Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Is Jesus a Contradiction?

Photo by Edal Anton Lefterov
Aside from "How can anyone still believe there's a God in our modern, push-button world?" and "Isn't God a sadist for throwing people into hell on the slightest whim?" one of the most frequent Quora questions is some variation of this one. 

Q: Is there a contradiction in the Trinity since Jesus was a human being and a god being at the same time?

A: The Christian teachings on the Trinity and the nature of Jesus are probably its 2 most misunderstood concepts. Just to clarify, the Trinity is defined in Christian theology as one being (“ousia” in Greek, the language it was first defined in) eternally existing as three distinct and infinite underlying personal realities (“Hypostasis” in Greek) — commonly called “Persons” to emphasize God’s personal (i.e., He’s not a force) nature. These three are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God (specifically the 2nd ‘person’ of the Trinity) took on and fully united with human nature in the single person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was not God only or a man only, but truly God and truly man, “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” In Christian theology this is called the Chalcedonian Definition and is based on the concept of the incarnation in the Christian Scriptures.

Hence, there is no contradiction because Jesus was first, foremost, and eternally the infinite God, but God plus something — God plus human-ness.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"All Humanity Will Come"

All Will Come
Photo by svickova
On Sundays I like to let some ancient writer or thinker of the Christian movement explain something about a passage of scripture. Today I enlisted Ambrose of Milan, the mentor of the great Augustine of Hippo and considered a "Doctor" (i.e., authoritative teacher) of the Church. Ambrose sees the 'marriage feast' of Christ, when he and his people become one, reflected in the 65th Psalm.  

Praise waits for you in Zion, O God,
     and it is to you that vows shall be paid.
O you hearer of prayers,
     to you all humanity will come.
Wicked deeds have overwhelmed us,
     but for our crimes you will atone.
Blessed is the one you choose
     and allow to draw near,
          to live in your temple courts.
Satiated we will be
     with the goodness of your house --
          your holy temple.
By fearful, righteous deeds you will answer us,
     O God who saves,
     security of the uttermost earth
     and the far distant sea.

Psalm 65.1-5 (My own translation)


And your soul shall see your marriage feast, O Lord Jesus, wherein the bride is led from earthly to heavenly dwellings, as all sing in joyous accord, “to you all humanity will come,” now no longer subject to the world but espoused to the Spirit, and shall look on bridal chambers adorned with linen, roses, lilies and garlands. For whom else are the nuptials so adorned? For they are adorned with the purple stripes of confessors, the blood of martyrs, the lilies of virgins and the crowns of priests. 

Ambrose of Milan (AD 333 - 397)
On His Brother Satyrus 2.132, (quoted from Fathers of the Church 22:258)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Most Important Meal of the Day

George Müller, quite possibly reading a Bible
Photo courtesy of georgemuller.org
One of my biggest heroes in the Christian movement is George Müller, the German emigrant minister of the 1800s who built orphan homes in Bristol, England. He rescued thousands of children from a homeless life on the streets, feeding them, clothing them, and providing them an education. All this he did without asking for a single farthing from anyone -- except for God, in prayer. In fact he made it clear that he was explicitly depending on God alone to fund his orphanages as an in-your-face 62+ year-long demonstration to the 19th century world that God still answers prayers.

Interestingly though, despite his reputation as a man of prayer, when George Müller got up in the morning the first thing he did was not to pray. It was to read the Bible. This, he said, was one of the secrets to a prayer life that moves mountains and rescues orphans from the street:  before we go before God in prayer, we must feed our souls. And one did this by "dining" on the words of God, (Gospel of Matthew 4.4).

Müller said that he meditated on scripture until he reached a state that he described as "being happy in the Lord." Once the action of scripture upon a person's heart had made them "happy in the Lord," then they were ready to go before the Lord in prayer. Then they were ready to move mountains.

[For much more information on George Müller, go here and here.]

Just a book?

The Bible does not purport to be just a wise and wonderful book; it purports to be revelation, a living, entity through which the Holy Spirit of God speaks -- in the present tense. Just as Jesus of Nazareth was not only a wise and wonderful teacher but the unique revelation of the Living God.

The early Christian movement believed "[Moses] received life-giving words (literally, "living words") from God to give to us", (Acts of the Apostles 7.38 ERV). Jesus taught that King David wrote Psalms "by the Holy Spirit" (Gospel of Mark 12.35 - 37).

As the scholar J. N. D. Kelly wrote, "Whenever our Lord and His apostles quoted the Old Testament, it is plain that they regarded it as the word of God," (Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 60). It was the same with the Apostle's writings, because Jesus' followers recognized that they carried the revelation that the Messiah had entrusted them with (p. 56). "The words that I have spoken to you," John records Jesus as saying,  "are spirit and are life," (Gospel of John 6.63).

For them -- and for any who allow themselves to be nourished by the Bible -- "God’s word is alive and working. It is sharper than the sharpest sword and cuts all the way into us. It cuts deep to the place where the soul and the spirit are joined. God’s word cuts to the center of our joints and our bones. It judges the thoughts and feelings in our hearts," (Letter to the Hebrews 4.12 ERV).

The word we must not speak

What I'm suggesting is that nice leather-bound book you have on your desk or the paperback version in your car is not just a book: It is something that intelligent 21st century people get vaguely uncomfortable with, something that some scholars devote their lives to showing it is not.

It's supernatural.

When George Müller cracked his Bible open in the morning, he was exposing himself to the creative power of God's own being, as God wants us to experience it. And so are we. Reading the Scriptures, as John Wesley used to say, is a "means of grace," a physical object (like the bread and wine of the Lord's supper) that God has chosen to use to connect you to him. And then anything can happen.

Modern people aren't supposed to think that way. We can explain all that miraculous stuff away with our current understandings, can't we? There's no need to go there, surely.

But as C. S. Lewis wrote, if you are a member of the Christian movement, "Like it or not, you belong to a supernatural religion."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Why Do We Struggle in Our Lives as Christians?

"The Prodigal Son"
by Rembrandt
Another question from my "Quora ministry."

Q: Why is it that I have a struggle in my relationship with Christ?I have my high and lows. I follow after God and love Him. I want to honor and glorify his name. Then, there are periods of my life I commit habitual sin. I repent. Turn. Then later go back to it. I am disgusted in myself.

A: You are going through the same struggle that all Christians go through — even the ones who seem to be paragons of virtue. I’m certainly still going through it and I’ve followed Jesus for some time. As Jesus said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14.38), and that struggle is still there even after we receive the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5.16–17). We have been justified -- made right -- by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross so (and this is important) God does not condemn us for our sins anymore (Romans 8.1–2). This means that shame is not part of the cycle anymore. If God doesn’t condemn us, then who are we condemn ourselves?

There is a stage after being justified, of course, usually called sanctification. This is the work of the Holy Spirit and, quite frankly, it takes all of your life. This is what Paul is referring to in the Galatians scripture I mentioned above, and what you and I are going through right now. Sanctification is an act of God just as justification is. Our part is to cooperate with the Spirit within us. How? By focusing not on our many sins but on love, because, “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” (Galatians 5.13–15, Matthew 22.36–40). Our motivation for everything should become love more and more because as Paul says, the only thing that counts really is “faith working through love,” (Galatians 5.6). And God himself “is love,” (1 John 4.8, 16).

 But becoming like God — which is what sanctification really is — is a lifelong project. Nobody does it right away — or even over decades. And as you say, there are habitual sins and faults and weaknesses that all of us have. So what if we have a moment of weakness and commit a sin? What if we slip back into committing some sin several times in our lives? Does God condemn us? No, he himself says that he does not. Should we be overcome by shame and disgust with ourselves? No, we are justified, forgiven of our sins and have been adopted as God’s own children.

 So what do we do about it? As soon as you realize it, do this: “Confess [y]our sins, [for] he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.5–9). No drama, no shame. Just acknowledge you messed up, then go back to growing in love and working with the Holy Spirit in becoming more and more like Jesus.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Holy Stubbornness

"In that town there was a widow"

On Sundays I like to let an ancient Christian writer explain something about a passage of scripture. This time I've got Ephrem the Syrian, one of the early Christian Movement's greatest poets, among other things. Theological trivia of the day: he's technically not discussing the actual Gospel of Luke but a portion of the Diatessaron, an early attempt to combine the 4 gospels into one continuous story. The result is the same for our purposes but FYI the scripture quotation below is from Luke, not from the Diatessaron. It's also my first try here at translating the scripture myself, something I might try again sometime if it turns out ok. The link leads to my traditional NET Bible.

Jesus told a parable to teach them they should always pray and never get discouraged. “There once was a judge in a certain town," he began, "who had no reverence for God and respected nobody. And in that town there was a widow. She kept coming before him with the plea, ‘Give me justice against my opponent!’ For a while he rejected her plea, but finally he told himself, ‘I may not revere God or respect anyone, but this widow is wearing me out! So I will give her justice, before her constantly coming before me becomes intolerable!’”

The Lord concluded, “Listen to what this unjust judge is saying! And won't God most certainly make sure that justice is done for his chosen people, who plead with him day and night? Will he delay executing justice for them? I'm telling you he will see to it that they receive justice -- and soon! But even so, when the Son of Man comes will he find any faith on the earth?”

Gospel of Luke 18.1-8


How was that unjust judge immoral and wicked? How was the upright judge gracious and just? The first in his iniquity was not willing to vindicate the widow, and in his wickedness, he was not willing to put her mind at rest. The justice of God knows how to vindicate, and his grace discerns how to give life. The iniquity of this wicked judge was contrary to the justice of God, and the wickedness of this rebel was in opposition to the grace of the gentle One. His wickedness therefore was stubbornness, for it dared to go against the fear of God. His boldness was stubborn, for it refused the lowly person.

These two were stubborn, but persistent prayer was even more stubborn. The persistence of the widow humiliated both the iniquity that was rebelling against God and the boldness that was behaving arrogantly towards human beings. She subjected them to her will, so that they might provide her with a vindication over her adversary. Persistence transformed these two bitter branches, and they bore sweet fruit that was against their nature. The iniquity of the judge brought about a righteous judgment and a just retribution for the falsely accused woman. His wickedness gave peace to the afflicted one, although iniquity does not know how to judge, and wickedness does not know how to give refreshment.

Persistence forced these two evil and bitter branches to give good fruit against their nature. If we persist in prayer, we should be even more able to prevail on the grace and justice of God to give us fruit that agrees with their nature. Let justice vindicate us, and let grace refresh us. Accordingly, the fruit of justice is the just reward of the oppressed, while the giving of refreshment to the afflicted is the fruit of grace.

Ephrem the Syrian (born c. AD 306 died after 373)
Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 16.16.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Great Announcement - Part 3

Jesus Before Pilate
Painting by James Tissot
The story so far: In the first two parts of this series (part 1part 2) we've seen that, despite the widespread idea that the Gospel is mainly a message of God's love and forgiveness (although it is that), Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly defined it differently -- as an announcement of the impending establishment of the Kingdom of God. As we read through the accounts of Jesus' life, this kingdom gets closer and closer until he occasionally speaks of it as actually having arrived.

So now we come to the part of the story everyone knows: Jesus' capture, execution, and return to life. This brief installment will focus on that supreme crisis moment and what Jesus' final words were about the Kingdom of God he'd been proclaiming for so long. Then, in part 4, we'll look at the very different way the resurrected Jesus -- later followed by his students -- began to talk about himself and his kingdom.

The universe changed during these few days, and his Gospel and the kingdom it announced changed too: It changed in the way that something being announced changes when it finally arrives.


Just before his crucifixion, Jesus is recorded as having made two important statements about the kingdom he's been proclaiming and his position in it, one to the roman authority in Palestine and one to the Jewish authority there.

His discussion with the roman prefect Pontius Pilate is especially interesting as we watch Jesus try to explain to a non-Jewish mind what kind of Messiah he is. Remember, the title "Messiah" carried very militaristic connotations to the average 1st century Jew or roman occupier, connotations Jesus had no use for. This is likely one of the reasons Jesus preferred to call himself "Son of Man," a more vague prophetic term that he could fill with his own meaning. But Pilate shows no sign of being familiar with that concept. So Jesus had to use another approach.
Pilate went back into the palace and called Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked him.

Jesus answered, “Does this question come from you or have others told you about me?”

Pilate replied, “Do you think I am a Jew? It was your own people and the chief priests who handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!”

So Pilate asked him, “Are you a king, then?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me.”

“And what is truth?” Pilate asked.

(John 18.33-38, GNB)

Jesus confesses that he has a kingdom, but not the kind Pilate means, not a kingdom that "belongs to this world" and deals in battles and bloodshed. But when asked directly (for the second time) if he is in fact a king, Jesus prefers to define for himself what being king of a kingdom that doesn't belong to the world means.


To the Jewish authorities however Jesus was rather blunt:
Again the high priest questioned him: ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed God?’

‘I am,’ said Jesus; ‘and you will all see the Son of Man seated at the right side of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven.’
(Mark 14.61-62, GNB, and also Matthew 26.63-64)

Jesus blatantly called forth the image of the famous prophetic passage in Daniel 7 that the term "Son of Man" comes from:
I saw in the night visions,
     and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
     and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
     And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
     that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
     his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
     and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
(Daniel 7.13-14, ESV)

Yes, he affirms, he definitely is the expected Messiah, the apocalyptic "Son of Man," on familiar terms with the "Ancient of Days" and inheritor of a kingdom that encompasses all the earth and will never pass away. The Jewish authorities were familiar with these terms, and knew precisely what he was claiming.


Jesus has one more brief discussion about his kingdom, this time not with leaders and scholars but, appropriately enough for Jesus, with the dregs of society -- a crucified criminal. “Jesus," he says, "remember me when you come in your kingdom.”
And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
(Luke 23.42-43)

One does not enter paradise with the Messiah without being a citizen of the Messiah's kingdom. Just to draw the meaning of these pregnant words out a bit, Jesus is saying, "That day when I come in my kingdom? That day is today, and you will be there with me. The kingdom starts now."

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Leaving Nazareth

Christ in the Synagogue
Painting by Nikolay Ge, 1868

Nobody upvoted this response, which happens on Quora sometimes. In fact, almost nobody paid attention to the question at all.  But I didn't think it was too bad for a short answer. 

Q: Why did Jesus have to leave Nazareth to get his first followers?

A: Nazareth in Christ’s time was a tiny, insignificant village of around 400 people — not much of an audience. Also, as his quoting of a popular proverb (“not without honor, except in his hometown”) indicates, they were not inclined to see this carpenter, whom they’d watched grow up, as a possible Messiah. In fact, Luke's Gospel reports they were downright hostile! Add to that the rumor that he was illegitimate — born out of wedlock.

To expose his message to as large an audience as possible — and generate followers — it would have been necessary to base his operation in a larger, slightly more cosmopolitan town like Capernaum (population 1500+) and canvas all of Galilee, as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) describe.

In addition, John’s gospel indicates that Jesus met his earliest and most important students (Peter, Andrew, and possibly John) in the crowds that gathered around John the Baptist, south of Galilee on the Jordan river.

To sum up, Nazareth was a small and rather hostile audience, but Capernaum, the Galilee region, and particularly John the Baptist’s hangers-on provided more fertile soil for Jesus’ unique message.