The Historicity of the New Testament

The next step in the series on the evidences for the existence of a God will finally bring us to the arguments for a Judeo-Christian God. If you look at my previous post you will see an argument for the existence of a being who is outside of space and time who can begin material existence. Then the argument in the next post claims that from the complex and amazingly functional nature of the universe in general and life specifically it seems that we need an Intelligent Designer. The last post argues that without a God we are left with no adequate support for morality. This post will attempt to briefly address some of the chief evidences for the historicity of the New Testament.

First, when we are discussing historicity, we are merely trying to establish that the New Testament was written by first century Jewish individuals who believed that what they wrote actually happpened and that what we have today is extremely close to the texts that were originally written. So then, if we find that the writers were faithfully communicating their experiences and that our texts today match what was communicated originally we can move towards the questions of whether we should trust the testimony of these writers.

So, is the New Testament historically reliable? For this question, I will attempt to outline some of the main arguments without getting bogged down in citations and specific studies. I will humbly refer the reader to books like Evidence That Demands a Verdict and Evidence Revisited by Josh McDowell which are extensive works of historical investigation that engage this topic comprehensively. There are many questions that can help a historian determine whether a text is reliable. How many original manuscripts are there? If there are copies of these manuscripts, how similar are they to each other and how close are they to the original? Are the sources bridging to other sources or are they eyewitnesses? Are the events recorded independently corroborated? Is the setting accurate (the timeframe, who was in political power, reflective of the culture at that time)? What was the purpose of the text? Was it meant to be a historical document, a report to a governing body, or propaganda for a political figure? Would the author have gained from the distortion of truth?

All of these questions and more can be taken to our study of the Biblical texts. Beginning with the question of manuscripts, the New Testament has over 27,000 partial manuscripts to compare and study. While none of them are the original penned manuscripts, their remarkable similarity and consistency is a huge mark in favor of the NT’s reliability. To put these numbers in perspective, the closest other text from the ancient world is the Illiad which has around 500 surviving partial manuscripts. The New Testament, particularly the Gospels, are also written based largely on eyewitness testimony. This is not a story that has grown in the telling, the writers are writing about their own personal experiences. They are also writing to an audience of fellow eyewitnesses. When most of the texts in the NT began to be circulated, the people who lived and experienced the events recorded were still living. If these texts were deceiptful, the hundreds of people who were present at the sermon on the mount or the feeding of the 5000 or the crucifixion could have denounced the writings as false. Now maybe there were dissenting voices that have not survived 2000 years because they were not part of a text that quickly obtained sacred status in the original Christian community, but the movement grew in the midst of people who could have easily denounced many of its claims and would have had no reason to join if they thought the disciples were teaching falsehoods.

The events in the NT are also extremely consistent with other sources of that time and what we know of the timeframe politically, culturally, and historically. We have sources from the ancient world that confirm Jesus’ crucifixion, the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, all of the political figures and the timing of their reign/influence, and that confirm the growth of a small sect of Judaism in the midst of persecution from their fellow Jews and eventually the Romans as well. The Gospel of Luke is extremely helpful in this regard as Luke is careful to note the historical and political context and timing of his texts. Luke is helpful for another reason as he states the purpose of his texts at the beginning of his Gospel: “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Here we see a classic introduction to a historical text that were often addressed to an individual in ancient times. We see that the purpose of the writer here and the writers throughout the NT were attempting to tell true stories that reflected their experiences.

If we look at these evidences and are able to accept that the NT was communicating what the authors believed to be the historical truth and was faithfully communicating their experiences, then we have to ask if we should trust these sources. I am fully aware that I am not addressing many of the nuances and fullnesses of the arguments summarized above, but this is merely a brief sketch of the main arguments. So why should we trust these people? First of all, none of the Gospels would have benefitted the authors. In fact, the authors and disciples of Jesus are often portrayed as stubborn and dense. If these authors were looking to invent a religion with themselves at the head, then why would they portray themselves as slow to understand, stubborn, and even deniers of Jesus throughout the stories? Also, and I believe this is the most powerful argument for the reliability of their testimonies, the disciples were imprisoned, beaten, and killed for what they preached. Unless you truly believe what you are saying, it does not seem possible that a man would die for a lie. What is gained if a man is killed for something that he knows never even happened? We have to remember here that the disciples were eyewitnesses to the events they spoke of. They were not convinced of the truth of these things second-hand. I think that we must accept that the disciples believed that what they were saying was true.

In following posts I will address the question of miracles and whether we can take the Bible seriously even though it makes claims that may seem impossible.

The Moral Argument for the Existence of God

This week, I am giving a summary of the Moral Argument. This is a difficult thing to do because the permutations and forms of this argument are vast and varied. I will attempt to stick to the core and address the most popular objections. The basic structure of the moral argument is as follows:

1. There is an objective moral law

2. There cannot be an objective moral law without an objective moral standard

3. The Judeo-Christian God is the best explanation for the objective moral law

Each of these points can be debated at length. The first and most hotly contested premise can be argued mainly from our experience and the way that we live in the world. Subjective or relative morality can sound convincing and, in an atheistic or materialist worldview, it is the only option available. However, when applied to how we actually live, we find that this view is untenable. If there is no objective standard, then there is no basis for condemning behavior. Anyone can commit atrocious crimes with impunity. We may have laws or rules that govern behavior and consequences for the dissenters, but something in us cries injustice when these dissenters are able to get away with their actions. The sex trade shows this. In some places, the sex trade is perfectly legal, but we all know there is something deeply wrong with the practice of selling human beings for sexual use. Someone will argue that the problem with the sex trade is that it causes others harm. Relative morality is the key as long as you don’t hurt anybody else. To that I say, what objective standard are you using to judge that hurting someone else is wrong?  They may argue for a cultural understanding of morality. In this view, the morality of a culture should govern all behavior within that culture and is generally developed in order that that culture may flourish. This is problematic because who decides what a cultural morality is and what a flourishing culture is? Also, who is contained within your culture and how do you condemn the practices of other cultures? These are particularly relevant questions in our current day and age. According to one particular society today, the destruction of the Western world and the submission of all people to Sharia Law is the ultimate goal. Terrorist attacks and economic sabotage and everything perpetuated by Isis is fueled by a cultural understanding of morality. According to a relative understanding of morality, there is no basis for condemning Isis.

Something in us, from the earliest age, knows that somethings are wrong and some things are right. This does not deny that there is a moral grey area, nor does it mean that anybody knows the full extent of the objective moral standard. In no way am I arguing that everything that has been justified by using the Judeo-Christian God has been good. The argument is only that there is an objective moral standard and that we all live and judge assuming that there is such a standard. Any cry for justice is an assertion of a moral standard. Why do Black Lives Matter? Because there is an objective moral standard that maintains the moral value of all humans.

If you have ever had a conversation with a child, you have probably experienced some of the difficulty that arises when we cannot ground our objective morality in anything. “James, you shouldn’t hit your sister.” “Why not?” “Because that hurts her.” “Why is that bad?” “Because the atoms in the universe colliding randomly have created humans by the power of random mutations guided by natural selection and we humans have somehow developed a conscious mind and cultures that have determined over time that hurting people is contrary to the flourishing of our communities.” The holes in this explanation are myriad. Matter and energy have no moral value, if all we are is matter and energy driven by random dance and chemical firings in our brain, then nothing we are and nothing we do can have moral weight. The alternate story is much more compelling and has the greater explanatory  power when we observe and experience the world: “You should not hurt your sister because there is a God who is love and created all people to be a reflection of that love. You should love your sister because she is valuable and hitting her does not honor her objective value.” Now, that may be a little difficult to explain to a four year old, so we instead say things like, “Because it is wrong to hurt people, and it is especially wrong to hurt those who are smaller than you.”

So if we have come to the point where we believe there is an objective moral standard that takes us from a “can or cannot” to a “should or should not,” then the question follows about where this moral standard comes from? I have been arguing that it is found in the Judeo-Christian God and the following story explains some part of why I think this is the best answer: Plato writes of a dialogue between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asked the man whether the moral law was given by the gods or whether it was above the gods. On the one hand, the moral law is subjective because the gods did not exemplify the laws they gave and there were many gods who gave different laws or commands that were contrary. One the other hand, if the law is above the gods, then the gods are not ultimate beings and we now need to figure out what this objective law is and where it comes from. The Judeo-Christian answer escapes both of these problems as it grounds objective moral law in the character of God. God is the standard against which we judge all of our actions. His commands come directly from His character. God is love and the standard for morality is God’s love.

One objection may be called the problem of evil. While I will address that objection in a future post, one basic element of this objection should be explored here. The basic idea is that if God is all-good and all-powerful then the world He created should be all-good. The list of terrible atrocities in the world lend power to this argument and it is the magnitude of the issues addressed that compels me to save a full engagement for a separate post. The one thing I will say is that the problem of evil assumes an objective standard of good and evil which is best explained by the Judeo-Christian God. Our cries of injustice find their fullest voice when they are fueled by an understanding of the immense value God has placed upon human life and human flourishing.

So why not an ephemeral standard that is apart from God and just exists in the universe? Because there is nothing to ground that standard. There is no reason we should know it and there is no support for following it. And what precisely would that standard be? A profound rightness and wrongness that is an abstract concept has very little weight in objective reality, but a standard that is grounded in the Creator of the universe is much more compelling. The narrative, “Love created the world and everything that is wrong in the world is a rejection of Love,” explains the world in a compelling and powerful way. Now, are all compelling narratives true? Not necessarily. The argument here is merely that a Judeo-Christian God is the “best” explanation for morality. This is one piece of the puzzle and, hopefully, combined with my previous posts on the beginning of the universe and the appearance of design in the universe add further depth to this image. We begin to see a God that is consistent with the Judeo-Christian God. In the next posts, I will be addressing the specifically “Judeo-Christian” elements of this God.

Children of the Promise

More than any other thing, the past 5 years since I left home for college has been a journey of learning about the promises of God. Our whole faith is based on the promises of God. The Bible is framed in the context of covenant (can be read as promise). God’s interaction with His people in the Bible is always framed in promises. If you look at our world, you will see that in our very nature is a need to worship. Bob Dylan sings, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody…” What is the basis for our worship? Our subservience? The basis is in promise. Money promises security, power, and freedom. Religion promises redemption, self-worth, and community. Sensuality promises escape, connection, or significance. Self-help gurus promise impact, effective change, a banishment of insecurity. Really, anything that we worship finds, at its root, a promise to fulfill something we seek. This is because we were made to be a people who live by promises. The ultimate promise, of course, is love. All of these things we seek are rooted in our desire to be known and loved by our Father.  This desire can often be twisted and is linked to our desire for significance, impact, security, etc. The problem comes when we are “looking for love in all the wrong places…”

In the first part of the Bible, which is titled “the Old Testament” (also translated Old Covenant), we see Israel attempting to obtain God’s promises through the Law. This leads to a truth that we are all very aware of: none of us are perfect. The promise is unattainable through the law. Throughout this Old Covenant, God is constantly promising a Messiah who will fulfill His promises towards the people of Israel. We see the out working of this in the life of Jesus and the theological out working in the writings of Paul. Paul begins with the story of Abraham, the original father of promise. He uses the story of Israel’s journey from Abraham to Jesus to show that all along God’s focus was on clinging to the promise and not on the power of the Law. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Galatians 3:18, 22 Paul has shifted the focus from the Law to the promise and shows that our inheritance is by faith in the promise of Jesus.  “This means that it is not the children of the flesh (or children of the Law) who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭9:8‬ ‭ “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.”‭‭Galatians‬ ‭4:28‬ ‭So we see that we are called to be children of the promise; the promise of God to Abraham, the promise of God through Jesus. In fact, when we face opposition or tribulation in our life, we are to come running to the promises of God. It is by the promise that mankind receives salvation.

To bring this concept to bear on our own life, the question arises, “How then shall we live?” How do we live as children of the promise? First, ask yourself, “What has God promised me?” If nothing comes to mind, then think on these promises made to all of His people. He has promised abundant life, adoption as His sons and daughters, eternal life, all the fruits of the spirit, power to fulfill every good work, power to perform miracles in His name, a provision for every need in your life. If any of these promises seem to big for you or too impossible for God, then there is room for growth. They are all found as promises in Scripture. How do we begin to believe these promises? First, knowing the promises of God is important and we have a whole book based on the promises of God and the story of His fulfillment of those promises: the Bible. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:17 Further, God has specific promises for us. Ask him. Take a pen and some paper and write, “Father, what promises do you have for me?” Then write, “[Your name] I have promised you _______” and just let God speak to your life. Do not be afraid of Him not speaking, because we see throughout Scripture His longing to communicate with His sons and daughters. And do not be afraid of hearing Him wrong; if what you write comes from a place of love and encouragement and aligns with God’s heart in Scriptures, then it is probably God.

Next, have faith that the promise will be fulfilled. “And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.” Hebrews 6:15 God’s promises in Scripture are doubly guaranteed by the fact that anything God speaks is true and He swears by Himself (the greatest thing on which to swear). This is found in the following Scripture although Paul’s wording can be difficult to understand on the first reading, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain…” The key to holding on in the midst of difficulties in our life is to “hold fast to the hope set before us,” which is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” This is the key to Christian living. This is how the great saints and martyrs who have gone before us faced their trials and were “more than conquerors.” They held onto the promise and, as Jesus, “for the joy that was set before [them]  endured the cross despising shame…” And so we pray,  “Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise.” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭119:41‬ ‭And, “Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope. This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm‬ ‭119:49-50‬ ‭

So, whoever you are, wherever you are at, remember that our faith is a faith of promise. It is not by our works (thank God) that we receive the salvation and joy of the Lord but by holding fast to the effective promise of God. This extends even to our identity as perfected coheirs with Christ. Read the word, journal with God and get the promises inside of you. Then let them change you as you cling to them in spite of all that you see and experience. By the power of God’s promise, we can participate in the redemption of the world as His kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven (the realm of the promise fulfilled).

“And all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.” T.S. Eliot

Freedom

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about freedom. Freedom is the promise of America. The land of the free. Freedom is the promise of money. If only I had enough money, I would be free to do whatever I want. There is some truth to these promises: America has radically changed the world by offering freedom of religion, speech, etc. in a time where that freedom was not guaranteed and we often take this for granted today. Money will allow you to be free to give to charities, spend less time working, have more choices of where to live or what to do with your life. Ultimately, freedom is not about these things and the promise rings hollow for many who should be the most free. Ancient Greek philosophy will help us understand this.

Aristotle taught that the truly free were the self-disciplined. True freedom lay not in the multitude of choices, but the mastery of one’s desires. A man who can do or have anything he wants, but cannot control his desires for money, power, or physcal pleasure is enslaved by those very desires. In fact, the more choices one has, the harder it might be to restrain those desires and achieve freedom. Many philosophers have followed this line of thinking and the stoics and ascetics focus there energy on mastering oneself by self denial. We can all see the truth of this in our own lives, but we can also see that simple self discipline can become it’s own enslavement as one begins to idolize one’s own control. This can lead to pride and an inflexibility that is equally binding.

So where does true freedom come from? Materialists argue that freedom is an illsuion, existentialists argue that “carpe diem” and a rejection of delusions regarding the semblance of meaning is the answer, Neitsche argues that the will to power is the path to freedom. The answer lies in a seeming paradox. True freedom comes when a life is wholly submitted to the God of the universe. We have already seen that freedom as a multitude of choices does not satisfy. In an essay by C.S. Lewis, he likens that version of freedom as trying to play a board game while disregarding any rules. It would be ultimately unsatisfying and pointless to play a game without any structure. In contrast, as we submit to God’s will, we learn self-control and self-denial, but neither become our obsessions. Neither self-control nor self-denial are a goal in themselves, but the path to Love, to serving God.

In my own life, I have seen a particular struggle play out as I have gotten married and become a restaurant manager in the same year. I have less free time than ever and I often find myself desperate to be “free” during my time off. The mistake I make is to think of freedom as the ability to choose to do whatever I desire at that time. I find myself trying to follow every whim to read or watch tv or eat or buy something. Each of these things are then feeding the idol of false freedom. I have found that when, instead, I ask God what He wants me to do with my time or I spend that time serving my wife (by cleaning or spending quality time with her, etc.) I feel truly free. In submission, in serving, in giving up my time, I find life. That hour I spend in devotions, or cleaning the apartment, or loving my wife multiplies my energy and releases me from my fears of not having “enough time.” God has freedom for us all. In our time, in our self-control, in our decision-making, God knows what we need and He pursues men and women who will say yes to Him and fully give up their freedom only to find it resurrected. Whoever seeks to save his freedom will lose it, but he who gives up his freedom for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.

Moment of Surrender


There once was a man who flew to Rome to meet Jesus. He had been told my a close friend that Jesus wanted to meet him there. When he got there he skipped the tourist sites and went to a basement chapel in one of those storied cathedrals. As he walked towards the altar he saw a man kneeling in the dust in unremarkable clothing. Jesus knelt before him and despite his promises not to ask anything stupid, the man asked, “What are you doing?” “Praying,” Jesus replied. “For what?” the man asked. “I gave man free will and I will never take that away, but I pray always that the hearts of man would be surrendered to my will.”

The most powerful moments in the Bible are characterized by the weakness of surrender. Abraham who surrendered his comfortable life to become a nomad with a promise. Moses who left his dessert home to return to certain death in Egypt as a prophet declaring freedom without hope of success. David who was so surrendered to God’s will that he would not kill Saul even as Saul hunted him. Mary who said let it be, disregarding the scandal and death that might await her if she was found to be pregnant. The ultimate moment of surrender as Jesus prayed, “Father not my will but thine,” in a garden; the very opposite of the first sin in the Garden.

The first sin of man was to reject God’s will, not to surrender. Ever since then, the battle for men’s hearts has been fought with the goal of surrender. The mystery of Christianity is that our surrender does not lead to the abolishment of identity or efficacy, in fact it leads to the very opposite. We surrender to God and become more truly ourselves. We surrender to God’s will and find ourselves more in control of ourselves than ever before.

Nevertheless, we continue to seek control in our lives. We are an anxious and striving people. We find the illusion of control in many ways. We try to get money which symbolizes the power to control our lives. We buy shiny things to distract ourselves from the lie. We build ourselves little kingdoms which are characterized by addictions, escapes from reality, self-loathing, or a false sense of holiness. The call of Jesus denies all these things. Our plans for our lives, our guarantees of success, our dependence on substance abuse, our media-insulated isolation… all of these things are obstacles in the way of surrender. Bonhoeffer writes that the call of Jesus can be summarized, “Come and die.” Everything in our fallen outlook screams at us to run from this invitation and clean to our false sense of control.

The lie is shown in the reaction that follows excess, the emptiness that succeeds our attempts at self-fulfillment. “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every man.” That moment of emptiness is when the call can be heard. “Pain is God’s megaphone to an unhearing world.” That is why Jesus says, “It is harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven…” When we fill ourselves with the shadows of God’s goodness, the earthly things that fade, we cause ourselves to believe in our own control, our own sufficiency apart from God. When that rug is torn out from under us we have two responses before us: we can proclaim all is meaningless and eventually cycle back into the illusion of control (whether through suicide or less extreme sedative) or we can embrace the moment of surrender. The invitation is always there, He stands at the door and knocks. It is an invitation into a “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”

The most powerful moments in history are when humans give back the gift of free will and find themselves truly free. God is always calling us to give up that thing that we need to be happy, that thing that you cannot live without. That is why it is a call to die, a call to die and experience resurrection. The result is love, joy, and peace if we will only let go. We need the moments of surrender, because it is only in our weakness that Christ can be strong in us.

Halloween aka All Hallows’ Eve aka Samhain

seasons

In our secular age, there is no battleground as hotly contested as the argument for or against the sacred. Churches opt to meet in gyms or community halls instead of a “sacred space.” A man photographs a crucifix placed in urine as a statement of art. The idea of the supernatural is categorized as an antiquated concept from a backwards era.On a more disturbing level, couples are refusing to get married because they don’t see the use in a piece of paper or a meaningless ritual. The power of the sacred spaces, times, celebrations, and relationships (parental, marital, communal, priestly) was an enriching part of everyday life. Every people from the beginning of history revered these relationships and highlighted their significance in the mythos of that culture. The pathways of ideas that have led to Western society’s secularism can be traced all the way back to Classical Greece, but the most powerful evidence of our current dichotomy between faith and reason (with an emphasis on ditching faith altogether) is the way people live their lives as a result of these insidious ideas. Halloween especially, but other religious holidays as well, is an important cultural bastion against the materialistic ideology.

Originally, the 31st of October marked the Celtic holiday of Samhain (pronounced: sah-win) which was characterized by a celebration of what was termed a liminal time (a time when the otherworld was in closest proximity to our own, a time when the veil was thin). The holiday is about halfway between the autumn and winter equinox and was a time of slaughtering cattle to store up for the winter. The symbolism of the provision of saving life through death is rich in this tradition and many others. Every culture since the beginning of history has celebrated liminal times and they have all had holidays based on the movement of the seasons marked by phases of the moon. There seems to be something real here to the marking of the seasonal changes of life. God gave the Jewish calendar to move along similar lines and the early Christians had no problem with the sharing of holidays with their pagan neighbors. In fact, and this is the important point, the early Christians regularly reclaimed pagan holidays as shadows of the true times that God had given to men to draw near to Him. All truth is God’s truth, all time is God’s time, and if the myth of Christianity were true, it would make sense that it contained elements of all the other religions in the world of men who are programmed seekers of meaning.

If one looks at the various elements of early religions, you see that in the broadest sense they have a lot of similarities. There is the myth of the dying and the rising God, often symbolized by the transition from autumn to winter and winter to spring. There is the fertility of summer, the celebration of life’s transition in the fall. There is an idea of the nearness of divinity and the sacred nature of the life we live and the earth we inhabit. There is the idea of fire and light representing life and joy and salvation. There is the glory of a man and a woman together in the physical, communal, and ritual union as the king and queen of creation (this is seen in many marriage traditions to this day). All of these things and more are themes throughout the religions of the ages and Christianity contains the echoes of them all in the fullness of a true myth. We need not be scandalized by this, Paul wrote about how God has made Himself known through all of Creation and these ideas were used for the Christianization of many cultures and tribes. Halloween itself went from Samhain to All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day on November 1st due to the Christian acknowledgement of the natural rhythm and truths represented by pagan holiday. The chief lie of the our age, “what you see is what you get,” rejects all of these themes in a hubris that leads to an empty life.

We are told now that the longings we have for transcendence, for a relationship to a supernatural being or God-figure is merely an evolutionary bi-product or a social construct. We know this is not true. There are times, liminal times, holidays or memories of holidays, pangs of longing, the beauty of a seascape reached around a bend unexpectedly, of a waterfall when the light reflects the full spectrum of color, an old friend seen for the first time in years, the completion of a project that turned out better than expected and took your all… these moments take our breath away and are gone in an instant. There is something that calls to the deepest parts of our being and we know that secularist is wrong. Halloween reminds us of these things. Christmas reminds us of these things. We need holidays lest the dreariness of this life–so often devoid of the sacred symbols, times, relationships and spaces–smothers the flame inside us. As the church we need to be the beacon of the ultimate sacred light that is Jesus, the true Myth Himself. We live the sacred story of Creation and redemption through the practice of the church calendar, of holidays, of the liturgy of last rites, baptism and marriage. We live it individually and corporately.

God constantly exalts and sanctifies, only humans profane and devalue.

 

Hunger and Thirst

Nature_Mountains_Misty_hills_017805_The primary position of the Christian heart is to be hungry and thirsty. We cannot come to the Father except through Jesus Christ, and we cannot come to Jesus Christ except through our hunger. “How hard is it for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Luke 18:24) When the rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he needed to gain eternal life, Jesus told him to go and sell all he had and to come follow Him. Why did he need to sell all he had? Because he needed to hunger for Jesus, not be filled up with his material wealth! “The original sin is not primarily that man had ‘disobeyed’ God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him, and Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God.” (Schmemann, “For the Life of the World”) Man walked with God in the Garden, and yet he allowed Satan to tempt him to hunger for the forbidden fruit, the only fruit that was not a gift from God to man. Man ceased to hunger for God alone.

All of our desires are ultimately an echo of our eternal hunger for the Father. We can blunt this hunger with the things of this world. We can fill ourselves with the bread that perishes and, always, be hungry again. But Jesus came to be the bread that satisfies. He came for the sick, those who lack and have hunger, not for the healthy, who are in need of nothing. People who are full of the world have no need for the “Bread of Life.” All our life is a cultivation of this hunger for the Father. Heaven is presented as banquet. The Lord’s Supper is the center of Christian worship. In the Old Testament, the Passover was salvation through a meal. The Israelites ate their meal as God redeemed them from the hands of their slavers.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) C.S. Lewis writes about a desire for something throughout his life. Words could not contain this intense longing, but he decided to term it, “Joy.” The experience of longing for something “other” is cited as the means to his conversion. One memory from childhood in particular showed this longing. He looked out from his room through a window on a rainy afternoon–his brother was off in a boarding school and he had no playmates–and saw the distant hills and was struck with this hunger. “I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” This desire, and even the desire for the desire, repeated throughout Lewis’ life and was better than any other experience he had ever had. When he began to discover the power of Theism to account for this desire and the narratives he found throughout history (of human desire, fulfillment, despair, etc.), he was able to come to God in his mind and his heart. We can only come to God in this hunger. Look at the example of Lucifer: instead of hungering for God, he allowed himself to hunger for glory, the desire to be “like God.” This illustrates the key to our hunger, it must result in complete surrender. When we are hungry, we will give anything to be fed. When we hunger for Christ, and recognize the hunger as our need for him, we will offer up our very lives. Esau sold his birthright for a cup of soup. This is the position of greatest worship and humility: to hunger, to thirst, to seek. The worship is in the receiving and the simultaneous surrender.

“‘Holy’ is the real name of God, of the God ‘not of scholars and philosophers,’ but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this one, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him.” (Schmemann, “For the Life of the World”)

We are in the last couple weeks of the season of Lent. This season is in the Church calendar precisely to encourage us to remember our hunger as, ultimately, a desire for Christ. We acknowledge our depravity and His holiness. We empty ourselves in the discipline of fasting so that we can experience a deeper longing for Him. This is especially important in the west where we rarely experience hunger: “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” (Proverbs 27:7) We read in the Psalms, “As a deer pants for water, so my soul pants for You,” but we do not even know what it is to be thirsty! So we throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ and desire the desire for Him. I remember the strangest experience of hearing people who hungered for the Bible and talked about voraciously consuming Scripture in their devotions. I hungered for that hunger! God used even my hunger for hunger and, after years of this desire for a desire, I have been tearing through the Bible. My new found longing is sweeter than the Cinnabon Cinnamon Roll at the airport. As we come into Holy Week, let us renew our desire for Christ; our desire can never outstrip His provision. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus is the first and last of God’s word, man lives by feasting on Him.

Musings on Baptism and Foreshadowing

Baptism IconReading in Joshua today I noticed a trend that is repeated throughout the Old Testament: the crossing of the Jordan as symbolism of God’s salvation and His presence with the crosser. It’s been taught throughout Church history that the crossing of the Red Sea as the people fled Egypt foreshadowed our salvation through the waters of baptism. We also see Elijah fleeing King Ahab after calling down a drought on the land by crossing the Jordan. When David is warned of Absalom’s betrayal, he and his people cross the Jordan which becomes a barrier of protection for them. So we see the salvation symbolism in the crossing of the Jordan and, by extension, in the waters of baptism. We also have the story of Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria, who comes to Elisha for healing from his leprosy. He is told to wash in the Jordan. When his servant convinces him to humble himself and follow Elisha’s instruction, he is cleansed through the waters of the Jordan. It’s amazing to me how all these stories are weaved together to provide the backdrop for the institution of Christian baptism. The final way we see the crossing of the Jordan as a symbol of baptism is in the confirmation of God’s anointing.

When Moses has died and Joshua is taking command of the children of Israel, God commands Joshua to have the bearers of the Ark of the Covenant stand in the center of the Jordan river. Joshua tells the people that God will confirm his anointing and presence with Joshua by parting the waters for the Israelites. We see distinct foreshadowing as Moses brings the people through the Jordan the first time but does not bring them into the Promise Land. Joshua confirms his anointing by the parting of the waters and takes the people into the promise land. Later in Scripture we have a similar occurrence as Elijah is on his way to be taken up into heaven. The path to this taking up into heaven lies through the Jordan and he parts the water with his cloak rolled up on his staff. Elisha asks him for a double anointing and Elijah promises it to him if he sees him taken into heaven and takes up his mantle and staff. This happens. The confirmation for the elders of Israel who are waiting back on the other side of the Jordan is Elisha’s return and parting of the waters with Elijah’s mantle and staff.

Joshua, the one who leads into the Promise Land, and Elisha, the inheritor of the double anointing, both have their ministries confirmed and began in the power of God shown through the crossing of the Jordan. John is the second Elijah, preparing the people of Israel through the waters of the Jordan for Jesus. Then we see Jesus come and His ministry is confirmed and began through a display of God’s power in the Jordan! God is a masterful story-teller.

The completion of this thematic arc is found in our own baptism. The symbolism is depended as we are told in the New Testament that we are “buried with Christ in Baptism, and raised again to newness of life.” We participate in the heritage of God’s anointing, presence, resurrection, cleansing, and salvation as we are baptized ourselves. We are embodying a mystery thousands of years in the making. Praise God!

Come and Die

Forest Fire

A couple months ago I began reading the Bible all the way through. In order to get manageable chunks, every day I read 2-3 chapters from the Old Testament (beginning with Genesis), a Psalm, a chapter in Proverbs (following the day of the month; February 6th I read ch. 6), a chapter in the Gospels, and a chapter in the New Testament (beginning with Acts). It’s been awe-inspiring to see the consistency and arc of Scripture this way.

Through the thousands of years and several authors, God weaves a story of redemption, Love and Truth, cultural history, poetry and wisdom, genealogies and miraculous testimony that brings life to its readers even 2000 years after it was written. The Old Testament often gets a bad rap from Christians. It’s amazing! It was only in the context of the Old Testament that Jesus taught the Kingdom of God and the New Testament writers understood His message. I ran into this series of verses in Deuteronomy that got me really excited. It’s amazing the foreshadowing and revelation that comes when reading the Old Testament in the light of Christ and the New Covenant.

When the Lord came upon the mountain to speak to the Israelites in the desert after He had rescued them from the Egyptians, they had the appropriate reaction:

24 “Behold, the Lord our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived?” (Deut. 5:24-26)

They understood the awesomeness and holiness of God and were rightly fearful for their lives in His presence. The Lord was pleased with their response, “All that they have said is right.” They ask Moses to be their intermediary and go up to the mountain to receive what the Lord has for them. Maybe you are already seeing the connections. In the new Kingdom, Christ has brought God to restored relationship with man. God has made his dwelling with man and men have heard his voice.

However, God has not changed. He is still the “all-consuming fire.” The difference lies in the invitation of Jesus. Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Israelites asked, “why should we die?” Jesus response, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25) The call of Christ is to be consumed by the fire that the Israelites witnessed that day. This is a painful process! God is purifying us and making us into who we truly are. T.S. Eliot wrote of this journey in his poem, “Little Gidding”:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Thousands of years before Pentecost, the Israelites saw God’s  fire and new it was death to be in His presence. Now God’s fire has fallen on us, His presence dwells in us, and we are called to die that we may truly live. Let us all be consumed by this Great Fire.

Some Thoughts on the Nature of Sin: Crooked

Crooked

Last week I posted my first post on the nature of sin which discussed the Fall. This week I am going to argue that we often think incorrectly about what sin actually is. Most often people associate sin with breaking the arbitrary and antiquated rules of the Bible. Some people think that sin is a made up concept used in church to manipulate people into conforming or to scare people with the consequence of hell. I am going to argue that “sin” is anything that is contradictory to the nature of God.

“Sin” means in Old English to “miss the mark” as when an archer is shooting at a target. In our lives, sin is to miss the standard that God has set for us. Now one crucial thing here: God did not command certain things as wrong “just because”, He actually grounds Goodness in His very character.

In this way, we avoid the Euthyphro Dilemma: is good merely commanded by God or a standard above Him? (both are seen as logically problematic). The Christian God falls into neither category by existing as the standard in His character for what is “Good.” To use a C.S. Lewis example, God is the straight line by which we measure all other lines to perceive whether they are straight.

This brings up another important aspect of sin. Sin is not breaking the rules God has given us,although not following God’s command is sinful because God commands goodness by nature.. Jesus said it best when giving the greatest commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” These commandments embody God’s character because He is Love. Anything contrary to God’s holy love is sin.

So what about all of those commandments in the Bible? According to the logic above, every commandment in the Bible originates and hangs on love. When Paul writes to avoid sexual immorality, lying, slander, etc., it is because those things are not loving to God or our neighbor. Further, we see throughout the New Testament that the wages of sin are death, that when we sin we become enslaved to sin, and that sin warps our soul. Therefore, sin is also not loving towards ourselves because freedom only comes through avoiding sin and doing good.

This is where we get to the meat of the matter. Not sinning = conforming to God’s character. This makes not sinning a positive matter and not merely prohibitory. As we choose to love, we become more like God. As we sin, we further bend and twist the image of God within us. As I mentioned in my last post, due to the fall the image of God within us was marred. The process of redemption consist in restoring that image within us. This is what makes sense of heaven and hell for me. As we choose goodness, goodness becomes a part of our character and becomes our default and vice versa. Heaven is the eternal progress from glory to glory, constantly choosing good and becoming more fully human. Hell is the opposite, constantly choosing self-love and obliterating the marred image of God within us. Hell is not a prison sentence, it is a choice.

Lots of worldviews have a similar view of sin. Maybe their views aren’t grounded in God but the concept of virtue vs. vice has been around since Aristotle. Most of those worldviews then give you a process by which you will be able to master yourself and choose goodness until you reach some level of paradise or enlightenment. The problem with this process began with the Fall. We no longer have the power within ourselves to save ourselves. We are already twisted beyond self or even communal redemption. We need new life. Otherwise, we are already on the path to the eternal choice of sin which leads to evermore death. If we examine all of our efforts and the efforts of those around us, I think we will see that this is the case. Next post, we will look at the unique solution offered by Christianity.