Aren’t Justice and Mercy Incompatible by Definition?

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Recently at White Fields we have been studying through the Book of Jonah. Jonah was called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria – a violent and imperialistic nation which posed a clear and present danger to the very existence of Israel. And Jonah was called to take them a message which carried with it the promise of mercy if they would repent of their sins and turn to the Lord.

Archaeologists and historians who have studied the Assyrian Empire report things such as human sacrifice, furniture upholstered with human skin, pyramids of human skulls, how they would put hooks in the faces of captives and leading them around by chains…

So it is not surprising that one of Jonah’s hesitations with going to Nineveh was that he didn’t think it would be fair for God to show mercy to people who did such terrible things. Jonah struggled with the question of how God could still be just if he were to forgive these sins and show them mercy.

This is a question many people struggle with:  If you forgive someone, then what about justice?  Can anyone just do anything they want and then say sorry, and suddenly it’s okay, and there are no repercussions? Where’s the justice in that?

For this reason, some people are hesitant to forgive those who have hurt them: because it kind of feels like in that case, they are getting away with it, or you are saying that it wasn’t a big deal — even though it was. (More on this topic here: Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?)

One of the great promises of the Bible is that God is just, and even if we don’t see it in our lifetime, there will be justice.  Nothing is hidden from the eyes of God, and He will deal justly with every hurtful action and every wrongdoing. This gives us great comfort in the face of injustice, corruption and unfair and unethical behavior that we see or which touches our lives.

In the Psalms, the Psalmist often bemoans the injustice that he sees in the world: that those who lie, cheat and steal get ahead, at the expense of those who are fair and honest. Nice guys finish last. Good doesn’t always defeat evil. However, the Psalmist then goes on to comfort himself with the knowledge that, in the end, God will bring about justice: there is no wrong deed that will not go unpunished.

There’s only one problem with that:    ALL of us have done wrong things. Without exception…

So the problem with justice is: if God is totally just and judges every wrong deed, then that means that He will have to not only judge those who have sinned against us, but He will have to judge us as well.

But then, the Bible gives us the good news: for those who turn to the Lord, He will give them mercy!

But here’s the thing:   The definition of Justice is:  Giving someone what they deserve. On the other hand, the definition of Mercy is:  NOT giving someone what they deserve.

So, by definition: if you show someone mercy, then you are no longer being just! The two are diametrically opposed. So, if God shows mercy, doesn’t that mean He is no longer being just? Does one of God’s attributes therefore contradict another one of His attributes?

Isn’t mercy therefore a travesty of justice?

One of the great tensions of the Old Testament is the question of how God can be both Just and Merciful at the same time.

In my last post I wrote about another one of these great tensions: the question of whether the covenant with God is conditional or unconditional.

Neither of these tensions are actually resolved in the Old Testament. They only find their resolution in the New Testament – in Jesus.

The way that God can be both just and merciful at the same time, is because Jesus took all of the righteous judgment that we deserved, so that God could show us mercy. In this way, God remains completely just, and yet is able to show mercy without compromising his justice. In this way, He is both just and the justifier of the one who trusts in Jesus by faith. (Romans 3:26)

In Jesus, the Judge of all the Earth came to the Earth and took our judgment HIMSELF, so that we could be saved. It was the ultimate act of grace. 

Whereas justice is giving someone what they deserve, and mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, grace is giving someone something they don’t deserve.

Jesus is the answer to all the riddles.

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)

When You Stand for Nothing…

My wife is a podcast addict. That’s also the name of the app she uses to listen to podcasts. There are certainly worse things a person could be addicted to, and she does listen to some pretty great podcasts as she is going about her day – stuff that makes this Longmont Pastor proud: D.A. Carson, the Gospel Coalition, Timothy Keller…

One podcast she listens to every day is The World and Everything In It by World News.

She played a recent episode for me which was reporting on the rapid decline of the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church in the USA) as opposed to the growth of the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America).

For those of you who aren’t familiar with these denominations, the PCUSA is the older of the two and the PCA split off from them in the 1970’s because of doctrinal differences – specifically that the PCUSA was moving steadily towards a much more liberal theology which no longer believed in divine inspiration of the Bible or in the unique saving work of Jesus.

These theological changes inevitably led to many changes in the PCUSA’s stance on moral issues, in which they succumbed to cultural pressure to affirm certain practices which the Bible asserts are sinful. When you no longer believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, divinely inspired by Him, but just a product of an ancient culture, then none of the biblical injunctions regarding morality or conduct are considered binding – and at that point, you no longer have a rudder to guide your ship and you will be subject to the wind and the waves of your own culture to take you where they will.

I have embedded the audio of that message below. (Those of you who subscribe by email will probably need to click on the post to view it on the web in order to listen to it.)

I think what surprised me the most, amongst all of the moves the PCUSA has made, is that in 2011 they removed the requirement of fidelity in marriage for their clergy. 

Sure, the PCUSA and other historic mainline denominations have made a lot of shocking moves, which in my opinion fall under the category of what Isaiah the Prophet says in Isaiah 5:20:

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,

but this one blows my mind. Essentially that means that a pastor could cheat on their spouse and continue being a pastor. Not even atheists or agnostics would say that is acceptable, but yet this “church” is trying so hard to be like the world, that they would even affirm something as destructive and hurtful as infidelity in marriage – an institution which has concrete roots in the gospel (see Ephesians 5:22-33).

For me, the decline of the PCUSA and other such denominations, along with the growth of theologically conservative Christian movements, bears witness to the fact that when you stand for nothing and you believe in nothing, then you no longer have any reason to exist.

Just like sea fish spend their entire lives in salt water without becoming salty, it is the calling and mission of Christians to be in the world, but not of the world.

We are to be salt and light – having an impact and influence upon the world for Christ, not isolating ourselves from the world.  But if salt loses its saltiness, then it is good for nothing but to be cast out and trampled under foot… (Matthew 5:13)

Here’s that audio clip:

Why Ethics Depends on Origin

In my last post I mentioned how much I appreciated the intellectual integrity of Penn Jillette for saying that he respects Christians who share their faith and evangelize, because if you really believe the gospel, then the only appropriate response is to share it with others.

Today I’d like to address the opposite approach: a very common and yet completely contradictory set of beliefs about the meaning and value of life.

I recently came across this quote from well-known atheist Steven Pinker, author of the book, “How the Mind Works.”

“When it comes to ethics, ethical theory requires free rational agents whose behavior is uncaused. Now, ethical theory can be useful even though the world as seen by science does not really have uncaused events.” – Steven Pinker

Do you catch what he’s saying? He’s essentially saying that ethics are useful to society, but that they really have no basis in reality. In other words: ethics help society function, but in a view of the world in which there is no God who created you, ethics are completely baseless.

To put it simply: if there is no God who created you, there is absolutely no rational reason for saying that you are any more important than a stick. And you really have no original thoughts or creativity. Everything you do is programed, nothing is uncaused. You are just a hunk of matter, and therefore your life is utterly insignificant.

And yet, Pinker is saying that in spite of this, we should live as if human life is special and we as human beings are valuable, because it is helpful to the functioning of society, even if it isn’t true.

Here’s the point: an atheistic/humanistic worldview is incredibly conflicted.

On the one hand, modern Western society is obsessed with self-esteem. Our schools put a huge focus on telling kids that they are unique and valuable. We affirm that every life has innate value. And yet, at the same time we have a secular worldview which says that if there is no God, you still have to live as if human beings are significant, even though in reality they are not at all.

In other words, if your origin is insignificant and your destiny in insignificant, then the conclusion is that your life and everyone else’s life is insignificant. However, at the same time we are told to believe that we must pretend that it is.

That’s not intellectual integrity, that’s intellectual schizophrenia.

Atheism has an inherent problem with human rights: on the one hand our modern Western culture believes in individual human rights, and yet on the other hand, there is a push for an existential and eschatological narrative which undermines the very foundation for believing in equal individual human rights.

I have written more on this subject here: Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem.

Christianity, on the other hand, tells us that human beings were created by God, in His image, and therefore our lives have innate value and purpose – even if there is nothing that we can contribute to society, such as in the case of handicapped individuals.

Furthermore, the message of the gospel is that the lord of the universe left His heavenly throne and came to the Earth in order to save us by giving His life in order to redeem us — which means that you and your life have more value than you can even comprehend.

Modern Western culture has held onto the belief in individual value and human rights, something which has its basis in Christian doctrine and theology, while trying to eschew Christian doctrine and theology in the areas of origin, existence and destiny.

Ethics depend on origin. If you believe that human life has equal and inherent value, please remember where that idea comes from: the Word of God.

The Problem with Evangelism

I came across this video from Penn Jillette which I found very compelling. Penn Jillette is the “Penn” of the comic/illusionist team Penn and Teller, both of whom are avowed atheists who use their platform as comedians and magicians to promote atheism.

In this video Penn talks about how after a show he was approached by a very polite and sincere man who gave him a Bible as a gift and sought to evangelize him.

Rather than being upset or offended by this, Penn says this:

“I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…

How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that…

This guy cared enough about me to proselytize.”

Here’s the whole video:

I respect Penn for having the intellectual integrity to say this.

Because the problem with evangelism is that in Western society it is considered extremely presumptuous to claim that other people need to change what they believe and believe what you believe or else they will be lost. But the problem is, that this belief is inherent to Christianity. To remove it would be to remove its very heart.

If Jesus came to be a “Savior” who “saves” the “lost,” and to be a disciple of Jesus is to be sent on His mission, which is to seek and to save the lost, then to not evangelize is to betray the very heart of Christianity.

There are a lot of people who look at Christianity and say: “That’s a nice religion with a lot of really nice teachings and great principles. I love the community aspect of it; I respect the teachings about family, and morality and putting others first. But the one part I don’t like is how narrow it is. How presumptuous to claim that you are on a mission from God to save the world by converting people to believe what you believe!
When it comes to mission, I’m okay with you going to help poor people in developing countries by improving their standard of living — but why do you have to try to proselytize them?!”

There are even many Christians who would say, “I love learning about the Bible, and taking the sacraments and worshiping — but I don’t like that part about Christianity where we are always being told to go out and convert the world to what we believe!”

The problem with evangelism is that there are so many voices in our society today which tell us that the idea that you can be on a mission from God to change and save the world is at best: naive, and at worst: terribly arrogant. So instead, you should just privatize your beliefs: focus on your own life and leave everybody else alone.

But the problem with evangelism is that you cannot be a Christian and not care about evangelism, because the command to be on this mission comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.

“As the Father sent me, now I send you!   Go into all the world!  Preach the Gospel!   Make disciples of all nations — teach everybody to obey all that I have commanded you!”

That may not be popular – but it’s straight from the mouth of Jesus. And, to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ means you can’t ignore what he says.

It is encouraging to me to hear this coming from a person, in Penn Jillette, who does not (yet) believe, but has the intellectual integrity to admit that in order to live according to one’s beliefs, a Christian should share the gospel with others.

Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching a series on the Parables of Jesus and this past Sunday we looked at the two parables of the Two Debtors in Luke 7:36-50 and Matthew 18:23-35. (Click here to listen to the audio of that message)

Both of these parables deal with the topic of forgiveness; the first is focused on how God’s forgiveness of us affects how we relate to God, the second is about how God’s forgiveness of us affects how we relate to others.

The second parable is about a man who owes a massive debt to the king: 10,000 Talents.

A talent was a measurement of money which was equivalent to 20 years wages for a laborer. You can do the math: let’s say a laborer’s wage here in the US is $30,000/year. 1 Talent would be $600,000. This guy owed 10,000 Talents — which would be 6 billion dollars!

However, the king had mercy on him and forgave him his debt.

The men then went out and found someone who owed him 100 Denarii (about $10,000 using the above calculation). That man he demanded pay him back immediately, and when the man asked for mercy (just as he had from the king), he showed him no mercy. He choked him and then had him bound and thrown in debtor’s prison – a terrible fate from which there was no way out.

Upon hearing about this, the king brings the man in, scolds him and calls him “wicked”, then informs him that he will not be forgiven of his debt after all, and he will also be put in debtor’s prison, presumably for the rest of his life.
The parable ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

The message is clear: if you have been forgiven by God, there is no excuse for you withholding forgiveness from someone who has wronged you or hurt you in some way. In fact, the most severe warning is given to those who do refuse to forgive others.

So forgiveness is a big deal. A really big deal.

Why do people hesitate to forgive others? I think one of the reasons is because there is a lot of confusion about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t, and what it means to forgive.

One of the biggest misunderstandings about forgiveness — is that forgiving means forgetting: acting like what happened never happened.

That might be easy to do if it is a minor offense — but there are some things, such as major traumas, which people do not know how to forget, even if they wanted to. Furthermore, sometimes the expectation that forgiving means forgetting can be unwise and even dangerous.

For example: When I was pastoring in Hungary, there was a person from the US who wanted to work with us as a missionary — specifically, he wanted to work with youth, because we had a large youth outreach. BUT: he had recently gotten out of jail, and the reason he was in jail was because he had committed sexual assault against a… (you guessed it) youth.
In the US he wasn’t allowed to be around youth but in Hungary those laws didn’t apply. So, we told him: “Sorry, you can’t work with youth because of your past.” His response was: “Hey, I did my time, I repented. If my past sins are forgiven and forgotten by God, then why are you making an issue of it?”
Of course our prerogative was to protect the kids. And it’s just common sense not to put a person with a history of sexual assault against kids, together with a bunch of kids.

The thing is, this person would point to Bible verses like Hebrews 8:12 — where God says: “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Or Isaiah 43:25, where God says to Israel, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

So…isn’t “not remembering” the same as “forgetting”?
Actually, no! It’s not!

When the Bible talks about God “REMEMBERING” something — it doesn’t mean that He forgot about it, and then remembered it, like: “I can’t remember where I put my keys.” Or “I forgot where I put my phone and then I remembered.”

When the Bible talks about God “remembering” something, what it means is that God focused his attention on someone or something in a given moment for a particular purpose.

For example: throughout the Old Testament, it says over and over: God remembered Noah. God remembered Abraham. God remembered Rachel. God remembered the covenant that He had made with Israel.

Does that mean that God was like: “Oh yeah — Abraham! I totally forgot about that guy!” Or “Oh yeah — I totally forgot about that covenant I made with Israel! Thanks for reminding me!” No. It means that in that moment, God turned his focus and attention to those people or that thing.

Notice that even the king in this parable remembered the amount of the debt he had forgiven the servant.

When it says that God remembers our sins no more, it doesn’t mean that He erases them from His memory — what it means that He will never focus on them again. He’ll never hold them over our heads or throw them in our face.

The message of the Gospel is that Jesus took your record or wrongs, and took his record of rights — and he scratched out the names on the top and wrote his name on your record and wrote your name on his record, and then he took the judgment before God that your record deserved.

What that means is that from a legal perspective, God has cleared our record and made it like we never sinned. But that doesn’t mean that He, as an omniscient God, has forgotten about them. One of the best verses about this topic is Isaiah 38:17, “for you have cast all my sins behind your back.” In other words: God has chosen to not look on them any more.

Many people struggle to forgive others, because they have been given this misconception that forgiving someone means that they have to forget about what happened to them and act like it never happened.
Maybe even you have experienced things which can’t be erased from your memory. Please understand that just because you can’t forget that something happened, doesn’t mean that you can’t forgive the person who did it to you.

Furthermore, forgiveness and trust are two separate things. Proverbs 14:15 says: “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.”

A lot of people confuse forgiveness and trust, and some people are unwilling to forgive, because they’re not ready to trust that person again. On the other hand, some people expect that if someone has forgiven them that they should automatically trust them again. That’s not true, in fact in some cases it would be very unwise — like in the case I mentioned above.

So, what is forgiveness then?

Forgiveness is: Not seeking your own revenge.

It means no longer holding onto the thing which happened to you, but giving it over to God.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t seek justice if it’s a legal matter. In fact, in some cases, seeking legal justice is the best and most loving thing you can do, because it might be preventing that person from hurting another person in the way that they hurt you.
But even if you seek legal justice, to forgive someone means you are not vindictive! You let go of the desire to hurt that person back because they hurt you.

Forgiveness means: Not being consumed by the past.

Some people are hesitant to forgive, because they feel like if they forgive that person who hurt them, and they let it go — then that person got away with what they did! — as if by forgiving them, they’re saying that what that person did was okay!
But it’s important that we understand that forgiveness isn’t about exonerating the person who hurt you nor trivializing what they did, or saying it was okay — it’s about you letting go of that thing, and not letting it consume your life, not being angry or resentful towards that person, but trusting God that He has or will deal with it justly in the end.

The promise we have in Jesus is that God hasn’t just swept sins and wrongdoings, evils and injustices under the proverbial rug, but He has dealt with every single one of them fully and justly in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is in the light of that, knowing that it has been dealt with by God in Christ, that we can forgive receive forgiveness joyful and show forgiveness to others.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made? What About Those Born Handicapped?

A few days ago I received a question from someone in our church:

Psalm 139 says: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

How is this true of those born with birth defects?

This past Sunday we started a class at White Fields called Christianity 101. The goal of the class is to teach people the core doctrines of Christianity over the course of 4 weeks. The first week covers the topic of: Who is God? To answer this question, we look at the various attributes of God and then consider: 1) the implications of that attribute for people in general, and 2) the application for you and your life in particular.

Before looking at the attributes of God, we begin with the question with which the Westminster Catechism begins: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

What you find is that as you consider multiple attributes of God, the implications of these attributes compound together to answer questions like the one above.

For example, God is:

  • Sovereign (does what He wants, see: Psalm 115:3)
  • Omniscient (knows everything)
  • Omnipotent (can do anything)
  • Righteous (good)
  • Love
  • Immutable (having integrity, unchanging)

If all of these are true at the same time and all the time (that’s where the immutability comes in), then it helps us to determine an answer to many questions, including the one above.

The other factor to take into consideration is this: “the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). We live in a fallen, broken world, which Jesus came to redeem, but as it stands now, “all of creation waits with eager longing…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For…the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In other words: We live in a broken world, where things are not the way that they “should be.” One day, everything will be made right, because of the redeeming work of Jesus. As it is now, God can do anything, and He does whatever He wants, but He doesn’t always do everything that we think He should do. We must remember though, that He knows more than we do, and that everything He does (or doesn’t do) is based on love, and is for our ultimate good and for his ultimate glory.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most encouraging is Revelation 16:7. In this section, we are reading about the vision that God gave John about the future and how, in the end, God wins and defeats evil for good. In this particular section, John is having a vision of heaven, and many people standing before the throne, after believers have been killed for their faith. And this is the statement that is spoken in heaven: “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments.”

In other words: there are a lot of things that happen here on Earth, about which we wonder: How is that fair? How can a good, loving God allow that to happen? But here is what this verse is telling us: that one day, when we get God’s perspective on things, the perspective that you can only have from heaven, you too will say: every judgment you made, O God, was right and true. You may not see it now, but you will. That’s the promise.

Regarding the omniscience of God, and that He has created us for His glory, it is like the time when Jesus’ disciples asked him about a man born blind:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3)

God created us for His glory. That means that we are not the owners of our lives — we are tenants. (I will be talking about that subject this coming Sunday at White Fields as we study the Parable of the Tenants).

A few years ago, when our daughter was born, she suffered a severe oxygen deficiency which caused brain damage. She was in a coma for a week, and we were told she would be seriously handicapped for the rest of her life. During that time, my wife and I grieved, and we sought the Lord, both for our daughter’s healing, but also to give us the grace and strength to be able to handle whatever happened. We came to the conclusion, that no matter what happened, we wanted our daughter to be happy and to love God and know that He loved her. The fact is, that there are many mentally handicapped people who are happy and have a very pure love for God.
This week, I ran across this video about people with Down’s Syndrome being asked why they were so happy and why they love themselves and other people so much. It’s worth watching.

In the end, God healed our daughter. I’ve written about that story here if you’re interested in reading it: I Believe in Miracles. Here’s Why. If He hadn’t, we’d still love and trust Him, and our hearts do go out to those whose loved ones have not been healed…yet. That is the hope that we have in Jesus — that for those who are in Christ, it is only a matter of time before all is made right.

Maranatha. Come quickly Lord Jesus!

What Does it Mean that Jesus is the Son of God?

This week I’m hosting Calvary Live, a call-in radio show on GraceFM. One of the questions I received yesterday from a listener is a very common point of confusion:

If the Bible says Jesus is the Son of God, how is it that Christians say that he is God?

I answered this question on the air yesterday, but then got a follow-up question via email. Here are my responses; hopefully they will help others who have similar questions.

Understanding the Term “Son of God”

The term Son of God is used in reference to Jesus many times in the New Testament. In John 20:31, John says: “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” If believing that Jesus is the Son of God is so important, it is essential that we understand what that means.

“Son of Man” / “Son of God” / God the Son

Three different titles are often used of Jesus. Here’s what each of them refers to:

  1. Son of Man: This title is used 88 times in the New Testament, often by Jesus in reference to himself. It is a Messianic title which comes from the Old Testament book of Daniel: Daniel 7:13-14.
    By calling himself the “Son of Man,” Jesus is saying two things about himself: 1) He is the Messiah, 2) He is fully human. This is important, because there are those who are called monophysiteswho believe that Jesus only had one (mono) nature (physis), i.e. that he was either fully human or fully deity, but not both. This position is held by the Coptic (Egyptian) church, but is generally considered heterodox.
  2. Son of God: Refers to Jesus’ authority and deity. Thus by saying that Jesus is the Son of Man and the Son of God, the Bible is teaching that Jesus was at the same time: fully human, the Messiah, and fully God. More on this below.
  3. God the Son: Refers to Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. For great resources on the Trinity and the deity of Christ, click here.

“Son of God” refers to nature and authority, not to origin

Jesus is not the Son of God in the sense that he is God’s “offspring,” rather this term must be understood in light of how the term “Son of ______” was used in ancient, and specifically Hebrew, thinking/language.

One writer puts it this way:

The word “son” was employed among the Semites to signify not only filiation, but other close connexion or intimate relationship. Thus, “a son of strength” was a hero, a warrior, “son of wickedness” a wicked man, “sons of pride” wild beasts, “son of possession” a possessor, “son of pledging” a hostage, “son of lightning” a swift bird, “son of death” one doomed to death, “son of a bow” an arrow, “son of Belial” a wicked man, “sons of prophets” disciples of prophets etc. The title “son of God” was applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God.
But the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Elect of God, was par excellence called the Son of God (Psalm 2:7)

So, to be THE Son of God was a title reserved for the Messiah (or Christ in Greek). This is very clear from several verses which equate the term “Son of God” with the Christ/Messiah.
For example: John 20:31 – …so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…  or Matthew 26:63 – the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

However, when Jesus answers that question, affirming that he is the Son of God – he is accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Why would claiming to be the Son of God be considered blasphemy and worthy of a death sentence? It’s because the Jewish leaders understand exactly what the phrase “Son of God” meant: to be the Son of God meant to be of the same nature as God, in other words: to be God. That claim was considered blasphemy and according to Leviticus 24:15-16, a blasphemer was to be put to death.

We see this very clearly in an interaction between Jesus and a crowd in Jerusalem:

Jesus said… “I and the Father are one.”

Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

Hebrews 1:3 expresses this concept that the term “Son of God” refers to Jesus being of the exact nature as God, i.e. Jesus is God:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Not only did Jesus directly claim to be God – which was the very reason why the Jewish authorities demanded that he be executed, but Jesus made several other claims to the fact of his deity:

  1. Jesus invoked the ancient and sacred name of God (I am) in speaking of himself. For this reason, the Jewish people tried to stone him on more than one occasion, for example: John 8:58-59 – Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
  2. Jesus claimed to do things that only God could do, such as forgive sins (Matthew 9:1-8) and resurrect the dead (John 11:25)

So Son of God refers to Jesus nature and authority, not to his origin.

The opening verses of the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus did not come into being when he was born as a baby in Bethlehem, but that he had existed from eternity past, as he is indeed God made manifest in human flesh.

The understanding that the Messiah is in fact God himself, come to the world in human flesh, is found in the Old Testament

Perhaps the best, but certainly not the only example of this is found in Isaiah 9, where speaking of the Messiah, it says:

For to us a child is born, (a human child who will be born)
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end, (eternal).   (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Does Isaiah 53:10 say that Jesus is God’s “offspring”?

The question I got from another listener in response to this answer was asking if Isaiah 53:10 doesn’t actually refer to Jesus as the “offspring” of God.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

The answer is very simple: the “offspring” referred to here is the offspring not of “the Lord,” but of the “suffering servant” (the one whose soul is made an offering for guilt).

What this is referring to is how, through Jesus’ death, many others would come to (spiritual) life.

This is actually referenced to by Jesus in John 12:24, but in order to see this, we have to understand that the word translated into English as “offspring” is literally the word “seed”.

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds (offspring).”  (John 12:24)

Isaiah 53:10 therefore, is not referring to Jesus as God’s offspring, but referring to those who will come to new life as a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death.

I hope this helps make sense of these things! Thanks for reading; if you have any comments or further questions, please write them below.

Easter Weekend Recap

This past Saturday White Fields had our annual Easter Outreach, an Easter egg hunt and festival that we do in Roosevelt Park, right next to where our church meets at the St. Vrain Memorial Building in downtown Longmont. We had a lot of great volunteers who made the event a success both in terms of hosting a fun event for our community and sharing the message of the hope that we have because Jesus Christ died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and justified, and rose from the dead so we can have everlasting life. We estimate that 1500-1700 people attended this year.

A crowd watches the puppet show at our Easter Outreach which shares the meaning and message of the Resurrection

We want to say thank you to the Longmont Times-Call and Boulder Daily Camera for covering the event once again this year. When we saw the article come out on Saturday night, we were disappointed that it failed to mention that White Fields was the sponsor and host of the event. In past coverage of the event, White Fields has always been mentioned. Several members of our church and others who attended the event wrote the Times-Call about this, and yesterday morning the editor called our church  to let us know the online version of the article had been updated. We were impressed with the quick and gracious way they handled it.

Our daughter made the paper.

Sunday morning we had two services at White Fields. We broke attendance records, we had visitors from the outreach on Saturday, and we had people respond to the gospel for the first time to become Christians.

After lunch our family (minus one who had to work) headed up to Winter Park for a family get-away. Yesterday my son and I snowboarded.

Right next to Winter Park ski area is the western portal of the Moffat Tunnel, a train tunnel built through the Continental Divide in the 1920’s. My family is actually part of this tunnel’s history: my great-grandfather worked in it as a welder during its construction and his brother died in it in a dynamite explosion.

I hope you had a great weekend celebrating Jesus’ resurrection!  He is risen indeed!

Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

In Matthew 12:38-41, we read about how some of the scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign that he really was who he said he was: the Messiah. Jesus responded that only one sign would be given to them: the “sign of the prophet Jonah.”

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth.

Here’s the problem: If Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday, that doesn’t add up to 3 days and 3 nights. At most it adds up to 2.5 days and 2 nights.

So… does that mean that Jesus didn’t stay in the grave long enough to fulfill his own prophecy?

Nope. Jesus really was in the grave three days and three nights, which is why the early Christians also taught that he was raised on the third day (Acts 10:40, 1 Corinthians 15:4). Let me explain how it adds up, but be prepared: it’s going to change the way you think about “Good Friday.”

Some Basics to Start With

  1. The Jewish calendar is lunar (based on the cycles of the moon), whereas the Roman calendar (which we use) is solar (based on the rotation of the Earth around the Sun). As a result, they don’t always correspond, hence the reason why the date of Easter changes every year. Today in Western Christianity, Easter is celebrated on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon. For more on why the date of Easter changes each year, click here.
  2. We tend to think of the new day beginning when we wake up, but in the Jewish mindset, the new day begins at sunset. So, when the sun sets on Monday, it is not considered Monday evening, it is considered the beginning of Tuesday.
  3. We know that Jesus resurrected on a Sunday, “the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2,9; Luke 24:1)

What is a “Sabbath”?

The word sabbath means “rest,” and it refers to a holy day when no work is to be done.

Every Saturday is a sabbath, but there are other sabbaths as well – also known as “special Sabbaths.” Some of these “special Sabbaths” are celebrated on a specific calendar date, no matter what day of the week that date falls on – kind of like how we in the USA celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July, and we observe that holiday no matter what day of the week it falls on.

In John 19:31, we read this about the day when Jesus was crucified:

Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.

The special Sabbath referred to here was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a holiday which is always observed on the 15th day of Nisan according to the Jewish calendar.

According to Leviticus 24:4-14, there are three special holidays in the month of Nisan: Passover (the 14th of Nisan), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15-22 of Nisan) and the Feast of First Fruits which was held on the Sunday following the Passover.

Let’s Sum This Up

Jesus actually died on a Thursday. Friday and Saturday were both sabbaths: Friday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and Saturday was the weekly sabbath.

Jewish Month of Nisan

How can we be sure that this is what happened?

Several decades ago, the London Royal Observatory took on the challenge that since they could theoretically identify the position of the planets and start on any date in history, to figure out if around the time of Jesus there was such a time when Passover fell on a Thursday. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar, there is always a full moon on Passover, so this is pretty easy to figure out. Not surprisingly, there were several years around the time of Jesus when this took place. It’s really not that uncommon – just like how Christmas falls on a Tuesday every few years.

Even More Interesting…”Coincidences”?

According to Exodus 12:1-13, God told the Israelites that they were to select the Passover Lamb on the 10th day of Nisan. They were to examine it from the 11th to the 13th to make sure it was without blemish, and they were to sacrifice it on the 14th.

If the 14th was Thursday – and Jesus was crucified on “the day of Preparation” (Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:31) which was the day when Passover began and the celebration began with the eating of the Passover meal (Jesus and his disciples then would have eaten the last supper Passover meal on Wednesday evening). Then what this means is that when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that was on the 10th of Nisan – the day when the Passover lambs were to be selected!

Furthermore, remember that the Sunday after Passover was the Feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:9-11) – which means that Jesus resurrected on the Feast of First Fruits. This is what Paul the Apostle is making direct reference to in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, where he says:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

So there you have it:

Jesus was indeed in the grave for three days and three nights. It really wasn’t that much of an anomaly, but it resulted in two sabbaths back to back – something which regularly happens every few years.

So “Good Friday” was actually on Thursday, “Maundy Thursday” was actually on Wednesday, and “Holy Saturday” was actually two days long.

However, it is incredible to see how God orchestrated and prepared for this to happen as it did for thousands of years before it happened. In reality, the Bible tells us that God had planned this whole thing out from eternity past (see Revelation 13:8) – and all of it so that you may have life in His name by believing! (John 20:31)