Easter and the Last Vapor

“Vapor of vapors!” Solomon once said. “All is vapor.” On a day as festive as Easter, we aren’t usually quite up to taking this to heart. Solomon tells us that life is short, fleeting, enigmatic, impossible to grasp, eluding our control. We find this frightening, so instead we like to focus on the brilliant, the fun, the happy, and the festive. Why would we give any though to death and the curse on the day we celebrate our freedom from both?

Yet this can only be an excuse. We don’t usually give much thought to life as vapor even on other days. We don’t like it, and most of the time we prefer to deny it. distract ourselves from it, or bargain with it. This is unhealthy, though, and as perhaps the worst possible tragedy, it actually saps Easter of its power. Easter is only as brilliant as it is because life is as weary as it is.

Easter, see, follows from Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The death and burial of Christ are the context for His resurrection. And this context is not just a perfect illustration, but the very climax, of life’s vaporous nature. When Jesus headed into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, His vaporous life was beginning to thin. Like the fog under the rising sun, everything was beginning to evaporate. Jesus had lived for thirty years, spent the last three of them prophesying to Israel, creating a counter-Israel around Himself with a core of twelve apostles, challenging leaders, transforming Law-keeping, and preparing a revolution in humanity’s relationship to God. He did the work the Father gave for Him to do. The destiny of Israel, and indeed the destiny of whole world, hinged on these final hours, the finish line of the Messiah’s race.

But Jesus, having a full human nature, has a fully human mind. And this fully human mind was quite finite, limited in all the normal ways, on that dark night. All He had to cling to was faith: trust in His Father by the Spirit. He could not, from within His humanity, bring anything to completion. His flesh being as much vapor as yours or mine, He could not see straight through the mist of life to the glorious ending of God’s plan. He had a promise to which He could only cling by faith: the promise that He was the beloved Son, who the Father would justify and deliver even after death, whose movement the Spirit would carry on through the Apostles even once He left the world. But unless He shook off the limits of His humanity and executed a divine cheat, He could not make any of this happen. If He had gotten anything wrong, if He had in any way failed, if His disciples were too weak or God’s sovereign will different than He expected, His life’s work would dissolve into nothing. He could only pray, wait for the guards to take Him, speak the final words given to Him, and commit His spirit into His Father’s hands. Once He made this last pledge of faith, He had nothing left within His own human power. The vapor of His life passed away into the wind, and He had nothing left but promise and faith.

But of course, the promise held true. Christ’s faithful faith bore fruit. The Father was pleased with the Son and was willing to publicly justify Him by resurrection. The Spirit did come on the wind and take the Son’s fire to the ends of the earth. Easter happened, and everything Jesus had ever done somehow survived the dissipation of death itself and condensed into an everlasting kingdom. For the first time, life under the sun found itself brightened by the Light from beyond the sun, the light which turns vapor to rain which brings forth an eternal crop and a tree of indissoluble life.

This, then, is our own hope. Indeed, it is our only hope. As Solomon said, our life still is vapor. We can’t control it, can’t see through it, and can’t make it last. As we walk under the sun, Tolkien’s haunting tune is right: “Mist and shadow / Cloud and shade / All shall fade / All shall fade.” Mere optimism can’t fix this. Nor can hard work. Everything we do is vapor, just like our lives. Our best efforts can fall apart. Wise or foolish, good or evil, successful or failure: we have no ability whatsoever to reach into the future and make it work for us, or even to gain true profit and control from the present. All of our plans are beyond our reach to complete. We cannot fulfill our own hopes and dreams, especially those for the longest term. The world, the future, is a fog which eludes our grasp and understanding.

But there is a light which pierces through the vapor. Even in the midst of the mist, we can make out a single golden ray from beyond, a ray which carries a promise. “Die with me,” the voice says, “evaporate into the wind of my Spirit, and I will condense you into living water.” Today may be the Friday of impending dissolution, or it may be the Saturday when everything has already dissipated, but the Father has appointed a Sunday. If we are willing to trust in Jesus, giving up all of our claims to power, ability, and control in this life, yielding our pretensions and our work into His hands, He holds the one way out of the fog. His broken body and shed blood is the ark which carries us through the last vapor, and on the other side, if we believe, the resurrection of the dead dispels the mist.

The Evangelical Heart of Wright’s Atonement

I just finished N. T. Wright’s book on atonement, The Day the Revolution Began. As with every Wright book, it’s about 60% stuff he’s said a dozen times over, 25% helpful and enlightening ideas for reading and understanding the New Testament, and 15% things that you just end up unsure about. And as always, that 25% that is helpful and enlightening really is worth the reading.

In the case of The Day the Revolution Began, part of that 25% is the way he handles the relationship between sin, worship, and atonement. See, many (especially younger) Christians today are reacting strongly against a reductive Gospel that is about nothing more than Jesus paying the price for our sins so that each of us can go to heaven when we die if we believe with our ~~feelings~~ hearts that He is our personal Savior. I myself have opposed such a small picture of the Gospel. But most widespread reactions become overreactions easily. They rightly try to correct the tiny Gospel by emphasizing what the Bible teaches about the social and creational aspects of life in Christ. In all too many cases, however, this can become an increasingly temporal and tangible focus until the point where only the visible counts, worship is an afterthought, and supporting social justice or the environment or the poor becomes in this life becomes the only real concern. In trying to rescue the Gospel from a pie-in-the-sky God, these Christians end up leaving the real God Himself tucked into a corner.

N. T. Wright has been accused on some occasions of being one of these people because of how strongly he emphasizes the goodness of creation, the worth of work we do in this life, and the need to pursue temporal justice as we do the work of the kingdom. But his account of atonement in The Day the Revolution Began makes it impossible. For Wright, the atonement’s dealing with sins must be at its heart and root a strike against idolatry. It is corrupt worship from which all other kinds of sin flow. Most of what we name as “sin” is not the disease, but a symptom of the real disease, which is a failure to honor God in love and be His image-bearers. As he explains on page 75:

The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear—though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death. It isn’t just that humans do wrong things and so incur punishment. This is one element of the larger problem, which isn’t so much about a punishment that might seem almost arbitrary, perhaps even draconian; it is, rather, about direct consequences. When we worship and serve forces within the creation (the creation for which we were supposed to be responsible!), we hand over our power to other forces only too happy to usurp our position. We humans have thus, by abrogating our own vocation, handed our power and authority to nondivine and nonhuman forces, which have then run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.

So the basic problem of the world is not sin in a generic sense, but rather broken worship, which prevents human beings from being truly human and puts off from God. Man is first and foremost a worshiping creature, and it is thus the worship of non-divine beings, forces, and elements which generates everything else which we know as sin. So in Wright’s account of the atonement, a heavy emphasis is placed on the overthrow of idols, the cleansing of impurity, and the paving of a pathway back to worshiping God. We must be freed from false worship to be saved, and the Cross makes this freedom possible by forgiving sins and toppling false gods.

Now, if evangelical means anything, it means the absolute necessity and centrality of missions, and not just “missions” in some generic sense, but specifically as declaring the Gospel of Christ. To be evangelical, more than anything else, is to insist that all people need true worship more than anything. And this is exactly what Wright affirms. While he certainly emphasizes the social and creational aspects to the Church’s mission, he recognizes that what men need most is to worship the one true God embodied in Jesus the Messiah. Salvation simply is restored life as God’s image-bearers, the ones who worship Him, receiving His glory into themselves so that they can reflect it into the creation. No amount of effort toward social justice or any other cause, however important they may be and however directly they are entailed by the Gospel, can be or become ultimate or the essence of the Christian life. They instead follow from faith in God and His Son, the faith which is ultimately loyal love and worship.

This applies every bit as much, by the way, to people who aren’t inclined to the error of a purely social Gospel or merely temporal works. Because for plenty of people who err on the “traditional” side of a Gospel simply about me and Jesus, there is a strong tedency to make moral behavior, decency, social propriety, abstaining from drink or illicit sex, voting Republican, or church attendance the “real stuff” of the Christian life. This is just as incorrect. Prayer, thanksgiving, immersion in Scripture, partaking of the sacraments, and all other forms of direct worship are primary. Without Christ we can do nothing. God is the Gospel. Let this be our creed. Let this be our life.

James Jordan and the Tribal Gospel

I just read James Jordan’s little book, Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future. It was terribly interesting, and of mixed convincing power, but the prescriptions he made in it for the Church today seem to me of massive importance. In the end, his suggestions boil down to this: saturate Christians in the Bible, learn from the Charismatics the importance of enthusiastic worship (though giving prime place to God’s worship songs, the Psalms), and put the Communion table as a fellowship meal back into the heart of Christian gathering. By these practices the Church can become the true tribe, the healthy tribe, which persists and gives stability for lost and lonely people in this neo-tribal age. This I love, and it is for this reason that I recommend the book.

I’ve reviewed Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future on Goodreads, so check that out if you are interested. Here’s an excerpt:

What I found most helpful in the whole book is Jordan’s prescription for the Church in such a time. The Church is called to be the true tribe, the good tribe which is protected by God’s law from the evils tribalism tends to generate. The best part of tribal cultures is that they center around local community, shared festivity, the common table, and the common song. Jordan argues that the Church today must be proactive in becoming the model tribe, forming by Her close community, intimate love feasts, and cheerful signing of hymns and Psalms (especially Psalms) a healthy kind of Christian community on which the foundations of the coming ages of civilization may be built. If we do this, true worship will flourish and the seeds will be laid for a fruitful tree of Christian culture in the centuries to come. So the Gospel should come to people wandering broken in this neo-tribal age as this:

You are living in isolation, loneliness, despair, chaos, and bondage. But there is a New World! There is a New Creation! There is a New Kingdom! You can leave behind your old horrible life and come into the warmth of the Church. You can join us at the table and sing the psalms with us. You can come under the oversight of our elders, and be part of a new family.

Women

Today is International Women’s Day. Yay for my favorite half of the human race! Sadly, though, today is tainted with hype for much of modern feminism’s worst features. In that sense, International Women’s Day celebrations tend to be stunted by worship of antifeminity and other such disasters. But in the spirit of celebrating women as women, at their best and their most mundane (for that is everyone’s best), I’m here rounding up some of my favorite blog posts about women with links and brief excerpts. Three are my own, and two are from elsewhere. So without further ado, my tribute to the feminine.

  • Feminism Wishlist – The Nicene Nerd

    I’ve never really identified with feminism for various reasons….But, hypothetically, I could identify with, or at least offer my affirmation to, a feminist subgroup if it abstained from certain key errors which affect the majority forms…I will call this kind of feminism which I could hypothetically affirm a “natural feminism,” because I believe the problem at the heart of most forms of feminism is a denial of the natural order of creation…

    A natural feminism would detest pornography and all kinds of sex work as degrading. It would understand that the commodification of women’s bodies desacralizes them, objectivizes them, and even consensually exploits them. No room would be made for the hypocrisy of a society that wars against rape and sexual harassment while simultaneously selling to men a lifestyle of viewing women as impersonal sex objects.

  • Joan of Arc: Her Story and Challenge – The Nicene Nerd

    [St. Joan] was only an ignorant, illiterate, and humble peasant girl, yet she felt called by God to accomplish great things, and following faithfully all the way through. Through dangers, political opposition, and severe injuries (she was once actually shot in the neck by a crossbow!), she persevered. She never yielded to the pressures of fear and intimidation. Her faith in God always remained strong, so much so that the only leverage her enemies could use against her was her desire to continue taking Communion. She was committed to her personal purity, and the purity of her entire army. She made her soldiers pray and worship on a regular basis. All reports show she was selfless as could be. Even when the king offered to give her anything in repayment for her help in his coronation, she asked for nothing but that the poor people of her hometown, which she never saw again, be free of taxes…

    Basically, Joan of Arc was more noble, brave, persistent, and faithful than I am, and than many of us could ever hope to be. Even if she was crazy, or a heretic, or what have you (a question I think C. S. Lewis would have something to say about), the standard she sets is amazing and deserves emulation. We could all use to be a little more like Joan of Arc.

  • The female form is a fountain – In Whom Christ Plays

    The female form is the fountain of life, then. This is its, and thus her, nature. Woman are life-givers in a way that men aren’t. The man helps create life in a one-off action, and the woman nurtures and grows it in an ongoing manner. This is like the relationship between God and man, in which God is, as Father, the one who creates us ex nihilo and the Church, as mother, nourishes and teaches us that we might grow up into the image of our elder Brother, who was Himself grown in the womb of the Church when she was known as Israel. This is why the Spirit is also the only member of the Trinity who is sometimes referred to with a feminine pronoun in the Scriptures, for God as the Spirit uniquely continues in the ongoing action of sustaining and forming human life towards its fullness.

  • The Revolutionary Work of Motherhood – Alastair’s Adversaria

    The labour of the mother in making her home is a labour of love, a type of labour driven by, bound to, and creative of something particular and unique, apart from and distinct from all other things in the world. You can’t mass produce or replicate homes. The mother is the spring of life at the heart of the home. Her very body is the site of union and our very first home. The life that she produces through her maternal labour and love is the life by which her entire household grows. It is also a life that spreads out beyond her household into her wider community and society bringing communion and fruitfulness, as she expresses her distinctively womanly power to make the world into a home.

  • Liturgical Man, Liturgical Woman (Part 1 and Part 2) – Biblical Horizons

    My thesis is that the differences between men and women are, by creation design, fundamentally liturgical and only secondarily biological and psychological. To put it another way, my thesis is that the physical and psychological differences between men and women are grounded in their differing liturgical roles…

    Word initiates; glory completes. Adam was made first, then Eve. Humanity began with a man; humanity ends as a Bride, the New Jerusalem. Jesus, who had no form or comeliness, initiates the Church; but at the end the Bride is all glorious within and without. At the end, human males will all be part of a glorious Bride who interacts with the Supreme Male, Jesus Christ.

    These differences between initiation and glorification play out in history the differences between Son and Spirit. And they are integral to liturgy, which is the human reflection of the worship of the Father by the Son and the Spirit. Men alone may teach and lead in the dialogue of worship because they are created for this initiating purpose. But women must participate and thereby lend glory to worship. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” and it is not good for worship to be done exclusively by men. The glorifying voices of women must be heard responsively in prayer and song.

    It is the liturgical differences between men and women that account for their other differences, not the other way around. Men’s voices are generally an octave lower than women’s. A musician can tell you that lower notes are more foundational and higher notes are more decorative. The harmonic or “totality” movement in homophonic and polyphonic music is directed from the bass line, while the glory and decorative aspects of the music, including the melody, are in higher notes. Men’s voices (low notes) control the direction of the music, but women’s voices (high notes) glorify it.

Also, two nifty theological books by female authors:

Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God – Suzanne McDonald
From Amazon:

In Re-Imaging Election Suzanne McDonald offers a fresh approach to the doctrine of election from a Reformed perspective, first by seeking greater acknowledgment that election is not only “in Christ” but also “by the Spirit,” and second by building on the scriptural and theological links between the doctrines of election and the image of God. McDonald here combines an analysis of John Owen and Karl Barth with those links to develop a constructive proposal that posits representation (representing God to others and others to God) as a fruitful category for understanding the nature and purpose of election. In doing so, she seeks to restore the robust pneumatology characteristic of the earlier Reformed tradition without losing some of the central insights from Barth’s christological re-orientation of the doctrine.

While Re-Imaging Election is firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition, the re-expression of the doctrine presented here opens up new possibilities for dialogue across the theological spectrum and offers suggestive directions for reclaiming an often-divisive doctrine in the life of the church.

The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ – Fleming Rutledge
From Amazon:

Though the apostle Paul boldly proclaimed “Christ crucified” as the heart of the gospel, Fleming Rutledge notes that preaching about the cross of Christ is remarkably neglected in most churches today. In this book Rutledge addresses the issues and controversies that have caused pastors to speak of the cross only in the most general, bland terms, precluding a full understanding and embrace of the gospel by their congregations.

Countering our contemporary tendency to bypass Jesus’ crucifixion, Rutledge in these pages examines in depth all the various themes and motifs used by the New Testament evangelists and apostolic writers to explain the meaning of the cross of Christ. She mines the classical writings of the Church Fathers, the medieval scholastics, and the Reformers as well as more recent scholarship, while bringing them all into contemporary context.

Widely known for her preaching, Rutledge seeks to encourage preachers, teachers, and anyone else interested in what Christians believe to be the central event of world history.

 

 

Peter Leithart on the Wisdom and Folly of Postmodernism

I just read Peter Leithart’s excellent little book, Solomon among the Postmoderns. It is, as the name implies, a Christian investigation of postmodernism, using Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes as a tool for comparing the postmodern way to the biblical one. I just wrote a review of it on Goodreads, which I would encourage you to read to see if you might be interested in what I think is a very helpful assessment of the current phase of the world. Here’s the beginning of my review:

Postmodernism gets a really bad rap in conservative Christian circles, and while some of this is justified, much seems to stem from caricatures and misunderstanding. I’ve suspected this for some time, thinking that perhaps postmodernism actually has some helpful things to say, and Peter Leithart has essentially confirmed that suspicion in Solomon among the Postmoderns. In it, he seeks to examine postmodernity/postmodernism carefully by comparison with the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.

Read the full review here. And here’s a quote from the book’s introduction:

When I started Solomon among the Postmoderns, I was aiming it mainly at anti-postmodern Christians (let’s call them APCs). By presenting central postmodern themes in a way that postmodernists would recognize, I hoped to isolate the specific places where Christians must challenge postmodern theory. Many of the most vocal APCs highlight epistemological issues, challenging what they perceive as postmodern “relativism.” Epistemology is not, however, as central as many APCs suggest, and at least the most sophisticated postmodern writers rarely mean to say the outlandish things APCs attribute to them (e.g., “texts can mean whatever we want them to mean”). Simon Blackburn has wisely commented that there is no “recent philosophical movement that could have been stopped in its tracks by pointing out that it is easier to find your way about in daylight than in the dark, or that if someone tells you that a bottle contains gin and you act accordingly, you have a beef against him if it contains kerosene.” While admitting that some postmoderns “might have carelessly let loose remarks that seem to imply the opposite,” he suggests that “they probably misspoke themselves as they tried to say something more interesting.” I’ve wanted to discover those more interesting things that postmodernists are trying to say, and as I pursued those more interesting things I increasingly found that eschatology is far more central to postmodernism, and to the Christian response to postmodernism, than epistemology.

God and Ganon

What is spirit, exactly? This question has come to mind for me on a handful of occasions, but until recently I generally took it primarily in negative terms with respect to matter. Matter has time, space, energy, maybe mass, etc. Matter is tangible or at least physically detectable. Spirit, on the other hand, refers to kinds of being which lack all of those qualities. If matter is tangible, spirit is intangible. If matter is visible, spirit is invisible. And this more or less worked for me.

Or at least I thought it did. It led me into a number of polemics, most notably strong writing against the notion that the “heaven” of the intermediate state would involve any kind of experiences which we could associate with any of our senses. And in addition to this, it frequently made me scoff at talk of spirit beings in ways which treated them as having any qualities I would consider physical.

One rather random place that this scoffing came up was in Zelda. Despite Zelda being one of only two or three game franchises I care for, and probably my favorite, I couldn’t help but at cringe at the way that Zelda games frequently refer to beings which are most notable for physical characteristics as “spirits.” Some appeared as dragons, or fish, or other things, but they almost always held a physical form for at least most of the time. Of course, I have always realized that spirits are supposed to be able to appear in a temporary physical form, but in these games, the lines between the spirits qua spirits and their physical form were often loose and unclear. In the most recent addition to the franchise, Breath of the Wild, this comes up a few times.

The absolute final battle of the game is with Ganon, the series’s regular big bad. As in most Zelda games, you fight him in multiple forms, and (spoiler alert!) the last form is a gigantic, boarlike monster. What’s weird about it is that this form isn’t treated so much as a physical beast but rather seems to again be a kind of spirit, since Zelda and the game itself both speak as though Ganon was trying to take on a physical form again, but failed and unleash his true, inner, apparently not-quite-physical self. But of course you still fight him by shooting arrows at him and he still fights by spewing fiery energy beams that burn up fields and forests.

This, of course, seemed silly to me (at least philosophically), but what occurred to me that other day is that the Bible itself seems to play this same fast and loose game with the line between the spiritual and the physical. Angels and God Himself (even before the Incarnation) appeared on many occasions no different from men, and they could eat, fight, touch, and speak. Visions of heaven, currently a spiritual place (or at least one would think), often include rich colors and sounds, even smells. Mention is made of people seeing God’s feet, back, or robe. And of course, throughout the Bible, God speaks to people, and while this may not always have involved an audible voice present as sound waves in the air, there can be no doubt that it at least did sometimes.

So what gives? Is this stuff just the product of the imagination of people too philosophically unsophisticated to distinguish reasonably between spirit and matter, as the Zelda incidents could be? Or were the Japanese myths and folklore behind Zelda in fact closer to the Bible than I’d have guessed?

I don’t have a comprehensive or definite answer, but I’m starting to think along these lines. God is spirit, and the physical world is meant to express His glory. This means that, whatever spirit actually is, the physical world is designed from the beginning to be a vehicle of its expression. Taking this seriously should make it no surprise, then, that spirits would make free use of this expressive capacity of the physical realm. Another way of putting it might be as projection. A spirit is able to really project its presence into the tangible world. Talk of expression and projection together allows for two important points. First, the physical appearance and features the spirit manifests are not arbitrary, or completely divorced from what it is as a spirit. Rather, since the physical world is meant to really express spiritual realities, there is an authentic correspondence between what we might see and touch of a spirit’s appearance and what the spirit is in itself. On the other hand, since spirit and matter are still quite different, we cannot imagine that the physical appearance a spirit uses would be at all exhaustive of its personal nature. Like a projection of a shape or an image on a wall, a dimension (among other things) is necessarily lost.

The difference between us, then, as naturally embodied creatures, is that we are anchored in physicality. While we “have” spirits, our spiritual being is linked with, even woven into, our flesh and blood. Our bodily changes can affect us spiritually, and our spiritual changes affect us bodily. And unlike beings of spirit, which do not need their projected bodies and naturally exist without them, we are made for embodiment and radically lack if we are without flesh (i.e. after death).

If it is unclear here, I think the key shift I’ve made in thought is from spirit as negatively associated with matter (i.e. defined in opposition to material properties) to spirit as transcending matter but analogous to it. Thus, for example, color is not simply something which spirits lack, but rather represents tangibly something which spirits have. Spirits do not simply have material size and shape, but those qualities really do correspond symbolically to qualities which spirits possess.

I am not sure what all this means or implies. I doubt very much that it is as trivial and academic as it sounds, for very few points of theology actually are. If nothing else, I think it may provide some direction for understanding the relationship between angels and miracles, though that would take another post to explore. Any thoughts or comments? Let me know, because I’m interested. And in the meantime, maybe Ganon’s true form as a giant boar isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Myth, folklore, and fantasy do have a tedency to be wiser than anyone gives them credit for.

Assorted Observations on Early Genesis

Being a youth pastor now means teaching a lot of lessons. In my Sunday school lessons lately, I’ve been working on a project to go through the story of the whole Bible. This has been pretty interesting to work on, and this post just reflects some of the observations I’ve made while making lessons for the first several chapters of Genesis. Note that many of these observations are greatly influenced by certain writers like N. T. Wright, Peter Leithart, and James Jordan.

  • Whatever happened historically, the seven day structure of Genesis 1, with its conclusion of Sabbath, points to the meaning of creation as a whole. On the one hand, what we do in normal daily life is quite important: six days are for creative labor. On the other hand, our daily doings are given their proper orientation and goal when seen in light of the one day, the day of rest and worship. Human work is not ultimate, for only worship of God can be that, but human work itself leads up to the worship of offering and thanksgiving and is the primary way to prepare for it.
  • We were made in the image of God, which primarily speaks of our ability to represent God in and to creation. The soul, the heart, and/or the (free?) will are not the image in us, but are rather faculties which we require in order to be images of God. Our representative role consists in being His regents and subcreators in the world, acting as kings and priests by the power of an ability which we and we alone share with God, namely word.
  • Gardens in the Bible and the ancient world are associated with palaces and sanctuaries. The Garden of Eden (by the way, “Eden” is the region where God planted the Garden, not a name for the Garden itself), like a temple sanctuary, had an image of its God, man, and men would worship and serve there as priests. Like a palace, it was the place where God put His regent, again man, who would rule on earth for Him who is in heaven.
  • If rivers flowed out of Eden, this implies high elevation. So does the Garden’s role as a holy place, since those are frequently associated in the Bible with mountains. James Jordan has suggested based on this point, the names of the four rivers, and the frequent biblical language about God coming from the north that Eden may have been in the area around the Black Sea, perhaps in modern Armenia.
  • Man was formed from the dust of earth. Being of earth means that man belongs on earth. God’s salvation will not involve kidnapping us for an eternity away from our home, but rather He will bring heaven to earth, so that the Groom and the Bride might share one house.
  • If man is meant to be God’s rulers on earth, then it was not good for Adam to be alone. Any feminist will tell you that a man ruling free of any womanly influence will get far too much wrong. Men need women—whether sisters or mothers or wives or daughters—to be who God wants them to be.
  • Adam’s naming of the animals serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, he had to be shown his need for a woman by his inability to find any creatures comparable to him. On the other hand, naming is often associated with authority in Scripture. Adam is not yet ready to be God’s regent, but he has begun his training. By naming the animals, Adam lays a royal claim over them.
  • Adam and Eve were made good but not perfect, at least in the sense of maturity and completion. They were much like children, having no experience, no knowledge of good and evil, no clothes, and no meat. This made them quite unready to take up the full authority for which God had created them. In the end, no man received full authority until Matthew 28.
  • The motif of knowing good and evil in the Bible is often associated with royal wisdom. It is the king who must know good and evil, and it is a good king who knows them well and can rule with justice on that basis. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents (not, by the way, in the sense that it didn’t exist) that royal responsibility for which Adam and Eve were not yet ready. But God never said that the tree was permanently off-limits. If they had held out in faith, they could have grown and eaten of both trees in time. As it happened, their premature grab at kingship meant that they yielded the power they were meant to have over to the creation itself and the demonic beings who tempted them.
  • Cain was born *after the Fall and the Curse*. This means that sin and the Fall did not bring the original blessing and commission of humanity to halt. The projects of creation and redemption, though distinct, continued to both operate, now in a symbiotic relationship. [This indicates postmillennialism.](http://thenicenenerd.com/2017/08/millenniums-and-mandates/)
  • Seth was born when Adam was about 130 years old. Given a world pre-birth control and without that many distractions, this probably indicates that by the time Seth was born, there were hundreds or even thousands of people. If Seth was born shortly after Abel’s death, this implies that Cain’s rejection may well have taken place in public worship and thus involved public humiliation. This would make more sense of his murderous behavior, and why he was able to take his wife and build a city immediately afterwards.

That Time a Pagan Sacrifice Worked

The other day in church the preacher was talking about 2 Kings 4, when Elisha provided a widow with a miracle of multiplied oil. That account is interesting enough in its own right, but I found myself, for at least some of the sermon, distracted by the verses which immediately preceded it. I saw the startling verses of 2 Kings 3:26-17.

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

A bit shocking, isn’t it? I went back in the chapter for context and the whole story. King Ahab of Israel died, and as his son Jehoram took his place, the king of Moab, who had been subject to Ahab, took advantage of the moment to rebel. So Jehoram allied with Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom to stop the Moabite rebellion. When their armies ran out of water in the wilderness, they consulted the prophet Elisha. Elisha was no fan of apostate Jehoram, but for the righteous Jehoshaphat’s sake, he brought them miraculous water and a message of victory from God. So they fought the Moabites, overthrew several cities, destroyed loads of land, stopped up springs, felled the healthy trees, and generally wrought havoc on Moab. The battle eventually came down on the city of Kir-hareseth, where it went very badly for the Moabites. It was at this point that the king of Moab took the drastic step in the verses cited above and drove the Israelites out.

This little adventure, good enough for prime time TV, raises an obvious question. How did it work? The king of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son as a burnt offering, and it leads to wrath on the Israelites, who then retreat. His offering seems to have been successful. To further complicate matters, Elisha had foretold victory for Israel. But the battle ended in retreat. So what happened?

There seem to be a couple of possibilities, and these are largely tied to a grammatical question. It is not clear in the text from whom the “great wrath” which broke out against Israel came. The two basic options are that this wrath is either human or divine. If human, the only real possible sources are the Moabite soldiers or, as some commentators have suggested, the Edomites, who may have turned on Israel. I would be inclined to reject this last possibility altogether, as it is the least obvious from the text. The wrath of the Moabites makes a little more sense, but I’m skeptical, given the more obvious options. The more obvious options take the wrath as divine. After all, any change which results immediately from a burnt offering in a book where the supernatural is taken for granted makes most sense as a divine response. If so, the great wrath could refer to either that of Yahweh God or, perhaps, that of Chemosh, the god of the Moabites.

This latter possibility may strike you as odd, but the former makes even less sense. Why would God’s wrath break out against the Israelites because the king of Moab sacrificed his son? Some commentators have imagined that, perhaps in response to the sacrifice, the Israelites lost their faith and thus incurred God’s wrath, but this goes far beyond anything which would be clear from the text. Nor is it the most natural way to view the cause-and-effect which follows a sacrifice. The point of sacrifice, after all, is to encourage divine action, not to scare humans.

This leaves the option that it is the wrath of Chemosh, the Moabite god, which came upon the Israelites. “But that’s impossible! Chemosh doesn’t exist!” I hear some of you saying. That would be a good objection, but it’s just totally off-base. It relies on the well-intentioned but misguided idea that the Bible teaches the non-existence of pagan gods. This, however, is a conclusion that cannot be reached except by eisegesis. In the Bible, pagan gods do exist, but they are inferior beings, not at all comparable to Yahweh, who themselves are His creations. In modern lingo, heavily influenced by the New Testament, we would call them “demons.” I mentioned this in my review of Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm. As Paul himself said, those who think they are sacrificing to Artemis or Zeus are in fact sacrificing to malevolent spiritual beings which are not at all really gods but very really real (1 Cor. 10:20).

But, of course, if we accept that the demon behind Chemosh unleashed his wrath on the Israelites in response to the king of Moab’s sacrifice, we seem to be left with another problem. Elisha seems to have prophesied victory from God, but the Israelites are forced to retreat. So what gives? Did Chemosh overpower Yahweh? This seems unthinkable given everything else the Bible teaches about Yahweh’s superiority.

I think the key here is to realize that God did give the Moabites over into Israel’s hands, given the scale of the victories that even brought them to Kir-hareseth, and everything that Elisha said would happen in 2 Kings 3:19 did happen. The only difference was that, at the end, Israel gave up. Notice that the Israelites were not said to have been defeated, nor was it said that the Moabites overpowered them, nor anything else of the sort. Rather, it simply says that Israel withdrew. Given this, I actually think it is most likely that Israel, in the face of Chemosh’s wrath, simply did not follow through, but ran for the hills. Of course, I’m open to alternatives, but this seems about right to me.

Interesting stuff, to be sure. The more you read your Bible, the more surprises you find.

Against Miracles

What are miracles? If by “miracle” we mean an instance in which God overrules or violates the laws of nature for some greater end of His, a common enough definition, it is unclear whether we have any solid biblical grounds for believing that such things take place.

Of course, to say that is probably a headscratcher to most of you. Doesn’t the Bible obviously teach miracles? Isn’t it full of them? Perhaps so, but perhaps not. The key question is with respect to the idea of a “violation” of the natural order. Is it actually the case that, to accomplish certain things, God breaks, temporarily suspends, or simply overrides the order which He wrote into the fabric of creation? This would seem in a certain light to be quite problematic. After all, if God is the one who upholds and energizes the natural order by the power of His Word, then why would He also be the one who contradicts that order on a few scattered occasions? Could He not, in His omnipotent wisdom, have designed the natural order so that it would do His bidding in all circumstances without the introduction of cheats and exceptions? To put it more simply, why should God have to contradict His own rules? Could He even do so, since it is impossible for God to be unfaithful to Himself?

It is largely this question which raises doubts about the commonly understand nature of miracles as interruptions of the natural order. Yet there is another relevant issue involved, namely the second (or, more properly, first) sphere of creation, the heavens. While it is often forgotten, “heaven” as the domain of God and the angels was created in the beginning alongside the earth. So it, and its angelic inhabitants, can in a certain sense be considered part of the natural order. This modifies what can be legitimately considered a violation of the natural order. If angels and their doings are, in this larger creational sense, natural, then the scope of possible violations of the natural order narrows considerably.

A final consideration is, well, the nature of the natural order itself. Just what are, for example, the laws of physics? In modern times, we tend to think of them as autonomous mechanics, an independent set of gears behind the universe. In such a picture, God’s action must take the form of distinct interruption, a suspension of the ongoing system. But the Bible doesn’t speak of nature that way. In the Bible, the natural order is the ongoing creative work of God. It says of rain, “He makes waterdrops evaporate; they distill the rain into its mist” (Job 36:27), and of plants, “He causes grass to grow for the livestock and provides crops for man to cultivate, producing food from the earth, wine that makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14). In the biblical view, the ways of nature are the works of God’s own hand. So the laws of nature, to use a term I believe comes from James Jordan, are basically divine habits. The regularity with which the cosmos operates on every level is simply a matter of how God habitually energizes all things, how He usually governs the forces and masses of creation. So for God to do something different, say, bring a dead man back to life, is not an interruption or violation of any mechanism outside of God, but rather God playing a suddenly different tune, as it were, on the instrument on nature.

Of course, we don’t want to erase the Creator/creature distinction here, either. God opens up the clouds and pours rain upon the earth, but it is equally true that water vapor in the atmosphere condenses according to basic chemistry and physics and is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the planet. On this level, in accord with what was said just above, we should understand that even what we call the “laws” of nature are many orders of magnitude more complex than we like to think. We don’t understand the physical universe half as well as we think we do, and this also leaves room for questioning the supposed overriding nature of miracles. Some miraculous events which we think are naturally impossible may simply be possible by some aspect to the world which we currently know nothing about. After all, just in the last several decades we’ve discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, which has radically modified our ideas about what’s possible. Quantum mechanics alone seems to make nearly anything possible (I’m not entirely serious, but close enough).

The sum of all this is to simply offer a suggestion: maybe the way we normally think about miracles is wrong. If a miracle is an interruption or violation of fixed natural laws, then maybe they don’t exist. But this is, obviously, not to say that biblical miracles never happened. On the contrary, everything the Bible says happened most certainly did. The only questions here are what kind of events they were and precisely how they came to be. Maybe the line between the natural and the supernatural isn’t as clear cut as we tend to think.

And on the other hand, maybe not.

He Died for His People, Not the Elect

The classical Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is problematic in several ways, even if it does contain a nugget of truth. One of these problems is simply bad exegesis, which in turn results from an unbiblical hermeneutic. A key place where this problem manifests itself is in limited atonement prooftexts like this one:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21

The argument for limited atonement tends to read “his people” here as a reference to the unconditionally elect, a timeless mass of individuals chosen for salvation. Moreover, proponents frequently take this for granted, not seriously considering the possibility that the people to whom the verse refers might be a different group. (Indeed, this could be true even if limited atonement were correct.)

There is very little, if any, evidence that the Bible ever directly refes to a transtemporal elect consisting of all the redeemed in all ages (though of course some statements indirectly apply to this whole group). This doesn’t in itself prove that no such group can be defined, of course, but it does create a problem for the limited atonement reading of verses like Matthew 1:21. For there is a more natural referrent for the term “his people” when the context is the Messiah. This is simply Israel.

There is intertextual support for this reading. Take the following verses, for example:

In [the Messiah’s] days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Jeremiah 23:6

God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 5:31

Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.
Acts 13:23

The identity of the Messiah was bound up with being the representative of the people of Israel. This was a primary function of the monarchy. When Israel fell into a repeated pattern of sin during her quasi-anarchist theocracy in Judges, God raised up a king upon whom fell the corporate responsibility of keeping the covenant. David was the exemplary king who remained basically faithful to Yahweh and thus typified Christ. Jesus came as the Greater David, taking up the mantle of Israel’s corporate representative so that He could act on her behalf and bring her salvation. Jesus was Israel when He died on the cross, and He died for the sins of His people, His subjects as the King of the Jews. This is still the context of Matthew 1:21, where Jesus identified specifically as the Son of David and His ancestry is traced back to Abraham.

Of course, some will likely respond that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”1 Jesus died for Israel, sure, but this Israel is the true Israel, which is the elect. This response, however, has two flaws. First, and more controversially, it fails to recognize that Paul’s argument hinged on a new development in the constitution of Israel. Formerly, Israel was defined by flesh in the form of Torah observance and ancestry.2 Now, with the accomplishment of justification in Christ’s death and resurrection, Israel is defined by the Spirit around union with the Messiah. This point I have argued elsewhere and will not elaborate on here. Second, this is simply not an identification which is supported in the relevant contexts. As I mentioned above, Matthew 1:21 comes in the context of Jesus as the Son of David and heir to the Messianic throne, a role which is definitely representative of Israel corporately.

This applies to a handful of other texts, as well. Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant dying for “my [God’s] people,” which there is no contextual warrant to read as referring to anyone but Israel. Many verses which speak of Jesus dying as an atonement for “many” may well also have Israel corporately in mind, although I think it is marginally more likely that the word has no specific meaning except the vastness of the number of people included. When Colossians 2:14 speaks of Jesus “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands”3, Paul is talking about charges accumulated under the Torah, which was given to and only directly condemned Israel. When the Bible says, then, that Jesus died for the sins of His people, the first and foremost referent is Israel corporately.

However, there are two qualifications which must be made to this. For one, Israel is never just Israel. Election is by nature a representative status. The elect represents others to God and God to others.4 When God condemned in Christ the sins of Israel under Torah, He also condemned the sins of the whole world which Israel had summed up in herself. Israel was not any different from the other nations,5 and in their constant rebellion against God they epitomized and intensified the rebellion of all, so atoning for Israel meant atoning for the world. This reality, however, is not necessarily in view in texts which speak of Christ’s death for His people.

The other qualification is that sense still remains in which some texts certainly do speak more specifically of Jesus dying for the Church (though even this usually refers to the temporal, historical Church rather than the group of the eternally elect, at least directly). John 10 and several parts of Revelation emphasize this. Jesus died for His sheep, and these sheep were, at least to begin with, believing Israelites in direct contrast to unbelieving ones, though it also included believers far off. This operates on a couple of levels which do not necessarily correspond to what limited atonement says about the matter. Specifically, it involves the facts that Jesus died for Israel, but Israel was transformed in the process to consist of believing Jews and Gentiles rather than those who are Jewish by flesh, that the formation of this redeemed new form of Israel was an essential goal of the atonement, and that the Church is therefore the one people in whom forgiveness and justification actually take root and effect in their real lives. Thus it is right to speak of this new people reborn from Israel through Christ’s atoning work as the proper object of the atonement, even if it is not true that the atonement was in some sense “limited” to the sins of a timeless company of elect individuals. For more on this point, I refer you to a closely related post I made some time ago.

In all of this, there remains no particular reason to see any text as referring specifically to Jesus dying exclusively to pay the precise penalty for the sins of a particular company of elected individuals. That’s just not how the Bible thinks, or how the Bible talks about the people of God.