Weekly Worship Service
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Honoring our mothers
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In a recent online search, I learned that 54 countries, including the United States, celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May (May 13, this year). Other countries celebrate something similar on other days of the year. For example, the UK celebrates “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday during Lent. The roots of that celebration are the tradition of visiting one’s “mother church” (where you were baptized). As time progressed, the day became a time to give honor to one’s birth mother. While I believe it’s appropriate to take a day each year to give honor to our human mothers, I also think (in the spirit of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:46-50) that it is good and right that we give honor to our spiritual mother, the church.
Honoring our mother, the church
Though some Christians ignore and even dishonor the church, Scripture teaches us to give her the highest honor. Protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin did just that, teaching that the church is necessary for the spiritual growth and well-being of all believers:
Let us learn even from the simple title “mother,” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her…. I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith… so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4:26). (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.1)
In a couple of books on evangelical theology, Sung Wook Chung (Professor at Denver Seminary) notes that Calvin identified six functions of the church as our mother:
- Conception: God’s people are conceived in the womb of the church through the power of the Spirit and the Word.
- Birth: God’s people receive life (regeneration) by the Spirit within the context of the church.
- Spiritual nourishment: The church “nourishes us at her breast” (Inst. 4.1.4).
- Care and guidance: The church takes care of us throughout our lives, offering direction and counsel.
- Forgiveness and salvation: We cannot hope for either forgiveness or salvation “away from her bosom” (Inst. 4.1.4). As bearer of the gospel and as led by the Spirit, the church is God’s agent of forgiveness and salvation in the world.
- Cultivation of godliness and piety: In the fellowship of the church we are shepherded by and for good works.
The apostle Paul, whom God used to establish the church among the gentiles, compared his ministry to that of a nursing mother caring for her children (1 Thess. 2:7). He also compared Christ’s relationship with his church to a husband’s relationship with his wife (Eph. 5:25-32). Closely aligned (though not perfectly parallel), Jesus, the head of the church, compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to provide protection (Luke 13:34). Down through the ages, teachers of the church, including Calvin, added these biblical images and metaphors up, and recognized how fitting it is to identify the church’s ministry as spiritual “mothering.”
Happy Mother’s Day!
As Mother’s Day draws near here in the U.S., I am remembering my baptism and the care I have received from my spiritual mother, the church, and the good works of my human mother who nurtured me in the ways of God. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you reading this who are human mothers, and also to our spiritual mother the church.
PS: In the We’re Often Asked section of the GCI website, we addresses the importance of our mother, the church (also referred to in Scripture as “the body of Christ”):
God calls sinners into the fellowship of the saints, which is the body of Christ. Regardless of denomination or choice of Christian congregation, the spiritual nurture of fellow Christians is essential for a faithful life in Christ. It is from Christ that “the whole body [is] joined and held together by every supporting ligament… as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Speaking of the importance of the church in the lives of Christians, Paul wrote: “It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
For more about the nature and functioning of the church, see Section 9 in GCI’s new publication, We Believe.
Are we “evangelicals”?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I was talking recently with a member who was wondering where Grace Communion International fits within the larger body of Christ. Noting that GCI is not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, they asked, “Does that mean we’re Protestant?” I answered yes, and they continued: “Since we’re not liberal or fundamentalist Christians, does that mean GCI is evangelical?” Again, my answer was yes, though as I’ll point out in this letter, the term “evangelical” is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Note this comment from Christian scholar and professor Mark Noll:
In the rough and tumble world of American politics, the label [evangelical] is now often used simply for the most active religious supporters of President Donald Trump. By contrast, in the rarified world of professional scholarship, academics now sometimes treat it as a term with so much ambiguity, fluidity and imprecision that it cannot meaningfully designate any single group of Christians. (Source)
Despite the ambiguity and controversy swirling around the term evangelical, Professor Noll believes that it does have continuing value and should not be abandoned. He concludes: “When used with responsible attention to history and careful focus on generally accepted norms of… definition, [it] can still communicate reality and not just confusion.”
A related question is this: Who gets to define who and what an evangelical is? Often overlooked in answering that question is that, first and foremost, evangelical is a theological identifier. Before it identifies a group of people, it identifies the gospel (the evangel) of Jesus. It is first Jesus’ gospel, not ours—it is first about him, not about us. Those who rightly call themselves evangelicals are careful to point first to Jesus and his gospel, and then to what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Faithfulness to the gospel is measured by faithfulness to the Bible, whose authors were appointed by Jesus. Central to the Scriptures are the four Gospels authored by the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As these authors show, Jesus is the gospel—he is the true evangelical!
Sadly, for many in North American society, the term evangelical is defined not by Jesus and his gospel, but by the media and entertainment industry, along with politicians, psychologists, sociologists and historians—people often with little or no understanding of the biblical and theological roots and meaning of the term evangelical. The result is the confusion, controversy and outright misrepresentations that swirl around the term in our culture today.
To add to the problem, there are religious leaders who call themselves evangelicals but, at best, are on the extreme edges of what theologically can rightly be called evangelical. Some of these leaders are hypocrites who, wanting to justify themselves or cover up their unfaithful ways, co-opt the label evangelical. Though these pretenders are rightly criticized, the media often portray evangelicals as a monolithic group that is largely white, privileged, ultra-right-wing, racist and homophobic. The unfortunate result is that all who call themselves evangelical are tarred with the same brush by the media, casting a spell of guilt-by-association on those who, in actuality, rightly bear the name evangelical.
The reality is that evangelicals are not a monolithic group—in fact, they are quite diverse, including racially and ethnically, as shown in this chart:
In an article published by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Ed Stetzer notes that research on evangelical identity has tended to focus on three measures: behavior, belonging and belief. The article quotes NAE President Leith Anderson who, in weighing up the research, notes that “evangelicals must be defined primarily by their beliefs rather than politics or race.” Stetzer then offers this:
In the hopes of crafting a consensus definition of core evangelical beliefs, we evaluated the statements of a diverse group of sociologists, theologians and evangelical leaders. In weighing the insights of these leaders, LifeWay Research developed a definition of evangelical belief around strong agreement with these four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. (Source)
GCI agrees with these statements, though we would locate them within the larger theological context of our whole Statement of Beliefs. Our agreement is reflected by our membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (in the U.S.), the World Evangelical Alliance, the Evangelical Alliance (in the UK and Philippines) and similar organizations elsewhere. The beliefs and ideals that characterize these evangelical organizations are addressed in The Capetown Commitment, an 80-page document that resulted from deliberations at the Third Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization. If you’d like to learn more about what it means to be evangelical, I highly recommend that you read this document.
As a denomination, churches and individuals, we are healthy when we are living out our biblically based, evangelical beliefs. With that in mind, I close with the admirable example of one of our retired pastors, Don Lawson. For many years Don served GCI-USA as a pastor then as a district superintendent. Following retirement, Don experienced severe health problems, had to be hospitalized, then spent time rehabilitating in an assisted-care facility. Don sent me a note recently, letting me know he had returned home. His note included this:
About a month ago, the nurse in charge of memory care, where [my wife] Sue lives, asked if I would do a church service each Sunday for the Alzheimer’s patients in her ward. I agreed, and have spoken to them for the last three weeks. What a challenge for an 81-year-old, but I enjoyed it. We have had an average of 15 attending and I will continue to help them as long as I am able. My purpose is to try to find a level of teaching they might understand. I begin with He knows my name. Second: Jesus loves me this I know (and some sang along with me). Third: What is Jesus doing now? (I talked about a place of eternal joy and happiness, with no sorrow or tears).
That’s what being an evangelical looks like, and that’s the gospel evangelicals love to share!
Gospel blessings to you all,
PS: Is the evangelical movement in the U.S. and elsewhere perfect? Of course not, and its leaders know that. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, a denominationally, racially, ethnically and politically diverse group of 50 prominent evangelical leaders met at Wheaton College, west of Chicago. Their purpose was to discuss the current condition of the evangelical movement in the U.S. According to Skye Jethani, a meeting participant,
We gathered to have an honest, and at times uncomfortable, conversation about the current state of American evangelicalism. The focus of the dialogue was not the [U.S.] President or any current policy matters. The focus was how to have a consistent Christian public witness that affirms the dignity of all people as created in the image of God. We explored our history and affirmed when evangelicals did this well, and when necessary we lamented when we have not. There were extended times of prayer, confession, repentance and open discussion. (From a post on Skye Jethani’s Facebook page, 4/20/2018)
The apostle to the Apostles
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Several early Christian writers call Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the Apostles.” We learn why in John chapter 20:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Mary Magdalene was among several women who were followers of Jesus. She had been present at Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and with some other women had gone to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body (Mark 15:47-16:8; Luke 23:55-24:11; Matt. 28:1-10). She was also the first person of either gender to encounter the risen Lord, and the first to testify to the resurrection when she informed the apostles that Jesus was alive. No wonder she is called “the apostle to the Apostles”—a title that highlights how Jesus held women in high esteem and included them in his ministry.
In a culture where a woman’s testimony was not legally valid, it was shocking that Jesus chose a woman to be the first person to testify to his resurrection. This was even more shocking when you consider Mary Magdalen’s background. She is thought to be the unnamed penitent woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair, then anointed his feet with expensive perfume (Luke 7:36-48). From that passage, plus the statement in Luke 8:2 that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary, the tradition arose that she had been a prostitute before becoming a follower of Jesus. Mary is thus a powerful demonstration of the redemption and transformation that comes to anyone who in faith, and with repentance, follows Jesus.
Can you imagine how Mary Magdalene felt that Easter morning? She no doubt excitedly testified to Jesus’ resurrection—doing the work of an evangelist! In doing so, perhaps she shared the story of her own life. Understanding that Mary had been a demon-possessed prostitute prior to becoming a follower of Jesus highlights the amazing power of Jesus to redeem and transform people. Her life was a powerful witness to the gospel of God’s grace. What a wonderful example of how God reaches out to all people, inviting them to receive Jesus with an open heart and mind, trusting him as Lord and Savior.
Just as Mary played a foundational role in the ministry of Jesus, in GCI we have hundreds of women who faithfully serve as ministers of Jesus Christ in various roles, including that of lead pastor. I thank God for these women. I also thank our triune God who, in love, reaches out to all humanity, calling all sorts of people in all kinds of situations to worship him and to share in his ongoing mission to a sin-sick world.
I wish you all a wonderful Holy Week as we gather to prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and to joyfully celebrate his resurrection.
Our amazing God
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
God challenged Abraham: “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them” (Gen. 15:5). Abraham couldn’t, and neither can we—only God knows the number, though astronomers estimate there are 100 billion galaxies in the universe, with about 100 billion stars added annually. God’s challenge to Abraham points out the limitations we have as humans in contrast with God’s omniscience. In this letter we’ll look at three additional characteristics of our amazing God: his uniqueness, his self-existence and his incorporeality.
The truth that God is unique is the bedrock of both Christianity and Judaism. Renowned Jewish rabbi Maimonides wrote that God is “perfect in every possible way… the ultimate cause of all existence.” Though a piece of candy can be said to be unique, there are many candies to delight our palates. I have a unique painting in my office, yet there are many unique paintings. Each fingerprint and snowflake is, in a sense, unique, yet they are in the same class with many others. Moreover, they are created. In contrast, God, who is uncreated, is in a class all his own—there are no other eternal, uncreated things. All that exists other than God is created or is the product of creation. God, alone, is truly unique, one-of-a-kind. Understanding that truth exposes as heresy the idea that our destiny as humans is to become God.
God is self-existent. He cannot create another God because the second would be dependent for its existence on the first, creator God. Understanding God’s self-existence exposes another heresy—the idea that there are two separate “God beings.” That belief is called ditheism (two Gods). But the Bible declares in no uncertain terms that there is one and only one God—a self-existent being. Therefore, God says in the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).
God is incorporeal in that he is not a creature—he is not limited to bodily existence. Therefore, God is not comparable to anything that has physical or empirical existence. Yes, it is true that the Bible has hundreds of descriptions of God as having corporeal characteristics. However, all of them are metaphorical descriptions, and are not to be taken literally. God is not literally a rock, a mother hen, or a door. God is spirit, and in talking about God, the Bible often uses anthropomorphisms—descriptors borrowed from human experience such as walking, standing, sitting and speaking. Such descriptors, when used concerning God, are intended to help us understand something of God’s character and nature—they are metaphors that convey who God is and what his will is in ways we can grasp. As the Jewish Midrash explains, “The Torah speaks the language of man” (Sifre 112). Calvin addressed this by noting that God “accommodates” himself to us—he speaks to us as a mother might coo towards her newborn infant.
Beware faulty reasoning
In attempting to define God, some people (even some Christians) mistakenly begin with themselves and then compare God to what they know about themselves. Through this wrong-headed attempt to fit God into their own frame of reference, they distort the biblical view of God, turning God into an idol that is congenial to their own liking. Fourth-century theologian Athanasius saw this problem in the teachings of Arius, recognizing that Arius was thinking out of a center in himself—seeing God in terms that apply to creatures, not God. According to Athanasius, Arius was teaching mythology, not proper theology. In doing so, he was rationalizing away God’s true glory.
In our day, some teachers are doing the same thing in teaching various heresies about God including the claim that God is a family. That false teaching is a form of polytheism—a pagan doctrine found in the pantheon of gods worshiped by the Akkadians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and found in the ancestor worship of the Far East.
Other misperceptions concerning the true nature of God are prevalent in our day. Two that are growing in popularity are open theism and process theology. Both limit God’s foreknowledge and omniscience, and process theology denies God’s omnipotence and the biblical teaching of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Process theology also affirms classical panentheism—the idea that God and the world are mutually interdependent. These and other theological errors arise out of thinking about God as if he is a creature. As forms of mythology, these teachings are idolatrous.
God not only created all the stars, as the psalmist says, he “gives names to all of them…. His understanding is infinite” (Ps. 147:4-5 NASB). Because our human understanding is limited, we are subject to error. As Albert Einstein said, we humans have “been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly how utterly inadequate that intelligence is.” Yet, despite our human limitations, God, in his love and mercy, will not let us remain blinded by heretical teachings concerning who he is. In his time, he reveals himself to us in accordance with his self-revelation in Jesus Christ, who alone knows and has seen the Father (Matt. 11:27).
Thankful that God in his freedom has chosen to reveal himself to us,
Equip the equippers
Our “From the President” letter this time is from GCI Vice President Greg Williams.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On a recent video chat with publications editors Ted Johnston and Rick Shallenberger, we discussed GCI Update and GCI Equipper, our two primary international denominational publications. We came to the “profound” conclusion that the purpose for Update is to provide updates (on congregations, ministries, people and programs) and the purpose for Equipper is to provide equipping (for pastors and ministry leaders). If that conclusion seems obvious, that’s good—it’s important to return to the basics from time to time.
Thinking about the basics reminds me that Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi would begin each training camp, football in hand, addressing his highly-skilled group of professional players with these words: “Gentlemen, this is a football!” In that back-to-the-basics spirit I want to explore in this letter the purpose for Equipper, which is to equip pastors and ministry leaders to participate with the Spirit in equipping our members for their ministry with Jesus. Said more simply, Equipper exists to equip the equippers.
Let’s unpack that thought by exploring the biblical definition of the word equip. In the New Testament, it translates the Greek word katartizo, which appears first in Mark 1:19 and Matthew 4:21 where James and John are katartizo-ing (preparing, mending, repairing, restoring) their nets for what those nets are made for: to catch fish.
The principal message behind that Gospel story is that Jesus had come to mend, repair, restore and prepare James and John (and the other apostles-in-training) for their calling: to catch people. All members of the church, old and young, share in this calling to participate with Jesus in what he is doing to minister to all humanity. To advance this ministry of all believers, Jesus extends a particular calling to church leaders (including, in our context, pastors and ministry leaders):
Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip [katartismos] his people for works of service [“ministry” ESV], so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:11-13, emphasis added)
Jesus placed ministry leadership offices within his body, the church, so that other members are equipped (restored, mended, prepared and outfitted) for their various works of ministry in and through the church. The overall goal is that the people of God, through this ministry, will grow into the maturity of Jesus himself. Please read that again, and let it soak in!
In accord with the New Testament use of katartizo, equipping involves restoration, healing and other forms of outfitting. Thus the equipping that church leaders are to be involved in has to do with helping willing members identify and live into their calling to participate in the ministry of Jesus in and through the church. This equipping involves many tasks, including counseling, training, teaching, apprenticing, affirming-appointing, deploying, coaching and superintending. The overall goal throughout is to help them become who they truly are (and are becoming) in Christ.
This brief overview of what the Bible says about equipping for ministry points to our basic purpose in publishing GCI Equipper each month (online at https://equipper.gci.org). Its articles, features and RCL-synced sermon manuscripts seek to remind us that our ultimate source of strength is Jesus, and that our works of service with our Lord are meant to help us help others grow into the fulness of the maturity of Christ. Toward that end, it is our plan that Equipper will continue to address a wide range of equipping topics, including prayer, worship, preaching, missional living, developing Christ-like leaders, building and growing the community of the church, etc. It is our aim to provide information and inspiration that helps pastors and ministry leaders be the very best equippers they can be.
Thanks to all of you who serve as leader-equippers in the body of Christ. I pray this blessing over you:
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Heb. 13:20-21)
The mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that is at work within you—equipping you for doing our Lord’s work. It is this power that mends everything torn apart in us, that repairs everything broken in us, and that restores to us a life that is new in Christ. Dear fellow-minister, you are equipped in Jesus, so be equipped, and then participate in the powerful ministry of Jesus in equipping others!
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
PS: If you would like to subscribe to GCI Equipper in order to receive notification by email on the day it is published online, go to https://equipper.gci.org/subscribe.
Does grace mean tolerance of sin?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I have had conversations with many people who think that to live fully in God’s grace, they must be tolerant of sin. Perhaps they came to that erroneous conclusion because their goal was merely to avoid legalism. But the Bible tells us that living in grace means rejecting sin, not tolerating or accepting it. The Bible is clear: God is against sin—he hates it. Scripture says that God, refusing to leave us in our sinful condition, sent his Son to deliver us. God could not possibly be for us without being fully against what is against us.
Jesus taught against sin. In addressing a woman who had been caught in adultery, he said, “I do not condemn you…. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11 NASB). Jesus’ statement demonstrates his contempt for sin and conveys a grace that confronts sin with redemptive love. It would be a tragic mistake to view Jesus’ willingness to become our Savior as tolerance of sin. The Son of God became one of us, precisely because he was completely intolerant of sin’s deceptive and destructive power. Instead of accepting our sin, he took it upon himself, submitting it to God’s judgment, to be obliterated through his self-offering on our behalf.
As we look around at the fallen world we live in and as we look into our own lives, it’s obvious that God allows sin to occur. However, Scripture is clear that God hates sin. Why? Because of the damage it wreaks upon us. Sin hurts us—it hurts our relationship with him and with others; it keeps us from living in the truth and the fullness of who we are, his beloved. In dealing with our sin in and through Jesus, God does not immediately remove us from all of sin’s enslaving consequences. But that does not mean that his grace gives us permission to continue sinning. God’s grace is not his passive tolerance of sin.
As Christians, we live under grace—freed from the ultimate penalties of sin because of Jesus’ sacrifice. As workers with Christ, we teach and preach grace in a way that gives people hope and a clearer image of God as their loving, forgiving Father. But that message comes with a warning—remember the apostle Paul’s question: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4 ESV). He also said this: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1-2).
The truth of God’s grace is never meant to encourage us to remain in our sin. Grace is God’s provision in Jesus to release us not only from the guilt and shame of sin, but also from its distorting, enslaving power. As Jesus said, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34) and as Paul warned, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Rom. 6: 16). Sinning is a serious matter for it enslaves us to the influence of evil.
This understanding of sin and its consequences does not lead us to heap words of condemnation on people. Instead, our words, as Paul noted, are to be “always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). Our words should convey hope, telling both of God’s forgiveness of sin in Christ, and his eventual triumph over all evil. To speak of one without the other is a distortion of the message of grace. As Paul notes, God in his grace will never leave us enslaved to evil: “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance” (Rom. 6:17).
As we grow in our understanding of the truth of God’s grace, we understand more and more why God loathes sin—it harms and hurts his creation, it destroys right relationships with others, and it slanders the character of God with lies about God, undermining a trusting relationship with God. What, then, do we do when we see a loved one sinning? We don’t condemn them, but we do hate the sinful behavior that is harming them (and perhaps others). We hope and pray that our loved one will be freed from their sin and, as we are able, we reach out to help.
Paul is a powerful example of what God’s grace accomplishes in a person’s life. Prior to conversion, Paul violently persecuted Christians. He stood by (perhaps throwing stones) as Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:54–8:1a). Because he was vividly aware of the tremendous grace he received for the horrible sins of his past, grace remained a theme of Paul’s life as he fulfilled his calling to serve Jesus: “I consider my own life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).
In Paul’s writings, we find an interweaving of grace and truth in what he taught under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We also see that God radically transformed Paul from an ill-tempered legalist who persecuted Christians, to a humble servant of Jesus who was fully aware of his own sin and of God’s mercy in adopting him as his child. Paul embraced the grace of God, and throughout his life devoted himself to proclaiming it, no matter what the cost.
Following Paul’s example, our conversation and counsel to others should be grounded in God’s amazing grace for all sinners, and God’s firm teaching that we are to live lives apart from sin—the life that God’s grace frees us to live. We are to “encourage one another daily… so that none of [us] may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). When we find people living in opposition to God’s goodness, rather than condemning them, we are to gently instruct them, “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
Comforted and instructed by God’s grace and truth,
How archaeology confirms the Bible
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I enjoy reading about archaeology—it’s an important and fascinating field of study that helps us understand how ancient people lived and how their civilizations developed. Though archaeology adds greatly to our understanding of the ancient world (including the world of the Bible), it is not accurate to say that archaeology “proves” the Bible. Though the Bible contains history, it is not primarily a book of history. Its main purpose is to share the story of God’s love and faithfulness, pointing us to Jesus. That information is primarily theological and thus cannot be “proved” from the artifacts of history. Such truths must be revealed to us by God himself, and he has used Holy Scripture as his tool.
That being said, archaeology does add to our understanding of the Bible. With the unearthing of ancient artifacts in the Near East, many archaeologists have seen the need to take a fresh look at the biblical account. The reality is that no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted those aspects of the biblical record that can be corroborated by archeological means. Steven Ortiz, professor of archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Charles D. Tandy Institute for Archaeology, teaches that when irregularities occur, or conflicts arise between the findings of archaeology and the Bible, it has turned out that it is our interpretation of scripture that needed correcting. That’s a lesson worth remembering.
There are many reputable books and magazine articles that show how archaeology confirms the historicity of the biblical record. A 2014 article in Biblical Archaeology Review summarizes the archaeological evidence for the existence of 53 biblical characters (click here to read it). An article in the archaeology journal Bible and Spade provides the following list of archaeological findings that verify the historical and cultural accuracy of the Bible:
- The palace at Jericho where Eglon, king of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud (Judges 3:15-30).
- The east gate of Shechem where Gaal and Zebul watched the forces of Abimelech approach the city (Judges 9:34-38).
- The Temple of Baal/El-Berith in Shechem, where funds were obtained to finance Abimelech’s kingship, and where the citizens of Shechem took refuge when Abimelech attacked the city (Judges 9:4, 46-49).
- The pool of Gibeon where the forces of David and Ishbosheth fought during the struggle for the kingship of Israel (2 Sam. 2:12-32).
- The Pool of Heshbon, likened to the eyes of the Shulammite woman (Song of Songs 7:4).
- The royal palace at Samaria where the kings of Israel lived (1 Kings 20:43; 21:1; 22:39; 2 Kings 1:2; 15:25).
- The Pool of Samaria where King Ahab’s chariot was washed after his death (1 Kings 22:29-38).
- The water tunnel beneath Jerusalem dug by King Hezekiah to provide water during the Assyrian siege (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chron. 32:30).
- The royal palace in Babylon where King Belshazzar held the feast and Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5).
- The royal palace in Susa where Esther was queen of the Persian king Xerxes (Esther 1:2; 2:3, 5, 9, 16).
- The royal gate at Susa where Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, sat (Esther 2:19, 21; 3:2, 3; 4:2; 5:9, 13; 6:10, 12).
- The square in front of the royal gate at Susa where Mordecai met with Halthach, Xerxes’ eunuch (Esther 4:6).
- The foundation of the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus cured a man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28) and delivered the sermon on the bread of life (John 6:25-59).
- The house of Peter at Capernaum where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and others (Matt. 8:14-16).
- Jacob’s well where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman (John 4).
- The Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where Jesus healed a crippled man (John 5:1-14).
- The Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where Jesus healed a blind man (John 9:1-4).
- The tribunal at Corinth where Paul was tried (Acts 18:12-17).
- The theater at Ephesus where the riot of silversmiths occurred (Acts 19:29).
- Herod’s palace at Caesarea where Paul was kept under guard (Acts 23:33-35).
The biblical record has been confirmed through many archaeological excavations, including these three:
Excavation at Bagazkoy, Turkey
Though mentioned 50 times in the Old Testament, the Hittites were once thought to be nothing more than a biblical legend, casting doubt on the validity of people mentioned in the Old Testament such as Ahimelech the Hittite (1 Sam. 26:6) and Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 23:39). The first mention of Hittites in Scripture is with the story of Abraham, who bought a field from Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 15:20; 23:3-18). Later, Esau took two wives from amongst the Hittites (Gen. 26:34; 36:2). Archaeologists excavated the ancient Hittite capital city of Hattusa (modern day Bogazkoy, Turkey) in the late 19th and early 20th century. They found many records, which were corroborated by other extra-biblical references of the Hittite civilization.
Excavation at Ebla, Syria
At right is a picture of one of the 1800 clay tablets (dated from around 2300 B.C.) discovered in the 1970s in Ebla, Syria. Critics and skeptics said that the name Canaan was not in use at such an early date and the word tehom (“the deep” used in Gen. 1:2) was said to be a late word demonstrating the late writing of the creation story. When archaeologists failed to find widespread destruction of Canaanite cities, they at first dismissed the Bible’s account of Joshua’s conquest. But when they looked at the book of Joshua more closely, they realized that only three cities were destroyed: Jericho, Ai and Hazor. This Ebla tablet demonstrates that the word tehom was in use at Ebla about 800 years before Moses, and it included the term Canaan. Ancient customs reflected in the stories of the Patriarchs have also been found in clay tablets from other archeological sites including Nuzi and Mari.
Excavation at Tel Dan, Israel
In 1993, a broken fragment of basalt stone was discovered at Tel Dan (at the foot of Mt. Hermon) in the north of Israel. The fragment came from a large stone about 12.5 inches high and 8.7 inches wide. Apparently, the stone had been purposely broken in antiquity. The fragment mentions King David’s dynasty, “the House of David.” Two additional fragments were recovered in two separate locations in 1994. According to pottery fragments recovered in probes beneath the flagstone pavement where the fragments were found, they were laid at the end of the 9th or beginning of the 8th century B.C. This discovery provided an archaeological connection to the biblical references of the ruling dynasty established by King David approximately two centuries before the events mentioned in the inscription. Not only is this the first mention of King David, it is also the earliest mention of a biblical figure outside of the Bible.
These and many other archaeological discoveries have confirmed the historicity of the biblical account. That does not surprise me, though it does fascinate me! If you’d like to read about more such discoveries, I recommend the e-book, Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries. To request a free copy, click here.
Appreciating how archaeology confirms the Bible,
In the exchange zone
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Shortly after our Denominational Conference in Orlando, GCI President Joseph Tkach and I were on what we call a “field trip”—an extended lunch to talk and share. On the drive to the restaurant, Joe looked over at me and said the time had come for him to decrease and for me to increase. His plan is that I “ride shotgun” alongside him throughout 2018, gradually taking on the duties of GCI President. This transition plan calls for me to write half of the GCI Update cover letters (like this one) and to be a guest presenter on our Speaking of Life program (click here to watch one). It is humbling and exciting to be on this journey, and I am thankful for Joe’s guiding hand. In this letter, I want to share some of the details of what lies ahead.
A major focus for us in the Home Office over the next few months is our move to Charlotte, the “Queen City” of North Carolina. After being in California for 70 years, we’re relocating 2,400 miles to the east, where we’ll be housed in the office building pictured below. We refer to the move as MOCHA (short for MOve to CHArlotte), and since it will be completed in April (only three months away!), we’re calling it MOCHA express!
MOCHA express involves a good deal of physical and mental exertion as we reconfigure Home Office operations to fit the new location: Is the server working? Where is the copy room? How do I get a cup of coffee around here? Then there are the many personal adjustments related to setting up new homes in Charlotte: Where is the post office? What’s the best grocery store? Who can I trust to work on my car? What’s the best route to the office?
Reconfiguring the Home Office team
The move also brings the emotional challenge of saying good-bye to California friends, family and some long-time GCI employees who are retiring or not making the move for other reasons (Joe will share details in a future issue of GCI Update). These changes in the Home Office team will leave some big holes that will need to be filled by adding new responsibilities to the employees who are relocating and by adding some new faces to the team. While it will be exciting to bring in some younger employees, it will also be a challenge to find our new “operational balance” as we land in North Carolina.
Strengthening international connections
A big challenge I face in preparing to take on the mantle of GCI President, is to gain greater insight into GCI’s international operations. I’m grateful that over the last four years I’ve been able to attend Joseph Tkach’s annual planning meeting with our international Mission Developers and National Leaders. These fine men and women have graciously accepted me, and I feel like I already have a strong, collegial connection with most of them. I look forward to getting to know all of them better as we partner together in the gospel work of Jesus.
I’m already laying the groundwork for what lies ahead. I’m surveying the international leaders to gain their insights and knowledge related to needed modifications to structures and working rhythms. I’m also making plans for the 2018 international planning meeting to be held in Charlotte in October. During this year, I’ll be making three strategic international trips to help me understand more clearly how the Lord is moving within GCI around the globe. I’m tremendously excited to have a direct part in all of this.
Passing the baton
In my work as Director of GCI-USA Church Administration and Development (CAD), I’ve greatly enjoyed making deep investments into the CAD team. I have great confidence in these trusted brothers and sisters, and can easily brag about the good job each is doing in serving our U.S. pastors and churches. Though I will still be available to the CAD team, what we’ve achieved together over the past three years makes it possible for me to focus more of my time within what Joe calls the exchange zone—the area on the track where, in a relay race, one runner passes the baton onto the next.
As I write, what lies ahead feels a bit weighty. Yet, because of Joe’s guidance, and the assistance of the other good people surrounding me, it also feels like a good fit. I have the peace of God that truly does pass human understanding. Thank you, Holy Spirit!
I solicit your prayers for Joe and for me as we traverse through our exchange zone, preparing to pass the leadership baton between us at the end of this year. I ask that you be in prayer concerning the many transitions that will be happening throughout 2018. Joe and I deeply appreciate those prayers, feeling in a tangible way the energy and comfort they provide.
With great appreciation,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
Looking forward to transitions in 2018
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
GCI Vice President Greg Williams rightly calls 2018 a year of transitions. One of the biggest comes in April with the move of our Home Office from Glendora, CA, to Charlotte, NC. It’s a transition we have talked about for several years, but the timing never seemed right until recently.
In purchasing a building for our new Home Office just outside Charlotte, and in the sale of our building in Glendora (just completed), there have been several “blessed coincidences”—ones GCI Treasurer Mat Morgan and I view as God’s guiding hand. Our Triune God has blessed us with a beautiful building in Charlotte that is partially furnished (with furnishings nicer than those in Glendora), saving us on furnishings and moving costs. Here are some pictures of the Charlotte building (click to enlarge):
Another transition for us in 2018 involves the retirement of several long-time denominational leaders and pastors. We’ll be sharing information about those retirements during the year, but you’re probably already aware that I’ll be retiring at the end of 2018, and Greg Williams will take my place as GCI president. My decision to retire was made with much prayer and counsel. When I retire, I won’t stop doing ministry—Tammy and I plan to continue participating in what Jesus is doing, and that keeps us looking forward expectantly to what lies ahead.
As I began planning my final year as GCI President, I recalled how I came into this ministry position in the first place. I was director of Church Administration and my father (Joseph W. Tkach, Sr.) realized he was losing his battle with cancer. We spent many hours talking about the transformation God was bringing about within Worldwide Church of God (WCG), and how that transformation was not complete. Dad shared that just before WCG founder Herbert W Armstrong (HWA) died, he told Dad there were changes that were needed, including looking at some of our doctrines. But because of his ill health, HWA did not have the time or energy to mentor my dad, nor did he give him a lot of details concerning the changes HWA felt were needed. However, he did tell Dad to follow the lead of the Spirit. That is just what Dad did, leading WCG through many changes during his tenure as president.
It was during those changes that Dad became ill and named me as his successor. Like HWA before him, he told me that WCG needed to continue on the path of transformation. However, he also said that he would not determine what those changes should be. You may recall that Dad’s health deteriorated quickly, so there wasn’t a lot of time for him to mentor me. Dad told me to surround myself with reliable, wise counselors, and never forget that it is Jesus who is the real leader of his church. I’ve tried to follow that advice throughout my 21 years as president of WCG, which became GCI.
It gives me joy knowing that God has given me ample time to mentor Greg Williams as he prepares to become GCI’s next president (click here for Greg’s bio). I gave Greg the same challenge Dad gave me—to surround himself with wise counselors, and to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. I also told him that I do not believe GCI’s transformation is complete, and reminded him that we are to grow in grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18), heeding God’s challenge given through Isaiah:
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isa 43:18-19a)
God continues to do new things in GCI. Our challenge is to discern what those are, embrace them, then live them out. I know Greg is committed to doing so.
Various changes have already been made in GCI administration in anticipation of the transitions ahead. Under Greg’s leadership, the Church Administration and Development (CAD) team in the US has been restructured. We now have five regional pastors serving as administrators/supervisors over their respective regions. Alongside Greg in the Home Office is Pam Morgan (CAD operations coordinator) and Michelle Fleming (CAD communications and training coordinator). The CAD team also includes Anthony Mullins (coordinator of Ministry Coaching, the Intern Program and the Pastoral Resident Program), Heber Ticas (coordinator of Church Multiplication Ministries), and Jeff Broadnax (coordinator of Generations Ministries). Ted Johnston (who, like me, is retiring at the end of this year), serves as CAD publications editor and assists Greg with special projects related to our ongoing transitions. This restructured CAD team works beautifully, in a highly collaborative way!
Internationally, Greg is already working with our denominational leaders around the world, helping them form working groups to maximize the effective use of resources and talents. We’re also refining and enhancing Grace Communion Seminary (GCS) and Ambassador College of Christian Ministry (ACCM). These two educational arms of GCI are of great importance to our current and future transitions as we identify, equip and send a new generation of leadership for our denominational ministries and congregations. In these ways and more, it’s clear that God is doing something new that will benefit GCI for many years to come.
Though the realization that 2018 will be a year of transitions in GCI will excite many of us, some will be apprehensive. Throughout my 21 years as GCI president, there have been many challenges and uncertainties, yet God has led us through them all. For that I give him, and you, my thanks and I encourage you to look forward with hope and expectancy. I see 2018 as an exciting year, and throughout the year I plan to share some of the lessons I’ve learned as GCI president, along with insights and dreams concerning GCI’s future. I ask that you join all of us here in the Home Office in praying for smooth and successful transitions.
Looking forward with anticipation,
PS: Next week’s cover letter here in GCI Update will be from Greg Williams. Throughout
Celebrating Jesus’s headship
Dear Fellow Workers,
Hard to believe, but 2018 is here! For GCI, it will be a year of transitions, and so that is the theme we’ve chosen for GCI Equipper in 2018. Early in the year, we’ll be moving the GCI Home Office from Glendora, CA, to Charlotte, NC. Then, throughout 2018, we’ll see several personnel transitions. I’ll become GCI President at the end of 2018, when Joseph Tkach retires. Several other denominational leaders, Home Office staff and pastors will also retire this year—we’ll share the details as the year progresses. Thanks for your prayers!
These transitions come with excitement, some apprehension, and several questions: Will GCI remain the same? Will we hold to the same truths? Will our new leaders be as effective as the ones who are retiring? Though I don’t have complete answers to these important questions, I’m not worried—I know that Jesus is the head of GCI and of all his body, the church. For that reality, I give God thanks.
As we journey together through the transitions of 2018, I pray we will do so reassured that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Though Jesus transcends our earthly limitations, we rejoice knowing that he never stops caring for us. Through the Spirit, he joins us in our struggles, including our transitions, to guide us through them.
Will GCI change? I certainly believe so, since Jesus has always been about transformation, and I think you’ll agree that God is continually transforming us. In our journey forward with Jesus, will we hold to the same truths? The answer is that God has put us on a remarkable path of renewal, and I’m confident he will continue to lead us on that same path. As we journey forward, we will continue to strive to gain an even better understanding of the truth—Jesus, himself, is that truth.
Will GCI remain the same denomination? Our collective prayer and commitment is that we will continue to strive to be the denomination that Jesus wants us to be. We will seek to continue going where Jesus leads us by his Spirit and through his word.
In the opening chapter of Colossians, Paul reminds us about who Jesus is: He is the creator of all things. He is “the firstborn from among the dead.” He is the one who is “before all things and in him all things hold together.” Jesus is, and always will be, the head of the church (including GCI). Though being under Jesus’ headship means many things, let me address three here: 1) mutual submission, 2) corporate testimony and 3) shared ministry.
1. Mutual submission
Mutual submission occurs when men and women submit their individual lives to Jesus as Lord; and then these individuals join as a community of believers, collectively submitting to Jesus as Master over the life of the group—the body, the church. Knowing Jesus is head over all things to the church is encouraging and comforting news to those in leadership positions, and maybe even more reassuring to the members.
2. Corporate testimony
The church (ekklesia) is the “assembly” of God’s people. The writer of Hebrews encourages believers to not forsake assembling together. Why does the church gather? From our perspective, we do so to be built up and encouraged (submitting one to another) and to worship (giving glory to and submitting to God). From God’s grander perspective, the church meets to make his Son Jesus known, real and accessible. This is our corporate testimony. We share the same message—we worship as we witness, and we witness as we worship. Our redeemed lives are living testimonies to the reality of Jesus and we offer ourselves daily as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable response of worship.
3. Shared ministry
The Holy Spirit leads us to find ways and means to participate in shared ministry as we worship and witness together. As he leads us to shared ministry, fruit results. This is because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is still at work in his people. Acts tells the story of Christ’s work in and through his servants as they were energized and directed by the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, his work did not end; rather, he chose to express himself through a body of believers who would continue his life and ministry on earth. Grace Communion International is one part of that body of believers. Yes, transitions can be exciting and can lead to apprehension, but this we know: Jesus is the head of his body, the church, and even more personally for us, he is the head of GCI! For that we give thanks, and in that, we are reassured.
Looking forward to our journey together, with Jesus, in 2018,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
Celebrating Jesus’ first coming
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Here’s a question to consider: Should Christians celebrate Jesus’ first coming? Some who profess to be Christian say we should not. While I don’t judge their motives (I understand what deception can do), it breaks my heart that they are unable to embrace the joy of celebrating this monumental event, which fulfilled numerous prophecies and changed everything in a powerful, positive way. To celebrate Jesus’ first coming is to celebrate God’s plan of redemption. Before the foundation of the world, God planned that the Son of God would temporarily leave behind his heavenly glory, be born as a human being, then live a perfect life that would reflect God’s glory (1 Pet. 1:20; John 1:14; Phil. 2:5-11).
Jesus’ coming into the world as its Savior and King is the Bible’s central theme. Genesis 3 says that a redeemer would come to restore humanity’s broken relationship with God. In that account, God says to the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This ancient prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus’ first coming. John the Baptist testified that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Think about that: Jesus came to put sin away—to bring an end to all evil. The reason Jesus (who is the truth) came into our world was “to testify to the truth” (John 18:37). As the apostle Paul testified, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Given this biblical witness, why wouldn’t a Christian want to celebrate what Jesus accomplished in his first coming?
Jesus came not merely to teach us how to live or to perform miracles. He came to save us—to rescue us from sin. He came to take our broken, weak, twisted human nature up into himself and there bend it back to God by living a perfect life in reliance upon God. In doing so, he gave his life in exchange for ours. He did so all the way to the cross—taking on our sins, and letting God abolish them in him, so that we might be forgiven and thus made right with God. Through his perfect sacrifice on our behalf, Jesus made it possible for us to be delivered from darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son (Col. 1:13). That his first coming is great good news is made clear in these words: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).
Jesus’ coming into the world is cause for celebration on multiple levels. When people asked Jesus when the kingdom would come, he replied: “The kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). As its embodiment, Jesus ushered in the kingdom at his first coming. He continues to extend the influence of the kingdom as he, by the Spirit, lives within Christians (Gal. 2:20, KJV). One day, he will reveal the fullness of the kingdom at his second coming.
It is appropriate that we celebrate all three of these comings of Jesus, and that is what we do during Advent (“advent” means “coming”). We recall Jesus’ first coming, even as we remember the words of the angel to the disciples following Jesus’ ascension: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The author of Hebrews also testified to the first and second comings of Jesus, saying that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
Jesus came the first time as author of our salvation, and he will come the second time as the finisher of our faith. When he came the first time, there was no room for him in Bethlehem’s inn, but when he comes the second time, the whole world will make room for him (Phil. 2:10-11) even if some continue to resist his rule and reign. In celebrating Jesus’ first coming, we acknowledge that he came and fulfilled God’s plan of redemption for us, that he remains with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that he will come again in glory to “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). There is no second coming without the first—both are cause for celebration.
During Advent, we remember all three of Jesus’ comings, then at Christmas we celebrate the great truth that he came into our world by being born of the virgin Mary. This first coming of Jesus (including his Incarnation and birth) is reason for great celebration. Our Christmas celebrations are not really about decorating and gift-giving. While those activities can be joyful aspects of our celebrations, Christmas is more about experiencing joy with friends and family and even with the “strangers” we invite into our homes for a meal. It is more about sharing God’s love with others, which might include visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes, remembering the reasons Jesus first came.
I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas!
J.R.R.Tolkien: hints of the Incarnation
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I became a fan of English author, philologist and poet, J.R.R. Tolkien after reading The Hobbit and its sequel, the epic three-volume novel, The Lord of the Rings. Among other literary achievements, Tolkien in his fantasy books constructed the grammar and vocabulary of at least 15 languages and dialects, the most-developed being the one spoken by his Elves. Though the extent of his literary achievements is amazing, what impresses me most is what lies behind those achievements—Tolkien’s appreciation and love for the goodness of God.
Though he avoided direct references to Christian doctrine in his books, Tolkien pointed people in that direction by connecting fantasy to the realities of the human condition in a fallen world. Who among us hasn’t had to deal with a Troll or two? Who hasn’t found a special place of peace and tranquility? Not only does Tolkien deal with these human realities (along with bravery, sacrifice, hospitality, honor, beauty and love)—he also indirectly points his readers to transcendent realities. For example, in The Two Towers (the second volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Tolkien utilizes the imagery of light breaking into darkness—imagery that mirrors the Light of the World coming into a dark, sin-sick world via the Incarnation.
In one of his letters, Tolkien wrote that, “the incarnation of God is an infinitely greater thing than anything I would dare to write” (Letter 237). Thus, it is no surprise that Tolkien, the great story teller, was enamored with the Incarnation, for it is the greatest story ever told! For the substance and reality of that story, we rely not on Tolkien, but on the writers of the New Testament Gospels like the apostle John, who began his Gospel with these evocative words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)
Though Tolkien’s fantasy novels do not tell the complete Christian story, they are full of themes he hoped would prepare people to hear the Christian gospel. What I especially appreciate is the way The Lord of the Rings trilogy points out the reality of good and evil, the power and temptation of sin, and the fact that everyone needs redemption. If you read the trilogy or watch the movies based on it, you’ll encounter dark and heavy moments where good people suffer, and some give in to the darkness of evil. Yet you’ll also find that no matter how far a character might fall, Tolkien shows there is always hope—always opportunity for redemption.
Another thing I like about Tolkien’s stories is the way they refute the dualistic idea of the separation of body and spirit (soul). In pointing to the dynamic unity of body and spirit, Tolkien undermines philosophies (such as naturalism and Gnosticism) that separate body and spirit. In doing so, he indirectly opens a door for his readers to consider that the Incarnation (the union of the uncreated Son of God with created human nature) might be possible. The heroes of his stories represent real people who live as “embodied souls,” and “ensouled bodies” (as Karl Barth put it). Tolkien’s characters appreciate good ale, a simple meal and enduring fellowship, all the while taking seriously the universal obligations of the good, and the real dangers of the evil.
Some people worry that fantasy novels like Tolkien’s risk perverting good theology. But that would be true only if we were to look to such books as sources of theology. The fact of the matter is that they are not. Tolkien never intended his trilogy to be more than a prequel to the biblical gospel. His goal was to point out the questions, problems and challenges in life, not to provide answers that come only through biblical revelation.
Tolkien cleverly directs a secular world away from the naturalism and nihilism that is so prevalent in our world, towards the biblical world of moral meaning and personal relationship with the living God of intervening grace. His overarching message is that no matter what adversity we face in this world with its darkness, a real and transcendent goodness (light) is still present and prevailing. No matter how far astray we might have gone from that light, there is hope of restoration. The overall conclusion of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is that this hope exists no matter what we face. The apostle Paul draws a similar conclusion in his letter to the churches in Rome:
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, NRSV)
Tolkien understood a powerful truth, which he pointed to in his writings: The Incarnation is the best story that can be told. We celebrate that story in a special way during the Advent-Christmas season.
I love to tell the story,
More on the virgin birth of Jesus
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The incarnation of the eternal Son of God is of such great importance that without it there can be no true Christianity. The apostle John put it this way:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3, ESV)
As I noted in my Update letter last week, the virgin birth of Jesus is an important part of the doctrine of the Incarnation. It declares that the Son of God took on a full and complete human existence while remaining what he was—the eternal Son of God. The fact that Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin was a sign that it was not by human initiative or involvement that she became pregnant. The voluntary conception that occurred within Mary’s womb came about through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who joined Mary’s human nature to the Son of God’s divine nature. The Son of God thereby took on a complete human existence from birth to death, to resurrection and ascension, continuing forever in his now glorified humanity.
There are those who scoff at the idea that Jesus’ birth was a miracle from God. These skeptics disparage the biblical record, as well as our faith in it. I find their objections quite ironic in that while viewing the virgin birth as an absurd impossibility, they maintain their own version of a virgin birth in connection with two principal claims:
- They claim that the universe came into existence by itself, from nothing. I think we’re entitled to call that a miracle, even though they say it came about mindlessly and purposelessly. Of course, when one looks more closely at their descriptions of nothing, we find that it is a case of smoke and mirrors. Their nothing is redefined as something such as quantum fluctuations in empty space, or cosmic bubbles, or an infinite assembly of the multiverse. In other words, their use of the term nothing is misleading, since their nothing is filled with something—the something that our universe came forth from!
- They claim that life arose from non-life. To me, this claim is far more “out there” than the idea of Jesus being born of a virgin. Regardless of the scientifically verified fact that life comes only from life, some still manage to believe that life arose from a lifeless primordial soup. While scientists and mathematicians have pointed out the impossibility of such an occurrence, some still find it easier to believe in a mindless miracle than to believe in the true miracle of Jesus’ virgin birth.
In support of the first claim, physicist Stephen Hawking said this: “The universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, [it is] why we exist” (The Grand Design, p. 180). Philosopher Quentin Smith put it this way: “The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing. We should… acknowledge our foundation in nothingness and feel awe at the marvelous fact that we have a chance to participate briefly in this incredible sunburst that interrupts without reason the reign of non-being” (“The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo 4.2., 2000).
Though skeptics like Hawking and Smith embrace their own forms of virgin birth, they consider it fair game to lampoon Christians for believing in the virgin birth of Jesus, which necessitates a miracle from a personal God who transcends creation. Doesn’t it seem to you that those who see the Incarnation as impossible or improbable are embracing a double standard?
Scripture teaches that the virgin birth was a miraculous sign from God (Isa. 7:14), designed to fulfill his purposes. The repeated use of the title “Son of God” acknowledges that Christ was conceived and born of a woman (and without the involvement of a man) by the power of God. That this truly happened is affirmed by the apostle Peter:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Pet. 1:16, ESV)
Peter’s declaration (together with other similar New Testament statements) provides clear, evidential refutation of all assertions that the story of the Incarnation, including Jesus’ virgin birth, is a myth or legend. The fact of the virgin birth testifies to the miracle of a supernatural conception by God’s own divine, personal creative act. The birth of Christ was natural and normal in every way, including the full period of human gestation in Mary’s womb. For Jesus to redeem every aspect of human existence, he had to assume it all—overcoming all its weaknesses and regenerating our humanity in himself from beginning to end. For God to heal the breach that evil had brought between himself and human beings, God had to, in himself, undo what humankind had done.
For God to reconcile himself to us, he had to come himself, reveal himself, give himself to us, then take us to himself, beginning from the very root of human being. And that is precisely what God, in the person of the eternal Son of God, did. While remaining fully God, he became fully one of us so that in and through him, we might have fellowship and communion with the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The author of Hebrews refers to this stunning truth with these words:
Since… the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:14-17, NRSV)
In his first advent, the Son of God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, literally became Immanuel (God with us, Matt. 1:23). The virgin birth of Jesus was God’s declaration that he is going to set all things right in human life, from beginning to end. In his second advent, which is yet to occur, Jesus will overcome and vanquish all evil bringing an end to all pain and death. Looking forward to that great day, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus means that one day everything sad will come untrue.” The apostle John put it this way: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Rev. 21:5).
I have seen grown men cry as they witnessed the birth of their child. We sometimes refer to “the miracle of childbirth,” and rightly so. I hope you see Jesus’ birth as the miracle of the birthing of the One who truly is making “everything new.”
I pray you have a joy-filled Advent as we await our celebration of Jesus’ virgin birth at Christmas,
Our true identity in Christ
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
When asked to define their identity, people reply in various ways. Many focus on what they do—I’m a plumber… an engineer… a homemaker. Others refer to traumas of the past—I’m a recovering alcoholic… I’m a former prisoner. Some take on identities assigned to them by others—She’s wealthy… he’s homeless… she’s a snob. Though some of these are superficial, they all, for better or worse, can powerfully shape the way a person self-identifies.
Speaking of personal identity, I recently ran across this insightful statement from Scottish pastor, theologian and author George MacDonald:
I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of. For to have been thought about—born in God’s thought—and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, and most precious thing in all thinking.
George MacDonald is credited with being the father of fantasy literature. A mentor to author Lewis Carroll, he also strongly influenced C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. His literary works, including his sermons, are excellent (several are on my “to read” list).
It begins with knowing we are loved unconditionally
Though MacDonald understood that God created us to be glorious creatures who are made in his image, many Christians don’t grasp that truth. Though they know Christ died for them while they were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), they don’t yet understand that God loves them because of who they are in relationship with him, rather than because of what they have done (or not done). That is a good thing because when it comes to what we have done or left undone, we all have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Thankfully, God loves us unconditionally with the same love by which he loves Jesus. Note these words in Jesus’ high priestly prayer for us:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23)
We then reject false identities
In reflecting on the profound nature of God’s love for us, I found myself humming the song, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places—the tragic behavior that is the lot of far too many people in our world (Christians included). It’s a fundamental, vital truth that we cannot find true fulfillment in ourselves because we were created to reflect God’s glory. Seeking to gain glory for ourselves from ourselves will never lead to lasting fulfillment. Glory can only be received as a gift from another who has it to give. Where we look to find our identity says a lot about what we think will give us that glory.
I have enjoyed many jobs in my life, starting as a paperboy delivering the daily newspaper via my trusty old bicycle. I then worked as a box boy at the first Trader Joe’s Market, a custodial floor crew cleaner, a child-care worker, an administrative assistant, a customer service training supervisor, a church pastor and a church administration director. As much as I have enjoyed these jobs (and a few others I did not list) my true identity is not derived from any of them. My true identity is in Christ—no more, no less. I praise God that my identity is not in the things I’ve done, nor is it in the things that have been done to me. God gives me my identity in him and that is a gift of free grace. I am his, body and soul.
Tragically, some people find their identity in victimhood. Most of us have been victims, some much more tragically than others. I would never want to minimize or trivialize anyone’s pain and suffering resulting from being victimized, but equally tragic is becoming so defined by a past event that it is as if a stake was driven deep into the ground connected to a chain, that then is fastened around their neck so they can never move beyond the perimeter of that past event.
We embrace our true identity
Though we will experience suffering in this life—sometimes at another person’s hand—the gracious Lordship of Jesus means we can live with confident hope knowing that no past event can determine the future God has for us, no matter how horrific that event was. The power of God’s redemption through the crucifixion of Christ demonstrates in no uncertain terms that God can overcome all evil and bring out of all suffering things of eternal value. Our true identity thus comes from the future that God, in Christ, holds out to us. Nothing can rob us of that goodness and glory!
An understanding of and confidence in our true identity in Christ changes how we live here and now, looking forward with hope to our eternal future. This perspective even helps us gain a new perspective on our past suffering. That doesn’t mean we minimize it, nor does it mean we look on it with joy. However we are no longer victimized by it—it no longer defines our identity. We know that God redeems all things in Christ, and that includes the evil from which we have suffered and even the evil we have committed that led to the suffering of others. Indeed, we have hope in the redeeming power of God to put all things right.
We know nothing can take it away
While a prolonged illness or a seemingly irreconcilable difference with loved ones may oppress us and deprive us of many good things, they cannot change who we are in Christ. Nothing can take away our inheritance as his beloved children. The actions or words of others may rob us of something we have worked for such as a higher grade or a job promotion, but again, no one can take away what God has in store for us for eternity. When our identity is in Christ, we know that we can and will identify with Jesus in every facet of his earthly life, and that includes his sufferings.
The important dynamic here is that just as Jesus’ sufferings were not wasted nor a hopeless event, neither are ours. God can use our joys and our sufferings as a part of our sanctification. Just as we suffer with him for a while, so we will be glorified with him. Our hope is just as the apostle Paul taught in the book of Romans:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17 ESV)
We cannot experience the good that comes from suffering if we stand apart from Christ, refusing to entrust to him all our sufferings. But when we entrust all we are and have to Christ, God uses our suffering to help us gain an eternal hope, with Jesus Christ, the Crucified, as the Redeemer of all things. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
And so we live into our true identity
Realizing that our true identity is in Christ, we seek to have God’s glory shine through all aspects of our life. We no longer seek to conform to the culture of this world, which, among other things, fallaciously tells us that we can separate our sex from gender, or even choose whatever race or ethnicity we’d personally prefer, regardless of our genetics. The apostle John gave this instruction:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions is not from the Father but it is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17 ESV)
The stark reality is that if we are not seeking to find our identity solely in Christ, then we are seeking it in something else. As the Holy Spirit helps us grow in understanding that our true identity is in Christ, we are freed to enjoy and glorify him in the unique ways he created us to be. In Christ we are righteous, made holy and totally loved. In him we are enabled to bring glory to God, not by our own doing, but through his gifts and blessings.
Though our identity tends to be shaped by many factors (see the diagram above), our conversion deepens as we abandon any images of ourselves that are not from God. Instead, we embrace what God says about us, knowing that he is pleased with how he defined and created us, body and soul. The heart of receiving our sanctification is to live in trusting fellowship with Christ, holding to what the apostle Paul explained in saying that God has “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:22). I praise God that he makes clear to us that our identity is not determined by what we do, what we possess, or by the opinions others hold of us. Instead, our identity is defined by God, by who we are in gracious relationship to him.
Celebrating our true identity in Christ,
PS: Please join me in praying for all those devastated by Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes in Mexico. We are grateful that, according to initial reports from the Caribbean Region and Mexico, our members were spared loss of life and serious injury. Details about property damage are sketchy—we’ll let you know more as details come in. In the meantime, you can click here to watch a video showing damage to the island of Dominica. Our members Cris and Mary Vidal live there, right next to Castle Comfort shown in the video. Thankfully, though their roof was damaged, it did not blow away. If you’d like to help GCI members who will need financial assistance due to disasters like the recent ones, congregations can donate to the GCI Disaster Relief Fund
Thinking and living “trinitarianly”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I’m sure you’ve noticed that the messages dominating the media are often opposed to what Scripture teaches. It’s rare to see a commercial on television encouraging us to reach out in self-sacrifice to serve others. Instead, the media constantly repeat materialistic, self-focused messages that say Me first! My wants! What I can have! That is one of the reasons I don’t like watching TV commercials. Tammy and I dislike them so much we record everything we watch on TV so we can fast-forward through the commercials.
Scripture teaches us to minister to others in self-sacrificial ways—giving away our time, talents, energy, finances and commitment. But the biblical message of self-sacrifice often is drowned out by the “noise” of a consumeristic culture. I can hear the jingle now: You deserve a break today! That self-indulgent, I deserve message is often heard as “abandon responsibility and think only about yourself.” It’s the opposite of the self-sacrifice lived and taught by Jesus: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, ESV).
Please don’t misunderstand. Self-sacrifice is not about abandoning all desire for good and enjoyable things. I chuckle when someone, having been asked what they have denied themselves in order to follow Christ, reply with a list of sinful behaviors they have given up. Is it really self-sacrifice to refrain from murder or adultery? No, authentic self-sacrifice is grounded in the realization that life isn’t all about the self—it’s about being in relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit. It’s about knowing who God is, and who he is in relation to us and others. It’s about acknowledging the invitation we’ve been given to participate with the Father in what he is doing through the Son and by the Spirit to fulfill his mission for the sake of the world that he loves. Self-sacrifice is about following Jesus’ New Commandment to love others just as he loves us. It’s about being willing to give up whatever is necessary in order to share God’s love and life with others.
Ultimately, self-sacrifice is more about a who than a what. It’s about God the Father sending his Son in the power of the Spirit to show us who God is and what he desires for all humanity. In that regard, we should not miss how Jesus honored small acts of self-sacrifice. Think of the boy who gave up his lunch and more than 5,000 were fed. Or consider the widow who gave her last coins as an offering. We should see these acts for what they are—sacrificing the self to serve others. Such acts reflect the heart and mind of God the Father who, in order to give us eternal life, sacrificed his only begotten Son at infinite cost to himself. The cross of Christ proves that God loves us so much he is willing to suffer loss for our sakes. In his self-sacrifice to serve us, God did not lose any of his dignity or worth. His self-sacrifice is one of the reasons we sing that he is “worthy of worship.”
British systematic theologian Colin Gunton (pictured above) was fond of saying that to properly understand Christian doctrine, we must learn to think trinitarianly:
If you want to understand how God works in our world, then you must go through the route God himself has given us: the incarnation of the eternal Son and the life-giving action of the Spirit. Let me repeat: the Trinity is about life. Irenaeus is the writer of that great sentence, often heard from him: “The glory of God is a human being truly alive.” The Trinity is about life, life before God, with one another and in the world. If we forget that God’s life is mediated to us trinitarianly, through his two hands, the Son and the Spirit, we forget the root of our lives, of what makes for life and what makes for death.
Thinking trinitarianly informs us about God, about human nature, and the nature of the church. When the Bible tells us that we are created in God’s image, it is not talking primarily about an innate human capacity. Rather it is telling us about the form of human existence corresponding to God’s relationship to us. To be authentically human, we are to image (reflect, correspond to) who God is in all that we are.
As an echo of the life of God, the church should reflect the kind of being God is—a being in relation—a communion. Jesus came to reveal what God is doing and what he has in store for us. He came as a true human being and took on human nature—our defective, fallible flesh; yet, he remained sinless. Sometimes I ponder how Jesus did that. It was not from a built-in divine programming, but because he freely and totally relied on the moment-by-moment guidance of the Holy Spirit in his human life. Even while living in human flesh on earth, Jesus’ relationship with God the Father and God the Spirit remained in unbroken communion. As the apostle Paul explained, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
Gunton wrote about what it means to be a human person:
Among the great achievements of those who have thought trinitarianly is the concept of the person as a living whole rather than as a mind encased in matter. How it came about is a complicated and difficult matter to describe, but it is one of the fruits of the trinitarian teaching that God is three persons in one being. By thinking about the Trinity, the early theologians came to realize that they had come across an entirely new conception of what it is to be personally. To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others, cut off from them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship. Being a person is about being from, and for and with the other. I need you—and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others and to the world from which they come.
The real truth of human nature is found in Jesus Christ and in him alone. We must see that God’s affirmation of humanity as “good” is fully realized only in Jesus. T.F. Torrance put it this way:
Jesus Christ is the Word by whom, for whom, and in whom we have been created in the image of God, so that in his Incarnation as Immanuel, God with us and for us and in us, he is the secret of our creation and redemption―in him we may now penetrate through all the distortion, depravity and degradation of humanity to the true nature of man hidden beneath it all.
As we follow Jesus, responding to God’s call in our lives, the Holy Spirit leads us in a “Christomorphic” direction—the way of self-sacrifice. Indeed, the true nature and dignity of humanity is established and disclosed in the human nature of Jesus. True self-sacrifice is giving up our autonomous self and self-will in order to more fully live in Christ. Our true personhood, our true dignity, thus lies not in ourselves alone, but in union and communion with Jesus. In Jesus, by the Spirit, we think and we live trinitarianly.
Enjoying the life that is ours in union and communion with Christ,
Understanding God’s Triune nature
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the Western liturgical calendar, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday—a day to rejoice in what theologians call “the divine mystery.” Though much about God is beyond our comprehension, by grace we are able to understand that God is one in Being and three in Person—the Trinity.
The nature of understanding
Thinking about understanding, we acknowledge that, at times, it comes suddenly—like a flash of light seemingly out of nowhere. But most often, it comes gradually—the way I came to understand mathematics when I was young. As I began to grasp the concepts of algebra, many of my classmates remained perplexed. The further we progressed in math, the smaller the classes became—many of my classmates did not want to torture their brains that way! But for those who stuck it out, the reward was a broader and deeper understanding of the marvelous world of mathematics, which tells us so much about the intricacies of God’s amazing creation.
Why it’s vital to study theology
I share this math illustration because I see a similarity in the way we grow in our understanding of God’s Triune nature. For various reasons, some Christians are unwilling to study theology, which includes challenging concepts like God’s three hypostases (Persons). Though not “lesser Christians,” these folks (who believe in and love God), remain uninformed concerning the history of how the church came to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. While this understanding is important for all Christians, it’s vital for those who teach within the church. If preachers and teachers don’t have an accurate understanding of the nature of God, what they teach may be a fuzzy (even distorted) picture of God. Lacking understanding of theology, they will be unable to answer the questions members have about God and unable to counter the false teachings about God that undermine the faith of many of God’s children.
Brothers and sisters, because this is a serious matter, I strongly encourage our pastors, preachers and teachers to carefully study theology, abandoning all false notions concerning church history and misinterpretations of Scripture, in order to embrace the historic, orthodox teaching of the church concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, which can be summarized in three fundamental truths:
- There is one God (Mark 12:29; John 14:9; Heb. 1:2-3).
- God is three distinct (not separate) Persons (Matt. 3:13-17; Matt. 28:19; John 1:1; Col. 1:15-16; John 14:17).
- Each Person is fully God (Phil. 2; Col. 2:9; Acts 5:3-4).
Avoid flawed analogies
Over the centuries, several analogies have been used to help people understand the Trinity. Unfortunately, in one way or another, most of them advance false ideas. Here are four examples: 
- The Trinity is like the three forms of water: ice, liquid and vapor. While it is true that water exists in these three forms, looking at God this way advances the false idea (a heresy called Modalism) that God merely represents himself in three different forms, but is not three distinct Persons. Historically, the primary proponents of Modalism taught that God first manifested himself as Father, then as Jesus, then as the Holy Spirit. These modes were viewed as consecutive, temporary and thus never co-existent, thus denying the distinctiveness of the three eternal Persons of the Trinity.
- The Trinity is like the three parts of an egg: shell, white and yolk. By viewing God as existing in parts, this analogy teaches a heresy called Tritheism. But the three Persons of the Trinity are not three unalike parts (as with the parts of an egg). God is revealed to be three divine Persons who share one divine nature and are one in Being.
- The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover: one entity with three parts. This is perhaps the most well-known analogy, purported to have been used by St Patrick. Like the analogy of the three parts of an egg, this analogy fails to account for the fact that the Godhead is not simply split into thirds.
- The Trinity is like a man who is a father, a son and a husband: one man, three functions. The problem here is that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not merely functions of God—they are three distinct Persons. A typical man may have a wife (and so be a husband), children (and so be a father), but he acts out these differing roles depending on whom he is interacting with at the time. This analogy is another form of Modalism.
The careful use of human language
When it comes to teaching the truth concerning God’s nature, human language (which is always analogical) falls short in one way or another because it is unable to fully embody all that God is. For example, we use the word “Persons” to refer to the three “distinctions” of God. Doing so is helpful because out of all created reality, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are most like human persons in nature (or we might say that human persons are in their nature most like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We capitalize Persons to indicate that the word is being used in a special manner in describing God’s nature. Thus we exercise great care in selecting words knowing that, as the apostle Paul wrote, “The mystery of godliness is great,” humbly acknowledging that God is much greater than we can say or understand. Not being a creature, God cannot be understood in the same way we understand created things. However, because God has revealed himself to us, we can apprehend God even though we cannot exhaustively comprehend God.
A common shorthand version of the doctrine of the Trinity says that “God is three in one.” Some anti-Trinitarians say this is a contradiction, but they are wrong—it’s a paradox. Knowing of paradoxes in the physical realm (e.g., light is both a wave and a particle) it should not surprise us to learn that, when it comes to God’s nature, there are paradoxes. To say that “God is three in one” is not to say that God is one in Being and three in Being, or that God is one in Person and three in Person (those statements are contradictions). Instead it is saying that, paradoxically, God is one in Being and three in Person.
It is not the intent of the doctrine of the Trinity to explain how God is triune. That, as Paul reminds us, is a “mystery.” The teachers of the early church taught that proper doctrine preserves this mystery, for God cannot be exhaustively explained as though God were a creature. In humility we confess that our understanding of God’s nature has limitations, though Jesus did reveal to us the personal names of the three Persons of the one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We also learn from Jesus that rather than a lonely being, God is a fellowship (communion) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have their very being by being in a relationship of holy love—knowing and glorifying one another for all eternity. That is why John tells us that God, who is love (1 John 4:16), out of love sent his only Son to reconcile the world to himself (John 3:16). Thus it makes perfect sense that the central will of our Triune God for us is that we would love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbors as we are loved by God (Matthew 22:37-39).
With these thoughts about God in mind, GCI’s Statement of Beliefs says this:
God, by the testimony of Scripture, is one divine Being in three eternal, co-essential, yet distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The One God may be known only in the Three and the Three may be known only as the one true God, good, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, and immutable in his covenant love for humanity. He is Creator of heaven and earth, Sustainer of the universe, and Author of human salvation. Though transcendent, God freely and in divine love, grace and goodness involves himself with humanity directly and personally in Jesus Christ, that humanity, by the Spirit, might share in his eternal life as his children. (Mark 12:29; Matthew 28:19; John 14:9; 1 John 4:8; Romans 5:8; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:2; Galatians 3:26)
Why seek to grow in understanding God?
I’ll end now with one of my favorite quotes from Charles Haddon Spurgeon—it says well why we seek a deeper understanding of God.
It has been said by someone that “the proper study of mankind is man.” I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, “Behold I am wise.” But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with the solemn exclamation, “I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.” No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God.
Forever seeking a deeper understanding of our Triune God,
 For a short, amusing (tongue-in-cheek) and insightful video addressing some of the common analogies related to the Triune nature of God, watch the video at https://youtu.be/KQLfgaUoQCw. For a Trinity Sunday sermon by Weekly Update General Editor Ted Johnston, click here.
Pentecost – all are included!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I remember as a child lining up in the schoolyard where sides were chosen for a sports competition. Invariably, the most athletic or popular were picked first. Though kids lacking athleticism and popularity were some of the brightest in my class, they typically were picked last. I remember feeling sorry for them—some, no doubt, still bear emotional scars.
So that no child would suffer the humiliation of being picked last, a gym teacher in my school tried a different approach. He assigned two kids (ones that often were picked last) to serve as captains who then chose the other team members. One began by picking kids usually selected last. Unfortunately his team lost and the next time captains chose sides, they reverted to picking the most athletic and popular first.
Perhaps you remember Merlin Olsen (pictured at right). As a child, he was one of the non-athletic, less-than-popular kids who got picked last. The embarrassment he felt apparently motivated him to work hard at sports. Eventually he excelled—during a 15-year career in pro football he was selected for the Pro Bowl 14 times! After retiring, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and went on to become a popular actor, portraying Jonathan Garvey on the TV show Little House on the Prairie.
Thinking about the humiliation of being picked last in sports got me thinking of the very different way God picks people to be invited into his kingdom. Instead of choosing on the basis of talent or popularity, God chooses on the basis of who he is and what he, in Christ and by the Spirit, has done. On that basis, as we say in GCI, all are included! 
Jesus made it clear that he came into the world not to reject or condemn, but to include and to save. In his economy, those who (by worldly standards) seem highly qualified, may end up going into his kingdom last, while the seemingly un-qualified may end up going in first. In his parable of the vineyard workers, Jesus declared that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). His point was that God invites all into his kingdom and so excludes none. Jesus made a similar point when, speaking of his death, he said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
As the “son of man,” Jesus (the “Son of God”) is the elected (chosen) human. In and through him, and by the Spirit, we all have been chosen to share in all the benefits of God’s grace—we all are invited to become participants in Christ’s rule and reign. The Day of Pentecost (June 4, this year) celebrates this inclusive calling. It is made possible by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, followed by the Spirit’s post-ascension ministry to lead all people to repentance and faith, and as followers of Jesus, to live into the reality of who they have been called to be—members of God’s household. Pentecost is thus a joy-filled reminder that everyone has this calling—everyone has been selected to be on God’s team. On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate that inclusion—the reality that, in Christ (the elected One) and by the Spirit, all are included!
The interesting twist here is that God does not force those he selects to play on his team. Each person must decide whether they will play or remain non-participants, watching from the sidelines. Though God loves all unconditionally, he loves each one of us enough to want us to participate and thus receive all he offers. But God does not force that participation—personal fellowship and communion with God cannot be impersonally coerced or mechanically caused (Hebrews 4:2). Instead, God sends the Spirit to free and enable us to share in all that Christ has accomplished for us, in our place and on our behalf. Though, in love, God permits people to reject his love, forgiveness and grace, he never stops loving them—he never stops calling them to participation.
As the captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10 KJV), Jesus continues to reach out to all people—and his training is available to all who say “yes” to his “Yes” to them. What a blessing it is to be on the Lord’s team—and what a joy it is to share with him in reaching out to those who, though included, remain on the sidelines.
PS: For a beautifully-produced meditation with readings from the Pentecost account in Acts 2, see the video from Fuller Studio at https://youtu.be/F5w3upHui48—it would make a great introduction to a Pentecost sermon.
 Regarding what GCI means by the phrase, “all are included,” be sure to read Dr. Gary Deddo’s essay “Clarifying our Theological Vision,” being published serially in GCI Equipper—click here for the first and second parts, the third will be included in the June issue, published later this week.
What about evangelism?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Searching for something to listen to as I drove home, I landed on a Christian radio station where a preacher made this proclamation: “The gospel is good news only if it’s not too late!” Seeking to motivate Christians to evangelize their neighbors, friends and family who have not yet accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, his underlying message was clear: “You must share the gospel before it’s too late!” Though that viewpoint is shared by many (though not all) evangelical Protestants, other viewpoints have been espoused by orthodox Christians both today and in the past. I’ll briefly review some of those viewpoints here, concluding that we don’t need to know exactly how and when God brings people to receive his salvation in order to actively participate today in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of evangelism.
The preacher I heard on the radio holds a perspective on evangelism (and salvation) sometimes referred to as restrictivism. That viewpoint asserts that if a person has not explicitly and consciously accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before they die, their opportunity for salvation has ended; for them, God’s grace has run out. Restrictivism thus teaches that death is somehow stronger than God—like a pair of “cosmic handcuffs” it restrains God from saving people when they (even through no fault of their own) have failed to explicitly declare Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before death. According to restrictivism, lacking the exercise of conscious faith that names Jesus as Lord and Savior before death even seals the fate of 1) those who die without hearing the gospel, 2) those who die having embraced a faulty gospel, and 3) those who die after a life of mental disability that kept them from understanding the gospel. By placing such severe conditional limits on who does and who does not enter salvation, restrictivism raises perplexing and provocative questions.
Another viewpoint on evangelism held by many Christians is known as inclusivism. This viewpoint, which sees the Bible as authoritative, understands salvation as being possible only through Jesus Christ. Within inclusivism there are multiple perspectives concerning the fate of those who have not made an explicit profession of faith in Jesus before they die. That diversity has existed throughout church history. Justin Martyr in the second century and C.S. Lewis in the twentieth century both taught that though God saves people only because of the work of Christ, a person may be saved even if they do not know about Christ so long as they have an “implicit faith” that results from God’s grace being active in their life by the Holy Spirit. They both taught that “implicit” faith then becomes “explicit” when God provides the circumstances that allow the person to understand who Christ is and how God, by grace, has provided for their salvation through Christ.
Another viewpoint (within the camp of inclusivism) involves belief in what is referred to as postmortem evangelization. This viewpoint asserts that people who die unevangelized can still receive God’s salvation following death. This perspective was espoused in the late second century by Clement of Alexandria and made popular in our day by theologian Gabriel Fackre (born 1926). Theologian Donald Bloesch (born 1928) also taught that if someone has not had any opportunity in this life to know Christ and put their trust in him, God will give them that opportunity when they appear before Christ following death.
Some Christians hold to a viewpoint known as universalism. It teaches that (in one way or another) everyone necessarily will be saved, regardless of whether they are good or bad, have repented or not, or have put their faith in Jesus as Savior or not. This deterministic perspective says that, in the end, all souls (whether human, angelic or demonic) will be saved by God’s grace, making the response of the individual to God of no consequence. This viewpoint apparently arose with the Christian leader Origen in the second century and various versions have been espoused since then. Some (but not all) versions of universalism repudiate Jesus as Savior and regard one’s response to God’s free gift as irrelevant. The idea that one can repudiate grace, reject the Savior, yet still enter into salvation is repugnant to most Christians. GCI does not consider such versions of universalism as biblical.
What does GCI believe?
There are many other viewpoints held by Christians concerning evangelism and the related topic of the how and when of salvation. Some believe God will give all people multiple “chances” before death sufficient to enable them to have at least an implicit faith in Christ. Others believe God will ultimately save the vast majority of humans, though they do not try to explain the how or when. What does GCI believe? As with all doctrinal matters, our commitment is to begin with the truth revealed in Holy Scripture. There we find that God has reconciled all humanity to himself through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Concerning that work of reconciliation, Jesus, dying on the cross, declared “It is finished!”
Thus we know from biblical revelation that whatever happens to people in the end, it will not be due to any deficiency in the motive, mind and purpose of God. Our Triune God has done everything possible to save every person from the terrible and horrific condition known as “hell.” The Father has given us his one and only Son to be our representative and substitute, standing in for us as our High Priest. The Holy Spirit now works to draw each person so that they may share in all the benefits held for them in Christ. This is what we know and believe. But there is much we do not know and we must be careful not to draw conclusions (not make “logical inferences”) beyond what we are given to know for sure.
For example we must not presume upon the grace of God by dogmatically declaring a universalistic perspective that God, in saving all people, will violate the deliberate choice of some who willfully and persistently reject his love, turning away from him and repudiating his Spirit. While it is hard to believe that anyone would make a choice like that, if we are to be faithful to Scripture (with its numerous warnings against resisting the Word and Spirit), we must acknowledge that some may, in the end, reject God and his love. The important thing to remember here is that such a rejection is their choice—it is not their destiny. As C. S. Lewis shrewdly observed, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.” In other words, hell is where you have to eternally resist the love and grace of God. Even though we cannot say for certain that all humans will ultimately accept God’s grace, we can hope that will be the case. And that hope aligns with what God desires, that none perish but all reach repentance. Certainly we can and ought to hope for no less and we should join with the Spirit as he works to lead people to repentance.
As we’ve shared many times, the love of God and the wrath of God are not symmetrical opposites; they are not opposed to one another. God is against everything that is against his good purposes to reconcile and redeem his beloved creation. In other words, God opposes anything that opposes his good, loving purposes. God would not be loving if he did not do so. God hates sin because it is resistance against his love and good purposes for humanity. His wrath is thus an aspect of his love—God resists our resistance. In his grace, motivated by his love, God not only forgives us, he also disciplines and transforms us.
We must not put a limit on God’s grace. Yes, there is the real possibility that some will choose to eternally resist God’s loving and forgiving grace, but that will not be because God has changed his mind about them—his mind has been made up in Jesus Christ. I love the way our good friend Gary Deddo explains this reality:
We are living, as Paul says, living up into Christ, because we really belong to him. We belong first, and then we believe that we belong, and then, as we’re believing we’re belonging, we’re going to be living up into it. The Holy Spirit is the power within us enabling us to live more and more fully and freely as the children—the reconciled children of God that we really are. We’re living into a reality, we’re not creating a new reality—that’s been done in Christ—we’re living up into the reality. Although there are those who are resisting the reality, nobody is going to change it. We either affirm the reality or live in denial of the reality—that’s the nature of our choice. Sometimes we think our choice is to create an alternative reality. No, that would make us God. We’re not. Our only choice, and the choice that God gives and enables us by his Spirit to make, is to live in the reality that God has established and created for us, out of his goodness, holiness, mercy and grace. (Quoted from “Those Who Never Heard the Gospel” at www.gci.org/yi/deddo27)
Looking through the lens of Jesus
Because salvation, being personal and relational, involves God and persons in relationship, in thinking about God’s judgment we must not assume or impose limitations on God’s desire for relationship. The purpose of God’s judgment is always to save—it is for relationship. Through his judgment God sorts out what needs to be eliminated (condemned) so that a person can experience relationship (union and communion) with him. Thus we believe that God judges so that the sin and evil is condemned, but the sinner is saved and forgiven. He separates us from sin “as far as the east is from the west.” Like the scapegoat of ancient Israel, God sends our sin away into the wilderness so that we might live a new life in Christ.
God’s judgment sanctifies, burns away, purifies in Christ to save the person being judged. God’s judgment is thus a sorting or sifting—a separation of what is right from what is wrong, what is against you and what is for you, what leads to life and what doesn’t. To understand both the nature of salvation and of judgment, we must read Scripture, not through the lens of our own experience, but through the lens of the person and work of Jesus our holy, loving Savior and Judge. With that in mind, consider these questions and their obvious answers:
- Is God limited in his grace? NO!
- Is he handcuffed (stymied) by time and space? NO!
- Does God have to work within physical constraints like humans do? NO!
- Is he limited by our lack of consciousness? NO!
- Is he the Lord of time? YES!
- Can he squeeze into our time as many opportunities as he wants to open us to grace by his Spirit? CERTAINLY!
Knowing that we are limited and that God is not, we must not project our limitations upon a Father who perfectly and completely knows our hearts. We can count on him to be faithful, even if we do not have a final theory as to exactly how his faithfulness and grace will be exemplified in the life of each person both in this life and the next. We do know this: in the end no one will say, “God, if you had only been a little more gracious… so-and-so would have received your salvation.” We will all find God’s grace to be more than sufficient.
The good news is that the free gift of salvation for all humans relies entirely on Jesus’ acceptance of us—not on our acceptance of him. Because “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” there is no reason for us not to receive his gift of eternal life and live by his Word and in the Spirit who the Father sends to us so that, today, we might share fully in the life of Christ. There is thus every reason for Christians to do the good work of evangelism—to participate actively in what the Holy Spirit is doing to lead people to repentance and faith.
Loving the knowledge that Jesus both accepts and qualifies us,
Did the Trinity break at the cross?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On Good Friday, many Christians will ponder a statement spoken by Jesus as he hung dying on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Search the internet and you’ll find multiple explanations for why Jesus spoke these words (quoting Psalm 22:1). A common one is that he made this anguished cry knowing that his heavenly Father, being holy, had turned away from him as the sins of the world were placed upon him. The problem with this explanation is that it posits a separation in the Holy Trinity. Did the Trinity break at the cross?
As we think about this issue, we must first remember that the doctrine of the Trinity declares that there is one God who exists eternally as three distinct Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Trinitarian faith is based on this doctrine. A key word is eternally—had there been a separation (even momentarily) between the Father and Son at the cross, eternally would no longer apply. But it does, and therefore the Trinity cannot have been broken. Here are some of the reasons for this conclusion:
- Perichoresis. Early church teachers used the Greek word perichoresis to describe God’s inseparable, tri-personal nature. The word makes clear that God is not composed of detachable parts. The three Persons of the Trinity are one—meaning that the Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell (coinhere) one another from eternity. This unique relationship of the Triune Persons was revealed by Jesus to his apostles who, in turn, told us. Were God not Father, Son and Spirit in this way for all eternity the Father would not be the Father nor God, the Son would not be the Son nor God, and the Holy Spirit would not be the Holy Spirit nor God. God has no other way of being God except by being Triune. The only God that was, is and will be is the one Triune God.
- God’s omnipresence. Scripture teaches there is no place where God is not present. It also teaches God is three Persons who coinhere—they are inseparable, and thus everywhere present together. That being so, God’s omnipresence calls into question how any sort of divine abandonment could have occurred, particularly considering that the “fullness” of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus (Col. 2:9).
- God’s omniscience. Scripture also teaches that there is nothing God has not known, seen or anticipated and has intended a providential response to. God knows the beginning from the end. At the moment he spoke everything into existence, he knew every sin that would ever be committed, and the remedy for it. If we take the metaphor that God cannot “look upon” sin in an absolute way, meaning not have any awareness of or have absolutely nothing to do with sin, then how did he know that humanity would continue to sin and send prophets to Israel with a warning message? If God cannot look upon sin, how could he ever deal with sin in any real way? To say that God could not look upon that which he already knew would occur, is nonsensical. The metaphor, taken from Hab. 1:3, simply means God does not in any way approve of sin and evil.
- The whole God is Savior. Jesus declares in John 17:21 that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. Jesus was describing a unique, permanent reality that tells us who he is. That’s why Scripture declares Jesus to be Immanuel (God with us). It’s also why the New Testament tells us that the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) is our Savior, not just Jesus, or just the Father or the Holy Spirit.
- The teachings of the early church. That the idea of a breaking apart of the Trinity is unbiblical is attested by multiple leaders and teachers in the early church, and later, including Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus, Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. Why? Because when they read all of Psalm 22 (which Jesus was quoting), they found unity and harmony between the Father and the Son, not separation and alienation.
- Jesus’ other statements on the cross. The other statements spoken by Jesus on the cross do not support the idea of a God-forsaken Son. In dialogue with his Father, Jesus says the following: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34); “It is finished” (John 19:30); and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Note also Peter’s comment on Pentecost, giving voice to Jesus addressing his Father: “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:27 ESV, making reference to Psalm 16:10 ESV). God is not defiled by sin, nor is he afraid to look on sin, even the sin of the whole world borne by his Son on the cross.
- Jesus, who is not separate from sinners, is God. Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, dwelt on earth in the midst of sinful humanity in order to deal with evil and death. He touched lepers and raised the dead. He identified sin wherever he encountered it and warned against it. He fought temptation to sin directed at him from the source of sin itself, Satan. He experienced for us the temporal wages of sin, which is human death. Jesus did all this as the eternal Son of God incarnate. God, revealed to us in Jesus, does not separate himself from sin and evil. Instead, the incarnate Son of God came right into it, taking it upon himself, and thus bringing healing to sin-sick humanity.
- God is not defiled by our sin. Had our sin defiled God, Jesus could not have been our perfect sacrifice, because as Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Jesus, who “had no sin,” was, by God, made “sin for us.” This does not mean that Jesus became sinful (a sinner). Rather, it means he became a sin offering for us just as the Azazel goat was on the Day of Atonement as the representative of Israel’s sin. Note this in Isaiah 53:10 (ESV):
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering [‘asam] for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Jesus did not become a sinner stained with impurity or immorality. Instead, by assuming our sinful nature and condition, and then sanctifying that nature in himself (ultimately on the cross), Jesus became the innocent, unblemished sin offering on our behalf, thereby reconciling us to God. The notion of an absolute separation of God the Father from Jesus the Son falls far short of the biblical facts.
God was not taking his wrath out on Jesus
The theory that God’s separation from sin included pouring out his wrath on his Son is another wrong-headed idea that is not biblically defensible. The truth of the gospel is that the Father was not punishing the Son, as if the Father opposed the Son, was at odds with him, or willed at that moment that the Son’s end would be the same as the end of sin and evil itself. God is not guilty of child abuse, as some who reject the cross of Christ altogether claim. That charge is based on a false inference that the church has never taught (even by those upholding a separation theory).
The idea that the Father took out his wrath on his Son is preposterous. It ignores the biblical facts that the Son was not forced by the Father to die, but that Jesus voluntarily laid down his life and took it up again (John 10:18; Hebrews 7:26). The Father and the Son (with the Spirit) are one in will and mind to do whatever it would take to rescue humanity from sin and the power of evil. The Son was no victim of a tragedy. You would expect no less from the tri-personal God who is eternally one in being.
The author of Hebrews contrasts animal sacrifices with the triune activity involved in bringing about our redemption: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb. 9:14). Note here that it is the whole Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) who accomplishes our salvation. And within God’s triune nature, love and anger (wrath) are not at odds. Because God loves us, he is against all that is against us. Were God were not opposed to sin and evil he would not be loving towards us. God separates us from our sin, rescuing us, and condemning the sin and the power of sin. This he has done in the “flesh”—the human nature of the Son of God incarnate:
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh… (Rom. 8:3 ESV)
It is not just the Father who is angry against sin. The Father and the Son are equally committed to our redemption and thus to the final judgment that condemns all evil. The whole triune God hates sin for what it does to his creation, yet he loves the sinner for whom Jesus died. The apostle Paul taught that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ASV). The Father, Son and Spirit deal with our sin in the incarnate Son, regenerating our fallen nature in him (Titus 3:5) so that we might share in his new humanity by the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The only opposition we find in God is his opposition to sin and evil. The only separation we find involving God is what God does to separate us (his beloved) from evil. This is what was accomplished by the redemptive work of the whole Triune God in and through the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
Like a surgeon eradicating cancer cells that threaten the life of the patient, the only object of the Triune God’s wrath is the evil that has corrupted human nature—the nature assumed by the eternal Son of God, on our behalf for our salvation. God’s wrath is his act of overcoming and eradicating evil because of his love for us. His wrath is not returning pain for pain. Only the Triune God can separate the sin from the sinner, thus rescuing and saving the patient whom he loves, while condemning the sin that he opposes so that in the end it will exist no more. That is what God has accomplished for us in and through the life, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ.
A new look at Jesus’ statement on the cross
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” begins the Psalm Jesus was quoting (Psalm 22); it does not end it. The desperate opening line is answered with repeated, reassuring acknowledgements of God’s presence, not his absence. Verse 10 says, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” Verse 11 says, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” Verses 19-21 declare, “But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of dogs. Rescue me from the mouths of the lions; save me from the horns of wild oxen.” Then verse 24 is the clincher: “For he [God] has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
In typical rabbinic fashion, when Jesus quotes the opening line of Psalm 22, he is thereby referencing the entire Psalm, which speaks not of separation or abandonment but of God’s rescuing presence. Because Jesus suffered terribly in the flesh, there is no problem understanding that he felt, in his humanity, a sense of abandonment. But this did not surprise Jesus, or make him question the Father’s love for him. He could identify with the writer of Psalm 22—not just the opening line, but the entire Psalm. Thus Jesus spoke to God, knowing that his Father was listening. Perhaps most fully there on the cross, Jesus felt and knew the Father’s implacable opposition to evil and his commitment to eradicate it. And that is what his cry of dereliction indicates. But we are not justified in asserting or even implying that the Trinity experienced some sort of break or that the Father was pouring out his wrath on his Son.
Jesus died for us in “the flesh,” that is, in his human nature. But his divine nature did not die (by definition, being divine means not subject to death). However, since both natures are joined in the Person of the eternal Son of God, we can say that his divine nature did accompany his human nature in death. And that is why a regenerated human nature rose with Jesus in his resurrection. The perichoresis of the Trinity was not suspended during the time Jesus was dead, as if there were temporarily only two Persons in the Trinity. With the death of his humanity, Jesus did not cease being the eternal Son of God who is one in being with the Father and the Spirit.
As our ascended and ever-faithful High Priest, Jesus Christ, still fully human, identifies with us in our human feelings of abandonment, alienation, shame and scorn because of sin. Jesus voluntarily identified with sinners by experiencing these emotions, while remaining sinless. God—Father, Son and Spirit—allowed evil men to crucify Jesus and allowed him to die a cursed, humiliating death. He assumed our experience of forsakenness to overcome that death, to heal it, thus renewing our communion with and belonging to God. Never, however, did God abandon Jesus! Never was the Trinity broken asunder. Never was Jesus left alone, abandoned by God. And never are we left alone or abandoned, for God says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), and Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
I wish you all a blessed Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday,
The one, tri-Personal God
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
A common misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is to think that it teaches three gods (tritheism). But that is not the case. The historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity upholds one God (monotheism) while teaching that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can God be one and three? The answer is important to understand, not merely as a point of doctrine, but as a way for us to understand and thus relate to the one, tri-Personal God.
Three Persons, one being
To be faithful to the biblical revelation, early church teachers declared that God is one in being and three in Persons. In indicating what each of the three are, they utilized the Greek New Testament word hypostasis (ὑπόστασις), which in ancient Greek has a range of meanings: nature, substance, image, essence. This range is reflected in the various translations of Hebrews 1:3 where the Son of God is declared to be “the express image of [God’s] person [hypostasis]” (KJV translation). The NASB and ESV translate hypostasis as “nature,” the ASV as “substance,” and the NRSV and NIV as “being.” Down through the ages (including in the ancient creeds of the church), when referring to the Trinity, hypostasis was most often translated into the Latin word persona (and thus person in English—I have more to say below about the limitations of this word).
Having chosen hypostasis to refer to the three personal distinctions of God, these same teachers chose the Greek word ousia (meaning being) to refer to God’s oneness. Put together, hypostasis and ousia convey the reality revealed in Scripture that God is one in being (ousia) and three in Persons (hypostases). Thus the early church theological consensus used hypostasis (person) to refer to the three personal and eternal realities that stand forth in distinction and in relationship to each other in God’s one ousia (being).
The personal names of the three Persons that constitute the one God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) were, of course, given to us by revelation. And with that revelation came the fact that there are three Persons, not two or four or an infinite number. Note that these teachers did not say that God is one being and also three beings, or one person and also three persons. How God is one is different from how God is three. Therefore, speaking precisely, we would say that there are “three real and eternal distinct Persons in the one God.”
Limitations of language
Theologians realize that the word “person” in English is not perfectly adequate to use in speaking of God’s three personal distinctions (hypostases) in relationship. This is because the way we understand persons in our creaturely experience carries with it the idea of separate individuals or different beings—an idea that does not apply in reference to God. As Athanasius noted, we must think of God theologically, not mythologically whereby we would project human, creaturely concepts onto God, as if God were a created thing.
It’s important to understand that theological language about God is necessarily analogical wherein there can only be partial overlap of meaning of the two things being compared—a prime example being the use of the word “persons” in speaking of the hypostases (the three distinct Persons) of the one God. There are points of overlapping meaning between the Persons of the Godhead and human persons that we can affirm, but there are then points that do not overlap—things that apply only to creatures and not to God and vice versa. When it comes to humans, persons remain distinct in being—they remain individuals, no matter how close (“one”) they might be relationally. But when it comes to God, the distinctions of the divine Persons (hypostases) occur within the one being (ousia) of God.
Because God is not a creature (a created being), we do not use the word Persons when speaking of God in the exact same way we use persons when speaking of human relationships, including relationships within the human family. While there are real relationships within God’s one being, those relationships are not between separate beings. The three Persons of the Trinity, through their absolutely unique relationships with one another, constitute the one being (ousia) of God in a way that is quite unlike the oneness within a human family. The relations between the Persons of God are very different from the relations that we creatures experience. In God, the relationships constitute them one in being. That is not the case for human beings. Recognizing that we are thinking analogically, we must keep in mind that the uncreated God cannot be explained in terms of the relationships within a created human family. Trying to do so would lead us into mythology and even idolatry. Recall that some pagans taught and believed that the gods are family. They also believed that the gods were sexual beings!
God is tri-personal
The relationships that occur between the three Persons within the one eternal being (ousia) of God are neither external to the Persons or to the being of God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit can and do communicate with one another. Within the one being of God there is communion (fellowship) from all eternity, even before creation (John 17:1-26; Hebrews 1:8-9). The tri-personal God was never lonely.
When the Bible speaks of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each are called God, each speak and, as Jesus tells us, each act and exhibit attributes of personhood such as knowing, loving and glorifying one another. Capitalizing the word Person is one way we indicate that the word is being used in a special way in referring to the personal distinctions within the Godhead. The word Person, understood rightly, gives us a word that emphasizes God’s personal-ness in his own being (nature), and in relationship to us as human creatures.
Grounded in the biblical revelation, early church teachers found various ways to speak of God as one in being and three in Person. Following Jesus’ teaching concerning his being “in” the Father and the Father being “in” him (John 10:38; 14:10), they spoke of the Persons “in-existing” one another (enousios in Greek). They also coined the theological term perichoresis to signify that the divine Persons “mutually indwell” or “envelope” one another, making room or space for one another. Other ways perichoresis has been translated is that the divine Persons “co-inhere” or “interpenetrate” or are “convoluted” or “involuted” with one another. The idea being conveyed is that the whole of God is present in each of the divine Persons and that all the works of the Triune God are indivisible—the three Persons always work jointly, each contributing uniquely to that work. Such a perichoretic relationship only pertains to God and to no creature or creaturely reality. God is God alone; there is none other like him.
Upholding God’s oneness, distinction and equality
The framers of the Trinity doctrine understood it to be vital to uphold simultaneously three things about God: the eternal oneness or unity of being, the eternal distinction or differentiation of the three divine Persons, and the eternal equality of divinity of the three Persons. Thus, the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity preserves for us both the biblical revelation that there is but one God and no other, as well as the biblical testimony that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equally divine and true God of true God. It should also be noted that the doctrine of the Trinity was never meant to explain all of what God was or how exactly God exists in a triune way. It was meant to protect the mystery of God while affirming the most faithful way to understand, as far as we can, the revelation of God in Christ and according to Scripture. It was meant to lead us to faithful worship!
Those who claim that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches three gods demonstrate a lack of understanding of the doctrine, which as I’ve already noted is monotheistic, not tritheistic. There is only one being that is God, and this one being is tri-personal, with each of the three divine Persons having full possession of the divine nature. All three Persons of the one triune God possess all the attributes of deity. British theologian Colin Gunton explained it this way:
The Father, Son and Spirit are persons because they enable each other to be truly what the other is: they neither assert at the expense of nor lose themselves in the being of the others. Being in communion is being that realizes the reality of the particular person within a structure of being together. There are not three gods, but one, because in the divine being a person is one whose being is so bound up with the being of the other two that together they make up the one God. (The Forgotten Trinity, page 56)
The three-in-one God at work
As we approach Holy Week followed by Ascension Sunday and Pentecost, keeping in mind what these days remind us of, let’s be inspired and comforted knowing that the one God who is three in Person brought about our salvation. Our Redemption was accomplished by the whole God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Triune God is actively at work in our world—in our lives! In that regard, note this from Colin Gunton:
If you were to ask him how God works in the world, what are the means by which he creates and redeems it? Irenaeus would answer: “God the Father achieves his creating and redeeming work through his two hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Now this is an apparently crude image, but is actually extremely subtle. Our hands are ourselves in action; so that when we paint a picture or extend the hand of friendship to another, it is we who are doing it. According to this image, the Son and the Spirit are God in action, his personal way of being and acting in his world—God, we might say, extending the hand of salvation, of his love to his lost and perishing creation, to the extent of his only Son’s dying on the cross. Notice how close this is to the way in which we noticed John speaking in his Gospel. The Son of God, who is one with God the Father, becomes flesh and lives among us. This movement of God into the world he loves but that has made itself his enemy is the way by which we may return to him. The result of Jesus’ lifting up—his movement to cross, resurrection and ascension—is the sending of the Holy Spirit—another paraclete, or second hand of God the Father. The Spirit is the one sent by the Father at Jesus’ request to relate us to the Father through him. (The Triune God of Christian Confession, p. 10)
The next time you hear someone object to the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming it teaches three gods, I hope you’ll be able to explain to them the difference between tritheism and the actual doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps you’ll also be able to share with them the wonderful truth of the mystery and glory of the tri-personal God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
I wish you all a blessed Holy Week,
PS: To learn more about the doctrine of the Trinity, I recommend that you read Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves (IVP). Note also that we have a wonderful course at Grace Communion Seminary titled “The Doctrine of the Trinity.”
It really is finished
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Addressing a group of Jewish leaders who were persecuting him, Jesus made a revealing declaration concerning the Scriptures: “It is these that testify about me” (John 5:39 NASB). This truth was confirmed years later in this proclamation from an angel of the Lord: “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10 NASB).
Unfortunately, the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day turned a blind eye to these truths concerning Scripture and Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Instead, they focused on the religious rituals of the Temple of Jerusalem, which they then abused for their own benefit. As a result, they lost sight of the God of Israel and failed to recognize the fulfillment of prophecy in the person and ministry of Jesus, the promised Messiah.
The Temple of Jerusalem was truly magnificent—Jewish historian and scholar Flavius Josephus noted that its shimmering white marble exterior, accented with gold, was awe-inspiring. Imagine then the people’s surprise and shock when they heard Jesus prophesy that this glorious Temple, the center of old covenant worship, would be utterly destroyed—a destruction signaling that God’s plan for the salvation of all humanity, apart from the Temple, was right on schedule.
Jesus didn’t seem particularly impressed with Jerusalem’s Temple—and for good reason. First, he knew that God’s glory is far greater than any building of human construction, no matter how grand. Second, Jesus knew that the Temple would be replaced—a fact he shared with his disciples. Third, he saw that the Temple no longer served the purpose for which it had been constructed, saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Note also what is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matt. 24:2, and see Luke 21:6)
On two occasions Jesus foretold the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The first occasion was his triumphal entry into the city as people laid their clothes on the ground before him—a customary way to honor someone of great importance. Note Luke’s account:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)
The second occasion was when Jesus predicted Jerusalem’s destruction while being led through the city to the place of his crucifixion. The streets were packed with people—both his enemies and his enthusiastic followers. Jesus foretold what would happen to the city, the Temple and the people as a result of the destruction about to be meted out by the Romans. Note again Luke’s account:
A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” (Luke 23:27-30)
History tells us that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled some 40 years after he made these statements. In A.D. 66, the Jewish inhabitants of Judea rebelled against the Romans and then in A.D. 70, the Temple was demolished, much of Jerusalem was razed, and the people suffered horribly—all as Jesus had, with great sorrow, predicted.
When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” he not only was referring to the completion of his atoning work of redemption, but also declaring that the old covenant (Israel’s life and worship as defined by the Law of Moses) had served the purpose for which God gave it. With Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit, the work that God, in and through Christ and by the Spirit, did to reconcile all humanity to himself was accomplished, thus bringing to pass the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And no longer will they teach their neighbor or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
In saying, “It is finished,” Jesus was declaring the good news of the inauguration of the new covenant. The old had gone, the new had come. Sin had been nailed to the cross, and God’s purposes of grace were fulfilled by the reconciling atonement of Christ that made possible the deeper work of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds. Such transformation gives us a share in the regenerated human nature renewed in Jesus Christ. What was promised and signified in the old covenant thus now found its fulfillment in the new (renewed) covenant in Christ.
As the apostle Paul taught, Christ (who is the new covenant) accomplished for us what the Law of Moses (the old covenant) could not do nor was it intended to do:
What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone…” (Romans 9:30-32)
It was sin and pride that made the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the Judaizers of Paul’s day think that their own religious efforts could accomplish what only God himself, by grace, in and through Jesus, is able to achieve for us. Approaching the old covenant as they did (on the basis of works-righteousness) was a distortion brought about by the power of sin. Grace and faith were certainly not absent from the old covenant, but as God knew she would, Israel turned her back on that grace. Thus the new (renewed) covenant was, from the beginning, envisioned as the fulfillment of the old covenant—a fulfillment worked out in the person and work of Jesus and through the Spirit, rescuing humankind from pride and the power of sin, and forging a new depth of relationship for all humanity, throughout the world, in a relationship that leads to eternal life in the presence of the Trinity.
So as to mark the magnitude of what was occurring on Calvary’s cross, shortly after Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” an earthquake shook the city of Jerusalem, leading to four events that rocked human existence, and fulfilled the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the inauguration of the new covenant:
- The veil in the Temple, blocking access to the Holy of Holies, was torn from top to bottom
- Tombs were opened and several dead people were raised to life
- Jesus was acknowledged by bystanders to be the Son of God
- The old covenant gave way to the new covenant
In saying “it is finished,” Jesus was declaring that God’s presence would no longer dwell in a building made with human hands, or in a particular location within that building (the Holy of Holies). Rather, as Paul noted to the church at Corinth, God now dwells in a non-physical temple, formed by the Spirit:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17, also see 2 Cor. 6:16)
The apostle Peter put it this way:
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9)
On the basis of Jesus’ earthly ministry, God made a way to live in and among us, making us holy as we, by the Spirit, share in Christ’s own sanctified and regenerated human nature (Titus 3:5-7). Further, all our time is set aside and being made holy as we live under the new covenant, which means participating, by the Spirit, with Jesus in his continuing ministry. Whether we are at our jobs at work or engaged in recreation, we are citizens of heaven—living the new life in Christ—and so we shall live until either our death or Jesus’ return.
Dear ones, the old order is finished—in Christ we are new creations, called and equipped by the Spirit to be on mission with Jesus to live and share the good news. Let us be about our Father’s business!
Sharing in Jesus’ life, by the Spirit, with you,
What Jesus says about the Holy Spirit
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I sometimes talk with believers who struggle to understand how the Holy Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is divine—one of the three Persons of the Trinity. I typically offer them examples of how, in Scripture, the things said about the Father and the Son, which assume they are personal, are also said about the Holy Spirit. I then note the many titles ascribed in the Bible to the Holy Spirit (see the list below). Lastly, I share some of what Jesus taught concerning the Spirit. In this letter, I’ll focus on that teaching.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in three ways: Holy Spirit, Spirit of Truth and Paraklētos (a Greek word translated Advocate in the NIV, Counselor in the RSV, Helper in the ESV and Comforter in the ASV). Scripture shows that Jesus did not view the Spirit as a mere reservoir of power. The word paraklētos, which means “one called to the side of,” is commonly used in Greek literature to refer to a person who takes up the cause of another and defends them. In John’s writings, Jesus refers to himself as a paraklētos, then refers to the Holy Spirit using the same term.
On the evening before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that he was going away (John 13:33), though he promised not to leave them “as orphans” (John 14:18). Instead, he promised to ask the Father to send “another Comforter [Paraklētos]” to be with them (John 14:16, ASV). By saying “another,” Jesus was indicating that there was a first (himself), and that the one to come, like himself, would be a divine Person of the Trinity, not just a power. Jesus had been serving as their Paraklētos—in his presence (even in the midst of terrible storms), the disciples found the courage and strength to go outside their “comfort zones” to participate with Jesus in the ministry he was doing on behalf of all humanity. But now Jesus was going to leave and they were, understandably, deeply disturbed.
Up to that time, Jesus had been the disciples’ Paraklētos (note 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is called “an Advocate” [Paraklētos]). But now (particularly post-Pentecost), the Holy Spirit would be that Advocate—their ever-present counselor, comforter, helper and teacher. What Jesus promised his disciples, and what the Father sent, was not a mere power, but a Person—the third Person of the Trinity, whose ministry is to lead and guide the disciples in the way of Jesus.
We find the Holy Spirit operating in personal ways throughout the Bible: in Genesis, he hovers over the waters; in Luke’s Gospel, he overshadows Mary. He is mentioned 56 times in the four Gospels, 57 times in Acts, and 112 times in Paul’s epistles. In these references we find the Spirit, in distinctly personal ways, comforting, teaching, guiding, warning, determining and distributing gifts, interceding for us when we don’t know what to pray, assuring us of our adoption, and freeing us to call out to God as our Abba (Father) just as Jesus did. Note Jesus’ instruction:
When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:13-15)
In communion with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit has a distinctive ministry. Instead of speaking about himself, he points people to Jesus who then takes them to the Father. Instead of doing what he wills, the Holy Spirit implements the Father’s will in accordance with what the Son declares. The divine will of the one, united, triune God is thus expressed by the actions of the Father, through the Word (Jesus), performed by the Holy Spirit. We now can enjoy and benefit from the personal presence of God ministering among us by the Holy Spirit, our Paraklētos. United in being, act, will and purpose, yet distinct in three divine Persons, we worship and adore the Trinity.
Thankful for the Holy Spirit and his ministry,
Interpreting the Bible rightly
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In GCI, our high view of the Bible aligns with Jesus’ declaration concerning the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament): “These are the very Scriptures,” he said, “that testify about me” (John 5:39). Believing that Jesus is God’s self-revelation to humanity, it is our commitment and practice to follow this important teaching from our Lord, reading the Bible through what we might refer to as the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. Doing so means reading Scripture in a way that both prepares us for Jesus, then leads us to him as Scripture’s intended, ultimate fulfillment. Unfortunately, not everyone follows this Christ-centered method of biblical interpretation, often falling, instead, into one of two ditches as I’ll now explain.
Ditch one: Viewing Scripture as outdated and thus irrelevant
The first ditch involves the erroneous belief that Scripture, being ancient, is not relevant in our modern era. With this perspective, Scripture is seen as “past truth,” “dusty truth” or a bunch of “old love letters.” People fall into this ditch when they fail to understand that the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible in a way that makes it relevant in all times (including our own). They also fail to understand that the Spirit works in all times to illuminate the understanding of the believing and worshiping church so that it can discern the application of Scripture in its time. In GCI, we believe that the Bible, being timeless, has relevance for all people in all times. As God’s gift to humanity, it is authoritative, compassionate and reliable, providing wise instruction in good and right living (relationships). As we trust in that gift, and in the Spirit’s ongoing work of illuminating our minds to receive it, we will avoid the ditch of believing that the Bible is an irrelevant relic of the past—a false belief that leads to confusion, speculation and captivity to the prejudices of our current time.
Ditch two: Idolizing Scripture (bibliolatry)
The second ditch people fall into is called bibliolatry (or biblio-idolatry). This error turns the Bible into an idol by elevating it to a level not intended by God. It seems that Jesus had this error in mind in John 5:39-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently” he said, “because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Reading Scripture apart from the “interpretive lens” of Jesus’ person, life and work leads to multiple errors of interpretation including ones that justify blatantly un-Christian behavior. For example, some people neglect their God-given responsibilities toward society in a belief that Christ’s soon return will take care of the problems of society. Such errors arise when Scripture is interpreted using self-contrived methods that impose meanings on the Bible unrelated to what is conveyed by reading Scripture through the “lens” of Jesus. Those who fall into the ditch of idolizing Scripture transfer their trust in God’s gift of the Bible, and the working of the Holy Spirit in and through that gift, over to their own powers and methods of rational analysis. The result is an interpretation at odds with the character and purposes of God expressed to us in and through Jesus Christ.
Some will take my comments concerning bibliolatry as an attack on the idea of the primacy of Scripture (Sola Scriptura). But I am not demeaning the Bible, instead I am pointing out that it is a mistake to elevate the Bible (the written Word of God) to the point of seeing it as equal with Jesus, the Living Word of God. Here are three examples of that error:
- Several years ago, I explained to an unmarried church member that he should not greet everyone at church with “a holy kiss.” In his desire to “live by every word of God” (including 2 Corinthians 13:12), he was failing to understand that Paul was not issuing a mandate on how Christians should greet one another, but advocating the Christian use of a common custom of Paul’s day. That practice is not a cultural norm in North America in our day (though it’s still followed in some parts of the world). Paul’s instruction on this custom was like writing your married son and saying “Give your wife and children hugs and kisses from Grandma every day.” These are not general instructions for everyone in the church in all ages.
- Some use a verse or two of Scripture to claim we must always lift our hands when praying or singing in church. Though this practice can have deep personal meaning, that meaning is lost when the practice is mandated for all people—something Scripture does not do. The Bible gives multiple examples of positions in prayer including standing (1 Kings 8:22-23; Luke 18:10-14; Mark 11:25); sitting (Nehemiah 1:4); kneeling (Luke 22:41; Acts 9:40; 20:36; Daniel 6:10); bowing (Ezra 10:1; Psalm 95:6); lying prostrate (Numbers 16:22; 1 Chronicles 21:16-17; Matthew 26:39); lifting hands (1 Kings 8:54; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13; Ezra 9:5; Lamentations 2:19; Psalm 28:2; 141:2; 1 Timothy 2:8); looking upward (John 17:1); downcast eyes (Luke 18:13); and being adorned in sackcloth and ashes with fasting (Psalm 35:13-14; Daniel 9:3). When we look at all the biblical data, we find that there is no mandate for a particular position.
- Some insist that the Hebrew language must be used when we speak or write the names of God (this is typically referred to as the “sacred names” teaching). There are various problems with this teaching. First, there are no manuscripts of the Bible in Hebrew that are older than Dead Sea Scrolls. Second, in the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek (with a few passages in Aramaic), God’s name in Hebrew (Yahweh) is translated into the Greek words Kyrios (Lord) or Theos (God). These Greek (non-Hebrew) names are then used in quoting Jesus speaking about God. Given these facts, and in the absence of any biblical verse telling us otherwise, it is clear that there is no justification for claiming we must use the Hebrew names for God.
A Christ-centered approach to biblical interpretation does not support bibliolatry in any way. It does not view the Bible in any sense as on par with (equal to) God. The Bible, which has a derivative authority, does not have more authority than Jesus—unlike Jesus, the Bible does not forgive our sins or raise us from the dead. Therefore we do not pray to the Bible or in any other way worship it. When we read Scripture through the lens of Jesus, we see that it has a limited (though very important) scope. It does not contain all of God’s eternal knowledge (as does Jesus). And while the Bible gives us principles that apply to all situations in life, it does not explicitly give us all the information on every subject we need for daily living. For example, it does not tell us to brush our teeth, eat a balanced diet, whether or not to drive a car, or what kind of clothing to wear.
Bibliolatry typically involves a strict, woodenly literalistic approach to interpreting Scripture—seeking to get it to speak authoritatively to every conceivable topic. This practice distorts what is essential and central to the purpose of God’s gift of Holy Scripture, namely to reveal to us who God is, and who we are in relationship to him. In that context, it also reveals ethical principles concerning how we are to relate to one another. These principles, like all that Scripture declares, are fulfilled in Jesus Christ who directs us to the shape of the life we are to live as members of his Body under the new covenant. In short, the purpose of Holy Scripture is to reveal to us the triune being (love) and doing (loving) of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, along with our proper responses involving loving God (with all we are and have), then passing on that love to others, our neighbors.
Bibliolatry fails to distinguish between the authoritative sign (witness) and its source (author). We see this distinction when John the Baptist (sign/witness) points away from himself to Jesus (Source). Jesus the eternal, incarnate Son of God, is the Living Word (Source) and the Bible is the written Word (sign/witness). The written Word is authored by and points to the Living Word. The Living Word authorizes the written Word. Our relationship with the Living Word will necessarily lead to following what is revealed in the written Word—indeed, that is its designed purpose.
Though the Bible is our authoritative and irreplaceable connection to God, we worship God, not the connection. This is what Jesus was attempting to teach the scribes and Pharisees. While they likely knew the Hebrew Scriptures well, in saying to them, “you don’t know me or my Father” (John 8:19), Jesus was making it clear that we must distinguish the written Word of God from the Living Word of God, but not in ways that would separate them (as some erroneously do). God has joined the sign/witness and the Source and instead of pulling them apart, we must keep them together in proper relationship.
Practices that spring from bibliolatry (like mandating a holy kiss, hands lifted in prayer, or use of Hebrew in speaking God’s name) do not make us more “spiritual.” Our focus must be on what the Bible was written for: to help us know and then abide in a relationship with the triune God. We are spiritually alive as we live in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That communion involves a life in which God knows our thoughts, and we embrace his revelation to us of his nature, seen in the person of Jesus. This communion with God, through Christ, by the Spirit is both the source and the content of true spirituality. The Bible, then, is God’s gift to lead us to and within that communion.
Thankful for the Bible, rightly understood,
PS: To learn more about this topic, check out these GCI resources:
- For a You’re Included interview in which Mike Feazell interviews Jeff McSwain, click here.
- For a review from Terry Akers of the book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, click here.
Jesus: God’s ultimate act of speech
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
An undergraduate speech class professor of mine taught that there are three aspects of a speech: 1) what is said; 2) how it is said; and 3) who says it. I sometimes reflect on this insight when preparing sermons—focusing particularly on how these aspects of a speech relate to the Bible where what is said, in both the Old and New Testaments, is the message of salvation in Christ; where how it is said has largely to do with the Spirit inspiring the retelling of Israel’s story, which includes Christ; and where who says it is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—God’s ultimate act of speech.
The author of Hebrews refers to Jesus Christ (God’s “Son”), as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)—or as the NIV has it, “the exact representation of his being.” Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the ultimate, definitive speech of God. He is the life, the way and the truth of God personified in order to communicate with us. We rightly, therefore, refer to Jesus as the living Word of God, knowing that he transcends the written word (Scripture) because the totality of God cannot be reduced to a text. Jesus’ life exudes the character of God and embodies God’s kingdom rule. As the Word made flesh, he interprets for us what it looks like to live in relationship with God in anticipation of the coming fullness of the kingdom.
The declaration that Jesus is “the exact imprint” of God’s “nature” should create new connections in our minds in telling us the truth that God is like Jesus. To express this truth, the apostle John calls Jesus the Word (Logos/Logic) of God. Centuries later, in The Trinity, Augustine explained the triune relationship of love that God is using this analogy: If Jesus is the Word, then there must be speech (the Spirit), and a speaker (the Father). Augustine’s analogy expresses both the three-ness of the divine Persons and the one-ness of God’s being as Trinity. Though all analogies ultimately fall short, this one helpfully conveys the wonderful truth concerning God’s nature, and his revelation to us in and through Jesus, by the Spirit. I enjoy the way Gary Deddo put it at one of our conferences:
Jesus was the self-revelation of God, and the self-giving of God. He was the embodiment of God’s love for the world. Everything else then shifted around that new and living Center, and a renewed grasp of who God was. He was identical to Jesus Christ. There was no other God, no God behind Jesus Christ, no Old Testament God in contrast to Jesus Christ. God is like Jesus all the way down.
Think back to the prophetic promise given to Abram in Genesis 12: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV). As Scripture goes on to make clear, Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. In the book of Acts we read this about Jesus: “There is salvation [ultimate blessing] in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). God gave us the written word of God (Holy Scripture) to point us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God. The Bible is the only ancient book that can be read with the author still present with us, and Jesus, through the Spirit, uses the written word to tell us about himself, and also about his bride, the church.
To help us better understand the nature of the church and its ministry, Gary Deddo has written a lengthy essay that addresses the related topics of ecclesiology and missiology. You’ll find the introduction and part one of his essay in this issue (click here). Additional parts will be posted once a month, leading up to our Denominational Conference in Orlando, Florida, in August 2017. I believe you will enjoy reading how Jesus is the foundation of the church, and about the nature and purpose of the church that Jesus continues to build.
I wish you all a blessed Advent as we rejoice in the coming of Christ into the world for our salvation.
Loving the Living Word,
How to understand the Bible
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Bible is one of the world’s most accessible books, having been translated into most of the world’s major languages , and in many of those languages, made available in multiple versions. People with computers, tablets, or smartphones are able to download the Bible for free, and even hear it read aloud. Yet, with this accessibility, many people do not read the Bible. Thankfully, most Christians do, but do they understand what they are reading?
Few of the early Christians had access to Scripture, and even when they did, most were unable to read. As a result, learning in the early church came mostly through oral teaching, which often included the reading of letters from the apostles that were circulated among the churches. A few churches had scrolls of the Old Testament translated into Greek, but again, most early Christians could not read.
Some house churches had cabinets (similar to those used in Jewish synagogues) in which they stored letters from the apostles and others. Which letters each congregation possessed varied. Most probably had copies of some or all of the Gospels, a few of Paul’s letters, a letter or two from John and other apostles, and perhaps a copy of the Acts of the Apostles. Many had a copy of a story from someone called The Shepherd, along with letters from a Roman pastor named Clement. Most would not have had copies of some of the letters we now find in the New Testament—Hebrews and 2 Peter, for example. When gathering for worship, many early Christians made use of what we call the Apostles’ Creed (they called it the Rule of Faith), which summarized the apostles’ teaching concerning God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Despite this diversity in teaching resources, the New Testament churches experienced great unity, due largely to the oral teaching based on stories of Jesus and letters from the apostles, understood in light of the rule of faith. This teaching gave them the common, grand understanding that Scripture holds out for us today, namely that all Scripture is about Jesus. Jesus was what the early Christians taught, and what they shared with others. Jesus was (and still is) the gospel.
One thing is sure—when early Christians gathered, they were not arguing over the correct days for ancient Israel’s festivals, the meaning of Hebrew words, or the necessity of learning Hebrew to know God’s love and plan for them. Even the apostles, who as good Jews had observed the festivals, understood that the festivals were part of the old covenant of promise, which pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant in Jesus (through his life, death, resurrection and ascension). They never taught that Israel’s holy days revealed anything but Jesus.
It is disappointing that among those who read and even regularly study the Bible, interpretations have developed ranging from slight variations in understanding, to totally missing the point. This happens for a number of reasons, but I want to point out one that plagues Sabbatarians in particular. Reading that God rested on the seventh day, then gave Israel the command to rest on the seventh day, Sabbatarians use the Sabbath as the “lens” through which they read and interpret all Scripture. In doing so they completely miss that the Sabbath command was about a covenant grounded in a particular place and time, having largely to do with promises concerning the Promised Land. But before we judge the flaw in their thinking, we must admit that many of us have had the experience of hardening our mental defenses against those who tell us that seventh-day Sabbath observance is not part of an obedient Christian’s life.
Sabbatarians are mistaken in using a lens other than Jesus to interpret Scripture. Jesus warned of this error when he said this to the experts in the Law of Moses (the Torah):
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
Jesus was not saying there is something wrong with the Torah—he was criticizing their use of it as their lens to interpret Scripture. Jesus is to be that lens, and that is why he proclaimed himself Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5). Jesus called upon the experts in the Law (and all people) to interpret the Sabbath in terms of who he is, not in terms of any preunderstanding they might have concerning the Sabbath.
The apostle John had this truth concerning Jesus’ primacy emphasized to him by an angel:
The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.” (Revelation 19:9-10)
Scripture and prophecy are not unlocked and understood by anything other than the One to whom they point—Jesus Christ. He (and he alone) is the focus of all Scripture—not geo-political alliances, not British-Israelism, and not Israel’s seven festivals. God has given us the New Testament, which, through the lens of Jesus, interprets the Old Testament. When we use the Old Testament to interpret the New Testament, we make the mistake of doing it “bass-ackwards,” as the old spoonerism goes. An insistence on keeping the Sabbath on a particular day in order to be righteous before God is a prime example of this mistake. Beware of anyone telling you differently!
The Sabbath was given to point us to Jesus, not the other way around. The Old Testament Sabbath is a sign, which like all signs is given to point to its fulfillment—its reality. The commandment to “keep the Sabbath holy” is magnified under the New Covenant. Under the old covenant, the tabernacle and later the temple were holy because God made them his place of dwelling among his people. This was a temporary arrangement designed to point to Jesus coming and making his dwelling among us. Once Jesus fulfilled his atoning work on the cross, leading to his resurrection and ascension, he moved from dwelling among us (John 1:14) to living in us through the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-17). God, through Jesus, by the Spirit, now dwells in us, making us and all our time holy. Under the old covenant, God’s people sought a holy closeness to God once a week; under the new covenant, we are given a new life with Jesus living in us and transforming us from the inside out. It is no longer a once-a-week time with God, it is now a new life in him and he in us. Jesus, and not any day, is our Sabbath rest, and so we celebrate him when we gather as his people.
When we read the Bible, we do so to help us see Jesus—to help us learn from and about him. We read the Bible to help us understand that, by the Spirit, Christ lives in us as we respond to him in faith, hope and love. We read Holy Scripture to help us see God’s faithfulness for his beloved throughout all history—working all things in preparation for the turning point of history—the Incarnation, which was God’s plan from before the foundation of the world. We read the Bible to remind us that we are God’s chosen ones—made holy and righteous through Jesus. We read the Bible to see how God has invited us to join him in his continuing work of revealing himself to others so they too can know the true lens of life, Jesus Christ. We read the Bible because it is the written word of God designed to always point us to the living Word, Jesus, our Lord.
Reading the Bible with joy, through the lens of Jesus,
 As noted by Wycliffe Global Alliance, though there has been much progress in recent years, much more needs to be done to get the Bible into the hands of all people groups on earth. There currently are about 7000 languages in active use in the world, and at least one book of Scripture exists in over 2,900 of these languages. However, of the (approximately) 7.2 billion people on earth, about 1.5 billion of them do not have the full Bible available in their first language, though over 663 million of these have the New Testament. For more information on this topic, click here.
How big is hell?
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Unless Tammy is flying on the plane with me, I never know whom I’ll be sitting beside. Most do not seem to want much conversation, especially after they ask me, “So what do you do?” If I say I’m a pastor, there is often a polite comment made as they put on their headphones and/or open a book to read. If I say I supervise missionary work, then a bit more conversation takes place. On a recent flight, however, after the initial courteous exchanges, my row partner paused and then asked, “How big do you think hell is?”
As we talked, it became clear that he was wondering how many people are now in hell and will go there. Will hell be larger than we imagine and heaven smaller? It’s interesting he didn’t ask about my definition of hell, or what the Bible says about hell. He just wanted to know how big it is.
I joked with him and asked if he was familiar with the pictures of Dante’s Inferno. He said no, and I said, “Well, he makes it look as though hell is already full.” I went on to explain that this topic seems to suffer from more misinformation circulating about hell than is realized.
Most are surprised to learn that the early church did not dogmatize the topic of hell, nor was there a singular view of the subject. In fact, hell is not mentioned in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Perhaps this was because the early church fathers realized humans aren’t qualified to judge such matters of eternal consequence—only Jesus Christ is (a good realization, indeed!) .
If we take Jesus seriously when he teaches about mercy, we should also take him seriously when he teaches about punishment. After all, mercy only has meaning if we are escaping a real punishment. Jesus used a variety of word-pictures for the punishment of those who refuse the loving mercy of God: fire, darkness, pain and destruction. Jesus is describing the result of a life of perpetual resistance to God’s love. Whatever hell is, it is a state of alienation from God for those who refuse his unconditional love, grace and mercy. However, this does not mean that God is the one who dispenses the pain and anguish. It is not the equivalent of parents who spank or abuse their children.
Tragically, the all-too-common misperception of God dispensing pain arises from a faulty view of God’s nature. It ignores the eternal relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit, which is lived out in the life of Jesus. It misses the point of God’s kind of humility, which is expressed in mutual self-deference to the other. We should always bear in mind that Jesus said he came to reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27; John 17:25-26). And the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal Jesus’ mission (Hebrews 10:15-16). Jesus taught that when the Spirit comes, he’ll not bear witness to himself but to Jesus (John 15:26). We see that mutual, reciprocal love in Jesus’ teaching about his purpose for coming to earth, saying he did not come to condemn the world but to save or rescue it (John 3:17).
Even more tragically, many people view God as if he suffers from manic depression or a multiple personality disorder. They struggle with the idea that on the one side, God is a being of wrath and then on the other he is a God of love. Some go so far as saying the Father has wrath, but Jesus came to bring love. But if Jesus is the “exact representation” of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) we cannot separate the Father’s nature from the Son’s nature or the Son’s nature from the Father’s. The same is true of the Spirit.
Rather than seeing God in such an inconsistent and dissected manner, it is vital to realize that wrath and love are two aspects of a single attribute that is the fundamental character of God. Our talk about God is only accurate when based on the reality of Jesus Christ. He came from the Father to reveal the Father. And what we see in his life and ministry, including at the cross, is that God’s love and God’s wrath are not finally separate.
At the cross, God’s love in Christ is patently real, but so is God’s hatred toward sin. It isn’t that God loves the elect and hates the reprobate—rather, he loves us all, but hates the sin in our lives. Therefore we should think of hell in the same framework as we think of heaven by relating both to the love of God in Christ. God tells us to love our enemies and does no less himself. Because he loves us, he must be against whatever is against us—whatever damages us, harms us and ruins our relationships with God and with others. Anything less would not be loving. The sin in us is the object of God’s wrath because we are objects of his love.
At the cross, we see that the wrath of God has been meted out against human sin, guilt and alienation. Sin was literally put to death there. And it is of paramount importance to see that Christ assumed our broken, diseased humanity, turned it back to God and took on himself the judgment against our sin and guilt. As a result, we have been rescued from our sin, while our sin is condemned and sent away. The punishment due sin was (note the past tense) endured on the cross and does not take place in hell.
Systematic theologian Colin Gunton uses an interesting analogy to understand the love of God on the cross. He equates it to the cosmos suffering from cancer and Jesus taking all of that cancer into his being to heal it. His point is that at the cross we see both God’s judgment against evil and God’s love for sinners. Since God loves sinners, our understanding of hell must account for both the judgment and the love of God that takes place on the cross.
A person who rejects God’s love is not going to enjoy heaven, and God is not going to force them to be part of the heavenly celebration. Even if he did, they would not enjoy it or experience its benefits. Instead, he permits those who repudiate his mercy to follow their own direction—one decisively shaped by their rejection of God’s love and their perpetual choosing of evil. They cannot see love and mercy as a good choice since they insist on having their own way, saving their pride, no matter what the consequences. Hell is therefore created by those who eternally resist God’s love—it is for those who will not and thus cannot be in the presence of God’s holy love.
C.S. Lewis describes it well in his novella, The Great Divorce:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose to be there. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
When we talk about the glories of heaven compared to the agonies of hell, we should bear in mind that we really cannot conceive the reality of either. It is, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard and what no mind has conceived. The best way to contrast heaven and hell is the way C.S. Lewis described it:
And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies, and itchings that it [hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good.
We’ve all experienced loneliness in feeling separate from God and we’ve all experienced joy in understand that we are loved, forgiven, adopted and included by God in the love and life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. One simply cannot compare one experience with the other.
Here is a final thought to bear in mind when we think of hell as the culmination of judgment: Not only should we see that hell is related to the love of God, but that heaven is also part of the judgment of God. Those who turn to Christ are overjoyed and overwhelmed in realizing that Jesus is the real Judge, a judge who died for the people he judges. “The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Jesus, our Judge, has paid the penalty for the sin of all. Being in heaven means being in fellowship and communion with the Judge who saves by means of his judgment.
The one who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and the wicked, is the one who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ already has taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. Therefore judgment should signal a time of joy for everyone, as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity. Evil is banished forever. Those who want to live with Christ in that goodness will be able to; those who do not want to will not be forced to.
Our hope is in God who sent his Son who ministered to the cosmos through the Spirit to make hell a smaller, rather than larger place. The real answer to my seatmate’s question is that it is only God who knows how big hell will be. And he has done everything he can to make it as small as possible. Given who God is in Jesus Christ, there is no good reason for anyone to go to hell—only the foolish “reason” of repudiating God’s love and forgiveness in order to keep one’s pride.