Sunday, 8 April 2018

How the Cross makes sense of the Justice of God

Over Easter I wrote a blog about why I prefer union or identification over the more traditional language of substitution when it comes to understanding how the death and resurrection of Jesus saves us. One question that came out of that post was around a comment I made distancing the atonement from the concept of it being a legal transaction made with God. I received several proof texts showing how judicial language is found throughout the Bible, terms like court, witness, judge, justice, advocate and so on are all found in scripture. this is a fair question and deserves a proper response, however, I felt, and still do, that simply addressing those passages would not have accomplished anything.

The problem I believe is that people interpret the Bible through different lenses. Some people believe that each and every word carries the same weight and authority. Others read it through the lenses of the law, or grace, most people read it through a 21st century Western lens which carries with it the influence and interpretations (both good and bad) of men like Augustine, Calvin, Piper and others. Personally, I believe that we should approach scripture through what some would call a Jesus lens with the ultimate revelation of who God is revealed most clearly through the cross. Included in this Jesus lens I would submit is the task of trying to understand the scriptures as a first century Easterner would have. For example, 1 Timothy 2:9 says that woman should dress in modest apparel. Today many would assume this means not to dress provocatively but that would not have been an issue for Pauls audience, what he was getting at is that woman should dress plainly. This leads us into today's topic and the penal substitutionary doctrine which reduces the gospel to a legal transfer of debt from one person to another. The main point that I want to make with this article is that I believe that, for the most part, the church has a false perception of Gods justice and my goal herein will be to try to offer a better perspective.

The gospel through 21st century Western eyes

The modern understanding of Christ’s sacrificial death looks something like this. People are sinners and we are all guilty before God. Because God is holy and just all sin must be punished, a single infraction of Gods perfect law is worthy of eternal conscious torment in hell. But God is also loving and doesn’t want people to go to hell. To solve this dilemma He sends His Son as an innocent substitute to incur our punishment on our behalf. Thus, Gods justice is satisfied as His wrath has an avenue of release, the blood of His Son releases His forgiveness toward us and His love is satisfied in that, as many as will believe in Christ, will avoid the punishment that He bore on our behalf and be saved.

Overcoming false concepts

Before moving forward let me clarify that I am not arguing against the idea that God is just. Neither am I saying that sin does not bear consequences or that Jesus did not need to die on our behalf. Scripture is clear that we were in need of a savior and that the blood of Christ redeems us. Before presenting a better way of understanding the atonement and dealing with some of the judicial sounding passages though, let me first highlight some of the problems with the modern approach to the gospel.  

1 – The legal transaction understanding of the atonement portrays God as one who is incapable of forgiving others. Let me explain, if you owed me a large sum of money that you could not pay but one of your friends stepped in and settled the debt and I came to you and said, “Hey, your friend paid me on your behalf so I am going to be the bigger man here and release you of your debt”, what would you think of me? I did not pardon you at all, I merely collected the money elsewhere and then proceeded to make myself look good by saying that I showed mercy and forgiveness toward you when in fact, I received my payment in full. But it gets worse because if God is bound by a legal duty to act justly as a judge would in a court of law; then really there is no room for forgiveness at all even if God was so inclined.

2 - The modern understanding of the atonement portrays the work of Christ as fixing a problem in God rather than with man. That is to say that the fundamental problem that the cross solves lies with Gods inability to forgive without the shedding of blood. Despite the examples of God forgiving several people, even whole cities like Ninevah in the Bible, without spilling any blood and the fact that Jesus did so constantly, even when hanging on the cross; and despite the fact that not all sin offerings in the Old Testament were done with blood and that even those that were, were only for unintentional sins, we have this idea that Jesus was appeasing God’s wrath in His death rather than accomplishing something else.

3 - The modern understanding of the atonement misrepresents the symbolism of blood in the Bible. Leviticus 17:11 tells us that blood represents life. Blood elsewhere, especially when it comes to scriptures about sacrifice is symbolic of cleansing and sanctification. Consider the language of Hebrews 9 and 10. “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscious from dead works to serve the living God” (9:13-14). And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission (9:22). He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (9:26). Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for Me (10:5). Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin (10:18)...having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22). Can we see that the idea behind blood is expiation rather than propitiation? That is to say that the blood makes amends rather than appeasement, the subject is us,not God.  Blood therefore should not be thought of in the pagan sense that the gods are angry and need a sacrifice in order to be appeased. Blood represents the life of Christ and our union and victory in Him and through Him.

4 - The modern understanding of the atonement downplays the resurrection. Yet the resurrection is central to Christianity, Paul said that were it false we would be the most pitiful of all men. If it were was no resurrection then we are not heirs with Abraham in Christ. But in a legal sense the death of Christ settled an outstanding debt and the resurrection gets reduced merely to a ‘happily ever after’ ending to the story. Not realizing that death has been conquered and is the final enemy that Christ destroys, many have assumed that the resurrection is nothing more than Gods validation of His Sons offering.

 5 – A legal transaction understanding of the atonement promotes cheap grace. Salvation becomes available for the unbelievable price of a quick prayer. No need to pick up your own cross and follow Jesus. Mental ascent to the idea that confession will buy you fire insurance for life is all you need, after all, when God looks at you, He only sees Jesus. This doctrine essentially means that how we live our life in the here and now is of little consequence, we are just sinners saved by grace. This theory says nothing of how Christ’s death changes us. It is no secret that the world views Christians as hypocrites, we speak of family values but our divorce rates are as high, if not higher than those of non-Christians, we speak of honesty but no one wants to do business with a Christian man. We speak of love but we devour our own. I cannot help but wonder if our faulty view of the atonement has contributed to the lackadaisical lifestyle of many in the church.

6 – The Judicial understanding of the atonement means that God is bound by ‘justice’. Unlike the old Hebraic law, the modern legal system is not ontological in nature. What I mean by that statement is that modern law is there to keep society running in a fairly orderly manner. The constitution has no place for relational interpretation. A judge would not be able to arbitrate in a case were he to have a personal connection to the accused, it would be unethical. It does not care about people or the nature of things, in fact, relationship and emotional attachment are seen as a hindrance to fair judgement. But when speaking of the death of Christ the Bible says “For God so loved the world...”, this is because God is a relational being and seeks connection with us.  Yet if we believe that God is bound by the modern the rules of a human justice system then we have to accept that mercy does not triumph over judgement. For a merciful judge is not a just judge, at least in the way that most would understand it.  

7 - The modern understanding of the atonement separates Father and Son. Jesus was called a friend of sinners, the Father has been said to be too holy to look upon sin. Jesus said if you have seen me you have seen the Father. The author of Hebrews said that Jesus is the express image of the Father. Not only does penal substitution teach that God actually forsook Jesus on the cross (please read Psalm 22 and John 16:32) but that they are driven by very different motives. Ones seeks to save, the other seeks vengeance, one seeks mercy, the other judgement. One forgave His enemies when He was beaten and executed, the other requires execution in order to forgive. If a different set of attributes pop into your head when you think of the Son than when you think of the Father then alarm bells should be ringing because if Jesus is not the image of God that one holds to then it means that we have created an image of our own in its place.

8 - The Judicial understanding of the atonement portrays God as unjust. Imagine for a moment that a serial killer has been captured but the judge lets him go free and executes a good man in his place. The world would be up in arms because this would be a great injustice and that is exactly how the Bible portrays Christs’ crucifixion. Isaiah 53 says that WE despised and rejected Him (not God), WE hid our face from Him (again, us not God), WE did not esteem Him (there again), yet WE esteemed Him stricken by God (which is what penal substitution still teaches). Every sermon in the book of Acts presents the cross as a great injustice.

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” –Acts 3:15

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. -  Acts 2:23-24.

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. - Acts 2:36.

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.  - Acts 3:15.

…Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead… Acts 4:10.

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.  - Acts 5:30.

They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day.
 - Acts 10:39-40.

 I would like to highlight that the cross reveals a great injustice in that an innocent man died as a thief but Gods justice was revealed in that He used the travesty to overcome evil and make things right (which is the true meaning of justice). 

9 - The Judicial understanding of the atonement portrays God as a lousy mathematician. By the way,did you know that there are three kinds of people in the world? Those who are good at math and those who are not. Sorry I just had to throw that in there...What I mean by the statement that God is terrible at math is that if the just punishment for sin is eternal conscious torment in hell then how does a few hours of suffering on earth and three days in the grave equate to the same punishment of every unbeliever for all of eternity in hell? Many have tried unsatisfactorily to answer this question but this post is long enough as it is for me to go down this rabbit hole.

10 – I will end this section with one last question (just to make it a nice round figure). Forgive me for not referencing where I first read it, it is not my own question and I cannot recall where I first saw it. The question I mean to ask though is where do we find God on Good Friday? Is He found in Caiaphas or in Pontius Pilate or is He in Jesus? Perhaps He was with the chief priests and all the council that sought to bear false witness against Jesus. Does He stand over the Christ and shout ‘Guilty!” or was He “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”?

What about Mercy

Through the lenses of the 21st century legal system God must execute retributive justice on people for us to consider Him just. Even though He desires that none would perish and that He wants mercy and not sacrifice, He is somehow bound by this legal code to do so. Mercy and forgiveness are a problem for a just God because justice, when we define it as tit-for-tat, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth justice, is actually the opposite of mercy and forgiveness. You can either exact revenge or you can show mercy and forgiveness but you cannot do both because they are polar opposites and as we have already discussed. Playing Jesus as a substitute (condemning the innocent and pardoning the guilty) does not solve the problem it just creates more questions about His justness, mercy and forgiveness.

But what if Gods justice is not retributive but restorative? What if making things right is more about restoring both the victim and the perpetrator to a right standing with God and with each other? One of the things that struck me recently while reading through Exodus is how the law included a sense of making things right with the one who was harmed. In today's society if you steal someone’s sheep you go to jail but under the law you had to repay the owner double. Thus the victim was compensated and the perpetrator had the opportunity to make amends for his crime. Although justice required punishment and death was reserved for the more serious crimes this idea of restitution runs throughout the Law of Moses.

I’ll put my neck out here and suggest that the idea behind the “eye for an eye” concept in the law was not merely to limit retribution but to discourage it entirely. Ghandi rightly perceived that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Some people believe that Jesus was overturning the Law of Moses when He said in Matthew 5:38-39, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also”. I believe that Jesus was giving us the proper interpretation of the law. Isn't this what Paul is teaching us in Romans 12 as well, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).  Coal here represents cleansing or healing as it does in Isaiah, “He touched my lips with the burning coal and said, "This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven” (Isaiah 6:7). So the bigger picture I believe is justice, whether it contains punishment or not, is ultimately meant to bring repentance and healing to both the victims and the perpetrators. Thus mercy is not the opposite of true justice but its companion.

In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the Lord one departs from iniquity – Proverbs 16:6.

Mercy and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed – Psalm 85:10.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother – Zechariah 7:9.

But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. – Matthew 9:13.

See also Psalm 89:14, 1 Kings 3:6, Psalm 25:7, 101:1, 103:17, Isaiah 16:5, 30:18’ Hosea 12:6 and Micah 6:8.

A better way

I hope that it is clear that even though the Bible is full of judiciary language, reading it through a 21st century Western concept of justice which we have largely inherited from a 16th century lawyer named John Calvin, presents us with more questions than it does answers. It is time for me to offer a better perspective on justice that will allow us to see it at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s start by considering the story of Mary and Joseph, I remember as a teenager being confused by this passage. One day Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant. The law required that she be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) but here is the catch, in Matthew 1:19 it says that “because Joseph was a just man”, rather than expose her, he sought to divorce her quietly. From a legal perspective (had she fallen pregnant the way people normally do), she was guilty, but Matthew considered Josephs actions, which circumvented the letter of the law to be just. Justice, according to Matthew and Joseph, had the well being of Mary in mind.

In Jesus, we are saved from our sins and from our burden of guilt for having participated in it. Communion, which is central to the story of fallen man is once again restored with God. His justice, which is true justice, is ontological in nature which means that it is not merely a set of rules devoid of relational values. To act justly is to be faithful to the people one is committed to by covenant or simply because it is who you are. To justify someone therefore includes a sense of making things right, of straightening or restoring a relationship. Atonement means to become At-one-ment yet again through the restoration of the relationship.

Sin therefore is not a crime that needs to be sentenced as much as it is a terminal disease that man carries with Him and that God seeks to heal us from. Jesus came as the great physician to heal, to save and to restore what was lost; thus showing us the true justice, the great mercy and the everlasting love of God. The cross therefore is not payment to a wrathful God but God in Christ, healing humanity, conquering death, defeating Satan and more. Jesus does not save us from God but reveals God as savior. It is not what God requires in order to forgive but what God endures in Christ while He forgives (John 23:34). In the penal model the resurrection, the central hope of believers, is hardly necessary because in murder God’s wrath was satisfied. A sounder picture reveals that those who deny themselves and follow Jesus will rise like Him and be united together forever in Him.

In Conclusion

Does the Bible use legal imagery? It sure does, verses with words like judge, law, accuser, justice and advocate are too many to respond to individually, but I hope that when reading them in future one  is better equipped to interpret them in light of the just God that has been revealed to us in Jesus. A God motivated by love, full of mercy and grace; One who is not bound and subject to a human concept of justice but faithful even when we are not. This is what is revealed through the cross of Christ. A debt has not being settled with God but rather the wage of sin has been taken into Himself and paid on our behalf that we may have restored life and relationship in Him.     

Monday, 2 April 2018

How Transliterations Change How We Read the Bible

there has always being a lot of conversation around the way certain words are translated in the Bible. Very little seems to have been written about Bible transliterations so I thought that it may be beneficial to dedicate a post to it. I find that understanding the true meaning of transliterated words can drastically change the way one reads specific passages in the Bible. Before I provide some examples though, let me explain what a transliteration is for those who do not know.

Normally Bible translators like to take Hebrew and Greek words and replace them with the equivalent in our language, when a sentence is being translated they usually stray from a direct translation to a paraphrase, as a literal word for word translation hardly ever makes sense going from one language to another. To use an example in the only two languages that I know, a word for word translation of the Afrikaans sentence, “Hy woon by nommer drie en dertig maar ons kan nie daar vandag verby gaan nie” would be, “He live by number three and thirty but we cannot there today past go not”. So translators would change this to something like, “He lives at number thirty-three but we cannot go past there today" for clarity sake. Sometimes though a word in one language does not exist in another, this is where transliterations come in. Translators did not want to (or could not) use a particular word or phrase to convey the meaning of the original and instead made up a new word that looks and sounds similar to the original. The word ‘Bethel’ for example is a combination of two Hebrew words, “Beth” (meaning house) and “El” (which is God), a literal translation would have been ‘House of God’ but the translators chose instead to make up a new English word. This is done a lot in the Bible, most often with the names of people and places.
There are some interesting places in the Bible though where using a transliteration instead of a translation can potentially change the way in which we understand a passage. For example, the word deacon today is used to describe a specific office in the church, it is a transliteration of the word diakonos and literally means servant. Now where I live the office of deacon is held in high regard, while most people know that it means ‘one who serves or ministers’ we certainly don’t think of deacons as ‘servants’. The same is true for the word apostle which comes from the Greek word, apostolos. It simply means ‘one who is sent’ and is the modern equivalent of a missionary.

There are numerous other passages that we might see in an entirely new light if we understood the meaning behind certain transliterations. Heretic (aihretikos) as used in Titus 3:10 in the KJV speaks of one who is divisive or schismatic and not necessarily of one who teaches something false. The context is far broader and implies that one can speak the truth and yet still be divisive (a heretic) and a danger to the church. Angel also comes from the word angelos and literally means messenger and can refer to spiritual beings as well as humans depending on context. There are a few instances in the Bible where the word messenger would make far more sense if it were translated that way, the messengers to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 and those who have entertained angels (messengers) unwittingly by showing hospitality to strangers (Hebrews 13:2) both come to mind. Baptism (baptisma) is a word that simply means immersion and was often used in ancient times without religious connotations. While it can refer to water baptism it was often used in other ways as well. One can be immersed in their work or soak up as much information as they can about a particular subject. While I agree with water baptism I think that Jesus had more than that in mind when He gave the great commission. I think that He was telling His disciples to immerse people in the life of the Father, son and Holy Spirit. That they would be not just physically get wet but saturated with the knowledge of God and fully identified with Him.

There is one last transliteration that I wish to address and I believe that it is the most important to be aware of. It is the word Christ which comes from the untranslated word Christos. Christos means anointed one and speaks of Jesus as God’s eternal King, the ruler of all nations (see Psalm 2). We use the word as though it was His last name but in reality the scriptures are referring King Jesus. I find it interesting that Jesus constantly spoke of the gospel of the kingdom. 135 of the 158 times the word kingdom is used it appears in the first 5 books of the New Testament. The epistles thereafter only use it 23 times. At a glance it seems like the New Testament writers might have lost track a bit until we see that the word Christ (God’s anointed King) is used 511 times in the epistles! To illustrate how this can add depth to what we read, I randomly opened up my Bible yesterday and the first thing I read was 2 Corinthians 5:20 which says, “Now then, we are Christ’s (the Kings) ambassadors, as though God were pleading through us, we implore you on Christ (the Kings) behalf, be reconciled to God”. Can you see how it relates to Jesus’ teachings of the gospel of the kingdom?

I hope that this proves to be a useful tool for you in your time in the Bible. Next time you read a transliterated word, pause and reread it with the English equivalent and see if it adds any perspective to the text. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is it something you have considered before? Does it change anything for you? Are there other words where you think the transliterations have robbed us of the author’s original thought?

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Crucified with Christ

Two weeks ago I had a bit of an awkward experience. I shared some thoughts with a bunch of folk who we gather regularly with around the the atoning work of Christ and why I believe that it is better suited to the language of union or identification than it is with the more traditional language in the Western church of substitutionary atonement. What made the message awkward is that it completely went over everyone's heads. It was met with a little skepticism, some family friendly banter and a lot of confusion. So I am hoping to do better here on the blog with the same message that I shared last week.

I don't want to repeat what I have said in previous posts before so let me just start by laying a quick foundation. it might come as a surprise, but the Bible never uses the word substitution, neither does it refer to Christ's sacrificial death by using phrases like 'instead of' or 'in the place of' either. There are a few places where people with a substitutionary mindset might read the concept into certain texts (like Isaiah 53 or 2 Corinthians 5:21) but in reality, it's simply not there. What we do see however are phrases like 'in Christ', 'in Him', 'together with' and 'through Him' hundreds of times.

Christ never died for us in the sense of a substitute, for everyone one of us must still face death as well. Neither did Jesus take a cup of the Fathers wrath for us on the cross in our place. What He did do is that He took upon Himself our cup of suffering (as well as our curse, sin, shame and death) and then promised that we too would drink from that same cup (see Luke 12:49-50 and Mark 10;35-39). The early church not only understood this, but they rejoiced in it (Acts 5;40-41, Romans 8;16-17, 3 Timothy 3:12, Philippians 1:27-29, 3:8-10). The cross is not the story of a divine pardon but of a glorious union between God and man. The true message we should be hearing over Easter is that God, in Christ, has reconciled us to Himself, Jesus has identified with man and joined us in death that by Him, in Him and through Him, we may be raised with Him in glory.

The reason that I feel so strongly about this message is that if one were to follow the logic of substitutionary atonement deep down the rabbit hole then your personal conduct in this life means nothing. Who needs deliverance from sin if you can just be forgiven? Any teaching that tells you NOT to pick up your own cross and follow Jesus is extremely dangerous and contrary to the words of Jesus (Mark 8:34-35). As followers of Christ, we in no way avoid the shame of the cross, everything we read in scripture points us toward union with His death (Romans 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 6:17, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:4-6, Colossians 2:12, 3:3, Hebrews 2:14, 2 Peter 1:4, Revelations 12:11-12).

Let me today encourage you to think of the cross in a different light than the one so many churches will be speaking on this morning. Jesus has died for us. He has taken our death into Himself and made it His death. He becomes our dying that our dying might become His life. He has taken our sin into Himself that we might take His righteousness into ourselves. The forgiveness of God is wonderful but it is not attained by blood sacrifice as it was with the pagan deities. God has always shown forgiveness and mercy to people. The cross does not point us to the wrath of God but to the love of God (John 3:16). What we needed was life and deliverance from the power of sin. This has being granted to us through the victorious Christ who now lives in us.

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy. Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.  - Philippians 2:1, 5, 8 , 12, 13.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

The Trinity in Second Isaiah

I normally try to avoid writing posts that sound too academic, I am not sure that I will be able to do that today but I will try my best. Not so long ago I wrote a review of Anthony Bartlett’s book Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach theNonviolent Bible. It was and is an incredible book that opened me up to so many new ideas. For today specifically though I want to share something from Second Isaiah which he brought to my attention. If referring to a second book of Isaiah looked like an error on my behalf, it was not, I know that there is only one book called Isaiah in the Bible but Isaiah is actually three separate books. First Isaiah is chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah chapters 40-55 and Third Isaiah 56-66. There are many reasons for believing this and it is well known in theological; circles but let’s not get side tracked and just play along with me here.
What I want to share today is that the tone of Second Isaiah is very different from First Isaiah, it reveals God as gentle and compassionate while the message is one of consolation to the people. But there is something else as well which is incredible and quite unique to this portion of scripture in that God often uses two first-person pronouns and one third-person pronoun when speaking. One would think that the One True God would speak using first person singular pronouns but He does not. Instead of saying “I”, He says, “I, Myself, He” or  “Me, Myself, He”. We don’t pick it up in our Bibles because our translations have changed the literal Hebrew words to more comprehensible and readable phrases. So “I, Myself” becomes “I AM” and “I, Myself, Myself” becomes “I, I am he” (see Exodus 3:13-14 for example). Before getting to my main point let me share some examples.

Who has performed and done it, Calling the generations from the beginning?
‘I, the Lord, am the first; And with the last I am He.’”– Isaiah 41:4

You may notice in your Bible that the word ‘am’ here is in italics because it has been added, a literal translation of the verse here would read , “The last, I, He, who has worked and done it, calling the generations from the beginning, I, the Lord, the first.”

“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.- Isaiah 43:25

In Hebrew here the phrase should read, “He, Myself, Myself” and the wording is ‘anoki, anoki’.

“Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. – Isaiah 48:12

The Hebrew here is literally, “I, He, I, the First, I and the Last”.

“Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. – Isaiah 51:12

This is literally “Myself, Myself, He who comforts you” (anoki, anoki, hu).

The only other place in the Bible where this language is repeated is in Deuteronomy 32:39 (I, myself am He which literally says “I, I, He” (ani, ani, hu))

These verse might look strange but what makes them worth mentioning? As Anthony Bartlett notes in his book, “The tripled pronouns become the name God gives himself. They signify a deeply personal address. The same style of address is repeated several times”. What I personally find interesting in these phrases though is how they link to the teaching of the Trinity. Bartlett notes these texts and highlights how the repeated pronouns emphasize the statements made. In this particular context, it is that God’s compassion is intensely personal. He states on page 136, “It is like the very heart of God is a relationship, his very identity”. I could not agree more with his statement but I would like to take it one step further. I believe that the very heart of God is relational because He Himself exists as the community of the Father, Son and Spirit. Before anything was spoken into being, God was love and God was relational because the reality of it was already being lived out within the Godhead. As my friend Mako Nagasawa has pointed out, Allah cannot claim love or relationship to be at the heart of his being because before creation, there would not have being anything to love. This is not so with the God of Christianity in whom love and relationship have always existed. I find the language of Second Isaiah interesting not only because I believe that the tripled pronouns point us to a triune God (I don’t think the repetition is necessarily only for emphasis) but also because a triune God and a gospel centered on union with Him in Christ invites us into that community grounded in love, relationship and more.  

The focus of many of my future posts will be on union (as opposed to substitutionary atonement) and on how an understanding of the Trinity enlightens all areas of theology. I hope that you will find them as meaningful as I am finding them as they have begun to shape my own thinking.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Is God causing Cape Town's drought?

Today I was saddened to see a video by the popular and well loved Angus Buchan regarding the water crisis in Cape Town. In the clip he says that God is not happy with Cape Town and that the rain will only come once the people repent of their wickedness. This is nothing new, people have being blaming God or a god for floods and other natural disasters for as long as humanity has had to endure them. Natural disasters are and have always been synonymous with judgement from above. But because Angus is such a popular figure in our land I thought that I would speak up on this one, here are a few points that I feel are worth considering.

1 - "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." - Jesus - Matthew 5:45.

I'm always bewildered at how fast we are to dismiss Jesus' own words. How do we go from "the rain falls on the righteous and the wicked" to the "rain is withheld from the wicked" (and sorry for the righteous that are among them). Some people might gloss over Jesus' words in favour of the story of Noah's flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but even there, the righteous were spared the flood waters and the Lord was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people within the city. Let's be honest, natural disasters affect Christians in the same way those around them are affected. If they were indeed 'acts of God', why does He not spare the children in whom He is pleased?

2 - Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. - Matthew 8:24-26.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus rebuked the wind and waves when He and the disciples were caught in a storm at sea? Who was behind the storm? Was God trying to kill Jesus and His disciples? Of course not! It may have been Satan behind the violent weather as was the case in Job 1:19 or perhaps it was just nature being nature... Today we know that humans play a major role in the weather as well, we release gasses into the atmosphere, we build dams and divert rivers, we drill holes into the earths crust and then there is deforestation. Those are just four things that can affect our weather. It's too easy to blame God and say that it's His fault, we need to recognize though that there are destructive agents working against His will in the world as well. 

3 - Supply and Demand

Apart from the obvious (that there has been less rain), it should be noted that Cape Town's population has being growing rather rapidly. In the past 23 years the population has increased by 79% whereas water storage has only increased by 15%. The Berg River Dam being the only significant addition to their water storage infrastructure. So a large contributing factor to the lack of water has to do with the fact that you have more people requiring more water and supply has not kept up with the demand.

To get back to my main point again though, let's be cautious against accusing God of seeking to kill, steal and destroy by means of natural disasters. I have nothing against Buchan, I think it's great that he is rallying people to stand together in prayer for Cape Town but I do take issue with the idea that God punishes the people in one city while other cities are seemingly blessed with good weather despite showing equally or worse morality than their neighbors. In my personal opinion, if you want to see God where nature causes havoc, look for the volunteers who bring the water, shelter and medical care to the victims in natural disasters and there you will find Him. stop looking in the fires, tsunamis or winds.

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? - Romans 2:4

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible

For any person with an interest in reading Scripture, it won't take long before they will need to wrestle with the problem of violence in the Bible. Enter Seven Stories, where Anthony Bartlett presents a case for a progressive reading of the Bible culminating in the nonviolent revelation of God fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is an impressive work in every aspect, the design, layout, images and colour are all very easy on the eye. The various chapters/lessons all include questions designed to stimulate further thought and discussion, personal reflection, glossaries, cultural references, resources and space for making your own notes. Before I had even started reading, I found myself paging through the book and just admiring the layout and pictures, something that one hardly ever even notices in most works.

In terms of the actual content, Seven Stories starts by sharing a bit about hermeneutics before presenting a case for a nonviolent theology of God. As the title suggests, the author has split the book into seven stories each comprising of three lessons. He masterfully shows how Scripture moves us from oppression to justice, violence to forgiveness, wrath to compassion, victim to vindication and then with the other three looking at the (promised) land and its loss (exile), the temple and its deconstruction and finally history to its end. Each story moves us toward a nonviolent reading of Scripture, departing from views of vengeance through bloodshed toward one of victims bringing life through forgiveness,

Tony Bartlett has a reputation for being a leading Girardian scholar which is evident throughout the book; but what really impressed me was the amount of overall historical and theological knowledge presented and how everything is continually brought back to Jesus. To give one example, a link is shared between the reunion of Jacob and Esau and Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son story has always being a favorite of mine in that it reveals Gods true nature to us as Jesus wanted us to see it. Among other similarities, both stories have sons who receive their inheritances fraudulently, in both the younger brothers leave for distant lands and in both the brothers are received back not with revenge but with kissing and weeping. Jesus borrows the exact same phrase in Luke 15 of hanging on someones neck which is used in the Genesis narrative. It is in Esau's compassion and acceptance that Jacob sees Gods face (Genesis 33:10). This is just one of many examples that I found beautiful to read.

Honestly, I cannot think of many books that have challenged and enlightened me as much as this one. When turning the final page I immediately wanted to start reading from the beginning again as there is still so much that I am chewing on. Although the book can be read alone, it is perhaps more suited to a small group study which I hope I can try at some point as well. Trust me, this one is well worth your time.

You can purchase a copy of Seven stories by clicking over here.

*I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Jesus in Genesis 15

image copied from

As I started started sharing in my previous post, Jesus can be found all throughout the pages of Genesis. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of all of those places and but every now and then I will post something on a specific chapter or story that stands out for me. And today I want to reveal how I believe Christ plays a primary role in Genesis 15. This is the chapter where God makes an everlasting covenant with Abram, promising him descendants as numerous as the stars. Verse 6 famously says, “And he (Abram) believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness”.

There are two specific areas that I want to highlight in this chapter; the first is that in the very first verse it tells us that the exchange happens between Abram and ‘the Word of the LORD’ who appeared to Abram in a vision. Now we 21st Century Christians like referring to the Bible as the Word but as I have argued elsewhere, nowhere does scripture itself make such a claim, on the contrary, scripture states explicitly and repeatedly that Jesus is the true Word of God. You can click here to read an article I wrote on the subject elsewhere but for this particular piece let me just highlight two examples:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1
He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called the Word of God. – Revelation 19:13.

So when the Word of the Lord comes to Abram in verse 1, this is not the Bible or even just a message but a Person. This Person starts speaking to him and says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” That sounds awful Jesus-like to me already, but then notice how Abram responds to Him in verse 2, “But Abram said, Lord God…”; so Abram calls this messenger ‘Adonia Yahweh’, a name which he repeats in verse 8 as well. Notice that throughout this chapter it is the Word of the Lord that is speaking with Abram. In verse 7 He says of Himself, “I am the LORD (Yahweh), who brought you out of Ur…”. Yahweh is the name above all names but when it is used it can be referring to any member of the Trinity (see here for more on that).

So I am convinced that this is Jesus speaking to Abram in chapter 15, otherwise the chapter would most likely have started by simply saying something like, "Now after these things the LORD..." instead of, "Now after these things the Word of the LORD..."; but the significance of this is even more remarkable when we consider the symbolism of the covenant itself. Though it would seem barbaric to us today, the Word of God instructs Abram to take a three-year old heifer, a three-year old ram and a three-year old goat (plus a dove and a pigeon) and to cut them in half, placing the severed pieces opposite one another with a pathway between them to walk through. This was pretty standard covenant ritual stuff back then, but normally, the two parties would both walk between the animal parts (see Jeremiah 34:18-19) with the implication being that the person who broke the covenant would suffer or accept a similar fate. The ceremonial ritual would then be binding on the two parties. What is interesting here though is that in this particular instance the (Word of the) LORD passed through the animal pieces (verse 17) but Abram did not (verse 12).

Unlike the Mosaic covenant which was conditional upon Israel’s faithfulness to God, the Abrahamic covenant is an everlasting covenant not dependent on our ability at all. As it is the blood of Jesus that makes us heirs according to the promise and Abraham’s seed, this story suddenly has so much more meaning to me. Jesus makes a covenant with Abraham and his seed which promises land, descendants and blessings and Jesus actually does die for us.

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to Him as righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham... And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:6-7, 29