new testament

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.

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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 New Testament & Old Testament in 10 Minutes

These two videos has been making their rounds across the Christian blogosphere. In them you’ll see two trustworthy and articulate thinkers presenting the essence of each Testament. The essence. See, for yourself, if the Bible is an amazingly unified whole:

The Old Testament in 10 Minutes

The New Testament in 10 Minutes

Was Jesus’ Self-Centered? John Stott Answers

stottJohn Stott helping us to understand what Jesus thought about himself.

This self-centeredness of the teaching of Jesus immediately sets him apart from the other great religious teachers of the world. They tend to be self-effacing. He is self-advancing. They point people away from themselves, saying, “That is the truth, so far as I understand it; follow that.” Jesus says “I am the truth; follow me.” No other religious founder who dared to say such a thing would be taken seriously. The personal pronoun forces itself repeatedly on our attention as we read his words. For example:

[John 6:35 ESV] 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

[John 8:12 ESV] 12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

[John 11:25-26 ESV] 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

[Matthew 11:28-29 ESV] 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Basic Christianity, John Stott, pg 34.

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.

Free Book: Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church

Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church - A Guide for MinistryA free book from logos.com this month: Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry by Michael Lawrence.

From the Logos website: “Do you want to understand how each part of the Bible fits together to form one unified, unfolding message? Michael Lawrence helps you to do just that. This essential volume presents the substance and practical importance of biblical theology for ministry. He begins with an examination of a pastor’s tools of the trade—exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology—and commends biblical theology as the tool that should never be on the shelf. Lawrence helpfully distinguishes between biblical and systematic theology, but also emphasizes the importance of their collaboration in ministry.”

Usually, you have to go to different sections of the bookstore to find good books on biblical theology, systematic theology, ministry, the church, and the Christian life. At the very least, the relationship between theory and practice seems strained. However, this book brings these concerns together. Michael Lawrence believes that good shepherds are theologians and good theologians are shepherds. For anyone who believes that theology needs the church and the church needs theology, this will be a welcome resource. For anyone playing with the idea, it will be a compelling one.

Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary, CA

Jesus and the Gospels

About 2 weeks ago I finished a series of lectures delivered by Darrel Bock on “The Life of Christ.” It was 15 hours, 6 minutes, 3 seconds long, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. Bock is a skilled expositor of God’s Word, and he walked through a rough harmony of the gospels to show what Jesus’ life and ministry were all about. Now that it’s had some time to sink in, I thought that I’d share 1 observation about format, and 2 about content:

1. Redeem your commute

If you’re driving about 30 minutes a day (like I do) or more, use that time to sharpen up an area that’s grown dull — use it to learn.

Redeem your commute/walk/free time!

2. Jesus understood what was expected of him, and wisely refused

Now let’s get to the good stuff.

Jesus was constantly engaging and reshaping people’s expectations of who the “Messiah” was supposed to be. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see this happening. I’ll pick just one place: Mark 8.

[27] And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” [28] And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” [29] And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” [30] And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
(Mark 8:27-30 ESV)

Jesus is self-conscious in the best way possible — he knows people are thinking about him with certain categories. “Lines are being drawn in the sand,” as Bock says in his commentary on Luke. Jesus wants to see what kinds of lines his disciples are drawing.

Peter’s line (literally and figuratively) is, of course, the most famous, “You are the Christ.”

At first glance, it seems like Peter understands who Jesus is. He’s certainly got the right title for Jesus. But he’s filled that title with content (expectations) that don’t match the container. So when Jesus says that the Messiah has to suffer, Peter rebukes Jesus. Peter’s “Messiah,” (and most 1st century Jew’s Messiah) came to conquer — not suffer.

And here we have it: Different understandings of what Messiah came to do. Peter’s is simplistic. Jesus’ is nuanced and filled with apparent paradoxes. He knew Peter wanted a Messiah with power to destroy the Roman enemies and free Israel from their captivity.

Jan_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Sermon_on_the_Mount_-_Google_Art_Project

A beautiful (but completely anachronistic) painting of the sermon on the mount.

Despite resistance from every party, Jesus insisted that this Kingdom he came to bring belonged to the meek, weak, weeping, sorrowful and persecuted (cf. the beatitudes, Matthew 5:2-11). It would come in power, that was sure. But not the kind of power that most Jews longed for.

Jesus knew that every person spiritual freedom more than they needed political freedom.

Jesus knew the box he was supposed to fit into, and wisely refused.

3. Sometimes the disciples/crowds ask really dumb questions

We’re told all through school, “there is no such thing as a dumb question.” But the way Jesus responds to certain questions makes me think that his position is more nuanced. There are several places in the gospels where Jesus responds in a certain way because the question is, well, kind of dumb. If he were to answer it directly, it would take the discussion in the wrong direction. And so he doesn’t really answer it. He sees the train-wreck question coming, and stops the conversation from derailing by steering it in a new direction.

Perhaps the easiest place to see this happening is when Jesus interacts with a Pharisee in Luke 10:25-37. A Pharisee comes to Jesus to ask a few questions. After some pleasantries (verses 25-28), he asks the question that’s really been on his mind. He wants to know how little alms-giving and charity he can get away with. His question is “Who is my neighbor?” He’s asking, “who is the person I’m obligated to help? I want to help them so that I’m justified… but I don’t really want to do anything more than that. Who is my neighbor?”

Dumb question.

Jesus responds with the famous parable of the good Samaritan. His point in giving this parable? Be a neighbor. Just be a neighbor. Help people who need help. Be a neighbor. “You’re asking the wrong question, so I’m not going to answer it. Here’s the answer to the question you should have asked.”

Conclusion

Follow this link to the course page and take a look at the lectures summaries. They provide a brief 20-30 word description of each lecture. Download them for free and start learning!

If you already know you don’t have the time/resources to do that, I hope my observations have been helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments.

When you read the gospels what stands out to you?

Personality and Ministry: Part 2

Even if it’s become an out-dated evangelical buzz word, “fellowship,” captures the idea of an essential New Testament teaching: True Christians will actively seek out the fellowship of other Christians. The NT might allow for different expressions of this fellowship, whether it be corporate gatherings, small groups, Bible study fellowships, etc. But we must gather. We must associate with one another. Because of the way we see the early church conducting their lives as well as the numerous and inescapable commands concerning this issue (organized in the graphic below), we’re not really left with any room to question if we’re to be involved in other Christians’ lives. The right question is not, “should we?” But “how should we?”

Spread across the entire New Testament are approximately 40 “one another” passages that explain how this interaction should be expressed. Verbs like “love” “instruct” “greet” “accept” and “forgive” show what the affirming work looks like. But on their heels follow commands to “submit” “rebuke” “admonish” and “teach” one another. Both initially restorative and eventually restorative interactions must happen. This is a realistic and full-orbed perspective on relationships. So here are two related observations that I think might help to get the discussion going in the right direction:

Every Christian is called to

  1. have relationships within the local church
  2. have those relationships exist within certain parameters (the one anothers are a good place to start).

It’s not just leaders who need to ask these questions (although that is the angle I’m coming from). The question, “how will I interact with other Christians?” is laid on all who joyfully follow Jesus Christ. But the question, at least in my experience, is never that simple. And that’s because I myself am a human being with certain dispositions that makes a clear and reasonable command unfortunately cloudy. I bring my sin (rebellion against God) into the equation.

So, it’s simple: fulfill the “one anothers.” And it’s not simple: fulfill them as a person marred by sin with other people who are marred by sin. We now know we must “get in each other’s lives,” as my pastor says. How, therefore, are we to do this in light of our sin-permeated efforts? And closely related, are there refractions of glory in our individually blemished dealings with people?