The Christmas Song Which Isn’t Actually About Christmas

One of the most characteristic songs of the Christmas season is Joy to the World. It’s sung by carolers and played in instrumental pieces all over the world, and wherever its famous tune rings, it sets the tone of Christmas.

Except… this quintessential Christmas hymn isn’t actually about Christmas.

67460Written by Isaac Watts and first published in 1719, Joy to the World was a hymn Watts wrote based on Psalm 98, which describes the eternal kingdom which God promised to one day bring about via the Messiah.

Watts, in writing this hymn, considered Psalm 98 along with the New Testament writings about Jesus’ second coming, and wrote this song – which is all about what the world will be like when Jesus comes again.

In this sense, we can say that Joy to the World is an Advent hymn, even if it is not necessarily a Christmas hymn.

Advent is the four weeks leading up until Christmas, during which Christians have historically focused their hearts and mind’s on Jesus’ coming. The word Advent comes from the Latin phrase Adventus Domini, which means: ‘the coming of the Lord.’

During the Advent season we do two things:

  1. We look BACK to Jesus’ first coming and the incarnation (Christmas) – that act in which God took on human flesh in order to save us.
  2. We look FORWARD to Jesus’ second coming, when he will come again according to his promise, to judge the nations and rule over his eternal kingdom.

And so it is in this latter sense that Joy to the World is absolutely an Advent hymn, as it looks forward to the second coming of Christ, when nature will sing and Jesus will rule as King over all.

Another thing you may not know about the hymn Joy to the World is that it was originally set to a different tune than the iconic one that we associate with it today.

Over 100 years after Isaac Watts originally wrote the song, a composer named Lowell Mason, inspired by Handel’s Messiah, wrote the melody which we know today. He titled this musical piece Antioch, but it didn’t have any words to go with it.

For three years Mason searched for the right words to fit his melody, finally settling on Isaac Watts’ lyrics for Joy to the World, and the rest is history.

Joy to the World: An Advent Series

This Advent at White Fields Church in Longmont we are doing a series for the month of December, including Christmas Eve, called Joy to the World, in which we will be looking at how the gospel brings lasting, powerful joy into our lives which overcomes sorrow and cannot be taken away.

Yesterday was our first message in that series, which came from the Gospel of John chapter 16 and was titled “Your Sorrow Will Turn Into Joy.” For the audio of that message, click here.

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We’d love to have you and your friends and family join us at White Fields this Advent and on Christmas Eve. Our services will be at 4:30 & 6:00pm at the St. Vrain Memorial Building at 700 Longs Peak Avenue in Longmont, Colorado. For more information and directions, click here.

 

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

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

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

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

Why is Jesus Called the Son of God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was It Necessary for Our Salvation that Jesus be God?

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

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

Arianism: A Brief Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What All Great Speeches Have in Common

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What do Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs and Adolf Hitler all have in common?

For better or for worse (in the case of Hitler), they were all incredible speakers, who were able to move people to action with their words.

I recently listened to a great podcast featuring Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Inc., and co-author of the book Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies and Symbols

Having analyzed speeches, particularly those which are exponentially effective in connecting with people and inspiring them to action, Nancy claims that the best speeches, sermons and talks all follow a similar cadence. She describes the pattern as “pumpkin teeth” — having a sequence of lows and highs.

Contrasting the Status Quo with a Vision of a Different Future

Stories that connect, she says, follow this pattern: they build tension and then have cathartic release. Great speeches emphasize contrast between what is and what could be; the speaker goes back and forth between contrasting today’s current reality (status quo) with tomorrow’s possible future. They start with the way things are, and then give them a vision of a different, brighter future.

Nancy, who is a Christian and moved to Silicon Valley with her husband originally to plant a church, points out that Jesus was a master at this kind of communication. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus is constantly contrasting the way things are now on Earth, with the way things are and will be different in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus said things like, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”, and things like “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26). Note the contrast between what is, and a vision for what could be.

Steve Jobs did this with his keynote speeches at Apple for years. When he introduced the iPhone, he used a hockey analogy to tell people that unlike other tech companies, Apple would always skate to where the puck will be, not where it is – essentially giving them a vision of a brighter future in contrast to the mundane present.

Ending: the “New Bliss” and a Cautionary Tale

Great stories and speeches, Duarte explains, tend to end with two key elements:

  1. A description of the “new bliss”, a picture of the great future that will come about if you adopt the new idea the presenter is putting forth
  2. A cautionary tale, explaining that the danger of not adopting this idea, and what will happen if you ignore it.

A perfect example of this is found at the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock… And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand… (read the whole passage here: Matthew 7:24-27)

Case Study: “I Have a Dream”

Martin Luther King Jr. did this in a masterful way with his “I Have a Dream” speech. He ended with a vision of the world that could be. Take note of the cadence of his speech:

[Positive: the Ideal] Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

[Negative: the Status Quo] But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

[Cautionary Tale] It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.

[Enduring Bliss] I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

How this Applies to Homiletics and Preaching

If you want to move people to action, you have to make a clear differentiation between what is now, and the future you’re inviting them into. In order to be persuasive, you must have contrast in some form.

For those who preach or teach the Bible, this is important to keep in mind and take note of, because every time we open the Word of God, we do so with a telos (aim or objective) not only to instruct, but to move people to action and response; to move them away from some things, and towards another thing – faith, repentance, decision, etc.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we seek to persuade others… God making his appeal through us: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God! (2 Corinthians 5:11,20)

It’s important to keep these things in mind, and see that Jesus himself was the master of this kind of effective communication.

The goal is to present the problem and the solution in a way that truly reveals to the recipient both the urgency of the peril and the beauty of what makes the “good news” of the gospel so glorious, that they might respond in faith and action.

Video

Here is a TED talk that Nancy gave on this topic:

Christian Truth is in the Service of Christian Love

In the introduction to his book First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics, Kevin Vanhoozer writes this, which is worthy of a devotional thought for today:

Christian truth is in the service of Christian love. If I speak in the tongues of Reformers and of professional theologians, and I have not personal faith in Christ, my theology is nothing but the noisy beating of a snare drum. And if I have analytic powers and the gift of creating coherent conceptual systems of theology, so as to remove liberal objections, and have not personal hope in God, I am nothing. And if I give myself to resolving the debate between supra and infralapsarianism, and to defending inerrancy, and to learning the Westminster Catechism, yea, even the larger one, so as to recite it by heart backwards and forwards, and have not love, I have gained nothing.

This one thing I know: there is no more vital task facing Christians today than responding faithfully to Scripture as God’s authoritative speech acts — not because the book is holy but because the Lord is, and because the Bible is his Word, the chief means we have of coming to know Jesus Christ.

Those who interpret the Bible rightly — those who look and live along the text, following the written words to the living Word — will have rightly ordered loves and rightly ordered lives. The apostle Paul leaves us in no doubt as to either his first theology or his first love: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, & Hermeneutics (IVP Academic, 2002), 40-41

Hemingway and Unfulfilled Longing

‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:

A Farewell to Arms
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.

The Sun Also Rises
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.

I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.

And then there’s Hemingway…

The Charm of Hemingway

With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.

With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.

Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.

Writing About Himself

As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.

He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.

It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.

In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?

It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.

At least he was honest.

And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.

What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point

What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.

This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.

And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.

The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.

Parents’ Religious Hypocrisy a Leading Factor in Atheism

An article posted by Relevant Magazine today cited a recent study published in the Religion, Brain and Behavior Journal, which sought to understand why people choose to become atheists.

Although the researches expected to find that most people became atheists because they grew up outside of a religious setting, what they found was that many who call themselves atheists became so, at least in part, as a result of observing their parents to be insincere, hypocritical or unfaithful.

Furthermore, the study found that the more choice a child or youth was given to choose their own way, including whether or not to attend church services, the more likely those youth were to reject their parents’ faith before reaching adulthood compared to those who were not offered that choice. Additionally, other research has shown the positive impact that faithful religious practice has on children as they grow into adulthood.

The researchers pointed out that there were plenty of cases in which someone had chosen atheism in spite of growing up with religious parents who were devout, loving and sincere. However, it does seem that where hypocrisy did exist, it was a factor which contributed to their decision to reject their parents’ faith.

Interestingly, in a poll I took earlier this year, in which I asked the question: “What are the biggest hurdles that people have when it comes to embracing Christianity?”, the number one response I got was: “Hypocrisy”. This aligns with the results of a 2007 Barna research project, in which they asked people why they rejected Christianity.

Read: “I Took a Poll; Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

It should be remembered, that Jesus himself took great issue with religious hypocrisy; he neither tolerated it, nor remained silent about it. In fact, he said something so extreme, that if Jesus himself hadn’t said it, most people wouldn’t dare go as far as saying something like this:

If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  (Matthew 18:6)

Clearly, hypocrisy is a big deal – both to God and to people. Children are perceptive, and they intuit the discrepancies in people’s words and their actions, the latter of which tend to reveal our true values and beliefs.

May God help us who call ourselves Christians to be sincere, humble, repentant and loving, while we hold onto very important convictions about the truth – in order that we might shine like lights in the world (see Philippians 2:14-15) and draw people to Jesus.

Here is a message from a series I taught earlier this year called, “The Trouble Is…”, in which I address the issue of religious hypocrisy, both for Christians and for those who are not Christians, or who are unsure of where they stand:

Also check out the follow-up discussion we recorded about this topic:

Are some parts of the Bible more inspired by God than others?

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Are some parts of the Bible more the “Word of God” than other parts of the Bible? For example: are the gospels (and within them the words of Jesus) more inspired by God than the Psalms or the historical books or the Apostolic epistles?

A related question is: Are some parts of the Bible more important than others?

A Canon Within the Canon

The word canon means the “measuring rod”, the “standard” by which other things are measured. This is the word the church has used to describe the collection of 66 books which are considered authoritative because they are uniquely inspired by God and are treated as “holy scripture.”

In 2 Timothy 3:16, we are told: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
(For a discussion of which Scriptures Paul was referring to here, see: Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?)

Although the Christian church as a whole officially recognizes this written canon, every denomination, local church and individual Christian has their theology shaped by greater reliance on some parts of the canon than others. This creates, in practice, a “canon within the canon”; certain parts of the Bible which are considered more authoritative, or even more inspired by God, than other parts of the Bible.

While this is very common, we must challenge ourselves by asking whether this is appropriate, and whether it is congruent with our understanding of what it means that the Bible is “inspired” or “breathed out” by God.

How was the Bible “Inspired”?

When it comes to understanding what it means that Scripture is God-breathed, on the one end of the spectrum are those who believe that God dictated the Bible word for word in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, and the writers were simply secretaries who recorded those words. At the other end of spectrum are those who believe that God inspired the writers in the way that an artist, musician or author feels “inspired” by a sunset or something else which “inspires” them to create a masterpiece.

The problem with the “dictation” view of inspiration is that the writing styles of the various human authors are very apparent in what they wrote. Paul’s very long complicated sentences are very different than the short simple sentences of 1 John or the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of John recounts the life of Jesus in a very different way and from a very different point of view than that of Matthew or Luke. Furthermore, many of the Psalms are cries of imperfect people who are voicing their complaints to God – or expressing sentiments which are not God’s heart.

The problem with the artistic view of inspiration is that the Bible clearly tells us that Scripture is not just a great human book, but the “Word of God”; a message which has been conveyed from God to us. 2 Peter 1:21 puts it this way: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” and Romans 15:4 says that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.”

So, what is the correct understanding of Biblical “inspiration”?

Dynamic Verbal Plenary Inspiration

Dynamic

The biblical writers conveyed God’s message in terms of their own personalities and historical circumstances, and yet they transmitted the message fully and exactly as God desired.

Verbal

As opposed to the idea that God only inspired the thoughts of the writers, or gave them the “big ideas,” which they then wrote down in their own words, we know that God’s inspiration of Scripture extends even to the words that were used.

For example, in Galatians 3:16 Paul wrote, “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.” By making this distinction about the significance of the particular word that was used in the Scriptures, he is making the point that God’s inspiration of Scripture is to be understood as “verbal,” i.e. that God inspired certain words to be used instead of other words in order to convey His particular message.

In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Jesus is here affirming that the smallest details of the Scriptures are inspired by God. If the punctuation is inspired, how much more so the very words?

Plenary

Plenary means “complete or full,” and when used to describe the inspiration of the Scriptures, it means that all parts of the Bible are equally of divine origin and equally authoritative.

Dynamic Verbal Plenary Inspiration acknowledges that the Bible is both a human book and a divine book. To put it simply: The Holy Spirit so guided the writers of Scripture so that they gave us, in their own unique manner, exactly the message God intended.

This begs one final question: Just because all parts of the Bible are equally authoritative, does that mean that all parts of the Bible are equally important?

Are all parts of the Bible equally important?

While all parts of the Bible are divinely authoritative, there are some parts of Scripture which we can say are more important, or at least more relevant, than other parts.

The progressive nature of revelation

Hebrews 1:1-2 says: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

God’s revelation has had a progressive nature throughout history, culminating in Jesus’ coming, his teachings and his life, death and resurrection, along with his explanations of the significance of these things (see Luke 24:13-49).

Therefore, books like Romans and Hebrews contain a later and fuller revelation of the gospel, the core message of the Bible, than do books like Ecclesiastes, for example. Ecclesiastes, I would argue, can only be fully understood in light of Jesus and the significance of his life, death and resurrection.

Thus, while all parts of the Bible are to be understood as authoritative and of divine origin (this, by the way, was the criteria for the solidifying of the canon at the early church councils), we understand that the progressive nature of revelation means that some books will be more relevant than others, or that some earlier books must be understood in light of what is revealed in later books.

Conclusion

The Bible is God’s gift to humanity; our guide for life and eternity. It is the only book that is “God-breathed,” and it is important that we be careful to avoid creating a “canon within the canon.”

Further Reading:

Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16 says: 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 2 Timothy, the last letter which Paul wrote, at the end of his life. By this time — almost all of the books that we have in our New Testaments had already been written, and were being distributed amongst the Christians, to be read and studied in their churches.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — 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)

What Paul is telling Timothy in this text is to stick to the Scriptures, because they come from God, not from man.

The Bible is not only inspired in the sense that it is like a great work of art that we might say is “inspired” – but it is inspired in the greater sense, that the words it contains were breathed by God Himself!

What that means is that the Bible is no ordinary book — it is the very word of God to us, and therefore it alone is worthy to be the highest authority in our lives.

Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

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Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.