Category Archives: Thinking Theology Aloud [Random]

This category includes all post of a theological nature that are not included in the Bible Bites or Church Chat categories.

A Season for Faith

Spring is almost here again! Here in Georgia, we are already enjoying our first blooms—daffodils, irises, redbuds, camellias, and more are brightening Atlanta neighborhoods. Even in our own yard the beauty—some of it “volunteer” and some of it intentional—is plentiful. Here are some glimpses in photographs I took this morning.

The turning of the seasons is a time of revelation. But what does the turning of the seasons reveal? Your answer to this question will reveal the state of your heart. Two people can look at same thing and see something very different.

Some people observe the ceaseless rhythms of the seasons and see only mindless, physical cycles—matter in motion through space and time. They see nothing of God. Here is how Peter describes such people:

Scoffers will come in the last days… They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Pet. 3:3-4)

Others look at the same seasonal rhythms and catch a renewed glimpse of a faithful Creator who sustains all that he has made, caring for it until he brings it to consummation. These people remember God’s promise to Noah, given after Noah had emerged from a catastrophic flood when all such gracious natural rhythms had been upended:

“While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Gen. 8:22)

Strikingly, both groups observe the same reality—that things are “continuing as they were,” with patterns like seasons that do “not cease.” And yet, while observing the same phenomena, what they actually see is very different.

Paul tells us that all people are without excuse, for God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). But some people have “suppressed” this truth (Rom. 1:18). They no longer see God through his creation. Both Paul and Peter warn that these people, having lost sight of God, must now serve “the lusts of their hearts” (Rom. 1:24), “following their own sinful desires” (2 Pet. 3:3). Their end is wrath and death.

The ones who see God in the turning of the seasons, however, live “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11-12). They “honor [God] as God” and “give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21) as they watch the snow disappear and the buds burst anew with familiar green. Each virgin leaf, though matching millions of leaves from centuries past, brings them fresh evidence of the Ancient of Days. The turning seasons remind them that their heavenly Father will never again “strike down every living creature” as he did in the flood (Gen. 8:21). They know he will preserve this world until he creates “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). For this, through every season, they longingly wait.

Oh, but the turning of the seasons requires no Guiding Hand, right? Isn’t it all just a matter of planets obeying inertia and gravity, and living creatures obeying the directions of their DNA?

Not so fast, O my soul.

With amazing regularity, in a predictability of cycles, meals appear on my table. Most of the food has been cooked or baked. In the process, each loaf of bread, cut of meat, or bowl of vegetables has undergone very complex and yet very natural transformative chemical reactions. The rising of bread, the browning of meat, the softening of vegetables, the hardening of eggs—each follows laws of nature as surely as do spinning planets and spring plants. Yet I do not doubt the loving hand of my wife behind each natural process. Is it not equally reasonable to believe that a loving God is behind the turning of seasons? Being a spiritual being, our Creator hides himself better than my wife does, but “in him all things hold together,” we are told (Col. 1:17).

Chesterton pondered the turning of days and saw a young, playful Father:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.1

Maybe monotony is no proof of atheistic materialism. Maybe daily cycles and turning seasons both spring from a playful Father “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

If it stretches your adult imagination to picture God as playful, then at least ponder James’ claim that all God’s good gifts, including the gift of seasons, spring from a divine heart that knows “no variation”:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

Is this what you see revealed in the unvarying turning of the seasons—an unvarying Father? Or does the turning of the seasons reveal that your heart is unable to see?

As I near my mid-forties, I find it easier to see how some lose faith mid-journey. My youthful dreams of doing great things for God (though I seldom knew exactly what) now appear quaint. I increasingly feel great admiration for those who “only” have a record of a lifetime of faithfulness toward God and humanity.

“Life has seasons,” I like to say, usually as a solace for hard times. But is there Anyone supervising the seasons? Or are the seasons of nature and of my life merely mechanistic or random rotations?

Will I let myself fade into the fancy that my life is Fatherless and futile? Am I only able to see mindless matter moving through space and time? Or will I allow the turning of the seasons to renew my faith?

Will I bend to examine a familiar new flower? Will I note the spring’s first sounding of an old bird song? And will I breathe new thanksgivings—each breath of thanks pumping fresh faith into my lungs?

The Book of Nature points me to a powerful heavenly Father. The Book of Scripture tells me he is a “faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love… to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). I will trust him with the unending seasons of our lives.


What are you thankful for as Spring nears again? What are you doing to renew your vision of God through the cycling seasons of life? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Ethics of Elfland,’ Orthodoxy (House of Stratus, 2001), p. 41.

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Every Promise in the Book Is Mine?

“Every promise in the book is mine!” Do you remember that song? Here’s the complete chorus:

Every promise in the book is mine,
Every chapter, every verse, every line,
All are blessings of His love divine,
Every promise in the book is mine!

It’s a catchy little song. I think I learned it in Sunday School years ago. For a much slower version in a gospel style, complete with verses full of Bible promises, check out this performance by the Sensational Nightingales:

It’s catchy, but is it true? Is every promise in the Bible mine?

NO AND YES

The short answer is clearly No. God promised Abraham that he would make his name great (Gen. 12:2), but I have no reason to believe I will become famous like Abraham.  The Spirit through Paul promises that “the woman… will be saved through childbearing,” but I’ll need to let my wife claim that promise (1 Tim. 2:14-15).

Given the proliferation these days of devotional books and digital memes with random Bible promises, it’s important to remember to ask: Is this promise mine?

And yet, the short answer—No—is not the whole answer.

Consider this example: God promised David a son who would become king over God’s people (2 Sam. 7:12-16). I will never have such a son. And yet Isaiah, centuries later, wrote this as he recalled God’s promise to David: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder” (Is. 9:6). The “us” in this verse includes not only Isaiah, who was part of David’s royal line, but also the non-Judean “Galilee of the nations” (Is. 9:1). And we, too, have had a son born “to us”—all we who have Jesus as our King. Handel was right to help us sing this promise!

Paul sums it up neatly: “All the promises of God find their Yes in him”—in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Therefore, as Paul boldly announces elsewhere, “all things are yours” if you belong to Christ (1 Cor. 3:21).

So, is every promise in the book mine? If I belong to Christ, the full answer is clearly Yes. In some way, in Christ, I will benefit from every promise God has ever given—even, I think, from the one about the woman being saved through childbearing, though I’m not exactly sure how.

Both the No and the Yes are important to remember as we read promises in the Bible. Most of us begin our Christian lives with the Yes in full view, eagerly claiming promises. Then many of us “wise up” as we learn a few basic rules of Bible interpretation, and we remind each other—rightly, though sometimes a little smugly—of the No: “To whom was that promise originally given?” we ask.

I tend to hang out in that No camp much of the time, but recently I was reminded to broaden my thinking and simplify my trust in God’s promises. I have the writer of Hebrews to thank, but let me start with Joshua.

“I WILL NEVER LEAVE” WHO?

When Moses died and Joshua faced the gargantuan task of leading the Israelites into a promised land full of giants and walled cities, God gave Joshua a promise: “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5).

That was a very specific promise, right? God had been with Moses in a unique way. He had given Moses the same promise when he first called him into leadership: “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). Now God transferred the same assurance to Joshua.

As a Bible interpreter, I would tend to be cautious about using either verse as a proof text for God’s presence with Christians. “Right teaching, wrong text,” I might quip. In both verses, the promise of God’s presence was given to a special individual facing a specific task. At most, I might acknowledge that these verses could apply more narrowly to Christian leaders today, at least if I’m confident they have indeed been called by God.

But the writer of Hebrews has no such qualms. Listen to how he understands God’s promise to Joshua. Writing to God’s people at large, he says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you'” (Heb. 13:5).

His next words draw a conclusion (“so”) from this promise and confirm that he is applying it to both himself and his readers: “So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Heb. 13:6). Notice the we: by implication, he means “we [he and his readers] can confidently say” that God has promised to never leave us.

In fact, the writer of Hebrews is so sure that God’s promise to Joshua is also a promise for his readers that he uses it as assurance that a second OT promise, too, is theirs to claim! “Because God has promised not to leave us”—claiming the promise to Joshua—we can confidently say “The Lord is my helper”—claiming an assurance from Psalm 118:6-7. His confidence about one OT promise gives him boldness that he has inherited another, too.

And the author of Hebrews is not just writing to Christian leaders like Moses or Joshua. In fact, if anything he is not writing to leaders, for here are his very next words: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

So there we have it: You and I, if we are part of God’s people, can claim God’s promise to Joshua: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” This promise in the book is mine.

WHAT ABOUT OTHER PROMISES?

But what about this promise, also given to Joshua at the same time: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses” (Josh. 1:3)? Again, there is a clear No and a clear Yes.

No, I should not expect all my neighbors in Atlanta to be driven out before me so I can inherit the gold dome of Georgia’s capital building, the rich Buckhead neighborhood, or the new Mercedes Benz Stadium. Nor should I expect a divine inheritance of land if I move to Israel or Palestine.

But Yes, for Paul says “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world” belongs “the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:13, 16). Or, as Jesus put it, “the meek… shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). So, yes, this promise in the book is mine, too.

The same No and Yes apply to many other Bible promises you might consider, including famous ones like Jeremiah 29:11 (“I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you…” NIV). In each case it is important to consider the original nature of the promise, identifying its original recipients. Then reconsider the original promise in light of Christ’s coming: how might his coming  have shaped the promise’s ultimate fulfillment and audience? Who will now enjoy its benefits, and how?

That, admittedly, can be complicated.

If you want a simpler question, try this one: What does this promise—no matter to whom originally given—tell me about God’s nature and his heart toward his people? Then rest assured that God’s heart toward you—if you belong to Christ—is no less generous. Even if you aren’t sure exactly if or how to rightly “claim” a given promise, let it assure you of God’s heart toward his people. God’s plans are, indeed, to “prosper” his people who seek him with all their heart (Jer. 29:12-13), even if that prospering does not involve us being returned to Israel after 70 years of exile in Babylon.

“Claiming promises” is a practice that has gone badly off the rails far too often, resulting in heresies such as the prosperity gospel and the American civil religion that considers America a “city upon a hill.”

And yet…

“Every promise in the book is mine.” It requires some explanation and a few caveats. But in some ultimate way, in Christ, it is true. Go ahead and sing it, if you’d like.

Now all we need to do is fix the last word and make it plural. “Mine”? Really? Aren’t we western Christians individualistic enough already? “Every promise in the book is ours” would be much better, except that “ours” isn’t very euphonious. Any poets to the rescue?


What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below. And thanks for reading.


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How Do We Know Jesus Rose from the Dead?

How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? We discussed this question today at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta as part of our Easter celebration. How would you answer it?

Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta, backyard Easter service, 2018.

The resurrection is the basis for our Christian hope. Paul said that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then we won’t, either, and that if we have no hope of being raised at Christ’s return, then our “faith is futile” and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19).

I believe Jesus’ resurrection is also the foundational reason for trusting that the Bible is what it claims to be—words from God. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is who he claimed to be—the Christ sent from God. And if that is indeed who he is, then what he believed about the Scriptures must be true.

But this raises a bit of a logical problem, right? If we are not careful, we end up with a circular argument:

  1. We know that Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says so.
  2. We know that the Bible is true because Jesus rose from the dead.

If this were indeed the basis for Christian faith, then we should rightly be scoffed by any reasonable thinker.

But that is not the true nature of Christian faith. While faith reaches beyond the evidence, it is always, if you dig deep enough, rooted in  and in line with historically and empirically verifiable evidence. The apostles didn’t go around saying “just believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” They didn’t even simply say “believe that Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible (the Jewish Scriptures) said he would,” though that was true and they did indeed say so. But they did more: they said “we are are eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, and here is what we saw, heard, and touched.”

So that is a good place for anyone with doubts to begin with Scripture: simply treat it as ordinary, valid evidence to be considered in your personal court of law. That is where I begin with my list below. When the Bible receives this fair but ordinary reception, it can be used by the Holy Spirit to lead a person to saving faith in the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

All that is prelude to the following nine points that we discussed this morning. This is not a scholarly defense of Jesus’ resurrection. It is simply a series of points that I wrote to summarize some key facts that can bolster our faith that Jesus really did rise from the dead. There are no footnotes. You can find these same points and many more in much greater detail in books by authors such as Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, Jonathan Morrow, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, Gary Habermas, and many more.

HOW CAN WE KNOW
JESUS ROSE FROM THE DEAD?

  1. The New Testament writings, which claim that Jesus rose, are basically trustworthy historical documents. Historical evidence shows that it takes more than two generations for legends to develop and wipe out the truth about historical figures, and that matches when the later fake “gospels” about Jesus began to be written. But the New Testament was written down within the lifetime of the events it describes. We have more ancient hand-written copies of the New Testament than of any other ancient writing, and these copies are dated closer to the time of their authors than with other ancient writings. There are also references to Jesus in ancient writings outside the Bible and no ancient claims that he never existed. If you believe the historical accounts about people such as the Roman emperor Augustus or events such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70, as all historians do, then you have every reason to also believe that the New Testament writings, which claim that Jesus rose, are basically trustworthy historical documents. 
  2. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection have the ring of eye-witness testimony. Each of the Gospels tell the same story of the resurrection, with the same core events and characters. But they each tell the story differently, with different details mentioned in ways that make it look at first as if there is some conflict between their accounts. This shows that the writers were not merely reciting some agreed-upon fake story. Rather, they were each telling about the same historical event in their own way. The core story in each Gospel matches, and the apparently conflicting details have been harmonized by careful Bible students. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection have the ring of eye-witness testimony. 
  3. Jesus did actually die. First he suffered a brutal lashing using a whip of braided leather with metal balls woven into it. According to the third-century historian Eusebius, “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews, and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” Many people died during such Roman lashings. Then Jesus was nailed to a cross. Crucifixion caused its victims to die of asphyxiation (loss of oxygen) as the victim lost strength to push themselves into a vertical position to breath. Loss of oxygen then led to an irregular heartbeat and death. If a Roman soldier let a prisoner escape, the responsible soldier would be put to death themselves, so they made sure every victim was dead before they were removed from a cross. Jesus did actually die. 
  4. Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb. All four Gospels say a Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his own tomb. Joseph was a member of the council that had voted to kill Jesus. If Jesus’ followers wanted to invent a burial story, why would they invent such a specific story, which people could then check out and prove false? The very earliest Christian creeds, like in 1 Corinthians 15, mention that Jesus was buried. In ancient writings there are no other competing traditions about Jesus’ burial besides the ones found in the Gospels. Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb. 
  5. The tomb was actually empty several days after Jesus’ burial. According to the Gospels, the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women. But women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless in the ancient world that they weren’t allowed to serve as legal witnesses under Jewish law. In that case, why would the early Christians invent such an embarrassing story about women witnesses if it wasn’t actually true? Besides, the site of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was known to Jesus’ enemies, so if the body was still there, they could have shown so. But neither Roman authorities nor the Jewish leaders ever claimed that the body was still in the tomb. Instead, they invented stories to try to hide the fact that the tomb was actually empty several days after Jesus’ burial. 
  6. Nobody stole Jesus’ body. This is what the Jewish leaders feared Jesus’ followers would do, so they arranged with the Roman governor to have the stone covering of the tomb sealed and for a group of soldiers to guard the tomb. After Jesus’ body disappeared, the Jews spread the story that the guards had fallen asleep and that Jesus’ followers had stolen the body. But Jesus’ followers were terrified; they had just watched Jesus die. They had no motive to steal his body and then die themselves for this lie. And Jesus’ enemies certainly didn’t steal his body. If they had, they would have displayed his body publicly in Jerusalem to prove that he was still dead. Nobody stole Jesus’ body. 
  7. Jesus’ followers didn’t expect him to come back to life. In the New Testament accounts, everyone is surprised when they learn that Jesus is alive again. The women, who were first to witness the empty tomb, were there because they planned to anoint Jesus’ dead body, not because they expected a resurrection. When they saw the empty tomb, their first thought was that someone had stolen the body. At first the men didn’t believe the women’s claims that the tomb was empty. It was embarrassing for the Gospel writers to admit that the leaders of the church were so slow to believe Jesus’ prophecies about his own resurrection. But ancient people were even more familiar with death than most of us are, and they knew as well as we do that people don’t normally come back to life after they die—certainly not without dying again later. Jesus’ followers didn’t expect him to come back to life. 
  8. Jesus was seen alive after his death. The Gospels, the book of Acts, and 1 Corinthians 15 all record multiple witnesses who saw Jesus after his resurrection. Within weeks of Jesus’ death his followers were publicly claiming that they had seen him alive, and these claims were written down during the lifetime of the witnesses so readers could investigate their claims. These witnesses were not hallucinating, because hallucinations don’t happen to groups, and there are records of groups ranging from 11 to 500 who saw Jesus at the same time. Within weeks of the crucifixion, thousands of Jews believed the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. They started abandoning Jewish laws that they formerly believed they had to obey to avoid damnation. These appearances of Jesus were powerful enough to change Jesus’ half-brother James from a sceptic into one of the main leaders of the early church, and to change Paul from a violent persecutor of the church into one of its most courageous preachers. Those who knew best whether Jesus had actually risen or not went to their deaths claiming it was true. Not one of the inner circle of apostles ever recanted his claims of having seen the risen Jesus, even though most of them were martyred for their testimony. Jesus was seen alive after his death. 
  9. Jesus continues to change lives today. The first followers of Jesus were changed from selfish, fearful followers or even enemies of Jesus into courageous, loving preachers of the resurrection. In the same way, throughout history to this day, millions of followers of Jesus testify that he has changed their lives. This matches what the first followers of Jesus claimed. They said that all who join Jesus receive the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and that this Spirit of God tells them that they are now God’s children. God’s Spirit within makes us feel the reality that Jesus is indeed alive and will return again. We show others Jesus rose by pointing to the historical evidence, and we know for ourselves that he rose not only because of that historical evidence but also because of the witness of the Spirit of Jesus within our hearts. Jesus continues to change lives today.

After examining the evidence, it still takes faith to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But in the face of such evidence, it would also take faith to believe that he didn’t. Coming up with viable alternative explanations for the evidence is not as easy as it might look at first. Many have tried and failed.

I am convinced that the best explanation for the evidence is the one that is also the best news you could imagine—“in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). When I don’t feel the truth of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus is a factual foundation that I come back to, a sure place to rest until I regain spiritual sight.

Again, this is not a scholarly defense of Jesus’ resurrection. So, if you are a skeptic, I invite you to look closer before you scoff.

But if you are a believer, I invite your response: How do you know Jesus rose from the dead? Share your favorite evidence in the comments below. Then live as if it really happened, because it did!


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