The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

Honestly, as much as I strenuously oppose the doctrine of limited atonement on logical and theological grounds, my most confident and compelling reasons are simply Biblical. I don’t think Scripture supports the doctrine in any way, shape, or form, but in fact entirely and completely contradicts it. I think T. F. Torrance was altogether correct in his response to a student prompting the doctrine:

That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!

And this quote gets at the big problem I have with the way people use Scripture to support limited atonement. It requires a terrible, backward, inverted hermeneutic that does serious violence to the text. Specifically, this is the problem: the doctrine of limited atonement requires that we use human inferences from non-explicit texts to overturn or limit the meaning of explicit, clear texts.

Simple example: Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 19, 1 Timothy 4:10 are all very, very explicit about Christ dying for all men. I mean, in realistic terms, there is no way that the Spirit could have been more clear if He wanted to say that Christ died for all. These verses add up to the strongest possible terms save the rather extreme possibility, “Now beware those who will one day try to tell you that Jesus died only for the elect, because He actually died for every single human who ever lived.”

Nonetheless, apologists for limited atonement always feel the need to find convoluted ways to explain away the explicit meaning of these passages because of its overly rationalized readings of texts like John 6, John 10, or Ephesians 5. They draw out inferences from these texts which are at best tenuous, often don’t even logically follow, and in most cases try to force the atonement into a rigorous system of merely human logic. These inferences go something along the lines of “Jesus died for Christians, therefore Jesus did not die for anyone else,” something which (of course) does not necessarily follow. Other times they will make more complex inferences based on the nature of the atonement, pressing the legal metaphors of Scripture way beyond their bounds to create a double-jeopardy scenario for anyone who denies limited atonement. This again tries to overly rationalize God’s revelation in human limits, and in particular often fails to grasp the analogical and metaphorical nature of New Testament descriptions of the atonement, which in itself is a holy and transcendent mystery.

These human rationalizations and inferences, then, are permitted and in fact forced to overrule and twist the plain meaning of the other atonement texts, the ones which explain very straightforwardly that Jesus has died fully and truly for all people everywhere. This is a backward hermeneutical method. It is the opposite of how we rightly ought to understand Scripture. The clear and explicit testimony about Christ’s death for all men should lead us to hold back on our human inferences from other texts, not the other way around.

In this case, the classical Calvinists fall prey to the same trap they frequently find in others. The hermeneutic behind limited atonement is in principle no more legitimate or less legitimate than that of an Arminian who, applying human reason to the doctrine of God’s justice or love, rules out the possibility that the favorite Calvinist proof-texts could mean unconditional election or irresistible grace.

Basic moral of the story: don’t use human inferences from less explicit texts to block the explicit statements of others. So no limited atonement.

A Few Thoughts on the Revelation Letters

For my Revelation class this semester, I’m supposed to journal my way through Revelation, answering four questions for every chapter:

  1. What does the text say?
  2. What did I observe?
  3. How does this chapter fit in the context?
  4. What did I learn?

This is a fun, though not particularly professional, exercise. In any case, by the time I’m done I will have basically assembled an ad-hoc, very informal commentary on the whole book. I will be editing these together into an ebook and uploading it here in case anyone is interested in it.

In the meantime, I thought I’d go ahead and post my journal results from Revelation 2-3, the letters to the seven churches. Enjoy (and feel free to critique):

What does the text say?

At this point Jesus gives John letters to deliver to the seven churches. Each shall be addressed separately.

The Letter to Ephesus

Jesus addresses the angel (lit: messenger) at the church in Ephesus first. He identifies Himself as the holder of the seven stars (angels of the churches) who walks among the lampstands (the churches). He commends them for their works, endurance, and discernment with respect to false teachers. He then mentions one problem: they have abandoned their first love. He commands repentance to their original works, or else He will remove them. He then offers a second commendation specifically about their resistance to the heretical Nicolaitans. He then calls them to hear what the Spirit says to the churches and promises food from the tree of life in paradise to the victor.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus then addresses the angel at the church in Smyrna. He identifies Himself as the first and the last who died and rose again. He recognizes their persecution and suffering at the hands of Jews, but calls them rich and encourages them in their coming suffering. He tells them that they will suffer for ten days but to remain faithful even to death in that time. If they do they will receive the crown of life. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promised protection from the second death.

The Letter to Pergamum

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Pergamum. He identifies Himself as the bearer of a two-edged sword. He recognizes their location as under Satan’s rule, but commends their faithfulness in persecution. He rebukes their toleration of Balaam’s teachings with their idolatry and sexual immorality and the teachings of the Nicolaitans. He commands them to repent at the threat of war with His word. Again, they are called to hear the Spirit, and the victor is promises hidden manna and a white stone with a new, private name.

The Letter to Thyatira

Finally for the chapter, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Thyatira. He identifies Himself as the Son of God with fiery eyes and brass feet. He commends their works of love and faithfulness, but He rebukes them for tolerating a heretical prophetess Jezebel, who leads people into immorality and idolatry. She was given time to repent, but He declares that the time is up for her judgment. Her and her children will be diseased and repaid. Those who resist her are told to hold on to their faith. The victor is promises authority over the nations with Jesus, and they are called to listen to the Spirit.

The Letter to Sardis

In chapter three, Jesus begins by addressing the angel at the church in Sardis. Jesus identifies Himself again as holding the seven stars but also this time the seven spirits of God. He does not commend anything but moves straight to a criticism of their false vitality. Their deeds are incomplete, and the church will soon die. Jesus commands them to repent and return to the word they have received. If they do not, Jesus will suddenly come and judge them. A few members, however, are noted as still faithful. Victors like them will be clothed in white and kept forever in the Lamb’s book of life. They are then called to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Next Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Philadelphia. Jesus identifies Himself as Holy and True with the keys of David. He commends their good deeds and endurance in weakness despite Jewish persecution. He promises that their love by Him will be vindicated, and that they will be protected from the coming trials as reward for their endurance thus far. He encourages them to hold fast, and the victor will be a pillar in God’s house with God’s name. He then calls them to hear the Spirit.

The Letter to Laodicea

Finally, Jesus addresses the angel at the church in Laodicea. He identifies Himself as a faithful witness and beginning of creation. He immediately criticizes their lukewarm deeds and threatens to spit them out in disgust. He mocks their self-sufficiency and encourages them to find their riches, clothing, and health from Him. Yet He affirms that He rebukes them out of love and encourages them to repent. If any repents, He will come in and eat with them. The victor will receive a throne with Christ, and they must listen to the Spirit.

What did I observe?

There is a lot going on here, but some repeated themes are prominent. Jesus stands as the all-seeing Judge, the one who rewards faithfulness and punishes heresy and wickedness. Truly He is seen to exercise the “all authority” He has been given by the Father, and the statement in John that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son is at least partially fulfilled. Jesus has taken the place of the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament, proclaiming His judgments on God’s people through a prophet. The Spirit is also important here, for Jesus identifies Him as the one who speaks to the churches rather than John, the appointed congregational reader, or anyone else, though He also identifies Himself as the speaker. The unity between the word of the Spirit and of the Son here indicates both the way that, through Christ’s Incarnation and exaltation, the Spirit of God has become more particularly for us the Spirit of Christ, and of course also the inherently Trinitarian direction of New Testament theology.

As to the particular letters:

The Letter to Ephesus

One interpretative issue here is the meaning of abandoning their first love, along with the corresponding works to which they are called to return. I find plausible the suggestion that the “love” here is primarily horizontal in nature. The Ephesians have forgotten to care for each other and the poor. This use of “love” in the New Testament is not uncommon. Taking their original love this way makes sense of the works they did at first: they were originally charitable and communal, but (perhaps in the face of persecution and in their efforts to combat heresy) they have come to neglect this essential practice.

The Letter to Smyrna

Jesus’ identifying Himself as the first and last, dead and raised, seems relevant to the harsh persecution the Smyrnan church is set to experience. Some of them will die, but they will be raised like and with Christ, and thus they will be spared the second death. This, in fact, seems to sum up the whole content of the letter.

The Letter to Pergamum

Pergamum is the first church mentioned to permit heresies, and they have permitted more than one. This is odd given their harsh persecution, which seems to have had a purifying effect on some of the other churches. In light of this, Jesus essentially upgrades the threat they face by adding His own sword if they do not repent. A church with Christ on its side will stand no matter what assails it, but a church with the world and Christ as enemies will surely die.

The Letter to Thyatira

Jesus intensifies His terrifying image here, apparently because of the seriousness of Jezebel’s heresy. Though the church has kept faith and love, they have (perhaps in the process) permitted a vile movement to go on too long and too far. Jesus will take this movement down, period, and it will not be pretty. Those who remain faithful appear to be promised a part in the same fiery, obliterating power by which Christ will judge the rest of their church.

The Letter to Sardis

What it means that Sardis’ deeds are incomplete seems unclear. Perhaps this simply means they had mostly stopped working, no longer doing the works of love and evangelism which many of the other churches were doing. This could well be because, with the lack of any mention of persecution, they had grown complacent and comfortable with primarily a self-incurved focus. The church looked like it thrived, but they did nothing and were serving themselves rather than God. This trap, of course, is one into which many churches today also fall.

The Letter to Philadelphia

Philadelphia is one of the two churches with no rebuke. Instead, Jesus simply promises their protection and vindication in light of their present endurance under harsh Jewish persecution. It is interesting to note the way that Philadelphia contrasts with the immediately preceding Sardis. No persecution is mentioned for Sardis, and they receive no commendation, whereas much persecution is mentioned for Philadelphia, and they receive no condemnation. This highlights the theme in Revelation of suffering for the Gospel as purifying and glorifying. Indeed, Jesus promises to exalt them above all their enemies when the coming day arrives.

The Letter to Laodicea

Laodicea is the second church to receive no real commendation, but Jesus’ tone seems more compassionate than His tone to Sardis. He specifically points out the loving nature of rebuke and portrays Himself as patiently knocking for entrance into their congregation. Laodicea being the last church, this serves as a compelling reminder of the abundant mercy of Christ even in His judgment. He does not want to punish them but wants to bless them and wants them to come to Him. The question of what exactly they were doing wrong, however, seems much less clear than many of the traditional interpretations of lukewarm-ness would indicate.

How do these chapters fit in context?

As the second and third chapters of Revelation, this passage immediately follows the introductory material and constitutes the bridge which is the collection of letters for the seven churches. The background, then, is the announcement that God is unveiling His plan in Christ to the churches through John. Something divine is afoot, and these letters are meant to give some of the initial warnings and preparations that the churches will need in order to play their part faithfully.

The revelation of Christ is powerful glory in the first chapter is also essential here. This glorified, risen, exalted Christ is the Judge of the churches. Again, this is important because of the way it links Jesus in the New Testament to Yahweh in the Old. Just as Yahweh spoke judgments on His people and their cities through the prophets of old, Jesus speaks judgment on His people in each city through His prophet John.

Finally, these chapters are important in setting the stage for the rest of the book. The eschatological sub-pictures given in Christ’s address to each of the churches will be integrated and transcended through the rest of the book in order to show the whole story. What Christ announces to each of these churches has a role to play in understanding the events coming upon the world. The themes will be extended and expanded, and the wider scope of what Jesus is warning the churches about will be revealed.

What did I learn?

Examining these chapters highlighted a couple of things for me which I had never really noticed. The most impressive to me is the way (as I mentioned twice already) that Jesus takes the place of Yahweh over the people of God. The parallels to Old Testament prophetic texts, especially those announcing judgment on Israel, are pretty strong. Just as God announced to Israel their judgment (and His mercy), often in connection to a coming judgment on the rest of the nations, through His servants the prophets time and again, so Jesus now announces to the churches their judgment (and His mercy) in connection with the rest of the book which addresses a judgment on the rest of the nations through His servant John. The message is clear: the role played by the name of Yahweh in the Old Testament has been given to the name of Jesus in the New. This unique conflation of the roles of Jesus and Yahweh certainly helps to indicate Christ’s deity, even if it is not alone sufficient to prove the matter. The human messianic dimension must also be regarded. Now a man judges the people of God, namely the man Jesus. God has exalted humanity in Christ as His covenant partner.

Going through these two chapters has also helped clarify the relationship between the letters and the rest of Revelation. It seems to me that the letters provide the particulars of God’s coming judgment on the world, which begins with the house of God. The churches will be judged first, all of them represented in these particular seven, and this judgment will then move into the nations. The judgment over the whole world system will carry on the themes found here in the judgment of the churches. Yet it seems that even these specific churches will be present during the coming judgment, and in fact it looms over their immediate future directly following their own judgment. This seems to protest against a primarily futurist reading of the judgment described in the rest of Revelation. On the other hand, that this judgment is moving to the world from the people of God indicates to me that it is not traditional preterism which is being described, for the focus does not seem to be on Israel. This suggests that the eschatological horizon here is a judgment on the pagan world in particular. Nonetheless, I could see support for traditional preterism here in the letter to Philadelphia, which seems to lend support to the idea that the Jews are in fact the subject of the coming judgment. Perhaps we should consider that, if Revelation is in fact post-AD 70, the church had begun to consider the Jews who persecuted them as bound up with the pagan world. This could have been traced back to their cooperation with Rome to execute Jesus.

Faithfulness, Election, Prayer, and Faith: An Exegetical Paper for Genesis 24:12-14

A STUDY OF GENESIS 24:12-14

An Exegetical Paper

 

ABSTRACT OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT

  1. Main Idea.

Abraham’s servant, having been sent to acquire a wife for Isaac that the covenant blessings may be passed down another generation, prayed to the God of his master in faith. He trusted in the will, kindness, and ability of God to fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham. He expected God to perform an act of sovereign election, and then confirm that act by a sign. These themes of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, God’s purpose in election, human faith, and the use of prayer fill the passage and all point forward to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

  1. Genesis 24:12-14
    1. Abraham’s servant prayed for a wife for Isaac (vv. 12-14)
      1. The servant entreated God (v. 12)
        1. Addressed God as “Lord, God of my master Abraham”
        2. Requested success and “kindness” (checed)
      2. The servant set the stage for his sign request (v. 13)
      3. The servant requested a sign of God’s yakach choice (v. 14)
        1. Asked for the sign of a willingness to water both himself and his camels
        2. Expected this sign as proof of God’s checed to Abraham

Introduction

God is faithful, therefore His people have every ground to entreat Him in faith. The truth of this characterization and inference can be found on almost every page of Scripture, but in some places the theme is more prominent than in others. Genesis 24:12-14 stands as a prime example of this dynamic. This passage offers a wealth of riches for the Church when studied in detail. To be more specific, in this text, once properly viewed in historical-cultural and literary context, God’s covenant faithfulness and electing purposes shine bright, with the proper human response of faith and personal prayer to his covenant partner mediated by election setting an example. In addition, as with all of Scripture, each of these themes from the text can be found to climax and find their full meaning in Jesus Christ. None of these claims needs to be particularly controversial, but they do need to be substantiated. What exactly does this passage say? What specifically and exactly did the author (and Author) mean? The investigation must begin in history.

Historical-Cultural Context

To understand any text, the original historical-cultural context is highly relevant. Every part of Scripture was written at a particular time to a particular people in a particular world. This must be acknowledged and treated to avoid appropriating a kind of Docetism into bibliology. So what is the context of Genesis 24:12-14? According to Jewish tradition, as well as the implications of Scripture and even the words of Jesus Himself, the book of Genesis was written by Moses after the Exodus, probably while he was on Mt. Sinai with God. Naturally, not all of this can be verified, and this has been a source of heated debate. Many scholars would like to assign the book, along with the rest of the Pentateuch (or even Hexateuch), to several editors and redactors, and until recently have preferred to divide this up into four primary source materials. These are J (Jehovist/Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly). Traditionally under this schema the entire account of Abraham sending his servant to acquire a wife for Isaac has been associated with the Yahwist. All of this, however, seems quite unnecessary. The purpose and scope of this essay do not permit an attempt at proving or even much defending Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, but enough work on this has already been performed by many scholars. Mosaic authorship can still be, despite many critical protests, affirmed with reason.[1] This places the original context of the writing within the Exodus period. The monumental event of the Exodus is quite relevant because precisely in the shadow of this event God chooses to reiterate to Israel the full story of their origins in the purposes of God. God delivered a people and then called the people to hear the story of how He brought them into being as a foundation for their future as His covenant partner. Genesis 2:14-15 should then be viewed as part of the larger project of establishing Israel’s covenantal identity before God. Yet to go much deeper would turn this into the literary context and thus must be presently deferred.

More important to this particular text may be the historical context of the events described. When did this take place? While many scholars would like to argue that this story is simply one of many legends, folktales, or myths making up Israel’s self-written history, the biblical texts point toward a historical time around the early second millennium BC. Dating from the years given in 1 Kings 6:1 and Exodus 12:40-41 both support this conclusion, no matter which of the predominant views of the Exodus date is preferred. This “Patriarchal Period” has been subject to many accusations of anachronism and fiction, but such accusations do not necessarily convict. There is comparatively little data about the Patriarchal Period from archaeology and other sources, which allows for this kind of ambiguity. Yet the skepticism seems mostly unjustified, as several clues point to an authentic date. Genesis contains, for example, straightforward portrayals of God’s people acting in ways which are taboo later in Israel’s history, such as Abraham marrying his half-sister or Lot sleeping with his daughters. If the accounts originated in later times, these would appear problematic and unnecessary for the authors. Other evidence, such as the information on Ancient Near East customs and practices found in the Nuzi tablets, strengthen the case that, even if the early second millennium cannot be definitively pinpointed as the origin of these stories, the fanciful tale that they were invented much later around the Exilic period seem to lose much credibility.[2]

Given these factors, Genesis (including 24:12-14) should be read as a text written shortly after the Exodus about historical events which took place in the early second millennium BC. Moses wrote to Israel of events from the beginning of their history about half a millennium earlier with no clear indications of anachronism or inaccuracy. From this context, not a great deal is directly relevant to the three verses in question, but two notes are necessary. On the one hand, the mention of domesticated camels in verse 14 is treated as an anachronism by many. Supposedly the domestication of camels in Canaan did not take place until centuries later. This, however, relies mostly on an argument from silence, and frequently assertions like this are found to be false by new archaeological excavations.[3] Beyond this, there is not much of note to the context of this particular passage. Thus the literary context must be the next major focus.

Literary Context

For Genesis 24:12-14, as with any other text (in Scripture or elsewhere), the literary context is the true key to meaning. Where does this text sit in the whole book or collection of books? This particular text is found in the book of Genesis, which is ultimately inseparable from the entire Pentateuch (or even the Hexateuch). While the entire Pentateuch includes a couple of genres, the majority from Genesis 1 to the middle of Exodus is pure narrative. Many will argue that this narrative is fictional, mythical, legendary, or allegorical. While in theory one of these could be true, there is no necessary reason to think so, and the overall story should probably be classified simply as a historical narrative. This is most often contested on the grounds of theological and miraculous content, but neither of these preclude an intent to write real history. Obviously this is a highly controversial route, but the evidence does not ask for any other. In any case, unless the narrative is a pure allegory, the intended meaning of the text’s canonical form is likely the same.

The story of Genesis which sets the context for 24:12-14 is essentially of origins. Genesis tells a story about the origin of the world (Genesis 1-11) and of Israel as God’s people within the world (Genesis 12-50). The latter half about the origins of Israel begins with Abraham and God’s covenant with Him. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be His own people for divine blessing. The selection of Abraham is unexplained, presumably a simple function of God’s free election. This text, then, appears in a transition period as Abraham passed his role on to Isaac, who had also been specially selected by God as the descendant through whom the chosen people would continue. Isaac would become the patriarch for the next few chapters. Thus he, like Abraham, would need posterity, which in turn meant he would need a wife. A wife would enable Isaac to take up his place as the next patriarch and continue the line of promise. Therefore, Abraham sent out a servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac from his own kin rather than from among the Canaanites.

Genesis 24:12-14 lies at this point and must be taken as part of this ongoing narrative of the patriarchs. The prayer of the servant sits in the middle of this crucial transition period. God had made a covenant promise to provide many descendants to Abraham and Isaac after him. At this moment the question came in the form of the servant’s prayer, “Will God be faithful, and if so how?” The ongoing history of God’s people was found once again to hinge on God’s provision, election, and faithfulness, just as for Abraham when he trusted God for a son. John Walton highlights the issue thus:

[G]etting a wife for Isaac in a way that will preserve the covenant ideals is not an easy matter. It is for that reason that the narrator goes to such great length to demonstrate the role that God played in bringing the marriage to fruition. Abraham has not yet become a great nation. Survival of the line still hangs by a thread.[4]

Therefore, the context presents Isaac and even, in a certain sense, Rebekah, as the rightful successor(s) of the first patriarch, and the source of the blessings which are still to come in the rest of the story.

The Basic Content

So, with the context in history and the literature firmly established, the actual content of the passage can be examined. What happened in Genesis 24:12-14? Abraham sent out his chief servant to acquire a wife for Isaac, since Abraham was getting old and would die soon. The servant came to the town of Nahor and approached a well, where he then uttered the prayer of these three verses in question. In this prayer, he asked God to show kindness to Abraham his master by giving success in the wife-finding journey. He asked in particular for God to highlight a woman He had chosen by a particular sign, the sign of extraordinary hospitality in the form of an offer to draw water for both him and the camels from the well. In fact, the text is short enough that quoting the full prayer is probably warranted. The servant’s prayer reads as follows in the NIV, which the standard throughout this paper:

“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”[5]

That is the full text of the prayer which will be discussed. The events afterwards bear note as well, however. In the rest of the narrative, God did give the sign and led the servant to Rebekah, whom Isaac married. Keeping this storyline in mind, the interpretation can begin. What does the text actually mean?

“Kindness” and “Chosen”: Two Key Words about the Faithful God of Abraham

 Key to this passage will be two words which highlight the redemptive-historical themes of the account. The first of these is translated in the NIV as “kindness.” The servant asked God to “show kindness” to Abraham, and at the end of the prayer asked for a sign so he could know that God had shown “kindness.” The Hebrew is the word checed (חֶ֕סֶד), which is used fairly frequently in the Old Testament, occurring 241 times.[6] Checed has a very wide translation range (including in the NIV such diversity as “condemn,” “devout,” and “loving deeds”), but the meaning seems to primarily orbit around some blend of commitment and benevolence. Thus in 174 instances the NIV uses a variant of “love” yet also includes at times “devotion,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” In support of this blend, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, for example, predominantly translates checed as “faithful love.”[7] There is an unmistakable covenantal flavor to the included faithfulness in many of the occurrences, and many times in the Psalms checed could almost be defined: “God’s unswerving mercy and love in being faithful to His covenant with Israel and her king.”

In Genesis 24:12-14 in particular, the common rendering “kindness” fits well enough, but an argument could well be made that God’s covenant faithfulness should not be left out of the picture. After all, as mentioned earlier, this was a pivotal moment. God’s covenant with Abraham was about to transition to his son Isaac. The wife Isaac required would be the means by which Isaac could bear children according to the promise. Thus for God to answer this servant’s prayer would be to show His covenant love to Abraham and his family. Those were the stakes, and as the narrative later explains, God did just that. In yet another moment of importance for God’s people, He came through out of faithful love.

The other significant word in the passage, not repeated but certainly important, is “chosen.” The Hebrew word is yakach (יָכחַ). Though not as common as checed, yakach does show up in the Old Testament enough to notice, namely fifty-five times. The basic meaning of yakach has to do with rightness.[8] The word is quite flexible, with “rebuke” having a plurality of the NIV renderings at twenty instances, but the rest divided between many others like “judge,” “vindicate,” “complain,” or “mediate.” This passage contains the rendering “chosen,” also “appointed” or “prepared” in other translations. Many of the other possible meanings for yakach make intuitive sense (e.g. “vindicate” is to prove right, “judge” to discern right, “rebuke” to correct wrong with right, etc.), but how that ties to the concept of choosing or appointing is less obvious. Perhaps the intended sense is judging that a particular choice is the right one, recognizing that what is being chosen or appointed is right or fit for the purpose.

If this sense of discerning rightness according to a purpose is correct, then the servant implicitly acknowledged that God has a righteous plan with a particular woman who will be the best gift for Isaac. The one God has chosen, yakach, would be right for him and thus help bring about the blessings of the covenant which she was needed to fulfill. The Lord of all the earth does what is right, and the servant fully expected (and entreated) Him to do the same in this particular circumstance, in this moment on which the future of the covenant hang. Thus, even while not used in the same sentence of the text, these two important words function together. The servant prayed for the God of Abraham to show faithful love to the family by his right choice of a woman through whom the covenant could transition to Isaac, and thus God’s plan in election could reach fullness.

The Meaning of the Servant’s Prayer of Faith

These themes of God’s covenant faithfulness and sovereign election are key to understanding Genesis 24:12-14, but they are not the whole. There is the human side as well, the side in which the servant actually did the praying. The faithful God was entreated by a human in need of His faithfulness. The God of the covenant was asked by a member of His partner’s party to fulfill His terms. Clearly, Abraham’s relationship to God was not closed off and private. Instead, his servants were aware of God’s covenant, promises, and terms. All of Abraham’s household had to walk in faith, and in this passage the chief servant did just that. He expressed trust in his master’s God by making an implausible request in prayer. (This is, however, something with which Calvin wrestled.[9] How does a prayer of true faith include a prescription to God for a definite sign? While the discussion might be interesting, there is no room for addressing the question here. May the simple observation that Scripture never recognizes such a tension suffice.)

This prayer presents the basic paradigm of the God/human covenant relationship. God initiates, God gives promises, the humans agree, and finally the humans call upon God to fulfill His promises when they are needed. This basic pattern can be found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, with Genesis 24:12-14 being a prime early example. By itself, the servant’s prayer might not teach anything but the admirability of faith. Yet this prayer was grounded in the faithfulness of God, which was again proved when God heard and answered the prayer in verses 15-20. Thus working in reverse a truth becomes clear: the faithfulness of God to His promises calls forth absolute dependence from His people. Just as Abraham earlier “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,”[10] now the servant trusted in God, and God gave to him the success needed for the covenant to be fulfilled.

One interesting quality of the servant’s prayer is the narrative introduction. In particular, verse 12 opens up saying, “Then he prayed.” The word “prayed” here is translated in the NIV beyond the basic meaning, which is simply “said.” There is no technical sense of prayer here, only a conversation. This is supported by the tone, which lacks any liturgical refinement, specific theological terminology, or accompanying posture or rites. Such a tone is in accord with the general prayer habits of the patriarchs, which tended to be simple, personal, and informal. [11] The servant just spoke to God. He asked God for some help as anyone else might ask a human friend. That God answered such a prayer on multiple occasions, including this one, indicates a profoundly personal orientation between God and His people. Liturgy has a place, as the Torah demonstrated, but this prayer stands as an example that there was never a time when God was first met in rigid procedure rather than personal encounter. Yet even this personal encounter has another layer.

Despite the informal and conversational tone of the prayer, there is also an element of mediation. The servant did not address Yahweh as “my God.” Instead, he called Him, “God of my master Abraham.” The servant may have been implicated in the blessings of the covenant and perhaps by membership in Abraham’s house something of a covenant member, but ultimately the covenant was between God and Abraham, not God and the servant. God chose Abraham specifically. His descendants and other members of his household only could participate by virtue of their relationship to him. The shape of election is visible here as three parties are visible: God, Abraham, and those who belong to Abraham. God elected Abraham freely, and through Abraham’s election the servant received a covenantal status from which he could entreat the God who elected Abraham. A mediation appeared between God and His people, a person through whom His faithfulness and their faith could intersect.

Christ Embodies Checed and Yakach

At this point all of the themes visible in this text—God’s covenant faithfulness, His gracious election, His people’s answering faith and dependence, and the personal nature of a covenant relationship—all cry out for a point of unifying fulfillment. If God is truly faithful to His covenant, if the servant prayed for the fulfillment of that covenant through an act of kindness and election, then how did this all unfold? In the short term, the answer is quite simple. God answered the prayer of the servant by electing Rebekah as a wife to Isaac (in a way suspiciously similar to the election of Abraham in the beginning). Yet the overall context of Scripture points also further. After all, God did not set up His covenant with Abraham to no purpose. Abraham and Isaac were the beginning, but a day of fulfillment was always destined, a day in which all God’s purposes would climax. So what does the canonical context of Scripture add to this text?

Jesus Christ once declared, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.”[12] The wider context, indeed the true meaning, of all Scripture is Jesus. This applies no less to Genesis 24:12-14 than to any other passage. For this reason, He should be viewed as the true key which unlocks the secrets remaining in this text. Jesus fulfills all of the themes of the servant’s prayer and the story in which the prayer is embedded.

In Jesus, God’s checed, His loving faithfulness and faithful love, broke fully into the world and was (and continues to be) truly actualized. Of Him the Scriptures say, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[13] Indeed, the fuller meaning of checed as covenantally faithful love is clear in the rest of Romans, as when Paul declared that God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated through the faithful work of Jesus Christ.[14] The merciful promises that God made to Abraham, which in this particular passage were in a state of transition and needed another divine act to be accomplished, were kept by Him through all the years until their fulfillment in Jesus. Both of the primary shades of checed, the kindness which the servant asked God to show to Abraham, benevolence and faithfulness, were completed once for all in the work of Jesus, Himself both God and the human covenant partner.

The theme of God’s yakach, His choosing or election, is also fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is called the Chosen One.[15] He is the one human through whom all of God’s purposes have finally been accomplished. Rebekah was chosen by God to advance the covenant by helping Isaac have seed, but Jesus is the final chosen Seed[16] who crushed the serpent’s head.[17] The servant prayed that God would choose someone to show kindness to Abraham, and in Christ God chose someone to show kindness to the entire world. The fulfillment of the servant’s prayer for Rebekah was ultimately a fulfillment designed from the beginning of God’s covenant to lead up to Jesus. Moreover, as the Chosen One around whom God’s people are now constituted, the mediation has changed. The servant’s relationship to God was in some sense mediated by Abraham as the covenantal head. Election was defined by relationship to God’s chosen human, Abraham. Now this has shifted. The elect head of God’s people is now Jesus rather than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses,[18] and all God’s people find their election not in themselves, but in Christ[19] and His mediation.[20] Thus the prayer has been fulfilled for God to show kindness through one He chose, and “God of my master Abraham” has been replaced with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[21]

Christ Embodies the Reality of Faith-filled Prayer

In addition to the fulfillment of the prayer itself, the concept of God’s faithfulness calling forth the faith-filled prayers of His people has also been given a new dimension in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus fulfilled the role of the one who is constant in prayer and faith. Like the servant who trusted in God and asked for His will to be done, Jesus had true faith in His Father and persisted in prayer, “and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”[22] The servant prayed for the will of God to be accomplished, and so did Jesus.[23] Jesus in fact went beyond the role of the servant, taking a full and active role in bringing about God’s will, not just as the prayerful man but also as the faithful God. In Christ the prayer and the answer, the faith-filled entreaty and faithful response, became one.

However important the prayerfulness of Christ may be, though, this is not the end of the fulfillment of prayer. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the people of God.[24] Now that the people of God have been given the Spirit, they can pray like the servant but in greater faith with greater power, for their prayers are enhanced. The Spirit they have received is the Spirit of God Himself, who knows the deep thoughts of God,[25] and thus they are given deeper intimacy and deeper power in their prayers. They can entreat the God who has already fulfilled the decisive promises of His covenant, knowing that He has already proved Himself fully and forever faithful in Jesus Christ. Thus the prayer the servant offered in faith has become but a type and shadow of the reality of prayer which Christ has given to His people by His Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus also fulfills the personalization of the covenant between God and man. There was, to be sure, a personal quality to the patriarchal intercourse. The prayers did remain relatively informal and conversational. However, there was always a degree of barrier, if for no other reason that the theophanies and Christophanies were short, temporary, and not of full and abiding human substance. As the old age continued, the barriers between God and man only grew as the Torah was instituted and a personal relationship with God was inhibited by the cultic system designed to shield man from God. Yet in Christ God has made Himself fully personal to His people, taking on their own flesh that He might speak to them, act to them, and know them as one of their own.[26] In the Incarnation God became bone of human bone and flesh of human flesh,[27] fully and personally revealed Himself[28] to His creatures from within the depths of individual human existence. Now God’s people can pray to Him in a more personal and intimate way than the servant ever could, crying out “Father!” by the Spirit Jesus poured out on them.[29] With this relationship in play, God makes good on all of His promises and hears His people as a faithful Father, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Exegetical Conclusions

Having studied the role of the faithful God, the prayer of the faith-filled man, and the fulfillment of both of these in Christ, the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14 should be quite clear by now. In the original, local context, the account of the servant’s prayer to the God of Abraham makes for a powerful display of multiple biblical themes. The faithful love of the covenant God was expressed in both the request itself and the answer. An appeal was made to the electing purposes of God. The necessity of prayer from a posture of faith within a covenant structure of mediation and election was also demonstrated. Abraham’s servant appeared as a great example, and his request glorified God in its fulfillment. All of this is multiplied when taking into account the wider, canonical, redemptive-historical context. The faithful love of the covenant God went from the provision of Rebekah to the self-giving of God in Christ. The electing purpose of God was revealed in the appearance of the Son of God as the Chosen One in whom the Church is also chosen. Prayer and faith found perfect human expression in the life of Jesus, and by His Spirit the people of God can now pray and trust God in a new, more vital sense than in the past, in the days of Abraham, his servant, Isaac, and Rebekah. In all of this, the glory of God in covenant, promise, faithfulness, wisdom, sovereign choice, and love shines manifold.

By this point the basic theological lessons should be clear, but they bear repeating with concision and clarity for the sake of summary. The first point is that God is always loving and faithful. He is always characterized by checed, a devoted will to do good to His people. This is proved in His fulfillment of the promises to Abraham both in answering the servant’s prayer for Isaac’s wife and in providing Christ as Savior and Messiah. Therefore, God’s people can always count on Him today. God can always be trusted to do what is right and fulfill all of His promises, which are a “Yes” in Christ.[30] The theme that God chooses, and chooses for a redemptive purpose, is also important. God’s election is not seen in this text as an exclusionary act by which certain people are selected and others rejected for grace and redemption. Rather, God’s election is shown to be a means of setting the whole world right through the choosing of one important character at a time. First Abraham was chosen, then Isaac, then in this account Rebekah, and in the end Christ was the Chosen One of God through whom all God’s plans were accomplished. Any theology of election today must be oriented around the fact that God has chosen Christ in this inclusive and outward-oriented way just like with Rebekah. An articulation of election must be in accord with something Karl Barth once wrote, namely that Christ “is both the electing God and elected man in One.”[31]

Finally, the power and nature of faith-filled prayer stands as an essential lesson. Through this text God’s will to be faithful to the entreaties and requests of His people is made known. Praying and trusting just as the servant did, just as Christ did, in the power and mind of the Spirit who has been poured out on God’s people by Christ, is immensely powerful and will move God to act, not for no reason at all, but because He has made a covenant to which He promises to be faithful. This text serves as a reminder that God has set the terms by which He may be approached and thus on His character and act alone hinges Christian confidence in the power of prayer.

Application

With Genesis 24:12-14 now exegeted at both the local, simply historical and the wider, theological/Christological level, there remains only a short bridge to find relevant applications to the life of the modern Christian. Indeed, both the event described and the theological interpretation are full of meaty substance. There are in fact three primary applications to draw from the exegetical work in this paper, not to say that nothing else might be added by further or other work. They correspond to the faithful love of God, the electing purpose of God, and the prayer of faith, in accord with the primary teachings of the passage.

First, in this text God’s loving faithfulness is displayed in such a way that Christians today can stake all of their hope and assurance on Him. God was benevolently faithful to the covenant He made with Abraham by answering the servant’s prayer, and He further demonstrated His merciful devotion by completing the telos of the covenant in Christ and His faithfulness. Because of this pattern of faithfulness, God’s people can trust Him in each day, in each battle or struggle. They may find themselves in a crisis or a critical transition in life, but just as He answered the servant to fulfill His covenant love He will answer His people today. Therefore, Christians have every reason to trust in God unfailingly.

There is also an application from the electing purpose of God. God chooses to use particular people to propel His purposes, and He chooses to bring about salvation through covenants He makes real human beings. This began in Abraham, and in this text continued as the servant prayed for another act of election, and God answered the prayer. This serves as a reminder that God can choose to use anyone at any time to accomplish any purpose He wishes. The Church as God’s chosen people in Christ can be seen as a means by which God brings about His will, which should impel her members to find their place and take up whatever action to which they are called.

At the last, then, the final application returns to prayer in faith. If God is faithful, if God loves, if God chooses and works through human beings, then His people have every possible reason to believe, to trust, and to expectantly pray for God to act. God has plans and will fulfill them, and precisely because He works in this way there exists a call for His people to call out to Him. He has bound Himself by covenant to act when entreated, to do His will when His people seek His will. The servant was an example for all today. He trusted in the God of his master Abraham and asked for His help at the appropriate redemptive-historical moment. Likewise, the righteous are called to trust in the God of their Lord Jesus Christ and ask for His help in every moment of need. Prayer and faith, promise and faithfulness, all fulfilled in Christ—this is the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14, and by this meaning Christians must move forward in their lives, submitting to God’s voice in the Scriptures.

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics – Volume 2. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. E-book. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

Kohlenberger, John R., III. NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers. E-book. Zondervan, 2015.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11. E-book. Holman Reference, 1996.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51. E-book. Holman Reference, 2005.

The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.

Walton, John. The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis. E-book. Zondervan, 2011.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Footnotes

[1] Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11, (Holman Reference, 1996), location 1606, Kindle ebook.

[2] All of this is discussed in more detail in Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51, (Holman Reference, 1996), loc. 842-930, Kindle ebook.

[3] Ibid, loc. 950.

[4] John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis, (Zondervan, 2011), “Genesis 23:1–25:18,” Olive Tree resource.

[5] Genesis 24:12-14 (New International Version).

[6] John R. Kohlenberger III, NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers, (Zondervan, 2015), entry H2617, Olive Tree resource.

[7] See, for example, Exodus 15:13 (Holman Christian Standard Bible), compare NIV.

[8] Kohlenberger, NIV Word Study Bible, entry H3198.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), notes on Genesis 24:12, theWord Bible module.

[10] Genesis 15:6.

[11] Matthews, NAC Vol. 1B, loc. 7812.

[12] John 5:39 (HCSB).

[13] Romans 5:8 (NIV).

[14] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), ch. 7.

[15] Luke 23:35.

[16] Galatians 3:16.

[17] Genesis 3:15.

[18] Romans 9.

[19] Ephesians 1:4.

[20] 1 Timothy 2:5.

[21] Romans 15:16.

[22] Hebrews 5:7.

[23] Matthew 6:10.

[24] John 15:26.

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:10-12.

[26] 1 John 1:1-3.

[27] Hebrews 2:14.

[28] John 1:14.

[29] Romans 8:14.

[30] 1 Corinthians 1:20.

[31] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), part 2, 3 (§32).

The Bible Told Who So? Andy, Apologetics, and Authority

I just don’t think the Bible is important to Christianity and we don’t need to rely on it as Christians.

Okay, that’s not me. Actually, that’s what people have been getting for some reason from Andy Stanley’s recent controversial sermon, “The Bible Told Me So.” I would have thought this controversy would have settled down a bit since I first ran across it a couple weeks ago, but it really hasn’t. So I’m just going to offer my thoughts.

First, if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, you should probably just go hear the whole sermon for yourself before forming an opinion. It would be inappropriate to make a judgment on this matter before hearing everything he says in its proper context. But here’s a summary. Basically, Stanley argued that we should stop hanging the core of our faith on the total perfection of the Bible and instead put it on the Resurrection. It is not the Bible that gives us Christianity, but rather Christianity was created by the Resurrection and the Bible came to be because of that. Sometimes people will find all kinds of objections to believing everything in the Bible (stuff like “What about evolution?” “I heard the Exodus never happened,” or “Archaeology says walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down”), but ultimately if their faith is grounded in the historical fact of the Resurrection rather than in the totality of a perfect Bible, they will find themselves reasonably led to stick to the faith and simply wrestle through the other issues. If the ultimate focus is, “The Bible told me so,” then as soon as they find a problem in the Bible that they can’t find a decent answer for, their faith will be in jeopardy. If the ultimate focus is, “Jesus rose from the dead,” then no random archaeological discovery about the Ancient Near East will endanger this sure bit of history on which everything else hangs.

To be honest, it still doesn’t make sense to me how people could truly object to this line of reasoning except by (usually willful) misunderstanding. It is simply true that the Resurrection is the one historical point on which everything hangs, and that even if we had a fallible Bible or no Bible at all this would still be real history deserving of faith in Christ. But of course there has been a great deal of misunderstanding, so I will quickly address two common misconceptions about this argument.

  • This is not saying the Bible has errors. Part of the point of this argument is to make it irrelevant to Christian faith whether the Bible has errors or not, but even so the argument does not ask us to say there are errors in the Bible, and Stanley has explicitly stated that he believes in inerrancy: “I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true.”
  • This is not saying that we know about the Resurrection without the Gospels. Some people have imagined that if Stanley is moving the focus from the “Bible” to the Resurrection, then without the Bible he has no way of knowing about the Resurrection. But Stanley isn’t removing the Gospels from our method of knowing about Jesus. He is changing the focus from the “Bible” as a single, bound, book of 66 books complete with a theology of inspiration—a sacred text—to the fact that it contains Gospels and epistles written in the first century by eyewitnesses whose lives were changed by the event of the Resurrection. The Gospels are being presented as simple historical evidence first. If we can show that the New Testament demonstrates the historical reality of the Resurrection as simply testimony for an event from eyewitnesses, then we can build from the fact of the risen Christ to give someone a full Bibliology.

So, given all of this, I think that what Stanley has said is good apologetics and accurately expresses the historical rationale for why we can believe. Our faith in ultimately grounded in the fact that Jesus did really rise from the dead in space and time 2000 years ago and we have historical witness to that in the New Testament. Everything else in the Bible is true, but even if it were not or if we had reason to doubt, the Resurrection would be enough to hold everything together.

But, I am not willing to let Stanley off easily just because I agree with his basic apologetic point. There is still a problem here, and that is with his overall approach. The problem with “The Bible Told Me So” isn’t so much what Stanley says so much as to whom he addressed it. My problem is with Stanley’s approach to preaching and church. What Stanley said would belong in an apologetics conference or in a conversation with unbelieving friends or doubting Christians, but not in church. His recent interview with Russell Moore highlights what I’m saying. Moore asked him what he would do if we had the power of an evangelical pope. The first part of his response was that he would have all the small, dying churches sell their buildings and stuff and give them to church planters. Then he added a part related to this sermon saying that he would ask pastors to get the spotlight off the Bible and back on Christ’s resurrection, which of course sent people into reactionary spasms of “Heresy! Apostate man!” But the two together, along with everything else about Stanley’s ministry, make my point. He is treating church and its services as the place and time for evangelism, outreach, and apologetics. It’s a seeker-driven model all about getting people in. Thus he uses a primarily apologetic mode for Scripture, one which can’t take Scripture as a presupposition but instead must use it as a tool of historical reasoning. This is a fine way to evangelize, but it’s a terrible way to do church. As I argued before, church is for the Church. Church is a time for edifying believers, uniting us in the Gospel in worship of God in Christ, discipleship, and proclaiming God’s word in Scripture. In church, we can and must treat Scripture as a presupposition. When preaching and teaching to believers we are to take its final, infallible authority for granted. There are other contexts and times, especially one-on-one conversations, for handling Scripture in the merely historical, apologetically strategic way that Stanley is doing, but it is not the way to feed the sheep, which is the true purpose of church gatherings. I criticize Stanley here not for what he says, but to whom he says it. He should be saying these things to unbelievers outside of church, or to struggling believers in personal or training environment, not to a gathered church body. His ecclesiology is the real problem. His Bibliology is actually fine. But this ecclesiological problem is a problem, and it’s why I’m not thrilled with him and his ministry. Get church right, and use the power which comes from healthy church to evangelize in the world. That’s the issue.

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 Bible, Limited Atonement, the Church, and the World

When I originally ran into Calvinism, limited atonement was the most frightening doctrine to me, and it almost sounded heretical. Even when I was a Calvinist, I originally and in the end found it awfully stretchy in relation to what Scripture actually says, and for that reason I was quite happy to abandon it when the time came. But for Calvinists I know, this repudiation seems strange. They can hardly see how a logical approach to the Bible can go without limited atonement. Yet I am convinced that to let Scripture say what it says entirely rules out the doctrine.

For this post, then, I would simply like to propose the basic outline of my approach to texts in Scripture which relate to the extent of the atonement. I believe that this approach is more faithful to what the Bible actually says and means than the Calvinistic one. I will try to present each in a strong and credible form for comparison, and I will then present a few verses which I think can serve as decent test cases for your own evaluation as readers.

First, the basic Calvinistic approach to atonement texts. In the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, Christ only died to atone for the sins of the elect, at least in any full and strict sense. Jesus hung from the Cross as the penal substitute and representative of the elect alone. He paid the full legal price for their sins alone. Some Calvinists will also say that Jesus’ death at least brought some kinds of benefits to the rest of humanity, though this is a limited blessing (one which I tend to think is actually a curse, as I will explain in a later post someday).

Obviously, this view of the atonement creates tension with texts like 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 or Hebrews 2:9. So how do Calvinists address them? It depends both on the specific context and the particular interpreter, but there are usually three main approaches. The first looks for clues in the context that show the “all” should be understood as referring to all of the Church/elect/redeemed rather than every member of humanity. Another method is to view the “all” as a reference essentially to the universal generality and diversity involved rather than the total number of people, i.e. “all” means “all kinds of people” (cf. Rev. 5:9) or specifically “Jews and Gentiles together” (cf. 1 John 2:2) rather than “every person.” And a final method, historically not very common until recently, is to take it as a reference to the supposed general, non-saving benefits of Jesus’ death for all people, such as common grace.

On the other hand, Calvinists seem to have a prima facie stronger grasp of certain texts which specify Christ as dying for His Church or His people. They take these as straightforwardly saying that, when it comes to actual atonement for redemption, Jesus died simply and exclusively for the elect, His own people. These are the only people that Jesus was crucified in order to save.

So how is my own approach (one which, of course, has plenty of parallels outside of Calvinism) different? First, I take the “all” passages at face value. When 2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “one died for all,” I accept that as meaning Jesus died for all people indiscriminately. Same goes for a host of other passages. The “all” passages seem to be clear and explicit. Unlike in the Calvinistic reading, these mean exactly what you would think and exactly what they say. When Jesus suffered on Calvary, He suffered on behalf of the entire human race as a whole, on behalf of humanity as one race. This is because He, as the divine Word in whom all humanity is created, represents them all in His own human flesh. He organically stepped into the place and guilt of all people through His stance in several layers of covenant ultimately encompassing the whole race.

So what about the passages which speak of Christ’s death as specifically for His Church or His people, the many? I believe we should also fully affirm them, without diluting their force. I mean, on one hand, obviously “all people” includes the Church. But that’s not a convincing way to understand verses as strong as Eph. 5:25. In what way did Christ die specifically and especially for His Church? For this, I look to the way that the Church is not merely meant to be individuals who don’t have to go to Hell, but is instead a renewed Israel and through Israel also a renewed humanity. The Church is the humanity of the new creation. In Christ’s death the old humanity dies, and in His resurrection the new humanity is born. In this way we can say that Jesus died specifically to create His Church as a redeemed people for a redeemed world. This isn’t saying that Jesus only paid the penalty for the sins of people who actually end up saved, but says that the atonement was especially designed to form a new humanity, a new image-bearing people of God, out of the old one by union with Christ in His death and resurrection. So it truly makes sense to speak of Jesus giving Himself for His Church to save and sanctify Her, even while at the same time affirming that He died for the sins of the world unequivocally.

So, with these two approaches, a classical one and a more Evangelical Calvinist-style one, in mind, I offer a handful of texts related to the extent of the atonement, and you can judge which view makes more sense on your own:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and doesn’t own the sheep, leaves them and runs away when he sees a wolf coming. The wolf then snatches and scatters them. This happens because he is a hired man and doesn’t care about the sheep.

“I am the good shepherd. I know My own sheep, and they know Me, as the Father knows Me, and I know the Father. I lay down My life for the sheep. But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My life so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” 

John 10:11-18

For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. 

2 Corinthians 2:14-15

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. He did this to present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.

Ephesians 5:25-30

For He has not subjected to angels the world to come that we are talking about. But one has somewhere testified:

What is man that You remember him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him lower than the angels for a short time; You crowned him with glory and honor and subjected everything under his feet.

For in subjecting everything to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to him. But we do see Jesus — made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone — crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God — all things exist for Him and through Him — should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying:

I will proclaim Your name to My brothers; I will sing hymns to You in the congregation.

Again, I will trust in Him. And again, Here I am with the children God gave Me.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. 

Hebrews 2:5-18

He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

1 John 2:2

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.

Matthew 20:28

This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, Himself human, who gave Himself — a ransom for all, a testimony at the proper time.

1 Timothy 2:3-6

Aaron Adorned by Christ: The Meaning of the Priestly Vestments

[This is my term paper for my Old Testament Backgrounds. Enjoy.]

Introduction

If a hundred people had to describe the text of Exodus 28, which covers the garments of the Aaronic priesthood, in a single word, “boring” would probably win a majority, or at least a strong plurality, of the votes. This is probably true even in many Christian circles. Yet this result would be the greatest shame, for “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness,”1 including the entirety of the Torah. Exodus 28 and the instructions therein for priestly vestment is actually breathed-out by God not only for a people thousands of years ago, but also for His people today. This old text to an old people is able to still be relevant today because, like all of Scripture,2 it was from the beginning inspired to point towards Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This paper will examine what the priestly garments both in their parts and as a whole represented in their original contexts and how this meaning finds consummation in the person and work of Jesus. To set the stage for the details of this examination will require looking first broadly at the meaning and purpose of the garments as a whole.

The Nature and Meaning of Priestly Adornment

While there would be little difficulty in taking the unique priestly vestments for granted, they actually pose many interesting questions. What is their purpose? Perhaps the best category for understanding their use is that of the priests as mediators. As mediators, the priesthood stood in a unique position in relation to God and His people. Gordon J. Wenham puts the point this way: “As mediators priests had a dual role: they represented God to Israel and they represented Israel before God.”3 This, he goes on to explain, is a key reason why God ordained such particular clothing for them, for “Their godly authority was expressed by their splendid robes, which evoked the majesty of God himself.”4 In fact, there are two sides for this. One the one hand, the glory of their vestments displayed before the people a representation of the glory of the God for whom they served as representatives. On the other hand, their vestments were also products of human creativity, craftsmanship, and culture, and as such they displayed before God a representation of man’s glory in His image. Thus by taking on their vestments the priests were enrolled as God to Israel and Israel to God.

The Christological significance of this should be abundantly clear. Jesus was (and is) able to serve as an eternal and final High Priest because He not only represents both God and man, as the priests of old did, but in fact is both God and man. In the priesthood of Christ there is no mere role-playing but an ontological reality in which the Priest by nature and not merely by appointment is the one who expresses the glory of God and of man.5 The garments which the Aaronic priests put on to become mediators foreshadow the flesh which Christ put on to become the one Mediator, set apart to save humanity.

On the note of “set apart,” another key purpose of the priestly vestments was to sanctify, or set apart, the priests for their work. After all, no one could merely approach God as himself on his own terms, for all have sinned,6 and God is a consuming fire.7 For this reason God told Moses that the clothes would be necessary to enable the priests to serve before God.8 By donning these clothes, the priests could leave their natural identities behind in order to act in a divinely appointed roll in a divinely appointed manner. Keil and Delitzsch said of this, “These clothes were to be used ‘to sanctify him’…Sanctification, as the indispensable condition of priestly service, was not merely the removal of the uncleanness which flowed from sin, but, as it were, the transformation of the natural into the glory of the image of God.”9 Without the priestly clothes, the priests would have been natural and unclean.

This need for external sanctifying aids also points antitypically to Christ, as when He stepped into the priestly service He needed no such help at all. The Lord Jesus had no sins to cover, and He was to be found clothed with a righteousness of His own work and merit, the very righteousness of God. Jesus’ holy life proved entirely sufficient to qualify Him for priesthood , even high priesthood, after He had perfected His work by persevering in obedience through suffering.10 Thus in Christian retrospect the need of the priests for divinely provided adornment prefigured in contrast Christ’s inherent perfection.

The Ephod: Wearing the Word

With a brief Christocentric account of the priestly garments as a whole established, the individual parts deserve their own examination. The first of these, both in the order of the description in Exodus 28 and in importance, would be the High Priest’s ephod. The exact details of what an ephod was and looked like are historically ambiguous, but the Biblical description includes a front piece, a back piece, and some kind of connection between the two across the shoulders.11 The ephod was to be made out of fine linen, gold embroidery, and blue, purple, and scarlet yarn. These are the same materials as the curtain of the Tabernacle, a point to which Peter Enns calls attention.12 Apparently there is an important link between the servant of God and the Tabernacle in which God dwells. The High Priest is set apart for a unique relationship to the presence of God.

There also appears to be a connection between the ephod and the revelation of God’s will. The ephod bears the “breastpiece of judgment,” which the HCSB translates “breastpiece for making decisions,” and in 1 Samuel the ephod is employed on multiple occasions to seek out God’s guidance.1314 This important strand, when combined with the note above about the link between the ephod and the curtain to God’s presence, seems to paint a picture of the High Priest as the one who is uniquely employed to bear the revelation of God’s will because he alone is authorized to enter the holy presence of God and return.

Once again there appears clear Christological import. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this unique revelatory role, something which the apostle John emphasizes in his Gospel account. He opens by saying of Jesus, “No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son — the One who is at the Father’s side — He has revealed Him,”15 and also records Jesus as saying to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven — the Son of Man.”16 Jesus takes up the role as the one who enters God’s presence to return with revelation, indeed the very revelation of forgiveness. The High Priest needed to don his ephod to bring revelation, but Christ revealed God in donning His own human flesh, clothing which was likewise bound up with the very presence of God.

One feature of the ephod of particular interest is the placement of two onyx stones on its shoulders. In these stones were carved the names of the tribes of Israel, six on each stone. The Scripture says that they were to be carried by the High Priest as a memorial for all the Israelites. This is very significant, for the whole concept of a High Priest performing atonement rests on what the stones symbolize: one man identifying with his entire people to act on their whole behalf. As John Calvin said, “That the connection between the priest and the people might be made more plain, God not only placed on his breast the memorials of the twelve tribes, but also engraved their names on his shoulders.”17 This absolute identity of priest and people was essential to atonement, so that the one could be for the many. All of Israel was carried into the Holy of Holies on the shoulders of the High Priest.

The unity of one and many represented by the ephod’s shoulder stones is naturally quite directly applicable to what Christ came to do. Jesus became the one who acted for the many not by putting stones on His shoulders but by taking on human shoulders.18 He identified (and identifies) fully with humanity in its broken state, and holding this identity in place He has entered the presence of God the Father Almighty, where He saves us and intercedes for us as one man for all men.19

Lights and Perfections

By this point the most obscure matter of the priestly clothing, the Urim and Thummim, comes to relevance. The last significant part of the ephod is the “breastpiece of judgment” or “breastpiece for making decisions,” which contained the Urim and Thummim. The breastpiece itself was just a square, double-folded fabric block made out of the same material as the rest of the ephod. Twelve different precious stones set in gold filled its surface in four rows of three stones each, and each stone was engraved with a name of one of the tribes of Israel.

So what were the Urim and Thummim? Their names translate to “lights and perfections,” but this is ambiguous. No one knows for sure what they were. One traditional view, accepted by James K. Bruckner, is that they were black and white stones used like lots.20 Enns suggests that they could have involved a luminous gem.21 Calvin argues that they are not distinct objects but some kind of patterns or markings or decorations.22 Whatever they actually were, the agreement is that they bear some relation, either symbolically or functionally, to the nature of the breastpiece as being for judgment/decisions.

The actual meaning of the Urim and Thummim, then, should most likely be understood in light of what was previously stated about the association of the ephod as a whole with the revelation of God’s will. They probably served to mark the High Priest as the authorized bearer of God’s word, the mediator of His will to Israel. They are called “lights and perfections” rightly, for whatever word from God they accompany will be a word of light and perfection. This word represents the justice and truth of God to which Israel was bound and from which she derived her Torah. Whenever the High Priest sought out the will of God bearing the Urim and Thummim, he would return with a message of true righteousness.

If the Urim and Thummim are to be understood in this way, then they should be understood to prefigure Christ Himself. He is the true Light and Perfection, the image of the invisible God and the fullness of divine revelation. As the author of Hebrews proclaims, “In these last days, [God] has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.”23 In Christ God’s Word is revealed as a true, perfect light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Lesser Parts, No Lesser Meaning

By this point the ephod has been fully examined, but under the ephod the High Priest had to wear a robe. This robe was to be made of solid blue, unlike all of the mixes met so far. In its solid form, blue seems to be Biblically associated with wealth or value in a way similar to purple.24 The bottom of the robe was to be decorated with small pomegranates, which Bruckner also says were associated with abundance or prosperity, and with gold bells.25 The significance of the bells is an issue of debate, with Calvin and some others arguing that they represent the sounding of God’s word of response,26 while Bruckner claims they were a reverential announcement of entrance, akin to quietly knocking on a door.27 Taking these elements all together paints something of a picture of Israel in their High Priest respectfully approaching God on His terms in order to receive from Him a word of abundant blessing and forgiveness.

Yet again, the light of Christ now shines brightly through the Old Testament types. Jesus is Himself both the Word of God28 Israel sought as well as the reverential human word spoken to God in response.29 By this perfect response He won for His people exactly what the High Priest sought to find: forgiveness of sins. His perfect response of faith overflowed to invite from God His blessed word of forgiveness, the righteous declaration of free justification, for all who share in His life as Israel did in their High Priest’s.

Topping all of these vestments in an additional glory was a bright, white turban. According to Keil and Delitzsch, the white color of the turban should be associated with the holiness of their profession.30 This would be in accord with the gold medallion that was also prescribed to the High Priest to be bound to the front of the turban. On this medallion was the inscription: “holy/holiness to the Lord.” Together these two symbols of holiness clearly marked out the High Priest as a sacred servant, claimed by God for His work. Only by this work of God sanctifying His priest could an otherwise fallible man “bear the guilt connected with the holy offerings that the Israelites consecrate as all their holy gifts.”31 He had to keep the turban and medallion on his head, or he would not be able to find acceptance when he served.

In a similar way to this, Jesus was Himself sanctified, set apart for God’s service, at priestly age when the white dove of the Spirit descended from heaven to Him and anointed Him for ministry. Quite relevantly, this happened at His baptism, precisely the moment when He freely identified Himself with needy human sinners. By creating solidarity with sinful humanity in a baptism of repentance, while also being unbreakably sanctified, He was also able to bear the guilt of sinners on their behalf. Without the artifice of any medallion or turban, He is Himself so sanctified that He finds and wins for His people acceptance with God.

Near the end of the line, finally, are the questions of underwear and footwear. All of the priests, High Priest and others, were required to wear special linen undergarments while serving in the Tabernacle. Keil and Delitzsch suggest that the purpose of this was to cover the symbolism of human frailty, corruptibility, and impurity exposed in a man’s most private parts. That side of humanity is not fit to serve as God’s representatives, therefore underwear was required. Footwear, on the other hand, is never mentioned. In the entire chapter, nothing is said about what to wear on feet, despite the detailed regulations for everything else. Obviously, nothing too conclusive can be drawn from such silence, but there seems a possibility that the priests actually served barefoot, as though the Tabernacle were portable “holy ground” like that which Moses had so recently encountered.32 This is, at least, a possibility which Enns is quick to mention. His comments are worth fully quoting:

What is conspicuously absent from the list is shoes, perhaps because of what has already been suggested in 3:5: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” These words were spoken to Moses as he approached God on Mount Horeb. As we have seen, the tabernacle is an earthly representation of a heavenly reality — a portable Mount Horeb/Sinai. Although 3:5 is not explicitly reiterated in chapter 28, this connection seems a fruitful avenue of approach. The priests stand in God’s presence and must conduct themselves appropriately.33

If this is correct, then the barefoot priests certainly would have found their feet to be entirely covered in blood, caked by the son, at the end of the day. This graphic routine would have undoubtedly created a strange and messy connection between priest and sacrifice.

With these thoughts in a mind, a few more Christological insights seem available. In regards to the undergarments, Jesus demonstrated the created goodness of even the most private human parts by assuming them to His divine person, and yet still overcame human impurity and corruptibility by His glorified resurrection. He also became the embodiment of holy ground, the walking presence of God, and made the unity between priest and sacrifice total and literal.

Conclusion

In the end, then, if even half of these observations are on the right track then the case seems to be that Exodus 28 and the priestly vestments described therein are not, as so many are certainly tempted to imagine, merely boring or unnecessary. Rather, the adornment of Aaron should be viewed as an essential part of God’s shaping of Israel’s life and pulling it ever forward towards the Incarnation of Christ. With these kinds of thoughts in mind, a vision of Jesus at the heart of every chapter of the Scriptures, then by no means should even priestly garments appear dry or dull. Instead let all Christians say that in the priestly code and clothing, in the vestments as a whole and in their parts, they were and remain a powerful testimony to Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the Savior of the world. Can anything be more relevant than that?


1 2 Tim. 3:16. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

2 John 5:39.

3 Gordon J. Wenham. “The Priests.” In Exploring the Old Testament: The Pentateuch. Vol. 1. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003.

4 Ibid.

5 Heb. 1-2.

6 Rom. 3:23.

7 Deut. 4:24.

8 Exod. 28:4.

9 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch. “Directions Concerning the Sanctuary and Priesthood.” In Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002.

10 Heb. 5:8-10.

11 Exod. 28:6-8.

12 Peter Enns. “Priestly Garments.” In Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.

13 Ibid.

14 1 Sam. 23:9-11, 30:7-8.

15 John 1:18.

16 John 3:13.

17 John Calvin. Harmony of the Law – Volume 2. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2009. Accessed 18 April 2016. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom04.

18 Heb. 2:17.

19 Heb. 6:20.

20 James K. Bruckner. “Instructions: Priestly Garments.” In Exodus (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012.

21 Enns, “Priestly Garments.”

22 Calvin, Harmony, comments on Exod. 28:30.

23 Heb. 1:2-3a

24 Num. 4:6-12, 15:28; Jer. 10:9; Ezek. 27:24.

25 Bruckner, “Instructions: Priestly Garments.”

26 Calvin, Harmony, comments on Exodus 28:31.

27 Bruckner, “Instructions: Priestly Garments.”

28 John 1:1.

29 John 17.

30 Keil and Delitzsch, “Directions Concerning the Sanctuary and the Priesthood.”

31 Exod. 28:38.

32 Exod. 3:5.

33 Enns, “Priestly Garments.”

More Books Worth Reading

Quite a while ago, I mentioned a few books I thought might be good to share. If you missed that, you really should go back and read the suggestions. But now, over two years and many books later, I have some more to offer. The target audiences for these books might be somewhat diverse, so just go with it until you see something you like. So here’s what I got:

Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ

By Thomas F. Torrance
Amazon link
My rating: 4.5/5

T. F. Torrance, once a student of Karl Barth, was a minister in the Church of Scotland for many years, and he became an excellent theologian. After his death, several of his lectures were collected and published in two major volumes which represent the essence of his theology. They are Incarnation and Atonement, which respectively cover Christ’s person and His work. I’ve unfortunately not been able to read Incarnation yet, but Atonement is absolutely excellent. It is a thoroughly Biblical, creatively theological, and Christ-centered look at the what Jesus did for us in His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and even Pentecost! He connects this to absolutely every area of theology, from the Trinity to the Church to millennial views. It is not the easiest read you would ever try, but it is very worth it. Here’s a quote:

Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgement: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgement, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgement on evil simply by smiting violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.

The Mediation of Christ

By Thomas F. Torrance
Amazon link
My rating: 4/5

I apologize in advance for loading this list with two books by the same author so quickly, but putting the first one on here just reminded me of how good this one is. The Mediation of Christ is a somewhat earlier and much shorter work about the role of Jesus as the one Mediator between God and man and the role of Israel in mediating Jesus to the world. Both of these themes are very well discussed, and this book makes a helpful introduction to Torrance’s theology. It is not much of an easier read than Atonement, but as I mentioned it is nowhere near as long. If you do read this book, though, you will have a major head start in understanding Atonement. An epic quote:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.

Simply Jesus

By N. T. Wright
Amazon link
My rating: 4/5

N. T. Wright is a British historian and theologian, formerly a bishop in the Church of England. He is most well-known for his work on the historical Jesus and the Resurrection. Yet, having been a bishop for many years, he is also quite interested in getting across his thoughts to laypeople, which is basically the theme of Simply Jesus, a simple introduction to Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry. While he calls his vision “new,” this should not be taken as implying anything liberal or radical, but merely corrective against mistakes that have been made in Christian history. (And, to be honest, it’s not as new as he seems to imagine it is.) But it’s a great book, giving helpful perspective when reading the Gospels and understanding the theme of the kingdom of God. This is the easiest read of the bunch so far.

Here, then, is the message of Easter, or at least the beginning of that message. The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, “It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.” No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. It doesn’t mean, “So there is a life after death.” Well, there is, but Easter says much, much more than that. It speaks of a life that is neither ghostly nor unreal, but solid and definite and practical. The Easter stories come at the end of the four gospels, but they are not about an “end.” They are about a beginning. The beginning of God’s new world. The beginning of the kingdom. God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God’s “being-in-charge” is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord. The title on the cross was true after all. The resurrection proves it.

Surprised by Hope

By N. T. Wright
Amazon link
My rating: 5/5

Okay, I’ll do one more author duplicate here. This is my favorite N. T. Wright book, and it is all about heaven, the resurrection, and the mission of the Church, as its subtitle says. It, in a plain and readable style, argues vehemently against the quasi-gnostic views of life after death so popular in modern Christianity, instead emphasizing the reality of the coming physical new creation. Surprised by Hope is thoroughly Scriptural, offering a creative and exciting vision of what God has in store for us in the future, both life after death and, as Wright says, “life after life after death.” I don’t think any better work on this topic, at least at an ordinary reading level, exists. I’ll go straight to the quote:

I am putting up a signpost, not offering a photograph of what we will find once we get to where the signpost is pointing. I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, though I’m sure Bach’s music will be there. I don’t know how my planting a tree today will relate to the wonderful trees that there will be in God’s recreated world, though I do remember Martin Luther’s words about the proper reaction to knowing the kingdom was coming the next day being to go out and plant a tree. I do not know how the painting an artist paints today in prayer and wisdom will find a place in God’s new world. I don’t know how our work for justice for the poor, for remission of global debts, will reappear in that new world. But I know that God’s new world of justice and joy, of hope for the whole earth, was launched when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning, and I know that he calls his followers to live in him and by the power of his Spirit and so to be new-creation people here and now, bringing signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation to birth even in the midst of the present age.

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel

By Russel Moore
Amazon link
Rating: 4.5/5

Finally, we have something written by a Baptist, and this is the best Baptist reading I’ve ever found. In Onward Russel Moore examines how the American church is to move forward in light of everything that has happened to our culture (recently including Obergefell and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain). He covers the theology of the Church and its witness along with a host of issues related to our cultural warfare, and he urges us to embrace the “freakishness” of the Gospel. He believes and argues from Scripture and experience that the message and mission of the Church are necessarily radically different from and contradictory to all world systems and cultures, including both our present culture and the America of 60 years ago. He offers a devastating critique of the cultural Christianity we are losing, cheering its death and urging us to move on towards a new way of witness.

The problem was that…Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of “God and country” with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club.

Glimpses: Joseph and Jesus Say “Fear Not”

[“Glimpses: Seeing Christ before Christ” is an ongoing series consisting of brief reflections on places in the Old Testament that the light of Christ can be seen.]

Today I was reading Genesis 50:15-26 and I noticed something exciting. At the conclusion of the long struggle of Joseph’s story, his brothers come before him in fear, barely hoping on the basis of a made-up fatherly deathbed request to be spared for their sins. But what happens is probably not what they expect. Verses 18-21:

Then his brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your slaves!”
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. 

It’s a lovely ending showcasing the triumph of mercy, and I realized that this resonates deeply with the New Testament as well. Joseph is often noted to be a type of Christ, and it is hard to find a place that is more poetic than here. This passage could just as well be rewritten about our approach to Jesus. We come to Him, the risen and enthroned Lord of the universe, the Lion of Judah who judges and makes war, realizing that “it was my sin that held Him there” on the Cross. Should we not expect wrath and fury? Yet He responds otherwise:

“Do not be afraid. I am the in the place of God. Though you did evil against Me, God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the salvation of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your little ones.”

Amen. We’re no better than Joseph’s brothers, but the Greater Joseph is even more gracious. So the thought for today: how ought we to live in view of such mercy?

An Evangelical Calvinist Ordo Salutis

If you’re not familiar with the term ordo salutis, it is Latin and means “order of salvation,” and is basically a framework for laying out the different parts and events of salvation in order. There are two common views on the ordo salutis, a Calvinistic one and an Arminian one. Here’s the a short version of the most common layout, with the differences between the two versions noted:

  1. Election/predestination — Chronologically, election happens before time. While Calvinists and Arminians disagree on what it means, they agree that it is before time.
  2. Atonement — With election decided, atonement is the next step. Christ died for the sins of the world (or just the elect, if you ask a Calvinist) and so purchased all of the remaining benefits.
  3. Conversion/regeneration — Next, upon the preaching of the Gospel, come conversion and regeneration. Calvinists believe that regeneration, being born again, comes first and causes faith and repentance. Arminians, on the other hand, hold that faith and repentance come first and lead to regeneration. (If anyone ever tells you “how you can be born again” by faith, that’s a rather Arminian statement. Calvinists say only God causes regeneration, and there is nothing you can do to cause it until the Spirit moves in you.)
  4. Justification — Justification follows conversion, with God declaring the sinner righteous on the basis of the faith which came about at conversion. At that moment you are given the verdict “righteous.”
  5. Sanctification — Following justification, one begins to progress in conformity to Christ’s image, a process called “sanctification.” This will continue until death.
  6. Glorification — Finally, at the resurrection when Christ returns, we are given fresh new bodies, a new share in God’s glory, and complete eternal life.

This all seems nice and tidy, but an argument can be made that this is a bit out of focus with the Biblical teaching. An Evangelical Calvinist alternative would look something like this:

  1. Election/predestination — God chooses humanity for Himself in Christ, and predestines Christ as the one in whom humanity is to be oriented, shaped, and glorified.
  2. Incarnation/atonement/justification/sanctification/glorification — From an EC perspective, the whole of salvation is fully accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. In the Incarnation He became man like us and for us, so that He might do all of this on our behalf. He lived a sanctified, consecrated human life for us. He was publicly vindicated/justified in His resurrection, declared to be the Righteous One before the world. In His death He offered Himself as the set apart and just sacrifice by which the death of the natural man could be redeemed by sharing in His resurrection. In His ascension He was exalted to the right hand of the Father and given all authority, an authority which He will one day share with us.
  3. Conversion/Union with Christ — With all of the rest of this accomplished, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ and leads us to faith and repentance (realities also rooted in Christ’s faithful and sin-resisting life). It is this Spiritual union which imparts to us all of the realities mentioned before, allowing us to share in His justified, sanctified, and glorified life in the present.
  4. Consummation — Finally, when Christ returns, our share in His salvation life will no longer be partial, but complete. We will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is (1 Jn. 3:2). Our bodies and souls will enjoy full participation in everything He won for us once-for-all.

Sounds good, right? I thought so. I’m not going to elaborate that for now, but ultimately I think this conception is superior to and less artificial than the ordo salutis offered by the classical Calvinist/Arminian paradigm. Barth would agree. And I suspect Scripture would as well. (For recommended Scripture reading on this point, I would suggest reading closely together Romans, Hebrews, and 1 John.)