It is Finished! So, Get to Work! – An Ascension Sermon

GOODBYES SUCK

You know, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s goodbyes. Anyone else here hate goodbyes?

Yeah, and the fact that I hate them so much means I’m not really very good at goodbyes.

Sometimes I get awkward and silent. Sometimes I get awkward and really chatty! Heck, sometimes I get awkward and I make poor choices, like the one time when I was getting ready to say goodbye to my family when they dropped me off at college.

They were looking forward to a final dinner with me, in the school cafeteria, before they left. But I was worried about the awkwardness of saying a tearful goodbye between packed tables and chairs, so I suggested that they just leave.

Let’s just say that my family wasn’t very happy. And me? Neither was I. I ate my first college meal all alone.

Goodbyes suck. And I often suck at goodbyes.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, for one thing, this is my “goodbye” sermon here at St. Peter’s, and I wanted to give an excuse for this sermon, if it sucks!

In all seriousness, I do want to thank this congregation for being such a good place for Rachel and me to serve and grow alongside you. Thank you for loving Rachel and me as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will miss you all very much as we move to Illinois this week.

Anyways, I don’t want this goodbye to get TOO awkward, so I’d better keep on preaching!

I think that goodbyes are bad because they so often leave our stories unfinished.

And we humans tend to hate unfinished business. It’s so much better when the story has an end! Sometimes, even a bad ending is better than no ending at all!

Think about it, if you’re watching an important game on TV – say, Alabama vs. Auburn – would you rather see the ending, even if your team loses, or have the power go out and completely miss the final minutes?

Stories without endings are frustrating. And that’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.

That’s why Death – the ultimate goodbye, if you will – is so horrible.

It’s not really an ending, not for those of us who go on living, anyways. Instead, Death leaves our stories hanging, with words left unsaid and promises left unfulfilled.

I think here of parents in Manchester this week who were forced to say goodbye to their children all too soon, thanks to the suicide bombing. Or the Coptic Christians in Egypt forced to say goodbye to their loved ones too soon, thanks to the bus attack.

Goodbyes suck, because they leave our stories unfinished.

WHAT ABOUT THE ASCENSION?

Is the Ascension of Jesus Christ, then, just another awful goodbye?

I mean, think about the emotional rollercoaster Christ’s followers must have ridden in those days. Rising hopes of God’s coming kingdom dashed to the ground at the Crucifixion – only to rise once more at the Resurrection!

“Jesus, you’re alive! Surely, surely now’s the time when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel, right?!

“I mean, you had us worried there for a minute, what with the whole executed like a common criminal thing… but SURELY now’s the time!

“Seize the day! Take the throne! Kill these Romans, won’t you?! Won’t you?!”

… Now, I’m sure that the Ascension was glorious. After all, Luke tells us that the disciples worshiped and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

But the Ascension was still a goodbye.

And I’m sure that, eventually, the glory faded as the disciples gazed into heaven. And they needed the angels’ reminder:

“Men of Galilee, who do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11].

OK, so maybe it’s fairer to say that the Ascension was a “see-you-later.”

Fine.

But doesn’t the Ascension still leave things hanging?

Doesn’t it still leave our story – and the story of the Gospel – unfinished?

Well, yes…and no.

If I might paraphrase the angels’ message in Acts 1 as the title of my sermon, here it is:

“It’s finished! So, get to work!”

And here’s my main point:

The Ascension completes the Gospel and compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPLETE THE GOSPEL?

How does the Ascension complete the Gospel?

Well, that requires knowing what the Gospel is, so here goes:

THE GOSPEL

In the beginning, God created the entire universe to be his temple, his kingdom – the place where he would dwell and rule.

And he created human beings – his image-bearers, his ambassadors, his “middle-management” – to extend his rule and reign throughout creation.

Instead of doing this, however, human beings rebelled against God.

Instead of bowing the knee to the King, they tried to steal his throne.

And this rebellion brought Sin and Death into the kingdom – breaking the relationships

  • between God and humanity,
  • between humanity and itself,
  • and between humanity and the rest of creation.

Where once there was perfect fellowship and communion, there was now distance and Exile.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, God was not going to let Sin, Death, and Exile have the final word! No!

He would pursue his people, he would buy them back from their slavery to Sin and Death, he would cleanse them from the inside out, and he would – one day – bring them back home.

The story of God’s rescue mission, then, is the Good News – it’s the Gospel.

In the Old Testament, the story of Israel is the beginning of this rescue mission.

In the Old Testament, God draws a people back into covenant relationship with himself.

And yet, the story of the Old Testament is left hanging on a tragic note.

Despite God’s continuing goodness, faithfulness, and salvation, his people prove stubbornly faithless.

And, even though they technically dwell in the geographical Promised Land, they are still in Exile.

They are still ruled, in the halls of power, by their political enemies. And they are still ruled, in their hearts, by Sin and Death.

And the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, in the New Testament, God HIMSELF goes into Exile INSTEAD OF his people, in order to bring them back home.

I’d like you to picture this as a capital letter “V”.

Up here, you’ve got the eternal Son of God – fully divine.

Down here, is us. Drowning, as it were, in a cesspool of Sin and Death.

And instead of abandoning us…

(Heck, even instead of somehow saving us at an arm’s distance, after we start to clean up and get our act together.)

…Christ dives headfirst into the muck – into the cesspool of sin-stained human existence.

We call this the Incarnation.

So, great! God’s with us! In..this…cesspool! …Great?

At the Crucifixion, Jesus goes all the way to the very bottom point of that capital V.

He goes all the way into the furthest, farthest Exile – Death.

So, great! God’s dead.

How is this good news?!

Well, the story would have ended there, a tragedy, were it not for the goodness of our great God.

Because, you see, he went into the farthest Exile, so that we wouldn’t have to.

And he didn’t stay in the grave. No no no!

There’s another side to the capital V!

We can’t forget the Resurrection!

Jesus arose from the grave – he walked out of that tomb on Easter morning AAAAANNNNND…..

Well, we don’t know.

He appeared to some people. And then, well, we’re not really sure what happened to him.

We’re not really sure what it all meant.

The story would have ended there, left hanging between tragedy and triumph, were it not for the Ascension.

HOW THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL

Brothers and sisters, we can’t forget the Ascension!

The Ascension COMPLETES the Gospel!

The Ascension is the final step in Christ’s return from Exile.

And, if we are united with Christ as a part of his body, the Church, the Ascension is the completion of OUR return from Exile as well!

The Ascension demonstrates that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were the final victory over Sin and Death.

Furthermore, the fact that Christ is not only crucified, and not only risen, but also ascended, and glorified, and seated on his heavenly throne means that he is the LORD.

Jesus Christ, though still fully human, though still fully acquainted with our many griefs, is not your buddy.

He’s not your pal that you can ignore at your convenience.

No, the Ascension reminds us that Christ is our King.

He is our Lord. And he is to be obeyed.

But, hey, since the capital V is finished, and Christ is on the throne, that means that we can all just sit around and do nothing, right?!

As long as we’re not doing something horrible?

I mean, the story’s OVER! I thought that’s what you just said, Josh.

No, not quite!

The Ascension does complete the Gospel – as its goal and culmination.

We will all one day be with Christ at the Father’s right hand in glory.

But the story’s not over, because the Ascension also compels the Church.

The Ascension completes the Gospel, and it also compels the Church.

HOW DOES THE ASCENSION COMPEL THE CHURCH?

How does the Ascension compel the Church?

Well, the Ascension gives the Church

  • its global mission,
  • its enduring hope,
  • and its enabling power.

Everyone with me so far?

We’ve talked about the Ascension’s theological significance, how the Ascension completes the Gospel.

Now let’s talk about the Ascension’s application to our lives – how the Ascension should both challenge us and encourage us.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS GLOBAL MISSION

Here’s the challenge of the Ascension: it gives the Church its global mission.

As Luke told us twice today – in the book of Acts and the Gospel which bears his name – Jesus commissioned his followers as witnesses who were to proclaim the Good News across cultural and ethnic boundaries.

“to all nations” – that word, “nations,” ethnoi, more properly refers to people groups, to cultural and ethnic groups of people, than to modern nation states.

That is, there are plenty of ethnoi represented right here in the United States – including those that haven’t yet heard the gospel!

You remember what I said a minute ago about Jesus not being our buddy?

He’s our King! He’s to be obeyed!

And he wants us to proclaim the gospel to the entire world.

Which, let’s be honest, is easier said than done.

Why?

Because God’s global gospel runs counter to the nationalistic, tribalistic, and individualistic “gospels” of this earth.

The Good News of God’s global kingdom – won not through self-promotion or military conquest but through self-sacrifice and loving one’s enemies – this gospel runs counter to the false gospels of this world, including the false gospel of the American Dream.

And that cuts right across the grain of the entire political landscape – red state and blue state.

Now to be sure, hear me!, there is a difference between globalism and God’s global gospel.

But there is also a stark difference between the United States of America and the Kingdom of God – between American culture and Kingdom culture.

Let us, then, take heed, lest we American Christians make assimilation to American culture an unofficial prerequisite for the nations of the world.

There is no prerequisite.

There is no response of the world that gives the Church an excuse to abandon its global mission.

In light of the Ascension, the Church’s global mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ across all cultural and ethnic boundaries – obeying its Ascended Lord, who once said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Matt. 5:43-44].

OK, so this transcultural, enemy-loving gospel stuff sounds great hypothetically, but

  • what about when people blow themselves up to kill children at a concert in Manchester?
  • What about when people open fire on a bus full of Coptic Christians on their way to pray?
  • What about when they go on shooting sprees in shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, and churches?
  • Or what about when people are just so different, so unfamiliar, so awkward, that we just don’t know what to say?

What then?

Do we throw up our hands in despair?

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENDURING HOPE

Here’s the encouragement of the Ascension: it gives the Church its enduring hope.

Without the Ascension, we are left wondering whether the good news of Christ’s resurrection will extend to us.

We are left wondering whether the chaos in the world around us will ever cease.

How long, O Lord? How long before you stay the hand of the wicked?

How long before you destroy the earthly powers and dominions and authorities that divide us and destroy us?

Friends, we can still ask these questions today, but it makes all the difference in the world that Christ has ascended.

It makes all the difference in the world that Christ has been enthroned over all earthly powers and dominions and authorities.

Why?

Because the Ascension shows that Christ has triumphed over his enemies.

The way of the Cross has won out over the sinful ways of this world.

And the Ascension also anticipates the second coming of Christ.

Just like Jesus did not stay in the grave, he will not stay at a distance upon his heavenly throne – present in the Church only sacramentally.

No!

And just like he did not let Sin and Death have the final word, he will not let the servants of Sin and Death have the final word, either.

Instead, he will one day stay the hand of the wicked.

He will one day disarm and destroy those who have decided to persist in rebellion against him.

Christ is enthroned over all earthly powers! This is our enduring hope!

There’s no reason for us to hedge our bets, as it were, by bending the knee to any earthly power – friend or foe.

Instead, the Church can freely exist for the sake of the world, because we know that the world is in the hands of our ascended King.

THE ASCENSION GIVES THE CHURCH ITS ENABLING POWER: THE HOLY SPIRIT

So, you know, just get out there and try harder to love people and let them know about Jesus, no matter how different they are!

Right?!

Wrong.

We’re not fooling anyone. We can’t do this on our own.

Sure, we’ve got a global mission. And sure, we’ve got an enduring hope.

But we still need enabling power.

And the Ascension gives the Church its enabling power: the Holy Spirit.

At the end of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples:

“And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:53].

And, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus

“ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” [Acts 1:4-5].

A few verses later, Jesus says:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” [Acts 1:8].

Now, I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

After all, it’s still a week until Pentecost!

But, brothers and sisters, we can’t make it, not even for a week, without the Holy Spirit!

We are only gathered here this morning, some two thousand years since the Ascension, on the other side of the world, because the Holy Spirit has empowered the Church to fulfill its global mission.

And, even though we live in a divided, divisive, and terrifying world, the Holy Spirit can empower the Church today.

So, thanks be to God that the Ascension and Pentecost go hand in hand!

THE ASCENSION COMPLETES THE GOSPEL AND COMPELS THE CHURCH TO FULFILL ITS GLOBAL MISSION, CLINGING TO ITS ENDURING HOPE, EMPOWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.

So, Father, we thank you for your persistence and patience to rescue us from Sin and Death.

Jesus, we bow the knee and worship you, our Ascended Lord. And we ask you to come again soon and make all things new.

And Holy Spirit, we ask you come. Give us the strength to love our neighbors and our enemies by proclaiming and living the gospel.

Amen.

Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom: An Appeal for a Consistently Pro-Life Ethic

[MP3: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

[PDF Sermon Manuscript: Getting Ahead in God’s Upside-Down Kingdom]

Opening Prayer

God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would move in our lives, so that we would:

  • promote your justice
  • embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and humbly obey Your will,

even if it costs us our reputations, and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Introduction

I’d like to start off with a very basic question: Do you want to get ahead in life?

Do you want things to get better? Do you want your life, and your children’s lives, to improve?

I mean, despite the many things that divide us humans, don’t we all want progress? When it comes right down to it, don’t we all just want to get ahead?

I know I do.

In fact, as the students in our youth group could tell you, this is one of the reasons why I love “life hacks”!

Have you heard of life hacks? They’re these little tips and tricks to get ahead in life while saving time, money, and effort.

Like, one of my favorite life hacks is the “coffee nap.” You drink a cup of coffee, then immediately take a 20-minute nap, so that the caffeine kicks in right as you wake up.

Life hack. Try it sometime. Thank me later.

ANYWAYS, we all want to get ahead in life. Right?

But there’s a problem: How do we know what getting ahead looks like?

I mean, think about it. Getting ahead can look quite different in different contexts. Right?

Perhaps this is too crude of an example for a sermon, but getting ahead in a drinking game looks totally different than getting ahead in Alcoholics Anonymous!

Getting ahead in the NBA Finals hopefully looks different than getting ahead in playing basketball with your kids.

Getting ahead on Wall Street as a day-trader hopefully looks different than getting ahead in running a charity.

In order to get ahead,

  • you have to know the context,
  • you have to know the rules,
  • you have to know the goal.

Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you’re not really going to get ahead. You’ll just be getting ahead at the wrong thing. Which means you’ll fail.

So here’s the kicker: Getting ahead in God’s eyes looks a whole lot different than getting ahead in the world’s eyes.

The world is a different context. The world follows different rules. And the world has a different goal than God’s Kingdom.

The Main Point

In fact, and here’s my main point if you want to write it down:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

God’s Upside-Down Kingdom – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Now, this is the message of all of our readings for today, but I’d like to start with the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18. (You can find it on page 952 in your pew Bible.)

1 Corinthians 1:18 says:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing (that’s what I’m calling “the world,” by the way – those who are perishing), but to us who are being saved (that is, to us who are a part of God’s Kingdom) it is the power of God.

You see, God’s not against getting ahead. In fact, you could even say that God is on a mission to “Make Creation Great Again”!

I’m not kidding! He made it great in the first place – a perfect universe with perfect relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation.

However, ever since we humans rebelled against God – ever since Sin shattered the relationships between God, humanity, and all of creation – God has been on a mission to put everything back together again.

Sounds great, right?

So why is Paul saying that the good news of God’s rescue mission is foolishness to the world?

Because God makes creation great again in a totally unexpected way!

This is what I mean by “God’s upside-down kingdom.”

In order to make the world right again, God shows up and reverses the ways the world has gotten used to working. And the greatest reversal of all in God’s upside-down kingdom is when the eternal Son of God becomes human and gets himself killed for the sins of the entire world.

The world expects

  • power,
  • might,
  • strength,
  • and victory,

and we receive instead a

  • naked,
  • abandoned
  • Middle-Eastern man,
  • brutally executed
  • as a political criminal.

We receive a bloody example for those who would dare challenge the kingdoms of this world.

We receive a Crucified Savior. And the world calls that absolutely RIDICULOUS.

Because, to the world, you don’t get ahead by laying your life down (like Jesus did). You get ahead by taking what’s yours.

You don’t get ahead by hanging out with the wrong crowd (like Jesus did). You’re supposed to rub shoulders with the rich and the famous, not the poor and the homeless.

You’re not supposed to focus on the people at the bottom and at the border (like Jesus did)!

For crying out loud, you’re supposed to get out there and hustle!

  • Climb the ladder!
  • Make deals!
  • Take no prisoners!
  • Make demands!
  • Get ahead!

…And get right back where we need to be saved FROM!

That’s where the world’s ways get us.

Where every human is

  • an egotistical island,
  • competing with God,
  • alienating other humans,
  • and abusing creation.

Thankfully, as Paul tells us in [1 Cor 1:25],

the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves us through what looks like foolishness and weakness.

Why? So that we would not boast in our pathetic “wisdom” and “strength.”

Instead, we are to boast only in the true wisdom and strength of God.

Paul continues in [1 Cor. 1:27]:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wiseGod chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

This, then, is the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the “Losers” – Matthew 5:1-12

And it’s the exact same Kingdom that we find in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.

(FYI: We call them the “Beatitudes” because of the Latin word for “blessed/happy” – beatus.)

Now, remember: God isn’t against getting ahead. He really does want what’s best for us.

But the danger is that we’ll try to get ahead on our own, in our own way. And if we do that, we’ll miss the point in at least two ways.

  1. First, we won’t realize that we desperately need a Savior, and that we cannot save ourselves.
  2. Second, we will ignore the very people that God wants us to care for in order to really get ahead in his Kingdom!

That is, on our own, we’re going to focus on those at the center and height of power. You know, “The Winners.”

But God focuses on those at the bottom and at the borders, the edges of society. You know, “The Losers.”

These are the people who will experience God’s favor in his Upside-Down Kingdom. Take a look at [Matthew 5:3-12].

Notice how Jesus declares God’s favor, His blessing, to what the world would call the “wrong kind of people.”

  • To the poor in spirit
  • Those who mourn
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • The persecuted
  • And the reviled

And notice as well, that the blessings frequently involve reversals. The world is giving them one thing, but God is going to give them another.

Now, this is important: these famous words are a mixture of encouragement and instruction.

That is, Jesus isn’t just giving us a TO-DO LIST in order to get as much blessing as possible. He’s not saying “Go out there and try harder to be poor, persecuted, hungry, mourners.”

Now, Jesus IS instructing, more on that in a second. But he is first offering divine encouragement to those who are already in those situations.

The Beatitudes: An Interpretive Translation

Here’s my interpretive translation of the Beatitudes. Follow along with each one if you’ve got a Bible in front of you.

Jesus is saying:

  • (1) “Take heart! Things aren’t what they seem! If you lack resources and realize that God alone can save you, then you might not feel like a part of the Roman kingdom. But you’re a part of God’s Kingdom.”
  • (2) “Be encouraged! If you bear and grieve the sufferings of the world, then the kings of the world probably won’t give you much comfort. But God, your true King, will.
  • (3) Take heart! If you humbly and gently refuse to seek vengeance or power, then you probably won’t inherit much from the world’s kingdoms. But God will give you an inheritance in His Kingdom.
  • (4) Be encouraged! If you pursue God’s will above all else, then you’ll probably go hungry in this world. But you will be satisfied in God’s Kingdom, where His will is obeyed.
  • (5) Take heart! If you show mercy and compassion to a suffering world, you might not receive much mercy back! But you yourselves will be shown mercy by God.
  • (6) Be encouraged! If you single-mindedly pursue God’s will, then you probably won’t experience the world’s glory. But you will experience God’s glory and presence.
  • (7) Take heart! If you pursue reconciliation and reject violence, then you probably won’t reflect the character of this world. But you will reflect the character of God.
  • (8) Take heart! Because when this world rejects you, insults you, lies about you, and persecutes you, then it may not look like it, but you’re in good company! You’re in the company of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’re here today and you’re at the bottom of this world, then I encourage you to cling to the divine promises of blessing in the Beatitudes.

God is in the process of making all things new – reversing every wrong in this world. Take heart.

However, and perhaps this is uncomfortable to talk about, what if we’re NOT on this list?

What if we’re NOT

  • poor,
  • mourning,
  • meek,
  • hungry,
  • merciful,
  • pure-hearted,
  • peacemakers
  • who are persecuted?

What if we’re

  • reasonably well-educated
  • and wealthy,
  • comfortable,
  • powerful
  • American
  • Christians?

How should we respond to the Beatitudes?

While I DON’T think that the Beatitudes should be read like a TO-DO list,

I DO think that the Beatitudes are an instructive challenge to followers of Jesus.

There is a reason why the Beatitudes are at the beginning of Jesus’ quintessential sermon.

It’s almost like Jesus is saying,

“OK, you want to follow me?

You want to be a part of my coming Kingdom? Then let’s get really clear on what this Kingdom is going to be like.

It’s not going to be the kind of Kingdom you’re used to in this world.

You know, the kind of kingdom where the wealthy, wise, and powerful get rewarded.

Instead, in MY Kingdom, the people who get chewed up and spit out by the kingdoms of this world will be rewarded and honored.

SO,

  • if you want to be a part of my Kingdom,
  • if you want to “get ahead” in my Kingdom,
  • then you better show concrete concern for
    • the oppressed,
    • the marginalized,
    • and the weak!

And, as you do so, you’d better be prepared to end up among the oppressed and the marginalized, because the world is going to think you are out of your minds!”

Fear is NOT a Valid Excuse

Brothers and sisters, remember:

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But there is no escape clause from the rules of God’s Kingdom!

That is, you can’t just ignore Jesus and the Bible because you’re SCARED.

  • Because you’re scared of how a congregation is going to respond to your sermon,
  • Because you’re scared of looking foolish,
  • Because you’re scared of losing your job,
  • Because you’re scared of a terrorist attack.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about your fears. He does.

But let’s not kid ourselves!

FEAR is not a valid excuse for ignoring the Bible’s repeated commands for God’s people to show faithful concern for the kinds of people the world ignores and mistreats!

Want to read more about what the Bible has to say about these kinds of issues? Read this book! (Affiliate Link)


Application: Consistently Pro-Life, for the Unborn AND the Refugees

So, let’s get practical here. How should we respond to these passages about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom?

We must show concrete concern for the powerless. And two recent issues come to mind, that I would be a coward not to mention.

Abortion

First, in light of the 44th March for Life held this past weekend, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we must continue to stand up for the unborn.

Abortion is a gruesome evil. And like other forms of evil, it is complex – not easily eradicated.

As Christians, we must wage war against this evil. And that will involve caring not only for the unborn child, but also the mother, and the child after it is born, and the entire family.

Repealing Roe v. Wade isn’t going to completely solve the problem.

Christians will have to step up to the plate and be consistently pro-life in order to fix things.

If you’re passionate about this issue, I encourage you to check out the organization Anglicans for Life at AnglicansForLife.Org.

So, first, we must stand up for the unborn.

Refugees

Second, given President Trump’s recent executive actions to halt the acceptance of all refugees to the USA, including a temporary moratorium on seven predominantly Muslim countries,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that, if we are to be consistently pro-life, we must also stand up for the refugees.

Next to the unborn, refugees around the world – but especially from Syria – are among the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world.

Christians should be standing up for and supporting these people. And, to their credit, many Christians are doing so.

I’d encourage you to check out the great work being done by organizations like World Relief and We Welcome Refugees. Talk to me after the service if you’d like more ideas and reading recommendations, by the way.

However, many Christians in this country are falling prey to the fear excuse.

We’re being tempted to turn away these vulnerable people because of the supposed risk of a terrorist attack.

I’m here this morning to plead with you: Do not fall prey to this nonsense.

Even if the fear were legitimate, it is no excuse for Christians not to show concrete love to the powerless.

Whoever said that following Jesus would not involve any risks?

We dare not worship the American gods of comfort and security while neglecting to follow the True God’s commands.

However, these fears of refugees are VASTLY overblown.

According to a September 2016 Policy Analysis from the CATO institute,

  • “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”
  • The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by an asylum-seeker is 1 in 2.73 billion per year.
  • And “the chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is an astronomical 1 in 10.9 billion per year.”

For comparison: according to the National Safety Council, your chance of dying from a lightning strike is 1 in 174,426.

That means it’s about 20,868 times more likely that you will get killed by lightning than by a refugee terrorist attack.

While we’re worried about astronomical odds, these people are dying. The death toll from the Syrian conflict is approaching half a million, including 50 thousand children.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying that the USA shouldn’t change anything about its policies. Surely there are many problems which need fixed.

However, I beg you: please do not fall prey to the fear-mongering. Please think and reason as Christians first.

After all, you can only give your “total allegiance” to one thing.

Jesus Christ will not settle for second place to the United States.

So, stand up for the unborn and the refugees, not to mention the countless other marginalized, oppressed, and powerless people around us.

And I don’t even have time to get into how Christians should be concerned for religious liberties for all faiths. That’s a whole other sermon…

Because God’s Kingdom is an “upside-down” Kingdom, getting ahead in the Kingdom of God will frequently look foolish in the eyes of the world.

But, if our Gospel is true, then we of all people should be willing to put our lives and our reputations at risk for the sake of others – especially for the poor and the needy.

Closing Prayer

So, again, God, our Refuge, I ask that your Holy Spirit would transform us from the inside out

  • So that we would promote your justice
  • So that we would embody your steadfast faithful love
  • and so that we would humbly obey Your will,
  • even if it costs us our reputations,
  • and even if it costs us our lives.

I ask that this transformation would begin with me, and that it would extend to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon

(A chapel message in a Christian school.)

There are a few things you should know about me:

  • I am a student at a Christian seminary.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian college.
  • Before that, I went to a Christian high school, and a Christian middle school.
  • Before that, I was home-schooled, and I grew up in a Christian home.

Oh, also: I’m the world’s worst sports fan.

I’m serious. The students in my youth group give me a hard time about it. Every week, they’re like, “Josh, did you see the game?!” “Josh, are you going to watch the game?”

And I’m like, “Game? What game? I don’t even know which sport’s season it is!”

World’s. worst. sports fan. I’m telling you.

The one redeeming quality about my sports fandom is that I’ve stuck with one team through thick and thin: the University of Michigan Wolverines. Go Blue!

Now, I know that the rivalry between the Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes is but a pale imitation of the rivalry between Alabama and Auburn down here. But up North, this rivalry was and is a big deal.

And it was really interesting, back when I was in middle school and high school, to observe what would happen each year in November when the Wolverines and the Buckeyes went at it.

I’m from Toledo, OH, which is on the border with Michigan, so the fan split was about 50/50 – Wolverines on one side, Buckeyes on the other.

And each year, on the day after the big game, you could tell who the true fans were…

It was the people still cheering for the team that lost. Continue reading “Following Jesus Beyond the Bandwagon”

Concerning Romans

Well, judging by my blog stats for the past 48 hours — as compared with the past few months — I’d get many more views on this post if it concerned the chaos at Cedarville University!

However, my schedule and blood pressure won’t allow me to devote any more time to my shameful alma mater at the moment. I’ve got a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Regional Meeting of ETS tomorrow (see my previous post, and come to my presentation at 5:00pm in room S009!), and even though Beeson Divinity School’s Spring Break is right around the corner, I’ve still got a fair share of reading to get done. 

Nevertheless, given the current discussion in my New Testament Theology — two classes on Romans — I thought I might re-post two of my previous works: 

  1. Romans. Revisited. (or “The Argument-Story of Romans”): my final write-up for Dr. Chris Miller’s course on Romans and Galatians at Cedarville University. We were due to have an oral exam on the last day of class, in which we talked-through the logic of the epistle. I wrote this summary the night before the exam, and was given the opportunity to present it to the class. I now present it to you! Feel free to give me some push-back! 
  2. Romans 13:1-7 — A Contextually-Appropriate Reading: a paper I wrote for the same course as mentioned above, in which I defend the following thesis: “Far from being a comprehensive condensation of the apostle’s beliefs regarding any and all governments past and present, [Romans 13:1-7] is a specific and historically-conditioned pastoral address to the Roman believers, discouraging them from political unrest, disobedience, and rebellion in order to protect their testimony and the effectiveness of the Roman church in the gospel mission.”

That’s all for now. Grace and Peace. 

~Josh

The Perfect Translation

Over the break between semesters at Beeson Divinity School, I’m reviewing Bruce Waltke’s The Dance Between God and Humanity: Reading the Bible Today as the People of God and Philip Goodwin’s Translating the English Bible: From Relevance to Deconstruction for Liverpool Hope University’s Theological Book Review.

I’ve just finished the latter, and hope to write my review in the next day or two. However, I’d like to share the following quotes on Deconstructive Literalism and The Perfect Translation, because I find the concepts intriguing as a student of Eugene Nida’s dynamic or functional equivalence (when it comes to both NT Greek and modern Spanish), and a newcomer to relevance theory, which Goodwin uses to provide a way forward in the shadow of the KJV tradition. More on that later. In the meantime: 

“What Aichele has noticed is that if the interpreter wants to ‘see’ the source text, he or she would prefer not to have another interpreter standing in the way. The problem with a dynamic equivalence translation, then, is that it does not permit deconstruction of the source text. The translation represents an ideological undertaking which itself can be readily deconstructed, but does not provide access to the source. (207-8).

[…]

“Now, of course Ryken and Collins, whilst advocating concordant translation on the one hand, also desire, on the other hand, to maintain the control over meaning to which Aichele refers, by implicitly linking concordance to thematics. In other words, concordance is seen as desirable because it reinforces the theme (‘the message’, again) of the text, to which it is seen as a servant. They leave unexamined the question of what to do when the phenomenon of concordance might be turned against thematics, to undermine it — to deconstruct it. One man’s exegesis is, however, another’s deconstruction. A concordant translation of a text might serve equally to reveal Aichele’s ‘defects and problems’ or Ryken’s ‘full exegetical potential’ — to reinforce its ‘intention’, or to undermine it. I will argue that it does both. (208).

[…] 

“The perfect translation is the one whose relationship to a source text is such that it permits both the construction of the releveant interpretation of that text, and its deconstruction.” (209). 

(Italics: original emphasis; Bold: added emphasis)

The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.

De Trinitate

BY: JOSHUA P. STEELE // NOVEMBER 4, 2013. Click here for PDF.

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF THE TRINITY

One God. Three persons. The orthodox paradox of this Christian confession confounds many, due to its apparent contradictions, abstractions, and absence from Scripture. From Arius to Augustine and beyond, trinitarian debates have raged even among those who agree that God exists, that the Bible is true, and that it is therefore worthwhile to consider what the Bible says because it reveals the existent God. Although the best discussions of the Trinity begin with an acknowledgment of its inscrutable mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach, a sober analysis of the doctrine’s canonical presence and historical outworking may help to answer the charges that the Trinity is a nonsensical, unbiblical abstraction worthy of abandonment. 

Although it is precisely the Trinity’s classical formulation that receives the criticisms just noted, it is important to begin at the end, so to speak, by introducing the operative terms before analyzing the scriptural context out of which and the historical context in which these trinitarian terms grew. The definitive statement of trinitarian belief is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, discussed below.1 In brief, however, Christians confess belief in one God who eternally and only exists in one divine substance, essence, or ousia, and in three divine subsistences, Persons, or hypostases.2 One in three, three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit – each Person equally and essentially God, and yet each distinct from the other two.

CANONICAL PRESENCE

A common objection to the doctrine of the Trinity as just stated is that it nowhere appears within the pages of Scripture. And indeed, despite the favorite trinitarian proof-texts in which Father, Son, and Spirit appear together, “no doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene sense is present in [even] the New Testament.”3 However, as Jenson persuasively argues, “the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed in Scripture, if one abandons modernity’s notion that statement in so many words as formulated is the only way that a doctrine can appear there.”4 Instead, the narrative of Scripture portrays the Trinity “by telling a history of God with us that displays three enactors of that history, each of which is indeed other than the other two and yet is at the same time the same God as the other two.”5

These three dramatis personae Dei, or “persons of the divine drama,” appear throughout Scripture as God – “as a persona in Israel’s story – of which he is simultaneously the author.”6 YHWH – the God of Israel who created the world and delivered through the Exodus – is the Father by virtue of Jesus’ address of him as such.7 The Son is Jesus of Nazareth by virtue of this same address, but also in light of passages such as Psalm 2, appropriated in Hebrews 1 to identify Jesus as the divine Son.8 Finally, the Spirit appears as a persona of the story, first in the OT as the Spirit of YHWH which gives life and “keeps the creation moving toward its fulfillment,” and then in the NT as the one in relationship between the Father and the Son, who is poured out upon the Church.9

The significance of trinitarian “proof-texts” mentioned above is that they portray the three persons of the divine drama in close proximity. Most significant of these is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, spoken by the Son himself: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although the earliest Christians used poignant trinitarian phrases before the full implications of such had been thoroughly considered, these biblical patterns provided “the raw data from which the more developed descriptions of the Christian doctrine of God [would] come.”10 The classical formulation of the Trinity did not arise from a scriptural vacuum.

HISTORICAL OUTWORKING

Neither was the doctrine formed in a historical vacuum. Instead, as Wainwright notes: “the classic creeds were being formulated at the same time as the canon of the Scriptures was being recognized and determined; there was interaction between the two processes, and the Scriptures and the creeds continue to function reciprocally.”11 The ecumenical creeds – such as the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), and the Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei (451) – serve as an interpretive key to the complex Scriptures, and yet also distill the divine drama of the Bible into a concise summary.12

A crucial facet of trinitarian doctrine in which this dialectic took place was the distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity – the former referring to the Trinity within itself, and the latter referring to the Trinity’s external relationship to the universe. While the majority of Scripture provides portrayals of the economic Trinity interacting with creation, it also offers enticing glimpses into the immanent relationships between the persons of the divine drama.13 The doctrine that developed from such glimpses offered a way of distinguishing between how God relates to himself and to everything else, but also concluded that “the immanent Trinity lives no other plot than that displayed in the economic Trinity, that when you are taken into the story told in Scripture, you are taken into God himself.”14 In other words, “there is no deeper reality of God lurking in the background” behind the three Persons of the Godhead.15 Although many of the disagreements took place before the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity was formalized, the contours of the historical trinitarian debates revolve around where the conceptual boundary lies between the two.16

A concern for the preservation of God’s unity motivated many of the early controversies. For example, Paul of Samosata collapsed the immanent Trinity to the Father alone, pushing the Son and Spirit into the economy, in their respective relations to the human being Jesus and the apostles – the view known as adoptionism.17 Similarly, Sabellius pushed all three divine Persons into the economy, positing that the immanent Godhead was one God who exists in three modes or roles of being to the external creation – the view known as modalism.18 Finally, it was Arius’s commitment to monotheism that led him to shrink the immanent Trinity down to the Father alone – concluding that, because God is the indivisible cause of all that exists, he must have existed prior to the Son, who is “not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father.”19

Although each of these views would ultimately find condemnation in the creeds of the Church, it was Arius’s conception of a created Son that ignited the controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea (325), which refuted Arianism by declaring that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”20 However, the trinitarian debates continued, in part because of the relative ambiguity of the term homoousios and the ability of different factions to interpret it as they wished.21 The years between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople (381) were theologically chaotic as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) fought for the Nicene view of the Trinity against its detractors, Arian and otherwise.22

However, along the lines of Arius’s original concerns, if the Son and the Spirit are granted full divinity along with the Father (as they are in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), why do Christians confess one God and not three? Gregory of Nyssa addressed these concerns first by appealing to the differences between the trinitarian terms ousia (common essence) and hypostasis (distinct personal subsistence). Belonging to the category of collective or common nouns – which unite by referring to the common nature shared by diverse members of the same category – ousia refers to the divine essence or substance, shared equally by the three hypostases of the Godhead so that they are properly homoousioi, or of the same substance, with one another.23 However, belonging to the category of individual or proper nouns – which distinguish by referring to only one member of a particular category – hypostasis refers to the individual identity or subsistence of each divine Person which demarcates it from the other two.24 The divine hypostases are distinguishable in that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things save in the being unbegotten [Father], the being begotten [Son], and the procession [Spirit].”25

The distinction between a common ousia and distinct hypostases therefore prevents the collapse of the Trinity, yet through a crucial difference between the distinction-in-unity with regard to humanity and with regard to the divine. After all, it is difficult to ascertain the unifying ousia of humanity because the distinct hypostases both appear and behave in such discordant ways. Due to their myriad differences and a merely conceptual unity, humans are not properly referred to as one human but many. In contrast, the unity of the three divine hypostases is actual, by virtue of the trinitarian rule opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.26 As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “every activity which pervades from God to creation and is named according to our manifold design starts off from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed by the Holy Spirit.”27 Christians worship one God, because although each divine Person is God, “by the same proclamation God is one, because neither in regard to nature [or ousia] nor activity is any difference viewed.”28 Unlike the diverse and discordant human hypostases, the divine persons are completely unified in their will and operations. Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.”29

CONCLUSION

To return to what was mentioned at the outset, the best discussions of the Trinity also end with an acknowledgment of its inherent mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach. Theological modesty is always in order, in part because of the unavoidable limitations of finite human speech about anything, much less about the infinite God. Granted, certain ways of framing how God can be one and yet three are better than others, not only based upon their coherence with the traditions of orthodoxy, but also with regard to their impact on other areas of theological concern – such as the atonement and interpersonal relationships.30 And yet, because true theology is not learning how to speak about God in order to master him intellectually, but in order to worship him faithfully, a persistent lacuna in trinitarian understanding is surely acceptable. For, although the gracious condescension of the triune God enables our faith to seek understanding successfully, the inscrutable mysteries of the same triune God ensure that some understandings will ever transcend our faith’s reach.

======== NOTES =========

1 All dates CE, unless otherwise noted. Wainwright notes that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed “has remained the most widely affirmed statement of trinitarian faith in both East and West.” Geoffrey Wainwright, “Trinity” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 815.

2 The three terms in each of these two sets will be used synonymously throughout, unless otherwise noted. Substance = essence = ousia. Subsistence = person = hypostasis. Capitalized “Person” will refer to divine, and not human, personality.

3 Rusch notes that the binitarian NT formulas are: Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:21; and 2 John 1:13. The trinitarian NT formulas are: Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:4ff.; Gal. 3:11-14; Heb. 10:29; 1 Pet. 1:2. William G. Rusch, trans./ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 2. Without denying the importance of such passages, Jenson rightly laments those who “scrabble around in the Bible for bits and pieces of language to cobble together into a sort of Trinity-doctrine – usually with intellectually lamentable and indeed sometimes heretical results.” Robert W. Jenson, “The Trinity in the Bible,” CTQ 68 (2004): 196.

4 Jenson, 197. Emphasis original.

5 Jenson, 199. The divinity of the Father is perhaps the easiest to note throughout the Bible. On the divinity of the Son, see John 1, 10; Col. 2; Phil. 2; and Heb. 1. On the divinity of the Spirit, see 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 3:7-10; and 10:15-17. I have here stuck to the contours of Jenson’s argument in lieu of the common arguments for the divinity of Son and Spirit, e.g.

6 Jenson, 198-202. The phrase “dramatis personae Dei” is Jenson’s adaptation of Tertullian’s verbiage.

7Cf. John 5:16-23; Jenson, 199. Although this is almost assuredly an oversimplification, cf. Marshall’s claim that “the Father is the God of Israel, the Son is the God of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is the God of Israel, yet they are not three Gods of Israel, but one God of Israel.” B. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of Israel” in Knowing the Triune God (ed. J. Buckley and D. Yeago; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 258; quoted by Wainwright, 817. However, Jenson’s main point still stands, by virtue of Jesus’ address to the Father establishing both Fatherhood and Sonship within the Trinity.

8 Cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:1-14. In addition, Jenson (200-3) focuses on showing the presence of the Trinity in the OT, where it is so often neglected, by positing that the Son shows up via the themes of the angel of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord..

9Jenson, 199, 204; cf. Gen. 1:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 37:1-14; John 14:15-31; Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-41; Rom. 1:4; 8:11.

10 Rusch, 2. Gregory of Nazianzus captures the progressive nature of this scriptural trinitarian revelation well: “the old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest, and gave us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before.” See Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31): On the Holy Spirit, 14, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Popular Patristics Series 23; trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

11 Wainwright, 815.

12 Jenson, 205; Wainwright, 815.

13 Cf. Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 and the glimpse of the relationship between Father and Son.

14 Jenson, 206.

15 Jenson, 205.

16 That is, while the debates did not originally or chronologically take place in terms of “immanent/economic Trinity,” the concept provides a helpful analytical framework when considering the trinitarian controversies. .

17 Adoptionism is also known as “dynamic monarchianism.” Rusch, 8.

18 Modalism is also known as “modalist monarchianism.” Rusch, 9.

19 Arius’s “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” §4, in Rusch, 32.

20 “The Creed of the Synod of Nicaea (June 19, 325)” in Rusch, 49.

21 Rusch, 20.

22 Rusch, 22.

23 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter his own brother on the divine ousia and hypostasis,” 2a-c. in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Boston: Brill, 2007), 250-1; “Concerning that We Should Think of Saying That There Are Not Three Gods to Ablabius” in The Trinitarian Controversy (trans./ed. William G. Rusch; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 149-51.

24 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter,” 3a, 4d-f in Silvas, 251,3.

25 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” I.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1958), 167.

26 “The external operations of the Trinity are indivisible.”

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 155.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 159

29 Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration,127.

30 In fact, feminist critiques have helped to address trinitarian sloppiness in theological explorations of the atonement and interpersonal relationships. See Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 40-3 and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 27, 167-190. 

Scripture: Handle with Care – by Amy Chase Ashley

Update (April 2017): I’ve gone back to update/clean-up the formatting in this wonderful June 2013 guest post from my friend Amy Elizabeth Chase Ashley, one of the most gifted students of Scripture with whom I’ve been privileged to study. She blogs at https://amyechase.wordpress.com/

Scripture: Handle with Care

Jeremiah 29:11

When I accepted the invitation to speak at my parents’ church, I immediately started thinking about what message I would deliver.  I decided to give a message on something that is very important to me after my four years at Cedarville and something I am very passionate about.  I hope it will be engaging; I hope it will make you think; and I hope it will bring glory to God.  If I can accomplish those three things, I will be satisfied.

The Scripture I chose is Jeremiah 29:11 and I’m guessing that most Christians could recite the verse from memory.  If not, once you read it, you’ll probably remember or recognize it.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”

This is a familiar verse for a lot of Christians.  My question today is whether it should be.

This might seem like a strange question, but I think you’ll understand what I mean soon.

So why is this verse so familiar to us?  Well, it’s used a lot.  Are you nervous about future uncertainties?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Are you starting a new job?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Graduating from high school or college?  Jeremiah 29:11.  That teenage girl had her boyfriend break up with her?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Car trouble that makes you late to work?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Lost your lucky pencil?  Jeremiah 29:11.

I hope you’re catching my sarcasm.

And maybe you think I’m exaggerating.  But I did a Google search for Jeremiah 29:11 and you can buy folders, clocks, plaques, keychains, mugs, pictures, bumper stickers, aprons, tote bags, iPhone cases, tshirts, pillows, bracelets, and even playing cards that have this verse on them.  It might be rivaling the 23rd Psalm after all that.   And I know for a fact that it can be found on countless greeting cards whether they be sympathy, graduation, engagement, or congratulatory cards.

- this is not a bag of trail mix you cant just pick out the p

I saw a meme on the internet the other day.  It was an image of the Bible, and the text said: “This is not a bag of trail mix.  You can’t just pick out the pieces you like and ignore the rest.”  I’m afraid that the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 demonstrates a bigger problem: we really are guilty of treating the Bible like a bag of trail mix.  Jeremiah 29:11 is an M&M that we pull out time and time again while we ignore all the peanuts and raisins and cashews and granola all around it.

Christians claim to have a high view of Scripture—that is, we say that the Bible is the authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God.  We are quick to use it to tell the world what they’re doing wrong whether that be gay marriage or murder or how to raise children.  We say that we live by what the Bible says, but I’m afraid that we’re often guilty of not even knowing what the Bible says.  For me, the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 proves this.

To demonstrate, does anyone know what Jeremiah 29:10 says?  No, because it’s a peanut.  Jeremiah 29:12?  Sorry, I don’t like raisins.  But I am feeling uncertain about this new job/relationship/house/baby/friend/responsibility/accomplishment/etc., so I like to be told that God has good plans for me.  I like to imagine him saying, “I know the plans I have for you…”

Continue reading “Scripture: Handle with Care – by Amy Chase Ashley”

(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us

(TEXTS: Jonah 3:5-10; 4:1-11; Nahum 1:1-8)

INTRODUCTION

Image

A great green theologian of old claimed that anger is based on fear, that it leads to hatred, and results in suffering. And while I do not wish to disregard the wisdom of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I would like to take a closer look at anger as discussed in Scripture, and to consider what makes certain instances of anger righteous or unrighteous, legitimate or illegitimate.

This is a question that has been on my mind throughout my final year at Cedarville University. After hearing of a few rumblings at the end of my Junior year, I left for the summer and got myself married. When my feet finally touched the ground at the beginning of term, my university felt like a battlefield. I heard that Michael Pahl had been “reviewed” and then fired over the summer months. Others were being reviewed to see if they really did toe the doctrinal line, or if they were guilty of mind crimes against the thought police. And things didn’t get any better from there.

I saw the havoc that the Cedarville environment was wreaking on my mentors, friends, and their families. My leaders got rid of and harassed beloved members of my community, and then deceptively refused to own up to their nefarious actions.

I got angry. I spoke up. And I was convinced that my anger was righteous. Others were less convinced.

Some stayed poignantly and painfully silent throughout the chaos. Others repeatedly gave platitudes that everything was OK, that we were obligated to trust our leaders, that to question their actions was inherently disrespectful. And some from this latter group met my kind of anger with their own frustration and anger that I dared to criticize their beloved Cedarville.

I’d love to say that I met this opposition with nothing but grace and equanimity, but that wouldn’t be true. I frequently lashed out against these types of people – when they sent me long messages to accuse me of causing unnecessary dissentious strife, or when they parodied us student activists as complete morons with nothing better to do than cook up conspiracy theories.

My university’s behavior was sickening, but these people’s behavior was infuriating. I couldn’t comprehend how they could overlook the suffering I was witnessing and try to protect people who were clearly hiding the truth. So, at times, I lashed out in frustration. And I am convinced that my anger was unrighteous. But what’s the difference between these two types of anger?

Continue reading “(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us”

Honors, Grace, and Generosity

Yahweh and others have been too good to me.

Today I received two awards at Cedarville University’s 49th Annual Academic Honors Day Chapel.

The first: The Oxford University Press Award in Preseminary Bible, given to the graduating senior with the highest cumulative GPA in the preseminary major.

The second: The Daniel Award.

“Established in 2001 by David and Jean Heyd, this endowed award was created to honor their parents, Charles and E. LaRue Wilcox and Elmer and Kathy Heyd. The scholarship assists a graduating full-time male senior student who has been accepted by a conservative evangelical seminary. The recipient must have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.3, demonstrate the spiritual qualifications and godly leadership skills necessary to excel in this ministry, and plan to serve as full-time pastor of a church. […] The Department of Biblical and Ministry Studies faculty select the recipients.”

DSCN0867

The first award got me a copy of The Contemporary Parallel New Testament (edited by Kohlenberger, III). The second award? $5,000 toward my seminary education. Barring any significant price hikes, that should cover the remainder of my tuition at Beeson Divinity School for the next 3.5 years!

 

Despite my standing critiques of Cedarville University, I must admit that my life would look radically different today had I not arrived here four years ago.

Image

As I look forward to the next stage of my life, I’m realizing more and more how much my life each day depends on the grace and generosity of others. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunities – even the painful ones – I’ve been given to live, learn, and grow at Cedarville. I never would have imagined meeting so many wonderful, Christlike, and challenging people in the middle of cornfields in Southwest Ohio.

I’m thankful that God’s Kingdom transcends Cedarville,
but also that I’ve gotten to glimpse the Kingdom here.

Grace and Peace,

~Josh