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Archive for the ‘Bible Commentary’ Category

Christianity, particularly of the evangelical brand, has in the last few decades used John 3:16 as the go to verse for what the gospel is, what Jesus is all about, and how one can be saved. But what if we looked at scripture with a different lens? What if instead we chose a different verse to represent the gospel, what if for instance we chose 1 John 3:8?

 Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.

This verse conveys much of the same essentials as John 3:16. It affirms that because of sin we are children of the devil and in need of a change to be with God. However, God doesn’t give his Son so that whoever believes in Him might be saved. But rather the mission of Jesus is to destroy the works of the devil. This warfare perspective is subtly but profoundly different that John 3:16. In John 3:16 Jesus came to separate the world into two groups, those who believe and those who do not. Here in 1 John 3:8 the primary mission of Jesus was to defeat the enemies of God and man. If we read back through the gospels and all of scripture with the idea that Jesus was revealed to destroy the work the devil has been doing from the beginning, I think we might arrive at very different conclusions than we do understanding the framework of the gospel in John 3:16 terms.

“The New Testament consistently describes Jesus as the conqueror of the inferior powers, including Satan. If Satan desires to steal souls from Christ, and ultimately succeeds in bringing about the permanent damnation of the majority, then how is this viewed in any sense as Christ’s victory? If a team of Navy Seals were dispatched to safely recover a thousand people taken hostage by pirates, and they returned from their mission having permanently lost all but ten to the enemy, that mission would be an embarrassment to the team, not a victory to be heralded.” –Steve Gregg, “All You Want To Know About Hell” pg. 264

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Recently I returned to read one of my very favorite stories from the Bible, that of Jonah. This time around I was struck by a certain element of the story that I had not really recognized previously. When Jonah attempts to flee from God’s call on his life (that he should go preach to the city of Nineveh), He takes a ship and tries to sail away. This has always seemed rather comical to me but what I found interesting is that not only does God find him geographically. But when the storm rages and Jonah is tossed overboard he actually dies. In a way, God allows Jonah to flee as far from Him as possible if only to make a point.

Jonah 2
“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.

Jonah says that he cried out from the belly of Sheol, which to the Hebrews was a place in the underworld filled with the spirits of the dead. Also it says that God brought his life up from the pit. This seems to imply that while Jonah’s body was swallowed by the fish, Jonah had already died and his spirit had departed to Sheol. His soul then rescued from the Pit by God and then reunited when the fish spits him back out onto the shore. Thus God makes a statement that there is nowhere that you can run or hide from Him, a belief recorded also by David.

Psalm 139: 7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
 even there your hand shall lead me,

The presence of God is everywhere and we can never be separated from it no matter where we go, what we do, or even if we die. This is a great comfort and a challenging reminder…

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This series is devoted to the question, Was Paul a Universalist?

Please read through and comment any any part or the question as a whole.

NOTE: In this series universalism will be defined as “at some future time all things will be fully reconciled to God and transformed into new life”. Universalism in this sense does not deny a state of hell or judgment post-mortem nor does it mean that all roads lead to God. But merely that at some point all of humanity will take the road that does lead them back to God (Christ).

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 1

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 2

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 3

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 4

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 5

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 6

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 7

Was Paul a Universalist? Part 8

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The Apostles Creed

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into Hades;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen

On the day between Good Friday and Easter it is important to remember that while on Earth there was a great silence. In Hades Jesus continued the Father’s work.

1 Peter 3: 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water.

1 Peter 4:5 But they will have to give an account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

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In past posts I have dismissed the penal substitution theory on various grounds: God’s character, Jesus’ statements, justice and ethical theory etc… This post is going to be different. In this post I am going to address how the scriptures pointing to Substitution Theory are misinterpreted, and the complexities involved in understanding Jesus as the final sacrifice where His death voids the requirement of sacrifice as the payment for sin.

Now originally, the Church Fathers viewed the forgiveness of sins through the Ransom Theory of Atonement. They believed that Jesus paid the price (to Satan, or just abstractly) that saved humanity from captivity to sin. In freeing the captives, He also forgave them freely. However, fast forwarding a few hundred years, Anselm and Aquinas rejected this view for a different view called the Satisfaction Theory (still held by Catholics today). Drawing mostly from Isaiah and Hebrews, they adopted the language of Jesus being punished on our behalf, to mean that Jesus took the punishment of sin upon Himself. In their view however, Jesus did not take the totality of sin on Himself (which they considered to be ludicrous and impossible), but rather the punishment dealt to Jesus was a satisfactory one to appease God’s judgment toward sin and allow forgiveness.

Now the view popular today comes from Calvin and Luther. They took Satisfaction Theory and integrated it with the concept of Old Testament sacrifices while viewing Jesus as a metaphorical perfect Lamb. They took Substitution Theory to mean that Jesus took on all the sins of everyone and was sacrificed to God to offset all the sin of the world so that God might view all who accept it as being without sin.

Now that we’ve gone through an overview of the historical background of these views, their origins, and developments, I want to suggest where Luther and Calvin went wrong in dealing with the language of the Law and Old Testament sacrifices relating to Christ. In order to do this, we need to back track to the foundation of the Old Covenant in Genesis 12.

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

This is the foundation of the election of Israel. What God says here is to follow Him, and will make Abram’s descendents a great nation which He will bless, and that this nation will henceforth be a blessing to all other nations. Furthermore, those who bless Israel shall be blessed and those who curse Israel shall be cursed.

So basically the plan is this: God elects Israel and promises that as long as they remain true to Him, He will bless them greatly and bring down those who oppose them so that people will see Israel, know that this nation is blessed by God, and want to go there and find out about this God in order to also be blessed. God’s election of Israel is one that pours both blessing and responsibility on Israel as God’s instrument to bless all nations.  We see this process at work for example in Joshua, with Rahab’s exclamation that…

Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it, our hearts failed, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below.

So God’s election of Israel looks like this

Now, when God rescues the Hebrew nation from Egypt and they begin to lose faith in Him, God establishes a more concrete way for this function of Israel as his instrument to the nations to work. That is, the Law. Through the Law, God has a means for Israel to show that they are truly His people and are committed to their task as God’s elect. When they follow His commandments established in the Law, God will bless their nation and out from that blessing the whole world. When they do not follow Him, other nations will not know they are His and so they will not have His blessing at all. The problem is of course that the Hebrews cannot follow the Law perfectly, and so the sacrificial laws are in place as a means for Israel to show their commitment to the Covenant (of election) even when they fall short of following the Law. When they sacrifice their best animals (these are very important live stock for them) for their sins, God will pass over those sins and continue to bless them according to the covenant.

This system works pretty well with some fluctuation for many years. However, eventually as attested by the prophets, Israel forsakes her duty to the covenant with Yahweh and instead whores herself to other cultures and Gods. But they maintain the sacrifices, believing that they are a sort of substitution for sin, a get-out-of-sin-free card. And this is when God sends Babylon to destroy Israel as concrete proof of God’s attitude toward them. They are no longer blessed, for they no longer understand or have commitment to their covenant. All throughout the prophets we see exclamations from God saying that He is no longer accepting the sacrifices of Israel. Particularly climatic are His words through Hosea exclaiming that He doesn’t even want sacrifices, He just wants Israel’s love.

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

Note that He doesn’t want their love and their offerings, just their love. If He has that, He does not need the signs of commitment afforded by the sacrifices. Jesus echoes this very passage to the Pharisees as well:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

However, as we know, Israel remains obstinate to the pleas of God throughout the prophets. But God does not give up; His desire to reach the world and His promises to Israel can be fulfilled another way. That is, through the figure whom Isaiah prophesies about, “The Suffering Servant”. The suffering servant is going to take up Israel’s covenant and fulfill it in Himself. Israel’s wickedness is so great that they will make the servant suffer despite the fact that He is fulfilling their calling for them. He will suffer at the hands of God’s very own people and remain faithful, so that they can be made right with God.

Enter Jesus. Jesus is the suffering servant. Israel’s covenant is to remain loyal to God and His commandments, receive God’s blessings and with those blessings, be a blessing to all nations. This is exactly what Jesus does. He obeys God perfectly, God pours blessings on Jesus because of His faithfulness which draws great attention to Him, and He uses that attention to turn many to God. And as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus is faithful even to horrible death on a cross at the hands of the very people whose commitment He is living on their behalf. And with His death and resurrection He becomes the complete fulfillment of the covenant. People even to this day see the wondrous faithfulness and blessing of Jesus and come to the Father because of it. With His death and resurrection He fulfilled the Old Covenant in Himself. The reason we no longer have to sacrifice animals is not because Jesus took all of our sins with Him, but because He completed the Old Covenant. He came not to abolish the Law, or satisfy the Law, but to fulfill it.

Where does this leave us with atonement? If Jesus did not take the penalty of our sin, then how are our sins forgiven? This answer lies primarily with Paul. While Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of Israel, He is also the New Adam.

Romans 5
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul says that through Adam’s disobedience all were condemned. Because of Adam’s failure, humanity became a failure. But Christ is the new Adam and His effect is greater. While through Adam’s disobedience was born condemnation for all, Christ’s perfect obedience led to justification for all. Because of Jesus’ perfection as a human, humanity is now deemed justified (a success) with God. So not only did Jesus accomplish Israel’s work for them, but also He accomplished humanity’s. Jesus has done everything for us, all God is now waiting only for is the return of His prodigals. He asks us for nothing in return for our disobedience and squandering, for Jesus has already given it. As Christian’s we are ambassadors of this message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-20
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ…

Jesus’ New Covenant asks us to be further witness to His completion of the Old Covenant. We recognize what Christ has done for us and model ourselves to be like Him to draw more people to Christ and through Christ, to God. In this way we become “In Christ” and share in His election. The new covenant also shares in Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf as a way of showing commitment. This is the Eucharist, or Communion. We no longer need to sacrifice animals because of Christ, so Jesus calls us instead to remember His sacrifice and commit to the new Covenant by taking the wine and the bread in remembrance of what He has done for us. And it is Jesus who ensures our forgiveness for sin, as a mediator on our behalf. And anything Christ asks of God the Father is given to Him, like our forgiveness.

I have a few final points I would like to share. I covered a lot here that could have easily been expanded on, but for the sake of trying to get to the point, I kept it as short as possible, though I hope, while preserving the point of where Substutionary Atonement goes wrong. Also, I have to give credit to theologian Robin A. Parry whose books introduced a lot of this insight to me. And lastly, Jesus as the new Adam and fulfillment of Israel is not a totally complete account of Jesus’ work but it is a significant understanding necessary to understanding a lot of the language of sacrifice and election in the Bible. It also stands against the schizophrenic, retributive problems of penal substitution.

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Hosea

Hosea is definitely one of my favorites of the prophets. The book is filled with compelling imagery chronicling God’s anger at Israel’s spurning of Him. But mixed in with it is God’s compassion and love overcoming His anger. Showing that no matter how much we deserve His the consummation of wrath, His compassion and love are stronger. And while in the now we may face judgment, at the end is His even greater mercy.

Hosea 11

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

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To start, the penal substitution model of atonement holds that sin is an offense against God that must be paid for. However, the offense is so great that we cannot pay it. God, because of His justice, cannot simply allow our sin to go unpunished and as such, our sin means we merit eternal wrath. Jesus atoned for our sins by taking all the punishment for sin upon him (though he was without sin). Thus all our punishment is merited to him, and those who believe are found not guilty of their sin.

 

In previous posts on my blog I have attacked the penal substitution model of atonement in various ways. I attacked the notion that retributive justice makes sense for God (or anyone); I also have argued that such a belief robs God of the ability to forgive, and therefore love. In this post I am going to examine a passage of scripture that by itself shows the penal substitution view to be flawed.

Mark 2

Jesus Heals a Paralytic

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

 

In this passage Jesus forgives a man’s sin. He does so without punishment, without offset, without sacrifice. So at face value we see that penal substitution’s model of atonement is at risk. But, those who hold this view (much of traditional Christianity) have an answer. They say that Jesus can forgive sins because his death/sacrifice is ordained. That is, he knows that the man’s sin will be paid and so he can say that his sins are forgiven. Now that may seem like a stretch but if we hold a priori that God has revealed throughout the Old Testament that sin requires a sacrifice or offset it seems like a plausible statement.

The problem with that argument however, is the reaction of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were experts in Old Testament law and their problem with Jesus is not that Jesus is incapable of forgiving sin because it requires an offset, but that only God can forgive sins. They see forgiving sin as a matter of authority (which Jesus responds by saying that He has that authority) not satisfaction (justice being met), the Pharisees know sin is an offence against God and so only God can forgive it. The claim that the Old Testament teaches, that God requires an offset for sin, seems to be contradicted by the very people in the best position to make such a claim. And so I think it is only plausible that the passage be taken at face value, so when Jesus says to the man his sins are forgiven, they are. Because God can forgive sin, can show mercy, can love without requiring a dispersion of wrath. The offended party is God and He can choose not to be offended.

A Clarification:

I am not saying that there is no support to the claim that Jesus paid our debt for our sins. Jesus’ atonement for us is described in many ways as the authors try to convey exactly how momentous of an occasion Jesus’ death was. For Jews who had lived under the sacrificial system, this model espouses continuity between the Old Covenant and the New. Jesus is the last lamb to be sacrificed and no more are required. The problem is when this view gets turned from the consummation of a symbol to a metaphysical necessity, leaving God to be some demanding tyrant judge, incapable of mercy or forgiveness, requiring the eternal punishment of even the slightest offense. The other problem with this view is that the model is framed as a way for Jews to make sense of the cross. The modern mind does not connect to the idea of sacrifice and bestowing sin from one person to another and so in holding this view as the dominant theme of how God is setting sin straight, we alienate people to the gospel and confuse even those raised in Christianity. The New Testament writers employ many ways for us to understand what happened at the cross because they are speaking to many different audiences. It seems that Christianity needs to learn that skill again as well.

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