The Meaning of Jesus’ Birth

My favorite types of films are the kind that open up with a scene from the middle of the plot. It begins and you see a lot of action going on. You don’t really know what’s going. It starts in the midst of all of the chaos and madness and you’re left wondering what it all means. Then, as the movie continues to play, you finally realize that you actually caught a glimpse of a later section of the movie. You begin to see the context and backstory of that one opening scene until it eventually returns to it. Then you see it in context and go on to experience the thrilling climax and, finally, the conclusion. However, at the beginning of the movie, you landed right at the middle of the overarching story that was about to unfold.

That’s what it’s like when you look at the birth of Jesus.

When families gather around Christmas time to read Luke 2 or Matthew 1, which contain the story of Jesus’ birth, they’re simply opening up right in the middle of the grand, overarching narrative that is contained in the whole of the Bible. There’s an entire backstory before it and a climax and conclusion after it. The question that’s on everyone’s mind around the holiday season is, what is the actual meaning of Christmas? What should we make of this intense scene of Jesus’ birth directly in the middle of God’s big story contained in the Bible?

Too often, it’s simply taken as a detached tale that’s just told as a children’s story the night before the kids get to indulge themselves in a consumeristic pleasure land. It would be like playing that movie I described earlier and then rolling the credits after the opening scene. I know I’d want my money back. The absolute most important thing when trying to understand the meaning of Christmas is understanding it in the context of the overarching redemptive narrative of Israel’s God.

In summary, God had created a good world and had ordained humanity (man and woman) to bear his image, exercise his dominion, and fill the earth. Consequently, humankind failed to do so and God’s good world was marred by sin, falling short of God’s perfect glory. In order to restore what was lost in humanity’s fall, he called a man, Abraham, to be the father of a family who would be a blessing to all the families of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). God made a promise, a covenant, with him to make this come to pass, no matter what. Abraham’s family eventually turned into a great people, called Israel. God rescued Israel and called them his people. After doing so, he commissioned them to have the same roles as Adam and Eve (Exodus 19:5-6). They were meant to be the means of restoring the world. However, while Israel prospered at times, they ultimately failed in their vocation to restore what was lost in the Fall.

So, if God is faithful to his promises (and he is), what is Israel’s God going to do with a disobedient people who is in just as much need of rescuing as the rest of the world they were originally called to rescue? How can he remain faithful to his end of the covenant with a people who is either unwilling or unable to stay faithful to their end?

It’s at this moment of the narrative that we return to the scene that we began with, now, however, in its proper context. In a time period where people are asking these same questions comes a baby boy. However, this isn’t just any baby boy. This is the baby boy. After Israel’s failures, prophets began to rise up, prophesying of a time where an anointed king would come to redeem and rescue Israel (Psalm 2). They started to tell of someone who would stand in for Israel, as its representative (Isaiah 53:4-6). They began to speak of God returning and dwelling with his people (Zechariah 2:10-11).

Little did they know that all of these promises would come true in this baby boy.

Jesus was not only going to be the king of Israel, but the king of the world, the King of kings. Jesus was not just an Israelite, but he was Israel embodied, standing in for them. Jesus was not only fully man, standing in for all humankind, but he was also fully God, acting with his authority. He would be the one to truly reflect God’s image and exercise God’s authority, as God originally called Adam and Eve. Eventually, he would establish a kingdom and followers who would then be commissioned to fill the whole earth.

This is the meaning of Christmas. It’s understanding the impact of this one scene after finally seeing it in its full context. Yes, the climax will come, but that’s what Easter is for. Yes, the conclusion will come, but that’s why we eagerly anticipate his coming. Christmas is about understanding Jesus’ birth as the revelation of God’s answer to the entire backstory as told in the Old Testament.

We can’t simply think of it as a cute story to recite in December. It’s so much more than that. The birth of Jesus means that God is faithful to his promises. It means that he loves his creation enough to rescue us. It means that he loves humanity enough to empty himself and step into human flesh. It means that he loves the world enough to bear the sin of us all.

When we celebrate this season, we celebrate a God who is Love. When we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we celebrate a God who has loved us all along. And he decisively began to demonstrate this love and set it in motion through a bouncing baby boy on Christmas day.

(This post was featured on “The Poor In Spirit” blog, and won a contest!)

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Faith, Hope, and Love: In Memory of Bethany

Faith, Hope, and Love: In Memory of Bethany

When I was a kid, my mom became pregnant with a little girl. I was 6 years old and I can’t explain how excited I was to get a baby sister. For so long, it had just been me and my little brother. A house full of guys. Having a girl around the house was going to be a big change, but a really exciting one. My parents ended up naming her Bethany Faith Baggott. I just couldn’t wait to hold her in my arms.

I remember the baby was due in two weeks. I was so excited, I couldn’t contain myself. However, one day, I came home and I saw my dad. It was the first time that I ever saw him cry. I knew that something had to be wrong. My parents told me that something unexpected had happened to Bethany. They had to look me in the eye and tell me that she had died in my mom’s tummy. I wasn’t going to have a little sister anymore. At eight and a half months, my mom had a miscarriage.

I was six, so I didn’t know the extent of it. However, I knew that my sister had died. I knew that she wasn’t going to be brought into this world. We went to the hospital for them to take her out of my mom. They placed her pale, lifeless body in my arms. I had anticipating holding her in my arms… but not like that. Everything that I had been taught in Sunday School about Jesus coming to give us life came into question. If Jesus wants us to live, then why did my baby sister die? All I knew is that it didn’t make any sense to me. And I knew that I was really sad.

However, I was blessed to have such strong parents. I don’t know what it would have been like if they hadn’t have fought that battle so maturely. They assured me that even though Bethany had died, God is still good. They said that even though I didn’t have a baby sister, I would always have a heavenly Father that loved me. I may have been disappointed, but God never fails us.

Later on that year, my parents got some great news. My mom was pregnant again. And it just so happened that it was a baby girl too, as we later found out. We were finally going to have a baby sister after all. To me, that was God telling me that he is faithful.

I know that not every miscarriage story turns out like that, and it doesn’t have to in order for God’s faithfulness to remain. But it did work out like this for us. And I heard God’s whisper in it too.

On July 27, 1999, my mother gave birth to Breanna Hope Baggott. First, God gave us Faith and the sting of death took her away from us. It almost took away our faith. Having faith can do that to you, because it requires a trust, a type of vulnerability, that can lead to pain.

But, then God gave us Hope. God gave us hope. He reminded me that in the worst situations, God remains faithful still. In the bleakest of moments, he is good. In the darkest of events, he is light. God was there, and he had always been there.

There’s a verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that I’ve always held dear, maybe for different reasons than others do. Of course, that’s the famous “love” passage. It’s often said at weddings. However, the last verse of that chapter is the most powerful to me. It says:

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

God gave me my sister, Bethany Faith. One day, I’ll be reunited with her in the resurrection. God gave me my sister, Breanna Hope. She’s the most beautiful little girl in world. I can’t imagine what life would be without her. And in both of my sisters, in both the high and low, God gave me himself. He gave me Love.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

God has been all of these things and more for me. I know that, by God’s grace, my little sisters abide. I found God both in the pain and the rejoicing. Both the sorrow and the celebration. Love was found in Faith, and in Hope. Maybe this is what makes Love the greatest of them all.

bb

(Breanna “BB” and I, April 2016)

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.

Sex, Sacraments, and Signs of the Covenant

First of all, God is a covenantal God. He relates to his own people through covenants. So what is a covenant? Basically, a covenant is a mutual agreement between two parties. However, it’s very different from a contract.

In a contract, if one party doesn’t come through with their end of the deal, then the other party can withdraw. Covenants, though, mean that no matter what the actions of the other party are, you remain faithful to your end of the agreement. We see this with God so beautifully. He promised to redeem humanity and restore this fallen world. Therefore, he entered into a covenant with his people to do so. In spite of all of our disobedience, God has remained faithful to this covenant and will continue to remain faithful.

To remind us of his faithfulness and our call to be faithful, God does something special. It’s interesting because it seems as if God always accompanies a sign with each covenant that he makes. Think back to Sunday School and the story of Noah and the flood. God made a covenant with Noah that he would never destroy the world again through flood and then he called for Noah to be fruitful and fill the earth. It was two parties entering into a mutual agreement. 

What does God do as a result? He gives them a sign of that covenant. Specifically, he gives them the rainbow. The rainbow was a sign to point to the fact that God was faithful and would keep his end of the deal. It also was a reminder of the fact that we’re called to be faithful to God and keep our end of the deal as well. God does this with other covenants as well.

Now that we’re in the New Testament period, we’re part of a renewed covenant with God. There are two major signs with this covenant. The first is baptism and it’s an act that occurs once at the beginning of the covenant. What does it signify? It signifies passing from death to life,from sin to holiness, and represents a fundamental change of lifestyle. You enter the water one person and then are raised from it as a different person. Baptism basically acts as a symbol for entry into this covenant with God. 

The second sign is the Lord’s Supper (or communion, the Eucharist, etc.). It provides nourishment, both spiritually and physically, since it actually consists of bread and wine. Unlike baptism, this sign is an ongoing thing that is celebrated often, occurring every week in some traditions. The Church celebrates the Lord’s Supper often in order to signify unity with Jesus. We are eating his flesh and drinking his blood. We’re, in a sense, becoming one with him. Through the Lord’s Supper we become one with him. Every time we take it, we are reminded that we are the ones with whom he chose to enter into covenant. In response, we are to live as such.

So, I began to think about these signs of this covenant and I thought about another great covenant mentioned in the Bible: marriage. Though it’s on a different level (being between two humans, not God and humans), it’s still a covenant. It’s a promise to fulfill your part of an agreement whether or not your partner fulfill his or hers. If you notice, the Bible often uses the covenant of marriage as a symbol of God’s covenant with his people.

Then, I remembered something Jesus said when speaking to the Pharisees and speaking of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.

 This verse is found both in Genesis and one of Paul’s epistles, so obviously it’s important. In that verse, I see two signs of this covenant that correlate with the ones found in our covenant with God.

The first sign is “leaving one’s father and mother”. This, like baptism, is a one time event. It happens at the beginning of the covenant. What does it represent? It signifies a complete life change. Before, you are walking through life as a single person. You depend on your parents and you’re responsible for no one but yourself. Then, you are transitioning into the life of a covenantal marriage. In that, you rely on your spouse and you’re responsible for him or her. It’s symbolic for entry into this new covenant, the covenant of marriage. You’re “baptized” into your marriage, so to speak.

The second sign is sex, or “uniting and becoming one flesh.” Like the Lord’s Supper, this is a sign that is ongoing. It continues to occur well after the two have entered into the marriage covenant with one another. What does it represent? Like the Lord’s Supper, it represent unity with one another. The two are becoming one. Just as we take in Jesus through the bread and become one with him, the spouses become one with each other. It provides nourishment, both spiritually and physically, just like the Lord’s Supper. Sex is a reminder the couple has decided to enter into covenant with one another. They each have chosen to commit and love the other.

When you look at sex like that, it becomes a lot more serious. It’s not just something casual. It’s like a sacrament, something that only takes place within a covenant. That’s why I think there’s so much sorrow that occurs when people try to have sex before truly committing and marrying one another. It’s like taking the Lord’s supper without becoming a Christian or being baptized. Sex gets stripped of its meaning and its beauty.

No, I’ve never had sex, and for a long time that was motivated by a number of other things. However, now, I realize that sex is a precious thing. It isn’t something to flippantly participate in. It isn’t meant to be done within a one night stand. It’s supposed to be an ongoing sign of a covenant that has already made. In a very real way, sex is marriage. Every time you have sex with someone, it’s like you’re marrying them. You’re rushing into a covenant, one that you’ll be bound to break if you haven’t fully committed to them. As Dr. James Brownson says, “They must not say, at one point with their bodies and their words, what they are not willing to say with the rest of their lives.”

That’s why casual sex takes a toll on so many people. It’s not just a physical thing. Sex is a spiritual thing. You become connected to another person’s soul. It’s profoundly sacred and holy. Unless we treat it that way, we’ll be in for a lot hurt and a lot of heartbreak. Let us preserve the sacredness of marriage and the beauty of the signs of the covenants that God has made with us and we have made among each other! Amen.

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.

How Should We Read Scripture?

I believe Scripture, containing the 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament, constitute the biblical canon***. I believe what Scripture says about itself, which is that it is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting…training in righteousness” and “equipp[ing]” servants of God “for every good work”. Another word for “God-breathed” is inspired. I believe that Scripture is the inspired words of God written by human agency. But, how are we supposed to read Scripture? We believe that it was given to us by God through the hands of humans across the age. What are we supposed to do with it now?

God, who has all authority, exercises his authority through the Scripture. This is what is to be understood whenever Scripture is said to be “authoritative”. Scripture is not authoritative in itself. It points outside of itself to the One who has ultimate authority. But, it is still authoritative in a lesser sense. However, though all of scripture is inspired, it is not all equally authoritative. Jesus constantly contrasts his teaching with the Old Testament teaching (“You have heard it said… but I tell you…”). This is not because the Old Testament is bad or useless. Rather, the purpose for which it was given had now been fulfilled, and it no longer has “authority” (Galatians 3:23-35).

Therefore, scripture is not, as Greg Boyd puts it, like a cook book from which one can pull ingredients from each part and hold them as equal in authority. Following the model of N.T. Wright, Scripture is to be seen as a grand play, a great narrative, which consists of five acts: 1) Creation 2) Fall 3) Israel 4) Jesus 5) The Church. We find ourselves in the fifth act of this great play.

Wright notes, “Those who live in this fifth act have an ambiguous relation to the four previous acts, not because they are being disloyal to them but precisely because they are being loyal to them as part of the story.” We view each part of the Scripture in its context and glean from it, understanding where it falls in the large narrative and how we are supposed to handle it once understanding this. This does not mean discrediting the other acts, but giving them their proper place and weight.

For example, there are things in the Bible that no Christian regards as authoritative. An example of this would be the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Not because we just throw it away, but because we read it in light of the entire Scriptural narrative. Jesus fulfills all of the sacrificial ceremonies. Another example is a lot of the things said in the book of Job. Job’s friends says some pretty awful things when trying to “comfort” Job, things that are obviously not theologically sound. God even says this to them, in Job 42:8, “for you have not spoken of me what is right”. Yet, just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s authoritative for us. We have to understand each portion of Scripture in light of the entire narrative, looking at each act in the proper way.

Scripture is to be read, as Peter Enns puts it, christotelically. “Telos” is the Greek word for “end”. Thus, instead of trying to read Scripture “christocentrically” or trying to “find” Jesus in all kinds of Old Testament stories, Scripture is, rather, to be read with Christ being the end to that which the Old Testament was pointing forward. The Old Testament is therefore a signpost that led (and leads) the reader to Christ. The same is true of the New Testament. Scripture finds its “Yes’ in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Jesus claimed that “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). If this is true (or even if it’s a slight hyperbole, the point remains), then that means that no one in the Old Testament knew the Father, or at least knew him in the way of which Jesus spoke. Jesus said of John the Baptist that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater” (Matthew 11:11). He was greater than all the prophets up until him, Jesus says. Yet, Jesus told the Pharisees that “the testimony that I have is greater than that of John” (John 5:36). Thus, Jesus’ revelation trumps that of John and, by default, the rest the Old Testament prophets. Again, not because they were bad or useless. But, because Jesus is the one to whom they point (John 5:39-40). Jesus is the center of Scripture and all of Scripture should read through the lens of Christ.

Scripture may record the words inspired by God, but only insofar as it points to the ultimate Word of God (John 1:1-14).  As C.S. Lewis said, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit, and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.” After all, Jesus said to his Jewish peers, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” Why? Because he said “you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.” Jesus is the Word of God. All of Scripture points to this Word.

It is with this insight with which we should read Scripture.

*** I believe the books of the Apocrypha are useful for understanding the great narrative of Israel (the third act) and looking into the culture and thoughts of the Jewish people in their respective time period, but are not authoritative for the Church and I do not consider them canonical.

Hate Your Enemies and Bomb Those Who Persecute You

As Jesus sat on the hillside, he told his Jewish listeners, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… except for Rome. Since they are oppressing Israel, our native nation, we have every justification to declare and support a bloody, violent revolution against them!”

Obviously, the bit after the ellipses is a fabrication and not found in the Sermon on the Mount. However, how many modern Christians would read this addendum into the text? This question is all the more relevant considering the recent events involving Syria. What are Christians to think in times like these? Think about it: how ironic is it to be a faith that emphasizes God’s love for the all the nations of the world and yet be citizens of a country that is possibly about to bomb one of those nations? What are we to think about this, being both American and Christian?

Ultimately, we know that Paul teaches us in Philippians that our citizenship is not of this world, but from heaven. Our allegiance for the gospel overrides our allegiance to any country. What does that mean though? The Philippians knew exactly what that meant. They were a colony who had full citizenship of Rome, even though they were not located there. However, Rome came and brought their culture into a foreign land. Philippi was Roman in every way, except for location. The point, I believe, is that Paul wants us to live in this world, but change the very culture of it, to “colonize” it, and influence it with the character, lifestyle, and ethics of Jesus Christ himself. To be in the world, but not of the world or drawing from its influence.

Thus, no matter what the opinion our country holds about what to do in situation like the one the U.S. is facing with Syria, our opinions and personal convictions should be those which reflect the character, lifestyle, and ethics of Jesus Christ. So, what does that look like? The mission of Jesus makes it very clear how he feels about his enemies. The passage at the opening says a ton. We are not to hate our enemy! We are to love them and pray for them. Is it possible to love your enemy when you drop a bomb on them? Even if you don’t personally do it, is it truly loving to support such an action?

Jesus models so clearly how we should treat our enemies. He is emphatic that violence is not the answer. Most people would agree that peace is the goal. However, how can peace be the goal if peace is not the means? Paul warns us not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good. Jesus agreed with Paul that his kingdom is not of this world, that it is not influenced or derived from it. He says to Pilate in John 18:36, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” There, Jesus makes an important distinction! If his kingdom were of this world, if it acted as the other nations did, then his disciples would be fighting. However, they are not of this world. And so they aren’t fighting.

How does Jesus deal with his enemies then? Instead of violently and coercively overthrowing them, he nonviolently and lovingly lays down his life for them at their own hands. As the Roman soldiers are shaming him and torturing him on the cross, he cries out “Father, forgive them!” The kingdoms of the world sacrifice others for the benefit of themselves. But the people of the kingdom of God sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.

So, remember, our citizenship is in heaven. Our primary allegiance is not to Caesar, to any government, but to Jesus. We are to reflect God’s character to the world, through his kingdom. This includes loving our enemies and sacrificing for them, even if this means going against our native country. We are not of this world.

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.

Music, Lyrics, and New Creation

Sometimes, in a worship service, the music brings me tears. Notice, I didn’t say the song. I said the music brings me to tears. Whether it’s a certain chord structure, or a steady crescendo, or even the tone of an electric guitar. Sometimes, the music simply invokes something deep within me to where I’m emotionally moved to the point of crying. The thing is, I don’t think this is emotionalism. I believe that it’s true and honest worship of the Creator God.

The problem is, a lot of people would disagree with me. “A song could lead you to worship, yes… but only because the lyrics reflect some profound theological truth. If the music alone moves you to worship, then you’re making an idol out of the music. You’re not truly worshipping.” However, I think that this is doing the Creator God a huge disservice. Because, as the sovereign Creator, God has brought everything that is into being. He is the creator of everything and, as we see in Genesis 1-2, he declared it all good. 

Of course, humankind fell and sin entered into the world. But, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t still love his creation. It simply means that it’s been marred. The same applies to humans, being image bearers of God. That image wasn’t lost in the fall, but simply distorted. I believe that, since the same intrinsic value still remains in every image-bearing human, the intrinsic goodness remains in all of creation, though it exists in a corrupt state. God still sees creation as good, though it must be redeemed.

However, through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, God has begun that redeeming work of the world already! And who is called to be agents of that redeeming work? The Church! It is our job to influence the world with this post-resurrection, “already/not yet” ideology, the glorious truth that all of creation is intrinsically good and can now be rescued from its “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:20). Acknowledging the goodness of creation and attributing it to the glory of God is part of our divine mandate to accomplish God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

That being said, music is obviously a creation from God. There will be music in the age to come and there exists music in heaven now (Revelation 5:8, 15:2). Music is a good thing and part of God’s good creation. Artistry is a God given gift. Musicianship is talent with which God has blessed some people. Thus, when I hear music done well, I glorify God. When I hear the good creation of music redeemed and performed excellently, it moves me to worship.

People always wonder if there will be music in heaven, but the reality is that there is heaven in music. Why? Because music is a good creation that, when acknowledged as such, can bring glory to the God who created it.

Why does the hiker shed a tear when looking out into the sunset behind the glorious mountains? Why does the painter sense the presence of God as she looks at the stunning work of another artist? Why does the filmaker have that sense of awe and wonder as he watches the latest Sundance Film Festival entry? And why do  people  worship God through the lyrics of certain praise songs? Because God is the God of creativity. All it takes is a good look at his creation to understand that. The hiker sees the majesty of God in his own creation. The painter sees the glory of God reflected in the gorgeous painting. The filmaker sees the creativity of God in the narratives and filmography of a movie. One can be moved to worship through the beauty of the way certain words are formed to reflect the majesty and grandeur of our beautiful God.

The same tear that I shed when the music of song moves me is the same tear that a person sheds when the lyrics of the song moves them. Neither of them are detached from the glory of God in each of those things. The cool thing about a song is that it intertwines the two. It takes two good creations of God, music and lyrics, and reflects his beauty through them. Some people might ask, “Well which is more important, the lyrics or music?” To which I might respond, “Which is more important… the mountains or the oceans?” Each reflect the grandeur and artistry of God in incredible, but distinct ways.

Bad music with good lyrics produce a crappy song. Good music with bad lyrics make for a lame song. Now of course, you can appreciate the good distinct qualities of each song. However, the theology behind new creation needs to be more holistic. God isn’t redeeming part of creation, he’s making all things new. We, as believers, need to take seriously the call to bring heaven to earth. And with each beautiful masterpiece we create, heaven is breaking through.

We do it to incite the praises of people to the only Creator God, in hopes that it might move them to worship. It may even cause people to shed a tear. But it looks to the day where God will wipe every tear from every eye. The new creation. Through music. Now.

Don’t Look At Westboro… Or Tim Tebow

Westboro Baptist, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart… what do these people have in common? They’re either groups or people who have “made Christians look bad”, either in the past or currently. They’re names from which, whenever they’re mentioned, Christians try to disassociate themselves. If their name pops up, they’ll say, “Well, they may claim to be Christians, but they’re not what being a Christian is really about.” Some people even take a more aggressive approach. A key part of their presentation of Christianity is, “I know that when people think of Christianity, they think of ___________. But let me assure you, we’re not like that.” And then they go on to describe what it’s really like to be a Christian, in comparison to those “wayward Christians”.

My complaint, however, is that I think sometimes we spend too much time saying “Look at those people… we really are not like that,” rather than saying, “Look at Jesus… he really is like that.”

A lot of people would be wary about pointing to a devout Christian and saying, “Look, she embodies perfectly what it means to be a Christian!” And with good reason. Humans are not perfect and will never be until the age to come. Plus, we know that the crux of the “appeal” to Christianity shouldn’t be focused on just any person, but on the Person of persons, Jesus himself. He’s the only one we should point to when trying to describe what Christianity is really like.

Yet, aren’t we falling into a lot of the same errors when we’re so focused on pointing out “wayward” Christians? The only difference is, instead of pointing what Christianity is supposed to look like in a human, we’re pointing out what it doesn’t look like. The fact still remains that no one is perfect. If we don’t expect “devout” Christians to be an accurate picture of Christianity, why should we be so critical of (and surprised with!) “wayward” Christians when they fail to provide a “perfect picture of Christianity”? The point of not pointing to just anyone is that everyone falls short. And if we really believe this, we shouldn’t allow people to represent Christianity, but we should also be careful not to hold people up to a standard they were never meant to be held to, namely, being a perfect example of what Christianity was about.

Also, if we’re so passionate about the message of Christianity not revolving around any person, but only Jesus, why do we think that that only applies when talking about those who reflect Christ well? If we really don’t want the message of Christianity to revolve around anyone except Jesus, why are we so quick to point out those who have fallen from grace as an object lesson of what Christianity is not like, in order to prove what it is like? If our gospel is really Christ-centered, should we not be just as wary about relying so heavily on shaming people like Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart? Because when people denounce those guys as a “not what Christianity is all about”, they’re committing the same crime as someone upholding Tim Tebow as “what Christianity is all about”. They’re making Christianity about just some person, not about a Savior.

We know from the Bible that the only true representation of God, of the gospel, of Christianity, is Jesus himself. Colossians 1:15 declares that he is ” the image of the invisible God”, meaning that if you want to know what God looks like, look at Jesus. Don’t look at some other person. Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” It goes on to say that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. In other words, we don’t look at some woman or man to look at what God is saying to us, as they did with the prophets. The only person we look to is Jesus Christ.

Now, my point is not to say that we should affirm the actions of those who claim to be Christians but act otherwise. Nor am I saying that it’s bad to call wrong “wrong” and right “right”, in the right context. My point is that at no point should the good news of Jesus revolve around an person and the actions of that individual. Whether it be the actions of a righteous person or an unrighteous person, if you’re pointing to someone else other than Jesus to justify the legitimacy of the gospel, then you’re doing it wrong. The fact that C.S. Lewis, one of modern literature’s most esteemed authors, was a Christian is an awesome fact. But it shouldn’t be what I use to bait someone into seeing the good news of Jesus. The fact that Westboro Baptist claims to be a Christian group and yet acts so hatefully towards certain groups of people is awful. But I shouldn’t feel the need to bash and shame them when I’m trying to explain why Jesus and his message is so beautiful. We shouldn’t be looking to either party… only to Jesus!

The point is that the gospel is about Jesus. If we point to him more than we pointed to others, either in a positive or negative way, maybe people would start to see why it’s the greatest news in the world. Maybe if we focused on the only Person worth focusing on, the gospel would make a lot more sense.

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This is an excerpt from my book, “Church Kid: Restoring Your Faith After Being Raised in Church,” now available for purchase here.

God’s Election: What It Is and Is Not

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the doctrine of election. When I first started looking into it, I hated it. Who would spend so much time learning about a useless topic! But, then, I began to study it more, particularly the Calvinistic and Reformed understanding it, and I began to love it. How amazing that God would choose me to be in Christ based not anything in me, but solely in his love and grace! Then, as I began to reform my beliefs and depart with Calvinism, I began to hate it. I didn’t see it as lining up with the picture of God that is revealed in Jesus and the Spirit, but I didn’t know how to explain what they meant. Then, as I did more research on it, looking at a wider range of commentators, theologians, and pastors, I began to love it again. And I simply want to show why the election of God should be a doctrine that is not something we should hate or be embarrassed of. It is a beautiful doctrine that should incite praise and worship and, maybe surprisingly to some, move us to act in a deeply subversive, kingdom-of-God manner.

When it comes to election, it’s important to look at the metanarrative of Scripture. Too many times, people start with some verses in Paul’s epistles and try to prove a certain, presupposed framework with that. But, we have to take the entire story found in the Old Testament, along with the New Testament, into consideration. Because, when encountering OT texts, one finds that words like “election” and “chosen” appear a good bit. And so the question that has to be asked is: how was election understood throughout the OT narrative?

Genesis 3-11 gives an overview of the fall and its effects. Because Adam and Eve fell, sin, murder, immorality, and separation have occurred. The “goodness” that was found in Genesis 1-2 had been devastatingly lost and things had gone terribly wrong. Genesis 12 comes along and God approaches Abraham (Abram) and tells him that he is going to bless him and bless all the families of the earth through him (v. 3). This covenant is repeated to him in Genesis 15, 17, 22, and elsewhere, saying that he was going to make his offspring a great number and give them a great land. In other words, God was setting apart a man through whom a great people was going to come. God would not only bless this people, but he would use this people to bless the world.

We see this calling fleshed out later on. The line continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac, and then onto Jacob. Jacob’s family eventually moves to Egypt, where his son, Joseph, was made second in command, and his family begins to multiply. However, after being there 400 years, Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel, are subordinated and oppressed as slaves by the Egyptians. Moses rises up and leads these people, God’s chosen people, out of Egypt to inherit the land that God had promised them. As they are in the wilderness, Moses reminds them of their vocation:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:5-6)

In other words, God was reminding Israel that they were his people. In addition, all of the earth is his and they had a certain role as his chosen people while they were in the world. They were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Their being a kingdom of priests meant that they were to have dominion over the earth, reflecting God’s wise rule all across the land (the kingdom part), and to act as God’s representatives on earth, reflecting his character to the other people of the earth (the priest part). In fact, this echoes the first humans original call. They were told to have dominion over the earth as well (Genesis 1:26) and were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26 as well), which was a priestly vocation, to represent and reflect God and his character here on earth. This was the purpose of God’s election of Israel. And he would set them apart by giving them a certain set of laws (given in the next chapter, the Ten Commandments), thus making them a “holy nation”. So, not only had he saved them out of Egypt, but they were going to be the vehicle through whom God was going to undo everything that Adam had done and bring salvation to all.

However, Israel was failing at her vocation. God was constantly rebuking them for not fulfilling their call to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel begins to see their election as a sign of their own superiority. Instead of doing their work for the nations, they became to focused on themselves. God reminded them of the basis and purpose of their election in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

It turns out that the people called to reverse the affects of Adam were, too, in Adam. The body that God had called as a vehicle to save the world, too, needed to be saved. They needed someone, a faithful Israelite, to fulfill the vocation of Israel, defeating the enemies of sin and its consequence, death. The person that was going to do this began to be known as the Messiah. The idea that this anointed One would embody Israel as a whole appears in Isaiah.  Notice in chapter 41, God calls the corporate body of Israel as his servant:

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
(Verses 8-9)

But in the next chapter, this corporate body of Israel is described as a single person:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
(42:1-3)

Thus, this “Israel-in-person” figure, this one whom we identify as the “suffering servant”, was put in direct contrast to Israel and was going to fulfill the role that Israel could never fulfill.

Obviously, this person is Jesus. Jesus comes and fulfills the role of the royal priesthood and holy nation. He preaches a new, subversive kingdom of God (a royal term), shows us what God is really like compared to what rabbinic tradition had taught (as a true priest should), and defined what it meant to truly be set apart for God (being holy). Why did Jesus do this? To save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Israel could not fulfill this vocation, being in need of salvation herself.

So, we see this elect body of people embodied in one person. In addition to being fully human and fully God, Jesus was also fully Israel. He was Israel-in-person. He, thus, became the Elect One. The Father calls him this at the transfiguration (Luke 9:35). Jesus is representative of Israel as a whole, and is, in that sense, “chosen” by God. Everything that Israel had been called to in her election, Jesus fulfilled. He was the faithful Israelite, doing what Israel could never do.

What becomes of election now, in the New Testament?

Jesus had inaugurated God’s kingdom, his sovereign rule over earth. And he did so in some radical ways that went against common perceptions at the time. One of these subversive new ideas was the fact that Gentiles were now included in this chosen people of God. This doesn’t mean that Gentiles could now be saved, because there were Gentiles saved in the Old Testament (think Rahab, and also Nineveh, where Jonah preached. The whole city of Gentiles repented!). After all, the promise was not only for the Jews, but through them! The new twist was that Gentiles were actually included into the covenant. What had once been for ethnic Jews was now available to all, by placing faith in Jesus Christ.

How was this so? Paul spends a lot of his time talking about how God can still be faithful to his word, his covenant, while including Gentiles into it. One big reason was because Jesus was, indeed, Israel-in-person. Israel wasn’t about ethnicity or Torah or circumcision or anything of that sort. Israel was now associated with one person and one person alone: Jesus. Now, if anyone is included in Jesus, that person is included in Israel. Because Jesus is Israel-in-person! He fulfilled all that Israel was supposed to accomplish. And now, through him, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds could be a part of this chosen people who find their common identity in Jesus.

Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t completely abandon Jewish theology. It’s still about being a part of Israel, but now, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). All of the things that were important to Jewish theology was still there, but simply redefined in Jesus, not anything else, like ethnicity. Those in the covenant still have to be included in Abraham, but “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:7,29). Being a circumcised Jew is still an important idea, but now “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:29). The law still needs to be kept, but now “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

So, when we approach the language of election in the New Testament, we have to keep this corporate-body-identified-in-Christ framework in mind. Israel’s election was corporate, not individual. Election in the New Testament is corporate, not individual. Election in the OT was largely about vocation, the call to bring salvation to world. Israel was the body chosen for the vocation and everyone else was the ones who received the salvation. In the NT, the purpose of vocation and salvation have been fused together in one body. Our vocation is to bring the salvation of Jesus about to the world in order that they might join in our vocation to further spread this salvation to the world. Salvation is something that God does for the Church, but also through the Church, in order that more might be added to the Church.

Then we get to verses like Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Notice the words I bolded. “In Christ” or some variation appears four times in those three verses. The reason is because when he speaks of election, Paul isn’t, for some reason, abandoning the Jewish framework of election he was all too familiar with. He was simply redefining it around Jesus. We are chosen, yes! But, we are chosen in Christ. Christ is the chosen One, the Israel-in-person. And if we are in him, then we are in Israel, the chosen people of God. Notice, it doesn’t say that God choses or predestines whether or not we’ll be in Christ. It simply says that for those who are in Christ, you are chosen, blessed, and predestined for wonderful things.

And the beautiful thing is that this intensifies our calling and our own vocation! Many times, theories of election end up doing something more like what happened in Deuteronomy 7. It makes people arrogant and leads them to see themselves as the ones who God specifically set apart. Even if it is by grace and love! There’s something about being individually chosen that boosts the ego and seems to stem from a culture of radical individualism. God chose ME. But God’s election isn’t about his choosing of any woman or man! It’s about God’s choosing a people and that people being embodied by Jesus Christ as the representative for us all. That’s the thing that both sides, Calvinism and Arminianism, seem to miss. Both are wrapped up as to how God goes about choosing individuals, but the reality is that election doesn’t speak to that at all! To read that into language about election is to commit a hermeneutical error. If one concludes that God has to choose individuals because of one’s view of divine providence, then that is simply a deduction, not an exegetical truth. Election is always speaking on a corporate level (which, of course, is comprised of individuals!), but not specifically of individuals.

Peter speaks of the Church in his first epistle and describes them as such:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

All of these things echo Israel. They were a chosen race, a royal priesthood (kingdom of priests), a holy nation, his possessed, corporate people. Jesus called on his listeners to be a “light to the world” (Matt. 5:14), something that Israel was called to do (Isaiah 49:6). We see Israel as a model of what God’s people were called to do, albeit a flawed model. And then we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that, God’s chosen one, King of God’s kingdom, the one who reflected God perfectly, the true Light of the world, and the beloved Son of God’s own possession. It is in him that we find salvation and it is in him that we are chosen and elect. Our being chosen should never be about us. We are chosen in Christ for the purpose of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light, in hopes that the whole world will be saved, restored, and find justice in him.

Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 5: Justification as Eschatological Reality

The last post dealt with looking at justification as membership into God’s covenant people. It is not as much how someone gets in, but rather, declaring who actually is in or not. However, there is another layer to justification that has been greatly ignored, especially since the Reformation. This aspect of justification has to do with eschatology.

Many people don’t like to think of justification as an eschatological reality, because many people see justification solely as a present, legal action. God declares us righteous and clothes us with his own righteousness. However, the last post showed us that that view isn’t necessarily what St. Paul was actually trying to say. So, once that view is left behind, it makes it a little easier to be open to the idea of justification having to do with eschatology.

First, let’s remember the three major tenets of Jewish theology, especially in the first century. It was monotheism, election, and eschatology. Monotheism taught that there was one God, the God of Israel. Election taught that this one God has one chosen, holy group of people, Israel. Eschatology taught that this one God would vindicate his one chosen, holy group of people at the end of the age. In other words, God would claim victory over all of Israel’s enemies and make all things right, setting her up as his true people.

Christianity did not leave behind all of the tenets, but simply redefined them (as we saw in the second post). The one true God had now been revealed by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. God’s one true, chosen, and holy people had now been reformed around Jesus, not a certain ethnicity or set of laws. Now, eschatology is being rethought as well. Jews knew that in the end, God was going to “justify” all things, i.e. he was going to make all things right. And, they knew that God’s chosen people were going to be declared in the right as well. But, the question that plagued Jews in the first century were this: how can we tell in the present who was going to be justified at the end of the age? How can we know now who is going to be a part of the people that God vindicates in the end? 

This was the eschatological aspect of justification that concerned Paul. Romans 8:18-25 paints a picture of the end of the age, when God would put all things right and restore the whole creation, including his children. However, we see a preview of that seen earlier in Romans, specifically in chapter 2. This is how it reads, in verses 6-16:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

In the this passage, the big kicker is the verse that says that it is not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the Law who are justified! But, doesn’t this contradict Paul’s words later when he says that we are justified by faith apart from the Law? If thought of in the classic Reformation since, then yes. However, Paul is not speaking like that here. He is speaking in eschatological terms.

The Gentiles who do not have the law but do what it requires by nature are not, as some think, pagan Gentiles in perhaps a foreign country, having never heard the gospel before. Rather, N.T. Wright concludes that these Gentiles are indeed Christians who have had their heart transformed by the Holy Spirit. The law is written on their hearts. And this is so, even though they weren’t given the Law, as the Jews were! However, the Jews are going to be vindicated at the end of the age for simply having the Law. It’s a matter of actually doing what it says.

The way, therefore, that one can tell who will be a part of God’s people when he comes to vindicate them and set all things right is that they live according to the law. However, the law is radically redefined later on in Romans as being something that comes through the Spirit (Romans 8), not simply the Mosaic law. People who can do such are not only the Jews, who were given the law, but anyone who is transformed by the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2). That is why the doers of the law will be justified!

Note that this does not mean that we are saved by works. Justification and salvation are not the same thing. It is only by grace that we are saved and are enabled to do good works. However, we are set apart as God’s covenant people whom he will vindicate at the end of the age by what we do, not simply because we or our ancestors had the Law (as was the case with the Jews). One who truly has faith in Christ will live according to the law of the Spirit of life. At the end of the age, in the divine courtroom hearing, God’s people will be identified by their faith and the works that were produced by that faith.

Therefore, eschatology is a major facet of justification. It was a big deal for Jewish people in the first century, and thus a big deal to Paul as he began to reform Judaism around their recently crucified and resurrected Messiah. God had a people whom he was going to vindicate in the end, and justification was the answer to how they could tell who would be a part of that chosen people.