Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Qualifies Jesus to Be Our Mediator?

(Text of a sermon preached at Meadowood Retirement Community, January 11, 2015)
When the apostle Paul writes to his protégé Timothy that he is to pray for all people, he bases his request on two facts. The first is that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and the second is that “there is only one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Notice that he doesn’t say anything there about Jesus’ divinity. It is Jesus’ humanity that qualifies him to mediate between God and humanity.
When I read the confessions and catechisms, specifically the Westminster and Belgic Confessions and the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms, as well as the dissertations I edit for seminary students, I run into the idea that Jesus must be God because only God could mediate between God and humanity. The prooftext for that is Psalm 49:7, “Truly no man can ransom another” (Ps 49:7). Yet in Paul’s letter, we see that it is the man Christ Jesus who is our mediator.
How can this be? What is it that qualifies the man Christ Jesus to be our mediator? I would like to argue that it is his obedience to God, not his innate nature, that makes him our mediator. We see this most clearly in John 5:19-30, where Jesus defends himself against the charge of considering himself equal with God.
Before looking at this passage in detail, let’s think first about how it fits into the Gospel of John as a whole. John begins his gospel by equating Jesus with the logos (word or message) of God and thus with God himself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. … In him was life” (1:1, 4a). These words are taken from the preamble or prologue or introduction, which is the part of any document that states in general terms what the document is about. The purpose of the rest of the document is to define the terms in the prologue and back up the claims made in it.
Compare it with the preamble to the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” That’s the preamble. It’s not in the preamble that we look for the definition of justice, domestic tranquility, defense, welfare, and liberty; you don’t make up your own definitions of justice and welfare and liberty and then impose them on the body of the Constitution. Instead, you’re supposed to keep those terms in mind and infer their meaning from what you read in the body of the Constitution.
For example, the body of the Constitution says, “The Congress shall have Power … To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, [etc.]” Whether I think justice includes allowing Congress to coin money or not—and I don’t—the Constitution defines justice as having Congress coin money. I can’t take my definition of justice and write off that part of the Constitution no matter how reasonable I think I’m being.
In the same way, we can’t take our own ideas of what it means for the Word to be God and impose them on the first verse of John’s Gospel. We need to see how John defines the idea in the body of the Gospel.
Here’s more from the preamble to John’s gospel: “The Word was with God in the beginning. All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life. … Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory – the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. … No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.”
Here John announces announces that he is going to show that the Word of God, who is himself God, “became flesh and took up residence among us.” For our purposes today, he also announces that he’s going to show what it means for Jesus to be fully God and to be the one in whom is life.
Now we come to our passage. Jesus has just healed a man on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders are angry at him and accuse him of breaking the Law of Moses.
Now because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began persecuting him. So he told them, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.” For this reason the Jewish leaders were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God. (John 5:16-18)
Again, John is using this episode in Jesus’ life to tell us what he means when he says, “The Word was with God and the Word was God … In him was life.”
God had already covered the Jews’ objection in part. John’s birth, if you remember, was accompanied by the miracle of his father being rendered dumb (Luke 1:5-23; 57-64). Jesus’ birth had been accompanied by the appearance of the angels and the wise men (Luke 2).
When John the Baptizer was baptizing people in the Jordan, he had been telling them that someone would come who had existed before John was born. When Jesus appeared, John said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me’” (1:29-30). Anyone who bothered to ask would have known that Jesus was six months younger than John. So when Jesus said later on, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he was simply confirming what John had said before Jesus’ public ministry had begun.
Also, when John baptized Jesus, the Spirit came on him like a dove. John’s Gospel doesn’t record this, but a voice also came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). Jesus wasn’t telling them anything new here when he called God his Father and himself God’s Son. I can only conclude that the Jews were willing to throw all that out the window because he was not conforming to their interpretation of the Law of Moses.
Note as we go along that he doesn’t talk about his pedigree. In John 8:58 he says, “Before Abraham came into existence, I am!” Even there he doesn’t give a detailed explanation of his relationship to the Father before Abraham was born. Here he does give a detailed description of who he is, but he concentrates on his character.
19 So Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.
Notice what he says here. The Son cannot do anything apart from what he sees the Father doing. He does not say that he doesn’t have the authority; he literally says he does not have the power. We’ll see in v. 26 that he gets the power to do what he does and the authority to do what he does at the same time because the Father grants it to him.
Now this “cannot” is probably the “cannot” we used to be able to tell the police in this country. Even if you were facing a hundred policemen armed to the teeth and you were unarmed, you could say, “You cannot come into my house without a warrant,” and they would know better than to enter your house unless they had a warrant. In the same way, Jesus is saying he will not go beyond the authority he has received from the Father.
He goes even further to say that he in fact not does only what he sees the Father doing, he does whatever he sees the Father doing. He does all and only what he sees the Father doing.
In sum, whatever his nature is—whatever he was before the incarnation, whatever it means for him to be the Word of God who was with God and was himself God—he calls himself God’s Son here because he obeys God’s will perfectly.
20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does, and will show him greater deeds than these, so that you will be amazed.
The Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does: Jesus not only does everything he sees the Father doing, he does everything the Father does because the Father shows him everything. That is why the Father will show greater things (than the healing on the Sabbath) to the Son, the Son will do those greater things, and the hearers will be amazed.
21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.
The most important thing the Father does is to raise the dead and give life. Remember when Naaman came to King Joram of Israel because he wanted to be healed of leprosy, Joram said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?” The power of life and death is God’s most important attribute. Here Jesus claims that the Father has given the Son the power and authority to give life.
22 Furthermore, the Father does not judge anyone, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father.
In addition to the power of life and death, the Father has given the Son the power and authority to judge. Jesus is claiming that the same God who said “I am the Lord! That is my name! I will not share my glory with anyone else” (Isa 42:8) wants to share that glory with him. He’s saying that God cannot be content until Jesus receives the same honor as the Father receives.
The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
To honor the Son is to honor the Father; to not honor the Son is to not honor the Father.
24 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.
Jesus will not judge those who hear (obey) him. This is because the Father has delegated judgment to the Son.
To honor the Son sent by the Father and to honor the Father who sent the Son are the same thing.
The issue of eternal life is all about honoring God and Jesus.
Those who honor God will pass from earthly life to eternal life without having to go through judgment.
25 I tell you the solemn truth, a time is coming – and is now here – when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, thus he has granted the Son to have life in himself, 27 and he has granted the Son authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.
The one who calls people from death to life is Jesus, not the Father. Death to life is a metaphor for life in sin to repentance.
Most versions translate the phrase as “those who hear will live,” but I wonder if the New Living Translation has it right when they translate it as “listen”: “Those who listen will live.” The most important commandment in the Law of Moses is, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. Love the Lord your God.” Hearing here not only means allowing the sound waves to vibrate our eardrums. It means more than making the effort to understand the words. It means to obey, to have Jesus’ commands and obey them (John 14:21).
28 “Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and will come out – the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation.
This restates v. 25 in stronger terms. Some people take this to mean that the death of v. 25 is physical death: as specified by physical graves here. The just and the unjust will be in their graves, Jesus will call them, and they will rise, some to life, some to condemnation. They would note that when Stephen was stoned to death, the Bible says he “fell asleep,” not that he went directly to heaven. He could have said that: Stephen had said, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), and it would have been appropriate for the writer to say that when Stephen died he went up to heaven. But he doesn’t say that, so when Stephen “fell asleep” he was conscious of being killed, and the next thing he will be conscious of is when Jesus will call him out of the grave at the end of time.
Yet the writer of Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke. There when Jesus forgives the repentant thief on the cross he says, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” The only inference I can draw from that is that when we die we somehow enter the presence of the Lord. Luke’s Gospel also records the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which definitely teaches that we have a conscious existence between death and the final resurrection.
If we are to assume, then, that we do have conscious existence after death, then Jesus is indicating how bad sin is using stronger language than he used in the previous verse. He’s saying that our present life is like a grave, and he wants us to listen for the voice of the Son of God and to listen to the voice of the Son of God. “Those who have done good”—which in this case involves honoring the Son as well as the Father—“will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment” (NLT).
30 I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me.
Here Jesus closes his case by saying again that he cannot do anything on his own. He does what is right because he wants to do what pleases the Father who sent him.
So what?
Let’s remember where we started, with 1 Tim 2:
First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people. … For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human. … So I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or dispute.
God has called us to be mediators between him and the world.
How can we be those mediators? What qualified Jesus to be the mediator he was? Yes, he was the Word of God who had been granted the authority to give life, but when he was asked about his authority, he spoke not of his pedigree but of his perfect obedience.
In the same way, we have a wonderful pedigree. We have been redeemed from our slavery to sin by the precious blood of Jesus. But if we are to be the intercessors for the world that God wants us to be—or if we want to succeed at any of the tasks God has assigned us—we need to strive to obey God in all things, especially in those things that only God sees.
Just as only Jesus could purchase our salvation, only Jesus can enable us to complete the work God has assigned from us. He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He knows what it is to be human, so he can sympathize with us.
“Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help” (Heb 4:16).

How to Be a Successful Thief

Today, as community service, out of the kindness of his heart, the Quill Pig is going to offer a practical course in thievery. I don’t want the introduction to be longer than the course itself, so…
The first rule in thievery is not to kill your victim if you can avoid it. If you kill him, all you’ll ever get from him is the one-shot deal you get at the time. He won’t ever produce anything else for you to steal, and you’ll lose precious time finding another victim. If you keep him alive and healthy, he’ll eventually accumulate something else worth stealing, and since you know where he is and how to get past his defenses, you’ll be able to get the next lot of goods from him with a minimum of effort.
The second rule is to steal from your victim neither too much nor too often. Even if you don’t steal so much that he dies, eventually he may decide that the likelihood of his goods being stolen is so high that it’s not worth the effort to accumulate them to begin with. Or he might move out of territory you control in hopes of a better life. In that case, you’re no better off than if you killed him.
So the first corollary of the second rule is that you need to find the point of diminishing returns—the top of the Laffer curve—and not go past it. Take as much as you can while your victim is still producing as much as he can.
The second corollary is that you can maximize your booty by encouraging your victim to keep producing at maximum output, even if he knows you’re going to be taking as much of it as you want. You do this by spinning your holdup line—“Do as I say or something worse is going to happen to you”—as a promise: “If you do as I say, I’ll make sure nothing worse ever happens to you.”
The really nifty thing about that promise is that it’s meaningless. If something bad does happen, you tell him that it would have been worse if you hadn’t been there protecting him. And if what happens is arguably the “something worse” he thought you were protecting him from, just say that given the resources you had, no one on earth could have prevented it. Then magnanimously give him the choice between giving you more booty and shutting up.
The third rule is to remember that power flows from the barrel of a gun, and make sure you’re either the biggest gun in the area or allied with it. It’s a waste of time building up that juicy income stream only to have someone else knock you off and drink the benefits of your hard work. Eliminating your rivals, or at least keeping them at bay, will require resources, but you can get those from your victims by convincing them that you’re defending them from your rivals, that they benefit when you’re the king of the hill. They’ll pony up every time.
The corollary to that is if you can’t beat your rivals, ally with them. You may even have to become their vassal and contribute some of your booty to them, but if you do as they say, they’ll make sure nothing worse happens to you. That’s a promise
So there you have it. Follow my advice and you’ll be living the good life the rest of your days. And, if you keep reading, you’ll see how the good times can roll even beyond your time on earth.
The rest of the post is for those of you whose consciences are uneasy at the thought of being a thief, especially those who think that thievery is somehow outside the pale of biblical ethics. Rest assured, my friends, it is not. I call as my witnesses Zacchaeus, Cornelius, and the unnamed centurion of Capernaum (Matt 8).
All three of these biblical heroes were in the employ of the Roman Empire, in its day the biggest gun from ’way up in Europe to ’way down in Africa. Nobody but nobody told the Romans what to do, and nobody before them and few since them have done a better job of making good on the promise “if you do as I say, I’ll make sure nothing worse happens to you.” (They did it, of course, by first saying, “Do as I say, or I’ll make sure something worse happens to you.”) The Pax Romana made Christian mission possible by providing the infrastructure and safety from (lesser) bandits that allowed Paul and Barnabus to preach the gospel all over the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
It was in the context of the Pax Romana that Paul wrote in Romans 13 that “there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God … he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves … rulers hold no terror for those who do right.” Less than a decade later, those “powers” separated Paul’s head from his neck ISIS style, but nobody’s perfect.
So here’s the secret to living like a thief with no fear of divine reprisal: What is theft at a small level ceases to be theft when enough people get into the act. Once the person at the top of the pile has the right title—“king,” “emperor,” “president,” “premier,” and “leader” seem to qualify—then “I’ll make sure nothing worse happens to you” is no longer spin, it’s gospel truth.
And presto change-o, you are no longer a thief, you are a power that be, ordained of God. Your lackeys are no longer thugs, they’re soldiers and policemen. Your finger-breakers are now tax-collectors.
As time goes on, you can buy the love of those who used to resist you. Who can help but love you when you feed their hungry, heal their sick, educate their ignorant, care for their aged, build roads, and catch criminals, not to mention supporting the arts and providing sports venues? And as those who enter your employ (see the corollary of the third rule) will live better than they would have otherwise and better than their neighbors, you will have an aura beyond words.
Yes, indeed, Jesus had it right when he said, “Those in authority over [the Gentiles] are called ‘benefactors’” (Luke 22:25). He just missed the boat when he said, “But you are not to be like that.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Does God Play Electric Football?

One of my first memories is of walking into a room where my cousin Charles and some of his friends were playing electric football. As I remember it from over 50 years ago, the game looked something like this:

Photo Credit

Play was simple: both players lined up their men, the power was turned on, the “field” started to vibrate, and the men would do battle with each other. Each football man had two plastic membranes that stuck down from the base that would propel him forward when the field vibrated. If the player on offense called “Pass” or “Kick,” the power would be turned off so the player could load the “ball” into a spring-loaded catapult and either “pass” or “kick” it.
Photo Credit
I’ve forgotten what the rules were, but you could have complete, incomplete, and intercepted passes, blocked kicks, touchbacks, safeties—pretty much everything you’d have in a real game except bench-clearing brawls.
The game could even be played solitaire. One person could line both offensive and defensive players up, turn on the power, stop it for passes and kicks, and even tip the field to influence the speed and direction of the players. He could plan strategy for both teams, line things up, and watch how things played out. In short, he could be one step more involved with life than the god of Deism.
Which leads me to the God of statist evangelicalism.
I first read about the Christmas truce of 1914 in the mid-1970s in a book on apologetics (probably but not certainly Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict). While I remember the author’s point being that Christianity brings peace, I thought at the time, “What kind of religion would have people shooting at each other after they’ve just ‘made friends’? What bee ess!”
My question about the truce has haunted me ever since, and, as we were going through the centenary of the event, I read a few articles about it and even watched the movie Joyeux Noël (which takes severe liberties with history). And I’ve come up with the question that prompted this post.
I’ve also been troubled by a Christian video series I’ve been attending. The first episode begins with a skit about Red Erwin, who gets his vision of courageous manhood from his father, who, as he was leaving to fight in the Great War to End All Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy, told his impressionable son that a man has to do his duty whether he wants to do it or not and no matter how much it costs. Red Erwin did indeed become a model of courage by willingly undergoing unspeakable suffering to save the lives of his bomber crewmates (to say nothing of the courage needed to get in a bomber to begin with) during the war against Japan. Another segment in the series included an interview with an infantry officer who spoke of the courage needed to order men off on missions from which most or all would not return and another with a man who talked about the courage needed to obey such orders.
I don’t doubt that these are all men of character and of courage. But I wonder about the character of the god they serve. After all, there’s every reason to believe that on their officers’ orders German and Italian grunts went on missions they were not sure they would return from. And self-sacrificing courage is not the unique province of Christendom: the kamikaze pilots (and the 9/11 suicide bombers) went on missions from which they knew they would not return.
According to the evangelical narrative, Red Erwin’s father was duty bound to join the army, cross the ocean, and kill Germans and whomever else his commanders (“acting lawfully”) told him to kill. No mention is made of the moral rectitude of the war. Yet the US had no dog in that fight. If Uncle Sam had simply said, “Travel to and trade with the belligerent nations at your own risk,” the US would have suffered no ill effects beyond loss of trading partners as the Europeans killed each other off. There would likely have been no Zimmermann Note, no Hitler, no Auschwitz, and possibly no Soviet Union. As it was, like most government programs, the war failed to reach its stated goals: it did not end all wars, nor did it make the world safe for democracy. It ended up being a glorified (if that’s the right word) family feud that accomplished nothing more remarkable than setting the stage for an even worse war.
Not everyone in the US at the time agreed that the boys needed to go to war. Uncle Sam began a massive propaganda campaign to get soldiers to enlist, but he had to institute conscription and shut down antiwar publications because it was the only way to get the requisite number of soldiers. Even so, the young unitarian organization now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses opposed the war as a matter of principle, as did such traditionally peacemongering groups as the Amish and Mennonites; all were persecuted to one degree or another.
So let me set the scene: while heretics and fringies on both sides were suffering persecution because they refused to fight, Trinitarian—Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed—Germans, Austrians, Frenchmen, Brits, and Americans lined up against each other, all their governments having propagated the idea that they were defending their legitimate interests, yea, their very existence and life itself. The more noble on both sides assumed that God commands people to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” specifically people of fighting age to obey their governments, submit to conscription if such be the law, and go to war. They assumed that we are to trust that the powers that be, ordained of God, are acting according to God’s will even if it seems to us that they are not. So there they were, noble people with the best of intentions shooting at each other.
Does the God of that ethical system care who wins the war, or is he only concerned that the soldiers obey their governments and fight? If his word to his people is, “Trust your government and leave the results to me,” how does he differ from the kid playing solitaire electric football? Since I disagree with the protasis, I don’t need to answer the apodosis, but I’d like to hear the answer of someone who pretty much agrees with the protasis.
If he does care who wins the war, why does he care? Why did he let the Allies win in 1918 knowing that it was the Treaty of Versailles that would bring on war within twenty years? Why did he let Hitler annex Austria and the Benelux nations by 1940 and then have him lose the war in 1945? Why did he let the Prohibitionists win in 1919 and then lose in 1933?
More recently, why would he let the Vietnamese prove that the godless hippies were right (i.e., that the US wouldn’t go commie if Vietnam did) and the evangelicals who killed, maimed, and got what they gave were wrong?
I suppose the answer is that God’s ways are inscrutable: we also don’t know why God chose to have Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery; surely he could have gotten Jacob’s family to Egypt some other way, but he didn’t, so that’s that. We don’t know why he lets one side win one day and the other side win the next: we only know that the Bible says that’s what he does.
But I would respond that despite God’s foreknowledge and whatever part his foreordination played, Joseph’s brothers were guilty of violating God’s ethical standards. To the degree that they were godly they would have known that despite their early success, things would not end well. In the same way, to the degree that people today are godly, they should know that Uncle Sam is up to no good because he can do nothing “good” or evil without first violating people’s property. We should be suspicious of his every motive and every move. The human heart does not cease to be deceitful above all things, desperately wicked, and therefore unknowable just because its owner receives a tax-funded paycheck.
We’ve had a century to see Uncle Sam shamelessly bear bitter fruit. It’s time to get out of his orchard and cultivate our own trees.
The last video in the series I mentioned gives an example of a family that did just that in a fascinating interview with Paul Holderfield, pastor of Friendly Chapel Church of the Nazarene in Little Rock, Arkansas. The son of an alcoholic sharecropper, Brother Paul’s father realized his need to repent and serve his black neighbors in Jesus’ name the day in 1955 when the troops came to integrate Central High School and he found himself refusing to shake the hand of a longtime black friend in the presence of his white coworkers. First as a volunteer who recruited speakers and later as the pastor, he built a church that turned the highest-crime neighborhood in Arkansas into a refuge for the hurting, training his son, Brother Paul, to wear the mantle after he died.
I have no doubt that ISIS and al-Shabab and Boko Haram and the Bansimoros hate us because we are Christians, as do Raúl Castro and Kim Jong-un. I can think of a lot of Republicans and Democrats who do too: the latter go after us overtly, while the former will use us as long as we serve their purposes before disposing of us. Red Erwin’s father was a brave man, but I think he was just as expendable to the government he served so nobly. I’m sure he could have spent his time more constructively had he considered the possibility that his perceived duty to obey his government actually ran contrary to his duty to God. We can do better than following Jehoshaphat and Ahab to their battles of Ramoth-Gilead.
I’ll end with the story of one who stayed home. While the elder Erwin was going to war, a man named William Cameron Townsend overheard a woman shouting to Christian soldiers boarding a troop ship, “Cowards! You should be going to the mission field!” Townsend accepted her challenge and went to Guatemala as a colporteur. While there he became aware of the language barrier between speakers of minority languages and the gospel, so he founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, at one time the largest Protestant missionary organization in the world.
The Bible in every language, or the Treaty of Versailles? Is the Great Commission still in force, or has God given it up for electric football?

UPDATE: I may have remembered Townsend's story wrong. It could be that he overheard the woman's challenge because he was one of the troops on the ship leaving for Europe. In that case, the Great Commission did indeed wait until after the football game.