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.

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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What Does a True Follower of Jesus Look Like?

How can you identify a real Christian? What are the marks of a genuine Christian?

Mark Dever is famous for his list of “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” Others, including the Protestant reformers, produced lists of marks of the “true church.” (A church can be unhealthy but still true, so the latter lists are shorter.)

But I am asking primarily about the individual, not the group: How can you identify who truly belongs to Jesus?

There are many good, biblical ways to ask and answer this question. What does Christian mean, anyway? The term was first used in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, and it appears that unbelievers were the ones who coined it. According to commentator Ben Witherington III, the term Christians (Χριστιανοι) in its original historical context meant “those belonging to, identified with, or adherents or followers of Christ.” (Pardon his poor grammar!) So in this post I’ll frame it this way: What does a true follower of Jesus look like?

I was motivated to ask this question because our little church gathering here in West Lake, Atlanta goes by the name of Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta (FJCA). Since we chose to bear that name, I decided I should examine the New Testament more closely to see whom we are supposed to be!

I shared my findings with our church and we discussed them together. Now I’ll share them with you.

First, some clarifications.

What follows is not a summary of the gospel. If it was, I’d need to be clearer on the work of Jesus.

Nor is it a description of the church. If it was, I’d need to discuss things like leadership and decision-making.

Some might fault this list because it focuses strongly on behavior. But this is a natural result of simply reading how the Bible, Jesus in particular, describes followers of Jesus. They are certainly people who believe certain things—and my list begins with belief, even if it doesn’t use the traditional language of faith. But they are also people who act, or at least ought to act, in certain ways. Again, this focus on behavior is because I am aiming to describe not the gospel itself, but a primary fruit of the gospel—people who are changed to follow Jesus.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It began with a simple concordance search for “follow.” Immediately several central themes (suffering for Jesus, selfless love, etc.) became clear. Though I expanded my search, there are too many related concepts to have found all the relevant biblical data. I did try to throw a wide net—sometimes perhaps too wide—but I realize now that even some basic concepts like repentance and faith could be strengthened. I expect I’ll update this list from time to time.

Lastly, perhaps this list would be better titled “marks of healthy followers of Jesus,” since no one follower exhibits all these qualities perfectly.

Read my summary paragraphs after each heading. Compare my summary statements with the Scriptures that follow. Perhaps you’ll find Jesus’ call to follow as challenging as I did!


Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Suffering witness: Jesus’s followers bear confident witness to his true identity as fully God and fully man—the Son of God, the promised Messiah-Christ-King, the Lamb of God who saves us from our sin, and the risen, ruling Son of Man. These followers are so devoted to Jesus that they willingly suffer for his sake, leaving all—possessions, family, and honor—for the sake of Jesus and the eternal rewards of his kingdom.

They bear witness of Jesus and his kingdom to each other, to the watching world, and to all of creation. They bear witness by word and action, by their gathered worship and their daily lives, and ultimately by their deaths.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his greatest commandment—to love God with all our being.

Matt. 4:19; 16:15-17; 28:18-20; John 1:35-49; 6:66-69; 10:4-5, 27; 15:26-27;  1 Cor. 11:23-26; Col. 3:16-17; Rev 14:1-5; Matt 4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9; 10:37-39; 16:24-26; 19:21-23; Mark 8:34-37; 10:28-30; Luke 5:11, 28; 9:23-24, 57-62; John 12:23-26.

Loving service: Jesus’ followers imitate his way of loving others. They gladly suffer injustices without retaliating. They offer generous forgiveness to all who offend them, without holding grudges. They pray for their enemies and look for ways to creatively bless them, refusing to take up the sword. They are faithful in their marriages and all other relationship commitments.

Their whole lives are characterized by selfless service, for they imitate the One who came not to be served but to serve—who gave up his divine rights, washed his disciples’ feet, and laid down his life for the world.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Mark 15:41; John 12:26; Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 6:27-36; 22:25-27;  1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:9-18; 5:1-3; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 25; Col 3:13; John 13:14-16; Phil 2:4-7; Rom 15:1-3, 7.

Christian unity: Jesus’ followers know there is one Flock and one Shepherd. They affirm that all who belong to Christ, the Head, also belong to the Church, his Body. They rejoice that people of every culture, color, and class find oneness in Christ alone. They know Jesus has promised to build his own Church which he purchased with his own blood.

They don’t divide over human leaders, but they do honor the teaching and imitate the example of Jesus’ apostles, whom he appointed as a foundation for his true Church. They welcome all whom Christ has welcomed while disciplining those who falsely claim to belong to him.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his final recorded prayer for them—that we may all be one in him.

Matt. 12:30; 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; John 10:16; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; 20:28;  1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3-9; 11:1; 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6; Rom. 15:5-7;  2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17; Rev. 7:9-10, 17.

Spirit-powered obedience: Jesus’ followers honor his words by doing them. They do this by the Holy Spirit, their Helper sent by Jesus. They know they—like Jesus during his earthly life—will bear good fruit only by the power of the Spirit within them.

They expect the Spirit will bear witness to Jesus by miraculous signs and special graces given as he wishes. They also expect the Spirit will empower them to live clearly counter-cultural lives of moral purity, relational integrity, and neighbor- and enemy-love—lives of humility, contentment, and trust in their heavenly Father.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor the great commission he gave them—to make disciples who are taught to do all that he commanded.

Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 6:46-49; John 14:15, 21-24;  1 John 2:4-6; Matt. 5-7; 22:37-40; Acts 10:38; Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-2, 14-15, 18; Luke 3:16; 11:13; 12:11-12; 24:49; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 32-33, 38-39; Gal. 5:16-25.


Here is a PDF version of the same list:

Download Here

Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Where are North American Christians most falling short of these marks? How would you summarize the biblical picture of a true Christian? Share your insights in the comments below.


Endnote: As I did my research, I ended up with about seven main points. I wanted to be more concise, in case we end up using some version of this list as a church values statement someday. So I combined points until I had only four somewhat memorable headings. Many other combinations could have been equally possible, however. For example, combining “suffering” with “love” rather than with “witness” would also have expressed something that is clearly biblical: “Suffering love.” “Spirit-powered unity” also sounds good! The richness of Scripture cannot be summarized in any four, seven, or nine marks.


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