If Jesus is God, Why is He Called the “Son of God” and “the Firstborn Over All Creation”?

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In my recent post, Was it Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?I mentioned that one of the issues that some people struggle with is regard to the deity of Christ is that the New Testament calls him the “Son of God” and Colossians 1:15 says that he is “the firstborn over all creation.”

If Jesus is God, why is he called the “Son of God”? And if Jesus was not created, as Christians claim, then why is he called “the firstborn over all creation?”

Let’s look at these two questions one at a time:

Why is Jesus Called the Son of God?

The long and short of it is that “Son of God” is a Messianic title, which means that Jesus is the long-awaited, promised king of Israel whom God had promised to send to save the people and set them free in an eternal and ultimate way.

The most important text for understanding this is Psalm 2, which is a “coronation psalm,” meaning it would be read at the coronation of a king. 

It includes this line: I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2:7) This line is quoted and applied to Jesus in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5 & 5:5.

Most important is to understand the context of this phrase “Son of God” in reference to the king. In the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings were considered to have a special relationship with God. In many cases, like in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the king was considered to be deity themselves. Such an idea would be an abomination to the Jews and in complete contradiction to everything their Scriptures said about God. However, they too believed, as we see in Psalm 2 and other “royal psalms” that the king had a special relationship with God.

Thus, the term “son of God” spoke of the king’s special relationship with God, but throughout the Old Testament there is the hope of a true and better king, the one who will establish the throne of David forever and rule over an everlasting kingdom which will have no end (see: the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7). Then though there were many kings of Israel, none of them were the ideal, TRUE KING that God had promised and Israel waited for.

To call Jesus THE Son of God is a reference to him being THE king whom God promised to send to set the people free and save them ultimately and eternally, i.e.: the Messiah.

For more on the meaning of the term “Son of God” check out: What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?, or the related topic: If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself “the Son of Man”? 

Why is Jesus called “the firstborn over all creation”?

Does Colossians 1:15 imply that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated God created? If Jesus is the uncreated God, then why is a term like “firstborn” used of him – I mean, it actually contains the word “born” in it, which implies coming-into-being, does it not?

The word firstborn (prototokos) is also applied to Jesus in Colossians 1:18, Romans 8:29Hebrews 1:6, and Revelation 1:5. In each and every case, when this word is used of Jesus, it refers to supremacy in rank.

All ancient culture had a practice called “primogeniture” – which meant that the firstborn son got all the wealth of the father and he got all the father’s status and power. From a legal standpoint, a firstborn son was equal with the father.

So when this title is used of Jesus, it in no way means that Jesus is less than God, or that he was created by God, rather it refers to supremacy of rank. To say that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation means that he holds the position of primacy over all of creation, i.e.: no one and nothing holds a candle to him; he has all the status and power of the Father and is equal to the Father, although still distinct from the Father. 

Interestingly, John Lightfoot cites Jewish rabbis who sometimes referred to God as “the firstborn of the world,” meaning that God was supreme over all of the world — that there is none higher than him.

How do we know this interpretation of Colossians 1:15 is the correct one? By looking at the verses which immediately follow, which declare Jesus to be the uncreated creator. 

Colossians 1:16-17 say: For by him (Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

The Bible begins by telling us that God created all things, and here it tells us that Jesus created all things. The clear message is that Jesus is God in the same way that the Father is God. He is beginning-less creator, equal to the Father in substance, status and power, and yet distinct from the Father.

Thus, rather than undercutting trinitarian theology, Colossians 1:15-17 undergirds the foundation of trinitarian belief.

Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?

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Advent is the time of year when we think and talk a lot about the incarnation, that event in which God took on human flesh and became one of us in order to save us.

Recently on the Calvary Live call-in show on GraceFM someone called in asking if it is necessary to believe that Jesus was fully God in order to be a Christian. He explained that he believes that Jesus was fully human, but not fully God.

Arianism: A Brief Background

Without knowing the name for it, he described his beliefs, which were basically Arianism: a belief popularized in the early 300’s by a man named Arius, who taught that – contrary to the generally-held Christian belief, Jesus was not fully God in the same way that the Father is God, but that he was a special created being, whom God created in order to bring about salvation for human beings. Arius was afraid that by saying that Jesus was God, Christians were slipping into polytheism, and that in Colossians where it says that Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), it means that Jesus was the first creature whom the uncreated Father created.

Arius’ beliefs were condemned as unbiblical and incorrect at the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the church, which gave birth to the Nicene Creed, asserting that Jesus was of one substance (ousia) with the Father and that Jesus is “very God of very God”, leaving no ambiguity whatsoever that Christians unanimously believe that Jesus is in fact God.

(For more on Arius, Nicaea and St. Nicholas of Myra, check out: Taking Back the Story of Saint Nicholas)

But still… why is it important that we believe Jesus is God?

Is it just because that’s who Jesus is and who God has revealed him to be (ontological/revelatory reason)?  – OR – was it actually necessary for our salvation that Jesus be God (soteriological reason)?

Nicaea dealt with the ontological and revelatory side of this question, but my caller on the radio show asked the latter question: is there a soteriological reason why Jesus had to be God in order to save us?

My immediate answer was to point him to Romans 8:1-4, which says that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s righteous requirements on our behalf. In other words: Jesus lived the perfect life that I should have lived, and the good news of the gospel is that he then offers his perfect record to me. Jesus, having been the only human not born of the seed of a man – other than Adam – becomes the “new Adam”, who then fully obeys God whereas Adam disobeyed and sinned (see Romans 5:12-21 or listen to Who is Your Champion?)

He then asked, “Couldn’t God have created a perfect being, without a sin nature, in order to do that work of fulfilling God’s righteous requirements on our behalf in order to save us?”

Here’s Why Jesus Had to Be “Very God of Very God” in Order to Save Us:

The Scots Confession of 1560 addressed this issue directly. The answer it gave is that the full reality of Christ’s deity is essential for salvation because salvation must be an act of God, or else it is not salvation. The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

The deity of Christ tells us that the action of Jesus in the incarnation and on the cross is identical with God’s own action.

Karl Barth explained that the full deity of Christ is essential because it is only God who can forgive sins. He refers to Mark 2:7, ‘who can forgive sins but God alone?’ It is equally necessary for atonement, Barth pointed out, that the one who makes amends for sin is human. 

Salvation, in other words, is an act of God, but an act that must be done from within humanity – thus Jesus had to be fully God and fully man in order to save us.

The whole of our salvation depends on the fact that it is God in Christ who suffers and bears the sin of the world, and reconciles the world to himself.

T.F. Torrance discusses the terrible implications of denying the full deity of Christ:

If the deity of Christ is denied, then the cross becomes a terrible monstrosity. If Jesus Christ is man only and not also God then we lose faith in God, because how could we believe in a God who allows the best man that ever lived to be put to death on the cross? If you put Jesus Christ as a mere man on the cross and put God in Heaven like some distant god imprisoned in his own lonely abstract deity, such a god is monstrously unconcerned with our life as he does not lift a finger to help Jesus.

The validity of our salvation depends on the fact that he who died on the cross under divine judgement is also God the judge, so that he who forgives is also he who judges.

Thanks be to God for what He has done for us by becoming one of us!

Is God’s Love Conditional or Unconditional?

As a young Christian, I remember hearing that God’s love is unconditional. And yet, I also heard that it was necessary to believe in Jesus and embrace the gospel in order to become a child of God and receive salvation. Is that a “condition”? Is God’s love really unconditional?

I saw an interesting conversation online yesterday. It was a discussion over what was being taught at a certain church in regard to salvation, the love of God and the work of Jesus on the cross.

Recently William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, released his first non-fiction book: Lies We Believe About God, in which he lays out what he believes. I happened to see this book on the shelf at Walmart recently, alongside a bunch of other books in the religion/spirituality realm which I hope that no-one will ever read because of their aberrant/heterodox theology and claims about God.

Here’s a word of advice: As a rule, don’t buy books about God / Spirituality / Theology from Walmart.

Basically, in Lies We Believe About God, William Paul Young comes out as a full-fledged universalist; he believes that all people will be saved, that God doesn’t require anything of us, that the idea of Hell is a creation of Medieval Christendom for the purpose of manipulating people into submission, and that no matter someone does or believes, they are a child of God and will therefore be saved and have eternal life.

Of course, these beliefs fly in the face of what the Bible clearly teaches and what Christians have taught and believed for 2000 years. For an explanation of the content of this book and a response to it, check out this great article from the Gospel Coalition.

How this ties into the online discussion that I witnessed yesterday, was that this church which had embraced the views of Wm. Paul Young and had taken a hard turn towards universalist theology. As a result, some people had left the church while others had embraced this teaching.

The crux of both this online conversation and the beliefs of William Paul Young is the question of whether the love of God is conditional or unconditional. The one thing that was assumed as true by all, is that God’s love is unconditional, which then created some issues, questions and difficulties for those on both sides…

Some made the conclusion that if God’s love is unconditional, then even the requirement that one must believe in Jesus constitutes a condition! Therefore, they conclude: ‘believing in Jesus must not be necessary for salvation.’ Furthermore, they conclude: ‘God does not require anything of us in order to accept us as his children, since he loves us unconditionally, and therefore all people are children of God simply by virtue of having been created, and therefore all of the promises of the Bible which pertain to the “children of God” belong to all people universally, no matter what they do or believe.’

Others, who hold orthodox Christian beliefs, disagreed with this, pointing out that Jesus himself clearly taught that unless one believes in Him they will not have salvation (John 3:18), and that the status of “Child of God” is reserved for those who believe (John 1:12). They struggled, however, to explain how these things did not constitute “conditions” – which would then contradict the claim that God’s love is “unconditional.”

So what is the answer? Is God’s love conditional or unconditional?

First of all, I do believe that God loves all people, but the question of whether all people have salvation or are in a covenant relationship with God is another issue.

This question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional is one of the great tensions of the Old Testament. In some places, it seems to be saying that God will love and bless and be faithful to his people unconditionally, no matter what they do. Yet, in other places it seems to be saying that the covenant is conditional, that certain requirements must be met in order for it to apply.

This tension builds and builds throughout the Old Testament, but is never actually resolved… UNTIL we get to Jesus!

In Jesus, the question is answered and the tension is resolved. The message of the gospel is that Jesus met all of the conditions of the covenant so that IN HIM (and only in Him) God can love us and accept us unconditionally.

The message of the gospel is that Jesus met all of the conditions of the covenant so that IN HIM (and only in Him) God can love us and accept us unconditionally.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

Is God’s love conditional or unconditional? The answer is: Yes.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus met all the righteous requirements of the Law, he fulfilled all of the conditions of the covenant, once and for all, on our behalf, so that if we are “in Him” by faith, then we are declared righteous, we are justified, and we have become children of God. Apart from Jesus, there is no such promise or hope. This is why the gospel is truly good news!

Much aberrant theology comes from deficient Christology.

May we be those who make much of Jesus and who celebrate the gospel: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints.” (Colossians 1:26)

A Modern Myth

51vrjuzftllI just finished reading N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. He is a great thinker and while I may not agree with him on everything, I do appreciate his writing. Here’s a quote from How God Became King which I found particularly insightful and encouraging regarding the “modern myth” of the failure of Christianity and the attempts to relegate it to the realm of private religion rather than the revolutionary message it truly is.

“The failure of Christianity is a modern myth, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of telling the proper story of church history, which of course has plenty of muddle and wickedness, but also far more than we normally imagine of love and creativity and beauty and justice and healing and education and hope. To imagine a world without the gospel of Jesus is to imagine a pretty bleak place.

Of course the reason the Enlightenment has taught us to trash our own history, to say that Christianity is part of the problem, is that it has had a rival eschatology to promote. It couldn’t allow Christianity to claim that world history turned its great corner when Jesus of Nazareth died and rose again, because it wanted to claim that world history turned its great corner in Europe in the 18th century. “All that went before,” it says, “is superstition and mumbo-jumbo. We have now seen the great light, and our modern science, technology, philosophy and politics have ushered in the new order of the ages.”

That was believed and expounded in America and France, and it has soaked into our popular culture and imagination. So, of course, Christianity is reduced from an eschatology (” this is where history was meant to be going, despite appearances!”) To a religion (“here is a way of being spiritual”), because world history can’t have two great turning points.

If the enlightenment is the great, dramatic, all-important corner of world history, Jesus can’t have been. He is still wanted on board, of course, as a figure through whom people can try to approach the incomprehensible mystery of the”divine” as a teacher of moral truths that might, if applied, actually strengthen the fabric of the brave new post-Enlightenment society. But when Christianity is made “just a religion,” it first muzzles and then silences altogether the message the Gospels were eager to get across.

When that happens, the Gospel message is substantially neutralized as a force in the world beyond the realm of private spirituality and an escapist heaven. That indeed, was the intention. And the churches have, by and large, going along for the ride.”

(N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, HarperOne: 2016, pp.163-164)

Christianity and Singleness

When I lived in Hungary, we used to take our church to a summer conference every year in Vajta, where the group of churches we belonged to ran a Bible college and conference center in an old castle. Every year various pastors from our churches would speak at the conference; I spoke several times.

One of the sessions I remember most vividly, I remember not for good reasons: one year a particular pastor was asked to speak on the topic of singleness for an afternoon session. When he stood up to the platform, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t know why they asked me to teach on singleness. I’m not single and I haven’t been single for a long time. So I decided that I’m not going to speak about singleness, I’m just going to teach a Bible study about something else, since this is the only chance they gave me to speak.” You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this person was never asked to speak at a conference again.

But that wasn’t the only memorable part of his session. Half-way through his session, the speaker got annoyed at some people who were whispering to each other while he was speaking, and he stopped everything and proceeded to call them out, and kick them out of the session, making them take the walk of shame past over 100 people who were gathered in the hall for the study. I admit, I was kind of jealous that they got to leave…

This session should be contrasted with the one on singleness which had been held at the previous year’s conference, at which a younger pastor had spoken about singleness in a message that was so well presented and so encouraging to me (I was single at that time), that I still remember his opening lines: “You are in a race!” He then went on to teach about the biblical perspective on the goodness of singleness from 1 Corinthians.

It was a hugely different perspective: the first man I mentioned had disdained the thought of teaching about singleness – he clearly saw it as unimportant. The second man taught in a way that was encouraging and edifying to the single person.

The other day I posted some thoughts about the topic of gender roles in marriage and how the biblical view on this is based on theological views about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. I got several comments on it from a single person who expressed feelings that Christianity tends to over-emphasize marriage over singleness. There is some validity to this point – however, statistically most people will be married at some point in their lifetime – and, just because some people are not married does not mean we should not talk about marriage, just like the fact that some people are not airplane pilots doesn’t mean that we should never talk about airplane pilots.

However, these comments did lead me to look into some things about Christian teachings about singleness, and what I found was significant.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our age, argues that Christianity was the very first religion to hold up single adulthood as a viable way of life. This was a clear difference between Christianity and all other traditional religions, including Judaism, all of which made family and the bearing of children an absolute value, without which there was no honor.1

In ancient culture, long-term single adults were considered to be living a human life that was less than fully realized. But along came Christianity – whose founder was an adult single man and whose great theologian (the Apostle Paul) was also single and advocated for the value and goodness of singleness.

Timothy Keller points out that in Christianity, “single adults cannot be seen as somehow less fully formed or realized human beings than married persons because Jesus Christ, a single man, was the perfect man (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).”

He goes on to say that, “Paul’s assessment in 1 Corinthians 7 is that singleness is a good condition blessed by God, and in many circumstances is actually better than marriage. As a result of this revolutionary attitude, the early church did not pressure people to marry and institutionally supported poor widows so they did not have to remarry.”2

Keller points to Rodney Stark, a social historian, who states, “Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry; Augustus even had widows fined if they failed to marry within two years. In contrast, among Christians, widowhood was highly respected. The church stood ready to sustain widows, allowing them a choice as to whether or not to remarry, and single widows were active in care-giving and good deeds.3

As opposed to societies which idolized family as the only means of giving a person significance, the Christian gospel offers a greater hope and a greater source of significance.

Singleness, according to Christianity, is not Plan B – it is a viable option for those who choose it.

In our modern pop culture, it is not family which is idolized so much as romance. Think about Hollywood and even Disney narratives: they begin telling the story of a person seeking true love, and once two people do come together, the story ends! The message is that what matters in life is finding romance, everything else is only leading up to that, and what happens after that is not worth spending too much time on. This is also reflected in the huge amount of focus which is given to weddings in our culture.

The Christian church provides the space for single people of different genders to worship, serve and study together, to know and be known by each other, without the pressures of our romance-driven culture.

Churches don’t always do a great job at making single people feel that they belong and not pressuring them to get married and treating them as if until they are married, they are incomplete – however, it is in the design. At our church, we have purposefully sought to change the language we use away from always speaking of “you and your family” – so that we don’t communicate the wrong thing to single people who call our church their home.

Interestingly, Timothy Keller, who pastors a church in NYC which is majority single people, points out that single people and married people alike need good teaching about marriage and relationships, so that marriage is held to its biblical place of honor (Hebrews 13:4), without idolizing it as the end-all be-all of human existence.

 

1. [Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, p.174]
2. [Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, pp.222-223]
3. [Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders Historyp.104]
 

Gender Roles in Marriage and Perichoresis: the Dance of the Trinity

Yesterday at White Fields I taught on Colossians 3:12-25. The first part of that text is the one I usually use when I officiate weddings. The title of my message was “Gospel Reenactment” (audio of that message can be listened to here).

Included in this section is a verse which can be controversial for some people: Wives submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord.  The idea of defined gender roles in marriage is not the most popular subject in our day and age, where more and more often, gender is considered a social construct and something which is fluid rather than fixed. Furthermore, it is no secret that some who have held to biblically defined gender roles in marriage have at times used them as an excuse to act tyrannically or even cruelly towards their spouse.

However, what I discovered in studying this passage in Colossians, is that it gives a picture of marriage as a reenactment of the Gospel (who Jesus is and what He did for us), particularly as regards the nature of God: One God, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things seen and unseen, who eternally exists in 3 co-equal persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The term Son does not speak of origin but of rank: the Son willingly submitted Himself to the leadership of the Father, even though they are eternally co-equal and one. This is the model of what marriage is: two become one, but in that one, they take on different, complementary roles for the sake of a mission.

This is something which the church fathers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and John of Damascus, and more recently Jürgen Moltmann and Miroslav Wolf, have referred to as ‘The Dance of the Trinity’ – or ‘Perichoresis’ in Greek. It refers to the dynamic relationship which exists between the 3 persons of the Trinity:

The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, the Spirit glorifies the Son and the Son glorifies the Father. The Father sends the Son and the Son obeys the Father. The Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit and the Son together bring glory to the Father. The Spirit exalts the Son, the Son exalts the Father. The Father exalts the Son and glorifies the Son.

It’s a harmonious set of relationship in which there is mutual giving and receiving. This relationship is called love, and it’s what the Trinity is all about. The perichoresis is the dance of love.  – Jonathan Marlowe

The relationships between the three Persons of the Trinity — “dynamic, interactive, loving, serving” — form the model for our human dance. – Michael Spencer

In their book The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write about gender roles. This is one of the best books I have read on marriage, and I would recommend it highly. Here are some things that Kathy in particular had to say on the topic of gender roles:

Every cell in our body is stamped XX or XY. This means I cannot understand myself if I try to ignore the way God designed me or if I despise the gifts he may have given me to help me fulfill my calling. If the postmodern to view that gender is wholly a “social construct” were true, then we could follow whatever path seems good to us. If our gender is at the heart of our nature, however, we risk losing a key part of ourselves if we abandon our distinctive male and female roles.

[Philippians 2] is one of the primary places where the “dance of the Trinity” becomes visible. The Son defers to his father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Sons to the highest place. Each wishes to please the other; each wishes to exalt the other. Love and honor are given, accepted, and given again. There is no inequality of ability or dignity.

The Son’s role shows not his weakness but his greatness.

[In God’s Kingdom, leaders] are called to be a servant-leaders. In the dance of the Trinity, the greatest is the one who is most self-effacing, most sacrificial, most devoted to the good of the other. Jesus redefined – or, more truly, defined properly – headship and authority, taking the toxicity of it away or, at least for those who live by his definition rather than by the world’s understanding.

Jesus as a master made himself into a servant who has washed his disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating in the most dramatic way that authority and leadership mean that you become the servant, you die to self in order to love and serve the Other. Jesus redefined authority as servant-authority.

In Jesus we see all the authoritarianism of authority laid to rest, and all the humility of submission glorified. Rather than demeaning Christ, his submission led to his ultimate glorification, where God “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.”

Both men and women get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission.

– The Meaning of Marriage, pp. 194-201

Part of the redemption that we have in Jesus is an invitation into the Perichoresis – the ‘dance of the Trinity’ – and in addition to our relationship with God, this serves as a model and a motivation for our relationships in marriage, work and beyond.

Vacation and Russian Novels

For the past week we have been on vacation in California. For the first week of it we were in Orange County where I attended the Calvary Chapel pastors conference in Costa Mesa. Rosemary and the kids spent time with friends and at the beach, and Rosemary was able to attend some parts of the conference as well. The conference was refreshing; a great time of focusing on the Lord and recentering as well as reconnecting with friends from all over the world. 

After that we went down to North San Diego and visited friends and family there, and then came to Los Angeles to stay with family. We’ll be back in Colorado for church on Sunday.

Overlooking Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills 

One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Several years ago I read Crime and Punishment and it became one of my favorite books. I think Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, particularly how he developed characters and got inside their minds.
What was interesting about Crime and Punishment was that it wasn’t only a novel so much as it was a platform for Dostoyevsky’s view of human anthropology – in other words: what makes us tick. What I found even more interesting, as I looked more into Russian literature from that time period, was that the other great Russian author, Tolstoy, did the same thing with his novels, but he had distinctly different views. 

Tolstoy was a pacifist, who considered himself a Christian, but didn’t want anything to do with church in any way. In fact, the more you get to know his views, you realize that he was extremely legalistic and held many strange interpretations of Biblical passages. For example, Tolstoy said that since Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), that means that we should not even have police, because the role of the police is to resist evil people. What he was arguing for was beyond pacifism to a form of anarchy, which was based on his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humankind: that left to our own devices, with no outside intervention, people would trend towards good rather than evil, and that the trajectory of the human race is towards greater virtue, peace and harmony. Tolstoy’s views were a major influence on Ghandi and others.

Dostoyevsky on the other hand, did not share Tolstoy’s views about humanity. Dostoyevsky considered himself a serious Christian, something which is very apparent in his writing, and he held much more traditional (and biblical) views about the nature of humankind and what makes us tick. 

In Crime and Punishment, for example, the main character is a university student who ends up killing the older woman he lives with. The popular thinking at the time (and still in our time as well) was the Englightenment theory that people are basically good, and that when people do things that are wrong, the reason they do them is either because of lack of education or because of poverty. Thus, the thought is that if you can educate people and bring them out of poverty, then crime and violence, as well as racism and hatred will cease to exist. The Bible does not agree with this theory, and says that the reason people do bad things, is because we are sinful and broken, and sin doesn’t just affect us, but it dwells within us, it is part of our very core. We weren’t designed by God to be this way, and it is for this reason that Jesus came, to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. But apart from redemption, all people are sinful, which is the reason we do sinful things. 

If there is any question about this, Nazi Germany is a perfect case study of how the most educated society in the world, which was well off economically, committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. If the Englightenment theory was true, that shouldn’t have happened, but the Biblical view would say: educated and rich people are still sinners, they’re just educated and rich sinners. What all people need is a new heart, something which can only be found in and through Jesus Christ.
In Crime and Punishment the main character is an educated young man who kills his landlord simply because he wants to, because he’s curious what it will be like, and then he justifies his actions to himself. Why do people do bad things? Because sin dwells within us, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Dostoevsky would say.

I am only 20% of the way through The Brothers Karamazov, but am very much enjoying it. It tells the story of a father and his 3 sons, actually 4 – as one of the servants is also the son of the man. The father is a foolish and base man, his oldest son is similarly base, but at least has a sense of conscience which his father seems to lack. The second son is an intellectual and considers himself an atheist, but is torn because he realizes that if there is no God and no afterlife and no Heaven or Hell, then there is no meaning to life. The third son is an apprentice monk at the local monastery, where he studies under a devout elder. There is another elder at the monastery who is crazy, and somehow in his derangedness is more popular with the people than the devout and humble  elder who actually says a lot of things which are good and biblical.

One of the points that Dostoyevsky is making in the book is that the life of sincere Christian faith put into practice is the truly good life. Through the characters he is showing the results of a life of sin and the meaninglessness and pain of life apart from God and encouraging the reader to forsake sin and turn to God.

At least that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I’ll let you know if anything changes!

Here are some excerpts:

“Love God’s people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly. Do not love gold and silver. Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high.”  – Father Zossima, the humble and sincere elder to Alyosha, the third son who is a Christian

“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “[humanism], which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.

What Makes Someone a Missionary?

I spent 10 years in Hungary as a missionary. I had a visa and several legal papers for my residence there which stated on them that I was a missionary. Furthermore, I was sent out and supported by a number of churches who supported as a missionary.

This having been the case, I have put a lot of thought over the years into what it is that makes someone a “missionary”. 

I remember working alongside Hungarians in Hungary, doing the same work – and yet I carried the title of missionary, and they were just Christians who were serving the Lord. Every now and then, some of them would say that they too were missionaries then, since they were doing the same work. But what about the other Christians in Hungary who were not with our organization, who did similar work? Were they also missionaries? They didn’t seem to covet that title, but were content to consider their service simply completely normal Christian behavior.  Some Hungarians we worked with received financial support from churches in the West so that they could serve full time at a church. Did that make them missionaries, even though they were serving in their home country or culture?

Some missions organizations use the term “native missionaries” and raise funds in wealthier countries to support national workers who already know the culture and language of a place. The idea is that with the proper training and some financial support to free them up to do the work, these local Christian workers will be able to reach the places where they live more effectively than foreign missionaries. This is especially popular in countries which do not give visas to foreign missionaries. Is the word “missionary” appropriate in this case? 

What makes someone a missionary?

One time when my wife and I had come back from Hungary to visit family and supporters, we were in Carlsbad, CA, and at the beach some young people, probably in their early 20’s,  approached us and started talking about Jesus. They were evangelizing – and when we told them we were Christians, they told us that they had come from somewhere in the Midwest as missionaries to California. They hadn’t been sent by any church community, but believed they were called and so they had come. Does that make you a missionary?

When I moved to Longmont I knew some people who said that they were missionaries to Longmont, and raised support for their living expenses and various ministry endeavors, so that they could be free to pursue these things full-time. These particular people had grown up in Longmont and felt called to serve God in their hometown. 

What makes someone a missionary?

Something that has often been proclaimed in evangelical circles is that all Christians are called to be “missionaries” and that the work of missionaries is not something which only needs to happen in far off places with developing economies, there is need for evangelism and outreach in wealthy countries, including the United States as well. One bookmark I saw said: “You don’t have to cross the ocean to be a missionary, you just have to cross the street.”

So what are we to make of all of this? What makes someone a missionary?

A little etymology helps to sort things out:

Missio = send. Thus, to be a missionary is to be someone who is sent.

There is a sense in which all Christians have been sent by Jesus to carry out his mission, which he received from the Father, in his mission field, which is the entire world.

“”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John‬ ‭3:16‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” – ‭John‬ ‭17:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” – ‭‭John‬ ‭20:21‬ ‭ESV‬‬

However, some are sent and supported by a local body of believers, led by a sense of calling from God, like Paul and Barnabas in Acts ch 13. It is clear from the Book of Acts, that Paul had an ongoing relationship with his “sending church” in Antioch, returning there after each of his missionary journeys. It seems there there was an accountability, and probably some degree of financial support from the church there which had sent Paul out. 

Here’s how I sort it out: All Christians are called by be “on mission” with God, in his mission field, which is the entire world. In fact, to be on mission is an essential and inherent part of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore, it should be normal for all Christians to do the work of a missionary wherever they live, whether it is their home or not. This is the NORMAL Christian life.

And yet, I feel that we should preserve the significance of the word “missionary” for those who are sent out on a mission by a local body of believers to another place, following the leading of God. There is a way in which to use the word missionary to loosely diminishes the sacrifices and the unique challenges faced by those who leave home and country and follow God’s leading to go to another place, having had a local body of believers confirm this by sending them out. Similarly, there is a way in which the concept of the priesthood of all believers can be taken to a degree which detracts from the significance of a calling to be a pastoral overseer. While we are all called to minister and we are all called to be on mission, these titles point to particular roles.

There is an interesting place in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where Paul tells Timothy: “Do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Timothy 4:5)  Paul, in Ephesians 4, mentions the “office” or official role in the church of “evangelist” – in other words, it seems that there were some people in the church who had this title. However, it would seem that even though this was not Timothy’s official title or role, Paul was encouraging him to do the work of an evangelist nonetheless. 

I believe the same applies in regard to the discussion of the term “missionary” or “pastor”. If you are a Christian, you may not be an officially sanctioned “missionary” – but you are called to do the work of a missionary nevertheless! You may not be a pastor, but you are still called to do the work of a pastor in your interactions with other people.

The Etymology of God

I enjoy linguistics; I consider it a hobby. I speak only 2 languages fluently, and several others to varying degrees. Whereas some people find language learning tedious, I find it invigorating.

One of the areas of linguistics I enjoy most is etymology: the study of the origin of words.

Etymology gives you a window into the thinking of a culture or a people group.

For example: I have been teaching a church history class at White Fields, and last week we were talking about how Constantine, before his conversion to Christianity, had monotheistic leanings and had declared “the venerable day of the Sun” (Sunday) to be a free day, on which no one was to work. Until that time, Sunday had been a work day, and Christians gathered for worship and the taking of the sacrament (communion) before work and then again after work, in the evening. More on that here.

Someone in the class said: Oh, so that’s why it’s called SUNday?  Yes, and in English that’s why it’s called Monday (Moon) and Saturday (Saturn).

In fact, it is interesting to consider the etymology of the names of the week in other languages. In Russian, Sunday is called: Воскресенье, which is a close derivative of the word воскрешение, which means “Resurrection”.

In Hungarian, it’s not quite as cool: Sunday is “Vasárnap” – which no doubt derives from “vásár-nap”: “Market Day”… Definitely not as cool (or as Christian) as “Resurrection”. While Romans were all about honoring the Sun, Hungarians were all about shopping…

But if etymology gives insight into the way a culture thinks, then what can we learn from the etymology of “God”?

The English word God, does not derive from the word “good”, as one might think, but comes from the Germanic Gott, which derives from the Gothic Gheu, which is thought to derive from the Sanskrit: Hu – meaning: “the one who is invoked” or “the one who is sacrificed to.”  It refers to the supreme being.

The Latin Deus, along with the related Greek Theos comes from the Indo-Iranian Deva/Sanskrit Dyaus, which are related to the terms for “to give light”, “to implore”. It is from these roots that the Spanish Dios comes.

In Hungarian, the word for God is Isten.  I’ve been told that this modern form derives from:  Ős-tény – literally: “The ancient truth (or: ancient fact)”

One of the very interesting things to read about is how different missionaries tried to find a given culture’s word for God, sometimes with great success and sometimes without. For example, in Korea, Catholic missionaries believed that the Koreans had no good word for God – as in, the Supreme Being of the universe – so they used the Chinese word for God, a word which was foreign to the Koreans, and which caused the Koreans to think of Christianity as a foreign religion. It was only when Protestant Presbyterian missionaries came to Korea, that they got to know the Korean culture and language well enough to realize that they did in fact have a word (and therein a concept) for the God of the Bible: the creator and sustainer of all things, the righteous judge of all the Earth – 하나님 (Hananim).

It is as Paul the Apostle said: God has not left himself without witness in any culture, or amongst any group of people. (Acts 14:17)  Etymology gives us a window into this truth.

 

Why Studying Church History is Important

christian-history1

Something we’ve started recently at White Fields is a series of classes we’re calling: School of Ministry and Discipleship.

The idea is that have started offering a series of 5-week Christian education classes on various topics in a classroom setting. I like to think of it as Bible college for people who don’t have time to go to Bible college.

We ran a test of this last spring, learned a few things, and are ready to start again with our first 3 classes: Christianity 101 and Church History: Parts 1 & 2.

Interestingly, the Gospel Coalition just put out an article this week titled: The Role of History in Reclaiming the Christian Mind.

Here’s an excerpt:

“One of the besetting sins of evangelicalism is a mostly ahistorical approach to theology and praxis. As evangelicals, we appeal to the supreme authority of Scripture, and rightly so. But we don’t read our Bibles in a vacuum.”

Understanding God’s working in and through the church over the past 2000 years, as well as how Christianity developed in doctrine and practice is important for us as Christians today. For me, studying Christian History was one of the most enriching and enlightening parts of going to seminary, and I hope to share some of that with other people.

If you live near Longmont and would be interested in attending these free classes, they will be held on Sundays at noon starting April 3.

For more information or to sign up, click HERE.