How Should We Understand the Song of Solomon?

photo of couple facing each other during golden hour

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

I have big trouble with The Song of Solomon. It’s often used for looking at marital intimacy, but I’m always thinking: ‘Which wife is Solomon talking about?’ He had so many. And it seems as if having all these wives was just a way of committing adultery (legally). So then I don’t understand why people use these verses to look at the loveliness of marriage?

I referred to the Song of Solomon this past Sunday in my sermon titled: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Affirm Some People’s Sexuality”, which was the final installment in our series called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…”.

The Song of Solomon is important theologically because it extols marital intimacy, showing romantic love as being for the purpose of enjoyment and the binding of spouses together, not only for the purpose of procreation. This stands in contrast to many ancient (and modern) views on sexuality which extol asceticism (the denial of pleasure) and eschew physical pleasure.

What We Know

According to the first verse of Song of Solomon, this is a song written by Solomon. This would make it one of the 1005 songs that Solomon wrote (1 Kings 4:32), but the title “Song of Songs” (S.o.S. 1:1) is a superlative, meaning that this is the best of all his songs.

Based on 1 Kings 4:32, it is assumed this song was written early in Solomon’s reign.

It is a lyrical poem, and the main character is a “Shulamite woman”. Shulamite simply means “from Jerusalem” – so this woman is from Jerusalem. This is important, because the first marriage of Solomon’s that we’re told about in 1 Kings 3:1 is his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he brought to his palace in Jerusalem.

So the big question is this: Who is the Shulamite woman? Several suggestions have been made, as I will outline in the next section.

Four Possible Interpretations

It has been said that “perhaps no book in the biblical canon has had a greater diversity of interpretative strategies.”[1] Here are the four most popular:

1. Allegorical Interpretation

This view sees the sensuous descriptions of love as a picture of the love between God and his people, and then between Christ and his bride (either the church or the individual soul). This view was very common in the Middle Ages. Its weakness is that it runs the risk of diminishing the book’s endorsement of marital intimacy. Virtually all scholarly interpreters today see the book primarily as a celebration of love and the gift of sexual intimacy, many would say that it also sheds light on the intensity of the spiritual love-relationship between God and his people (see Eph. 5:22–33).

2. Anthology Interpretation

This interpretation views the Song of Solomon as a collection of poems or lyrics, arranged around the common theme of intimate love between a man and a woman—celebrating love’s longing, ecstasy, joy, beauty, and exclusivity. This understanding rejects the idea that the book contains a narrative plot.

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis

This is an interesting hypothesis which became popular in the 1800’s. It says that the Shulamite woman and the shepherd boy are two peasants who are in love, and King Solomon is seeking to win the woman’s into his harem. The woman ultimately resists Solomon’s flattery and returns home to marry the shepherd.

Several evangelical interpreters advocate this interpretation, because it accounts for what we know about Solomon having many wives later in life, but its weakness is that it does not give us any way of knowing when the shepherd is speaking and when Solomon is speaking. In fact, the speech patterns of the main characters (e.g., the descriptive titles they use for each other) favor the idea that there are only two lovers. Also, it would mean that Solomon wrote this song, in which he portrayed himself as the bad guy, and praised the love of this couple. While that’s not impossible, it does seem unlikely.

The following outline shows how the Shepherd Hypothesis understands the structure of the book:

  1. Solomon Meets the Shulammite in His Palace (1:2–2:7)
  2. The Beloved Visits and the Shulammite Searches for Him in the Night (2:8–3:5)
  3. Solomon Displays His Wealth and Sings of His Love (3:6–5:1)
  4. The Shulammite Yearns for the Beloved (5:2–6:3)
  5. The King Fails in His Pursuit of the Shulammite (6:4–8:14)

4. The Solomon-Shulamite Interpretation

The most common interpretation today is that the Song of Solomon a story about King Solomon and the Shulammite woman. Here is the outline:

  1. The Lovers Yearn for Each Other (1:2–3:5)
  2. The Wedding (3:6–5:1)
  3. Temporary Separation and Reunion (5:2–6:3)
  4. Delight in Each Other (6:4–8:4)
  5. Final Affirmations of Love (8:5–14)

The only problem with this view, is that we don’t know who this Shulamite woman is. It is possible, that Solomon is singing this about the daughter of Pharaoh, whom he dubs a “Shulamite”, since he has brought her to Jerusalem. Another suggestion is that prior to his wedding with the daughter of Pharaoh in 1 Kings 3:1, Solomon was married to another woman from Jerusalem, which 1 Kings never tells us about, and this song is a poetic retelling of that relationship.

What About Solomon’s Many Wives?

According to 1 Kings, it was only later in life that Solomon abandoned the monogamous standard of Scripture and started accumulating many wives. So it is entirely possible that at the time he wrote this song, his romantic interests were not yet tainted, and what we read about in this book is indeed the portrayal of something pure and beautiful.

1 Kings 11 makes it clear that Solomon turned away from the Lord in his heart, and the Lord was not pleased with what Solomon did. Many times, especially in the Old Testament, the Bible “reports the news” and leaves it to us to determine if what they did was good or not, based on what we know about God’s character and standards. Clearly, what Solomon did with his many wives was sin, and not an example for us to follow.

For more on this topic, check out: Does the Bible Ever Actually Prohibit Sex Before Marriage? What about Polygamy?

Solomon is a classic example of someone who started well, but did not finish well. Whereas his early life is an inspiration, his later life is a warning.

It has been said, “The last mile is the least crowded.” May we be those who finish well in this life of faith!

 

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Sam Allberry on Sexual Ethics & Moral Intuition

I spent last week in Southern California for the Calvary Global Network (CGN) international conference. There was a great line up speakers, including Ray OrtlandJared C. Wilson, Mark Sayers, and Sam Allberry.

All the messages from the conference are available online here.

Sam’s message, “Gospel Confidence in a Sexually Shifting Culture” (video below) was particularly helpful.

Image result for sam allberrySam is a pastor from Maidenhead, England, who also works with Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM), Cedarville University, and writes for The Gospel Coalition.

He recently wrote a short and helpful book about Christian sexual ethics, in which he also talks about his own experience of same-sex attraction, titled “Is God anti-gay?”.

 

Key Points from Sam’s Message

In the West, we live in a place where people’s “moral intuitions” have shifted. People are not morally relative, nor are they amoral. Rather, their “intuition” of what defines morality has changed. People now base their determination of morality on these questions:

  1. Is it fair, or does it discriminate?
  2. Is it freeing, or is it oppressive?
  3. Is it harmful, or benign?

Anything seen as limiting freedom is seen as creating an existential conflict.

As a result, whereas biblical sexual ethics in the 1950’s-1980’s, for example, were considered prudish, they are now considered immoral.

What is needed is for us to learn to listen well, show people the goodness of God and provide a true and better narrative.

It’s worth listening to Sam’s entire message. Here is the video of it, as well as a follow-up interview he did afterward.

Reader Questions: People Claiming to Be Christ at the End of the Age

accuracy analogue clock countdown

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

“Dear Pastor Nick, I am an avid listener to Hope FM in Baltimore, MD, and love when you host the call in show. I have a question: How will we not be fooled by others that pretend they are the Christ in these days ahead. Maybe even trying to deceive us with signs or wonders. Thank you so much.”

The Text: The Olivet Discourse

The text you are referring to comes from what is called the “Olivet Discourse,” a teaching Jesus gave to his disciples on the Mount of Olives, a hill east of Jerusalem, during his “passion week,” the week Jesus spent in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion.

In Matthew 24, Mark 13, & Luke 21, Jesus warns his disciples that a time is coming when many will come claiming to be the Christ, but not to be deceived by them.

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. (Matthew 24:3-6)

The disciples ask two questions: (1) when will these things be, and (2) what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?

Jesus’ answer to these questions intertwines prophecy concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and his second coming. The nearer event (the destruction of Jerusalem) serves as a symbol and foreshadowing of the more distant event (the second coming).

Jesus warned his disciples from the outset that many people would be deceived as they awaited his return. There have been many times in history in which this has happened, in three main forms:

1. People claiming to be the Messiah

Tragically, those who rejected Jesus when He came to them as Messiah ended up falling after false messiahs who led them into nothing but death and destruction. For example, 100 years after Jesus, a man named Bar Kokhba was considered by many Jews to be the messiah. He led a revolution against the Romans and enjoyed early success, but was soon crushed.

2. People claiming that Jesus has returned, or that they are him

In the First Century, the Christians of Thessalonica had heard a rumor that Jesus had returned, and that they had missed it! Paul the Apostle wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, in part, to dispel this rumor, and assure them that Jesus had not yet returned, and that when he did, they would surely know it.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed that Jesus returned in 1914, invisibly, and began his reign over the Earth from within the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (official name of the Jehovah’s Witness organization). The problem with this, of course, is that the Bible says that when Jesus returns, it will be visible, and will usher in a time of peace, which clearly the world has yet to see.

There is currently a man in Russia who claims to be Jesus returned: Siberian ‘Jesus’ Vissarion, Former Traffic Cop, Leads Patriarchal Russian Cult That Believes In Aliens

3. People wrongly predicting the date of Jesus’ return

William Miller produced publications which convinced hundreds of thousands in the United States that Jesus would return in 1846. When Jesus did not return, there was great disappointment, with some falling away, and some cultic groups spawned from the prophetic fervor.

Here is a fascinating list of false predictions of the return of Jesus: Predictions and claims for the Second Coming of Christ. You’ll notice that one of them just passed: June 8, 2019!

Trying to predict the date of Jesus’ return is a fool’s errand, since Jesus not only told us not to worry about it (Acts 1:7), and that no one knows the date or the hour, and that  it would happen at a time when we do not expect it. In other words, there is no secret code that anyone is going to crack and figure it out.

How will you recognize Jesus’ return?

When Jesus comes, it won’t be a secret coming. Everyone will know.

The Apostle John tells us in Revelation 1:7: Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him

John did not need a special vision to know that every eye will see Him. John heard Jesus this himself: So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:26-27)

So, how can you be sure not to be deceived? Ignore alleged predictions or claims of Jesus’ return. Jesus’ second coming will not happen without you knowing it.

Sources:

When Was the New Testament Recognized as Holy Scripture?

person reading the daily fake news newspaper sitting on gray couch

There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the Bible. Maybe it’s because people often settle for getting their information from dubious sources like social media or somebody they know who told them something.

This past Sunday, in our I Could Never Believe in a God Who… series, we looked at the Bible. The message was titled: I Could Never Believe in a God Who…Gave Us a Faulty Bible (click here to listen).

Some common misnomers about the New Testament:

  • Early Christians didn’t have the New Testament
  • The books of the New Testament were not considered anything special in their time,  and it was only later on that these books came to be thought of as holy scripture.
  • The New Testament only came into existence at the time of Constantine, 300 years after Jesus.
  • The New Testament has been changed and tampered with over time.

As common as these beliefs are, they are actually historically incorrect.

Did First Century Christians View the New Testament Books as Scripture?

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul wrote these words: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

What Scriptures are being referred to here?

Obviously it is referring to the Old Testament scriptures, but interestingly, this comes from the last letter Paul ever wrote, at the end of his life. By this time, almost all of the books in the New Testament had been written, and they were being distributed amongst the Christian churches, to be read and studied in their gatherings.

There are 27 books in the New Testament. By the time Paul wrote 2 Timothy, at least 23/27 books of the New Testament (including 2 Timothy) had been written and were in distribution amongst the early Christians, who considered these books Holy Scripture in the same way that the Old Testament was considered Holy Scripture.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — most scholars believe he’s not just talking about the Old Testament, he’s also talking about the New Testament!

In the New Testament, what you find is that the Apostles understood that God was using them in their time to bring about a New Testament of Holy Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures”
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul referred to his own message as “the word of God”
  • In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul takes a quotation from the Gospel of Luke – and he calls it “Scripture” (Luke 10:7)
  • In some of his letters, Paul instructs the recipients to distribute his letters and have them read in the churches. (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27)

Paul uses the term “all Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16, as opposed to the term he used for just the Old Testament in the prior verse: “sacred writings.” In other words, Paul uses a different, and broader term in Vs 16, because he is talking about more than just the Old Testament; he is including the recently written New Testament books, including the gospels and some apostolic letters.

Criteria for Canonization

When I was a kid, I used to love going to the grocery store, because in the checkout line they had tabloid magazines that were full of fake news.

“Aliens landed and took over Washington DC!” “Sasquatch sightings!” “Giant eagle carries off children!”   

We still have fake news today, but back then it was fun; now it’s just disturbing.

As you might imagine, there was a lot of fake news going around about Jesus in the years, decades and centuries following his ascension. So, the early church was forced into a position where they needed to create a “canon” of Scripture, in order to combat the fake news about Jesus, and solidify the accurate accounts of what really happened, and what was really inspired by God.

In the end, they canonized 27 books in the New Testament, using 3 major criteria:

  1. Apostolic authority – Was it written by an apostle or an eye-witness?
  2. Congruency – Was it consistent with what the rest of the Bible taught, and what the early Christians believed?
  3. Acceptance — Was it widely used and accepted in the Early Church?   

The now well-known Gospel of Thomas, which was discovered in Egypt in 1945 immediately fails on 2 of these 3 criteria: it is not congruent with the rest of the Bible, and it was not accepted by the Early Church.

On further examination, it also fails the test of apostolic authority, since – although it bears the name of an apostle, it contains anachronisms, which indicate it was written much later than the time when Thomas actually lived. The reason it bears his name is because, in an attempt to make this Gnostic writing seem credible, they falsely attributed it to an apostle.

The reason the Gospel of Thomas was not included in the canon was not because of fear or suppression from church authorities, but because it had no business being there, since it’s just fake news.

The New Testament is the Most Widely Attested Ancient Document in Existence

Did you know that we have no original copies of any of the books of the New Testament?

It’s true.

But did you also know that we have no original copies of nearly any other ancient work?

Consider this chart:

Ancient Documents Chart.jpg

We actually have fragments of the Gospel of John dating from only a few decades after they were written.

There is nothing that comes close to the New Testament when it comes to historical reliability.

Those 5686 manuscripts also match up, which means that when you read the Bible, you can be sure that what you are reading today is what was actually written.

It hasn’t been changed, it hasn’t been tampered with. It is an accurate account of Jesus’ life, and it has been considered holy Scripture and the very words of God since the earliest days of Christianity.

Isn’t the New Testament Full of Contradictions?

Check out this video in which Mike and I discuss that topic:

Here are some helpful links for you to look at as well:

Why is Rape Wrong?

rainforest during foggy day

Primates & Sexual Assault

Did you know that female primates are regularly sexually assaulted by male primates? Harassment, intimidation and forced copulation are regular practices of male primates towards female primates. [1]  Having studied the behavior of primates, scientists have concluded that “the sexual harassment of females is hard-wired into primates.” [2]

From a purely evolutionary perspective (if one holds that view), these practices can be seen to have evolutionary advantages, namely the propagation of the genes of the strongest and most aggressive males, rather than the weaker, more passive males.

The Limits of a Purely Scientific Worldview

In her book, Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin points out that whereas science can describe the way things are, and the reasons why people do things, it does not speak to the way things ought to be, e.g. ethics and morality.

Science can tell us how things are. It can explain why, for instance, a man might have the drive to commit a sexual assault as an effective means of propagating his genes. But it cannot tell us why he would be wrong to succumb to that drive.

We can conduct sociological calculations to see what behaviors turn out better for the group and decide that sexual assault yields a net negative in the overall happiness of the tribe. But to call rape wrong, we need a narrative about human identity that goes beyond what science or sociology can tell us.

She points out that if we as human beings are nothing more than what can be described by science, and our story is nothing more than the evolutionary story, then we have no grounds for insisting on human equality, protection of the weak, equal treatment of women, or any of the other ethical beliefs we hold dear. [3]

In other words, we need something more than science and sociology to answer the questions of who we are and why we are here. If these questions arise merely because of feelings which are ultimately just figments of our imagination, and there is in fact no greater meaning to our lives or purpose for our existence, then we cannot justifiably claim that anything, including rape, is really wrong – nor that our feelings, such as love, have any real meaning at all.

But as McLaughlin points out,

Christians ground human uniqueness on the biblical claim that we are made in the image of God. Just as God calls creation into being, so he calls humans to serve as his representatives on earth, in special relationship with their Creator and with each other, and charged with moral responsibility. To maintain their beliefs about goodness, fairness, justice, and so forth, a secular humanist too must hold that humans are moral beings, distinct from other primates.

Created in the Image of God

Currently at White Fields, we are in the midst of a series called, I Could Never Believe in a God Who… (click here for a link to our podcast)

The first message in this series was one about the question of whether Christianity encourages the suppression of women and minorities, in which we looked at the issue of what it means to be created in the image of God, and what this means for a biblical understanding of human personhood, equality, and gender roles. (Click here to listen to that message)

This coming Sunday we will we looking at why the Bible matters, and why “crowd-sourcing” our ethics – i.e. the idea popular today that we don’t need an outside source such as an ancient book to tell us how to live our lives – is a flawed theory, doomed to failure – as can be seen by looking at modern history.

So…Again: Why is Rape Wrong?

To answer the question in the title of this post, rape is wrong because it is an assault against a human being who is endowed with dignity by nature of being created in the image of God, and is also an affront to the God who created us in His image and gave us His moral code by which to live. The way to be happy and successful, both as individuals and as a society, is by submitting to this fundamental design of our creation.

The Gospel Comes With a House Key: Hospitality & the Gospel

person handing keys

Home as a Hospital & Incubator

As a member of the lesbian community in Syracuse, New York, Rosaria Butterfield learned what it meant to use her home as a hospital and an incubator, which reflected her values to others. Members of the lesbian community in Syracuse made sure that everyone in their community had keys to each others houses; they looked out for one another and cared for each other. They viewed their homes as oases in a harsh world, and yet they sought to win over their neighbors by being the best neighbors on the block.

These lessons—learned far outside the walls of the church—are instructive for Christians, she says.

It was through the hospitality of a Christian couple in her neighborhood, that Rosaria changed her mind about Christianity. At the time, she was a celebrated professor at Syracuse University. Raised in an atheist home, Rosaria had always assumed Christians to be hateful, judgmental people, who considered people like her enemies. In fact, her interest in spending time with Christians came as a result of her intent to write a book about how Christianity fuels toxic masculinity. As a result, she sought out a Christian couple in her neighborhood, but her interactions with them surprised her and challenged her preconceived notions about Christians, so much so that she began to consider what they had to say about Jesus and the Bible. Ultimately, she embraced the gospel and forsook her lesbian lifestyle. She is now married to a pastor and they have adopted several children. They seek to use their home as a hospital and an incubator for the goal of making disciples of Jesus.

Ground Zero of the Christian Life

In her book, The Gospel Comes with a House KeyRosaria Butterfield describes what she calls “radically ordinary hospitality”, which she argues is “ground zero of the Christian life.”

Rosaria makes a convincing argument for this, pointing to passages like Matthew 25:35–36, in which Jesus talks about hospitality as the litmus test for real faith on judgment day. She also points out Mark 10:28–31, in which Jesus talks about how those who receive the gospel may very well lose a lot in the process of conversion, in order to gain the promises of God’s Kingdom, but that along with eternal life they can also expect to receive a new community. Inclusion in this new community, characterized by radical ordinary hospitality, is what Rosaria equates with receiving a “house key” when one receives the gospel.

Because Christian conversion always comes in exchange for the life you once loved, not in addition to it, people have much to lose in coming to Christ—and some people have more to lose than others.

A Resource for Evangelism

Hospitality, Rosaria explains, is an often under-utilized resource for evangelism as well. Those who live out radically ordinary hospitality, she says, see their homes not as theirs at all but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom.

The purpose of radically ordinary hospitality is to take the hand of a stranger and put it in the hand of the Savior, to bridge hostile worlds, and to add to the family of God.

She goes on to tell stories of how she and her husband intentionally live below their means, so they will be available and able to use their means to help others on a whim, as needs arise.

God promises to put the lonely in families (Ps. 68:6), and he intends to use your house as living proof.

A Sign to the World

Rosaria describes “radically ordinary hospitality” as: “using your Christian home in a daily way that seeks to make strangers neighbors, and neighbors family of God. It brings glory to God, serves others, and lives out the gospel in word and deed.”

Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like.

Love and/or Approval?

She points out how important it is to reflect Jesus in our relationships. Jesus wasn’t embarrassed to relate to people who were different than him. He understood the difference between love and approval.

She mentions that Christians often ask her, “How can I love my neighbor without misleading them into thinking I approve of what they do?” She advises that we first remember that no one approves of everything that others do. Parents, for example, love their children even at times when they hate the things their children are doing.

Rosaria responds to a question people sometimes ask: “If my neighbors who identify as _________ are in sin, then why are they the nicest people on the block?” To this she responds: “If our Christian worldview cannot account for that, it can survive only in the echo chamber of imaginary theology.” To answer this question, we must understand a few very basic theological principles: 1) all people are recipients of “common grace” to varying degrees, and 2) our problem as human beings is not a lack of “niceness” but a debt of sin before a just and holy God. To put it in simple terms: “Nice people” need Jesus just as much as “not nice people”, because only through Jesus can anyone be redeemed.

Conclusion

Rosaria encourages Christians to be courageously loving rather than fearfully cautious. I was challenged, encouraged, and inspired by The Gospel Comes with a House Key, and I recommend you check it out.

I Could Never Believe in a God Who…

A képen a következők lehetnek: egy vagy több ember és szöveg

A few months ago I posted a poll in order to get feedback about what issues constitute the biggest hurdles for people when it comes to faith in God and Christianity.

You can find that poll here, and you can see some of the results here.

I am always looking for more input, so please feel free to fill out that poll if you haven’t yet.

Our next teaching series at White Fields Community Church in Longmont will be based on the responses we got to the poll.

Here are the dates and the topics we will cover in this series:

I Could Never Believe in a God Who…

  1. May 12, 2019: …Encourages the suppression of women and minorities
  2. May 19, 2019: …Condoned genocide in the Old Testament
  3. May 26, 2019: …Gave us a faulty Bible
  4. June 2, 2019: …Creates hateful and hypocritical followers
  5. June 9, 2019: …Sends people to Hell
  6. June 16, 2019: …Allows bad things to happen to good people
  7. June 23, 2019: …Has not proven his existence

Save these dates, and invite someone to join you – especially those who have big questions about these or any other topics!

Is Life Really Worth the Pain and the Risk?

photography of person walking on road

Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics (click here for that page). Recently I received this question:

My question is the following: What is the benefit of God’s human project?

If all of history since creation to the final day of judgement is in fact a great tragedy in the sense that there are souls which will ultimately be lost despite the absolute best intentions of God. Based on Revelation, the number of God’s children is only a fraction of the lost ones. Therefore what could represent such value for God which is worth this risk? I can’t name or imagine anything worth the sacrifice of eternal human souls. So why were his plans not “cancelled” after the first sin?

Personally, this is important to me because my wife and I are thinking about having children, and I can see no reason why I should take part in exposing another human to the possibility of damnation, even if the chances are minimal. I simply do not want to risk such a thing, regardless of the odds. And to be honest, even without the eternal perspective I would not force existence on Earth to anyone.

I can see however that this reasoning inevitably leads to the conclusion that God is evil and human existence should end as soon as possible in order to avoid further damage, and it is contradicting to the picture we see from other parts of the Bible (however, maybe this problem is somehow connected to issues such as the genocide of other nations like philistines or amalekites).

Are you aware of something which could provide some insight about this problem?

This is obviously not a merely theoretical question for you, and I appreciate the thought you’ve put into it.

Here are some thoughts:

This Life Matters

We must not diminish the goodness of this life. Sometimes Christians, in their focus on eternal destiny (which is appropriate and right), can forget the fact that when God created the world, he looked at it and said, “It is good,” and he looked at the human life that he had created and declared that it was “very good.” Although sin has led to cracks and fissures in the fabric of that good creation, it has not lost all of its original goodness, nor have we as humans ceased to bear the “image of God.”

What this means is that the joys of this life are indeed joys. The Psalmist says, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13)

In other words, this life matters and we experience goodness, beauty and truth in this life, despite the fallenness of this world. Life, the Bible describes, is but a mist, but it is a good mist, and a gift from God.

The difference is this: for the person who does not have eternal life, the joys of this life (which are legitimate joys) are the best they will ever experience, whereas for the person who has the hope of eternal life, the sorrows of this life are the worst they will ever experience.

“The Tears of God are the Meaning of History”

You asked the question: Why didn’t God just end it all after the first sin?

That’s a great question which gives us some deep insight into the character of God. I actually have taught on this subject several times. My favorite passage to go to in this, is Genesis 6:5-6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

That word “grieved,” as describing God’s feeling, is only found in one other place in the Bible: in Isaiah, where it is used to describe the pain that a woman feels when her husband abandons her. Isaiah 54:6, “like a wife, married young, only to be deserted, and your spirit was filled with pain.” This word describes bitter anguish, deep, unfulfilled longing, and profound frustration.

In other words, God not only created us, but he is emotionally invested to the point where he experiences joy and sorrow based on how we are doing. What that means is that the brokenness of the world causes God pain. When people are lost forever, it causes God pain, grief and sorrow.

The question is, like you asked: Why didn’t God just end the whole thing after Adam and Eve sinned, and save himself (not to mention: us) all the pain and heartache, some of which will last for eternity?

This question has been answered with this phrase: “The tears of God are the meaning of history.” (coined by Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book, Lament for a Sonin which he writes about his grief over the death of his son, and considers why God allows pain and suffering in the world)

In other words, God decided to weep, rather than to save himself from the grief. He decided to allow himself to suffer the pain of sorrow and grief, continually. WHY? Because, as you alluded to: there was something which he believed made it worth continuing…

(For more on this, check out a sermon I preached on this topic called: “The Sigh to End All Sighs“)

Which leads us to our next point…

The Treasure Hidden in a Field

One of my favorite parables that Jesus spoke was Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

This parable involves three elements: a treasure, a field, and a man. The questions are: what is the treasure, what is the field, and who is the man?

Some interpret it this way: The treasure is the kingdom of God and its benefits, and we are the man who must sell everything in order to take hold of the treasure.

I don’t believe that’s the correct interpretation, for a few reasons. One is that in the parable prior to this one, Jesus also uses an example featuring a field, and explicitly states, “The field is the world.” (Matthew 13:38)

The correct interpretation (and the one which fits best with the biblical narrative and the gospel message) is that the field is the world, the man is Jesus, and the treasure? The treasure is us! We are the treasure, which Jesus saw in the field (the world), and sold everything he had (his life), in order to take hold of us.

This changes the thrust of the parable to be from what we need to do to take hold of the kingdom of God to being about what Jesus has done in order to take hold of us.

The other thing it tells us, though, is that God views us as “treasure” – meaning that to him, we have great value, a value so great that he was willing to give everything to take hold of us.

Similarly, Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy that was set before him, that Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame.

In other words, the prospect of saving some was so precious to God, that he considered it worth the pain.

(Here is a sermon I taught on this parable: “Lost and Found“)

The Ultimate Judgment is When God Gives You What You Insist On

In Romans 1:18-33, God’s judgment is described in interesting terms: as God essentially giving people what they insist on. The phrase “God gave them up” – i.e. stopped resisting them and let them have what they wanted, is repeated three times: 1:24, 1:26, 1:28.

CS Lewis and others have posited that when God judges someone, even eternally, he is essentially just giving them what they have insisted on. Having insisted that they do not want a relationship with God, God does not force them to spend eternity in relationship with him. Having stated that they want autonomy from God, God has given them what they desired.

There are indeed examples in the Bible of times when God seems to have intervened against the will of the individual, in order to “open their eyes” (such as Saul in Acts 9), which leads to a change of heart and attitude and a different approach to God. However, these acts are acts of grace, and grace – by definition – is not owed to, or deserved by anyone. In other words, God is under no obligation to show grace or mercy in order to be fair, right or just. Justice is giving someone what they deserve. Mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, and Grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve. The only one of these which we deserve, is justice. If God gives us what we have earned, then it is only fair.

Beyond fairness, however, God offers grace and mercy freely to all who will receive it. May we be those who receive it gladly and eagerly!

Is It Worth Bringing a Life Into This World?

I respect the fact that you are thinking about the well-being of this child as you make this decision. Many people only think of children in regard to themselves, so that is commendable. I wish more people would think of the child first when planning their family.

Personally, I think that it is worth the risk to bring a child into this world, and I believe that God thinks it is worth the risk as well.

Thanks for your question, and may God bless you!

You Never Outgrow the Gospel

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Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of how the church he grew up in began with a great revival, but slowly died over time. When he inquired about what had led to this decline, an older man attributed it to the fact that when the revival had taken place, the gospel was being heralded regularly and powerfully, but over time it became assumed that such gospel proclamation was no longer necessary, since those who attended the church were already Christians.

Lloyd-Jones determined that he would always preach the gospel, no matter who he was preaching to. Not only did he consider it a “fatal assumption” to think that just because someone attends church, they must be a Christian, he also believed that Christians never outgrow the need to hear the gospel. [1]

The gospel is not good advice about what you ought to do for God, it’s the good news about what God has done for you in Christ. Paul says that the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to all who believe” (Romans 1:16). Paul told the Ephesians that it was when they heard the gospel of their salvation and believed in Jesus that they were saved (Ephesians 1:13)

Clearly those who do not yet believe need to hear the gospel, so they can know who Jesus is and what he has done for them, so that they can believe and be saved. What about those who already believe; what do they need? Biblical instruction? Absolutely. But do you know what else believers need in order to grow in their faith and relationship with God? They need to hear the gospel.

The Gospel is Not Just the Starting Point of Christianity, It is the Beating Heart of Christianity

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote to a group of Christians who, even though they were committed followers of Jesus, they were still trying to be justified before God by their own works. Paul wrote to these believers to remind them of the gospel and instruct them about the gospel: what Jesus had accomplished for them, and what it meant for their lives.

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3)

Even though they were already believers, they still needed to be hear the gospel.

An Apostolic Pattern

This is not unique to Paul’s letter to the Galatians; it is a pattern that is seen throughout the apostolic letters in the New Testament. When the apostles wrote to the early Christians, they did not merely tell them how they ought to live now that they were followers of Jesus, rather they reminded them of the gospel, and encouraged them to respond to the gospel in every area of their lives.

The apostles’ pattern was to remind believers of the gospel, as the motivation and the pattern for the Christian life.

What this means is that you never outgrow the gospel. No matter how long someone has been a Christian, they will never get to the place where they no longer need to hear the gospel.

It means that the gospel is not just the means by which people become Christians, it is also the means by which we grow as Christians, as we believe, embrace and apply the gospel to every area of our lives.

When Paul instructed the Ephesians about marriage, he didn’t tell husbands and wives to love and respect each other because it is “the right thing to do,” rather he instructed them about marriage on the basis of the gospel (Ephesians 5:22-33)

When Paul wrote the Corinthians about generosity, he didn’t tell them that this is what they have to do because they are Christians, rather he appealed to them on the basis of the gospel, saying, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

This is motivation on the basis of the gospel of God’s grace. Whereas laws can control behavior, they do not affect the heart. Conversely, when the heart is changed by the love and grace of God, actions will follow.

The apostolic pattern in the New Testament is to preach the gospel both to unbelievers and believers, and to show how the gospel speaks to every area of life. May we be those who follow this pattern by applying the gospel to all of life, and faithfully proclaiming it whenever we teach or preach, no matter who our audience.

Joaquin Phoenix is Playing Jesus, but Refused to Reenact One of His Miracles

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Joaquin Phoenix is playing Jesus in the film “Mary Magdalene,” which releases this week on Good Friday, and attempts to look at the story of Jesus through the eyes of Mary Magdalene.

Check out: Is Good Friday Actually Good?

The movie takes a few liberties with the story, however. For example, in the case of the healing of the blind man in John 9, the man is replaced by a woman, and Joaquin Phoenix refused to act out how the actual miracle took place: by making mud with saliva and dirt, and rubbing it on the blind man’s eyes.

Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. (John 9:6-7)

Here’s what Phoenix told CNN about why he wouldn’t reenact this particular miracle:

“I knew about that scene from the Bible, but I guess I had never really considered it. When I got there, I thought, ‘I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f— would do that?’ It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”

Instead, Phoenix chose to lick his thumb and rub the woman’s eyes. [source]

However, I think that Joaquin Phoenix, in claiming to know better than Jesus, is actually detracting from a major aspect of what made that miracle significant.

On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit the Pool of Siloam, which is currently being excavated. I even had the chance to teach about this miracle from John 9, right on site to our group.

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Teaching at the Pool of Siloam after having walked through Hezekiah’s Tunnel

One of the key features of the parable is that the way Jesus healed this man required the man to respond in faith to what Jesus did and said. Jesus didn’t simply touch this man and he was healed; he did something which would have seemed odd and confusing (applying mud to his eyes) and then told him to do something which also seemed to not make sense: to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

The Pool of Siloam was originally used to provide water for the Temple. Water was brought from outside the city, via the Gihon spring, through Hezekiah’s Tunnel, to the pool, where it was collected. In the time of Herod the Great, other pools were created, closer to the Temple, such as the Israel Pool, and those were used in the service of the Temple instead; the Pool of Siloam was then used as a public mikvah, or ritual bath, used for Jewish purification rites.

Here’s why the way Jesus performed this miracle matters:

1. It required the man to respond in faith and obedience

Faith has been defined as “trusting God enough to do what he says.” This man had probably washed his face many times in his life; how would washing mud off his face on this day help him see? It didn’t make sense, and yet that’s kind of the point: it required faith for him to obey rather than cynically refuse to do so, saying “Why would that help?” or “Why would today be any different?”

2. It communicated a theological message

The theological message implicit in Jesus covering this man’s eyes with dirt and telling him to wash in a ritual bath, was that we need to be cleansed.

But beyond that, here is Jesus – God incarnate – the one who created humankind out of the dirt of the Earth, yet we are now broken and fallen as a result of our sins and failures. And so here is the creator, come to us to heal our brokenness, once again putting his hands in the dirt and re-forming that which has become broken.

It’s a powerful picture. What a shame that Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t get it and robs the audience of it.

3. It was public, not private

When this man was healed in this public pool, many people would have seen it, as John 9 tells us they did. This was not a private thing between Jesus and this man; it was done for all to see, to bring glory to God.

Let’s stick with letting Jesus’ words and actions stand on their own!

Here’s the trailer of the Mary Magdalene movie: