If You Believe In Your Heart That God Raised Jesus From the Dead…

This post continues a study of Romans 10:6-10 in which verse 9 is often used to define how easy it is to be saved, and how little knowledge is required for salvation.

In the previous post we tried to understand what is meant by the expression “Jesus is Lord,” that is “confessed” with the mouth. We noted that Jesus’ disciples and the Apostle Paul understand that Jesus is not only a descendant of the royal line of David, but also literally the Son of God – God in human flesh. What does that mean for Jesus’ followers then and now?

Paul tries to show that Jesus is now the highest authority in both heaven and earth. In Colossians 2:9-15 Paul, after stating the Jesus is fully divine, notes that Christians partake in Jesus’ sinless nature through symbolic participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Their sins are forgiven. He also says that the powers-that-be are rendered powerless by the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. How can Jesus’ resurrection do that?

Nations and empires rule by the power of the sword. It has always been so, no matter how modern or democratic a nation may appear. Even states with no standing army must supply a domestic police force to enforce civic laws. Sooner or later someone must punish lawbreakers – especially those criminals who take lives.

The ultimate threat that keeps citizens and subjugated peoples in line is the twin threat of torture and death.

The bad news for worldly governments is that Jesus was both tortured and killed – and now lives again, indestructible and all-powerful. Even worse news is that he promises to raise his followers from the dead if they continue to live in his grace, as Paul goes on to say in Colossians 3:1-4. He concludes, “ When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  

The importance of Jesus’ literal and historical crucifixion and resurrection cannot be overstated. In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul states, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Knowing Jesus Christ is the most important thing on Paul’s mind as he works among the Corinthian believers. Teaching them about Jesus’ death is a high priority.

That statement does not exclude the importance of the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-14 Paul goes on to say what is of first importance to all Christians. He says that those important things are 1) Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; 2) he was buried; 3) he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures; and 4) he was seen alive after being raised by all the apostles, at least 500 other eyewitnesses, and by Paul himself.

For me, the logic goes something like this:

  1. God promised to die for our sins. He kept that promise.
  2. God promised to raise his Son (Jesus) from the dead. He kept that promise.
  3. Jesus promises to raise up his followers from the dead at his return. That promise is from the same God who has kept the other promises above.

Applying this logic to Romans 10:9, we have a powerful summary of the effect of really knowing that Jesus was raised from the dead by God. When you know that Jesus was raised from the dead all the way to the depths of your being, your life cannot help but change.

And it must change. That has always been the way with following God. As a nation, Israel was in dire need of change according to the prophets. For instance, the prophet Ezekiel says in Ezekiel 14:6, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!Note that they had to turn away from idols and back to their true God. They also had to change their way of living to conform with God’s ways.

Isaiah says similar things in Isaiah 30:15, “ This is what the Sovereign1 LORD, the Holy One2 of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.”  Repentance leads to an inner peace and a kind of quietness in the soul. Note that Isaiah also tells them that they must trust God. We would call that “faith.”

As Jesus begins taking over after John the Baptist is imprisoned, he begins to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom. “The time has come,”1 he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Jesus has uttered two key words that parallel what the prophets above have stated. There must be repentance (life-change) and trust in God’s promises.  (Mark 1:15)

Luke records Jesus’ near-final words to his disciples before his death in Luke 24:46-48. Jesus tells them he will die and be raised on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins will then be preached. Repentance and forgiveness of sins leads to rest for the soul.

Acts 2:36-39 records the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached beginning at Jerusalem after Jesus died and came back to life. The Apostle Paul defending himself in King Aggrippa’s court in Acts 26:20, notes, “ First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.  

This is amazingly similar to what John the Baptist has to say to the scribes and Pharisees who were wanting to be baptized in Matthew 3:5-12, “You brood of vipers!2 Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

It would seem, then, that after unpacking the statements in Romans 10:9 we discover that confessing that Jesus is our Lord and believing in our hearts that God raised him from the dead involves our whole being.

It involves our knowledge of Jesus as Messiah (King) and Lord (God). It involves repenting of following false Gods and evil deeds (changing our life). It involves a deep-seated, gut-level belief that the God who raised Jesus from the dead has promised to raise us from the dead if we stay with his Son (motivation to steadfastness). And it involves God’s own Spirit as his presence in our minds, changing us from within into a reflection of Jesus’ image.

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If You Confess With Your Mouth, “Jesus Is Lord”…

In this series we will try to go over the often confusing issue of what we need to know in order to be saved.

I have been told on more than one occasion that, according to Romans 10:9, the key to salvation is to confess publicly that Jesus is my Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead. It would seem that nothing could be simpler, right?

I then have to wonder what a “lord” is, and what that means for how I live.

Once I process that, I have to wonder why I must believe that God raised him from the dead.

It turns out that there is a lot happening in that part of the book of Romans that can shed light on what those things mean. The strange part is that this statement appears in a section of the letter in which Paul is explaining why Gentiles are accepting Jesus in great numbers, while Jewish people seem to be rejecting him on the whole.

In response to their wondering Paul talks about the difference between seeking God’s righteousness (being “good” in God’s eyes) and seeking to make oneself right before God by studiously keeping the law God gave to Moses. Paul notes that, as a nation, they have failed to obtain God’s favour by attempting to keep the law. Long story short: they failed to keep the law. (In fact, they failed to obey the first commandment of God by failing to honour Jesus, who is God in human flesh. Of course, killing Jesus certainly did nothing to help their cause.)

You can’t fix a broken law. All you can do is live with the consequences.

The only hope is to be forgiven and be given a fresh start.

Paul contrasts self-directed righteousness with what he calls “the righteousness of faith” by quoting sections of Deuteronomy 30:11-21 in Romans 10:6-10. These quotes come from the concluding words of the final sermon given my Moses to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land.

Moses is telling them that the words of God’s law are neither far away from them nor particularly difficult to obey. In fact, God’s word is in their mouths and in their hearts. The interesting part about that section of Moses’ sermon is that he has just told told Israel (in 10:1) that they will fail to obey the covenant and thereby obtain the curses listed in Deuteronomy 28. Among other very unpleasant and frightening results is that they will be removed from the land by force and resettled as slaves in other nations.

If, however, they return to God while in their captivity, the Lord will “circumcise their hearts” and then they will be restored to favour and will once again obey God’s law. He will then [later] restore their fortunes. (Deut. 30:1-10)

Paul uses Moses’ final words to Israel as a template for what it takes to obtain God’s renewed favour. “No, the word is near very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

For the Christian, Jesus is the Word of God. He is near.

For Paul, the “word in your mouth” becomes the declaration that Jesus is Lord and the “word in your heart” is belief that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This is the heart of the gospel. Faith in Jesus Christ is based on Jesus’ action of faithfully going to the cross on our behalf and rising from the dead.

Really believing that radically changes your life.

“Jesus is Lord.” What does this mean?

In the polytheistic Roman Empire worship of the Emperor had really taken off. Citizens honoured Ceasar by shouting, “Caesar is Lord!” Jews were the only people exempt by law from worshipping the Emperor (or other Roman gods). Even so, for a Jew to proclaim that anyone but Caesar was “Lord” was considered treason. A “lord” is a master or overlord.

Jesus, as Lord, is something immeasurably more.

In the last post we discussed Jesus’ response to Peter’s declaration about Jesus’ identity, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now let us examine the statement itself to see if it helps us determine what Paul means by declaring “Jesus is Lord” with our mouth.

The expression “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew title “Messiah,” which literally means “anointed one.” Anointing was done in ancient Israel for three main things: 1) appointing descendants of Aaron to the Priesthood to serve in God’s Tabernacle or Temple; 2) appointing a king to rule over Israel or a portion thereof; or 3) applying ointment to heal a wound or infection.

The most likely meaning Peter has in mind has to do with Jesus’ royal lineage, which Matthew has already described in Matt. 1:1-17. Peter and the rest of the disciples expected Jesus to assume royal leadership of Israel in driving out the hated Roman overlords.

The reference to the Son of God is probably inspired by Psalm 2:6-12, which speaks of Israel’s king as God’s adopted son. Whether Peter understands Jesus as someone more than merely human at this point is greatly debated.

Later on in John’s account we do find at least one of Jesus’ disciples, nicknamed “doubting Thomas,” saying the most amazing thing as he sees the resurrected Jesus. “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) As we read this story we sometimes see only Thomas’ doubt and miss the impact of his statement that Jesus is indeed God in the flesh.

The Apostle John himself acknowledges Jesus’ divinity at the very outset of his Gospel in verses 1-14 of Chapter 1. The Word is with God and yet is God, and then becomes flesh and dwells among us as the only begotten Son of God.

As we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord in our Christian witness, we acknowledge that He is Lord of both heaven and earth as God’s only Son. He is the creator of our world and everything in it, and he has come to save that same world that he created.

I think it is important for a Christian to speak to the issue of Jesus as both God and human in one person in order to prevent confusion when speaking to others about Jesus. He wasn’t just a “great teacher.” He wasn’t just a moralist with a message of peace and justice.

He was, and still is, God Almighty himself, on a mission to bring the entire world back to its intended purpose as his own beautiful, beloved creation. He cannot and will not fail in this mission, because failure is not in his nature.

The next post will discuss the significance of Jesus’ resurrection in the context of Paul’s statement in the book of Romans about believing in our hearts that God raised him from the dead.

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Peter and the Keys of the Kingdom

Probably the most important issue that the writers of the books that eventually were collected into the New Testament had to face was the identity of Jesus. Matthew’s gospel describes how King Herod misidentifies him with John the Baptist in chapter 14, while others marvel at his miracles and others deny his importance in the following two chapters.

Chapter 16 begins with a group of emissaries from Jerusalem’s religious elite approaching Jesus and demanding that he perform a “sign” for them. He had just finished doing a series of miracles with literally thousands of eyewitnesses around the northern areas of Galilee and the Decapolis, so their request was clearly redundant. Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing and leaves them. (Matt. 16:1-4)

Later Jesus asks his disciples who they believe him to be, and Simon jumps in with both feet, saying, “You are the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells him that he is blessed because only God the Father could have revealed that to him. (Matt. 16:16-17)

What he tells Peter next (verses 18-19) takes him completely by surprise.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are a lot of things to unpack in these two sentences. Let’s look at the phrases about Peter and the rock first. Some things to notice are:

  1. There is a play on words as Jesus changes Simon’s name to “Peter.” Peter’s name literally means “stone” in Greek, the language the book was written in. So Jesus was saying that Peter was “stone” [petros] and that a “rock” [petra] was the foundation he would build his church on. The word-play doesn’t work as well in English. We might say something like, “you are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.”
  2. When Jesus says “this rock,” he is making a deliberate reference to a prophecy in Isaiah 28:16. “So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”
  3. Jesus also refers to himself as “the stone the builders rejected” that has become “the capstone” in Matt. 21:42, a reference to Psalm 118:22-23. The idea that he himself is the foundation-stone is not foreign to Jesus himself.
  4. Even the Apostle Paul is familiar with Jesus as the “cornerstone” as he writes to the church in Ephesus. (Eph. 2:20)
  5. Since “stone” is a smaller version of “rock,” Jesus is probably calling Peter something like “a chip off the old block.” Peter’s mission will be so similar to Jesus’ mission that you could say that they are “made of the same stuff.” Peter will become closely identified with Jesus. Jesus is the foundation and Peter will build on that foundation.

The next phrase about the “gates of Hades” not prevailing against the church is often interpreted as though hell is on the offensive against the church. Students of military history realize that gates are actually a defensive emplacement, not offensive weaponry. The church will win out against “Hades,” which is the Greek word for the place of the dead, or the grave. The word is often translated “hell” in English Bibles. The idea here is that the church will succeed in saving people from the clutches of death – even if they have already died – so long as they believe in and follow Jesus. (This, of course, does not answer all of the questions we would like to have answered, such as, “What happens to those who never knew Jesus?”)

The final section is about Jesus giving Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which enables him to “loose” and “bind” things on earth and in heaven.

  1. What do we normally use keys for? The most common use is for unlocking doors that have been locked. It is possible for it to mean locking up prison cells or shackles. A third, figurative use was in vogue among Jewish scholars at the time: permitting or forbidding actions according to interpretations of the Law of God.
  2. The “keys of the kingdom” would have brought to mind a prophecy in Isaiah 22:22. “ I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” This statement is said to apply directly to Jesus in Revelation 3:7-8. He places an open door that no one can shut before his church, suggesting an opening for the gospel.
  3. A look at how Peter is used to establish the foundations of the Church in Jesus might help us see which of the uses of the keys makes the most sense. In Acts 2:14-41 it is Peter who first preaches the gospel to his own countrymen, beginning the first congregation of converts to Jesus.
  4. In Acts 10:1-48 Peter meets with a family group of Gentiles and preaches to them, establishing the first Gentile congregation of Christians and establishing their right to enter into the salvation intended originally for the Hebrew people.
  5. In this way, Peter builds the foundation of the church with both Jewish and Gentile believers, even before Paul becomes the primary Apostle to the Gentiles. The “keys” seem to be ones that open doors for entry into the Kingdom of God. Peter has used them to open the doors to Hebrew and Gentile missions.
  6. Nothing in Jesus’ statements to Peter imply a direct lineage of individuals who will later appropriate the power to make binding decisions about what is allowed or not allowed in the entirety of the church. Once Peter opens the doors, “no man can shut.”

As the first of the disciples to recognize Jesus’ unique identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s Messiah, Peter is commissioned to unlock the door of the gospel (“good news”) about Jesus’ Lordship through His death and resurrection to both his own Jewish people and the wider Gentile world. Once opened, those doors will not be closed again until Jesus returns and shuts them himself.

Our next post will begin to visit what Peter means about Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.

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Passover to Pentecost: Time to Mature

In John 4:34-38 that Jesus describes his own mission in terms of a harvest that is already begun, yet unseen by the world. He calls himself the vine and us the branches in John 15:1-5 in another harvest metaphor. In this case there is pruning for further growth and the bearing of more fruit later.

The time between Passover and Pentecost seems like a long time, especially since one has to wonder why it took so long before Jesus sent the Holy Spirit after his resurrection. Jesus taught his disciples during 40 of the 50 days between his resurrection and Pentecost. Wouldn’t it have been easier on both Jesus and the disciples if they had the advantage of the Holy Spirit right from the resurrection?

For a long time I believed that the disciples received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost because of the fiery demonstration recorded in Acts 2. A long time later I noticed that when Jesus appeared to the disciples the evening of the resurrection he seems to “breathe” the Spirit into them and tells them they now have authority to forgive sins (John 20:22-23). It is only later, at Pentecost, that they receive the visible evidence and the power to preach.

According to Matthew 28:10, 16, Jesus immediately sends the disciples to Galilee, where he teaches them about himself and what the Bible tells about him and the Kingdom of God for forty days (Acts 1:3). From Galilee they move to Bethany, where Jesus is taken up into heaven in their sight (Luke 24:50-51). They go to Jerusalem and wait there until Pentecost, when the sound of a loud wind and tongues of fire announce that God’s Presence has moved from the Temple to an unlikely group of Galilean disciples of an executed Rabbi (Acts 2) who claimed equality with God (John 5:18).

I theorize that on Monday after the resurrection the disciples took the three-day journey to Galilee to escape the authorities in Jerusalem, who were plotting to keep Jesus’ resurrection a secret. They would surely have been executed for “robbing” the grave had they been caught. They would have arrived by the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (now known as the last day of Passover Week).

I believe that the forty days of teaching that Luke records took place in the vicinity of Galilee, with perhaps (though not necessarily) the final three days of teaching taking place on a journey back into Judea for a stay in Bethany. That would have given them somewhere between 3-7 days after Jesus’ ascension to remain in the vicinity of Jerusalem to wait for the day of Pentecost. My preference is for 40 days in Galilee (a “wilderness,” compared to Jerusalem) followed by a three-day journey to Bethany and an ascension from the Mount of Olives.

The 40 days of training by Jesus seem to echo the 40 days Jesus was tested in the wilderness, which itself was an echo of Israel’s 40 years of testing in the wilderness. Jesus was making sure they were prepared for their ministry. Jesus had told them the night before he died that there was a great deal that he needed to tell them, but that they could not yet understand. He finishes that conversation with them over that 40 days.

Jesus had also told them that the Holy Spirit would bring to their minds what he had taught them. I suspect that this teaching session is what he had in mind. Many of their apparently strange interpretations of the Old testament probably have their origins in that marathon session in Galilee.

Somehow it was important to Jesus for the empowerment of the Spirit to take place at Pentecost. Since Passover and Pentecost are uniquely tied together with a 50-day interval between two “wave offerings”, it might be a good time to talk about harvests and time intervals.

The 50 days between Passover and Pentecost also signal the beginning and end of the two major grain harvest seasons in ancient Israel. Barley is the first to ripen, and the harvest begins after the Firstfruits ceremony on Sunday during Passover week. Pentecost signals the beginning of the wheat harvest. The empowerment of the disciples to preach in order to bring people to Christ seems to be also a type of “firstfruits” offering to God for the larger harvest.

Sooner or later it occurs to the reader that harvests, by nature, spread out over time. There must be a sowing or planting, followed by growth, followed by flowering, followed by bearing the fruit or seed, followed by harvest. It         takes          time.

Jesus by analogy was the firstfruits of the early barley harvest, which continues in the 40 day training and commissioning of his disciples before his ascension. At Pentecost we have the firstfruits of the larger harvest through the disciples by the Holy Spirit. This much larger harvest continues to this day in what we often call the church age.

The number 50 had great symbolism. In ancient Israel, a man was considered an adult for purposes of census at the age of 20, and life expectancy was about 70 years (at least according to the Psalms). The expectation of adult maturity was the same as the number of days between these harvest first-fruit offerings. 50 years was the number of years from Jubilee to Jubilee, when debt was forgiven and land returned to the family (rebooting the economy).

In that sense the number 50 may symbolize maturity or completion of a cycle or an era.

After Pentecost comes another harvest festival season in the fall, concluding with the Feast of Tabernacles. This one is a celebration of a completed harvest season.

After all this, should it be surprising that it takes time to mature in Jesus Christ? Should it be surprising that Jesus’ mission is begun – but not over yet? Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20), but there is a harvest to be completed yet (v. 21-24). Christ, those who are his at his coming, then comes the end. (Does the last phrase suggest a final harvest of later-redeemed people? I like to hope so.)

What matters is that the end is not yet. We still have time. We have time to grow in Christ. We have time to do what He has called us to do. The holy interval of redemption is not over yet, either personally or collectively for the world. What will we do with the interval we have been granted? Will we use it for the purpose Jesus sent his church for?

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The Authority of the Bible Part 3: The Purpose of God’s Authority in the Bible

This post continues a series of reflections on a lecture given by N. T. Wright about the authority of the Bible.

To this point we have looked at how the church has tried to make the Bible into things it was not intended to be, such as a rulebook or a collection of timeless principles to live by or a book of answers to difficult moral questions, and thereby have made the Bible less than it was intended to be. We have also looked at how God exercises his authority in the human realm according to the Bible. Through this look we have discerned that God exercises his authority, in Wright’s words, “through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).

The question we now consider is one that provides the controlling factor in the exercise of God’s delegated authority. What is God’s purpose in exercising his authority according to the Bible? Knowing why God does what he does will, we hope, go a long way to understanding what God means by the word “authority.” We can hope that this understanding will shape how God’s delegated authority is intended to be exercised by the scriptures and its readers.

It does not take long to establish in the Bible that God uses his authority to 1) create, 2) maintain and improve his good creation, 3) judge his creation and 4) save his creation. We see this in the creation story, the story of the fall, the story of the flood, and the story of Israel (from promises to Abraham to the Exodus to Exile). We especially see God’s judging and saving authority in the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who is anointed to judge and save from death by dying in our stead and rising again, defeating death. He sends his disciples out to tell his story and teach them to obey Jesus’ teaching.

God is out to save humanity as well as the rest of his creation (which we are desecrating and destroying at an alarming rate). His acts of judgment are not just about human beings, even according to the New Testament. Revelation 11:18 notes that judgment is upon unrepentant humanity (the “Beast”) in order, among other things, “for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Jesus uses his authority to save humanity from eternal death (John 3:16) and to bring liberty and freedom from oppression as typified by the ancient Jubilee Year (Luke 4:14-21 and compare with Deuteronomy 25:8-10). Jesus’ use of authority should be a clue to how we are to use the authority of the Bible: to bring salvation and freedom from fear, sin and oppression to others.

Notice that each of the items above comes in the form of a story. We know God’s will through the stories of the Bible. Because God reveals his authority to us through stories we are going to need “a rich concept of authority” to “do justice to this book” according to Wright.

The things written by these people, thus led by the Spirit, are not for the most part, as we saw, the sort of things we should think of as ‘authoritative’. They are most narrative; and we have already run up against the problem how can a story, a narrative, be authoritative? Somehow, the authority which God has invested in this book is an authority that is wielded and exercised through the people of God telling and retelling their story as the story of the world, telling the covenant story as the true story of creation. Somehow, this authority is also wielded through his people singing psalms. Somehow, it is wielded (it seems) in particular through God’s people telling the story of Jesus. We must look, then, at the question of stories. What sort of authority might they possess?

What sort of authority can a story possess? Wright likens the authority of story to an unfinished play by William Shakespeare. There is no ending written that resolves the entire play, yet there are clues built into the script about what a proper ending should accomplish. There are also characters who have been developed up to the point of the stopped work.

Here Wright imagines the Bible is like a five-act play that is unfinished near the start of the fifth act. The script is given to a group of actors who are well versed (pardon the pun) in Shakespeare’s work and know the script to that particular play exceedingly well. The four written acts are set, and no deviation from them or the plot-lines they have charted can be permitted. The actors are then set free to work out the rest of the play, but only as they stay in character of their roles and only to bring the play to a logical conclusion based on the plot outlined in the previous acts. The actors must remain consistently within their roles and within the world created by the first four acts. (Any ad-libbing that is inconsistent with either of those things will lead to the play being panned by the critics as untrue to the Bard.)

In a similar manner Christians rely on the plot and characters outlined in the Bible to form the basis of their interaction with the world. We truly need to know the book fully to fulfil our roles properly. Deviations from the story (gospel) of Jesus Christ as told by the Bible, even by well-meaning Christians, will be glaringly obvious to other Christians, who will condemn them for exchanging the truth of God for a lie.

This is a call to internalize the story of the entire Bible. Get to know the God who is the ultimate hero of the story. Get to know the plot, from creation to fall, exodus to exile and redemption in Jesus Christ and his anointing/empowerment of the disciples by the Holy Spirit to preach the good news to all creation.

Learn to love that story so much that your own life revolves around living it out and conveying it to others in whatever way is consistent with the gifts the Holy Spirit has given you.

Letting the Bible be itself, a story with authority, is the best way to fully conform to the authority of the Bible in our lives.

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The Authority of the Bible Part 2: The Character of God’s Authority

It was with good intention that I began this session with an example from N. T. Wright’s lecture about the authority of the Bible. Because of its surprising detail about God’s workings and what he allows his angels to do, we bogged down for quite a while in the story of the prophet Micaiah (1 kings 22:1-28). God intends to bring an evil king to judgment via death in battle. In a meeting of the heavenly court God seeks advice about how to lure Ahab to his doom. One angel offers to become a lying spirit to Ahab’s entire staff of prophets. God approves, telling him that the ruse will ultimately succeed.

Once we grappled inconclusively with a God who approves of a deliberate angelic deception, we looked at how God worked in the human side of the incident.

Wicked king Ahab of Israel wanted good king Jehoshaphat of Judah to ally with him in a battle with a common enemy. Jehoshaphat is willing, but want to seek assurance from God that this alliance meets his approval. Ahab’s 400 false prophets put on a great show, complete with special effects, indicating complete success in their joint venture.

Jehoshaphat, sensing that something is amiss, wonders if any prophets of his own God is available. Ahab grudgingly complies, warning that Micaiah never prophesies good things about him. Surprisingly, Micaiah at first parrots the false prophets about success.

This is so out of character that Ahab orders him to stop lying and tell him the truth. Micaiah then relates his vision of the heavenly court scene described above. (Micaiah is our only source for that information, by the way.)

At this point he orders the prophet imprisoned with rations of only bread and water until Ahab’s safe return from the ill-advised battle. During the battle Jehoshaphat barely escapes with his life, while Ahab meets his end from a random arrow while in disguise.

We never find out if Micaiah is ever released from prison.

So why do they both go ahead with the scheme – especially the one who asked for the second opinion from God’s prophet? That one has puzzled me for a long time.

Speaking about this, Wright says,

This is especially interesting, because the false prophets seem to have everything going for them. They are quoting Deuteronomy 33-one of them makes horns and puts them on his head and says, ‘with these you will crush the enemy until they are overththown’. They had scripture on their side; after all, Yahweh was thw God of Battles and he would fight for Israel. They had reason on their side; Israel and Judah together can beat these northern enemies quite easily. But they didn’t have God on their side.

Wright uses this story as an example of how God exercises his authority with this surprising statement:

God wanted to judge Ahab and save Israel. And so God delegated his authority to the prophet Micaiah who, inspired by the Spirit, stood humbly in the council of God  and then boldly in the councils of men.

He later notes that

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing in order that it might be the foundation documentation for the church today and might bear God’s authority in doing so. And a book which carries God’s authority to be the foundation of the church for the world is what I mean by scripture.

He concludes, “Thus it is that through the spoken and written authority of anointed human beings God brings his authority to bear on his people and his world.”

Rather than just taking the good Professor’s word for that, we read through several Gospel accounts of authority being given to Jesus as well as his disciples. For instance, Jesus claims that his Father has given him authority to judge and to grant eternal life (John 5:19-29). As he spends the last night before his death with his disciples he is aware that his Father “had given everything into his hands” (John 13:3).

We also find Jesus giving authority over sickness and demons in Matthew 10:1-15. Jesus pronounces terrible judgments on any home or city or territory that rejects his disciples or their message. This suggests that he has made them fully accredited ambassadors of both Jesus and his Father. Luke 9:1-2 and 10:1-20 record similar delegations of authority.

Once he was resurrected Jesus reiterates his authority, this time “in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18) and instructs them to teach their own disciples to obey everything that Jesus commanded them. If teaching obedience to Jesus’ commands isn’t authority, I don’t know what is.

In short, God is not afraid to share his authority with his created beings who are willing to do things God’s way. This shouldn’t surprise us, since that was his whole purpose for creating humanity according to Genesis 1:26-28.

The events of Pentecost and the Book of Acts show us how God’s authority is exercised in the church by chosen human beings: through the leadership of the Holy Spirit, who gives gifts of insight, speech (whether in languages unknown to the speaker or inspired “prophetic” speech in the normal language of the speaker), wisdom, teaching ability, healings, songs, for worship or the ability to help others, etc. (1 Corinthians 12). Like a skilled conductor, the Spirit organizes the church by mobilizing the various gifts through inspiration of all of the active Spirit-led members of the congregation.

It was a diversity of such Spirit-led people who penned the words that we now call the books of the New Testament. They deliberately used the authority God gave them to record the stories about Jesus and the apostles, as well as directions and instructions for the early church and some of its next-generation leaders in letters preserved for us today.

We will discuss how these writings bear God’s authority to us in the next post in this series.

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The Authority of the Bible – Part 1: The Problem

We have been spending a few Wascana Fellowship services examining some of the points N. T. Wright makes in a lecture entitled “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” In this lecture he notes that many of the ways we believe the Bible has authority over Christians may actually reflect a low view of Scripture, notwithstanding our intent.

Oddly enough, the Bible itself does not say much about its own authority over the lives of Christians or over the church. It does say a couple of important things about this, but not really in the way we have tried to make it say. For instance we often read 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to mean that the Bible is our ultimate authority for everything we do in the church. We therefore need only read it and do what it tells us. Actually, what it says is that the Bible is useful for many things, including teaching, correcting (rebuking) and training in righteousness.

2 peter 1:19-21 is also used to show that the Bible is the inspired word of God, so we must pay attention to it. And so it is. But how, exactly? We learn (as if the stories of the prophets haven’t already told us) that prophecy comes as men speak as they are carried by the Holy Spirit. Their words carry weight because they speak about what God reveals to them by the Holy Spirit. In other words they speak as men empowered by God to speak on his behalf. But does that mean, for instance that Jonah’s message to Nineveh, or Elijah’s messages to King Ahab is what God says to all people at all times? Is Jeremiah’s warning to Zedekiah about obeying the king of Babylon applicable to me today? How does that work?

Yes, the Bible is inspired by God.

Yes, it is useful for many things.

But is it our final word about everything?

He notes that when we use the Bible as a rulebook or as a book of guiding principles or book of timeless principles, we actually are making it do something it was not really written to do.

When we make it a book of answers to theological puzzles or difficult questions, we are also making it do something it was not written to do.

When we chop it up into brief Scripture readings that are used to proof-text daily devotions, we are making it do something it was not designed to do.

Yes, the Bible does contain some sets of rules for specific times and circumstances, as well as words of wisdom that may sometimes be timeless, and even has hints that can be massaged into answers to difficult questions. The majority of it is actually written as narrative, poetry and songs. How does poetry or narrative act as our final authority? These are questions he explores in the quest to see the Bible used in the manner it was designed for. For instance, fully half of the so-called five books of the Law (Pentateuch) is narrative, not law. The Psalms is a song-book, and most of the writings of the Prophets comes down to us in the form of Hebrew poetry or song. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther are all collections of stories.

So where does the Bible say that authority lies, anyway? To quote Wright, “If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all. As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.”

God speaks and a whole universe comes into being. God acts to free his people from Egypt by mighty miracles. God sends his disobedient people into captivity. God brings a remnant back to resettle them into the Promised land. God sends Jesus, his own Son, to die on humanity’s behalf. God raises Jesus from the dead and empowers Jesus’ disciples with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. If that isn’t authority, nothing is.

We need to be careful not to displace the authority of God himself with that of the book that records his actions and the response of his people over the ages.

On the other hand, chopping up the Bible with all manner of interpretational hocus-pocus to turn the Bible’s authority into a set of rules or a set of principles or examples to follow, or doctrines to believe seems to effectively belittle the book itself by making the rules, etc. more important than the book itself. It effectively gives our reasoning authority over the Bible, thereby belittling the Bible itself.

Add to this that our notions of what “authority” itself means may also be more reflective of worldly or cultural norms than of what the Bible itself means by the term.

He concludes the introduction to his lecture by saying, “I have argued that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised somehow through scripture; that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising that authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its ‘authority’ should look like; that it is therefore the meaning of ‘authority’ itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the equation, and that when this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions and practices of authority endemic in the world, and alas, in the church also.”

In the next post we will begin to cover his proposed solution to the problem of how the Bible is authoritative for the believer today.

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