Saturday, February 26, 2011

John 5:26: Life in Himself

Although in its most basic teachings the scriptures can be understood even by children it is likewise true that the wisdom it contains is inexhaustible. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit the writers of scripture make short pointed statements with absolutely profound implications with amazing frequency. The evidence of this can easily be seen by the fact that philosophers, theologians, and teachers often write hundreds or even thousands of pages describing or explaining a few biblical verses and still fall short of capturing all of the implications contained in them.

I find that quite often the most profound insights are to be found in the very verses that we tend to rush through. The more I read the scriptures the more I am confronted with short unassuming verses that upon further reflection contain such profound truths that they stand themselves as testimonies to the greatness, awesomeness, and incomprehensibility of God. One such verse is John 5:26.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” –ESV

The context of this statement is amazingly rich. There is an explanation of the relationship between the Father and Son and how both life and judgment are related to that particular relationship as it is expanded to include those in the world through the ministry of Jesus. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to develop all of those ideas here but verse 26 is one of those verses that we might read many times before realizing the profoundness of the statement. It is given as an explanation for the statement in verse 25, “…an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” and is related to the ability of the Son to exercise the divine prerogative of giving life. It is then followed by the statement in verse 27 that the Father has also given to the Son the authority to execute judgment.

Think about what this statement is saying for a moment. First, the Father has life in Himself. In what sense does the Father have life in Himself? He is the great I AM the self-existent eternal being who IS. Life, or existence, is therefore an essential attribute of the Father. He cannot not have life in Himself because He is the creator, the ultimate source of all life, He is LIFE. The verse in its context is also related to His ability to confer that life which is in Himself to creatures. The “stuff” of life finds it origin in Him and He has the power to animate creatures.

The verse then goes on to say “so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself” but in what sense can this statement be understood? The Son, after all is not a creature but is Himself divine. The language in the verse itself alludes to a distinction between Christ and creatures because like the Father He is said to have life “in Himself”. Had the verse simply said that the Father granted life to the Son then, as the Arian heretics argued, Jesus would be a contingent being. Had the verse simply said that the Father has life within Himself and the Son has life within Himself it might be easier to understand though it would likely raise other questions. In what sense, however, can eternal self existence be granted? If Jesus has life “in Himself” and He is also eternally self-existent then how can it be granted to Him?

It seems to me that since Jesus necessarily has life in Himself then there could never be a time prior to this grant. It must be an eternal grant. If the Father has eternally granted to the Son life in Himself then perhaps the meaning of this verse has more to do with the relationship within the Godhead than to the particular eternality of existence of either the Father or Son. This granting might be a functional rather than an existential grant meaning that Christ is eternally the Son and His authority to give of the life within Himself is eternally submissive to the prerogative of the Father, who out of His love for the Son grants to Him the same authority. I think an argument could be made from the overall context of John 5 that this is the case. It is an expression of the absolute harmony and love between the Father and Son that results in the exercise of both love and judgment in the world as the Son bears witness to the Father. Jesus is THE LIFE in the sense that not only does He as God have life in Himself eternally but that He grants it to those who believe thus reconciling them to the Father.

The love (and granting of prerogatives) expressed between the persons of the Trinity are the internal relations of a single being. This is why if one rejects the Son they also reject the Father. Just thinking of the implications of this verse is enough to keep us busy for years marveling at the awesomeness of God. If we begin to understand the relationship between the Father and Son expressed in John 5 then we should hardly be able to read the following words from chapter 17 without being overwhelmed.

 [20]“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. [22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
(John 17:20-23 ESV)

That such promises should be extended to rebellious and wretched sinners is virtually incomprehensible. Through His grace and as a result of the love He has within Himself we are saved. Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

One Perspective on the Mid East Uprisings

Earlier today I was doing some reading for my day job and came across a thought provoking post on the Defense Update site that I wanted to share. Most of the world is watching carefully the developments in the Middle East and the U.S. press is excitedly reporting what looks at first glance like the stirrings of a popular democratic movement. The writer, David Eshel, points out that conspicuously absent from the coverage of these events is any critical analysis of whom or what is driving this activity. He points out that it is rare for these kinds of events to be truly spontaneous and there has been very little discussion about the leaders who were the catalyst for the demonstrations. He points out that we must be careful not to read into events what we hope them to be rather than understanding them for what they are. 

Read the article HERE

Saturday, February 19, 2011

God Doesn't Drive a Flying Saucer

If you have been paying attention the past few years you might have noticed an increasing fascination in popular culture with the potential relationship between alien and supernatural beings. Most religious traditions postulate a being or beings that are not from earth and possess superior knowledge and capabilities or technology. For many years there have been those who theorized that if primitive people encountered a being or culture who had enough knowledge and technology to travel through space they would have no equivalent frame of reference for which to relate to them. They claimed that the result would likely be that primitive man would assume that these beings were gods. Some further argue that the fact that virtually all cultures have myths regarding brilliant and powerful beings that are not from earth is an indication that at some point in the past the earth must have been visited by aliens and that these stories are the records of that visitation.

I first recall encountering these ideas when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 book   Childhood's End . In the story earth is visited by benevolent alien “overlords” who do not allow anyone to see them. Eventually one of the characters gets a glimpse of the visitors whose description matches that of medieval devils. A few years later I read Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods.  Däniken’s work was not a fictional account but was an argument that alien knowledge and technology was so superior to that of primitive people that they assumed it to be supernatural. He points to ancient technological accomplishments such as the pyramids and argues that the cultures who built them did not possess the engineering knowledge necessary to design them. He then points to various ancient texts and myths to make the case that we have records of alien creatures interacting with our ancestors and sharing knowledge with them. For example, Däniken claims that the first chapter of Ezekiel is a description of a flying saucer and alien beings.

The idea that there may be some relationship between alien and supernatural descriptions has been around for some time and occasionally throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s there would be a TV. show that would discuss these theories. Recently, however, there seems to be a resurgence of this kind of thing. Obviously the internet makes it much easier for people to access these ideas but they are also increasingly showing up in movies, books, and television. For example, the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is based upon this perspective and more recently (2010) the History Channel released a series called Ancient Aliens also based upon Däniken-like theories.

One might wonder if this is even worth giving much thought to. After all, Däniken’s theories regarding ancient technology and mythology are arbitrarily constructed and are rejected by virtually all scholars of each of the various disciplines that he deals with. Clarke’s stories and Indiana Jones are fictional accounts and anyone seriously interested in history can see that many of the so called documentaries on cable T.V. are more sensationalism than history. It is, however, something that I think is worth taking notice of.

First, it is a reflection of the continued shift toward materialistic presuppositions in our culture. Much of our philosophy and science is materialistic in nature and this gets funneled through our educational system and eventually into our cultural expressions. Since the culture has by and large accepted (even if just functionally) that there are no such thing as supernatural beings we then have to provide a naturalistic interpretation of why religious belief is present in every human culture in history. If supernatural beings do not exist why has the belief that they do been found in every culture? By postulating an ancient alien encounter the naturalist has some basis for explaining how certain types of religious faith evolved without denying the reality of the experiences, and even miracles and unlikely events that are recorded in the religious texts. In fact, some atheist thinkers have suggested that it might be possible that life first began on earth as the result of being planted here by aliens (panspermia hypothesis).

The repeated exposure to ideas such as this over time makes them more acceptable to the general public. These programs such as Ancient Aliens are produced to be similar to documentaries and are broadcast on channels that purport to be educational. It is an unfortunate fruit of the evolution of cable T.V. that many of the documentaries and even news shows are often giving air time to unsubstantiated theories and interpretations in such a way as to put them on the same footing as more widely held views without being clear that they are not accepted by most of the experts.

The end result of all of this is a subtle but real attack on the witness of the Scriptures. Rather than accepting them as a revelation of God of Himself to humans the proponents of these ideas would have us understand the bible as the best efforts of wowed ancestors to explain their encounter with other creatures that happen to be much more advanced than they were. YAHWEH is therefore no longer the creator God but is simply some other evolved creature that happened to stop by. Spiritual experiences, whether with angels or demons, if not explained away psychologically can therefore be attributed to a real but alien encounter.

It may be the case that there is life in some other part of the universe. The scriptures are a record of God’s plan of salvation for humans and do not directly address this question. What is clear, however, is that the bible is not a disjointed collection of misinformed recollections. It is a coherent and self-attesting unity of God’s revelation of Himself and is intended to be understood plainly. We must account for figures of speech etc. but the bible is clear that God is not some creature that they were trying to describe but is rather the sovereign Creator of the universe. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Just Business

If there is one thing that I am absolutely confident of it is that the scripture teaches and experience confirms the total depravity of human beings apart from God's grace. While this does not mean that people are as bad as they could possibly be it does mean that there is no aspect of human life, and thus human culture, that is not distorted by sin. Occasionally we all hear about things that remind us of just how debased our culture can be when it no longer attempts to even maintain the appearance of godliness. Dr. Mohler addresses one such example on his blog this week describing a website whose expressed purpose is to aid people looking to have an adulterous affair. You can read Dr. Mohler's comments HERE.

What is most disturbing to me isn't even the website or the user statistics. It is the fact that people are able to so effectively rationalize these kinds of things. The most impactful part of the article for me is the following paragraph where Dr. Mohler records the view of the website founders wife on his activity.

"Biderman’s wife, Amanda, seems unconcerned about both the business and her husband’s chosen role as the captain of the adultery industry. In a statement of almost complete moral evasion, she says: “Really, the business itself doesn’t match who he is as a person — it’s not our lifestyle or value system or any of that.” Well, here’s a clue: if you conceive, establish, and run the business, it is your value system. When “Life is short. Have an affair.” is your motto, adultery is “who you are as a person,” even if you never have an actual affair."

Dr. Mohler nails it when he points out that one cannot simply separate their actions from their identity. It seems that we have come to a place in our culture where people can justify and separate heinous actions from themselves because they profited from them. Apparently if you are in the process of making money all bets are off. What is more many people insist that they should be identified based upon their own self image rather than as a result of their actual lives.

I recall a few months ago watching a TV show where a person who had done something unpleasant kept repeating that "it wasn't like them" and was "outside of their character" to do what they had done. If, however, they in fact did "it" then it was exactly like them to have done it and now, having done it, it was perfectly consistent with their character to do so.

Every one of us has a flawed character and are constantly struggling against our sinful nature. It is most unfortunate that we are seeing a proliferation of companies who are enablers to and profiting from wickedness. What is more unfortunate, however, is that it is becoming so easy to distance oneself from the reality that we are rebellious sinners who stand in opposition to God. This blindness to our true condition is unfortunate because without that realization we cannot humble ourselves before God to avail ourselves of His saving and renewing grace. Let us pray for revival in our country so that many would be saved from pursuing such destructive madness.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Exodus 32: Did God Change His Mind? Part 2

In PART 1 of this article I said that the words translated by the NASB as “changed His mind” in Exodus 32:14 “should be understood broadly as a reference to the external action … rather than a technical description of a cognitive transformation.” What I meant by this is that although God brought about a different state of affairs than had been previously revealed it should not be assumed that it resulted from any actual change within the mind of God Himself. I hope to show that phrases such as this, when applied to God, are figures of speech and should not be understood to be equivalent to what we as humans experience when we change our minds. God does not do anything that He has not eternally known and intended that He would do.

The doctrine of immutability is that God does not and cannot undergo intrinsic change. This means that none of his attributes or any essential aspect of His being can change; however, the doctrine does not entail the denial that God experiences relational change. This means that although He does not change in Himself, His relationship to His creatures changes as a result of the fact that they are changing in their relationship to Him. You can think of it like a room with a post in the center. As people move about the room the relationship of the post to their bodies is changing even though the post itself does not undergo any changes in itself. In this example the post is experiencing relational but not intrinsic change.

Most of the examples of God changing His mind in scripture turn out upon closer examination to be this kind of change. Consider the story of Jonah. Jonah was sent to Nineveh to declare that in 40 days the wrath of the Lord would be poured out and the city would be destroyed. Upon hearing this, the king and people of Nineveh repented and the Lord did not bring about the destruction.  Notice that the destruction was not abated by a change of God’s mind but because the state of affairs to which the judgment was pronounced had changed. The spiritual relationship of the people of Nineveh to God changed and so the judgment was abated. Had the Ninevites continued unrepentant in their wickedness they no doubt would have been destroyed. It was the Ninevites who changed and not God. This is almost always the case in circumstances where God supposedly changed His mind.

While Exodus 32 does not initially seem to be this kind of example a closer reading reveals that it is another type of example of relational rather than intrinsic change. First, notice that God does not simply say “I will destroy the people” what He actually says is "Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation." (vs 10). Look at this closely, it is not simply an expression of God’s desire to judge the people but is rather a test of His servant. God is essentially leaving the fate of the people as well as the fulfillment of His original (and inviolable) promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the hands of Moses.  Remember that it was His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that God referenced when He first called Moses (Ex 2:24, 3:6-8) and Moses was raised up in order for God to keep those very promises. Here, however, God tells Moses He will destroy that nation and begin a new nation of promise with Moses’ own descendants and all Moses needs to do is walk away. Knowing Moses’ own repeated frustrations with the people the offer to essentially become a new Abraham must have been a tempting offer.

Moses, however, proves himself worthy of his mediatorial office and intercedes for Israel in their guilt rather than pursuing his own glory. We see here his faith and submission to God in that He reminds God of His promises pleading that God would glorify Himself rather than His servant. Moses therefore becomes the instrument that God raised up to preserve the people by becoming an intercessor for them standing in the breach turning away wrath (Ps 106:21-23). This event is therefore very similar to and should be understood as analogous to other tests of those whom God was preparing for great work on His behalf. Perhaps the most obvious examples we can think of are the tests of Abraham on Mount Moriah and the testing of Jesus Christ in the desert.

This incident marks an important transition for Moses in his function as the prophet of the Hebrews. Once He goes down the mountain and realizes what the people have done he returns to the Lord and proposes the exact opposite of what the Lord had offered (vs 30-32). Moses actually requests that God would forgive the sin of the people in exchange for his own salvation! Rather than the destruction of the people and his own glory Moses is willing to perish for them though they are guilty. It is at this point that there is an understated but dramatic transition in the overall narrative of the Exodus. In verse 34 God says to Moses, "But go now, lead the people where I told you Behold, My angel shall go before you…”. Up to this point it has been God Himself who has led them with Moses essentially being a mouthpiece but at this point it is Moses himself who will lead the people with the assistance of an angel. He had proven himself worthy of the station and God’s removal of direct leadership can be seen as both judgment upon Israel as well as confirmation of Moses’ role as intercessor for the people.

It may not be as easy to see as it is in Jonah but this is also an example of a relational change because representative intercession on behalf of a people is closely connected to repentance (c.f. Amos 7:1-6). The entire Mosaic Law and priestly system are dependent upon representative intercession but is not until the full revelation of the gospel in the New Testament that we understand the full implications of the relationship between repentance and intercession. It was the intercession of Moses, foreshadowing Christ, which was the means used by God to demonstrate His mercy and keep His promises despite the rebellion of the people. It would have actually been a change of mind for God to have followed through with the destruction of the people because it would have meant the revocation of the previous covenants that He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses’ intercession prevented this change but we cannot lose sight of the fact that it was God Himself who raised up Moses for that purpose. The statement in verse 14 that the Lord changed His mind should be understood not to refer to any change in God’s mental disposition but simply as an abeyance of the justice which His character necessitates as the result of an intercession made upon the basis of His own character and fidelity.

When we see this in God it is not the equivalent of what happens when a human being changes their mind. In the same way that scripture refers to the breath of God’s nostrils, the arm of God, etc. we should understand the phrase to convey some truth about God by way of illustration rather than as a technical description. The phrase, however, does convey an important truth even if it is not a technical philosophical description. What happens here with Moses and elsewhere in scripture where intercession and or repentance cause God to refrain from pouring out judgment is analogous to a change of mind in a real way. God has declared that the standard is holiness and that the man who sins must die. He refrains, however, from following through on that irrevocable judgment in the case of those for whom Christ has interceded. We remain sinners, but the righteousness of Christ is credited to our account and we are given His spirit leading to repentance thus the judgment we were under has been met in His suffering. It is in this sense that we can say that God changes His mind. Though all have been found guilty He remains ready to forgive and has made provision for doing this in His Son. This nevertheless remains a relational rather than intrinsic change. Indeed the promise that our salvation is secure depends upon it being so.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Exodus 32: Did God Change His Mind? Part 1

Through the years one question that has continued to come up in both theology and bible studies I have taught is regarding God’s ability to change His mind. Most theologians in church history have believed that the bible teaches that God is both immutable and omniscient; meaning that He does not change and that He knows everything. The reasoning is that since God knows everything He can neither learn nor forget anything and since He does not change His perspective on what He knows cannot change. The implication is that God cannot change His mind. The traditional understanding is supported by various passages such as Numbers 23:19, which says “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it?  Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

Nevertheless, many believe that the historical doctrine was developed more from Greek philosophy than the bible, that passages such as Numbers 23:19 are not to be understood in an absolute sense, and that the bible records multiple situations where God did in fact change His mind. Perhaps the most common example that is usually given is Moses’ appeal to God in Exodus 32. While Moses was up on the holy mountain with God the people fashioned for themselves an idol in the form of a golden calf to worship. Immediately following this the Word of God records the following:

9 The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10"Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation." 11 Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 "Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, 'With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth'? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13"Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" 14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. 
(Exodus 32:9-14 NASB)

This seems to be a clear example of God changing His mind so how is this to be understood in light of other passages such as Numbers 23:19?  If it is true that the consistent biblical teaching is that God cannot change His mind then how should this passage be understood? There are two different aspects that we must consider in answering this question. First, what is the specific meaning of the terms translated as “changed His mind” and secondly, what is the sense of these words within the context of this particular passage?
The Hebrew word that is translated as “changed His mind” in the NASB is from the root word nacham (Naw-Kham).  Literally the word means to sigh or breathe strongly and has a range of meanings. Strong’s concordance has the following entry for the word:

H5162 comfort self, ease one's self, repent, A primitive root; properly, to sigh, i.e. Breathe strongly; by implication, to be sorry, i.e. (in a favorable sense) to pity, console or (reflexively) rue; or (unfavorably) to avenge (oneself) -- comfort (self), ease (one's self), repent(-er,-ing, self). 

The KJV translates the word in this passage as “repented” and the NIV and ESV each translate the word as “relented”. The NASB translation of “changed His mind” certainly does not appear to be an incorrect translation though it should be understood broadly as a reference to the external action “about the harm which He said He would do” rather than a technical description of a cognitive transformation. Someone may argue that in order for the action to have changed the intention in the actor must have first changed thus implying a cognitive evolution. This, however, cannot be determined without a broader analysis of the passage.

We know from scripture that not only is God omnipotent but he is also Truth and it is impossible for Him to lie (Heb. 6:18). This introduces another complication. When does “changing ones mind” become “lying”? Normally when a person tells us that they are going to do something and then does not do it we conclude that the person lied to us unless they were restrained or compelled by some other force outside of their control to do otherwise. Since God is omnipotent there can be no compelling or restraining outside force so any failure to act upon a commitment would have to be voluntary and intentional. What is more, if He is omniscient then He would have known that He was not going to follow through when He initially spoke to Moses. This seems to go right to the heart of the assurance that is given in the passage from numbers referenced above where lying and changing ones mind are considered in parallel with speaking and not following through. So, did God lie to Moses? Again, answering this question requires a broader analysis of the passage.

Perhaps we can now see the difficulty with this passage. If we maintain that God cannot change His mind we must explain the meaning of this seemingly plain phrase in this passage, however, if we come to the conclusion that this passage does indeed teach that God can change His mind then even if we do not address the theological issues that are created (there are many) we must at least show how a change of mind is not a form of lying given God’s attributes. In PART 2 I will try and explain why God did not have what we commonly think of as a “change of mind” in this circumstance and also why His actions here in no way indicate any untruthfulness on His part (not that He needs me to defend Him J ).

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Plymouth Canton: Daggers are ok in School

I am a strong supporter of religious freedom but there are certain things that just do not make sense. Each year we hear about all sorts of complaints regarding Christmas trees, mangers, and graduation prayers and yet this week the Plymouth Canton School District in suburban Detroit decided that it was ok for certain students to carry daggers to school for religious purposes.

Apparently baptized males of the Sikh faith are expected to carry a kirpan which is a small dagger that represents their commitment to fight evil. The district determined that in order to respect their faith that they would be allowed to carry them at school. Read the story HERE.

At the same time we are seeing an increase in openness to various religious expressions we are seeing an increase in hostility toward traditional Christian expressions of faith. At what point does this kind of accommodation become unenforceable? Are our principals going to be expected to verify the sincerity of our students religious commitments? Who decides whose commitments are necessary expressions of a faith that is honestly held and on what basis?