How Should We Understand the Song of Solomon?

photo of couple facing each other during golden hour

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

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

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

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

What We Know

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

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

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

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

Four Possible Interpretations

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

1. Allegorical Interpretation

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

2. Anthology Interpretation

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

3. The Shepherd Hypothesis

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

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

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

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

4. The Solomon-Shulamite Interpretation

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

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

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

What About Solomon’s Many Wives?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I Could Never Believe in a God Who…

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Could Never Believe in a God Who…

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

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

“You are Free” vs. “You Must Not”

I recently listened to a podcast episode featuring Lysa Terkeurst of Proverbs 31 Ministries, as she recounted her story of almost losing her marriage to infidelity and then almost losing her life to cancer.

Lysa’s story reminded me of the verse we’ve based our recent study on at White Fields, called Remember the Prophets, which comes from James 5:10 – “My brothers and sisters, remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.” Lysa struck me as someone who is an example of patient endurance under suffering.

In the interview, Lysa mentioned something interesting: Compare the first words that God spoke to the man and compare them with the first words that the Enemy spoke to the people in reciting God’s message to them:

The first words God ever spoke to man were: “You are free”

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

The first words the Enemy spoke when reciting God’s words were: “You must not”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)

Same Words, Different Emphasis

First of all, the serpent did misquote God by saying that God had commanded them not to eat from any tree in the garden.

But the other thing the serpent did was to change the emphasis or the tone of God’s words to the people.

Whereas God had emphasized their freedom, the serpent emphasized the restriction.

That’s an important difference! Does God give commands? Of course. Does God prohibit some things? Absolutely. But the reason for God’s commands and prohibitions is for our good, to promote our freedom!

God had told them that the reason for the the prohibition (eating from the one tree) was because if they did they would die. Nothing restricts your freedom more than dying! In other words: God’s prohibition was to protect their freedom.

True freedom is often found in submitting to the design for which you were made. For example: A BMW automobile gives you incredible freedom to get around, and do so very quickly! But in order for you to have that freedom, you have to follow a few rules due to the nature of the BMW. For example: it’s not made to go underwater, so if you drive it into a lake, you will lose the freedom the car provides! If you fail to change the oil, fill up the tires with air or put gas in it, you will lose the freedom it provides. All freedom, in other words, depends on following the rules of the design. Therefore the right prohibitions can serve to protect freedom.

The serpent’s emphasis was on the restriction, not the freedom. He painted God as an insecure, petty kill-joy, who was trying to restrict them merely for the sake of restricting them. Many people view God in this way today as well.

“For Our Good Always”

This past Sunday, in studying through Hosea (listen to that message here: Hosea: Living Out the Gospel) we talked about how God’s commandments are for our good. As I often say:

Sin isn’t bad because it’s forbidden, sin is forbidden because it’s bad.

In other words: When God tells us to do something, or not to do something, it is because He loves us and wants the best for us.

In Deuteronomy 6:24, in describing the God’s law, Moses describes it in this way: God’s law, which was for our good always… 

The emphasis is on our good and our freedom. The idea that God is petty and arbitrarily restrictive is wrong, and leads us to question God – as the serpent led the first people to do.

Consider this great quote from Charles Spurgeon:

When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so over-flowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have ever rebelled against one who loved me so, and sought my good.

When you clearly see who God is and understand His love for you, it makes you want to do what He says, because you know it’s for your good.

As Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. (Titus 2:11-13)

Did you see that? It is the grace of God that teaches us to reject ungodliness! May we see God’s grace and love in his instructions to us.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

This past Sunday we began a new series at White Fields called “Remember the Prophets“.

The idea for the series comes from James 5:10, where James tells us to “remember the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Take them as examples of patient endurance under suffering.”  In this series, we will be looking at a different Old Testament prophet each week, considering their lives and their messages and what we can learn from them.

remember the prophets main title 16x9

We are moving through them chronologically, and so began with Amos, an interesting person with an important message. Click here to listen to that message: Amos: Faith that Works

This Sunday we will continue the series by looking at Hosea, a gripping story of adultery and faithfulness which gives us insight into God’s heart.

Resources for Studying the Prophets

Generally speaking, the prophetic books are not well known by many people who even regularly read the Bible. Part of the reason for that is because of the negative tone of some of the books, as well as the feeling that without understanding the context of the books, they don’t make sense.

People have asked me at times what books or materials are good to use if they want to get to know the prophetic books better. Here are my top two recommendations:

Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Prophets, J. Gordon McConville

Image result for exploring the old testament a guide to the prophetsI had the pleasure of studying under Gordon McConville at the University of Gloucestershire in England, where he is professor of Old Testament theology. This was one of my text books, but is part of a great series from Inter-Varsity Press and is very accessible to the average reader and also scholarly at the same time.

On the scholarly side, this book tends to get a little bit into the weeds about theological discussions and debates, but the introductions and outlines of the books, their themes and their structures are very good. In other words, you can use it to go as deep as you’re ready to go.

Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament, Irving L. Jensen

When I first became a pastor, one of my mentors told me, “You’re going to need some books.” He then walked me into the book store at the church we were at and pulled Jensen’s surveys of the Old Testament and New Testament off the shelf and handed them to me.

The benefit to these books published by Moody Press is that rather than being a commentary that tells you information, they instead instruct you about how to ask the right questions. Thus, you are the one doing the exegetical work, or the inductive Bible study, rather than just passively receiving information. They do, however, give you important background information in order to get the context you need, but they also tell you where to go to get that context if it is found in other places in the Bible.

I hope these resources are helpful for you, as they have been for me!

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.

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.

If Jesus is the Son of God, Why Did He Call Himself the “Son of Man”?

Jesus’ favorite way of referring to himself was as the “Son of Man”. This term is used of Jesus 88 times in the New Testament, and Jesus refers to himself  as the “Son of Man” more often than as the “Son of God”.

I am often asked why this is, and why Jesus preferred this term over the term Son of God. Here are some thoughts on what that term means and why Jesus may have preferred it:

Son of Man is a Messianic title from the Old Testament

The title: “Son of Man” was a reference to a prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

This description of the “Son of Man” matches that descriptions of the Messiah found elsewhere in the Old Testament. What is particularly interesting is that the Son of Man is exalted, divine, and is sent from Heaven – and yet, is distinct from “the Ancient of Days”. This is in line with Trinitarian theology, which states that the Son and the Father are distinct persons within the Godhead.

The Son of Man according to this prophecy is both human and exalted. He does the work which only God can do, indicating that he is God, and yet he is distinct from the “Ancient of Days” who sends him. This tells us that the Messiah would be human, but he would also be God at the same time, while a distinct person from the “Ancient of Days”, AKA the Father.

As I discussed in a previous post – Why Did Jesus Tell Some People to Keep Quiet About His Miracles and Identity? – although Jesus was sometimes very explicit about his identity, other times Jesus was more subtle and implicit in how he revealed his identity. In that post I delve into some reasons why that was, but here it suffices to say that by using the term “Son of Man”, Jesus was using a term by which those who had ears to hear would pick up what he was putting down.

Son of Man speaks to Jesus’ humanity

The term Son of Man emphasizes the fact that Jesus was truly and fully human. Although he was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, he is nevertheless fully human.

Why are you telling me this?

Remember that the Gospels were written by humans under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What that means is that there is a particular telos or objective inherent to what they have written and how they have written it. This is true of any historical account: any time anyone tells a story, they include certain details and leave out other details depending on what they want to emphasize for their audience. This is true of the Gospels as well. So what is the telos or objective of the Gospel writers in making sure we know that Jesus often used the title “Son of Man” in referring to himself (other than the fact that he actually did)? Probably it is to emphasize that Jesus was truly and fully human.

Trinitarian theology

We know from early church history, that there was a tendency amongst some Christians to emphasize the deity of Christ to the negation of His humanity. The converse was also true, and these discussions and debates culminated with the codifying of the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and in the Athanasian Creed. Even to this day, there are some Christians, e.g. Coptic Christians, who are “monophysites”, which means that they believe that Jesus only had one nature: a divine one, and that he was not fully human. The use of the term “Son of Man” emphasized Jesus’ true humanity.

Son of Man actually had more significance in that context than Son of God

To the Jewish mind, the term Son of God might be used to refer to any person without too much controversy, because they would agree that we are all created by God, and therefore could be called “sons” of God. For example, Psalm 82:6 says, “You are all sons of the Most High.”

The same could be said of “Son of Man” for that matter, in the sense that all humans are sons or daughters of men. The difference is that in the Jewish context, the term “Son of Man” actually carried more significance because of Daniel’s prophecy.

Remember that Jesus actually did call himself the Son of God on several occasions, as John’s gospel in particular records. Again, this gets to the point of the telos of John’s gospel, which is to emphasize Jesus’ deity – whereas other gospels aim to emphasize his humanity.

But it is not only in John’s gospel that we see Jesus being called “Son of God”, which reminds us of the importance of his two-fold nature as both fully God and fully man, a nature that was necessary in order for him to be the perfect Savior that we need.

A case study

I will leave you with these words from Mark’s gospel:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

Notice in this text:

  • Jesus said he is the Son of God
  • Jesus called himself the Son of Man – and connected that term with the imagery directly from Daniel 7:13-14
  • This was understood by the Jewish people to be a claim of deity, which is why they accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.

Do Christians Pick and Choose When It Comes to Old Testament Laws?

One of the criticisms that is sometimes aimed at Christians, is that we “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws, applying some of them to today, and not others. For example, we agree with the command “You shall not commit adultery”, but we seem to ignore other commands, such as the command not to eat pork and shellfish, or not to wear clothing made of fabrics made up of more than one material (i.e. that poly-cotton blend shirt). Why, someone might ask, do Christians say that the commandments about certain sexual behaviors are still applicable, but they don’t say the same about other commandments, such as executing people for breaking the Sabbath? Aren’t they just arbitrarily picking and choosing according to whatever they deem convenient for them?

The answer is: because we must differentiate between the different types of laws in the Old Testament. To do so isn’t arbitrary at all, in fact it is the only faithful way of handling the Old Testament laws.

John Calvin, the 16th-century reformer, pointed out that the New Testament treated the 613 Old Testament laws in three different ways. There were:

  • Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, dealing with behaviors and the punishments for crimes.
  • Ceremonial Laws, about “clean” and “unclean” things, various sacrifices and other ritual practices.
  • Moral laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong, such as the 10 Commandments.

For the people of Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a moral law had civil and ceremonial consequences. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem. These laws went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, being both a nation and a worshiping community. God was their sovereign, their king, their ruler, not only over their worship, but over their entire civil society. They had no concept of “the separation of church and state.” Since that is the case for us today, our relationship to the Law is obviously different.

This helps us to understand what often seems contradictory about the New Testament view of the Law. The New Testament says that Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and because of what He did in his life, death and resurrection, we are released from the Law (Romans 7:1-6; Galatians 3:25).

Understanding how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we still look to some of the Old Testament laws to instruct and guide us, and “ignore” others.

The Civil Laws were set up to benefit the nation of Israel. However, we are not bound by the civil codes of the Old Testament because there is no longer a theocratic nation-state on earth. We may wisely glean from some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws, such as those regarding public health, caring for the poor, etc. – but in Christ, we have become a “new nation”, the people of God spread out through every tribe, tongue and nation of the Earth, who are subject to the ruling authorities of our respective countries when it comes to civil laws (see Romans 13:1-7)

Things like not eating shellfish, for example, were incredibly thoughtful and merciful commands in the ancient world, for people who did not have refrigeration and did not understand microbes and bacteria. The same is true of pork. As they submitted to these laws without understanding why God had commanded them or what God’s purpose was with them, even if they might have seemed arbitrary to them at the timethe Jewish people benefited from them. There is certainly a lesson for us in that in regard to obeying God’s commands, even when we don’t understand why He has given them.

The Ceremonial Laws illustrate God’s holiness and our unholiness and the inherent problem that we have in approaching God. As the book of Hebrews shows us, the sacrifices were fulfilled in Jesus’ perfect life and death. He is the final sacrifice, who cleanses us inwardly, not only outwardly, and makes us acceptable before God.

The Moral Laws were fulfilled by Jesus in that He lived a perfect life, free of moral failure. Unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were bound to particular times and situations, the moral laws show God’s assessment of good and evil, right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since His character doesn’t change, neither do His views on morality. In fact, whenever Jesus talked about the moral laws, he either re-affirmed them or intensified them! (see Matthew 5:21-48).

Thus the reason why Christians “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws is not at all arbitrary, rather it is faithful to understanding the roles and purpose of the different laws, and it is faithful to the teaching of the New Testament.

For more on the topic of the moral law, read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer is More than Just Showing You that You Need a Savior

The Hurricane Has Become Human

N.T. Wright, in the introduction to his book, For All God’s Worth, writes:

How can you cope with the end of one world and the beginning of another one? Or the thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire became flesh, that life itself came to life and walked in our midst?

This, he goes on to say, is what Christianity is all about. And the question for us is: how ought we to respond to such news? The answer is: Worship. That is the only appropriate response.

What is he referring to?

In the Old Testament, when God appeared to the people it was often a terrifying experience. God appeared to Job in the form of a tempest (AKA “hurricane”). When God appeared to the people of Israel in the wilderness on Mt. Sinai, it was in the form of a consuming fire, essentially a fire-storm of lightning and fire on top of the mountain. The message was: God is inapproachable. To attempt to come near to Him would result in certain death… God even told Moses that if anyone would see Him in His glory, they would surely die.

And yet, the incredible message of Christianity is that in the person of Jesus, “the hurricane became human,” that the “fire became flesh” and “life itself came to life and walked in our midst.” And as a result of what he did, we have the promise and the hope of the end of this corrupt world and the advent of a new and better world to come.

To really understand this, Wright says, to take it seriously, means that the only appropriate response is “sheer unadulterated worship of the True and Living God and following Him wherever He leads.”

“Worship,” he says, “is not an optional extra for Christians, nor a self-indulgent religious activity. It is the basic Christian stance and the only truly human stance.”

Worship is not an optional extra for Christians, a self-indulgent religious activity. It is the basic Christian stance and the only truly human stance.

He goes on to say that many people view Christianity as a being something which gives them a sense of comfort and nostalgia. This should not actually be the case if someone really understands what Christianity is about. Rather than making you feel cozy, the gospel message is one that upturns every area of your life.

Wright says Christmas is a perfect example of this:

Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas is not another reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in the room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in the room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St. John, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Christmas then, and Christianity as a whole, is not about escapism, it’s about reality. It’s about how God has intervened in our world, and as a result, everything has and will change. The only proper response to this is to worship God for all he’s worth.

Part of that response, part of that worship, is to take up God’s mission. As John Piper says, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.”

May we truly understand the weight of the Christian message: “the end of one world and the beginning of another” — and may we be moved towards this rhythm of response: Worship and Mission.

For more on worship and mission, check out these recent messages from White Fields Church: