Learning from Smart, Dead Guys

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaWe really don’t know everything. I know – it’s crazy. Christians stand on the shoulders of dedicated, intelligent and devout brothers and sisters from days gone by. Our very vocabulary, the categories and structures of our theology have been shaped by the controversies and issues of bygone days.

This is why creeds and confessions are such valuable tools in a Christian’s arsenal. See, for example:

  1. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith
  2. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
  3. The Belgic Confession

So, because Christians before us have already puzzled and thought until their puzzlers were sore, I’ve decided to take some time to read about Christology from some 4th century Christians. Last year, I translated the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 AD). I plan to write a short introduction and commentary on it, and basically use it as a vehicle to teach 4th century Christology.

In order to really understand what was going on in the 4th century, I need to do two things:

  1. I need to read some good history books, and
  2. I need to read what Christians from the 4th century actually wrote about Christ, and see how they responded to the Arian heresies and the controversy about the Holy Spirit.

That’s where Athanasius of Alexandria comes in. He was a key figure in the Christological controversies of the 4th century; perhaps the key player. I don’t have time to read everything he wrote (that would take a while!), but I am taking time to read some of it.

That brings me to the point. The man was a genius. It’s always humbling to learn something from really smart, dead guys. And, to top it off, Athanasius didn’t even have wireless internet!

In this short excerpt from his work On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius tackled the objection that Jesus’ death was humiliating and unfitting for the Son of God. Read what he has to say, and think about it:

For perhaps a man might say even as follows: If it was necessary for His death to take place before all, and with witnesses, that the story of His Resurrection also might be believed, it would have been better at any rate for Him to have devised for Himself a glorious death, if only to escape the ignominy of the Cross.

But had He done even this, He would give ground for suspicion against Himself, that He was not powerful against every death, but only against the death devised for Him; and so again there would have been a pretext for disbelief about the Resurrection all the same. So death came to His body, not from Himself, but from hostile counsels, in order that whatever death they offered to the Saviour, this He might utterly do away.

And just as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not pick out his antagonists for himself, lest he should raise a suspicion of his being afraid of some of them, but puts it in the choice of the onlookers, and especially so if they happen to be his enemies, so that against whomsoever they match him, him he may throw, and be believed superior to them all; so also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body, so as not to appear to be fearing some other death; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced; so that this also being destroyed, both He Himself might be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be brought utterly to nought.

So something surprising and startling has happened; for the death, which they thought to inflict as a disgrace, was actually a monument of victory against death itself. Whence neither did He suffer the death of John, his head being severed, nor, as Esaias, was He sawn in sunder; in order that even in death He might still keep His body undivided and in perfect soundness, and no pretext be afforded to those that would divide the Church.[1]

You’d be surprised how much you read in Christian books is really just a regurgitation of stuff somebody else said a long time ago. I’m learning a lot from Athanasius. I can also see where our understanding of theology has, in some instances, advanced beyond him – particularly in the 5th century, leading up to the Chalcedonian Creed. But, what an explanation he provided here!

You can learn a lot from smart, dead guys . . .

Notes:

[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 4:49.

Leviticus . . . and the Burnt Offering

lev 1(4)The Book of Leviticus is a strange place for many Christians. They usually avoid it. It’s strange, they think. Weird. Isn’t all that Old Testament stuff over and done with, anyway? Well, as they say, “it’s complicated.”

I’m starting a short audio teaching series through the Book of Leviticus, chapter by chapter. Every teaching lesson will be stored here.

This is the first installment, on (of course) Chapter 1 – which covers the burnt offering. I know you’re excited to hear all about it. I can tell. Take a listen; hopefully this series will be a help to you – it was to me as I studied for it!

How to Study the Bible (Part 2)

Read the series so far.

How to Begin

Studying the Bible isn’t hard. I promise. You just need to have a plan. This is how the plan begins – you pick a topic.

Genius, isn’t it!?

What Not To Do

Remember, the Bible isn’t a cookbook of individual verses. The verse numbers are made up. They aren’t there in Greek or Hebrew. Some printer in the 16th century inserted verse numbers in the text during a carriage ride. That’s not a joke. The chapters also aren’t original. Chapter and verse numbers are just a easy way for us to find and reference things in the Bible, but they sometimes stop us from seeing the context.

So, before we go any further, know this:

  • Don’t study the Bible by compiling a bunch of verses from all over the place
  • Don’t study the Bible by looking for a particular word in a concordance
  • Don’t. Do. It. Please. I. Am. Begging. You.
  • Instead, study the Bible by reading passages. More on this later.

Pick a Topic

What do you want to study? Think about it. Be specific with your question. Narrow things down a little bit. A question that is too broad (e.g. “why did Christ come?”) will probably take a while to study. If you whittle your question down a bit (e.g. “what did Christ accomplish for sinners?”), then everything becomes much easier.

Not So Fast!

I suggest you do a few things before you dive right in to gathering data.

Talk to your pastor

Ask your Pastor for his answer. Don’t just bum-rush the poor guy 30 seconds after he finishes his sermon. Schedule a time for a brief chat, and tell him what you want to talk about. Have your talk. Take some notes.

Look at your church’s doctrinal statement

This will give you a lot of food for thought. It will also give you references to didactic (i.e. teaching) passages where your church believes this is all taught. Copy the passages down. Read them. Take notes. Pray. Think. Repeat.

Look at old creeds and confessions

Look at some confessions of faith from the past, to see what other Christians from days gone by have thought about this same question. Yes, there were Christians smarter than us who lived long ago, who already pondered all of this, and already wrote down their thoughts. You can read what they thought, and learn a few things.

I’m a Baptist, so here are three Baptist confessions I’d check out, along with two others:

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession is short, punchy and very, very helpful. It’s a good place to go for a quick baseline read on what conservative Baptists have believed. This confession is the basis for the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith, and the General Association of Regular Baptist Church’s articles of faith, too. It has been a bedrock confession for conservative Baptists in America for nearly two centuries. Take a look at it.

The GARBC’s Articles of Faith are, as I said before, based on the 1833 NHCF. But, it has been updated and expanded. It is clearly premillennial and dispensational. It is the confession which best aligns with my own beliefs.

The 1689 London Baptist Confession is very, very long. This is deep theology, in a lot of detail, with a lot of Scripture passage references. You definitely want to see what this document has to say.

The Belgic Confession was produced by Reformed Christians in the Netherlands. It is also long, very detailed, and full of Scripture references. It is a good reference document. The man who wrote it died as a martyr.

The Second Helvetic Confession was produced by the Swiss Reformed church in the 16th century, and was adopted by a whole host of national churches in Europe during and after the Reformation Era. This is a very thorough, very helpful document.

Remember this – you don’t have to agree with everything you read in these creeds and confessions. Nobody will ever agree on everything. But, you should read the pertinent sections where your question is addressed, and give serious thought to what they say.

Do you still need to look further?

Maybe your question has been answered. Maybe, after:

  • Talking to your Pastor for 30 minutes,
  • Reading your church’s doctrinal statement and reading the passages it cites,
  • then reading some historic creeds and/or confessions about your topic

your questions have all disappeared! After all, you should work smarter, not harder.

Example

You want to know how Adam was originally created. He wasn’t perfect, obviously! But, he also wasn’t like us. So, what was he like?

You meet with your Pastor, and even buy him a coffee because you’re such a nice person. He tells you Adam was not like us. Adam was innocent. He was made “very good.” Unlike us, he was “kind of morally neutral,” and had the free choice to obey God or reject Him. Adam didn’t have a sin nature, and wasn’t drawn or pulled by the temptation to sin like we are. In fact, this is so strange to us that we can’t even imagine what this must have been like!

You go away, energized and ready for more. Your church doctrinal statement reads:

We believe that man was created in the image and likeness of God, but that in Adam’s sin the human race fell, inherited a sinful nature, and became alienated from God; and, that man is depraved, and, of himself, utterly unable to remedy his lost condition (Gen. 1:26-27; Rom. 3:22-23; 5:12; 6:23; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19).

This tells you . . . nothing. Thanks a lot.

Next, you turn to the confessions. The Belgic Confession reads, in part:

We believe that God created man from the dust of the earth and made and formed him in his image and likeness– good, just, and holy; able by his own will to conform in all things to the will of God.

But when he was in honor he did not understand it and did not recognize his excellence. But he subjected himself willingly to sin and consequently to death and the curse, lending his ear to the word of the devil.

For he transgressed the commandment of life, which he had received, and by his sin he separated himself from God, who was his true life, having corrupted his entire nature.

This is good stuff. This suggests Adam was good and holy. Unimpeded by a sin nature, Adam truly has a choice to follow God or listen to Satan and rebel against God. He deliberately decided to sin, and thus ruined himself and all of creation, too.

This is a little different from what you Pastor said, but it’s still in the same ballpark. In this confession, Adam isn’t neutral – he’s inclined to good and to righteousness.

The Second Helvetic Confession reads, in part:

In the beginning, man was made according to the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, good and upright. But when at the instigation of the serpent and by his own fault he abandoned goodness and righteousness, he became subject to sin, death and various calamities. And what he became by the fall, that is, subject to sin, death and various calamities, so are all those who have descended from him.

This says the same thing. Adam was good and upright, and he had every advantage one could wish for. But, at Satan’s suggestion, he made his own decision to “abandon goodness and righteousness.”

What saith the 1689 London Baptist Confession? I’m glad you asked:

Although God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof, yet he did not long abide in this honor;  Satan using the subtlety of the serpent to subdue Eve, then by her seducing Adam, who, without any compulsion, did willfully transgress the law of their creation, and the command given to them, in eating the forbidden fruit, which God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

It says the same thing. What about more modern stuff?

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith reads:

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state; in consequence of which all mankind are now sinners, not by constraint, but choice; being by nature utterly void of that holiness required by the law of God, positively inclined to evil; and therefore under just condemnation to eternal ruin, without defense or excuse.

Same thing. It’s almost as though there’s a pattern here!

The GARBC Articles of Faith read:

We believe that mankind was created in innocence (in the image and likeness of God) under the law of his Maker, but by voluntary transgression Adam fell from his sinless and happy state, and all human beings sinned in him, in consequence of which all human beings are totally depraved, are partakers of Adam’s fallen nature, and are sinners by nature and by conduct, and therefore are under just condemnation without defense or excuse.

I told you this confession is derived from the 1833 NHCF. Notice it’s pretty much the same, but they dropped “holiness” for “innocence.” I think they’re trying to get the idea across that Adam wasn’t “holy” in the sense of “divine.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here is your data, so far:

  • Your Pastor says Adam had an innocent, holy nature, and was morally neutral
  • Your church doctrinal statement says nothing.
  • All four confessions you’ve looked at, spanning from 1564 – 2017, agree that Adam was made holy and/or innocent, but made the deliberate decision to rebel against God.
  • If Adam was holy and innocent, then temptation exerted no internal pull, tug or struggle within him. It was an external thing, and the draw for Adam wasn’t that he would gratify himself. The draw was that, by eating from the tree, he would free himself from God’s rule and be like Him. Interesting stuff. Makes you want to go back and re-read Genesis 1-3!
  • You’ve studied the Scripture references your Pastor and the confessions have given you

At this point, you need to ask yourself – do I still have questions? No worries. If you do, we go onto the next step . . . next time!

The Marks of a Church (Part 1)

churchWhen it a church not a church? It’s an important question.

What are the essential, non-negotiable elements which must be present, in order for a religious group to be considered a Christian church? These elements have historically been called the “marks of a church.”

 

  • How many marks are there?
  • What does the New Testament tell us?
  • Do each of these marks have to be present?
  • Can a few be absent?
  • If so, how many can be missing before a church is no longer a church?

This might seem like silly, ivory tower nit-picking. After all, who cares as long as you love Jesus, right?

Wrong.

Imagine this scenario:

  • A group of eager, young Christians gather at a local Starbucks every Sunday for a bible study – at 1100 sharp!
  • A different “leader” takes a turn every week reading a passage of Scripture and explaining it. The group always has a wonderful discussion. “The Spirit is, like, really moving in our lives,” one attender explains, eyes alight with joy.
  • Once per month or so (“whenever we feel the Spirit leading us”), they observe the Lord’s Supper together. But, they like being different. So, the group usually observes the ordinance with Cheese-Its and Diet Coke. They tried pita crackers and milk once. It didn’t go over so well. It was . . . gross.

One attender explains he doesn’t feel the need to go to a “traditional church.”

It’s, like, so confining. I used to go to a ‘normal’ church, but it just became, like, way too much. All the rules. All the stuff that just, you know, like, gets in the way. I like coming here better. It’s like we’re getting back to the, you know, the  . . . the purity that Jesus always talked about. Here, we just keep it simple. No rules. No judgment. Just the Word and the Spirit. I’ve grown in Christ more here than I ever did in a traditional church. When the Spirit is working, who am I to judge or criticize, ya know?

Does this young man go to a “church”? Is his Starbucks fellowship a church? Why, or why not? You see? It does matters what a “church” really is, and what it isn’t. And for that, we must turn to the New Testament.

Baptist theologian Kevin Bauder explained this dilemma pretty well:

An analogy may be helpful. A dog by definition is (among other things) a quadruped. If it loses a leg, does it cease to be a dog, or is it simply a damaged dog? How many appendages can it lose before it can no longer be called a dog? Eventually, if one lops off enough parts, the dog dies. The same principle applies to churches. How many characteristics can be lost before a church can no longer be called a church? Baptists do not have a single, straightforward answer to this question.[1]

For the foreseeable future, I’ll be systematically working my way from Acts – Revelation, trying to answer:

  1. What are the marks of a church?
  2. Can any of these marks be missing?

As I finish my review of each New Testament book, I’ll post my thoughts here. I’m not sure how long this will take, but it will surely be fun!

For now, here are some thoughts from a smart, dead guy on this matter:

When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults.

Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like.

Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord?

The words of the apostle are, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you,” (Phil. 3:15.)

Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all, or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.

Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord.

Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, “If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace,” (1 Cor. 14:30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order.

In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged[2]

Notes

[1] Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumberg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 217.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 4.1.12.

Jesus and Sin

sinRead the series so far.

We’ve talked about sin. We’ve learned it is:

  1. an action which violates God’s law,
  2. an internal thought or desire which is contrary to God’s law, and
  3. it is also a status, a condition, a state of being.

If you think of “sin” as merely an outward action, then you’re terribly wrong. We’re all born in the status, condition and state of rebellion against God. We’re born as sinners, the fruit of the poisonous tree which was ruined by Adam so long ago, and has been passed down from generation to generation ever since. Because that is true, the result is that we think evil and wicked thoughts all the time. And, sometimes, we act on those sinful thoughts and intents of our hearts.

What is at the bottom of all this? What is at the heart of this status and condition of lawlessness, which results in wicked thoughts and actions? It is a desire for autonomy, for independence from God. When you get right down to it, sin is about a desire to overthrow God (who is your Creator and sustainer) and govern yourself.

Now we come to the really interesting question. We all know Jesus has never sinned, and we certainly know He didn’t sin in the incarnation. But what, exactly, does that even mean?

Here is a key text

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16).

He Was Tested Just Like We Are

We can’t understand what on earth the writer is saying here unless we first understand the context. In this passage, the writer of Hebrews is picking up his previous train of thought, which ended in Hebrews 3:6:

  • Jesus, God’s son, created all things, sustains all things, came here to make purification for sins, then returned to the Father’s side in heaven above (Heb 1:1-4)
  • Jesus is far superior to any of the angels (Heb 1:5-14), therefore everybody “must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it,” (Heb 2:1).
  • The world to come will be subject to Christ, so we must obey His message. The world now is not subject to Him, but instead we see Jesus, “who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every man,” (Heb 2:9).
  • The children Christ came to save partook of flesh and blood, therefore “he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage,” (Heb 2:14-15).
  • Because Jesus was made like us in every single way, He is a merciful and faithful high priest. “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted,” (Heb 2:18).
  • The writer then called these Jewish Christian to “consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession,” (Heb 3:1). Jesus was faithful to God, just like Moses, but Jesus is far better than Moses, and has been counted worthy of far more glory (Heb 3:2-4)! You are part of God’s household, if you hold fast to your confidence and pride in the hope of eternal life (Heb 3:6).

At this point, the writer went on a brief excursus about rebellious Israelites after the exodus, and warned his readers to not make that same mistake (Heb 3:7 – 4:13).

Now, we come to our text:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:14-16).

Because all these things about Jesus are true (Heb 1:1 – 3:6):

  • because Jesus was made a little lower than the angels to be just like we are,
  • because He tasted death for every man,
  • because He has been crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering and death,
  • because He has made purification for sins,
  • because He has returned to the Father and “has passed through the heavens,”
  • because He is the co-eternal and co-equal Son of God

the author commands Christians to “hold fast,” or seize “the confession.” Some English translations add “our confession.” That is not in the Greek text. It is “the confession.”

What is that confession? What I just outlined, above! But, what are the grounds for this confidence? Why does the writer exhort them to “seize” the confession and cling to it for spiritual life? It is because Jesus understands your struggles, and, because He understands, He can save you from them.

Jesus is a high priest who sympathizes with your weaknesses. He is not a cold, aloof and ivory-tower Savior who dispenses God’s mercy, grace, love and kindness from an antiseptic, pure abode in heaven. In every respect, Jesus has been tempted and tested just like we are. Yet, Jesus did not sin.[1]

Jesus Christ deliberately and voluntarily set His divine status and privileges aside during the entire course of His earthly ministry. As a real flesh and blood man who didn’t use any of those divine powers as a crutch, He took on everything Satan threw at Him – and He succeeded where Adam, Eve, you and I will always fail. He’s been touched with the real weight and feeling of the same weaknesses you’re suffering through – He’s been there!

All this makes Jesus qualified to be a perfect, merciful and faithful High Priest:

  • because He knows first-hand how powerful Satan is
  • because He knows how powerful temptation is
  • because He knows what it’s like to be poor
  • because He knows what it’s like to be tired and exhausted
  • because He knows what’s like to know what God wants you to do, and at the same time to be too exhausted and frightened to go forward without divine help
  • because He knows what it’s like to rely completely and totally on the Lord
  • because He knows what it’s like to feel alone and abandoned by friends
  • because He knows what it’s like to be persecuted by the authorities

Most of all, though – Christ knows what it’s like to be handicapped by all these difficulties, and yet He still perfectly overcame them and defeated Satan anyway. And yet, Jesus can sympathize, be merciful and show such a depth of compassion precisely because He’s been in our shoes! His compassion is a real one, not an intellectual one. He knows everything you’re going through now, or will ever go through – because He’s been there and defeated your problems firsthand.

Making Application

Let’s return to our definition of sin:

  1. an action which violates God’s law,
  2. an internal thought or desire which is contrary to God’s law,
  3. it is also a status, a condition, a state of being
  4. at the heart of it, sin is rejection of God’s jurisdiction and authority over your life – it is a lust for autonomy and independence from His rule

This is what Jesus did in the incarnation:

  1. Jesus did not violate God’s law
  2. Jesus did not have an internal thought or desire contrary to God’s law
  3. Jesus was never touched by sin, and the virgin conception ensured He was born untainted by that curse
  4. at the heart of it, in His incarnate state, Jesus never rejected His Father’s jurisdiction and authority over His life – He never lusted for autonomy and independence from His rule.

The First and Last Adam

The contrast is seen most clearly in Jesus’ temptation and testing by Satan in the wilderness (Lk 4:1-13); specifically, the temptation of autonomy. Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, in exchange for overthrowing God and in favor of Satan. This goes right to the heart of the matter. Will Jesus violate the Father’s will? Will Jesus short-circuit the Cross, and spare Himself the pain and agony of death? Here, Jesus proved His superiority to Adam:

  • Satan tested Adam, who failed.
  • Satan tested Jesus, who triumphed.

Yet, the question remains – did Jesus feel temptation in the same way we do? Did he feel an internal tug, pull and urge to commit a sinful action? The answer is an emphatic, “No!” Sin, as we’ve seen, encompasses the thoughts and intents of the heart. Jesus never experienced any thought or intent which was contrary to God’s law, because He was not born with a sin-nature. Jesus was not conceived by sinful human beings; He was conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit.

We must always remember that Jesus did not defeat Satan as a sinful, fallen human being.[2] He defeated Satan as a sinless, holy, morally innocent man. His human nature was identical to Adam’s – He was Adam 2.0. As one Baptist confession reads:

We believe that man was created in holiness, under the law of his Maker; but by voluntary transgression fell from that holy and happy state . . .”[3]

Jesus, too, was “created in holiness” in the sense that He took on an innocent, morally pure human nature – just like the one Adam had. Jesus was not tempted from within; there was no sin nature to tempt! Just like Adam, He was tempted from without. As a morally innocent, sinless and holy man, he was tested and tempted just like Adam was, and triumphed.

So What?

  • We always commit sinful actions which violate God’s law. Jesus did not.
  • We always think wicked, evil thoughts which violate God’s law. Jesus did not.
  • We were born into a state of sin, with the status as sinful criminals. Jesus was not.
  • We exercise this status, and prove our desire for independence and autonomy from God every single day. Jesus never did.

What are the implications for the Christian today, looking back to Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and miraculous resurrection? We’ll look at that next time . . .

Notes

[1] There is an exegetical debate over how to translate the last bit of the sentence (χωρὶς ἁμαρτίας). Does it mean (1) Jesus was tempted in every single way we are, and yet He did not commit sin? Or, does it mean (2) Jesus was tempted in every single way we are, apart from the temptation to sin? I don’t have the time to delve into this particular issue. It is very interesting.

[2] Lewis S. Chafer is usually pigeon-holed as a dispensational theologian, and dismissed. That is very, very unfair. It is true that he represents classical dispensationalism, a type of dispensationism which is not as popular as it once was.  Yet, his entire systematic is outstanding. I am routinely moved and challenged by his insights. His comments on Christ’s temptation is the best of the usual bunch, more helpful than Berkhof and Strong. He wrote, “. . . in all the discussion respecting His impeccability the truth is often ignored that Christ was wholly free from a sin nature and all that the sin nature generates,” (Systematic Theology, 8 vols. [reprint; Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976), 5:76.

[3] 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 3. See my own comments on this article here.

How to Study the Bible (Part 1)

big-beautiful-stack-of-books-231x300How should Christians study the Bible in a responsible way? Christians love God’s Word. It’s His special revelation to us. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith states the Bible is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction.”[1] Another Baptist confession states,

[T]he rule of this knowledge, faith and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God and all other Christian duties, is not the opinions, devices, laws or constitutions of men, but the written word of the everlasting God, contained in the canonical books of the Old and New Testament.[2]

The Bible is important to Christians. We want to know what it teaches, and we want to study it. The problem is that many Christian don’t study the Bible very responsibly. Consider these basic questions, each of which are common flesh-points among conservative Christians:

  1. What natural, innate capacity do men, women, boys and girls have to positively respond to the Gospel? Can you say that, because Jesus commanded people to repent and believe the Gospel (Mk 1:14-15), everybody has the natural capacity to do this?
  2. Why are some men saved, and others not? That is, what is the doctrine of election? The Apostle Peter wrote that all the foreigners scattered around Asia Minor were “elect,” (1 Pet 1:1), so can we conclude “election” is a group or corporate concept?
  3. When God sent His unique Son into the world, did He do so with the deliberate intent of saving only the elect, or all men? Can you really solve this problem by quoting Hebrews 2:9, and calling it a day? Is this a responsible way to handle the text?
  4. Does the Holy Spirit call and draw only certain people to salvation? Or, does the Spirit call everybody to a moral neutral point, so everybody can make their own independent decision to repent and believe the Gospel – and thus be held individually accountable? Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself,” (Jn 12:32). Does this teach the second option? Have we solved this dilemma?
  5. Can Christians lose their salvation? Peter wrote that certain false teachers actually knew “the way of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:21), but then turned back to their idolatry. Does this settle the matter?

In each of these examples, I took a single text (or a portion of one) completely out of context and used it in a way the author never intended. This is an example of how not to study the Bible. So, how do we study the Bible in a responsible way?

Here is a list I adapted from Millard Erickson, a systematic theology professor.[3] A normal person might not have the time or courage to do everything on this list, but it is an excellent road-map to correct Biblical interpretation:

  1. Pick a Topic for Study
  2. Collect Data
  3. Harmonize the Data (i.e. What Does All the Data Say!?)
  4. What Does the Data Actually Mean?
  5. What Have Christians from the Past Thought About This Topic?
  6. What Do Christians from Different Traditions Say About This Topic?
  7. How Does This Doctrine Apply Today?
  8. Where Does This Doctrine Rank in Importance?

This list probably sounds ridiculous. You have a life. You don’t have time for this. I understand. You don’t have to sit down with this list and your Bible tomorrow morning. But, you should at least know this is the responsible way to interpret the Scriptures.

  • This process could take as little or as long as you wish, but it should be followed.
  • The more time and energy you invest in diligent study, the more informed you’ll be.
  • There are good, simple (and cheap!) tools which can help you along.
  • This isn’t as hard as it might seem.

Throughout this series, I’ll briefly explain each step of the process, and give examples of how it can be done. I’ll recommend good, simple and reliable tools which can help you along the way. Hopefully, it’ll help you in a practical way.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

  • Real Bible study isn’t quick, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t flashy. But, there is nothing better than the settled assurance and conviction you get after studying a particular topic, and actually knowing what you believe and why you believe it.

Notes

[1] 1833 NHCF, Article 1.

[2] “A True Confession” (1596), in William L. Lumpkins, Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 84, Article 7. This confession is one of the earliest English-Separatist documents, and it is thoroughly Reformed (to put it mildly!).

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 62-84. I’ve changed some of his titles, and added a few items to the list.

Moses on Divorce

jailWhat does the Pentateuch say about divorce? Not a whole lot, really; but what it does say is particularly relevant for Jesus Christ’s own discussion from the New Testament. He quoted this passage. That tells us He believes the Old Testament is authoritative and binding. It also gives us some important insight into God’s own view of marriage. But, that is a topic for some other post. Today, we’ll simply look at what Moses wrote on the subject. Here it is:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance (Deut 24:1-4)

Because I really like bullet-point lists, I’ll outline the passage thus:

  • A man has married a woman
  • She does not find or obtain favor in her husband’s eyes, because of some indecency or uncleanness
  • He may write her a bill of divorce and legally terminate the marriage
  • She will then be expelled from his household
  • She is then free to marry once again
  • If either . . .
    • her new husband despises her and divorces her, or
    • he dies while they’re still married,
      • she may not re-marry the first husband
  • The overarching point seems to be that re-marriage to the original husband is not permissible under any circumstances

The real puzzle here is what on earth this “uncleanness” is that makes a divorce permissible! Now, we certainly aren’t the first people to mull this very question over in our heads. The Jewish Pharisees asked Jesus Christ this question, attempting to back Him into a corner:

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? (Matthew 19:3)

There were two dominant schools of thought on what, exactly, this “uncleanness” in a wife meant. One group of people believed it referred to gross sexual immorality and indecency, but falling short of adultery. The other group believed this was a broad category for all sorts of real and imagined offenses, such as cooking a meal incorrectly! What does the term mean?

William Tyndale went with uncleanness, with the sense of impurity and unholiness. The KJV imported Tyndale right in, and it also has uncleanness. The NKJV, unsurprisingly, kept uncleanness also. The NASB, however, rendered it indecency. So did the ESV. The NET used something offensive in her. The ISV chose objectionable, as did the LEB. Interestingly, the LEB includes a footnote which further explains the sense is something shameful or repulsive.

The LXX reads ὅτι εὗρεν ἐν αὐτῇ ἄσχημον πρᾶγμα. The key word here is the adjective ἄσχημον, which means something shameful, unpresentable, indecent, or unmentionable. For example, when Shechem sexually assaulted Jacob’s daughter, the Bible says he had “done a disgraceful thing,” (Gen 34:8, NASB). It sometimes has specific reference to genitalia, the unmentionable and indecent part of one’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12:23; BDAG, s.v. “1235 ἀσχήμων”).

So, what does all this mean? The sense seems to be that a divorce was permitted under Mosaic Law if the wife had done something sexually immoral and indecent. This sexual indecency probably does not rise to the level of outright adultery, because the Law proscribed the death penalty for this act. So, the sexual immorality was something less than adultery, but it was plainly unseemly, outrageous, and beyond the pale of holiness and moral purity.

Messiah Himself gave credence to this viewpoint when He responded to the Pharisees:

They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (Matthew 19:7-9)

So, we can tentatively conclude that the Mosaic Law only allowed divorce if the wife was engaged in sexual inappropriate, indecent, morally impure and unholy behavior. Of course, this was never intended to be a blank check or a “Get Out of Jail Free!” card to escape from a bad marriage. But, a good understanding of these four verses will ground Christians to better grasp Jesus’ own teaching in the New Testament.