Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

I was reading 1 Corinthians 1-2 this morning and ran across a couple of passages that really stuck out to me. They speak fairly well for themselves (isn’t Scripture good about that?), but I will highlight the basic thoughts in them that I found so compelling.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. But I won’t quote all of that here, which would be rather long. So I’ll just present the heart of it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

From the beginning, the Gospel has appeared foolish or even blasphemous to the rest of the world. The Jews thought it absolutely unacceptable that their Messiah would suffer crucifixion, much more so in the impossible situation of Him being God Incarnate. The Greeks, well, just thought the whole story was kind of dumb. But today it is little different. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to those who are all about success and self-advancement (*cough*Trump*cough*), a group increasingly large in our increasingly corporate world. The idea that a man who lived 2000 years ago spoke truths which carry divine authority even today is ridiculous to self-styled intellectuals. The claim that there is only one name given under heaven by which men may be saved sounds like blasphemy to a culture all about inclusion and multiculturalism. All of the Gospel, if you’re not just too used to it to noticed, sounds completely insane apart from the experience of its power. This is just something I keep noticing all of the time in relation to so many philosophies and politics and worldviews. Democrat or Republican, atheist or theist, rich or poor, Jesus sounds ridiculous and contradictory to all of the cultural defaults.

The other passage I notice is at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. People often get the meaning of verse 9 wrong. What do I mean?

But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind — God prepared this for those who love Him.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For

who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?

But we have the mind of Christ. 

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

This passage comes right after Paul’s further argument about human vs. divine wisdom, and the power of the Spirit over and against the persuasive power of rhetoric. Verse 9 is often treated as a statement about the unimaginability of heaven. No eye or hear or head has a clue what’s coming! But that’s exactly not the point Paul is making. He’s making a point about the divine wisdom of the Gospel and its foolishness to men. This verse shows that no one was ever expecting what God did in Christ for us. God’s plans for us in the Gospel had never been seen before, heard before, or imagined by a human mind. If they had, as per verse 8, no one would have killed Jesus. But instead, Paul goes on to argue that even though this stuff was hidden before, we now know it. We have the Spirit of God, who is the only one to know the deep secrets of God. Because we have the Spirit, we know the secrets of the Gospel, not because we had seen or heard or known before, but because we have been taught the truths of the Spirit. We now have the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which means that we are those who know the Lord’s mind and understand what God has prepared for us. We know by revelation. There is nothing hidden anymore.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up. We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our first, bodily births do. It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity. 

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This fact of grace has been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress, but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Here’s something worth keeping in mind from Russell Moore’s new book, Onward:

The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. That’s a sentence I remind myself of almost every day, every time I feel myself growing discouraged about the future…That’s what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, “Does gospel Christianity have a future in this country at all?” He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.

But the Spirit of God can turn all that around, and seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn’t just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus’ promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8–16).

Remember this next time you have a problem with anyone, and next time you fear for the future of Christianity.

How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome

It is no secret that one of the major reasons Jesus got crucified is because He wouldn’t do the #1 thing that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to do: overthrow Israel’s Roman oppressors. Time and again they sought this of Him, but He refused to align Himself with not only any existing revolutionary movements but even any revolutionary sentiments. This certainly would have seemed to some of them as a dead giveaway that He couldn’t be the Messiah, for everyone knew that the Messiah’s most important job would be to topple pagan empire.

Of course, any doubts as to Jesus’ qualifications as Messiah had to be laid to rest when He was raised by God from the dead and therefore publicly vindicated. By no means could this happen if He was not who He claimed to be. So it would seem to be that the requirement to overthrow Israel’s enemies, especially Rome, was not actually necessary for His Messianic role.

Or was it?

The truth is that, although He redefined every element of that story in doing it, Jesus did in fact conquer His people’s pagan oppressors. When all the dust settled, the Lord Jesus stood victorious over Lord Caesar. What precisely do I mean by this?

The Jews expected from their Messiah a quick military conquest rescuing the nation of Israel from Roman rule. Jesus did not fulfill these expectations at all, but He nonetheless won the Messianic victory they were looking for. This victory was prophesied in Revelation, in which the Kingdom of Christ overcomes the kingdom of the beast, which (at least in the original instance) is Rome. This was fulfilled by reorienting each component of the Jewish expectation.

The very first reorientation was the nature of Israel itself. The ethnic Israel alive at that time was not suitable to be Kingdom people, for they were natural and fleshly. They had only a heart of stone, a word written on tablets, and needed a heart of flesh, the Word made flesh. They were bound to their natural lusts and needed the freedom of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus formed Israel anew around Himself. He made a new, reborn Israel beginning with Himself and His resurrection and expanding to the Apostles and their hearers, and He baptized them into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This people, the Israel of God reborn in Christ, would be the one to stand victorious over Rome, not the original, dying, fleshly Israel cursed by the Law. Jerusalem fell, but so did Rome, and only the Church of these three remained.

Following this change was a change in the means of conquest. The Jews expected the Messiah’s conquest to be a military victory, in which by God’s power He would lead a new Israelite army like those of old to march on Rome with weapons of war. Jesus won, however, in a different way. His army did not win by killing, but by being killed as martyrs. They did not fight with swords of steel, but with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Gospel. By the power of the Spirit this unconventional warfare slowly overturned the forces which sought to crush Christ and His people. Millions of Romans found themselves crucified with Christ and then raised to newness of life through the proclamation of His Word.

Naturally, such a radically different conquest did not take place publicly in the short span of time which the Jews had anticipated, but rather worked slowly and secretly. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Christ grew as person after person was baptized into a new allegiance which trumped their allegiance to Rome. It took hundreds of years, but eventually the rule of the beast fell to ruin while the rule of God continued to advance, and indeed still advances. The empire which crucified Jesus in the first century came to be ruled by His Church (albeit in a very imperfect way) in the fourth and fell to only a memory behind it in the sixth. Today, the Roman Empire is of but historical interest, whereas the Kingdom of God continues to march and claim a massive citizenry.

In the end, then, Christ did conquer Rome. That famous empire eventually submitted itself to His Church, and finally died while the Church lived on. Granted, the Church ran into problems of its own in both of these scenarios, but it lives on, unlike Rome, and the Gospel of Christ continues to be a powerful weapon conquering peoples of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

But what does it matter to notice this? Why should we care that, technically speaking, Jesus did defeat Rome? Two things come to mind. On the one hand, it is a reminder that no world system, political or cultural, will last forever, but God and His Kingdom in Christ will. His reign will never end. No matter what any government, military, or institutions throw at us, God reigns and will not be defeated. Rome proved it. Our currently immoral, broken, and failing American culture, for example, is no worse than Rome’s was, but in the long run its vices will perish while the will of God stands.

As another point, I think this conquest of the Roman Empire by Christ is actually a useful concept in Biblical interpretation, because I believe that it is a major prophetic focus in Revelation, and possibly even in the letters of Paul. If you understand the kingdom of the beast and Babylon the Great Whore as Rome, which is highly supported by both the text itself and the historical/cultural context of Revelation, then seeing this conquest is helpful in following along the point of the book, which to some extent parallels the point made above.

So remember: Jesus is Lord, and He wins every time. He even toppled the Roman Empire.

Love the Trumpers, Hate the Trump

(Before I say anything, I just want to point that I would never actually condone hating anyone, Donald Trump included, even usually in jest. But it was the best title idea I had.)

I believe that Donald Trump is an awful person, doesn’t know what he would really be doing in the White House, and has no business being President of the United States. I do not believe it would be appropriate to vote for him, especially as a conservative Christian, to whom the competence and character of our leaders should matter. (As John Adams said of the White House, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” Donald Trump is neither one.)

Nonetheless, I am not happy with the way many people treat and speak of Trump supporters, who make up a third of all Republicans, not to mention more-than-insignificant portions of other groups. There are a lot of people out there who want to vote for Mr. Trump, and I think the whole “these people are the scum of the earth/what’s wrong with America” mentality is arrogant and uncharitable. Assessments of their motives and feelings like that of Rachel Held Evans strike me as fundamentally misguided and overly judgmental. Are we really to believe the reason so many people support Trump is that they just want to be easy winners who abandon the downtrodden instead of bearing the Cross with the least of these?

What so many people seem to be forgetting is that, even though Trump is obviously a one-percenter, his supporters are mostly not. They are not the privileged (despite the fact that they’re mostly white), they are not the well-off, but they themselves are in fact the poor, needy, and oppressed. Trump’s supporters are mostly white working class people, not the most destitute on earth but neither quite the comfortable middle class. They’re generally ignored or maligned by the socially acceptable, progressive, upper middle class, as well as the donor class which power the government, and the non-white lower classes to boot. They have no friends or allies in politics, media, or the respected blogosphere. People dismiss them as privileged, racist, and bigoted (and certainly at least some of them are), and feel justified in giving them no voice or sympathy.

Many people have already written more and better on this than I can. Rod Dreher, for example, has shared an enlightening letter from a Trump supporter and an interesting article about why Trump matters to his main constituency. Similar articles abound, though I can’t find some of the other good links I was looking for. I recommend you reading and contemplating them if Trumpmania confuses or interests you.

The plights of people who support Donald Trump are real, and I want to make this point in direct opposition to people like Evans (above) or the media folks who just “can’t even” at his supporters. Most of these people love to preach tolerance, inclusion, and doing good to the least of these. Even when people as a group tend to statistically share certain negative characteristics, a root cause is sought out with empathy and slowness to judge. Except for people like Trump supporters. No charity is extended to them. Despite the struggles, poverty, and frustration of the white working class, they are simply scolded for their vulgarity, racism, and bigotry (whether real or imagined for each) and told to join in the progressive love-fest for all of the other suffering people out there.

My challenge is for people to take the progressive rhetoric seriously. Do you want to reach out to the poor, the neglected, and the disenfranchised? Is that essential to your Gospel? Then, however you feel about Donald Trump himself, be kind to his supporters. They’re real, normal people with concerns and aggravations that Trump is willing and unafraid to address. Do you find Trump’s deport-them-all ideas racist? (I find them mostly absurd.) Instead of judging his supporters as such, try empathizing with the frustration of rural Jim Bob whose son can’t get a job doing farm work because it’s cheaper to hire José who snuck into the country. Trump speaks to Jim’s struggle, so ponder the solution rather than condemn him.

Basically, feel free to oppose Donald Trump. But if you hate the Trump, don’t forget to love the Trumpers. (Though if you have a stable friendship or family relationship with one, by all means feel free to [gently] rebuke him.)

Karl and Me: What Life is Like as a Theologian

One of my favorite books, which I discovered last year, is Evangelical Theology: An Introduction by Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart,” by the way). I got the book because I expected it to be an introduction to the theology of Barth, which is altogether interesting. That’s not what it was, as I found out, but I suppose that what it turned out to be was far better. Evangelical Theology is not so much a book of theology but a book about theology, specifically about the nature and doing of theology. It’s an introduction not to specific theological ideas, but to the project of theology itself.

I found this to be surprisingly refreshing. While I would like to (and at some point maybe will) cover a great deal of what this book has to say, I want to write briefly today about the second major section of the book, which is about “theological existence” (life as a theologian). Barth breaks down each major topic with four simple terms, and this one is possibly my favorite. What does it mean to be a theologian? What is it like? What should it be like? These are the questions Barth addresses in these four chapters.

In these chapters, Barth characterizes the theologian using four words, four traits. All I’ll really do in this post is give a summary of his presentation on these elements and explain how I can identify with them. So here are Barth’s four characterizing elements of theological life (and before I get into these, I should briefly note that Barth sees every Christian as at least something of a theologian):

  1. Wonder: To Barth, the first driving characteristic of the theologian is wonder. The theologian encounters the God of the Gospel, finds himself addressed by the Divine Word, and can only be astonished and amazed in return. He learns of God and finds that every new discovery is one more compelling. He is driven back again and again to see this wonder who is the God revealed in Christ.
  2. Concern: The next characteristic of the theologian for Barth is concern. The theologian is preeminently concerned with what he finds in his theological studies about the God of the Gospel and His ways and acts. They press on his mind day after day, questions and potential answers, and impose themselves upon every experience. He cannot escape constant concern for divine truth, no matter what is going on around him.
  3. Commitment: Barth also makes the point that the theologian is fundamentally committed to God and His Gospel, to the theological work of understanding through questions and answers. He yields his thoughts to God alone, and refuses to back down or give up from the fight to know divine truth. Most importantly, He seeks to know this truth on the basis of God’s personal revelation of Himself in Christ alone.
  4. Faith: Finally, and rather naturally, Barth points out the role of faith for the theologian. Faith for Barth is not just a leap into the dark. It’s not following the evidence, and then going one extra step. It’s neither blind fancy, nor the result of reason, not an existential decision. For Barth, faith is what happens when God shows up and encounters us personally in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, calling us and freeing us to become for Him and trust Him in this new opportunity. Faith consists constantly in this living in the God-created freedom to follow whatever He reveals of Himself in Christ. This is the rule of faith for all theology, and for every theologian, in Barth’s conception.

If it isn’t obvious, I can identify with these characteristics like nobody’s business. His chapter on concern in particular resonates with me deeply. Nothing I see or hear or experience can escape the wrath of theological concern in my mind. Truly, Barth’s description is my life.

If none of this makes sense to you, then I suppose you’re not a theologian. But if you are, you should see just how right and true this is. I plan to post more on this topic, and hopefully it will be beneficial to someone.

Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

“So now he’s saying heaven is a myth. What has gotten into Caleb’s brain today?” This is may be something like the reaction you had to the title of this post. And that’s probably justified. I’ve already pulled pretty well the same stunt with I Don’t Believe in Hell a while back. It’s just that heaven and hell are such deliciously popular topics that such titles always attract attention.

Anyway, what am I actually saying this time? Well, first off I’m certainly not saying that there is no such thing as heaven. That would be Biblically absurd. When I say “heaven is a myth” I mean specifically the popular conceptions of heaven that dominate books and movies, whether Christian or not. There is certainly a real heaven, but it’s not what most people imagine it is, and that is the message I mean to get across in this post.

Define “Heaven”, Please

What’s wrong with the common perceptions of heaven? Part of the problem is the lack of precision. People use the word “heaven” to refer to God’s presence, the place believers go after death, and the future state elaborated in Revelation 21-22. Because many Christians use the same word for all of these places, the differences get muddled to create a strange, murky, and unbiblical mix. My goal here is to distinguish between the different things and clarify the Biblical vision of heaven.

First off, the word “heaven” itself in the Bible is never used for where people go when they die, nor does it ever refer to the new creation after Jesus returns. It is used primarily in three ways (note that I’m only referencing the New Testament to make things easier for me, but what I say can also be seen in the Old):

  • “Heaven” can refer to the sky and/or space, e.g. Matt. 3:16, 16:2, Mk. 7:34, Lk. 9:16, Acts 11:6, Jas. 5:18
  • “Heaven” can be used as a substitute for “God.” This is clearly seen in Matthew. Everywhere the other gospels say “kingdom of God” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.” 
  • Finally, “heaven” can refer to the place where God and His angels are, e.g. Matt. 5:16, 22:30, Mk. 11:26, John 1:51, Acts 7:55.

Search the Scriptures and see for yourself: never is the word “heaven” used in relation to where a human is, with precisely two exceptions. The first is that of Jesus, who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God and intercedes for us there. The only other exception is Paul in a vision being caught up to the third heaven. But these exceptions prove the rule. Heaven is never mentioned as the destiny of the dead righteous.

There is a word used in Scripture for the place where the dead righteous are. This word is “paradise.” Jesus Himself used it to the thief on the cross, and it is one of two direct names for the place where dead believers are. The other reference is “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These two references to the dwelling of dead believers are the only ones which name the place, and neither uses the word “heaven.”

Is it semantics I’m playing here? Not merely. What we must learn to make sense of the Biblical teachings on heaven is to distinguish between the three places associated with our concept of heaven. I’ll give a basic overview of each here, and later I’ll give details on the Biblical case for each.

The Three Things People Like to Call “Heaven”

First, heaven is the space God created alongside “earth.” Our visible world is parallel to the world of heaven, and both were created by God in the beginning. Heaven is flooded with the glory and presence of God, and His will is always carried out there. Angels also dwell there. This world is not the purely spiritual presence of God, but a created space with its own created order which parallels ours. Heaven and earth are distinct, but together. They are separate, but right beside each other. They occasionally intersect and get messily involved with each other. God reigns in this heaven, Jesus’ physical human body is currently present there, and angels go to and fro between there and here to accomplish God’s purposes.

Next, paradise is where believers are after death. It is not equal to heaven, but is something else. For believers, it is a place of rest and comfort until the last day when we are to be resurrected. This is not likely to be a physical or material place, because it is neither in heaven nor earth and the people who dwell there are without bodies for the time being. It is a truly immaterial existence, without sight, touch, smell, or sound. There are no mansions, streets of gold, or anything which can be physically sensed there. Paradise has bliss for the righteous, a bliss that results from God’s caring embrace by the Spirit, but there is still a degree of discomfort because they are “naked” and lack their bodies. This place is ultimately temporary, an immaterial existence which will no longer be relevant in the resurrection.

Finally, the new creation (also called the new heavens and earth) is where believers are destined to live in eternity. This is a physical world birthed out of our current one, a recreation. Just like the Spirit radically healed and transformed us at our new birth to make us a new creation, so will He do to the entire world in the last day. Just like Jesus’ dead body was restored to life and made altogether fresh and new, so will the entire cosmos die in flame and be restored to a new and fuller glory in Christ. This will still be our physical universe, but fixed, renewed, and brought to its true destined purity. 

Obviously, by this point I’ve said a lot that you may not have heard before, and very well may prove controversial. So be it. But alas, I’m nearing a thousand words here, so it’s not the time to go on. I’ll continue this series. In my next post, I’ll start defending and building with Scripture what I’ve said about these three places. In the mean time, try reading the Bible with these thoughts in mind and see if it makes sense. You may be surprised.