faith

How Old Testament Saints Related to God: Faith

In the car lately I’ve been listening to a series of lectures by Paul House on the theology of the Old Testament. Here are some of the things that I’ve been learning:

What does it mean to be a covenant keeper?

For a long time, I’ve thought that Israel was meant to keep the law perfectly. I suppose the reason I thought this was because people often talk about Jesus fulfilling the law perfectly, and especially “doing what Israel could never do.” That part about Jesus is true (he did do that). The first part about Israel is not (they weren’t called to be perfect). House makes a compelling case from one simple fact: the presence of the sacrificial system in OT law.

The presence of the sacrificial system as part of the law ought to eliminate any notion of Israelite-law-perfection. The sacrificial system is there, it exists, to deal with sin. It assumes the presence of sin. You could put it this way: in order to keep the law perfectly, you have to observe laws that God himself wrote about what to do when you stray from the covenant. If you’re going to keep the law perfectly, you have to observe sacrifices for your own sin. Unless you’re Jesus, who simply doesn’t sin, and therefore does not need to make any provision for sin (since it’s not there, and since his fellowship with his Father is never broken).

The OT’s sacrificial laws, take the annual day of atonement for example, are based on the continual (at least annual) presence of sin. It assumes that restoration between covenant partners (God and Israel) must be made. You do not have to keep the law perfectly to be a covenant keeper. You don’t. What then does it mean to be a covenant keeper?

Seeking forgiveness in God’s way

In order to live a life pleasing to God, Israel was called to seek forgiveness in the way God prescribed. This call rests on the assumption that Israel will, in fact, recognize that it has sin in the first place. And then, once people realize that, they seek God’s means.

Obviously, a reading of just about any OT book proves that Israel was not aware of this — let alone the need to pursue it in God’s way. But this is, nonetheless, what God wants: for his redeemed but still sinful people to seek forgiveness in the way he prescribes. This is what it means to be a covenant keeper.

“Seeking forgiveness in God’s way” is language that prepares us for one of the most important New Testament words: faith.

Pointing forward to faith

This idea, that you can be a covenant keeper (even though you sin) as long as you are seeking forgiveness in God’s way, is in line with New Testament teaching that justification is always by faith.

Paul makes a big deal in Romans 4 about Abraham being justified by faith. In essence, Abraham trusted. That is what faith is — trusting (and it’s always faith in something, faith always has an object). This faith – trust that God can and will do what he promises – is how Abraham stood justified before God. Paul says it was credited to him as righteousness. And it is also how Israel, later, was justified. Individual Israelites had faith, as they laid hands on that animal before the altar, that what God said was true. Imagine a worshipper saying this to the priest who was helping him, “God says that if I seek forgiveness for my sins by doing [this sacrifical act], then I’ll be restored to fellowship with him. I have faith that God is true to his word. I trust that this act, accompanied by belief in God’s word, is what he desires.” The animal is sacrificed. And person has sought forgiveness in God’s way. They are a covenant keeper.

Why this matters

I had always thought that there was a tectonic shift, from OT to NT, in how God related to his people. And there are, to be sure, huge changes from OT to NT. But this is not one of them. The people of God have always have always had one answer to the question: what do I do, now that I’ve broken covenant with God? How can I be reconciled to him? The one answer to that question, for covenant keepers, is this: seek forgiveness in the way God prescribes.

For whatever reason, I would have answered the OT version of this question with: “well, observe the law. In the OT, you are a covenant keeper if you keep the law.” And that is simply backwards: OT saints kept the law because they were already in a covenant bond with God. They knew that their sins were dealt with through the sacrificial system, and that they could, therefore, draw near to God in love and with obedience.

But what about the law’s relation to covenant breakers? That’s a topic for another blog post I think.

Are You Intellectually Humble? 13 Searching Questions

13 questions that aim to answer, “Are you intellectually humble?” Here are some of the more searching ones for me:

  • Even when you feel strongly about something, are you still aware that you could be wrong?
  • Do you trust that truth has nothing to fear from investigation?
  • When someone disagrees with your beliefs, do you view it as a personal attack? If so, why?
  • Is it difficult to respect people whose beliefs differ from your own?
  • What is a specific step you can take to better understand someone who disagrees with you on an important issue?
  • Do you feel insecure when others disagree with you?
  • Do you approach others with the idea that you might have something to learn from them?

HT Tim Challies.

Did Jesus Exist? Part 1: What the Greeks and Romans Said

How do we know that Jesus actually existed?

In the four Gospels we have about 300 individual and unique literary units all generated by this figure: Jesus Christ. There’s no doubt that the early church thought he existed. Their lives were radically changed because of who he was, what he did, and the things said. But how do we know that our gospels aren’t simply Christian delusion, or the result of an ancient conspiracy that went just a little better than planned? Are the Gospels the only place that we hear about Jesus?

The answer is a firm “no.” We have several written documents besides the Gospels that mention Jesus. While it’s true that the Gospels are the main place we hear about Jesus, it’s not true that they’re the only place. Other ancient witnesses testify to the existence of Jesus. And even though that doesn’t settle the question, “was he who he said he was?” it does answer the question, “did he exist to say these things?” And that’s what I want to focus on in these posts. What evidence, outside the four Gospels, do we have for Jesus’ existence?

Greco-Roman Sources

1. Tacitus

Tacitus (AD 56-117) was a Roman historian who described the persecution that Christians faced during Nero’s reign. Tacitus refers to Jesus through his latin name, “Christus.” Speaking of the Christians, he says

“They got their name from Christus who was sentenced to death during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.”

Annals, 15.44.

Tactitus goes on to describe the way that the Christian movement was “checked,” or stopped, because of the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately for the Romans, the movement “broke out” once again both in Judea and in Rome.

… a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome

Annals, 15.44.  It’s clear that Tacitus thought of Christians as a nuisance. His words mock Christianity, “mischievous superstition,” “evil.” Tactitus’ historiographical skill and anti-Christian bent leads many scholars to believe that Annals 15.44 is the most important and trustworthy reference to Christians and Christ we have outside the Gospels themselves. There is no way that a Christian would refer to their own movement in this way.

2. Suetonius

In the early second century (100’s), another Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote,

Because the Jews at Rom caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from the city

Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, §25. There’s a lot of debate about this section in Suetonius’ history. One of the main issues is whether Suetonius is actually referring to the Christ, Jesus. The “misspelling,” is at the root of the confusion. Is “Chrestus” a reference to Christ? Or is this another figure in Rome?

I’m inclined to say that Suetonius is referring to Christ for two main reasons:

  1. The Jews and Christians in Rome (and everywhere) did not get along. The book of Acts testifies to this. 1st century Jews and Jewish Christians had numerous irreconcilable religious differences that would have (and did) lead to many disputes and conflict. This would’ve happened in Rome only if there were someone for them to fight with: those instigated by Christ, the Christians.
  2. The majority (though not all) of writing I’ve read on this quote seems to evaluate it this way: “a garbled reference to Christ.” Once you’ve considered Tactitus’ reference to Christ and Pliny’s reference to the problems Christians are making him face, that seems to be a fair evaluation. Christians probably did exist to create these issues for government.

3. Pliny the Younger

Around the same time, in the early second century, a governor of Bithynia (in Asia) named Pliny the Younger wrote to the emperor Trajan wanting to know how to deal with Christians who wouldn’t worship Trajan. Pliny mentions “that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, pg 5-7, cited Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.

Darrel Bock, in his class on the “Life of Christ,” says that the evidence of opponents can sometimes be worth more than we first think. It’s especially true in this case. In Pliny the Younger, we have an enemy of Christianity with something very important to say: the Christian trouble-makers worshiped Christ as though he were a God.

A Pending Conclusion

“In summary, Greco Roman writers of the late first and early second centuries are aware that Jesus was a Judean who was crucifed by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, and that his followers now venerated him as a god.”

There are certain questions that historical research can (usually) answer: Did a person exist? What did they say? How were they received? These are all legitimate questions that can be addressed by going to the sources. It does seem Jesus existed. We do have a record of what he said. And we know exactly how he was received: at once with enthusiasm, and finally with blows. But there are questions that historical inquiry cannot answer: Is it true? Of how much value was this person? Were they justified in doing what they did? Once these kinds of questions are run through a text, they us up off the ground and into the air of evaluation and judgement.

But because of these 3 Greco Roman sources we have this firm ground beneath our feet: A Judean man. Governed by Pontius Pilate. Crucified. Worshiped. [1] That’s what the Greek and Roman sources tell us.

1. Four Gospels, One Jesus, pg 39 by Mark Strauss.

The Unforgivable Sin: Is It Really Unforgivable?

(This is the second installment of two posts on the “unforgivable sin.” The first post answers the question, “what is it?” This second post answers the question, “Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?”)

This post is going to be less interesting to most people, and that’s okay with me. It’s going to answer a question that you could phrase several ways:

  • Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?
  • If I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin, can I ask for God’s forgiveness?
  • Is there any way to “take back” blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

A few people are at least a little bit curious about what the unforgivable sin is. Fewer still are convinced that they’ve done it, and now need to deal with the consequences. That smaller group of people is, I assume, the kind of people whose consciences are sensitive to their state before God. And for that reason there’s no way I can make light of this question. For some, even if it is a select few, the question is real: “How can I repent of the unforgivable sin if I think I’ve committed it?”

So, Can You Be Forgiven?

Here’s my answer: As long as you want to be forgiven, you can be assured that you haven’t even committed the “unforgivable sin.”

I come to that conclusion based on these things:

  1. The context (before and after material) of the passage
  2. A definition of the “unforgivable sin” based on that context
  3. A basic theological framework

1. The Context

It’s really unfair, you might even say irresponsible, to try and lift the passage up and out of it’s context. So remember the conclusions drawn from the the previous post: The situation is the Jewish Religious Leadership’s repeated, repeated, repeated, dismissal and denunciation of Jesus’ work. They saw what Jesus did on a regular basis and persisted, to the very end, to denounce his work as coming from Satan and not God. The four Gospels give us no reason to believe that they ever turned away from their unbelief and toward Christ in faith. We’re dealing with people who are Jesus’ enemies. They are not crawling at his feet for mercy. They are attacking him every chance they get.

2. A Definition Based on the Context

If you want a definition that’s both nuanced and sensitive to the context, then you can’t do much better than Craig Blomberg’s from Jesus and the Gospels (pg 280), which I referred to last time.

“In context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him.”

3. A Basic Theological Framework

“Theology” is a word that means “the study of God.” So a theological framework is a way of viewing the Bible that’s based on the rest of the Bible. If you see one verse that seems to say something different than the rest, you try to interpret it in light of the other truths you know about God.

So what does the whole Bible have to say about repentance? As long as a person wants to repent, they can. Sometimes (and this is getting into some deeper waters) God will, in his sovereign justice, let a person experience the results of their sin. As a result, they won’t want to. But God also, in his sovereign mercy, can show a person how they have sinned against him, and keep them faithful to him through repentance. Often, like David in Psalm 51, this will lead to an honest plea for forgiveness. As long as this person wants to (that is, God has sustained them in his mercy), they can ask for forgiveness and receive it freely.

Once again, Craig Blomberg’s comments are really helpful, “There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that an individual who genuinely desired to repent and turn back to God is denied the opportunity. Indeed, the very consternation that causes some believers to wonder if they have committed the unforgivable sin by definition demonstrates that they have not.” Jesus and the Gospels, pg 281. John, the writer of the 4th Gospel, says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 ESV)

A Conclusion

The right question is not so much, “Can I be forgiven of the unforgivable sin?” so much as “Did I ever really actually commit it?” And unless, 1) you’re dead, and really did persist in it, or 2) God has sovereignly allowed you to experience the consequences of you sin, (unless one of those is true) you can still ask for forgiveness.

If either one of those things is true, you won’t want forgiveness.

Blomberg’s point (in the above quote), and mine (in these 2 short posts), is that as long as there is godly sorrow and grief over “the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him…” then there will be forgiveness. As long as you want forgiveness for misunderstanding Jesus’ message, mission, and identity, you can have it.

The criterion of embarrassment

How can a Christian answer the question, “Why, or how, do you believe the Bible is true? How do know it wasn’t just made up?” One of the most compelling answers I have to a question like that is the criterion of embarrassment.

The Criterion of Embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment says that the writers of the Bible include “embarrassing” stories because they’re true stories. They want truthfulness more than they want to seal off the loose ends.

But a 5-minute google search of “criterion of embarrassment” will lead you to a few critiques. Not everyone is convinced that this criterion, or way of looking at the Bible, proves very much. These critiques point out the ways in which this criterion often gets misused and stretched. And it’s true. It has weaknesses and limitations. In order to explain what exactly the criterion of embarrassment is (for those who’ve never heard about it), and to address these critiques before moving on, I’ve given three qualification or limitations below.

Limitations

A Greek manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel

  1. The criterion of embarrassment doesn’t argue that every embarrassing story is true. If this were the case, we could go to one of the “apocryphal” gospels (gospel of Judas, gospel of Thomas), find a really strange story about Jesus, and argue for it’s truthfulness this same way. But it wouldn’t work. Here’s why:

  2. The criterion of embarrassment is like a table top that supports conclusions only if it is supported by sturdy legs: the witness of the church. This is crucial. A story’s truthfulness can only be established if the eyewitness of the events themselves, the early church, already witnessed and fought for a story’s place in the scriptures. Once you combine #1 with #2, you get this principle:
  3. Stories aren’t necessarily true because they’re embarrassing, but embarrassing stories must have been true if they were deliberately included in the scriptures. Truthfulness and witness is at the foundation of this criterion. Not necessarily embarrassment. So you can’t go to an embarrassing story and say it’s true simply because it’s embarrassing. I could make up a lot of stories about Jesus and say they should be included because they’re embarrassing. But you can (and should) go to an “embarrassing” story, one that reflects badly on the disciples for example, and ask of it, “why is this here? Why wasn’t it taken out? Why was it defended?” That’s the strength of this criterion.

All that is pretty theoretical. So here’s a real example.

Peter’s Embarrassment

Peter was one of the first followers of Jesus and later became a major leader in the early church. When he followed Jesus and heard his teaching, he frequently misunderstood. Luke tells us about a time when Jesus asked his 12 closest followers:

And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.”

We know, from the end of the story, who Jesus claims to be: the Christ, the Savior of the world. His conclusion about himself is clear enough. But he turns the question on his followers:

 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” [Luke 9:18-20 ESV]

Peter seems to have the answer right. He seems to know who Jesus is. But later we find out that he actually doesn’t. When Jesus tells Peter that he (Jesus) will eventually be crucified by the Romans, this happens:

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him [Jesus], saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” [Mark 8:32-33 ESV]

Peter thinks that Jesus is out of his mind for all this talk about suffering, being rejected, and being killed. And he’s got it completely wrong. He’s totally misunderstood Jesus’ mission and message. And his mistake is now recorded in the Bible for us to remember, almost 2000 years later.

Why This Matters

This is an embarrassing story for the early church. They have to admit that one of their leaders didn’t really understand who Jesus was. There’s a lot of things you could make mistakes about and still be alright; but Jesus’ identity isn’t really one of those.

Is this really the guy that you want to head up your made-up/make-believe church? (In Acts, the “history book” of the early church, Peter is one of the major leaders) If you were making this all up, wouldn’t you smooth out this minor (…major) mistake of his?

You would. If you were making it all up. And that’s the point. If the church didn’t have such an overwhelming desire to be truthful and honest, they would’ve simply removed this story. But here it is.

When you consider the limitations above, and apply that important qualifier of “the witness of the church,” you can form a statement like, “I know that this story isn’t true just because it’s embarrassing, but why wouldn’t the church remove this embarrassing story if they could’ve? Why was it defended and included in the Gospels?”

I think the only conclusion to that question would be to say that it really is a true story. The criterion of embarrassment is a good reason to believe that the what we read in the Bible really, actually, happened.

3 Things You Need To Engage Skepticism

According to Greg Koukl, any Christian desiring to defend the Christian faith needs three things. I think he’s spot on:

  1. Basic knowledge
  2. Wisdom
  3. Character

Let me explain why I think these three things are more than just another list compiled in order to convince another reader. I’ll do so by pointing out how each component shows up in a conversation with someone skeptical of the Christian faith.

1. Basic Knowledge

How would you respond if asked, “but how do you really know that Jesus existed? I mean, historically, what proof do you actually have? I’m not trying to be unreasonable, I just want to know what warrant Christians have for going around claiming that he’s still alive…”

What Koukl means by “basic knowledge” is the content of the response to this question. Our ability to provide this person with several pieces of evidence for the historicity of Jesus depends on whether or not we have basic knowledge.

2. Wisdom

This builds on basic knowledge. “Wisdom,” as the second component of an effective witness concerns our ability to winsomely and confidently communicate basic knowledge. It answers the question, “how do I present the knowledge I have in a way that is respectful and allows dialogue? With what kind of demeanor and approach am I going to both speak and ask questions?”

3. Character

Generally, “character” is a broad term. Here it refers to what we might call the “life-witness” (as apposed to the “word-witness”) that you and I have.

By engaging (the hypothetical skeptic) with words you may be able to effectively communicate ideas and truth claims. But we may as well forget about any kind of lasting impact if we’re not willing to live in accordance with the “narrow is the way that leads to life” kind of claims that Christians are entrusted with.

Conclusion:

Tackling all three in one book would be impossible. Thankfully that’s not what Koukl sets out to do. His approach instead is to focus on the second item: Wisdom.

The goal is to have a “game plan” for engaging in conversations with skeptics – to figure out, “how do I respond with the knowledge that I have? Should I simply respond to objections or try to raise some of my own? How can I go about doing that?”

I’m excited to share some of the tactics Koukl suggests we implement in our conversations with skeptics of the Christian faith in the upcoming days. I’ll keep you posted!