereignty and man’s free will. How do these things go together? Well, we’re not quite sure, because our perspective is a bit limited. But, both are true.[1]

God is in charge. He does what He wants, and everything He does flows from His character, which means it’s all holy, righteous and good, and nothing can happen without His permission and consent. People do make their own decisions and do what they want to do, and are rightly held accountable for them.

So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with the concept of compatibilism, which simply means that God uses means (like you and I) to do what He wants, and works in and through our own innate desires to accomplish His will. We see this in Scripture over and over again, if we look for it:

  • Why did Satan torture Job? Well, because Satan wanted to do it. But, Satan could only act because God gave him permission (Job 1:6-12). In fact, Job’s author bluntly stated Yahweh had brought all this upon Job (Job 42:11). That is, Satan was only the secondary agent.
  • Why was Jesus killed? Because the apostate Israelite leaders wanted Him dead, and they pressured a weak Roman governor into ordering the execution. But, Luke tells us Jesus was “delivered up by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” (Acts 2:23).
  • Why did the Babylonians destroy the Kingdom of Judah? Well, because they wanted to! But, over and above even their own conscious understanding, God was directing and channeling their wickedness for His own purposes (see Habakkuk 1-2). God said He was raising up the Chaldeans, not the other way around (Hab 1:6). He did this work, not them (Hab 1:5).
  • Why do false teachers come? Moses says God sent them; “for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” (Deut 13:3). Yet, God still decrees that a false teacher dies “because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God,” (Deut 13:5). These false teachers did what they wanted to do, but over and above their own consciousness God had sent them to test and sift the people. Yet, they were still held morally personally responsible for their actions.

Many examples of compatibilism are not didactic; they’re often stated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Consider what Moses wrote about an Amorite King, Sihon. Why wouldn’t Sihon let the Israelites pass through his land?

Well, Moses tells us why. The Lord had “hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate,” (Deut 2:30). God made it so Sihon wouldn’t listen. Why did God do this? Well, Moses wrote that God did this so “that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day,” (Deut 2:30). God made Sihon not listen, because God wanted the Israelites to destroy him. Simple.

Consider the covenant blessings and cursings; how could God carry them out if compatibilism wasn’t true?

  • How could He scatter them among the nations (Deut 28:64)? The historical books tell us God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to do this, and they certainly weren’t conscious agents!
  • How could Yahweh bring some of them back to Israel as slaves (Deut 28:68; see also 28:32) without employing unwitting, intermediate agents?
  • How else could the Lord “cause you to be defeated before your enemies?” (Deut 28:25)? The Israelites surely fought as best they could, but God gave their enemies the victory.
  • Who will bring men to oppress and rob the Israelites continually (Deut 28:29)? Are these robbers remorseless robots; droids programmed by God to plunder the Israelites against their will? Hardly!
  • Why will engaged young ladies be ravished by evil men (Deut 28:30)? Dare we assume those who commit these crimes aren’t also morally responsible for their wicked actions? Dare we lurch into the opposite ditch and assume God sat in heaven above as a helpless bystander?
  • How can God bring a foreign nation to oppress and destroy them (Deut 28:33-34, 36-37)?

I could go on. If you just read the Old Testament, you’ll see this doctrine of compatibilism all over its pages. It’s there in a matter of fact way. It’s everywhere. As John Calvin remarked:[2]

If we look at the administration of human affairs with the eye of sense, we will have no doubt that, so far, they are placed at man’s disposal; but if we lend an ear to the many passages of Scripture which proclaim that even in these matters the minds of men are ruled by God, they will compel us to place human choice in subordination to his special influence.

I agree. Look at what else Calvin says:

Who gave the Israelites such favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, that they lent them all their most valuable commodities? (Exod. 11:3.) They never would have been so inclined of their own accord. Their inclinations, therefore, were more overruled by God than regulated by themselves. And surely, had not Jacob been persuaded that God inspires men with divers affections as seemeth to him good, he would not have said of his son Joseph, (whom he thought to be some heathen Egyptian,) “God Almighty give you mercy before the man,” (Gen. 43:14.)

In like manner, the whole Church confesses that when the Lord was pleased to pity his people, he made them also to be pitied of all them that carried them captives, (Ps. 106:46.) In like manner, when his anger was kindled against Saul, so that he prepared himself for battle, the cause is stated to have been, that a spirit from God fell upon him, (1 Sam. 11:6.)

Who dissuaded Absalom from adopting the counsel of Ahithophel, which was wont to be regarded as an oracle? (2 Sam. 17:14.) Who disposed Rehoboam to adopt the counsel of the young men? (1 Kings 12:10.) Who caused the approach of the Israelites to strike terror into nations formerly distinguished for valour? Even the harlot Rahab recognised the hand of the Lord. Who, on the other hand, filled the hearts of the Israelites with fear and dread, (Lev. 26:36,) but He who threatened in the Law that he would give them a “trembling heart?” (Deut. 28:65.)

This concept of compatibilism looks like this:[3]

compatibalism

God works over and above our own personal will to accomplish what He wants. As the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.”[4] You make free choices. I make free choices. We all make free choices. Yet, above our own consciousness, our holy and righteous God is working all things according to the counsel of His own will. As Solomon said, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will,” (Prov 21:1).

Our God is sovereign. Our God is in control. Our God can even channel His enemies’ thoughts, intentions, wills and desires for His own holy purposes. “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble,” (Prov 16:4). This ought to comfort everyone who confesses the name of Christ. It means you aren’t a pawn in a world spinning out of control, on its own. It means things do happen for a reason, even if you don’t understand them. It means you’re an adopted child of a God who made, controls and upholds creation itself. The 1618 Belgic Confession says it best:[5]

We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.

Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.

We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.

This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.

In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.

Amen to all that.

Notes

[1] I you want to read a great book on this topic, you should pick up a copy of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, by J.I. Packer. I reviewed the book here.

[2] The following excerpts are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), 2.4.6.

[3] I adapted this graphic from Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 261.

[4] 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, 5.3.

[5]  1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13.

Who is the Word?

john 1
Excerpt from John 1 from manuscript GA 01 (courtesy of CSNTM.org)

The Gospel of John is important. And, in a piece of writing noted for its Christology, the prologue (John 1:1-18) is rightly considered to be a masterpiece. Because it’s so important, it’s attracted any number of critics and false teachers who desperately try to explain why it doesn’t actually say … what it actually says.

An ordinary Christian can go batty pondering all the controversies inherent in this passage. Was John 1:1 (“and the Word was God”) translated correctly? Have Christians been influenced by pagan, Greek philosophy to interpret “the Word” as the co-equal, co-eternal Son of God? These are good questions, and lots of good theologians and bible teachers have lots of good answers for them. But, setting these issues aside for a time, if you take a step back and just consider the content as a literary unit the message is very clear.

Who is the Word?

At1 the very beginning, when the creation happened, the Word was there (Jn 1:1a). So, whoever this Word is, He’s eternal. He’s prior to creation. More than that, the Word is with God (Jn 1:1b). God is before creation, and so is the Word. They’re together. They share the same space; they’re with one another. Even better yet, the Word actually is God (Jn 1:1c).

But, how can this be? How can the Word actually be God? John is saying the Word is somehow distinct from God and there at the beginning with God. Yet, the Word is God, too. What does this mean? It shows us that God and the Word are both eternal, they both stand outside of creation, and they both share the same nature. They’re one, and yet they’re distinct, too.

And, God made everything through the Word (Jn 1:3). The language conveys personal agency, and the Word is the living, active and personal agent who made creation on God’s behalf. “Without Him was not anything made that was made,” (Jn 1:3). Why is that? It’s because “in him was life” (Jn 1:4); that is, the Word contains life and is the source of life and creation. This life is the light which shines the way for men to come to faith; to escape from the figurative darkness of sin and wickedness (Jn 1:4b-5).

The Apostle John then briefly explained the Baptist’s ministry. God sent him to tell people about the Word (note the distinction again). John proclaimed the Word was the light for all men “that all might believe through him,” (Jn 1:7). John himself wasn’t the light, “but came to bear witness about the light,” (Jn 1:8).

The irony, of course, is that the very Creator of creation came into the world, “yet the world did not know him,” (Jn 1:10). He came to His own people, and they rejected Him (Jn 1:11). Notice that it isn’t God who came to His people; it was the Word. Of course, the Word shares the same nature as God so He can properly be said to be God. But, in this prologue, the Word and God are distinguished from one another. John will go on to speak of the Father in contrast to the Son later in the book. For now, however, it’s enough to know John is painting a deliberate contrast between God and the Word.

It’s true people rejected the Word. But, that’s not the end of the story. It all doesn’t end in tragedy and darkness. After all, “[t]he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” (Jn 1:5). In fact, the Apostle hastens to add, to everyone who did receive the Word (that is, who believed in His name; in effect, who He was as the incarnate God-Man), the Word did something very special. He gave these people the right or privilege to become God’s children (Jn 1:12). The Word didn’t give people the power to become His children; He made them God’s children.

People aren’t born into God’s family; they have to be adopted by God. John explains God’s children don’t come to Him by blood relation, or by the sexual desires of a man or woman who produce a child, or even the desires of the husband himself. People don’t become God’s children by physical descent, or by the will of any of his parents. How, then? They’re born from God’s will.

Again, notice the delineation of roles:

  • God wills people to become His children
  • This will is actuated when they receive the Word by believing on His name; that is, in who He is as the incarnate GodMan.

This is beautiful, and the Apostle tells us how it all came about. The Word “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14). This is the incarnation, where the Word added a human nature to His divine nature.2 God (i.e. the Father) didn’t become flesh and come here; the Word did. John and the other apostles are eyewitnesses who saw the Word’s glory! What kind of glory was it? It was the glory of the unique, one and only Son who comes from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). In other words, it was the same as the Father’s glory.

Notice that John more precisely defines “God” here as “the Father.” It was His glory that descended on Sinai (Ex 19:16-19), that filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38) and Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 8:1-11). It was also His glory that left that same temple during the exile (Ezek 8-10), and hasn’t returned since. The Word’s glory is just like that.

This Word is the one who John the Baptist preached about. He told everyone the Word would come on the scene after him, but outranks him. Why does the Word outrank John, a true prophet from God? Because the Word came before John (Jn 1:15). This makes sense, because the Word created Creation according to the Father’s will and only walks the earth because He “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (Jn 1:14).

The Word’s glory, which John and the others saw and marveled at, is full of grace and truth. Why does John say this? Because from His grace all believers continue to receive grace upon grace; that is, an unending low of graces while pile atop one another (Jn 1:16). What’s so marvelous about this cascade of grace upon grace? Well, the Apostle says, the law came from Moses, but grace and truth came from Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17). Here John stops being coy and explicitly identifies Jesus as the Word.

This is the New Covenant; the new and better way that Jesus inaugurated with His life, death, burial and resurrection. The law of Moses did bring grace and forgiveness to the believer but that atonement wasn’t final and permanent; it was on layaway. The law of Moses did point to the truth of Christ but it didn’t contain that truth; it was a marker along the way. John was obliquely referring to the new and better covenant, which all believers show and tell the world about as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in local churches.

Nobody has ever seen God. But, the only God who is at the Father’s side has made Him known (Jn 1:18). Once again, John draws a distinction between Father and Son, and identifies Jesus as God once more. Moses is the penultimate Israelite, but he couldn’t see God. Jesus sits at the Father’s side, and He’s come here to make Him known to us. Moses served his purpose, and even he knew someone else would come from God (Deut 18:15f). That someone is Jesus, the Word who was there before the beginning, who can fully reveal God to sinful men.

The Word is God the Son Incarnate

John’s prologue isn’t hard to understand. But, too many people make it hard (which isn’t at all the same thing) when they refuse to read it as a literary unit, or have a theological agenda, or waste sermons explaining the joys of Colwell’s Rule in John 1:1. The prologue is about Christ, and it tells us He is distinct from the Father, and co-equal and co-eternal with Him. It’s a synopsis of Christ’s identity and ministry. It’s the Apostle’s dustjacket summary of the incarnation:

The Word existed before Creation. The Word made Creation. The Word was with God before Creation, and He’s also God, too. God made everything through the Word, who contains and embodies life itself and acts as a light for all men. That light shined in the darkness, and Satan still hasn’t overcome it.

God sent John the Baptist to tell everyone about the Word, but the world rejected the Word anyway. But, for those few who did receive the Word, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become God’s children. To do all this, the Word took on flesh, dwelt among us, and eyewitnesses saw His glory. His glory was like that of the only Son’s, identical to the Father’s, full of grace and truth. And, the Word pours out grace upon grace to His people; to those who received Him. Moses brought the law, but Jesus brought the new and better covenant characterized by grace and truth.

Nobody has ever seen God, but Jesus (the only God) who sits at the Father’s side has made Him known to all who have ears to hear. He’s better than Moses. He’s Moses’ successor. And, to all who receive Him He gives the privilege to become a child of God, according to God’s will.

Notes

1 The preposition here (Ἐν ἀρχῇ) is temporal, and the sense is “at the beginning;” that is, at the point in time at which creation began.

2 “Accordingly, while the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible, so that as the appropriate remedy for our ills, one and the same ‘Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus,’ might from one element be capable of dying and also from the other be incapable. Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was his, whole in what was ours,” (Leo the Great, “The Tome of St. Leo,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Henry R. Percival (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 14:255.