Monthly Archives: October 2013

Hebrews 8-10, Philo, and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

According to Plato’s “Theory of Forms” non-material ideas have a more fundamental reality than objects available to our senses. The idea of the chair is more real than the chair itself. You might even say that the physical chair is a “copy” of the idea of the chair.

This philosophy is illustrated in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” In the allegory, prisoners are chained in a cave, forced to look at a blank wall. Enough light shines into the cave to show shadows of the world outside the cave. These “shadows” are the only experience of reality that the prisoners have.

In the allegory, the philosopher is the prisoner who escapes the cave to gain access to the real world, that is, the world of ideas. They can then return to the other prisoners and free them, allowing them to see the world as it really is, not just as it is perceived by their senses.

The goal of the Greek philosopher was to understand the universals in the world of particulars.

The Jewish philosopher Philo harmonized Jewish and Greek philosophy, applying the concept of forms, ideas, and allegories to Old Testament text and his exegetical method (the way he interpreted the Bible) was fundamental to some of the early church fathers.

How influential was Philo? Could his philosophy have impacted any of the Biblical writers?

This question comes to bare on Hebrews 8 – 10. In it, the writer says “[The priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern seen on the mountain” (8:5). He also says “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not part of this creation” (9:11). And again, “It was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one, but he entered heaven itself, now to appear before us in God’s presence” (9:23-24).

So how did the writer of Hebrews use the language of “copy,” “shadow,” “true,” and “heavenly?” Was he making a distinction between the physical world of particulars and the more enduring realities of ideas?

There are many reasons to believe he was not. He does not have the Greek idea of physical/ideal dualism in mind, but the Jewish idea of Promise and Fulfillment.

In Hebrews, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is a physical and historical event and it is this event itself, not the idea of the event, which brings us salvation. Jesus does indeed accomplish something “outside of the physical realm” but “outside” does not mean the “world of ideas.” It simply means that Jesus’ work affected the way in which we relate to God. The world of ideas is not the fundamental reality of our existence. God is. And, because Christ is God, his death and resurrection provide the most fundamentally real thing upon which our salvation can be based.

Not everyone agrees. Some believe that the historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, while potentially true, is really not that important. What Jesus did on the cross did not actually earn us salvation, instead, it showed us the fundamental reality of the universe, that is, that life comes through death and salvation through sacrifice. Jesus only saves us in the sense that this particular event points us to a universal idea. We are saved by his example, not by his sacrifice. He’s no more than the philosopher who shows us reality.

This is not the Biblical story and it is not the message of Hebrews.

Instead, it is better to understand “copy” and “shadow” in terms of promise and fulfillment. The Old Covenant, the sacrificial system, the office of high priest, and the sanctuary do not simply point us to a universal idea (though they do) they point is to the historical coming of Jesus, to God’s work and revelation in history. They are “copies” of “realities” as a blueprint is to a house. It shows you what the house will eventually look like when it is fully built.

In Christ’s death and resurrection we don’t just see more clearly a universal idea. We see our salvation won, once for all, in time and place.

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Pacifism through the lens of Romans 12 and 13

A couple of years ago I preached through Romans 12 and 13. This has greatly shaped by view of pacifism. Specifically, it brings into focus three interlocking and essential questions about Christians and the pursuit of non-violence. (1) Should I, as a Christian, pursue non-violence? (2) Is God non-violent? (3) Should I desire my government to be non-violent?

My conclusion (hint: my answers are Yes, No, Maybe) does not answer all of the questions, especially the toughest ones. I hope, instead, that it provides a helpful lens by which to view the question of pacifism and, hopefully, resolve some tensions for those on either side of the question. It’s either a common ground on which both sides could agree or a position that gets me in trouble with everybody. What could go wrong, right?

Should I pursue non-violence?

Romans 12 begins one of Paul’s greatest sermons on Christian living. Therefore (because of God’s grace in granting us salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus) here is how we should live. Our duty begins with offering ourselves fully to God in worship (12:1-2) and concludes with the great Christian ethic of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10), including love for our brothers (12:10) and love for our enemies (12:17-21).

In the question of non-violence, Romans 12:17-21 is instructive. We are to meet persecution with blessing and evil with good. Vengeance is forbidden. We are to aim, as far as we are possible, to live at peace with everyone. In taking a posture of peace we avoid being overcome by evil. Instead, we overcome evil with good.

Paul’s arguments here match those of Jesus on the Mount. Here, Jesus calls us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Again, this is a rejection of vengeance and retribution and a call to non-violence.

The call to Christians in dealing with persecution is always a call to patient endurance. And, we have Jesus as our primary example. He endured the violence of evil men even to death on the cross. Though he could have destroyed his enemies he did not. In all of this he is our prime example of love for our enemies, not just a love for those who physically participated in his crucifixion, but for us who were his enemies in our own sin.

And so, I conclude, from Romans 12, the Sermon on the Mount, and the example of Christ, that I should pursue non-violence. I should love my enemies. I should renounce vengeance. I should aim for peace as far as I am able. I should endure persecution, if I face it, in the same way as Christ.

Is God non-violent?

That is, however, by no means the end of the discussion. God often gets dragged into the question, as well he should. After all, we are called to by holy as he is holy. We are called to be like Christ. Or are we?

It’s not quite that simple.

Notice in Romans 12 why Christians are called to abandon revenge. “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ’It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ says the Lord” (12:19). Christians are instructed to not take revenge precisely because God will avenge. It is his right and, dare I say, obligation, and not ours. How is this possible? How can something be morally right for God and wrong for us? The answer is this: God is the only one in a position to carry out perfect justice. He is our Creator. He knows all. He is entirely fair. We are the creation. Our knowledge is limited. At best our sense of fairness only approximates his.

I believe it is impossible to construe God as a pacifist. The arguments against a pacifist God are many and varied. We see, among other things, God’s dealings in the Old Testament with the nation of Israel. He saved them out of Egypt through plagues. He granted them the Promised Land through war. He sustained their faltering nation through military conquest. When the people sinned, he exiled them from the land by calling out foreign armies.

God’s laws in the Old Testament permitted the capital punishment and established the pattern for proportionate retributive justice.

The prophetic hope, the hope of God coming to reign with justice, is a hope for both salvation and for judgment. God’s salvation of his people sits alongside the judgment of his enemies.

When Jesus came and inaugurated his Kingdom we see a decided shift, but not a reversal. As seen before, the ethics of the Kingdom, outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, demand that followers of Jesus themselves give up the right to enact retributive justice but the concept of retributive justice doesn’t go away, it simply moves to the person of God.

That justice is, in fact, met on the cross. Stunningly, the cross is both the greatest argument violence and also evidence that God himself is not a pacifist. His mercy on us is won through the violent and willing death of Jesus. Truly, this is a profound mystery. On the cross mercy meets judgment and together they bring us all the offer of peace and salvation.

Finally, although I am by no means an authority on Revelation. At a minimum we see the judgment of God, and Christ, on full display. By this point in history justice has failed for the early Christians and they are the recipients of intense persecution. This is a scenario which plays out throughout the world and will only intensify as the end nears. God’s people in the end times do not strike back with violence but they do call out for God’s justice, and that justice means judgment for their oppressors. The songs of praise in Revelation give thanks to God both for his salvation in Christ and for his judgment on the earth (Revelation 11:18, 16:4-7).

Even if you adopt a symbolic view of Revelation (really it’s not a question of symbolic or not, but on what is symbolic) the overall theme of God’s judgment clearly comes through. And, it is difficult to construe God’s judgment in non-violent terms.

And so, I conclude from Romans 12, the cross, the Old Testament, and Revelation that one of the main reasons why I should reject personal vengeance, is because I can trust God who will bring about perfect justice – a justice that includes retributive justice.

Should the government be strictly non-violent?

Romans 12:9-21 and Romans 13:1-7 are closely linked. Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 give Christians yet another reason to avoid vengeance. It also convinced me not to be a strict pacifist.

Christians can “repay evil with good” both because God will ultimately bring about his perfect justice in the end and because he has provided a means, albeit limited and subject to failure, to bring about some semblance of (retributive) justice on earth in the intervening time: the civil government.

According to Romans 13 the governing authorities (by which I take to mean civil authorities, in the case of Paul, the Roman government) are granted authority by God himself (13:1). Therefore, Christians are commanded to submit to that authority (13:2-3, 5). This is an authority established for the purpose of doing good, which includes “bearing the sword” and being “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (12:4).

No doubt, this presents an ideal picture of the purpose of civil government. Real governments are seriously flawed. This is not doubt true for us – but it was even more true for Paul. At that time the government was complicit in some persecution of Christians, a trend which would only worsen over time (see Revelation). And yet, while Paul presents an ideal, his call is very concrete. Honor your governing authorities, even fallen ones, even ones who themselves might be your enemies.

What is interesting to me, though, is that in the picture of the ideal we see a civil government specifically tasked with bringing about God’s wrath – the exact thing we as believers were told not to do and something that was supposed to be left to God (12:9). I’m aware this position opens me up to the charge of moral relativism. Am I saying that something could be right for one person and wrong for another? Yes, in fact I am, and the reason is one of authority. Those in civil government have been tasked with both the authority and the responsibility to bring about justice. I have not. If I try kill the person who murdered a member of my family, it is vengeance. If the civil government, approximating the justice of God, working through fair means, “bears the sword” and commits him to the death penalty, there’s a chance that proper justice is being served.

I conclude then, from Romans 13, that while it is inappropriate for me to seek violence, it is appropriate for the “governing authorities” to seek justice – which may mean the violent punishment of wrongdoers.

Conclusion

Much more could be said. I have left many questions unanswered. In a subsequent post I would like to address the question of the Kingdom of God and my position on non-violence which I alluded to before. However, the basic framework can be summed up in this way.

I should seek non-violence because God will ultimate bring about perfect justice and he has provided a means for us fallen creatures to experience approximate justice in the meantime, namely, the civil government.

Update: I have another post which answers some questions which Q3 of this post raises. 

Kingdom of God: The Old Testament Hope (Week 2 Recap)

In Week 1 we surveyed the spectrum of belief about the Kingdom of God. Is it primarily a present reality or is primarily a future reality. Our tentative opening thesis is that the Kingdom of God is the active reign of God, manifested in both the present age, through Christ, and, ultimately, at the consummation of all things. Before expanding and testing this thesis we must take brief account of how the Old Testament sets the stage for the Gospel’s use of the phrase.

The Old Testament does not use the phrase “Kingdom of God” but it nevertheless views God as King, generally over the whole Universe, and particularly over His people. The Old Testament hope, then, is for God to manifest His reign on earth on behalf of His people. This hope is dynamic, eschatological, earthly, and ethical.

Dynamic Hope

The Kingdom hope in Old Testament is dynamic and theocentric. By theocentric we mean it is all about God. By dynamic we mean active. That is, the hope is not just that God is sovereign, but that He reigns. This is illustrated in Psalm 145:10-12 “All you works praise you, Lord; your faithful people extol you. They tell of your kingdom and speak of your might, that that all people may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.” The kingdom in this passage is not a realm (a geographic location) but the active reign of God – his might acts in history.

This reign is evident when God visits the earth. God is the God who visits, both past and future. He revealed Himself to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. When He did so, the earth shook. His reign was evident to the entire nation. His future visit is understood in similar terms. It is both a wonderful and a terrifying experience. This Day of the Lord brings both salvation and judgment.

Eschatological Hope

One problem with using the term “eschatological” is that nobody knows what it means even, and especially, among those who know what it means (that is, theologians). On one side of the spectrum it could refer to no more than a spiritual reality that gives meaning to the natural processes of history. On the other side of the spectrum it is a future, transcendental, a-historical, age-to-come. Ladd categorizes four potential meanings.

Better Age: This is the hope for a coming age that arises out of the “normal” historical process. It does not come about through cataclysmic events or by God breaking into history. That is not to say that God is absent, just that he does not circumvent the historical process. At most he is working behind the scenes. This better age is not substantially different from our present age, just of a better quality.

Golden Age and Future Age: Ladd separates these two categories, but they are, in my mind, substantially the same. The Golden/Future age only comes about through God breaking into history in a cataclysmic way. This future age brings about an entirely different kind of reality that is radically different from the present age. It is, however, a historical and earthly reality. It does not exist beyond history, per say, but is the consummation of history.

Transcendental Age: This future hope, which Ladd calls the “Age to Come” is similar to the Golden/Future age in that it comes about only through God breaking into history. More appropriately, though, this future age is conceived not as God breaking into history, but bringing it to an end. The transcendental age is the hope of the Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic writers who were heavily influenced by Greek dualism. The transcendental age does not bring about redeemed life on earth, but an escape from earth and an escape from our bodies into a purely spiritual and heavenly realm.

So, which is the hope of the Old Testament? We can rule out “Better Age” since we have already observed that God’s reign is evident when He visits the earth, when he breaks into history. As we will see below, we can rule out the “Transcendental Age,” since the Old Testament’s hope is for a new heaven and new earth. The Eschatological hope of the Old Testament, then, is a hope that God will break into history (an event which will bring about both salvation and judgment) and that he will bring about a radically new, though still earthly, reality. The hope is eschatological in the sense that it is a hope for God’s final actions, the consummation of his redemptive purposes.

Earthly Hope

We have already noted this above, but the Old Testament hope is for a new, but still earthly, reality. There is no matter/spiritual dualism in the Old Testament, but a fundamental unity.

The earth shares in the fate of humanity. When Adam and Eve sinned, the earth was the subject of the curse. When Israel was called to enter the Promised Land, the fate of the land was tied to the obedience or the rebellion of the people. A faithful people led to a fruitful land. When God warned of exile, he used the metaphor the land “vomiting” the people out of it. When the prophets looked forward to the future visit of God, it is not surprising, then, that we see the land sharing in both the judgment and the redemption.

In judgment we see the prophecy of cosmic and cataclysmic events, the trembling of the whole heavens and earth before the Lord. In redemption we see the final hope of the “new heavens and the new earth.”

The Old Testament hope, then, is not for escape from our bodies or from the material world, but the redemption of both our bodies and the (re)creation of a new material earth.

Ethical

Finally, the Old Testament presents an ethical hope. When the prophets rehearsed the history of Israel, or predicted its future, it was always with the present in mind. This is well illustrated by the book of Deuteronomy. In this grand sermon Moses reminds history of God’s mighty acts in history and holds out the rewards of blessing and the warning of curses. All this sermonizing is to bring the people of Israel, as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, to the point of decision, either to serve God and trust him alone, or to reject God and serve idols.

We see the same thing in the prophets. As the prophets rehearse the history of God’s people and predict the future of both Israel and the nations who surrounded her, they also call the people to repentance. The prophets were not simply seers who saw the future of national Israel – they were preachers who called Israel to repentance.

Central to the prophetic message of the Old Testament is the idea of “remnant.” The prophets knew that salvation was not something that came to individuals simply because of their nationalistic heritage or simply because they were the descendant of Abraham. No, the remnant was those who combined the word of God with the same faith of Abraham. The promise of future blessing was for the remnant – or those who God made the remnant – not for those who rejected God, turned to idols, or remained in stubborn unbelief. Therefore the call of the prophets is an ethical call. It is a call to turn to God in faith.

Understanding the Kingdom of God (Recap)

presenceofthefutureThis Sunday I started a class on the Kingdom of God. I was originally planning on doing a class on the End Times but, in my initial research, I was directed by a professor to read The Presence of the Future by George Eldon Ladd. I understand why I was directed to this book – understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God is foundational to understanding the End Times. However, it’s also foundational to a lot of other things, like the mission of the Church, the present work of God in the world, and what it means to live in the tension between the resurrection and the consummation of all things.

And so, while I originally intended to do a class on the End Times, I punted that to the Senior Pastor, John, and decided on an equally difficult and confusing topic; the Kingdom of God.

Since the class is only being offered to a subset of our church (it takes place during the post-sermon discussion time) I have decided to post summaries of each week’s lesson.

Kingdom of God Week 1: The Debate

“The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven” are concepts which were central to John the Baptist’s (Mt 3:2), Jesus’ (Mt. 4:17, 23; Mk 1:15; Lk 4:43; Acts 1:3), and Paul’s (Acts 19:8, 28:23, 31) teaching. Even so, we do not find in the Gospels any “definition” of the Kingdom. Instead, we see the language of the Kingdom used in diverse and sometimes apparently contradictory ways. Instead of a textbook response from Jesus, we get parables which describe the Kingdom without defining it.

One of the biggest questions about the Kingdom is whether it is something which we can already experience, or whether it is something which is yet to come.

On the “already” side of things we have verses like Luke 11:20 “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God,then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” and Luke 17:20-21 “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” In these verses, the Kingdom appears to be a present reality.

On the “not yet” side of things we see instances where “Kingdom of God” is used interchangeably with “eternal life” (Matthew 19:16-24), the judgment (Matthew 7:21-23), or as a contrast to hell (Mark 9:47). In these, and other instances, the Kingdom seems to be a future realm which people can either enter, or fail to enter, based on their response to God.

This diverse usage of “Kingdom of God” language has historically caused theologians to choose between understanding the Kingdom as a future age to come or as a present spiritual reality.

Those who view the Kingdom of God as entirely, or primarily, a present reality, tend to look at Kingdom realities as primarily spiritual, view the movement of the Kingdom as a process of history, focus on the work of the Church to extend the kingdom, and consider the ethical demands of the Kingdom. They ask the questions – “what are the ethical demands of the Kingdom?” and “what can we do to bring the benefits of the Kingdom on earth?”

Those who view the Kingdom of God as entirely, or primarily, a future reality look at the Kingdom as an “age to come” that will be brought about through a cataclysmic event (i.e., the Second Coming). They focus on the Kingdom as a future act of God (as opposed to something the Church participates in) and tend to devalue the ethical demands of the Kingdom. They ask the question, “who will be able to enter into the Kingdom?” and “when will the Kingdom come?”

There is merit in both viewpoints and theologians from both camps ask important question. However, there are dangers on both side of the spectrum. The biggest problem for both views is that they struggle with interpreting the passages that seem to contradict their position. For instance, those who focus on the “already” aspect of the Kingdom have to view Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings as a literary device used to draw the reader to some ethical conclusion. On the other hand, those who focus on the “future” aspect of the Kingdom tend to come to the conclusion that in passages like Luke 11:20 and 17:20-21 Jesus only meant that the “signs” of the Kingdom were present, but not the Kingdom itself.

There are implications for the ministry of the Church as well. Too much of a focus on the present reality of the Kingdom lead churches to believe that their mission is to “build” the Kingdom, or bring the benefits of the Kingdom to earth, and devalue the simple proclamation of the Kingdom. In other words, they tend to overestimate the role of the Church in regards to the Kingdom.

On the other hand, those who view the Kingdom as only a future reality tend to view the world, and the role of the Church, in far more pessimistic light. If God’s actions are so limited in history, the only hope is for a cataclysmic event to take us out of history. In the meantime, the only mission of the Church is to wait to be saved out of this world and call others to enter the Kingdom.

The question arises, then, can these two usages of the Kingdom (present and future) be reconciled? I believe the answer is “Yes” and the thesis which will be developed over the next few weeks is this: The Kingdom of God is the active reign of God. This working shorthand definition leads to a few conclusions:

First, the Jesus’ coming fulfilled God’s promise of the Kingdom in His very person. But this initial coming of the Kingdom was a mystery. It was an unexpected, but nevertheless real, manifestation of the reign of God. This coming of the Kingdom, while a fulfillment of the promise, was not the final consummation of the promise.

Second, the realities of the Kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus, are present now through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Third, when Jesus returns we will see consummation of the Kingdom. We will see the Kingdom, the reign of God, in its fullest form.

Next week we ask, “How does the Old Testament speak of the Kingdom of God?”

I have attached two resources for anyone with further interest. First, I have listed the usages of “Kingdom” in the Gospels and Acts  (pdf) as a source of further study. Second, I have attached my power point presentation from this Sunday.

Book Review: God in Slow Motion by Mike Nappa

God in Slow Motion

The premise behind God in Slow Motion by Mike Nappa is that it is worthwhile to slow down and reflect on the life of Jesus. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to read the book.

In God in Slow Motion Nappa examines ten stories from the Gospels – the birth of Jesus, the woman at the well, the calling of Matthew, Jesus calms the storm, the woman who touched Jesus’ robes, John the Baptist questions Jesus, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus washes the disciples feet, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. He carefully weaves each story with stories with stories from modern life in order to draw out some character of Jesus. For instance, he connects the story of the calling of Matthew, with a modern story of a criminal transformed by God’s life, to his own struggle to be transformed by Christ.

Nappa relies on historical research in order to more fully “set the scene” for the otherwise brief gospel accounts. He also plays fairly fast and loose with “inspired imagination” to try to get inside the heads of the biblical characters. There is both danger and reward in this technique. The danger is in speculating what biblical characters might have been thinking, which could lead to a poor interpretation. The reward is that (of it’s done right) it helps the reader connect with the characters. All in all, I find nothing wrong with any of Nappa’s interpretations. They all seem reasonable. The reader should simply note that they are speculative.

God in Slow Motion is a solid book and Nappa is a good writer. Nevertheless, I was not blown away. I really didn’t learn anything new from the book. In many ways, God in Slow Motion was a lot like Altar Ego (see review), Jesus Is (see review), or Reclaiming Love (see review). It’s a solid book with good writing and good theology (more solid than Jesus Is) but it simply didn’t give me a new way of looking at the world. Like those other books I would recommend it for new believers, for those interested in devotional reading, or possibly for pastors who will be teaching on the topics addressed.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

A Shameless Plug

atticafterschoolFive years ago our church, Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, started a program called “Attic After School,” an After School program for Middle and High School students in Grandville and Wyoming. We provide a safe place for kids to hang out, play games, form relationships and, most importantly, hear about and experience the love of God.

Shortly after starting Attic After School we decided to make the program its own DBA (Doing Business As) in order to broaden the scope of the ministry. We wanted to make it easier for people not directly affiliated with our church to participate – financially or as a volunteer – with the ministry. Today, about one-third of the Attic After School budget comes directly from the church and the rest from outside sources. In addition, while our church body makes up the core of our volunteers we have participation from volunteers associated with other churches. We hope to continue to expand our partnerships with other churches and believers for the common goal of giving teenagers a safe, fun, and inviting place hang out and hear the gospel.

If you’re interested in learning more about Attic After School check out the website or the attached (2013_October) October newsletter.

It’s been my joy to work both as a volunteer with Attic After School and on the Executive Committee for the past five years. God’s doing some great things in the lives of the students who come and in us who get to hang out with those awesome kids.