Increase Not Decrease: God Grants the Role

“You Yourselves bear me witness that I said ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him’.” (John 3:28)

Of course John’s comment is in light of his ministry. For he says that he was to announce the Christ because he is not the Christ: his role was to prepare the way. John sees that his own life isn’t purposeless but is actually tied up in the work of God by the presentation of the Lamb of God.

He was sent to preach repentance and when he saw the Lamb of God he pointed him out, openly acknowledging that this is the provision that God had made. (John 1:19-34)

To John’s mind, this probably meant something else. He probably thought as Jesus as the Lamb ruler who would forcefully take away the sins of the World. After all, it was only a short time later that he would be imprisoned, still waiting for the Christ to reboot this entire world, and wondering why it hadn’t happened yet.

In Matthew 11, John, seeing that Herod is still in power (and he’s still in jail) sends a message to Jesus via disciples: “Are you the Christ that we’re waiting for?” He spent his life pointing out this person, he could’ve sworn that this was the very thing he was called to do, but things had turned out so differently and dire: could he have been wrong?

Christ responds neither yes nor no but pointing out the work of God. The Lame walk. The blind see. The Gospel is being preached.

The next historical note we have about John is that he’s beheaded at a party for a cruel mother and her daughter. (Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9).

You see, Christ explains, John wasn’t merely some spectacle in soft clothes out in the wild—some oddity to ogle. This John was God’s prophet: the very Elijah who was supposed to come (if they would have had him) before the end of the age: the one who prepared the way of the coming of the Lord Himself. This John, in prison who eventually died of beheading, was the greatest of the prophets (Matt 11:11a).

Without a miracle. Without a sign. With a backwater ministry in the Jewish outback. John functioned where he was supposed to function doing what all the prophets before him did, but better. Point to Christ.

Every single prophet in the Old Testament pointed forward to Christ via the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes fuzzily. Sometimes explicitly. But always predicated upon God’s revelation and looking forward to God’s distant promises. John alone, out of all the prophets, announced Him within days, inaugurated him via baptism, and witnessed the descending Holy Spirit upon Him. None of the prophets were given that position (Heb 11:39).

But John didn’t see everything. He was still an Old Testament prophet. He didn’t see  the crowds cheering around the one who comes in the name of the Lord (Mark 11:9; John 12). To him wasn’t given the horror of seeing the Messiah rejected and pinned to a tree (John 19). He would never witness the wonder of the risen Messiah (John 20). To him wasn’t given the chance of listening to the risen Lord for several days before he was taken up into heaven (Acts 1). To him wasn’t given the chance of participating in the prophesying in tongues which was a witness of the Holy Spirit being poured out in the last days (Acts 2).

None of those things were given to him; God didn’t grant John that role.

And he knew that at this point.

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Increase Not Decrease: Examining John 3:30

Some years ago, I was at a house blessing with several Christians, an atheistic Buddhist, some agnostics, and some Hindus. The focus, said the Hindu priest was to realize that we were all part of the same faith. We were blessing the house by emptying ourselves and embracing what unifies us all, that which welcomes us all: God.

This upset me. I didn’t know what to say. I wish I had responded better than angry tears.

I couldn’t articulate what was wrong with what was going on (on multiple levels). The Holy Man was being exceedingly spiritual, saying a whole mess of spiritual things to embolden our human selves to yearn for the spiritual; it was all tremendously dehumanizing—making one less than human.

Dehumanizing how?

Unfortunately in a way that Christians today have no problem with.

We look at a passage like John 3:30 and see a perfect quote that is often used to depict that we are to become less as Christ becomes more. The Physical, is taught, doesn’t matter: the Spiritual is what continues. But how does this differ from the Holy Man who called this “God” the “Spirit of Christ”? The only difference is that one has been Christianized.

Note John’s words occur when he is baptizing in Aenon, near Salim (John 3:22). This event, John the Evangelist reminds us, happened before John was arrested. Now of course we know that John wouldn’t have been arrested if he was out baptizing but it is likely because he knew about the accounts of the other Gospels which remind us very early in their text that John was arrested. (Mark 1:14; Matt 4:12-21; mentioned in Luke 3:19).

This John, after the heyday of his ministry, but before being arrested, is faithfully continuing his work. He’s already baptized Jesus (John 1). He’s already pointed him out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But John is waiting while he is working.

A discussion gets kicked up about purification and there’s some spill-over. Apparently it had something to do with baptism since the disciple points out that Jesus’ group is baptizing people and all are coming to Jesus rather than to John. Indeed, in the next chapter, the evangelist records that Jesus was baptizing more than John even though Jesus wasn’t personally baptizing anyone (John 4:1).

John’s response is in three parts:

  1. Man Receives From God
  2. God grants the role
  3. Joy is Found in God-Given Vocation

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What the Sheol?

One of the first points folk bring up about Hell is that if it is as horrible as people say it is, and if the way to avoid it is to believe God, then why didn’t God bring it up before the New Testament? Before Matthew or Mark (whichever was first) we don’t get an inkling of the doctrine of hell, they say. All we see are some random intertestamental doctrines that may or may not be true—like the stuff Jude quotes out of the oft-wrong book of Enoch.

And yes it is true; you won’t find the exact Hell from the New Testament in the Old. Most Bible reading Christians in the West know that the OT term for That Place is Sheol but it has a semantic range that is much broader than the Hell of the New Testament.

For example, we have passages where Sheol explicitly means the grave (ie: Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Ki 2:6). Mind you, there are individuals, some of them Good People, in these passages expecting to die and go there—which sure doesn’t sound like the Hell we know. These people all expected to go there when they died (2 Sam 12:23) and in some cases it’s even called a place for the righteous to rest (Job 14:13)!

Yet we have other passages describing it as not a very nice place to be. Lacking activity (Ecc 9:10; Is 38:10-20), lacking light (Job 10:21-22), silent (Ps 94:17; 115:17), separated from the land of the Living, a place where worshiping God doesn’t happen (Ps 6:5; 88:10-12; 115:17; Is 38:18), a place where God’s wrath is poured out on the wicked (Deut 32:22). It is so bad that it is described as a place where the wise avoid (Pr 15:24) and where the righteous will be ultimately rescued from (Ps 49:15) and appointed to glory (Psalm 73:24).

In both cases it is a place where God is in control of it. It exists only under his say so (1 Sa 2:6; De 32:22; Job 14:13; 26:6; Pr 15:11) and he is there, in some sense (Ps 139:8).

Ancient Hebrew was a funny language. Sometimes you’d have words that had this sort of wide semantic range. So if the thing crawls it is covered under a word that means Crawling Things. And if it flies: Flying Creature. It is no different with Sheol.

As the NASB Topical Index lists, Sheol has been used metaphorically to illustrate greed, murder, jealousy, troubles of live and awful situations—but in each of these cases it is pointing to the way Sheol functions. So jealousy, like Sheol, is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20) it kills by swallowing the living (Prov 1:12), is severe (Songs 8:6), a place of troubles (Psa 88:3), reaches out (2 Sam 22:6) during awful situations (Jon 2:2) and it even illustrates an active death (Isaiah 28:15, 18). So we’ll see life situations, for example, where a lecherous woman has her feet planted in Sheol (Pr 5:5; 9:18.). In some sense, she illustrates that the wicked come from and return to there (Ps 9:17)

But there is other imagery that is brought up. Sometimes, the writers would delve into the evils  performed by men to illustrate a point. So looking to this awful situation where Kings were sacrificing their own children to idols (2 Kin. 23:10; Jer. 7:31; 19:6). The place is so bad that sometimes authors refer to it as The Valley (Jer. 2:23; 31:40). Isaiah draws a picture of a place long prepared for a wicked king. A place of fire with plenty of wood set aflame by the breath of the Lord. This valley is the same place where those children were tortured and killed: Topheth in Hinnon Valley (Isaiah 30:33). Horrifying imagery. And an important piece of information for the next post.

As I said earlier, this Sheol is being used to punish but it currently has ramifications in the world. This place is not for the righteous, the wise will avoid it (and even try to have others avoid it with severe punishment if need be (Proverbs 23:1) because the contempt of being there is unending (Dan 12:2). But can’t this just be a metaphor for the fact that punishment must happen? Well, it doesn’t seem likely since it looks like God’s punishment is necessarily testimonial (Is 34:8-10) though currently delayed awaiting repentance (Prov. 1:24-31; Eccl. 8:11-13; Hab. 1:2-4 ).

Now, I have barely even skimmed the massiveness of this topic in the Old Testament. I only barely touched on the positive eternal state for the righteous or what constitutes being part of the righteous or if people can swing between positions or not. And in all honesty, if a person spends any time going through all the passages above they will see that vastness of what’s going on in the OT. But the point here isn’t to describe how it all works but to show that it is there. Of course the folk that think every passage of Sheol refers to Hell are wrong; equally wrong are the folk who think because of the wide semantic range that there is no hell in the Old Testament. It takes some serious work to be sensitive to the different uses but it is there.

But even with that aside, what’s important to note here that the fundamental problem with Sheol is its separation from life. In all cases (be it the grave, the eternal state, or the metaphors) Sheol stands antithetical to life—and life is directly the purview of God. The constant point throughout the Old Testament is that Man’s highest end is discovered in a relationship with the living God but being separated from that is catastrophic and horrid. The fact that people make this all the worse by actively rebelling paints the separation as the deepest of tragedies.

So this separation is to be shunned but admitted that it does, and will, happen. That’s why it is fundamentally horrid. Not because of the smoke. Not because of the silence. Not because of the darkness. But because it stands knowingly bereft of the Lord of Life.

If I’m right about that, the New Testament will pick up on that and be equally concerned. But that’s for a later post.

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Getting Tense With Hebrews 1

In the past, I argued against the liberal (or Kenotic Arian) view of Scripture by looking at what the writer to the Hebrews thought about Scripture. I could have argued from Paul, Peter, John and Christ but I was co-opting some of my studies on Hebrews to make the point. Anyway, there was a fundamental thread that should be seen throughout the entire post easily summarized as follows: the writer to the Hebrews sees God speaking the Gospel right now perfectly through others via the entirety of Scripture written in the past to affect change in the present to save from the future shaking. In fact, if I want a scripture summary, I’d probably just quote Isaiah 40 and what the voice of one crying out in the wilderness was to cry: Good News—God is here!

With that understanding I think it’s easier to see why the writer to the Hebrews uses the passages he does and the way he does even if it still generates a whole mess of questions. For instance, a reading of Hebrews 1:1-5 generates five questions in my mind. First a quick overview:

  • Heb 1:1 God spoke via Prophets
  • Heb 1:2 God spoke these days via his Son
  • Heb 1:3 God’s Son is the radiance of His glory; exact representation of his nature; upholds all things by the word of his power; made purification for sins; sat down at the right hand of the majesty on High
  • Heb 1:4 God’s Son became much better than the angels by receiving a more excellent name
  • Heb 1:5 Angels never called Son

Now mind, most of the far context has been dealt with in far more detail by David Gooding in his book(amazon) The Unshakeable Kingdom (read online) and DA Carson in a message both drawing heavily from FF Bruce’s commentary so you can look at all of those for some of the more technical questions but here are mine:

  • Question 1: What does this all (including the citations of 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2) have to do with Gospel anyway?
  • Question 2: If the Son is the brightness of God’s glory, an exact representation of God’s nature and upholds all things by the word of His power—something only God does—then why does the author downgrade (as it were) his argument by appealing to the fact that He is called “Son”?
  • Question 3: what does that argument (being called Son) have to do with the prior point (Brightness of God’s glory, etc) anyway?
  • Question 4: Angels have been called Son (you know Genesis 6 and Job 1—which includes Satan); what gives?
  • Question 5: Why quote Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7 to prove this at all?

Gooding, Carson and Bruce pull out several points from the use of the passages but I particularly wanted to focus on one matter of tense.

In 2 Samuel 7, God makes David a covenant of a future descendant sitting on David’s throne and reigning in David’s Kingdom. God says that the future descendant would build God’s house but if this descendant sins, God will punish him. We know this winds up happening with Solomon (and not with Christ) but God states that David’s throne will endure forever which looks beyond Solomon who winds up being punished for his own iniquities and eventually dies.

What God says in 2 Samuel 7 is, essentially David’s Real Son (not some other human or even a non-human)  will do what God wants (build God’s house) when God wants and he will be called God’s Son as a title—but (in time) Solomon isn’t the perpetual continuation of David’s promise. Each Davidic King is called God’s Son (“I will be a father to him and he will be my Son”) and this pattern will either continue into eternity or there would eventually come a human son of David who retains the God given title of “Son” eternally.

Shorthand: the promise of God’s naming is made in the future tense, even when considering Solomon.

But that changes in Psalm 2. The Psalm is about the Lord’s Anointed already seated in the mountain of the Lord while the nations already rail against him and the Lord (David was given rest and the Lord promised a future rest to him and his people in 2 Samuel 7). The Lord currently laughs and then the Lord’s anointed speaks in the past tense saying “He said unto my ‘I am your father and you are my son’.” He then proceeds to tell the nations to fear the Son (a Kingly role) and to Worship God (a priestly role).

Anyway, the Anointed One is recalling when God said this to him but in 2 Samuel 7, the one who is called “My Son” isn’t even around yet to receive the title.

Now, I’m not saying that the Psalm is definitely Christ speaking in the past tense but, in light of what I previously wrote about how the writer to the Hebrews reads Scripture, when we hear the tense we should be hearing Christ speaking in that portion. At least the early Christians in Acts read the text that way when they cited the words of the Psalm as part of their prayer.

  • Question 5: The writer has to quote 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2 because it makes a bridge between God Doing and David’s Family Doing (something that the prophets expand on, especially when you read Ezekiel 34 – 37) that the promise of the bestowed title of Son is bestowed on a man, a son of David, who has both kingly (rule the people) and priestly (build God’s house and direct worship to God) roles.
  • Question 4: Although Angels have been called sons (Job 1) it is only in the sense where they are displaying part of God’s qualities. I wrote about functional sonship before but I think it can be easily summarized as God is both spirit and a consuming fire who ministers to others and angels are ministering spirits and flames. None of them reign or hold dominion. That was something that was explicitly given to the human race (Genesis 1).
  • Question 3: The point has much to do with the previous point because the writer displays Christ as doing everything God does—even down to his nature. God creates…so did Christ. God upholds with his power…so did Christ. John 5 makes this point pretty nicely.
  • Question 2: The writer makes the connection that the one who perfectly expresses God is the one who has come near as a man. It’s pretty much the whole basis of the argument in Chapter 2 through 5 so as to eventually show that he has suffered, he understands our weaknesses, he went on before us and he has conquered and has completed his work. That’s powerful stuff to have a person (Christ) who represents God perfectly also be the very one who can rule and represent men perfectly.
  • Question 1: Well, it pretty much is the Gospel, isn’t it?

As a side point, I think it’s interesting that in a book which is often used to prove the most inane things about what Christ’s humanity necessarily entailed (vomiting, believing error, almost dying from sickness, liking brunette little people) that this point that the one who perfectly represents God (created the world, upholds all things by his word of power, brightness of God’s glory, express image of God) is relegated to his post-resurrection ministry when Isaiah looks forward to this Son being born and finally the Father Himself from Heaven declares, in the start of Christ’s ministry “This is my beloved Son—hear Him!”(Matt 3:17)  He suffered, surely, but he did so as perfectly representing the Father (John 14:9)

I’m not too sure on the thought-flow of this post since my brain is currently fuzzy; I may have made the points without tightening the connections as much as I would like.

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