Like coffee on the tongue of a child, the book of Ecclesiastes is an acquired taste. New believers don’t usually like it, and even seasoned saints aren’t always sure it belongs in the canon. Indeed, Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. The author deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life—and all the questions associated with that vast and vital topic. What is the reason for humanity’s presence on earth? What can we do with our lives that will make them worthwhile? How can we truly find joy and satisfaction during our brief time on earth? What is the “big picture” of this world and God’s “end game” for it?
We’ve all wrestled with these questions, haven’t we? The everyday weariness, frustration, injustice, and sense of emptiness we sometimes experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with those fleeting moments of happiness, contentment, and delight that are also part of our stories. Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over us all—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life we have now. Such contradictory realities cry out for resolution—if, indeed, there can be a resolution. If there’s no Big Story at all, what then is the point of all our little stories?
Christian faith teaches that people can believe there is a resolution to the conundrum—chiefly expressed in the hope-filled story of Jesus and his love. In his victory over death (and all the hate and hostility directed at him by angry and fear-filled people), he disarmed the ravages of soul that lead to hopelessness and despair. By conquering the darkness with his own faith intact (Luke 23:46), Christ enables his people to endure (and even embrace!) the riddles, mysteries, and unanswered questions of this life until the restoration of all things. Moreover, they are empowered to participate now in that restoration in Jesus’ name, knowing that all will be well in the end.
As coffee can help students pull an occasional “all nighter” on their way to the end of a semester, so the bold realism of Ecclesiastes can help us make it to the end of our lives knowing the journey was well worth it. Despite the evil and ugliness of this world, which seem to support the idea that there can be no meaning in the universe, humanity keeps pursuing the question of meaning. We see it in our songs, poems, and artwork all the time. “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Alfie may neither know nor care, but a large segment of humanity refuses to live with the conclusion that life is totally senseless and has no meaning at all.
But why should that be the case? Are we somehow “hard-wired” for meaning, or are we simply being naïve? Or could it be both? Ecclesiastes 3:11 says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The text suggests that human beings are hard-wired for meaning (“God has set eternity in the heart”), but we will never comprehend the big picture in this lifetime (“cannot fathom what God has done”). The Christian faith we love and embrace allows both these things to be true at the same time.
It is important to note, however, that Ecclesiastes does not envision a superficial faith that fails to take into account the fallenness of this world. Rather, it is a wakeup call to believers and unbelievers alike. For unbelievers, Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic nudge, calling secular people to face the dire implications of their skepticism and consider a better way. Utter despair is neither warranted nor necessary. For believers, Ecclesiastes is a call to realism, summoning the faithful to take seriously the enigmas of life and the sense of futility it often contains. Triumphalism is neither warranted nor sustainable. True wisdom, then, recognizes that human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and perfectibility on our own is a myth. It also recognizes our need for divine grace at every moment—giving us an irrepressible hope as we face the future together. The overall message of Ecclesiastes, then, holds two realties in dynamic tension:
1. Human beings do not hold the key to the meaning of life. We cannot know the big picture in its totality—what life is all about with its many riddles, mysteries, heartbreaks, and inconsistencies. We proceed through life as a horse with blinders; we see in part, and the big picture is veiled to us. But this need not lead to despair for the people of God. We have been “hard-wired” to know that there is a big picture—that there is a grand purpose in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit together—even if the knowledge of how they do so presently eludes us. As eternal yet finite creatures, we are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary. We want to fill in all the blanks, and we get frustrated when we cannot.
2. Still, we can know the one who does know the big picture—the infinite God, who alone holds the key to the meaning of life. We can put our trust in him and live in obedience to his ways, even when life is baffling, disappointing, or patently unfair. We can trust him even when we feel tethered by our own limited understanding and finite comprehension of all that God is doing in the world. Wisdom involves knowing that nothing we pursue in this life can lift the veil, but one day our spirit will return to the God who gave it, and he will rightly judge all things. Consequently, during our brief time on this broken planet, we can still have a measure of joy at the end of the tether.
In short, the book of Ecclesiastes is a strategic blend of good news and bad news. It’s a thick, dark roast coffee dispensed with a hint of mint and mocha syrup to make it tolerable. Generally speaking, it gives us two things to do simultaneously:
1. Lament the BAD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
Human life is extremely short. (1:2; 7:2)
Human life is inherently frustrating. (1:3-4, 11; 2:11)
Human life is exceedingly difficult. (4:1; 8:14)
Human life is spiritually broken. (3:11; 8:17; 7:20)
2. Celebrate the GOOD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
God knows the big picture of human life. (3:11b, 14; 7:14a)
God encourages his people to live wisely. (2:13-14a; 7:12, 19; 9:17)
God invites his people to enjoy now the gifts he gives. (9:7-9; 11:8; 9:10; 11:9)
God has a life for his people beyond this life. (12:5, 7, 13-14, 11)
This last observation reminds us we can live now, and we can live forever. That is, we can be spiritually “well caffeinated” for life under the sun. And we can know for sure that something good awaits us above the sun. What could be more worthwhile?
Note: It was my Old Testament Professor Dr. David A. Dorsey who first got me turned on to the book of Ecclesiastes. He has a wonderful summary of the author’s message and layout in his book The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 1999.
In his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus achieved something that God the Father recognized, namely, humanity’s sin crisis was rectified once and for all. To use longstanding theological categories, the atonement was objective (i.e., directed toward God), not merely subjective (directed toward humanity). The reason the atonement can be viewed objectively is because the New Testament presents Jesus as God’s acceptable representativeof—and chosen substitutefor—all humanity:
Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3).
God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).
…who gave himself for our sins (Gal 1:4).
…who gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13).
…who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6).
Christ suffered for you (1 Pet 2:21).
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18).
Historic Christian orthodoxy has largely understood the “for” in these verses as “in the place of.” That is, the atonement involved the substitution of Christ “for” or “in the place of” the sinner. As the old hymn by Phillip Bliss (1838-1876) puts it:
Bearing shame and mocking rude, In my place condemned he stood.
This essay seeks to explore the legitimacy of understanding substitution as one facet of the atonement diamond. As N. T. Wright said on a recent podcast, care must be taken when presenting the atonement in such a way. To paraphrase his comment, we preachers don’t want to find ourselves in a position of saying, “For God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Such a proposition would be a travesty, which is where we will begin our analysis.
The Cross—A Travesty of Justice?
Substitution is not the only legitimate image of the atonement, but it certainly is prominent in both the Old and New Testaments. An animal in the Garden of Eden dies so that Adam and Eve don’t have to. A ram in the thicket dies so that Isaac doesn’t have to. A Passover lamb dies so that the firstborn doesn’t have to. Two Yom Kippur goats die so that the nation of Israel doesn’t have to. The entire sacrificial system is built on the concepts of propitiation and expiation. Animal substitutes die so that humans alienated from God may live. In Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), animal sacrifices give way to the ultimate substitute, the Son of God (cf. Heb 10:4).
Nevertheless, this understanding of Jesus’ death has been widely criticized in recent years. The rationalistic Professor at Oxford University, Sir A. J. Ayer once called the idea of substitutionary atonement “intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” The common objection of unbelievers usually goes something like this: “I can’t possibly believe in a God who has to see blood before he can forgive sin.” To the contemporary mind, the very idea is offensive, disgusting, primitive, and obscene. Even believers, when we ponder the issues surrounding forgiveness via the cross, we have to admit it’s an extraordinary claim we’re making. In some ways, it’s scandalous (cf. 1 Cor 1:23).
That God should victimize the innocent Jesus in order to acquit the guilty sinner is seen to be a travesty of justice. It seems to attribute to the court of heaven a more monstrous corruption than the court of Pilate. At least Pilate resented the crowd’s cry to execute Christ rather than Barabbas. Even though he eventually yielded to it, he didn’t like it. But the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that God planned the cross as a similar kind of judicial exchange. Isaiah 53:10a says, bluntly, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Indeed, the whole thrust of Isaiah 53:4-6 features substitutionary language:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Victimizing the innocent in order to acquit the guilty—that’s what scandalizes people. But it’s not just unbelievers who make this objection anymore. In the last few decades, even some believers have begun to describe the concept of substitution as “divine child abuse.” As such, we can’t understand the cross as “penal substitution,” they say. That which is so predominantly advanced in Scripture has to be re-thought now because people don’t like it, and we’ve gotten it wrong for so long. Consequently, alternative views of the cross have been elevated in our day, including subjective or “moral influence” theories. Why? Because they’re far less offensive to contemporary sensibilities.
The Cross—Just an Example?
The purpose of the cross, they say, is for God to provoke some sort of emotional impact in us, or moral influence on us. In other words, when we look at the cross, we feel conscience-stricken about our failures, and we determine to live our lives as better people as a result. So, the cross is our example to live well and to do good. It’s our model for living a more selfless, self-sacrificial, and non-retaliatory life. That’s the purpose of the cross, it is proposed, and that’s why, ultimately, it “works.” That’s why God honored his Son’s sacrifice with a resurrection to follow.
There is indeed some truth to this view. Christ’s behavior on the cross is explicitly described as an example for believers in 1 Peter 2:21-23:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you anexample, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
When we look at the cross and see what Christ did there, we can’t help but be moved by the depth of his love and sacrifice on our behalf. It has emotional power in and of itself.
The Cross—More Than an Example
But the cross is much more than an example for humanity. Peter goes on to say of Jesus in the same passage, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24a). That is, he didn’t just die to show us how to live. Indeed, if the cross is not more than an example, then we have to conclude that Jesus saw his death as little more than a form of emotional blackmail. His intent was to get us to behave in a certain way by making us sad about his ordeal or sad about ourselves. Such a view, however, puts the cross of Christ into the same category as a political hunger strike.
Do we really want to suggest that Jesus intends to manipulate us into being better people by this kind of emotional lever—a histrionic gesture that achieves nothing but embarrassing those of us who have to watch it? If so, that could rightly be considered an immoral influence. Moreover, viewing the cross in this way not only reduces it to a form of crass manipulation, it renders the theory hopelessly incoherent. Yes, the death of Jesus can serve as an example to us, but the cross must first have a real (objective) value in order for it to have any personal (subjective) value. Why is this the case?
Imagine seeing a man standing on top of a tall building, and hearing him yell, “I love you all, and to prove how much I love you, I’m going to jump from this building and die for you.” Would you go home saying, “Wow, I saw a most wonderful demonstration of love today”? Or, “I saw a man die for me today”? No, you’d go home saying, “I saw a mentally disturbed man jump to his death today. How sad.” And you’d be right, because unless some objective benefit flows out of that death to somebody else, it can’t be considered a moral example. It is more rightly considered a tragic display of lunacy. On the other hand:
If I were drowning out in the middle of a frigid lake, and somebody jumped into the icy water to save me, drowning in the process himself, then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were a terminal cardiac patient in a hospital and needed a transplant, and someone stepped in and said, “I’ll give you my heart so that you can live,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were on death row expecting execution at dawn, and someone stole into my cell the night before and said, “I’ll take your place on the gallows tomorrow,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
There has to be some real situation of danger in which I am placed, and some real, objective benefit flowing to me out of the other person’s death. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say that the other person died for me. In the same way, we can only have a subjective view of Jesus’ death if there’s an objective benefit preceding it. Otherwise, the death of Christ for me is incoherent.
The Cross—Where the Punishment Really Falls
Still, people object to this view of the cross—that it was a substitutionary sacrifice—because they think it portrays God as a spiteful and ruthless monster. He comes across as a deity who punishes an innocent third party in order to satisfy his insatiable lust for revenge that he has somewhere in his heart. He’s like a rogue soldier who executes innocent civilians who aren’t even part of the battle. We’re outraged when something like that happens, and rightly so. Punishing the innocent is no virtue.
Those who criticize an objective, substitutionary view of the cross say it portrays God like that—punishing an innocent third party so that the guilty can go free. But that’s a caricature and gross misrepresentation of what the Scriptures teach. According to the New Testament, and according to Jesus’ own self-understanding, Christ is not a third party. Of course God could not take an innocent man and arbitrarily make him a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. That would have been a total miscarriage of justice. But what the New Testament dares to suggest to us is that at the cross, God did not arbitrarily punish an innocent third party; he deliberately punished himself.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is called, “Emmanuel,” God with us—God in human flesh (Matt 1:23). So, Jesus is not some innocent third party. He’s innocent, all right, but he’s not a third party. He’s the first party. Consequently, when we look at the cross, we shouldn’t think of Jesus as being there doing all the work in isolation, with God the Father being somewhere far away—totally disinterested in what’s happening, or totally unaffected by it (cf. Hos 11:8c). No, Paul said that at the cross, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19; cf. Gen 15:17-18a).
The Father was right there “taking it on the chin,” so to speak, as his own Son bled and died for humanity. God in Christ took full responsibility for human sin, even though it obviously wasn’t hissin. That’s why Acts 20:28 refers to “God’s own blood.” In God’s mind, divine blood shed is the price required for divine forgiveness granted. God did not sweep humanity’s sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with his adult Son’s permission (cf. John 12:27; Mark 14:32-42; Matt 26:52-54; Heb 10:5-7). This can hardly be considered divine “child abuse.” It’s more akin to the brave and noble soldier going off to war and giving his life in battle for the sake of his fellow citizens.
The Cross—God’s Instrument of Reconciliation
We sometimes assume it should be easy for God to forgive sin. After all, when does God ever have to break a sweat to do anything? Besides, isn’t it God’s job to forgive sin? It’s just what he does, right? God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Why then can’t he likewise say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and there is forgiveness? In short, why is forgiveness not by divine fiat?
Historically, the former statement, “Let there be light,” has always been seen as entailing no breach of God’s nature or ways. God is creator, and God is light. The latter statement, however, “Let there be forgiveness,” has often been seen as entailing a potential violation of at least some aspect of God’s nature and ways. God is holy, so sin must be punished. God is love, so sin must be pardoned. Herein lies the dilemma, and one that doesn’t seem to have an easy resolution. God must always be true to his own nature; otherwise, he cannot be God.
So, in the end, will God’s justice lead to the condemnation of sinners, or will God’s grace lead to the forgiveness of sinners? Is there a way for God to cut this Gordian knot, admittedly of his own making (by virtue of the fact that he created a race he knew would rebel against him)? Is there a morally acceptable way for him to separate sinners from their sin so that he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all his attributes perfectly intact?
However the issue is resolved, one can surely say that if forgiveness is by divine fiat alone, it renders the cross of Christ little more than a foolish waste. As Paul writes (in a related but slightly different context), “If righteousness could be attained through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). That the eternal Son of God should come to earth and deliberately squander his life in crucifixion—which he had the power to prevent—for no objective gain or benefit is unthinkable.
It appears, then, that there is a divine necessity to the cross. Hebrews 8:3 says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one [Jesus] also to have something to offer.” Moreover, Hebrews 9:23 says, “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb 9:23). In God’s mind, the cross of Christ was objectively essential to the full grant of divine forgiveness.
But how does the cross of Christ effect the final atonement that God accepts? How and why does the cross “work”? The dilemma is acute. If God overlooks evil, it’s as good as saying morality doesn’t matter in his universe after all. His righteousness would be undermined by his own neglect and inconsistency. Moreover, God would be open to the charge of moral apathy. But that is an accusation God cannot allow to pass unchallenged. His moral consistency must remain flawless and unimpeachable. He must always act justly, or the very idea of righteousness loses its meaning.
And that is why forgiveness can be said to be “difficult” for him—if we dare speak of deity in such terms. Forgiveness is “difficult” precisely because it is not easily distinguishable from moral indifference. How could one tell the difference between a God who forgives sin and one who couldn’t care less about it? If goodness is to mean anything in his universe, it is absolutely necessary that God’s righteousness should be beyond dispute. God must, in some way, dissociate himself personally from evil in this world. He must make a clear stand against it. If he doesn’t, then all moral standards and values are themselves called into question. So, how is forgiveness possible if God is to remain righteous? It is possible because no dilemma is bigger than God. Consider a similar dilemma in earthly terms.
Jack and Jill were married. They had been living together for several years, and everything seemed perfect. But then along came Joe, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, muscle-bound boy with an English accent and a bronze tan. Jill became infatuated with him, so one day, quite suddenly, she walked out and left her husband Jack so she could go be with Joe. Six months passed—six months in which Jack spent a good deal of time weeping inconsolably. But eventually, he pulled himself together. He decided that he was better off living alone and tried his best to put Jill out of his mind.
Then, as suddenly as Jill had departed, there she was again—on the doorstep now, luggage in hand. Things hadn’t worked out with Joe. She discovered that her English hunk had a mean streak and a wandering eye, so the infatuation fizzled. She wanted to apologize to Jack and make amends. She wanted things to go back to the way they were. She wanted to come home. All this she communicates to Jack while standing on the stoop.
The question at this point is this: “What is Jack going to do?” What would you do? It’s possible that Jack’s love for Jill has died—murdered by the cruel stab in the back of her betrayal and desertion. Perhaps he now just feels emotionally numb to the relationship. If so, his reaction to Jill’s appeal is going to be one of total indifference. “Well, you can come in and collect the rest of your stuff if you want, but that’s it. I couldn’t care less about you or anybody else anymore. I’m done with women. I’m done with marriage. I just want to be left alone.”
Another possibility is that Jack is still fuming with inner rage, his sense of honor scalded by his wife’s callous infidelity. If that’s the situation, he might well lose his temper and scream, “How dare you come back to me! Get out, you wretched woman! I don’t ever want to see you again! Go to hell!” Both scenarios are real possibilities.
But what if Jack’s love for Jill is still burning within his heart? What if he has long dreamed of their reconciliation? What if he wants to be with her again? How would he react then? He can’t fake indifference; he cares about her too deeply. He can’t pretend he isn’t angry, because he is, and he has every right to be. Yet, he can’t tell Jill to get lost either, because he desperately wants her to stay. So, what does he do?
For Jack to be true to himself, he has to say something like this: “I still love you, Jill. And I do want you back. I’ve longed for you to come back. In fact, it’s my heart’s desire that we be together again. But you have to understand how much you’ve angered me and hurt me by what you’ve done. Your betrayal caused me deep personal pain and great public humiliation. I was devastated by it. And I’ve never felt so dishonored in all my life. You really hurt me.”
If there is to be any chance of their relationship being restored, Jack must find the inner resources to absorb the injury that Jill has inflicted on him. His love must be large enough to overcome his indignation. His grace must be deep enough to swallow his own dishonor. His mercy must be great enough to accept the pain associated with extending the hand of reconciliation toward his wayward wife. For Jack to forgive Jill, he has to be willing to suffer whatever pain there may be in not exacting vengeance, drinking instead the bitter cup himself.
While this may not be a perfect illustration, according to the New testament, something like that is happening on the cross. We have deserted God, as Jill had deserted Jack. We have angered God as Jill had angered Jack. We have dishonored God as Jill had dishonored Jack. We have broken God’s law, and, more to the point, we have broken his heart. We have sinned against him—every one of us. And, as a result, God could have turned the cold shoulder of indifference toward us. Or he could have, with perfect justice, vented his wrath toward us and told us to go to hell.
But here is good news that spells hope for the world. God’s divine heart yearns for reconciliation. He does not want to give us up (cf. Hos 11:8), so he says to humanity, “I love you, and I want you back. My deepest desire is that we have a true and lasting relationship once again. I want genuine reconciliation. But you have to realize how much you’ve dishonored me by what you’ve done. That’s all I ask. Just come back to me humbly, and grace will be yours in abundance—and we can be together again. I am willing to swallow the pain myself to make it happen.”
Do we realize the cost of human reconciliation with God? Do we need to see it spelled out in dramatic form? If so, look at the cross, for it’s there we see the God of the universe allowing his heart to be ravaged by the sin of this world. There we see the cataclysmic collision of divine attributes—holiness and love, justice and mercy, righteousness and grace—all resolving themselves in mutual satisfaction until there is a just and settled peace in the violent death of his beloved Son.
When we look at the cross, no one can accuse God of moral indifference now. As Paul argues in the book of Romans, the cross of Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God, not simply the grace of God. All things are properly settled now. As gruesome as it may be to consider, the bruised and bleeding Jesus—humanity’s perfect substitute—became the focal point of God’s revulsion toward sin. Here, then, is the gospel at its core. For those who embrace Jesus as their substitute, no divine revulsion remains. Humanity’s sin crisis has been rectified once and for all.
Conclusion: The Death of Christ—It Is For Us
On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Additionally, the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The cross, then, is good news for a fallen race. A great transaction took place there that God the Father accepted. He planned it, authorized it, carried it out, and honored it. That transaction is this: God treated Jesus as we deserved so that he could treat us as Jesus deserved.Whatever else the cross may entail, it surely entails the concept of substitution. As Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1892) wrote:
When Satan tempts me to despair And tells me of the guilt within Upward I look and see Him there Who made an end of all my sin Because the sinless Savior died My sinful soul is counted free For God the just is satisfied To look on Him and pardon me
Luke Garrett (1959-2016) captured the same theological truth in his song, “Wondrous Exchange”:
The victim on a cross of execution The Lamb of God that sacrificed his life And the sky grew dark, and the rain poured down The price of my redemption was so high
For on that hill was done the great transaction As God paid out the ransom for my sin I can walk away; I am truly free From the prison and the hell my life had been
A wondrous exchange A wondrous exchange An offer so great I can scarcely believe His crown for my shame His loss for my gain His death for my life What a wondrous exchange
The objective dimension of Christ’ redeeming work on the cross opens up a wide variety of legitimate subjective expressions of its efficacy and impact on believers and their spiritual lives.
In his book The Cross of Christ, John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) writes, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” In similar fashion, Edward Shillito (1872-1948) wrote in his poem “Jesus of the Scars”:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Finally, the subjective impact of Christ’s objective atonement is illustrated well in the famous hymn by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought— My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The atonement is objective before it is subjective—and that is precisely what gives its subjective dimension so much power for the church in every age. Because Jesus is our substitute, we love him and want to follow his example.
Image Credits: gettyimage.com; gerhardy.id.au.
Parts of this essay were informed by the writings of John Stott, William Lane Craig, Roy Clements, and others who have written on atonement theory.
Today marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays). As we approach Holy Week 2021, we ponder our spiritual brokenness and earthly mortality. We give ourselves to humble mourning and repentance for our contrbution to the death of Christ on the cross. As Paul Tripp notes, “We should be a rejoicing people. But this side of our final home, our rejoicing should be mixed with mourning as we witness, experience, and, sadly, give way to the power of evil.” We don’t have to look very far to see that we live, work, and relate in a world that has been twisted and bent by sin. Some of it our own.
God’s Cosmos Is Beautiful and Broken
And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:25
“…cursed is the ground” (Gen 3:17).
“…it will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen 3:18).
“…creation was subjected to frustration” (Rom 8:20).
“…its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21).
“…groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Rom 8:22).
God’s Image Bearers Are Beautiful and Broken
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31
“…every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21).
“… I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5).
“…there is not a righteous man on earth who…never sins” (Eccl 7:20).
“…all have turned aside, they have together become corrupt” (Ps 14:3a).
“…there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3b).
“…all we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isa 53:6)
“…all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
“…if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
“…if we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar” (1 John 1:10).
“…tears…death…mourning…crying…pain” (Rev 21:4).
“…for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Gen 3:19).
God’s Son Is Beautiful and Broken—For Us
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. John 3:16
“…Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).
“…Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
“…Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).
“…God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).
“…who gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4).
“…who gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
“…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).
“…who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6).
“…Christ suffered for you” (1 Pet 2:21).
“…Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18).
God’s Gift of Repentance Turns Us from Broken to Beautiful
In repentance and rest is your salvation. Isaiah 30:15
David’s famous prayer of repentance, which the church typically reads and practices on Ash Wednesday, demonstrates the beauty of the king’s brokenness before God. My analysis of his literary artistry is as follows:
The addendum (vv. 18-19) was possibly added later to correct the potential misimpression that sacrifices were no longer important or necessary in Israel.
Ken Miller writes, “David’s plea in Psalm 51 comes from someone one who has honestly faced himself for who he really is and what he has really done. No excuses, no explanations, no blame placed on circumstances or on other people. He knows he has committed sin and wants only to be honest and acknowledge what God already knows. He cannot have peace, he cannot please God, he cannot be of meaningful service unless God washes him and restores him completely. Far from David’s mind is any idea that God is lucky to have him on his side, that God should take what he gets and be satisfied, grateful for the assistance he has received.”
Miller is right. David came clean with God and thus got cleaned by God.
We fall down in repentance only to be lifted up in grace.
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. Psalm 3:3
God does this to
“…bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” Isaiah 61:3
This is falling upward. And the best is yet to come.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 1 John 3:1-2
American Psychologist Rollo May once wrote, “Depression is the inability to construct a future.” In other words, the person who lives in a constant state of darkness and despair has experienced the death of hope. It’s a feeling many of us can relate to because depression is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s been known and studied for more than 3,000 years.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 125 million people around the world are clinically depressed each year. Twenty-five million of those people live right here in the United States. That includes entertainers, musicians, athletes, politicians, scientists, white collar workers, blue collar workers, the clergy, and more. In fact, more Americans suffer from depression each year than heart disease, cancer, and AIDS combined.
Depression is both common and complicated. It’s a condition with many causes, many expressions, and therefore many definitions. Some have called it “a howling tempest in the brain.” Others have called it “the common cold of mental illness.” And just like the common cold, there’s no immediate cure, but everybody seems to have a remedy for us. Especially Christians.
Sometimes our prescriptions sound callous or even cruel, coming across as if we’re saying, “Take two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” But that doesn’t work. And it’s not even an issue of faith most of the time. In fact, depression affects believers and unbelievers alike. The great Reformer Martin Luther lived with depression. So did:
The Puritan author John Bunyan
The Baptist teacher Charles Spurgeon
The Bible translator J. B. Phillips, and
The hymn writer William Cowper
We can add to the list Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln. In fact, President Lincoln once wrote in his journal: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Even Presidents are not immune to depression. Neither are God’s people. Consider Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Job, Jeremiah, and Peter—all of them, at one point or another, were depressed. Moreover, the book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
But almost every time it plummets, it comes back up again. The writers always seem to come around to some sort of resolution—some sort of peace, hope, joy, contentment, or confidence that God is at work. Only two of the biblical psalms have no expressed hope in them at all—Psalm 39 and Psalm 88. The latter composition is the great lament of Heman (not to be confused with “Haman” in the book of Esther; the Hebrew spellings are different).
In Psalm 88, the word “dark” or “darkness” is used three times (vv. 6, 12, 18). Heman feels like he’s surrounded by darkness, and there’s not a single ray of light to be found anywhere. In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “darkness” is the very last word of the prayer. That doesn’t come through in English, but that’s how the original reads. So, we have to ask, what’s a prayer like this doing in the Bible? Why did they include it?
The book of Psalms reads like an emotional roller coaster. One minute the tone soars to the heights of exultation in God. The next minute we watch it plummet to the black hole of despondency.
Heman is not exactly a household name—even for students of the Bible—but he played a vital role during the reign of King David and King Solomon. He was a well-respected prophet and worship leader in Israel during the glory days of the monarchy. He served at the temple by royal appointment, and Scripture tells us that Asaph was Heman’s right hand man. Asaph is better known to us than Heman, mostly because Asaph’s name is on 11 of the psalms, while Heman’s name is attached to just one. (After reading Psalm 88, we might conclude that one is enough from the hand of Heman!)
Psalm 88 is there to teach us that while suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith. On the contrary, the weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light. Heman thought his darkness was both absolute and permanent, but it wasn’t. God hadn’t abandoned him. How do we know that? And do we know he won’t abandon us?
While suffering and depression may be inevitable, they’re not incompatible with faith.
The end of Psalm 39 contains a heartbreaking appeal: “Turn your face away from me, God.” The end of Psalm 88 likewise contains a devastating assertion: “Darkness is my closest friend.” What these two writers expressed poetically one man experienced literally. Matthew 27:45 says, “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ ”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That is, why have you turned your face from me? Jesus experienced the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he had gotten form God (but didn’t). Jesus on the cross got the real darkness. Willingly. For us. And he knows how it feels to go as low as one can go.
But the Jesus Story doesn’t end on the cross. Or in the tomb. As Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3). If ever it looked as if hope had died forever, the cross of Christ was it. But the death of Christ was not the end of Christ. That’s why Peter speaks here of: “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A living hope, as opposed to a dying hope or a fading hope. Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
The weakest prayer in darkness can be an entry point for light.
Somebody once said, “Hope is the ability to hear God’s music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” Indeed, real hope is essential to dancing through our present struggles. How can we do that? We get help from trusted sources. We get a qualified therapist if we need one. We take meds if they’re properly prescribed. We take care of ourselves—physically and spiritually—as best as we can. We look at the trials of life and remind ourselves, “It’s nothing a resurrection can’t cure in time.” So, we press through the darkness with God’s help, and others’ help, and we wait for the clouds to lift.
Darkness is always temporary in a world that features a risen Christ.
Despite his horrible circumstances—and the severe depression it caused him—Heman demonstrates the beauty of a melancholy believer who will cling to God in faith even while swirling down the vortex of misery. We salute him for what he can teach us today. “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5b). So, hasten the morning, Lord. For all of us.
Need to talk? Need someone to listen? Need someone to pray with you or for you? Feel free to contact me using the Contact page.
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
I already miss not blogging on a daily basis, but duty calls. Today would have featured glistening pics from the all-too-brief dusting we had this morning in south central PA. It was stunning, yet I almost missed it! I got up at 5:15 a.m. but didn’t discover until around 8:30 a.m. that it had snowed. So much for my powers of observation. By the time church was finished, we were just walking around outside in a slushy mess as the temperatures went above freezing and it started to drizzle. All the more reason to make it a hot chocolatey kind of night.
Instead of pics, I’ll share a vivid piece I came across while studying for today’s message. It’s Frederick Buechner’s description of Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus. It was originally published in his Peculiar Treasures, the second book of his popular lexical trilogy, where he profiles more than 125 of the Bible’s most holy and profane people—and one whale. It contains lively and witty prose, and the other volumes are going on my wish list pronto!
ZACCHAEUS APPEARS JUST once in the New Testament, and his story is brief (Luke 19:1-10). It is also one of the few places in the Gospels where we’re given any visual detail. Maybe that is part of what makes it stand out.
We’re told that Zacchaeus was a runt, for one thing. That is why when Jesus was reported to be en route into Jericho and the crowds gathered to see what they could see, Zacchaeus had to climb a tree to get a look himself. Luke says the tree he climbed was a sycamore tree.
We’re also told that Zacchaeus was a crook—a Jewish legman for the Roman IRS who, following the practice of the day, raked in as much more than the going tax as he could get and pocketed the difference. When people saw Zacchaeus oiling down the street, they crossed to the other side.
The story goes like this. The sawed-off shyster is perched in the sycamore tree. Jesus opens his mouth to speak. All Jericho hugs itself in anticipation of hearing him give the man Holy Hell. Woe unto you! Repent! Wise up! is the least of what they expect. What Jesus says is, “Come down on the double. I’m staying at your house.” The mob points out that the man he’s talking to is a public disaster. Jesus’ silence is deafening.
It is not reported how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore, but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment. He said, “I’m giving everything back. In spades.” Maybe he even meant it. Jesus said, “Three cheers for the Irish!”
The unflagging lunacy of God. The unending seaminess of man. The meeting between them that is always a matter of life or death and usually both. The story of Zacchaeus is the Gospel in sycamore. It is the best and oldest joke in the world.
Buechner’s description reminded me of a bit from George Target, as quoted in And Jesus Will Be Born. It highlights the ridiculousness of the “mutterers” in Luke 19:7—those religious up-tights who were against all the right things, but you somehow knew they were missing out on the abundant life that Jesus had promised.
They don’t smoke, but neither do they breathe fresh air very deeply; They don’t drink wine, but neither do they enjoy lemonade; They don’t swear, but neither do they glory in any magnificent words, neither poetry nor prayer. They don’t gamble, but neither do they take much chance on God. They don’t look at women and girls with lust in their hearts, but neither do they roll breathless with love and laughter, naked under the sun of high summer. It’s all rather pale and round-shouldered, the great Prince lying in prison.
Jesus was the key to Zacchaeus’ prison door, but he wasn’t the only person in Luke 19 who needed to be sprung from his cell.
It is clear from Scripture that God is worthy to be praised, but why does he want to be praised? Indeed, why does he demand to be praised (cf. Deut 6:13)? The first commandment allows no room for any other gods besides Yahweh (cf. Exod 20:3). Such a claim seems narrow and exclusive in an age of pluralism and tolerance. Here’s a God who says that alternatives and substitutes are off limits to his people.
That raises the question of whether or not God is ego-heavy after all. Is he not humble? Is he needy in some way? Is he insecure? Why must he always get top billing? People who act like that are considered narcissistic.
C. S. Lewis pondered the question, and he was troubled for some time by its possible implications. Is God, he wondered, like “a vain old woman seeking compliments?” After soaking his head in the book of Psalms, Lewis came to an insightful conclusion. In Reflections on the Psalms he writes:
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .
“The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Still, the question remains: Is the first commandment somehow a violation of meekness? Is there something arrogant about God wanting to be regarded as utterly supreme in the universe? No. God is utterly supreme in the universe! Moreover, he wants his people to live in sync with reality; anything less would be insanity.
Ancient gods that were the products of people’s imaginations—idols that needed to be fed, dressed, bathed, and cared for by the priests in order to function—were not and are not ultimate; therefore, they are not worthy of worship. Serving such gods is a delusion, a waste of time, and ultimately disappointing. Only Yahweh is authentic, supreme, and able to “deliver the goods.”
Recognizing this theological truth is the beginning of wisdom and the first step toward living in accordance with reality. Deviate on this issue, and everything else will be askew—like missing the first buttonhole in a shirt; every other button is wrong, and the entire garment is misaligned. But to be properly aligned by recognizing the supremacy and exclusivity of Yahweh, and worshiping him alone, brings with it its own spiritual benefits, not the least of which is genuine life transformation. As Archbishop William Temple once said:
“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
Such selfless adoration is indeed a great pleasure. Gone, for the moment, are all the cares of this world during true acts of worship. As Lewis said, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
“The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.”
In the end, God allows people to reject him, disbelieve him, and not worship him as God (at least for now). And that’s the very definition of humility—to have infinite power to compel submission while putting oneself in a position to be rejected.
Like Father, like Son.
Image Credits: crosswalk.com; Lori Thomason (Pure Devotion).
The long, complicated, and contentious history of biblical theology shows that the entire field once needed a savior. Mercifully, one came along a few decades ago, though it had been hiding in plain sight for more than two millennia. The knight in shining armor turned out to be the Bible itself, now released from the shroud of higher criticism, yet still bearing a few scars from the battle. More specifically, it was the supernatural worldview shared by each of the biblical authors as they penned their compositions that finally rolled away the stone. For all the diversity inherent in Scripture, it is the biblical writers’ shared philosophy of life—their overarching conception of reality—that holds together the Bible’s collective witness across the generations. As Thiselton writes, “Continuities within the biblical writings do not exclude diversity, but they witness to monotheism rather than polytheism. To focus piecemeal only on atomistic textual units . . . is to miss the transcendent dimension of the whole.” The biblical authors would agree; the God about whom they wrote was—and still is—transcendent. Therefore, it is not enough for preachers to see the “big idea” of a single text; we must also see the “Big Story” of the entire Bible.
Such a claim implies that Scripture is not merely an ancient record of religious beliefs or a catalog of profound spiritual experiences in response to divine revelation outside itself, though it certainly contains such elements. Scripture itself is divine revelation. The books of the Bible were written by believers—individuals embracing a theistic worldview—precisely because they had encountered the living God who moved them to write what he had deigned to show them (cf. 2 Pet 1:21). To those writers, God was the self-existent creator of the universe, and he personally involved himself in the affairs of men and women whom he created and rescued from folly. The biblical authors’ conviction was that God unveiled himself in history, documenting for posterity his unfolding revelation over time via the apostles, prophets, and evangelists in texts that would eventually comprise the canon. Wherever the authors’ perspectives on reality may have diverged across the full sweep of biblical history, their perspectives on ultimate reality converged without hesitation or deviation: God lives, God loves, God speaks, God acts, and God makes himself known in the world—fully and finally through his anointed one, the promised messiah. As such, their worldview was deeply theological from start to finish. Theirs was a theocentric orientation.
Now, there is a sense in which appealing to the Bible for its own authority is a kind of circular argument. That, however, does not make invalid. As Grudem notes, “All arguments for an absolute authority must ultimately appeal to that authority for proof; otherwise the authority would not be an absolute or highest authority. This problem is not unique to the Christian who is arguing for the authority of the Bible. Everyone either implicitly or explicitly uses some kind of circular argument when defending his or her ultimate authority for belief.” Grudem offers the following four claims where a similar dynamic is at play: (1) “My reason is my ultimate authority because it seems reasonable to me to make it so”; (2) “Logical consistency is my ultimate authority because it is logical to make it so”; (3) “The findings of human sensory experiences are the ultimate authority for discovering what is real and what is not, because our human senses have never discovered anything else: thus, human sense experience tells me that my principle is true.”; (4) “I know there can be no ultimate authority because I do not know of any such ultimate authority.” In all of these arguments for an ultimate standard of truth, an absolute authority for what to believe, there is an element of circularity involved.
Issues of self-authentication aside, the view advocated here is one of taking the Bible on its own terms, respecting its own supernatural worldview orientation. For interpreters today to ignore the biblical writers’ conception of reality, or even to grant it for the sake of argument while personally dismissing it as primitive, naïve, or wrongheaded, is potentially to misperceive the gravity and gladness of what those authors sought to communicate, even in the very process of analyzing their work. In my own ministries, I use a theocentric approach to biblical theology because it aligns with the worldview of the biblical writers themselves. That is, I start where they started—with God at the center—and I remain open to the univocal worldview that undergirds the diversities they present throughout the canon. Indeed, only a supernatural conception of reality can produce a vibrant biblical theology that serves the church rather than undermines its confessions. Such a theology must be equipped to deal with the witness of Scripture on its own terms, accommodate the church’s longstanding faith tradition and experiences of God, and allow for the possibility of people today encountering that same God through what he moved his people to enscripturate. As such, evangelical pastor-scholars take as their authority in ministry what God has spoken supremely through his living Word, Jesus Christ, as revealed to us in his written Word, the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. Such a view requires us to strive to engage in a proper handling of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which contain a treasure trove of insights about God and his ways. When we rightly hear the human author who composed the text, we ultimately hear the divine Author who inspired the text.
Of course, there is no shortage of writers today who adopt a critical view toward the text, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze them. It is enough for me to briefly state and defend my contention that an attitude of openness is preferable to a disposition of doubt when it comes to the canon. Stuhlmacher advocates a “hermeneutic of consent” (as opposed to a “hermeneutic of suspicion”) with respect to the biblical texts, along with an attitude of genuine “receptivity” toward their claims. He does so as a result of his long and sophisticated interaction with the German school of higher criticism and its deleterious effects on the church. While not abandoning the historical-critical method entirely, Stuhlmacher encourages a more thorough examination of its rationalistic assumptions, which are at odds with those of the biblical writers. He is also concerned about the ethical responsibilities associated with biblical interpretation. Handling a biblical text has moral connotations, he says. The locus of meaning cannot be arrogated by the reader alone or become the exclusive domain of higher criticism. The Bible is neither a spiritual ink blot for divination nor an academic code for cracking.
While the claims of higher criticism should always be heard, those claims need not go unchallenged as if they were settled law in every jurisdiction where biblical theology is done. As even Barr noted two decades ago, “A certain weariness with historical criticism has been an important part of the reaction which produced biblical theology in its twentieth-century form.” By shedding the hermeneutics of suspicion in the 21st century, biblical theology has become even more robust. What was long seen as a severe criticism leveled at the biblical writers—that they were driven in their composition by an underlying theological agenda (i.e., a “bias”)—is actually a compelling rationale for pursuing a truly biblical theology. If we start from the vantage point of accepting the biblical record as an account of what actually happened in history, we can then produce a biblical theology that the biblical writers would not only recognize but wholeheartedly embrace. Fueled by a theocentric approach to both worldview and Scripture, biblical interpretation—and the biblical theology that derives from it—can keep pulsating with life.
One development that has sucked the life out of biblical theology over the last three hundred years is the Graf-Wellhausen (JEPD) Documentary Hypothesis and its various descendants—views that claim the Torah assumed its present shape not from the hand of Moses and his contemporary aids, but from multiple contradictory sources that were compiled and redacted over the centuries in a developmental (and therefore uninspired) fashion. Because of my work under Drs. Buckwalter and Dorsey, and my own work on biblical literary structure since Dorsey’s passing, I view all such theories of origins with suspicion, giving the benefit of the doubt to the biblical text as we now have it. Indeed, I give literary criticism priority because it often serves as a better tool for rationalizing a text’s formation and, more importantly, uncovering an author’s intended meaning, whatever its oral pre-history may have been. While the arguments of source criticism should be heard and evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the fact remains that the extant biblical manuscripts have been found largely intact, so the textual “fossil record” does not support a “divergent evolution” model of canonical development.
Applying the methods of source criticism to, say, The Lord of the Rings, may well lead to the hypothesis that multiple authors from successive generations synthesized various traditions with conflicting storylines. After all, Aragorn, like Yahweh, goes by many names throughout the epic tale, including Strider (S), Estel (E), Thorongil (T), the Dúnadan (D), and several others. Moreover, the novel has been criticized for its plot holes, minutiae, violence, racism, lapses in logic, and other missteps, not unlike the charges often leveled against the Hebrew Bible. One can only imagine Tolkien’s response to such an analysis of his work. Moreover, as Kaiser rightly insists: “A good exegete will have nothing to do with hypothetical sources which have never materialized in any form. These sources are deductively ‘authenticated’ and then inductively ‘proven’ from the same document in what becomes a most vicious circle. What you put in, you get out.” Rather, the burden of proof should fall on source critics who must reconcile the teleological nature of biblical texts with an evolutionary model of their origin. The explanatory power of such models is often insufficient to account for the literary artistry and intentional patterning we now know permeate the Hebrew Bible (and even the New Testament). In the end, literary criticism may not answer every question we have about the compositional history of a particular passage, but granting this tool priority over source criticism can help reduce the endless speculation and frustration inherent in the quest for textual origins, not to mention the unnecessary cynicism that evolutionary models often display toward the final form of biblical texts. The more exquisite a block of biblical text, the less likely it is that many hands contributed to its final form in a complex redactional process spanning the centuries. As in the kitchen, so in the scriptorium: too many hands spoil the broth.
One way to test the legitimacy of higher criticism’s rationalistic assumptions is to apply both a naturalistic hermeneutic and a theocentric hermeneutic to a particular biblical phenomenon and then determine which approach better accounts for the evidence. For example, does the Israelite religion as portrayed in the Old Testament mirror the faith—or even borrow from the faith—of its ancient Near Eastern neighbors, or is it unique and exceptional as it is? A naturalistic hermeneutic tends toward the former because of anti-supernatural presuppositions as well as thematic parallels found in correspondent literature. But a solid case can be made for the latter. Indeed, the Bible everywhere affirms Israel’s uniqueness, and its historical claims are not easily divorced from its theological claims. To mythologize the history is to neuter the theology. Indeed, a naturalistic worldview has to dismiss divine revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge because it presupposes a world beyond the senses and the existence of a realm that one cannot see or control. It is a fully supernatural, theocentric realm, so it is rejected out of hand by historical criticism. Yet a theocentric approach to Old Testament texts actually strengthens the claim to historicity, affirming Israel’s uniqueness and distinction. As Oswalt argues:
“When we ask the Israelites where they came up with these fantastic concepts, they tell us they did not ‘come up’ with them. They tell us that God broke in upon their lives and dragged them kicking and screaming into these understandings. They tell us that they did their best to get away from him, but that he would not let them go. He kept obtruding himself into their lives in the most uncomfortable ways. If that report is not true, we are at a loss to explain where the fundamentally different understandings of life in the Old Testament came from.”
Oswalt’s observation is perceptive. To strip the biblical world of its theocentric orientation is to be left mystified by the sociology that remains. The community’s rich theology is boiled off by skepticism, leaving only a historical stain at the bottom of the cup. But the sparse residue lacks sufficient explanatory power to account for the historical, theological, and textual phenomena. No one ever would have fabricated the theology that Israel embraced, as it placed them too far out of step with the rest of the ancient Near East—especially when it came to the prohibition of idols, the observance of Sabbath, the wearing of tassels, and the keeping of laws protecting widows, orphans, immigrants, and slaves. The Israelites were a strange and quirky people in the midst of a dark and hostile world. It was only their submission to divine revelation and their sense of identity as God’s covenant people that kept them willing to remain strange. Even then, their drift toward syncretism was a constant temptation. As Oswalt points out, much of their history involved a fair amount of “kicking and screaming” against the God who had graciously revealed himself to them.
Parallels in correspondent literature can be explained in other ways besides mirroring or borrowing. Indeed, one of the most striking features about correspondent literature is the myriad points of contrast not comparison, as if the biblical writers sought to critique or parody much of that literature. Yahweh feeds his people, not vice versa. Yahweh clothes his people, not vice versa. Yahweh illuminates his people, not vice versa. Yahweh leads his people, not vice versa. Yahweh gives rest to his people, not vice versa. Yahweh helps his people, not vice versa. Most of what we read in the Torah reverses a vast array of ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the divine, standing many of those ideas completely on their head. Quite significantly, to discover something about the character of God in an Old Testament text is to discover something about the character of Christ as well, for “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), and “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3a). For the Christian interpreter, then, theocentricity leads naturally to Christocentricity; they are not mutually exclusive considerations. When I come to the end of my interpretive work on an Old Testament passage, I should be able to say, “Like Father, like Son. I can see how the God who inspired this text is the same God who took on flesh in Christ.”
That said, biblical theology is more than a mere academic discipline; it is a reconstruction of ancient thought patterns with crucial spiritual implications for today. Failure to attend to the biblical authors’ theological interpretation of God’s acts in history is to stop short of biblical interpretation itself, for such an approach either avoids or minimizes the impetus behind their rationale for writing in the first place. Consequently, simply analyzing biblical texts is incomplete until a truly biblical theology emerges. As Rosner has said, “No one would dispute the legitimacy of studying Shakespeare’s plays for their artistry and language, or to consider the evidence they provide of the social mores or political conventions of their day, or to trace their impact on the history of literature and ideas. But to do only this is by no means to engage in the interpretation of Shakespeare. The same principle applies to the Bible.” In Christian terms, one could likewise say it is possible to “study” Jesus without actually following him, but the results would be both intellectually and spiritually deficient (cf. e.g., Luke 7:36-50; John 5:39-40). I must always guard against this drift into theological intellectualism. Academizing the faith is no guarantee of spiritual maturity.
In the end, it is only a theocentric approach that enables the church to hear God’s voice in Scripture and respond with joyful obedience. The hermeneutic of suspicion is a muzzle to that voice, for it concludes that no such voice exists. A hermeneutic of consent, on the other hand, is a megaphone to that voice, for it recognizes that God is still speaking today by his Spirit through his Word. God has revived biblical theology in our day, and we are enjoying the fruits of it.
 For a brief overview of the consternated history of biblical theology, see, e.g., Charles H. H. Scobie, “History of Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 11-20; James K. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 13-59; and Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 14-17.
 Anthony C. Thiselton, “Introduction” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series, vol. 7, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, eds., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 5.
 The slogan of one famous preaching ministry today is, “Unleashing God’s truth one verse at a time.” A better approach might be, “Unleashing God’s heart one story at a time.”
 See John S. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 13-15.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 68-69.
 James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 8.
 Mead writes, “The field of biblical theology has entered a new century with a tremendous surge of interest and vitality. Scholars and students from many and diverse communities are reading the Bible theologically, seeking to understand its message and shape the methods whereby we approach the Bible.” See Mead, Biblical Theology, vii.
 Two can play the suspicion game. Those of us with a high view of Scripture can be provocateurs, too.
 Analogy first suggested to this author by Paul Elliott, Concordia University Irvine, via personal conversations with Phil and Sarah Bollinger.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 64.
 John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 17.
 Brian S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 4. Emphasis mine.
God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick.
Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.
Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him.
No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us.
Are we listening?
The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.
For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before.
We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this:
Men are homesick in their homes And strangers under the sun… But our homes are under miraculous skies Where Christmas was begun.
If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator.
God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.
Even if you’re a wizard.
Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.
Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!
From majesty to manger. Heaven to hay. Blessedness to Bethlehem. The eternal Christ came all the way down. The trip no doubt was long and difficult. In fact, it was impossible. An infinite journey by definition can never reach its destination. Yet Jesus entered our realm and arrived safely on that first Christmas Day.
We call it the Incarnation—the enfleshment of God. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not,” said Gregory of Nazianzus. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” wrote Charles Wesley. “Hail th’incarnate Deity.” Theologians have tried to articulate it, but maybe it’s better left a mystery to be adored than a concept to be explained.
After all, how could we ever fathom stepping out of eternity and entering into time? How could we ever comprehend coming from a place of pure light and entering into a womb of utter darkness? How could we ever wrap our minds around leaving the world of invisible spirit and entering into the world of visible flesh? Christmas is the profoundest of all God’s miracles.
Maybe a better question than how he did it is why he did it. Scripture gives us many answers to that question, so perhaps we can summarize them all like this: God wanted so much for us to become part of his family that he became part of ours. That’s why he took the impossible journey—for us.
Athanasius said of Christ, “He became what we are, so that he might make us what he is,” that is, children of God bearing the image of God in all of his beauty, truth, and goodness. Here. Now. On earth. Indeed, Jesus is our down-to-earth God.
Moreover, Jesus kept going lower and lower to serve us while he was here. Yes, he descended from heaven to earth in his incarnation. But then he descended to the lowest point of the earth in his baptism—the Jordan Rift Valley. Then he fell to his knees before the crucifixion to wash his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room and pray for strength in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Finally, he descended below the earth in his death and burial on our behalf. Love keeps going lower and lower to reach the lowest. Love bends down to lift up the fallen.
In his book, Mortal Lessons, Dr. Richard Seltzer, a surgeon, tells of a poignant moment in the hospital when he caught a glimpse of this kind of love. It was a love that reoriented his entire life. He writes:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve—the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be like this from now on. Oh, the surgeon had carefully followed the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, he had to cut that little nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” the woman asks. “Yes, it will always be so. The nerve has been cut.” She nods and is silent.
Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles, and he looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once, I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with [such people]. The groom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.
Here is a groom not put off by his bride’s unfortunate distortion, but one who bends down to meet it, reassuring her of his abiding love. How much more does our heavenly groom do that for his people?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus bent all the way down to meet us where we are, kissing a broken planet disfigured by sin. He did so to reassure us of his abiding love.
Gregory was right. Remaining what he was, Jesus became what he was not. Knowing this, how could we ever remain what we are?
“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” – Al Stillman
No doubt you’ve heard this line from the 1954 Christmas song by Al Stillman and Robert Allen: “Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays.” It was covered most famously by Perry Como and later the Carpenters, and has remained a holiday favorite for nearly seven decades. But did you realize there’s good theology in its message?
In the birth of Jesus, God made this fractured world his own home. Indeed,the incarnation of Christ was the ultimate display of divine hospitality. On that first Christmas, God set a table for broken people everywhere, inviting them to come feast at Bethlehem’s manger. And it’s an all you can eat buffet!
After all, as noted previously, this is the God of “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine. Jesus, the Living Bread, came down from heaven to nourish everyone starving for the love of God. (Quite significantly, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”) When Christ was here in the flesh…
His life showed us how to live.
His death made us ready to die.
His resurrection gave us new life—and the confidence that, in him, all will be well in the end.
At the end of God’s cosmic story is a new heaven and new earth. Eden, our original home, will be restored—only better than before. All God’s people will finally be made whole (and holy) forever. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more shattered dreams and broken relationships. No more deadly diseases and debilitating disappointments. No more night. God’s immeasurable love in Christ heals beyond our imagining and invites us to come home to stay. With him. Forever.
Through his Spirit living in us, Jesus is still at home with us today. That’s why believers are called to extend his hospitality to others in our day. We’re his hands and feet on planet earth. The Christian faith is an embodied faith; we seek to live what we proclaim, even though we fall short many times. We seek to live as “earthen vessels” containing the divine “treasure” (2 Cor 4:7).
That’s exactly what Mary was. She was the original host of God’s Christmas hospitality. For nine months she literally was the first earthly home that Jesus had. But how could she possibly host that which cannot be contained? Solomon had a similar question. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kgs 8:27). And yet, the God of “immeasurably more” became “measurably less” at Christmas. He did dwell on earth—as a baby!
It’s hard to get our minds around such a mystery. Deity in diapers? Elohim with elbows and eyebrows? How can this be? T. S. Eliot described the newborn Christ as “the word within a word, unable to speak a word.” In Disney’s Aladdin, Genie (Robin Williams) described his own spatial paradox like this: “Cosmic, phenomenal power, itty bitty living space!” That was even more true of Jesus. He left the splendors of heaven to be with us in our distress—at great cost to himself. Christmas, then, was theultimate transition—divine to human, heaven to earth, riches to rags, power to powerlessness—all of it to invite us to our true home with God.
As we celebrate God’s hospitality at Christmas, we can rightly sing, “For the holidays, you can’t beat home, sweet home.” That very impulse comes from the God who made us, and then became one of us in Christ.
There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.
The first word is transliterated nāśā.
The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).
Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words:
Who is a God like you, who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.
The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.
The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.
Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].
And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:
The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.
Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).
“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49:
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.
There we were, sitting around the tree at my sister’s house several years ago on Christmas Day, opening our presents. That’s when a knock at the door interrupted our festivities. My brother-in-law opened the door, only to be greeted by two nicely dressed sectarians pushing their religious literature on us.
“Oh, come on,” said my relative, who was more than a little peeved. “It’s Christmas Day. Don’t you guys ever take a break?”
“No,” came the reply. “We’re Christians 365 days a year.”
The implication was hard to miss. Real Christians don’t celebrate Christmas; they go door to door on December 25th to pass out tracts. (I must have missed that lesson in seminary where they talked about smug evangelistic techniques.)
We were made to feel like pagans in our own home that day, practicing some sort of mirthful divination with gifts and glitter. After all, the whole family was facing a spiffed-up forest idol while disemboweling the wrapping paper. What else could we be doing but deeds of darkness?
“Put that in your corncob pipe and smoke it,” was their attitude. We were thumpity thumped for acting like heathen.
I beg to differ.
No, scratch that. I’m not begging. I’m telling.
It’s true—there’s no command in the New Testament for believers to observe a holiday called “Christmas.” And, of course, there’s no command against it, either. But since one good snark deserves another (Prov 26:5), here’s a brief reply with a bit more zing.
If you want to accuse me of observing a non-biblical holiday, then you have to accuse Jesus of doing the same thing. That’s right, you just reduced Jesus to being a sinner by your own priggishness. Bravo. That’s exactly what the religious leaders in the first century tried to do over and over again. It didn’t work for them, either.
John 10:22-23 tells us, “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” The Feast of Dedication is Hanukkah, the celebration commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple. That holiday arose from a conflict between the Jews and the Seleucids during the Intertestamental period, followed by Israel’s eventual triumph over her enemies.
In other words, Hanukkah is not one of the original seven feasts God told Israel to observe in the Torah. It developed much later. Yet here’s Jesus at the temple on this particular day, mixing it up with others who had likewise gathered for the celebration. Was it wrong of him to do so? Of course not. And, quite significantly, we have no indication Jesus ever castigated anyone for celebrating this extra-biblical holiday. (I see your “argument from silence” and raise you another.)
If Jesus had been a “good Christian”—like those two guys at our door—he would have avoided the temple altogether that day just to make a point, similar to how “good Christians” in our day hide themselves in their basement on Halloween night with the lights off. (“That’ll show the world!”) But no, Jesus was right there at the temple in the thick of things on Hanukkah. And he was perfect 365 days a year.
Previously at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus declared himself to be the light of the world (John 8:12, 9:5), fulfilling everything the Feast of Tabernacles had ever pointed to. And here he is now at the Feast of Dedication, this time answering questions put to him about his identity and pointing to his own miracles to back up those claims (John 10:25, 32, 38). Jesus didn’t subvert the extra-biblical holiday, he leveraged it.
If a certain military victory can be celebrated by God’s covenant people without divine penalty, how much more the prophesied entry of God’s Son into the world on that first Christmas? After all, he came to win humanity’s ultimate victory over sin and death, an event for which Paul told Gentile Christians, “Let us keep the feast” (1 Cor 5:8), even though that feast had already been rendered legally non-binding by the New Covenant (Heb 8:13). Paul knew there was abiding value in annualizing God’s mighty acts of deliverance in salvation history.
The conscience, then, is unbound on such matters. It’s no longer an issue of right and wrong, but one of wisdom. One of winsomeness. One of preference. One of cultural connection and instruction. In the end, it’s adiaphora.
So, here’s how I see it. All of history had been moving toward that moment when God the Son would take on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ (Gal 4:4). The prophets foretold it with ever increasing anticipation. An angel from heaven announced it when it finally took place. And then a company of angels joined in to praise God and mark the occasion (Luke 2:10-14). Matthew and Luke open their Gospels with special attention to the infancy narratives, and the rest of the New Testament keeps alluding to it.
Ultimately, Jesus’ birth was “good news” for the entire world (Luke 2:10-11). But some people want to start acting like sanctimonious fussbudgets around me when I choose to make merry and join the angels in marking the occasion once a year. They always fail. I just can’t find it in myself to take the good news and turn it into bad news. Nor have I ever believed that finger wagging is sign of holiness, especially on matters where Jesus remained silent. I need something more powerful than manufactured scruples to fix what’s wrong with me (Col 2:20-23).
Those same people will take the names of ancient Germanic deities to their lips every time they say “Tuesday” (Tiw’s day), “Wednesday” (Woden’s day), “Thursday” (Thor’s day), and “Friday” (Freya’s day), and give themselves a pass on it. But let me build a fire in the hearth on Christmas morning, and I get accused of paganism because of some obscure, long-forgotten practice involving a yule log in Scandinavia.
After you read the entry for “yule log” in Wikipedia, be sure to look up “genetic fallacy,” too. Either that or start using different names for the days of the week, including Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, too, lest you open yourself up to the charge of worshiping celestial bodies. Psh.
Listen, if you as a professing Christian don’t want to celebrate Christmas, fine. I have nothing to say about it either way. You’re free in grace to do as you please. But you’re not free to judge me or anybody else for keeping it, either (Col 2:16), so, knock it off.
After those two missionaries left our house that Christmas, they got in their car and sped away. I wonder if they had any chapter-and-verse support for driving an automobile. I suspect not. (See, nobody likes to be on the receiving end of snark, do they?)
In any event, the prophet Isaiah said of the Christ event—the centermost epoch in human history—“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you” (Isa 60:1). My translation: “Lighten up.”
“And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
Our neighbors across the street have a nativity scene in their front yard. It’s simple, wooden, monochrome, and two-dimensional. It’s understated, sparsely lit, and lovely in its own way. It’s also dangerous. It’s dangerous because I can go by it every day and not be jolted by the shock of what it communicates.
A manger? Seriously? Is that where they placed the baby Jesus after his delivery was complete and his cord was cut? A place where animals nuzzled their feed just moments prior and insects foraged for their own microsopic morsels? It’s a bit crude, don’t you think? As the old carol says, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?” The temptation is to scoff at such an account.
But if the Son of God came into our world two thousand years ago as a baby—as a real person joined to our humanity—and his first bassinet on the planet was a feeding trough for animals, might there be something in that detail that needs our attention? Might there be more here than meets the eye? What might God be trying to say to us through the startling semiotics of this well-known scene in my neighbor’s yard?
Whatever it is, not only did it make sense to the shepherds, it set them into motion. The Christ child as described—swaddled in strips of cloth and lying in a manger—was a meaningful “sign” to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth (Luke 2:17). What are we to make, then, of the swaddling clothes and the manger bed, which figure so prominently in the original Christmas story?
We’re told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in accordance with Jewish prophecy (Micah 5:2; Matt 2:5-6). The word Bethlehem means “house of bread,” or “house of food.” The Arabic cognate means “house of meat” or “house of flesh.” It may have been known to the ancients as something of a food court—a corridor of lodging and hospitality for travelers. King David was born there a thousand years before Jesus. David, of course, was Israel’s leader who established the temple in Jerusalem, which was eventually built under the reign of Solomon, his son.
The temple was the center of worship and sacrifice in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on the high holy days. Where did all those lambs come from? They came from the fields in Bethlehem, located about 4.5 miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless—without blemish or imperfection—or they could not be offered at the temple.
The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet when they’re born, and they can slip and slide quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of soft hay so it wouldn’t fall and bruise itself. If they did, they couldn’t be used in worship.
But these weren’t just any old cloths used to wrap the newborn lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white garments worn by Jewish priests during their daily rituals. After regular use, those garments got so covered in blood, filth, and dirt, they had to be swapped out for new ones.
Normally, the priests didn’t just get rid of their old robes. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them. The U.S. military has a similar view of old flags. They don’t just throw them away; they remove them from regular use with certain ceremonies and procedures for honorable disposal. The same was true with old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.
“This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told. They would go on to see a human baby wrapped in blood-stained priest garments. To a Bethlehem shepherd, such a sight would be loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He’ll be a bloodied priest himself someday in order to accomplish your salvation. He’s the child born to die a sacrificial death.”
God was speaking their language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first.
First-century mangers may have been made out of wood, but numerous stone mangers have been found in the region. As is the case today today, mangers served as food bins for animals. But it’s important to note that nowhere in the infancy narratives do we read that Jesus was born in a stable or a cave. The stable-cave setting is inferred because of the biblical references to a “manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16). A better understanding of first-century culture makes the stable-cave setting unnecessary, though it certainly remains a possibility.
We need to go on a myth-busting journey here to sharpen our focus. The Bible neither states nor implies that Mary and Joseph were in a hurry to get to Bethlehem, or that they had just barely made it before the final contractions. Such ideas find their origin not in the Gospels but in a third-century novella. The myth has been perpetuated in stories, art, and film ever since (e.g., Jesus of Nazareth, The Nativity Story, etc.).
In many films today, Mary is “ten centimeters dilated and ready to push” while still riding on the donkey (also not in the text) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. But Scripture and logic both tell us that Mary and Joseph had sufficient time to find suitable lodging and make preparations for the delivery. “While they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered” (Luke 2:6, KJV). That is, at some point during the unspecified period of time that Mary and Joseph had already been in Bethlehem, Mary came to term and delivered her baby.
As a descendant of King David, Joseph would have had no trouble finding relatives (even distant ones) to lodge with inside “the town of David.” If my wife had ever gone back to a certain region in Hickory, North Carolina while eight or nine months pregnant and said, “I’m Lester Taylor’s granddaughter, and I need a place to stay to deliver my baby,” she would have had no difficulty whatsoever in finding a sympathetic relative to take her in. (Lester Taylor was a well-known farmer in the area, and he had fourteen children back in the day, many of whom still live in that town.)
New Testament scholar Kenneth E. Bailey argues that pregnant women receive special attention in nearly every culture, especially if they’re about ready to deliver their first child. Furthermore, the honor of all Bethlehem was at stake in caring for a pregnant woman from out of town. Given the unwritten hospitality rules and customs of the Middle East in ancient times, rejection of a pregnant woman is unthinkable.
But wasn’t there “no room” for the holy family in any of the local hotels (cf. Luke 2:7)? That’s a vast over-reading (and therefore a misreading) of the story. The text does not mention an inn keeper who turned away Joseph and Mary. Moreover, note the layout of a typical Middle Eastern home in the first century:
What’s labeled as a “stable” on the left end of this diagram is similar to our attached garages today—an extra room built off the side of a house where farm equipment and other household items could be stored. The house itself features a main “family room” and a “guest room.”
Animals were typically kept in the house at night to provide extra heat, prevent theft, and keep the elements off of them. For example, we read in 1 Samuel 28:24, “Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house….” Additionally, consider Jephthah’s famous vow: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). Jephthah fully expected an animal to come out of his house, not a person.
Luke 2:7 reads, “She [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn [kataluma].” A kataluma is a “guest room” (cf. Luke 22:11), not an “inn.” A pandocheion is an “inn” (cf. Luke 10:34). That’s not the word used in the infancy narrative.
It’s likely that Mary and Joseph were granted the use of someone’s family room or “garage” in a house, since the guest room was already in use, possibly due to the influx of people because of the census. A manger was available, then, as a cradle in the house. So, Jesus may have been born in a garage-like room attached to a house, with mangers setting around for the animals sheltering in place overnight.
Nothing in this reconstruction minimizes the shock of the Christ child being laid in a manger. It’s still a feeding trough for animals. It’s still a crude bassinet in a crowded, makeshift room, not a satin-sheet crib in a royal palace. The point is that God ensured the safe delivery of his own Son on earth and sent a powerful message to those who first saw it. What was that message?
Christmas means the end of haughtiness. It’s the end of snobbery. It’s the end of pretense. It’s the end of airbrushing ourselves and preening for the camera or the academy. Oswald Chambers once said: “Beware of posing as a profound person—God became a baby.” There’s a powerful message in the manger, and it’s this: God is humble. God is gentle. God is winsome. God is relational. What’s more accessible and unassuming than an infant? What’s more inviting and endearing than a newborn baby?
Here, too, God’s wisdom is on full display. People want to be attracted to faith, not coerced into it. They want something that’s beautiful, true, and good, not pompous, overbearing, and intimidating. Bethlehem’s manger gives them all that and more. It’s the most disarming invitation there is to genuine faith. Besides, religion says, “Work your way up to God.” Christmas says: “God has worked his way down to you.” All the way down. The Prince of Peace comes in peace. He comes as a baby. And that must mean the end of all pomposity on our part. God doesn’t need to show off, so neither do his people.
During World War II, a man named John Blanchard was a lieutenant in the Navy. At one point he checked out a book from the library that had previously belonged to somebody else. Even though he liked the book, the thing he appreciated most were the handwritten notes in the margins. A woman who lived in New York City had written all of her own notes in the white space, and Blanchard loved those notes.
He was intrigued by their wisdom and insight, and he started getting attracted to the mind of the person who wrote them. Her name was on the inside of the book, so, with a little bit of effort, he discovered where she lived, and he wrote to her. Her name was Hollis.
During the war, they wrote back and forth. They had wonderful correspondence, and it turned into a deep friendship. Blanchard had the utmost admiration for her, but he also had an imagination of what she looked like. He asked her for a picture, but she never sent one.
Finally, the war was over, and Blanchard was coming home. He had arranged to meet Hollis at Grand Central Station at a particular spot at 7:00 p.m. Her last letter said, “Hey, we don’t know what each other looks like, but here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand at a particular place, and you’ll know me because I’ll be wearing a great big red rose on my lapel.”
Blanchard got out of the train, walked over to this spot, and he saw two women there. One was young and beautiful, and the other was much older, much heavier, and much dowdier than he had imagined. That was the woman wearing the big red rose. Blanchard stopped in his tracks. As he waited there, the pretty woman walked away, and the woman with the red rose on her lapel stood there looking for somebody.
Blanchard said, “I was split. I felt choked up by the bitterness of my disappointment, but so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had connected with mine and upheld me during the war, I thought, ‘Well, this won’t be love and romance, but it could be something precious, maybe a friendship for which I would always be grateful.’” So, he swallowed hard and summoned up his courage. He walked over to the woman and said, “Hello, I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard. You must be Hollis. I’m so glad to meet you. May I take you to dinner?”
She smiled and said, “Son, I have no idea who you are or what this is all about, but the young lady who was just standing here beside me—who walked away—she said I should wear this big red rose on my lapel. And only if you asked me to dinner should I tell you she’s waiting for you in that restaurant across the street.”
Blanchard knew what was most important in a person—not external beauty, however lovely it may be—but a beauty deeper down. A beauty of soul. A beauty of personhood in its totality.
The beauty of Jesus is not the beauty of this world. It’s actually better. Deeper. Richer. More authentic. Underneath the crudeness of the manger is the beautiful, disarming humility of God.
“Why lies he in such mean estate?” Because God doesn’t want to scare us off. He wants to have a relationship with us—freely chosen and warmly embraced. And nothing communicates that truth better than a feeding trough. So, come to the manger that holds the Messiah. He’s in a food bin so we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
May every nativity set we see this year jolt us a bit rather than just blending into the background. God has something to say to us through it. Something that can make our own lives beautiful, too.
Come to Bethlehem and see Him whose birth the angels sing; Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn king.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; christianitytoday.com; israelmyglory.org; sketch derived from Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
When our kids were younger, we always wanted to help them remember that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. Everything else—the gifts, the lights, the dinner, the travel, the parties—was a celebration of that. To assist in this effort, we would set up the nativity scene with everything in it—except baby Jesus.
Every morning leading up to Christmas Day, I would take them past the manger and ask, “Is baby Jesus here yet?” It created a sense of anticipation, the kind for which Advent is well known. Finally, when the big day arrived, and we all saw that Jesus was now in his manger, we could celebrate, exchange gifts, and make merry.
I suppose I made it a bit worse by insisting we read Matthew 2:1-12 around the tree before the first gift was opened. It takes less than two minutes to do so, but eager kids can say with their faces, “Dad, we already know the story,” even if, out of respect, they don’t use words. Message received. But we always read the story, anyway. We still do, astonished that it’s Jesus’ birthday, but we get the gifts. The very practice itself gives us a whiff of the gospel.
Last year gave us a dilemma. The family rule says, “No gifts until baby Jesus is in the manger, and no baby Jesus is in the manger until Christmas Day.” But family and work schedules required that we hold our gift exchange on Christmas Eve. What to do? We actually had a serious theological discussion about it!
I proposed that we consider Jesus a preemie. That is, he would come earlier than expected that year, allowing us to celebrate a day in advance. Would that be bending the rule too much? Some thought it did, so I offered an alternative rationale. In Jewish reckoning, the new day begins at sundown, so we could legitimately hasten the arrival of Christmas by about six hours—just what we needed to make the holiday schedule work.
Problem solved. And the family rule stayed intact.
Silliness aside, those ponderings got me to thinking about the non-romantic aspects of Jesus’ birth—the parts that don’t make it onto the gold-foil Christmas cards with glittered edges. Things like diapers. Placenta. Giving birth 90 miles away from your home. Strange visitors and bug-eyed prophets showing up out of the blue to gawk at your baby. Political machinations behind the scenes putting your child at risk. The first Christmas was no picnic.
Jesus was born “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), but Mary probably didn’t have a specific due date in mind. Did Jesus—from her perspective—come earlier or later than expected? Was he, in fact, born prematurely? When he was born, how much did he weigh? Did he have hair? Was he jaundiced? What would his Apgar score be had he been born in our day? We don’t know for sure, but the questions themselves highlight the earthiness of it all. His conception was miraculous, but his birth took place in a most ordinary way.
As such, Jesus stands in solidarity with babies of all kinds, including preemies. Including those who, like me, were unwanted at birth and placed in an orphanage from day one. Whenever I see a TV commercial for a children’s hospital, I think about emptying my bank account and sending them everything I have. “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.” He used to be one.
As noted in a previous post, the Incarnation puts me on overload. I can never fully get my mind around it. Thankfully, I don’t have to. I can just enjoy what God has done for us, and try to love him in return. Moreover, I can live with less-than-perfect devotionals that have already been written for this year. Be looking for them toward the end of next week if you like.
“Divine Hospitality: God at Home in a Fractured World”
“Impossible Journey: Our Down-to-Earth God”
“God Has Landed: Harry Potter and Jesus”
Until then, be a child at heart. For of such is the kingdom of God (Luke 18:16).