Tag Archives: Christ

If it’s Saturday, it must be Arians [Trinity Misconceptions]

This is a post in a series about the Trinity. The introduction is here, and part two is here.

It’s a Saturday morning. Two well dressed guests knock on your door. They introduce themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and ask if they can show you what the Bible really teaches. They deny that Christ is the second person of a Trinity, and say instead that He is the first of God’s creation, who created everything else.

Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a very recent development, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes got it right: There is nothing new under the sun. The teachings of the Witnesses about Jesus are an ancient heresy known as Arianism.

The History

Early in the history of the Christian Church, a young man named Arius was studying in Alexandria. From the work of earlier teachers (perhaps Paul of Samosata) he concluded that the Son was created; that is, there was a time when the Son, the Logos in John, did not exist. The teaching of Arius was very popular among the Alexandrian schools, and his theology spread fast.

Proponents of orthodoxy initially won out, led by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. The Emperor Constantine, a catechumen in the church at the time, called a council at Nicaea in 324 A.D. and all but two of the bishops there agreed that the Scriptures taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “consubstantial” (i.e. they share the same substance, or essence, or being). They composed the Nicene Creed, to put into a succinct statement of faith what the Scriptures teach.

Many have criticized the political power with which Constantine upheld orthodoxy. Often there are myths such as “Constantine determined the canon of Scripture at Nicaea,” or other such silliness. Those improper understandings of the council aside, Constantine did use his power inappropriately (in my estimation) when he ordered the destruction of Arian documents and the death penalty for those who did not volunteer Arian documents in their possession.

Ironically, Constantine later exiled Athanasius, the hero of orthodoxy, in an attempt at conciliating Arian sympathizers. At any rate, when Constantine’s son, Constantius II, assumed power, he used it to spread Arian doctrine throughout the Roman Empire by force. The point being, political force was used inappropriately on both sides of this issue. What we must look at, then, is the doctrines themselves.

The Theology

For a good starting point in discussion with any Jehovah’s Witnesses you may meet, I don’t suggest John 1:1. In their New World Translation of Scripture, they twist this verse to read “and the Word was a god.” Unless you speak Greek fluently, and are able to teach them Greek fluently, it won’t be much use to tell them that their translation is wrong. They simply won’t believe you.

Rather, I’d suggest jumping over to John 1:3. Even in the NWT it reads “[a]ll things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.” When I read this with them, I’ll change the “all” to “some” and “not even one thing” to “almost nothing.” So I will (mis)read “some things came into existence through him, and apart from him almost nothing came into existence.”

When I misread it, they will usually correct me. When the answer comes from their own mind, instead of being supplied by someone with whom they disagree, it is much more effective at communicating the point.

That point is that, according to the grammar of John 1:3, Jesus cannot have come into existence. Why? Because all things that came into existence came through him. Can a man be his own father? His own cause of being (in other words, his own efficient cause)? Of course not. So also, if not even one thing came into existence apart from the Word (that’s Jesus, remember? see Jn. 1:14) then Jesus can’t have come into existence, because then at least one thing came into existence apart from Jesus.

If you’re more of a visual learner, you’ll appreciate this very helpful blog post by Greg Koukl. It is essentially no different to what I outlined here, but he has a visual aid that make the point very clear.

Like I mentioned before, I’ll only be posting on Thursdays for a while during my summer intensive at school. I hope to get back to a regular Monday post soon, but I may edit the schedule further to allow for all of my obligations. God’s blessings on your week!

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Christ is Risen! Why I believe in something as crazy as Jesus’ physical resurrection.

Alleluia! Jesus Christ is risen indeed! Happy Easter!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the definitive apologetic for the Christian faith. If Jesus is not alive, St. Paul tells us, our faith is in vain. Alternatively, if Christ is raised from the dead, then all else must certainly be counted as vanity. After all, if the Christian faith is true, God offers us Christ’s victory over death as our own.

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, put it this way: If, at the end of my life, I find out that, say, atheism was true instead of Christianity, it won’t matter. I’ll be dead, the universe will go on, and I’ll be none the wiser. But if someone who doesn’t believe in Christianity finds out it is true, then they lose everything. As Jesus said, even if they’ve gained the whole world that will not profit them if they lose their soul eternally. This isn’t an argument for Christianity, per se, but I hope you see why it’s important to think about things that have potentially eternal ramifications. And in an effort to help you think about these things, whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever or somewhere in between, I want to present you with several reasons you ought to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

The empty tomb.

It seems a pretty basic argument: If the tomb isn’t empty, Jesus isn’t raised from the dead, right? I mean, if you have a body, you don’t have a resurrection. So why didn’t the earliest opponents of Christianity just produce the body and be done with it?

Well, the Christian response has always been that they can’t! The tomb is empty and they can’t find Jesus’ body because He’s ascended into heaven! Let’s look at a few lines of evidence for the empty tomb. A lot of people summarize them with the acronym JET: Jerusalem, Enemies, Testimony of Women. Let’s start with Jerusalem.

The Gospels and Acts tell us that the Apostles began preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem, where Jesus had just been crucified. Can you imagine how hard it would be to preach Peter’s Pentecost sermon about how the Lord of Glory had been crucified, and raised from the dead, if the Jews could produce a body and shut you down immediately? And yet that’s exactly what happens: Peter preaches a powerful message within walking distance of the tomb, saying “David’s tomb is still here, but God raised Jesus up!” If the tomb wasn’t empty, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground.

Now the point comes up again: Why didn’t the earliest enemies of Christianity just grab His body? If the tomb was still full then the Jewish leaders could have just strung up the body and paraded it through the streets. Instead they pay off the guards to say they fell asleep and the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15). This is precisely because the tomb was discovered empty that first Easter Sunday, and they couldn’t produce the body! It speaks volumes when your strongest opponents confirm your point; John Stott said the silence of Christ’s enemies is just as eloquent a proof of the resurrection as the apostles’ witness.

Finally, the fact that women discovered the tomb would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting first century male. If the disciples were trying to start a religion, they wouldn’t have had women be the first people to discover Jesus had risen. The Talmud, a collection of Jewish teachings from the time, says “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a). Many more quotes could be piled on to demonstrate the low view of women that first-century Judaism took, especially in regards to legal matters: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15). So for the Gospels to record such a stark reality — that the male disciples are still cowering in fear and unbelief, while the female disciples go to see Jesus at the tomb — smacks of truth! If you’re going to start a religion in the first century, you don’t do it by painting yourself as a coward compared to a lowly woman.

So based on the nearness to Jerusalem, the silence of the Enemies, and Testimony of Women (JET), it certainly seems like the tomb was empty that Easter morning. And this is only a superficial exploration of the very rich collection of evidence. If this was the end of the case, there would still be compelling reason to consider the claims of Christ further. But there’s still much more.

The appearances of Christ

The Apostle Paul records that after He was raised Jesus “appeared first to Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five-hundred people at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep; then to James, then to all the apostles…” (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). We see Jesus appearing to individuals and groups, both friendly and hostile. This variety shows us that Christ did indeed appear to His church.

Often people object that the apostles probably had some grief hallucinations. Despite the fact that hallucinations would probably have fit preconceived notions of Jesus resting in Abraham’s Bosom (where faithful Jews awaited the general resurrection at the end of the world), and hallucinations generally don’t give rise to life-altering beliefs, people persist in this particular objection. But Jesus did not just appear to individuals alone; He appeared to groups of people, and groups of people do not have shared hallucinations. That’s why we pay attention when two or three eyewitnesses say they saw the same thing. Not only that, but it wasn’t just friendly sources who saw Jesus: Hostile sources like James (Jesus’ brother who had previously disbelieved his Brother’s claims to Godhood) and Paul (then called Saul, and a murderer of the Christian heretics) both saw Jesus raised from the dead!

The change in the apostles.

Read Luke 22:54-62, then read Acts 2:14-36. Both passages deal with Peter, both are by the same author, and yet the Peter who denies Jesus is very different to the Peter who stands up on the day of Pentecost and preaches a powerful sermon about Jesus’ authority and victory over death. What changed this coward into a bold preacher? He told you, if you read the Acts account: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Meeting the risen Jesus completely changed Peter — there’s just no other way to put it. And what could possibly change a man from being so fearful of death to preaching to those who could kill him? Again, he told us: Death has no power over Jesus (See verse 24). So Peter no longer feared death because he had met death’s match; he had met someone who walked straight into the belly of Death and punched a hole in it’s side. That’s why when Peter was faced with death, rather than recanting what he had said, he boldly confessed Christ and received martyrdom for it.

But it wasn’t just Peter or John or the close friends of Jesus who were changed. As I mentioned above, Jesus’s appearance changed people who had been hostile to the faith. James, Jesus’ brother, went from unbeliever to apostle when he met Jesus, even writing the letter bearing his name. And Saul of Tarsus, who was basically a hit man the Jewish leaders hired to kill Christians, said he met Jesus on the way to a murder-for-hire in Damascus. From then on Saul went by Paul, and went from one of the top persecutors of the church to one of it’s chief advocates, writing roughly half of the New Testament, being shipwrecked, stoned, and persecuted in various means as he tried to spread the Gospel. Paul, too, received death as a martyr, choosing to bear witness to what a great hope Christ’s resurrection had given him rather than to live. Becoming a Christian early on in the history of the church generally ended with your own blood being shed. Ask yourself, what would compel a man to leave a successful, stable, and relatively cushy life as a traveling persecutor of heretics, only to be persecuted himself, and ultimately die as a result? Doesn’t the conversion of Paul invite us to take a second look at this whole Easter thing?

So what?

I’m sure that as you’ve reached the end of this post you have questions, and perhaps objections. I’d love to hear them. But I think perhaps the most pressing question is “so what?” What does the fact of the resurrection mean for you? That depends on how you respond to it. If you respond in faith then the resurrection is fantastic news — and faith is not a blind and reasonless ignorance but a trust that is willing to step beyond the evidence, as one might trust that there is something casting a shadow though you cannot see anything but the shadow cast. If you trust that Jesus’ work on the cross, His death, and His resurrection were for you, then this whole Easter thing means so much: Peace with God, forgiveness of your deepest sins and guilt, the strength to fight against sin in your self, and so much more.

Responding in unbelief, however, and rejecting Jesus’ work means that you will have none of that. You will continue to be at odds with God and the universe, you will continue to deal with your guilt on your own, you will continue to be a slave to all of your sinful desires. C. S. Lewis put it nicely: “Some people say to God, ‘thy will be done,’ and there are some people to whom God says ‘thy will be done.'” In other words, if you continue to reject Jesus’ work, and God’s invitation back into right relationship with Him, He will, one day, say “depart from me, I never knew you.”

So this is what the resurrection means: Eternal life, joy everlasting, and freedom from sin, death, and the Devil. I hope you have found a few compelling reasons to believe that the resurrection did indeed happen: If the tomb wasn’t empty, how’d Christianity even get off the ground? If Jesus didn’t convert the Apostle Paul, why did he go from killing Christians to being killed as one? And if these things are true, then why do you delay? It was for your sins that Christ died: Repent of your sins, trust in Him, and His victory this day is also your victory. May God grant it.

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Where is your God now?

I heard an atheist at a local debate challenge the Christian apologist thus: “Where is your God when I see 14-year-old children dying of cancer?” And to be honest, I identified with his sentiment. There is something existentially revulsive about suffering.

A family loses their children to a drunk driver; a single father who has never smoked is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; even a family dog suffers long with some undiagnosable disease before finally being put down. Where is your God when these things and more, too heinous to recount here, happen?

Throughout the years people have tried to answer that question in a myriad of ways. Some say that suffering is the result of sin. This is, in my estimation, not a very helpful answer. It’s true that, given Christianity, all suffering is the result of sin. Adam sinned, and all of creation was cursed — we live in a fallen world. But knowing that we live in a fallen world offers little comfort when staring death in the face.

Neither is saying that suffering is the result of particular sins very helpful. Sin certainly could be the cause, but when we start to peer into the unrevealed will of God we tend to get things wrong. Think Westboro Baptist Church, here: 9/11 was God’s judgement on America for our sins. While it may be true that sin brings about punishment, this answer tends to go the way of Job’s comrades: Often unhelpful and of little comfort.

In fact, Jesus warned about this kind of speculation in Luke 13 when He said that those on whom the tower fell were not worse sinners than the rest, but that we should repent or likewise perish. According to Christ, the proper response to suffering is not to blame the victim for their own sins but to take a long, hard look at our own sins and repent of them. But this is not, in itself, an answer to the problem of suffering, as much as it is a personal response to tragedy.

So in what way does Christianity offer a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil? What comfort does Christianity offer to those who suffer? What do you say to the child with cancer, or to her parents? For me the only satisfying answer to suffering is Jesus: The Crucified God.

Christianity teaches “the Word became flesh.” That is, the divine Logos, who was God, assumed a human nature and dwelt here among us. He ate and drank and laughed and cried here as a human being. And then He willingly went and suffered a terrible, senseless death. His death was the only time a bad thing happened to a truly and perfectly good person. And He, for the joy set before Him, for the sake of His people, the sheep of His pasture, chose it.

God chose to go to the Cross and die. The Author of Life came to an ignominious end hung from a tree “made through Him.” Death was filled up with the very source of life. This is God’s answer to all human suffering and evil — both the evil we do and the evil done to us. That He Himself suffered with us, and suffered for us, redeems suffering in a way that no other answer can.

I no longer need an answer to specific instances of pain or suffering in my life. If I find out tomorrow that I have two weeks to live, I know that I have nothing to fear. Why? Because the God who hung Himself on the Cross for love of His enemies can be trusted. If God allows suffering in my life, it is to draw me closer to Him.

Of course, why should I expect to understand something as complex as human suffering in the first place? As Alvin Plantinga put it, why should we expect the justification for human suffering to be big and in your face like a Saint Bernard and not more like the no-see-um bug? In fact, the idea of gratuitous suffering is incredibly presumptuous — to assume that if our very limited human perspective is unable to discern what we consider to be a good reason for suffering then such a reason must not exist is, to be charitable, quite arrogant.

Given Christ on the Cross, we cannot call any suffering gratuitous. I cannot tell you how the suffering of an animal trapped in a forest fire will be redeemed by Christ, but I know that He has said “Behold I am making all things new,” and I trust the God who subjected Himself to the curse to save those under the curse. In fact even death itself has been redeemed by the dying God, for death could not and did not hold Him. He did not remain in the grave, but rose again, as the firstborn from the dead, and one day He will come again to undo our deaths as well.

On the contrary, atheism offers no such hope. Atheism must say to the 14-year-old “Even if we find a cure for your cancer in time, you will still suffer and eventually die.” That is it. There is no redemption of the brokenness, no great un-telling of the stories — just suffering and eternal death.

Tim Keller, in his book “The Reason for God” sums up the Christian position quite nicely:

Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer of Christianity to that question is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost. (pg. 33)

Where is your God now? He is not here, but He has risen. He has ascended bearing the marks of His passion and He will return in the same way He left. And when He comes again, we will not have to ask “Was it worth it?”

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Magic, materialism, and the middle way.

I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.

— Michael Scott, The Office.

America has a problem. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis said that the devil doesn’t mind if a man is a magician or a materialist, but hails both errors with the same delight. I think that Americans are simultaneously far too supernaturalist and far too naturalist. By this I mean that we paradoxically see God both everywhere and nowhere, and this weird double standard is damaging to our faith. This paradox is captured beautifully for us in the following tweets from Paula White:

As I said, this is an excellent example of our dichotomized mindset. Ms. White clearly believes that our words have power. When tackling mountains, should one use Expulso or Reducto, I wonder? Your faith-filled words allow God to do things for you. The poor, powerless creator of the universe looks down from on high just waiting for you to have enough faith to fill up a word so that He can help you out! Scrolling through her Twitter feed, it becomes quickly obvious how Ms. White views our words as a supernatural work. There is no such thing as the mundane in this mindset: No more prayers for daily bread, now we ask for abundance; no more working quietly with our hands, now we have to shout down whatever is meant by “mountains;” everything revolves around some super-Christian destiny. What if your destiny is to be a dentist?

I could go on about how the other half of this dialogue is just as confused. In this kind of theology, when God speaks to us it is apart from His Word. It is in impressions confirmed by omens, like moving to NYC because after you prayed about it you started seeing a whole bunch of “I Heart NYC” shirts. It’s in “what does this bible verse mean to you” bible studies. God speaks definitively enough in vision-casting, but rarely is the Apostolic message read from the pulpit. God’s voice is sought after in everything but the clear teachings of Scripture handed down by the Apostles for all people to believe. This kind of mysticism, on both ends of the dialogue, has shipwrecked the faith of countless people; it almost claimed my faith when I was young. Despair is an easy thing to fall into when you look to yourself or your surroundings rather than Christ dying for you on the Cross to define how God feels toward you.

Herein lies the paradox of this theology: Everything is supernatural and spiritual, except for God, who is bound by this law of attraction. God, the only truly supernatural thing in existence, is in fact reduced to a mere vending machine to be manipulated by clever words and prayers. And thus nothing is supernatural: Everything operates by the naturalistic mechanism of cause and effect. If I pray correctly, then God is bound to answer my prayers. For a country that stresses how Christianity is a relationship, there’s not much relationship to be had with this robotic God.

Even worse, now the impetus of that relationship is on you. You have to approach God correctly, you have to have enough faith, you have to speak the right words, you, you, you, you, you… And when your faith-filled words fail to fix the disease that is killing your child? When you can’t quite find the right words to allow God to fix your broken relationship with your spouse? It’s easy to see why so many people despair of any help from this weak God.

Let me propose a better way — a way that sees far more of God in the natural, and far less of us in the supernatural. I was studying Luther’s Small Catechism the other day, and in reading what he has to say about the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, a particular phrase stuck out to me:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

What does this mean?–Answer.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

(source)

Every good thing that we have, from our bodies to our families to our material possessions, is from God. When you get your paycheck, it is not your employer providing for you, but it is God through your employer providing for you. Your ability to read the words of this post is only given to you because God has provided and preserved your eyes and cognitive faculties. He does not do this because of your good behavior or any worthiness on your part. To put it another way, contra Paula White, you were not born because your words allowed God to give you your “body and soul,” but because He is good and merciful and decided to create you that He might show this goodness and mercy to you. His Goodness, not your words, is His motivation for blessing you. And that blessing is only made evident in Christ.

If anyone had faith, it was Jesus. And yet when He asked the Father that this cup might pass, it did not. Why? Pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. God was working in the Cross for the redemption of the World, reconciling us to Himself and not counting our trespasses against us. Why? Pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy. Not because we deserved to be reconciled! Not because our faith-filled words merited salvation! And certainly not because we allowed God to act! Simply because, in spite of us, God chose to step down into this world, “take up that human nature into [Himself],” and demonstrate His love toward sinners by dying for them. In this death, He has made His goodness so apparent that Paul had the audacity to write that God makes all things work for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. Paul, who watched the stoning of St. Stephen, who was beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and tortured for Christ’s sake, turned around and said that all of this was good. Why? Because Paul saw all of this through the lens of the Cross, God’s definitive statement toward humanity of love, mercy, and peace.

This is what I mean by a better way: What if we, like Paul, learned that rather than seeing our suffering as something to be fled from, it was something to be rejoiced in, not for the sake of suffering alone but for what God is doing in and through us in that suffering. It is a far greater thing to suffer for Christ’s sake than to gain the world and lose your soul. And when we view suffering in our life through the lens of the Cross, all of this word of faith nonsense falls aside quite easily and we start to see God’s pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy even in our weakness.

Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He cries, “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself’! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer of Christianity to that question is yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.

— Tim Keller, The Reason for God, pg. 33

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God is not an elephant.

I’ve reflected today on an old story. You’ve probably heard it. It goes something like this:

Four blind men are in a room with an elephant. They each approach the elephant and feel it, so as to describe it to those around them. However, each man touches a different part of the elephant.

“An elephant is like a snake!” says the first man, cradling the trunk in his arms. “No,” the second replies as he runs smack into the elephant’s side, “an elephant is like a rock: Large, and round, and strong; and yet also gentle and forgiving.” “You’re both wrong! An elephant is like a tree trunk!” the third man laughs, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. “An elephant, my friends, is like a flounder; large and flat.” The last man has hold of the elephants ears.

Which man is right?

This parable is told by many people, who want to downplay the significant differences between the major world religions. They shy away from the mutually exclusive (Christ is either just a good man, or He is God, but He cannot be both), and seek a more inclusive, less dogmatic faith. They call religious dogma and doctrine arrogant. Why? Because in reality, they claim, we’re all blind men touching different parts of the same elephant.

As I was reflecting on this story today, two thoughts struck me. The first is that whoever narrates this story is not blind. They see the whole elephant. The second is that God is not an elephant.

To expound on the first point a bit, the person who calls those of us with a particular view of God “arrogant” or “too dogmatic” operates under the assumption that they know what God is like. They are the narrator in the story — at least in their mind — and they know that all of our petty squabbles are just the grating ignorance of blind men. On the other hand, they assume the ability to see the whole elephant with at least enough clarity to know that the blind men are touching the same elephant. Isn’t it at least as arrogant, and a bit hypocritical to boot, to assume that you have this sight that no other religious tradition seems to have?

Many others have raised this point in response to this story; this is just a refresher on the most basic problem with this objection to the exclusivity of religious dogma. Up to this point, almost any religion would probably be able to appropriate the argument I have used. As we explore the second point, however, that will end.

Now I do not dispute that we are blind men. I’ve certainly never had coffee with God; Jesus and I have never grabbed beers together (or would wine be more appropriate, perhaps?). I am certainly “blind” in that I have never seen God, or known Him experientially or empirically. But God is not an elephant. I know that I’ve immediately ostracized any Hindu’s that might read this. But here’s my point: Elephant’s don’t talk. They can’t communicate. A blind man could spend all day exploring an elephant and he wouldn’t get a single English (or other useful language) word out of him (although I’m sure at some point even the most patient of elephants would protest his persistence).

But God is not an elephant. God can speak. God can communicate to us. How can a blind man know what an elephant looks like? If someone describes that elephant to him. I love how John says Christ came to exegete the Father to us — that Jesus made the Father known to us, because since the beginning He has always been in communion with the Father (John 1). And so God does not sit silently as we shuffle in the dark, each speculating and feeling our way toward Him (Acts 17:27). God the Father sends the Son to earth, and the Spirit upholds those whom the Son sends to tell the world about His death for their sins and resurrection for their new life (1 Corinthians 15; Romans 6). Now, in spite of our blindness, we still can see and know God, because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

We are blind men, indeed, but God is not an elephant.

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The Boston Bombing: A Christian Response.

This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I lived through 9/11, but I was too young to write about it. I remember the tears on my art teacher’s face as the second building came down. I remember my mother grieving. I grieved, in my own naive way. And I prayed for justice. 

Now, older and at least marginally wiser, I pray for forgiveness.

I hear already the resounding human response to every tragedy: “Where was God in all this?” Never mind that it doesn’t make sense to appeal to how things “ought” to be without an objective moral standard. When nothing goes wrong, no one thanks Him; when anything goes wrong, everyone blames Him. And no thanks, either, for the drastically reduced death count from our last massive terror attack. How merciful that out of the 27,000 runners and who knows how many spectators, only 3 dead and around 130 wounded. Are these terrible things? Yes. My heart breaks for those families who lost loved ones, and everyone affected by this calamity. At the same time, I am grateful that God, in His great mercy, restrained what could have been a massively more horrific event.

In the news coverage of this event that is now spilled an indelible crimson across our national consciousness, there are going to be many religious voices vying for attention. Westboro Baptist Church, true to the spirit of antichrist that rules them, has already begun spewing their violent, hateful rhetoric. Some voices will be raised to champion human unity, love, charity, and the like. However, as laudable as those ideas may be, none of them has the power to lay an axe to the root of the Boston Bombing.

In Luke 13, Jesus responds to some current events in His day. Listen to what He says about tragedy:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

(Lk. 13:1-5, ESV).

See, contrary to the WBC, Jesus says that tragedy striking is not indicative of whether or not the people upon whom it falls are more or less guilty than others. In fact, Jesus turns to those listening and says it is not because they were worse sinners that they suffered!

Tragedy cuts the legs out from under those who would judge, because it reminds us of the real problem: We are all guilty before God. In an attempt to weasel out of our shame, we use these horrific times as an escape. “Look how displeased God must have been with them, to visit anguish like that on their city.” But Christ shows us that sin is the great equalizer: Everyone is equally guilty. No one is a greater or lesser offender.

And so the messages of unity, hope, and love are not enough to overcome the problem: Sin. Again, those things are commendable, but to think they can fix the problem is to think you can cover the stench of a pigsty with a few rose petals. We must address the problem at the root, or we will never kill the tree.

Christ has an answer for us here: Repent — repent or perish.

Let this call ring out to those who have the ears to hear: Let us all repent of all those times which we have failed to love God, or love others as ourselves. Let us seek the forgiveness of the One whom we have wronged. Let us repent that we may not perish. And if God is so merciful as to lavish His grace upon us, to forgive us of our sins, and to forbear a little longer with this nation that many more may come to repentant faith and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins — if God be so merciful, should we not pray for those who visited this great horror on us?

Is this not still the God who does not delight in the death of the wicked? Is this not the same Christ who commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? And if He has loved sinners by dying for them, and prayed that the Father forgive us for our ignorance, should we not pray the same for these depraved men? After all, we’re all equally guilty. Whatever judgement you want to heap on their head, you and I deserve as well. Don’t get me wrong: I pray that these terrorists are caught quickly and put on trial for their crimes. But in terms of eternal souls, mine sure didn’t deserve saving, so I have no footing to stand on to say that theirs does not as well.

This is why the Gospel answers these horrors so well: Any time that we see the effects of sin take their course, we know that God is not sitting idly by simply allowing these things to occur. No, He has stepped down into history and taken upon Himself the “punishment that brought us peace” (Isaiah 53). And now, He is making all things new. Everything is rushing toward its ultimate, glorious consummation and glorification, when Christ will bring all things, even this, into subjection under Himself. Until that day, let us live in daily repentance and faith, so that we may be forgiven of our sins.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

1 Corinthians 15:1-8

Only the Gospel offers this now and future hope. God bless you all. Pray for Boston — pray for forgiveness.

In Christ,

Jonathan Graham.

UPDATE: At 3 AM, when I originally posted this, I had not fully researched some of the various ways to support those affected by the Boston bombing. Now that i’ve had some time to do some research as to ways to help Boston, you can read about that here.

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That Christ Died. (or, an introduction to the resurrected Lord, part 2.)

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures[.]

— 1 Corinthians 15:3

It may seem an unnecessary point to begin a series on the resurrection on: Doesn’t almost everyone almost everywhere know that the man called Christ died on a Roman cross? Isn’t that a properly basic fact of history? Well…no, and yes, respectively.

You see, while there is overwhelming historical evidence that Jesus Christ was indeed put to death on a Roman cross, there are still those who deny that this happened. The Swoon theory of the resurrection accounts denies that Christ actually physically died. Rather, in an effort to deny the resurrection, proponents assert that He just passed out, and was buried alive. He revived, rather than resurrected, in the tomb.

Muslims also dismiss the historicity of the death of Jesus. Sura 4:157 says:

And [for] their saying, ‘Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .’ And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.

In other words, Christ was not crucified, but someone else was made to look like Him, and was crucified in His place, while He was taken up into heaven. We’ll come back to refuting both of these notions. For now let us ask: What do we know about Jesus’ death?

An examination of hostile sources — both pagan and Jewish — will render us able to confidently state that Jesus was indeed put to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Cornelius Tacitus, the “great historian” of ancient Rome, records in his acclaimed work Annals, “Christus…suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out…” (XV). As F. F. Bruce famously pointed out, Tacitus ironically joined hands with the Creed, affirming that Christ “suffered…[under] Pontius Pilate.” The extreme penalty is synonymous with capital punishment, which was most often crucifixion. Lucian of Samosata twice references the crucified Christ whom we “misguided creatures” follow (The Death of Peregrine). And finally, the Babylonian Talmud records how Jesus was “hanged on the eve of Passover” (Sanhedrin 43a). “Hanged” is used throughout the Talmud to refer to crucifixion. All of these — and more, excluded for the sake of brevity — bear independent and hostile witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross — a very good start!

But for more detail, we must turn to the eyewitnesses of the life of Christ: His disciples. However, I’m sure that the objection will be raised “well of course they’re going to say He died and rose again. After all, they’re Christians!” Eyewitness bias is indeed to be taken into consideration. That’s one reason I appealed to hostile sources. No one can accuse Tacitus of Christian proselytizing! But consider this: The disciples were not previously Christians who wrote down what they saw; rather, they became Christians because of what they saw, and then wrote it down for others. In other words, the accusation of bias doesn’t make sense.

We will begin the night of Jesus’ betrayal. After the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus bowed to pray. Here, Luke records that Jesus, “in an agony,” began to sweat great drops of blood (Luke 22:44). This was, for a very long time, regarded as a legend that had accumulated into the Christian tradition. Sweating blood? Unbelievable! As medical science has advanced, however, we now know of hematidrosis: Sweating blood! This incredibly rare medical condition is most often precipitated by “[a]cute fear and intense mental contemplation” (1). The details of Luke’s account testify to the thoroughness of his research (Luke 1:1-4)! The rarity of this condition makes this an unlikely legendary accretion.

After His flesh had been sensitized by the hematidrosis, Christ was taken from the garden to the high priest’s home (Lk. 22: 54). Here those who had captured Him — or rather, those with whom He went willingly — blindfolded and beat Him (Lk. 22:63-65). From here, Jesus goes to see Pilate, and Pilate has Him scourged (Lk. 23:16; cf. Jn. 19:1).

Roman scourging was a terrible thing. From history we know that a Roman flagrum was a terrible tool of torture. It had multiple cords, with bits of glass, bone, and stone woven into it. Each cord was weighted at the end, causing the scourge to bite into the flesh; the woven teeth tore out huge chunks of the victim’s body. Eusebius records how “sometimes the scourges tore into [the] innermost veins and arteries, revealing [entrails] and organs” (Ecclesastical History, 4:15). Unlike the Jewish authorities, who only permitted 39 lashes, the Roman authorities had no such limit. In the case of capital punishment, it seems they encouraged lengthy whippings, so as to ensure a timely death. So Christ was stripped of His garments, tied to a post, and stripped of His skin. The damage inflicted by scourging alone was known to cause death.

Hypovolemic shock occurs when you lose %20 or more of the normal amount of blood in your body. At the end of His scourging, Christ was almost certainly undergoing hypovolemic shock. The kidneys shut down to save fluid; your heart starts to pound because your blood pressure drops. After a long night without sleep or food, Christ endures the agony of a Roman scourging, but just barely. Carrying His cross proved too much, so the Roman guards press-ganged Simon of Cyrene into carrying the cross for Him (Lk. 23:26; Mk. 15:20-21; Matt. 27:31-32). In Mark 15 we read that “they brought Him to the place called Golgotha” (22). The phrase “they brought Him” indicates that Christ had collapsed — they carried Him to His execution.

Although the method of crucifixion has come under fire, recent archaeological findings at Giv‘at ha-Mivtar have shown that perpetrators were indeed nailed to the cross through the hands and feet. The fact that this practice was known indicates that this was not a later Christian invention, but John faithfully recording what he saw.

Another interesting inference from the Giv‘at ha-Mivtar findings: Because wood was sparse in the Ancient Near East, it is likely that crucifixions were carried out with olive wood. Because olive trees are not very tall, this would mean that crucifixions would have taken place at or just above eye-level. With a crowd of people gathered around to see Christ’s punishment, those more cowardly disciples in the back row would have a different perspective than that of John the Beloved at the feet of his Lord. Thus the different perspectives in the Gospel narratives.

Crucifixion may kill in a number of ways. Because crucifixions were known to last for days, some victims passed of sepsis, dehydration, starvation, or any of a number of other horrific reasons. However, in the case of Christ, death was the combined result of asphyxiation and cardiac arrest caused by hypovolemic shock. This is evidenced by the record of “blood and water” flowing out of Christ’s spear wound (Jn. 19:34).

As previously mentioned, hypovolemic shock raises the heart rate. This constant pounding away at next to no blood wears the heart down rapidly. Fluid begins to collect around the heart and lungs; a pericardal and pleural effusion, respectively. As the heart fails, the blood slows through the veins and begins to clot. As the soldier’s spear pierced Christ’s side, this mixture of dark red semi-coagulated blood and watery clear serum would have been very obvious to the closer bystander John. His credibility as an eyewitness is increased by the fact that he would have not understood nor been able to explain the “blood and water” that he saw, and yet he recorded it. This phrase is definite evidence that Jesus Christ died on the cross.

In spite of all the demonstrative medical, historical, and archaeological evidence to the contrary, — in spite of the mental anguish, the multiple beatings with fists, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the long walk to Golgotha in His pitiful state, and the sufferings of crucifixion so great that they had to come up with a new word (excruciating, or “out of the cross”) to describe the horrors — some still insist that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. To the Muslim we must ask, do you really believe that John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was confused about what or whom he saw? As he stood near the cross, did he suddenly forget what his rabbi of three and a half years looked like? How could he be so pinpoint accurate about a forensic detail he had no knowledge of, and yet so mistaken as to the identity of a man he had given his life to?

And let us indulge for a moment, against all odds, the strange notion that Christ did not, in fact, die on the cross. First, the idea that He could recover in the tomb unaided is absurd. Josephus had the emperor Titus remove three of his friends from their crosses and got them the best medical help available. Two of them died within a few days (Autobiography, ch. 76; Wars of the Jews, IV v.2). But suppose Jesus’ did all of this: Survived the scourging, the crown of thorns, the various beatings, and the cross itself, and awoke in the tomb. How did He, in His doubtlessly pitiful state, move the stone, pass the guard, walk whatever distance back to Jerusalem, and convince His disciples that they would one day have a resurrection body just like His, and that this was a thing worth dying for? No, the swoon hypothesis clearly falls apart as soon as it faces the facts of history; “that Christ died” is a sure and certain thing.

Stay tuned for part 3: For your sins. As of right now, this series is on hold. I will revive it eventually. Read part 1 here. Questions or comments are both welcome and expected in the form below! 

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American Post-Modernity and Nepalese Paganism.

Not long ago I got to sit and chat with a missionary to Nepal. He and his wife have been over there for some time sharing the Gospel with the Nepalese people. When we were talking, he told me that the greatest challenge in Nepal is the pagan religion already in place. Because the Nepalese people are polytheistic, they hear the Gospel and think it sounds great, so they add Jesus to the pantheon they worship. Jesus becomes another god on their shelf. And it seems as if even those who reject Jesus don’t condemn Him. It seems as if they tolerate Christians just fine, so long as they don’t cause a disturbance.

As I was working this morning, I started to mull this conversation over. Now I am very aware that our worlds are both literally and figuratively miles apart. However there is a strange familiarity to the story he shared with me. You see, America is not so different from Nepal in at least one key way: Everyone has their gods already, and they just want to add Jesus to their pantheon; and those who don’t want Jesus tolerate Him so long as He keeps to Himself. In other ways our mission fields are massively divergent, but here we are not so far apart.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “post-modern” is used to describe the present reigning philosophical period that pervades the culture. It is aptly described as a deep-seated skepticism of everything. All truth claims are to be questioned; none are to be believed. The truth of the matter is dependent on the subject experiencing it. Imagine two baseball umpires, one believing in absolute truth and one a practicing post-modern. The first says “I call them as they are;” the second, “They are as I call them.”

This assumption — “all truths are equally valid and none are binding” — underlies much of modern American culture. Christ has become a good teacher among many equals, rather than the unique Son of God. People are glad to add His voice to the myriad of other spiritual guides they already listen to, or they are content to allow you to believe as you wish. In both cases, however, they refuse to confess that Jesus is God and Lord.

This attitude is present in the visible church as well. Pastor’s refuse to rebuke unsound doctrine. People get upset when you name names like T. D. Jakes or Steven Furtick; calling out a heretic is, for the first time in Christian history, unthinkable. Why? Because those teachers are seen as equally valid strains of Christian thought. The visible church has succumbed to the culture’s ideas that everyone teaches truth. “They must be doing something good! Look how big their church is!” We no longer test men by their doctrine but by how many “lives they’ve changed.” I have been told that it’s wrong to rebuke false teachers because they may have helped others in their spiritual walk. In other words, so long as something a heretic said has helped someone somewhere feel closer to God, then it must be of value. If that is the prevailing attitude of the American church, it doesn’t seem as if Jesus would be welcome in our pulpits.

Pastors, return to your posts. Man up and preach the Word, not this castrated, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in- your-mouth, Osteen-esque skuvbalon which leaves this people with a million excuses. Answer me this: On judgement day, will those who attend your church look at you and ask why you never warned them to flee the wrath to come? Why they never heard the Law expose their Sin and their need for a Savior? In that day, pastor, will your snappy series on better marriages shield them from the wrath of God? Will they grasp for those fig leaves you kept sewing together for them, or will they be clothed in the righteousness of Christ? It will be a great and terrible day for many who now call themselves “pastor.”

All is not lost, of course. God’s Word is still living and active today. Much like Paul was provoked by the idol worship in Athens, the church should be — and I would hope is — sorely provoked by the idol worship in America. You see, ultimately post-modernity is worship of self. “I decide what is right for me.” We are freed from that dreadful tyranny of truth to serve whatever the god of our bellies tells us is right, and no one else can tell us otherwise.

This is why the Gospel cannot be reduced to Jesus as the best way; because “best” no longer means “superior to all others at all places and all times.” We must preach that Jesus is the Way. And as Paul in Athens made known the unknown God, so we stand and declare that Christ truly died for our sins; that there is indeed a God made flesh in Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, exclusive. That this God-man will not be placed lightly among other spiritual voices clamoring for our attention, but will in fact shatter our shrine to self-righteousness, self-esteem, and self-worth, and replace it with His righteousness, with esteem of His glory, and with a yearning for the One who alone is Worthy.

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Santa Claus understood the good news of Christmas.

We’ve all heard the story of Santa Claus. Cheery old chap from the North Pole, swings by once a year to deliver either toys or coal depending on whether you’ve been naughty or nice. Yeah?

Well, if you grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey like I did, you’ve also heard how Kris Kringle comes to us from a real historical figure: Nicholas of Myra. When Nicholas was very young, his parents died leaving him a large fortune. Under the care of his uncle, an abbot, he became a Christian. He decided that he would do whatever he could to bless people, since God had blessed him with wealth. He would give away his money whenever he could, but he would do it in secret.

Once, the story goes, he saw three daughters who’s father had gambled away their dowry. Since he didn’t want them to know what he was doing, he snuck a sock full of gold through the window of the oldest daughter one night. She found it the next morning, and soon was married. He did the same with the next daughter, and she too was married. The youngest daughter, however, kept her windows boarded up tight every night. Saint Nick couldn’t figure it out. It was almost dawn before he had a brilliant idea! He dropped the sock full of gold down the chimney. It bounced off the now-cold logs and into the youngest daughters shoes. She was overjoyed, and she too was soon married.

While these old stories about Nicholas do serve as a lesson in humility, long-suffering and perseverance for the faith (he was tortured under the Emperor Diocletian, a ruthless wicked man), and generosity, even this doesn’t capture the zeal that Nicholas had for his Savior.

During the early parts of the 3rd and 4th century, a heresy started to pop up. Feeding in from Gnosticism and various other religions, people began to teach that Jesus was not actually the Son of God. A man named Arius taught that Jesus was homoiousian with the Father — of a similar substance. As this heresy began to take root and spread, a council of the Church was called. All the bishops came to meet at Nicaea, in the year 325 A.D.

Unfortunately, I think today most Christians would not understand the danger of teaching that Jesus was of a similar substance as the Father. But the bishops and presbyters at the Council of Nicaea understood. The defense of the historical position of the Christian church — that Jesus was homoousian, or of the same identical substance, with the Father — was the man Athanasius. On his side was our protagonist, Nicholas of Myra. As the heretic Arius continued to claim that Jesus was less than divine in nature, our Saint fumed at the blasphemy this man would dare to level at his savior. Finally, Nicholas could stand it no longer. He stood up, walked over to Arius, and slapped him in the face! Aren’t you thankful that you only got coal in your stocking, and nothing worse?

Now the Council did discipline Nicholas for his misbehavior. But they also came to the conclusion that Arius was not teaching the doctrine of the apostles, and condemned his heresy for what it was. The proceedings at the Council go to show just how important it was to the early Church that we rightly understand that Christ was God.

Isaiah actually wrote about the coming Messiah, 740 years before Christ showed up on the scene. He said, in Isaiah 9, that Messiah would be called Mighty God. That’s not a title that God gives to people who aren’t God. And in Matthew’s Gospel, when he talks about the birth of Christ, in chapter 1, he says that Christ’s birth fulfills Isaiah 7, because Christ was Immanuel — “God with us.”

So what is the good news about Immanuel? Why is God in the flesh such cause for celebration? Well, again in Isaiah, this time in chapter 53, God foretells about how the Messiah would bear the iniquity of us all (vs. 6) and how he would cause many to be accounted righteous (vs. 11). So Isaiah says that this divine figure who will come as a child from a virgin will exchange His righteousness for our sins. Again, 740 years before Christ is born.

Then we find Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, give the most concise explanation of what happened that we can imagine: “For our sake, [God] made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (vs. 21). Paul’s language sounds almost exactly like the language of Isaiah 53, doesn’t it? God gave his Son, who didn’t even know what it was like to sin, to be treated as sin on our behalf, so that when we are joined to Christ in faith, we become the righteousness of God. No wonder Saint Nick was so zealous to defend the deity of Christ! If our savior had been a man like us, what hope would we have in heaven or earth?

And so, this Christmas season, I implore you to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Know that this is the good news of Christmas:

That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me, Paul…

— 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

Merry Christmas.

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