The Offense of the Cross: Cicero, the Early Christians, and Us

Boulder County & the Flatirons

The symbol of the cross is universally recognized today as the symbol of Christianity; for many in the Western world it is familiar and welcome. However, in the ancient world, in the first century AD, when this symbol was first used by early Christians, it was downright scandalous.

Paul the Apostle refers to the message of the cross as foolishness to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews, and an offense to all. (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, Galatians 5:11)

The reason is because, for people in the ancient world, the cross was a terrible instrument of torture and execution. 

The thing that made crucifixion so terrible is that it didn’t kill you right away; it was designed to make a person suffer as much as possible, for as long as possible. And for this reason, crucifixion was reserved for only the very worst kinds of criminals.

Because of how terrible crucifixion was, the Romans did not allow their own citizens to be killed by crucifixion, no matter how dastardly their crimes; only slaves and those without rights were allowed to be crucified, since it was exceedingly inhumane. 

Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher said that crucifixion was so horrible, that the word “cross” should never be mentioned in polite society.

Let the very word ‘cross,’ be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens, but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears.

Cicero, 106-43BC, Pro Rabirio Postump 16

For the Jewish people in particular — to be crucified on a cross was considered a fate worse than death, because according to the Jewish Scriptures, anyone who was killed by being hanged upon a tree was considered “accursed”. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

And so, just imagine if you told someone back then that you were a follower of Jesus — a man who had been crucified… That person would have thought: “Whoa… Even if he was innocent, that’s probably something you should keep to yourself! That’s not something you want to go around advertising, because: that’s humiliating!”

But: here’s what’s interesting: for the early Christians, the fact that Jesus had been killed upon a cross was not something they tried to hide. Instead, the symbol of the cross became the main symbol they used to identify themselves – which is surprising, because the cross was generally consider to be the ultimate symbol of humiliation and defeat.

Furthermore, the message that the early Christians embraced and wanted to share with the world was what they called, “the message of the cross,” and “the good news of Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul the Apostle knew that the message of the cross was difficult for many people to accept. For the Jews, the idea of a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block. For Greeks, the idea that you could be saved through the death of an executed Jew seemed ridiculous. The idea that God would come to Earth and allow himself to be beaten, mocked, rejected and crucified, seemed completely unreasonable. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it. The Greek gods made humans serve them; they didn’t serve people – and they would never sacrifice themselves to save guilty people. 

Just as the message of the cross ran contrary to popular thinking back then, the message of the cross also runs contrary to popular thinking today.

The message of the Cross requires you to admit that you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that you are powerless to save yourself. This is why Paul talks about “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11)

The message of the cross offends our sensibilities and our pride by telling us that we are sinners who need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves. In order to receive this salvation, you have to humble yourself before God.

Another part of the offense of the Cross is that the message of the gospel is exceedingly simple. Many people in Corinth seemed to believe that in order to “find God,” you had to be really smart, or exceedingly “good.” And yet, God chose to bring salvation to the world in a way that was so simple that even  even a child could understand it, and in a way that it was available to people who had lived immoral lives. 

Another part of the “offense of the cross” is that God says that His reason for saving you was not because you are better than other people. Salvation is simply an act of God’s grace: completely undeserved and totally unearned. You can’t take credit for it. The message of the cross leaves no room for pride or arrogance.

And when you really embrace the message of the cross, on the one hand it forces you to be incredibly humble, but on the other hand it fills you with an incredible sense of confidence – because the message of the Cross is that God loves you, and He has acted to redeem you, and if you have put your faith in what Jesus did for you, then God has sealed you and made you His own: He has adopted you as His Child, and placed His Spirit inside of you — and therefore you can be incredibly confident, knowing that you have nothing to fear in life or in death because God has promised that He will cause all things to work together for your ultimate good and for His ultimate glory.

For more on the message of the cross, see this sermon titled, “The Message of the Cross & the Power of God”

The Spirit-Filled Life: New Series Starting This Sunday on Pentecost

This past Sunday we concluded our Eastertide (the 50 days following Easter) series called The Risen Life, in which we studied the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus from the perspective of what His risen life shows us about what it means for us to live as people who have died with Christ and been risen to new life.

You can watch and listen to that series here.

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, and we are taking this opportunity to kick off a 5-week series, looking at the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

Schedule

  1. May 23, 2021 (Pentecost): The Promised Helper
    1. The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  2. May 30, 2021: The Work of the Spirit in the Life of a Believer
    1. The Spirit of adoption
    2. The indwelling and empowering of the Spirit
    3. Grieving and blasphemy of the Spirit
  3. June 6, 2021: Walking In the Spirit
    1. The leading of the Spirit
    2. Walking in the Spirit vs. walking in the flesh
  4. June 13, 2021: The Fruit of the Spirit
  5. June 20, 2021 (Fathers Day): The Gifts of the Spirit

In-Person and Online

You can join us for this series either in person at our physical location in Longmont, Colorado: 2950 Colorful Ave. Longmont, CO 80504 – at 8:00, 9:30, & 11:00 AM on Sunday mornings, or online at 9:30 & 11:00 AM on our website, YouTube channel, and Facebook page. You can also keep up with us by subscribing to our podcast.

I hope these messages will be a blessing to you!

Satan’s Authority & “Divine Child Abuse”

In the Bible, Satan is referred to as “the ruler of this world,” (John 12:31, 14:30) and even “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). 1 John 5:19 says that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.

How then can Jesus say that “all authority in Heaven and on Earth” has been given to him (Matthew 28:18)?

In this week’s Sermon Extra, Pastor Mike and I discuss the authority of Satan, and what the Bible has to say about it: Did Adam and Eve hand over “regency” of the Earth to Satan in the Garden of Eden? And how does this relate to the scroll that only Jesus can open in Revelation 5?

Furthermore, we discuss the claim of Richard Dawkins and others, who say that Jesus’ death on the cross was “divine child abuse,” since the innocent Son of God was sacrificed by the Father – and how the deity of Christ changes everything when it comes to understanding the meaning of the cross.

Check out the video of that Sermon Extra here:

Recommended Further Resources:

What Does It Mean That “Whatever Does Not Proceed From Faith Is Sin”?

This question was recently submitted via the page on this site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic:

Hi, a question coming from your recent sermon on May 2 about belief and doubt. You were talking about how doubt is held in a sort of middle ground, not to be vilified or esteemed too highly. Today I came across these verses in Romans regarding eating by conscience:

The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22‭-‬23 ESV)

That last sentence feels very strong in that ANYTHING not from faith is sin. How does this relate to the topic on Sunday?

Additionally, where do we draw a line to keep from absurd conclusions about this? When I go on a bike ride for health, I’m not doing it in faith – I just want to keep fit. What about choosing the right date for traveling on vacation? This verse could easily cause a person to stop making decisions due to fear of sin.

The sermon mentioned in this question is from the series The Risen Life, in which we looked at the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels for the season of Eastertide. The sermon was from John 20:19-30 and was called “From Doubt to Belief.”

In John 20:24-29, in the story of "doubting Thomas," we see that moving from doubt to belief involves hearing testimony, seeing the evidence, and responding in faith. — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/whitefieldschurch/support

Doubt and Faith in Romans 14:23

In Romans 14:23, Paul is talking about “gray areas” or “disputable matters” in the Christian life. At that time, some people said that it was acceptable for Christians to eat meat which had been sacrificed to idols, whereas others said that it was not acceptable. Each side had their reasons.

Similar discussions exist today: Is it acceptable for Christians to drink alcohol? To participate in Halloween festivities? To do yoga or martial arts?

In some of these cases, it may be that something may not be categorically wrong, but it may be wrong for a particular person because of their particular propensities. Furthermore, that person may have a strong conviction that they ought not to do something, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be a sin for anyone to do that thing.

Paul is saying that if you have a sincere conviction before God that you should not do something, then you should act on that conviction in faith, and do so as unto the Lord. This, Paul says, honors God. However, if you do something in contradiction to your conviction that you should not do it; i.e. if you have doubts about whether that thing is acceptable or permissible for you to do – then for you to do it anyway would be sin.

Thus, the way doubt and faith is used here is different than in the sense in which we talked about doubt and faith in the above mentioned sermon, where our focus was rather on doubting versus believing in God’s existence, God’s goodness, the validity of God’s Word, or the reliability of God’s promises.

Is Everything that Does Not Proceed from Faith Really Sin?

I believe the answer is: Yes. Let me explain, and I’ll explain how this applies to situations such riding your bike and choosing dates for vacation:

In Hebrews 11:6 we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In Romans 4:20, faith is correlated with giving glory to God. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we are told, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

The point therefore, is that acting in faith is all about giving glory to God in our actions. If you doubt whether a particular action brings glory to God, then for you to do it anyway would be a sin. It is in this way that anything that does not proceed from faith is sin.

The Question We Often Ask, & the Question We Ought to Ask

I find that too often, we tend to ask the question: “Is it permissible to _________” or “Am I allowed to _________.” What this passage (and others) teach us is that the question we ought to be asking instead is: “Will this action glorify God?” or “Will God be honored, pleased, and glorified through this action?”

If you can do that action in faith so that your motive is to glorify God, then good. If you have doubts about that, then to do it anyway would be sin – at least for you.

This is why Augustine argues that for those who act apart from faith in God, even their virtues can be sinful: because if you do something good – apart from faith in God – your motive in doing so is not to glorify God, but must be either to glorify yourself, or to justify yourself. Thus, even virtuous actions, apart from faith in God, can be sinful. Tim Keller often speaks, quoting the Puritans, of how it is important therefore that we repent not only of our evil actions, but of our good actions done for self-justifying or self-glorifying motives.

May we be those who endeavor to do everything for the glory of God!

The Heavenly Audience: What Changed in Heaven When Jesus Died and Resurrected?

Recently this question was submitted via the page on this site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic:

Based on your knowledge of activity in Heaven what was going on in Heaven prior to the crucifixion and how did it change, if at all after Jesus resurrection? For example, was there joy in the presence of angels over sinners repenting before Jesus died and rose??

Interesting question! Here are my thoughts:

The Sons of God Shouted for Joy

In the Book of Job, when God speaks, God challenges Job by saying this:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Job 38:4-7

The “sons of God” mentioned here is a reference to the angels. What this is telling us is that at the creation, the angels were “the audience” who watched and cheered as God created the universe.

The Heavenly Audience

This theme of the angels being an audience, watching the things which happen on Earth, is carried through the Bible.

At the beginning of the Book of Job, we read about Satan asking for permission from God to afflict someone. The picture we get from that scene is that those in Heaven are aware and attentive to the happenings of people on Earth.

Not only are those in Heaven aware and attentive to what is happening on Earth, they seem to be emotionally invested in what is happening on Earth. For example, in Revelation 5, we read that when no one was found who could open the seal, there was weeping in Heaven until it was revealed that the Lamb was worthy to do so.

The whole picture of Revelation is that John the Apostle gets a preview of Heaven. Starting in chapter 4, John is caught up to Heaven, and what he describes is how, from that vantage point, he joins the angels in watching the happenings down below on Earth. The picture, therefore, is of Heaven being aware of and attentive to, as well as emotionally invested in, the happenings here on Earth.

The Stadium and Those in the Stands

In Hebrews 12:1 we read:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

Hebrews 12:1

The picture the writer is painting here is that of a stadium, and Greco-Roman competitions, such as the Olympics. He describes life as being a race, a theme which Paul also discusses, using similar language drawing from Greco-Roman athletic competitions.

But here the writer highlights a particularly interesting aspect of those competitions: as we run this race, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. The “witnesses” are those who were mentioned in the previous chapter, Hebrews 11, where we are told about those who preceded us in the faith – the “Old Testament saints,” as they have been called.

The image the writer is invoking is that of a stadium, in which the stands all around us are full of those who have preceded us in the faith, and who are now “cheering us on” as we run the race that is set before us.

The Angels and the Saints

What we are left with, therefore, are two groups: the angels and the saints. Both groups are apparently aware and attentive to what is happening on Earth, and are rooting for us and eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises.

What Changed in Heaven When Jesus Died and Resurrected?

The word angel literally means “messenger” in Greek, and this aligns with what the Bible tells us about angels; that they are “ministering spirits.” It would seem that the angels have been and still are aware, attentive to, and emotionally engaged in what is happening on Earth.

Thus, to answer your question, I do think there was joy in the presence of the angels over sinners repenting – prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The one thing which changed when Jesus died and resurrected, is that those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemption of their souls were released from Sheol and taken to be in God’s presence.

I have written a detailed explanation of this here: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?

So, what changed is that from that point, not only the angels, but those who had died in faith were brought into Heaven.

Thanks for the great question, and God bless you!

Why Did Jesus Say that “No One Has Ascended Into Heaven?” Did He Forget About Elijah?

Recently this question was submitted by a reader (click here to submit a question or suggest a topic):

I was reading in John, and during Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus makes a statement that gave me pause, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13)

Immediately I thought, “Wait, what about Elijah, or potentially Enoch?” They may not have descended in the same way as Jesus, or had a special nature as he did, but they ascended physically and yet seem to be ignored in this exclusive statement.

Great observation! Here are some important things to consider, which can bring clarity to this statement from Jesus:

Which Heaven is Jesus Referring To?

In ancient thinking, the word “heaven” was used in three ways (and it often used in these same three ways in our modern vernacular as well).

  1. The “first” heaven = the sky, or the atmosphere, i.e. the place where birds and planes fly.
  2. The “second” heaven = outer space, or the stratosphere: the place beyond Earth’s atmosphere, where stars and other planets are located.
  3. The “third” heaven = the abstract use of the word, which designates not a geographical location, but the spiritual plane in which God and other invisible spirits dwell.

Paul the Apostle speaks of being caught up to the third heaven, in what was either a vision or perhaps even a near-death experience, in 2 Corinthians 12:2. Paul also speaks of the “heavenly places” in Ephesians as the place where Jesus is seated with the Father.

And yet, we know can surmise from different passages in the Bible, such as Luke 16 and others, that those who died in faith prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus did not go to “heaven” in the sense of the immediate presence of God, rather they went to Sheol, the dwelling place of the dead, where they awaited either the completion of their redemption or the final judgment of God.

For a detailed explanation of this, see: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

In this case, it would seem that when 2 Kings 2:11 says “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” it means that his body was caught up into the sky, not that his soul was taken to the immediate presence of God.

This would make sense in light of the rest of the text in 2 Kings, in which the “sons of the prophets” who witnessed this take place insist that they go and recover the body of Elijah that was picked up in this whirlwind. With Elijah and Enoch, though their souls were taken from this Earth, they would have gone to “Abraham’s bosom” (the part of Sheol reserved for those who died in faith – see article linked above).

Jesus’ point in John 3:13 is that Nicodemus should listen to what he has to say about Heaven since no human person has ever gone to heaven, yet he (Jesus) is the only person who has come from Heaven to Earth, and is therefore uniquely qualified to give accurate insight and explanation into Heavenly realities.

“Ascended” versus “Taken Up”

Another possible explanation is that when Jesus says that he is the first who will “ascend” into Heaven, he is correct in the sense that he will ascend by his own power and volition, whereas Enoch and Elijah were “taken up” by God, not by their own power or will.

Hopefully these explanations helped. If you see anything I missed, please leave a comment – and keep on studying God’s Word and asking questions as you go!

What Has Happened to Me Has Really Served to Advance the Gospel

I saw a Christmas ornament advertised online today: a dumpster fire with 2020 written on it. 2020 has been a year filled with difficulty, frustration, tension, and sorrow, to the point where people are apt to say that they are “over it.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul said something incredible, especially when you consider the circumstances in which he wrote it:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel

Philippians 1:12

This statement is particularly surprising when you consider what things Paul is referring to here that had happened to him:

What Had Happened to Paul?

When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he was being held as a prisoner in Rome.

Prior to his arrest, Paul had spent years traveling around the Roman Empire as missionary: preaching the gospel and starting churches, and training others to do the same. But then, some people who wanted to hinder Paul’s work and hinder the spread of the gospel, started spreading fake news that Paul was an anti-government revolutionary. As a result, Paul was arrested.

While under arrest, Paul was no longer able to travel the world to advance the gospel. Because of corruption in the judicial system, Paul was left in prison for several years, until he appealed his case to the Roman supreme court, which is how he came to be in Rome at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Paul was under house arrest, awaiting trial, and chained to Roman soldiers 24 hours a day.

With those details in mind, consider again what Paul wrote to the Philippians:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel

Philippians 1:12

The things which had happened to Paul were:

  • The loss of his freedom
  • False accusations
  • Suffering at the hands of corrupt officials.

It would be easy to look at those circumstances and conclude that these things which had happened to Paul were preventing him from advancing the gospel, but Paul says, “No. Everything that has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”

Being under house arrest had obvious limitations, but it also afforded Paul some unique opportunities.

One of those opportunities was: down time, and Paul used that time to pen four letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which are now part of our New Testament canon, and for the past two millennia have been used by God to bring encouragement and instruction to those who read them.

Another unique opportunity this situation gave him, was that Paul was chained to members of Caesar Nero’s Imperial Guard for 24 hours a day, the soldiers being changed out on shifts. Rather than seeing himself as restrained, however, Paul viewed this as an evangelist’s dream! It wasn’t that he was chained to soldiers, Paul thought, but those soldiers were chained to him! For hours at a time, he had a soldier’s undivided attention, and when their time was up, a new soldier would be brought in and chained to him. Paul viewed himself as a missionary to those people in that place. I imagine Paul’s biggest struggle must have been finding time to sleep because he was so excited to make new friends and tell them about Jesus.

Some of these guards, Paul tells us, were becoming Christians. If Paul had not been in custody, but had rather knocked on the door of Caesar’s Palace and said, “Hi, I’m Paul, I’d like to talk to you about your sins and convert you to Christianity,” they would have slammed the door in his face, but because of what happened to him: the injustice, the slander, and the corruption, Paul now had unique opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel which he could not have had otherwise.

Paul was able to see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity, and he wanted his readers to develop that mindset as well.

Paul’s Mindset In Our Situation

The events of this past year have been difficult and uncomfortable for all of us, from the pandemic, to the racial and political tensions, the economic hardships, the isolation, and the online fatigue. But how would the Apostle Paul have looked at this situation, and how would he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have encouraged us to view these circumstances? Would it not be to view them through the eyes of faith, knowing that all of these difficulties have presented us with unique opportunities for the furtherance of the gospel, and that “what has happened has really served the furtherance of the gospel”?

God has placed us who are believers here for such a time as this. May we be faithful to steward this great gospel message in a world that needs it, and may we see the opportunities in the midst of the calamity for the furtherance of the gospel.

Reader Questions: With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle, Bible Commentary Recommendations, & the Trinity in Heaven

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

The following questions were recently submitted:

With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle?

In Genesis 31:22-32, who did Jacob wrestle with: the Angel of the Lord? Archangel Phanuel? Or ???

In Genesis 31, we read that Jacob was about to meet with his brother Esau and he was greatly afraid, assuming that Esau wanted to kill him. The night before their meeting, Jacob ventures off alone into the wilderness, and there encounters a man with whom he ends up wrestling until daybreak. The man touches Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, but Jacob refuses to release his grasp on the man unless the man agrees to bless him.

The man consents to blessing Jacob, and changes his name from Jacob (conniving) to Israel (wrestles with God).

Jacob then calls this place Peniel, which means ‘the face of God,’ and says: ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been spared.’

So, let’s take stock: Jacob wrestled with a man, but then he claimed that the man he wrestled with was God, and that he had seen God face to face, yet he had not died.

Who did Jacob wrestle with? He wrestled with a man, who is also God… There is only one such man: the Divine Son, the second person of the Trinity: Jesus.

This story in Genesis 31 is one of many Christophanies in the Old Testament: appearances of Jesus before he was born as a baby in Bethlehem.

The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that Jesus has existed since eternity past, that he is God, and that he is distinct from the Father, who is also God. We are told that no one has ever seen God the Father, but the Divine Son has made him known. We are told in Colossians that Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God.’

In other words: when we see God in human form, we are seeing an appearance of God the Son, i.e. Jesus before he came as a baby in Bethlehem.

As for the ‘Archangel Phanuel’: Phanuel is a form of transliteration of Peniel, which means ‘the face of God.’ The ‘Archangel Peniel’ is only mentioned in an apocryphal book called the Book of Enoch, which has never been considered Holy Scripture, neither by the Jews nor the Christians. We have no substantial reason to believe in the existence of any archangel by that name, as the inspired authority of the Book of Enoch is dubious and suspect. The reason Jacob called the place Peniel is because he understood that he had come face to face with God.

Bible Commentary Recommendations

Which Bible commentary is the closest to the word of God: Life Application Bible Commentary or the Bible Knowledge Commentary. Would you have a recommendation?

I’m not very familiar with the Life Application Bible Commentary, but I do know the Bible Knowledge Commentary, and I think it is quite good. My top recommendation for a commentary series would be the New International Commentary of the Old and New Testaments. The Word Biblical Commentary is also quite good.

Will We See the Trinity in Heaven?

When we get to haven will we see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, with Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. Please explain.

I believe the answer to this question is: Yes, we will see the three persons of the Godhead as separate persons. For example, in Revelation, John sees Jesus as separate from the Father several times. What is not clear is if we will ‘see’ the Holy Spirit, since I can’t think of any instance in the Bible when the Holy Spirit is seen.

The best, most concise summary of what Christians believe about the Trinity, the triune God revealed to us in the Bible, is found in the Athanasian Creed:

This is the [universal Christian] faith:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

What quality the Father has, the Son has, and the Holy Spirit has.
The Father is uncreated,
the Son is uncreated,
the Holy Spirit is uncreated.

The Father is immeasurable,
the Son is immeasurable,
the Holy Spirit is immeasurable.

The Father is eternal,
the Son is eternal,
the Holy Spirit is eternal.

And yet there are not three eternal beings;
there is but one eternal being.
So too there are not three uncreated or immeasurable beings;
there is but one uncreated and immeasurable being.

Similarly, the Father is almighty,
the Son is almighty,
the Holy Spirit is almighty.
Yet there are not three almighty beings;
there is but one almighty being.

Thus the Father is God,
the Son is God,
the Holy Spirit is God.
Yet there are not three gods;
there is but one God.

Thus the Father is Lord,
the Son is Lord,
the Holy Spirit is Lord.
Yet there are not three lords;
there is but one Lord.

Athanasian Creed

The creed goes on and it worth reading, but the point is that the three persons of the Godhead are not only functionally distinct, but are ontologically distinct. This means that just as they have been distinct from eternity past, they will be distinct from eternity future, although they are persons of the one God.

Thank you for the questions! 

For any further questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Why It Matters What You Desire, Not Just What You Believe

A friend mine recently walked away from his family and the church he was leading. This friend had graduated from Bible College and had dedicated his life to serving the Lord. Thankfully, his story isn’t over yet.

Here’s the thing about my friend though: as he has made these choices, and as he walking this path which is destructive both to his family and his own soul, he has not ceased believing that the core truths of Christianity are true.

In other words: it is possible to believe the right things, and yet not do the right things.

In 1 Kings 18, we see an example of this with both King Ahab and the people of Israel. They knew what God wanted them to do, yet they didn’t do it. Why not? There were several reasons, including fear and pride, but underlying these things is a question about what you truly love and desire.

You can watch or listen here to my message on 1 Kings 18:1-21: “The Cure for Your Limp”.

I have enjoyed the insights of James K.A. Smith over the past few years, particularly his books Desiring the Kingdom and You are What You Love. Smith is particularly influenced by Augustine of Hippo, the church father who wrote Confessions, City of God, and On Christian Doctrine to name a few of his works.

Augustine argued that the things which defines a person more than anything else, is not merely what they believe to be true (as important as this certainly is), but what they love and desire. Sin, he explained, can be understood as “disordered love,” and the way to change a person, therefore, is to change what they love.

The good news, is that you can cultivate love and desire for things through the practice of forming habits and doing actions. This is the role of spiritual disciplines in our lives. See: The Role of Habits in Transformation.

In this video, Mike and I discuss this and other ideas related to the importance of desires, not just beliefs, in our spiritual life and walk with God:

In this video we discuss the role of how our desires, not only our beliefs, direct our actions and our lives.

Reader Questions: Was Jesus’ Promise in John 1:51 Ever Fulfilled?

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question recently came in:

In John 1:51, Jesus told Nathanael that he would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Was this ever fulfilled? If so, when?

That’s a good question, and there’s a great answer!

The passage you’re referring to is in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where we read about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus called Philip, and then Philip went and told his friend Nathanael that “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael was skeptical that the Messiah could be from Nazareth, to which Philip invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus to see for himself.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he greeted him in a way that implied that Jesus already knew him. When Nathanael asked how Jesus already knew him, Jesus replied: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Some scholars say that it was traditional for Jewish people to sit under a fig tree to read the Scriptures, but whatever happened with Nathanael under the fig tree must have been something so personal, and so private that Nathaniel was sure no one could have possibly seen or heard him. The fact that Jesus knew about it was enough to convince Nathaniel right there on the spot that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he immediately responded by saying: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This brings us to the text in question.

Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

John 1:50-51

If you look for a story in the gospels in which this happened, you won’t find one. The closest events you will find to this are:

  • Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke from Heaven declaring that Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased.
  • Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glorified state, and he appeared with Moses and Elijah, accompanied by a voice from Heaven which told Peter: “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
  • Jesus’ ascension, when he was caught up to Heaven.

However, while these examples include the heavens being opened, none of them include angels, much less Nathanael or anyone else seeing the angels ascending and descending on Jesus.

So, does that mean that Jesus’ promise to Nathanael was not fulfilled?

No. Rather, to expect this to be the promise of a literal vision of angels is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying, which is actually more significant than promising a vision of angels.

Jacob’s Ladder

When Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus is making reference to a story from the Old Testament.

In Genesis 28, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was on the run from his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him. One night while Jacob was sleeping in a field, with a rock for a pillow, God appeared to him in a vision as he slept.

In this vision, Jacob saw the heavens opened up and a ladder, or a bridge, spanning the gap between Heaven and Earth, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

You might remember that the people of Babel, in Genesis 11, had tried to “build a tower with its top reaching to the heavens” in order to make a name for themselves and to protect themselves. They had sought to span the gap between Heaven and Earth through their own strength, endeavors, and intellect – and they failed.

What Jacob saw in his vision, was that God alone can span the gap between Heaven and Earth. Whereas we are incapable of reaching Heaven by our own works, God has come down to us from Heaven, in order to lift us up into relationship with Him and eternal life.

If Jacob was in fact reading the Scriptures under the fig tree, could it be that this is the exact passage that Nathanael had been reading, and Jesus was interpreting it for him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a Person

What Jesus was saying to Nathanael in John 1:51 is that HE is Jacob’s ladder! He is the bridge that spans the gap between Heaven and Earth that God pictured to Jacob in that vision! It is in Him that God has come from Heaven to Earth in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to lift us up into relationship with Him and give us eternal life.

Jesus is saying that He has come not just to point the way to Heaven, but to be the way to Heaven.

Now, you might be tempted to think: If it’s a ladder, that means I must need to climb as high as I can, and if I’m strong enough, and if I’ve got enough stamina to make it all the way, then I can reach God. But that’s not the idea behind this ladder. Listen to what Paul the Apostle has to say in Romans ch 10:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Romans 10:6-9

In other words: the message of the Gospel is not that you have to climb your way up to God, but that God has come down to you! This ladder is not the ladder by which we ascend to God – but rather the ladder by which God has come down to us, to lift us up to Himself.

Jesus is telling Nathanael, and us, in John 1:51 that Jacob’s ladder is a person, and that person is Him! What good news!

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