Let me start by telling a true story but with some particulars changed to honor privacy.
Gary’s comment caught my attention at the funeral of his father, Ricky: “I’m glad he’s finally at peace and together again with Linda.” Linda, his mother, died of cancer six years earlier.
As context, I knew Linda from church. She came to faith as an adult and had a strong faith for the final decade of her life. Her son, Gary, went to church with her after she met Jesus and he continues in church today. His father Ricky, on the other hand, never professed any sort of faith. Nor did he ever visit the church.
So, given Ricky’s apparent distance from faith, is Gary right? Are his parents now together in heaven?
It’s a sensitive concern—not one we’re inclined to address. Nor is his sentiment unusual. Most people adopt optimistic views of the afterlife when a loved one dies. But does the Bible endorse Gary’s optimism?
Some would say yes. Rob Bell, for instance, wrote about the inevitable success of Christ’s redeeming love—so that no one will endure eternal judgment. I’ve also read Baxter Kruger’s works and I know about his endorsement of Paul Young’s novel, The Shack. Both men embrace an implicit universalism that goes back to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (among others). Their points make some sense once they’re framed within broader theological commitments.
But other Christians dismiss such views. They point to the many Bible texts that speak of eternal judgment. As in Matthew 23 where Jesus warned the hypocrites of his day, “how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
So where do I land? In the Bible I find a literal hell and the reality of eternal judgment to be bedrock assumptions. The theologically derived views of my universalist-leaning friends just aren’t convincing.
So I was filled with grief at Ricky’s death. Saddened because, as we read in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, he faced “the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord…”
But it’s also clear in the Bible that this isn’t because God lacks mercy. It was Ricky’s choice to dismiss what God had offered him. In other words I accept the claim of 2 Peter 3:9 that God “is not willing that any should perish…”
We then return to an underlying question. Why, then, is heaven exclusive? If everyone is guilty—“for all have sinned” (Ro. 3:23)—why are some saved and not all? If God has mercy on some, but not all, why does he waste so many human lives as assumed in the standard account of hell? Any honest headcount tells us that God’s Foe has many more recruits than God has.
So Gary’s sentiment—with its implicit universalism—was an understandable effort to resolve this tension.
Yet the Bible doesn’t embrace the “all-will-be-well” narrative that emerges at so many funerals. Instead we read that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. And God’s declared jealousy in the Decalogue has substance. As does the great command to love God—with the alternative that many hate God instead. Or in the jealous exhortations of James 4. The problem of sin centers on God’s heart being broken by a world that rejects his love.
To chase this—and to revise some of the common narratives we hear—we need to recall that salvation starts with a Triune God. The relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit led to both creation and redemption. The relational reality of God “is love.”
So let’s return to 2 Thessalonians where Paul blamed sinners for their devotion to Satan’s deceptions “because they refused to love the truth and so to be saved.” So God gave them over to their desires. And they were not victims of a capricious selectivity.
This won’t make sense to those who hold to a human-centered theology. Instead we need to turn to a Son-centered theology. The world rages against God for not protecting and enhancing human ambitions—a fact cited in Psalm 2. But the biblical narrative centers on the Son and not on human dreams to be like God.
Let’s turn, instead, to a more biblical narrative: to the Father’s ambition to find a bride for his Son. The Father’s plan is to share his Son with the creation. Just as the Father has delighted in his Son from eternity past, the bride of Christ is invited to enjoy the Son’s glory for the rest of eternity.
A glimpse of this comes with a review of John’s gospel. It begins with God’s love for the world in John 3:16. But the world instead loves darkness rather than light … so much so that by the time we reach John 17 the Son’s portrayal of his love for the Father is a winnowing reality. Some are drawn to the love of God and others hate what he offers.
So the real problem of sin is its informed disaffection: a love of self in place of a love for the Son. And, on the other hand, those who respond to the invitation to know and love the Son are welcomed to the Triune family of God.
But what of the terrible inefficiency of this plan? Shouldn’t everyone be brought into heaven to be Christ’s holy and blameless bride?
Will people who don’t find the Son attractive really want to share eternity with him? And is God somehow obliged to allow for eternal human autonomy? Isn’t it true, instead, that the nature of a marriage is its exclusivity—that the defining quality of the marital bond is the love and mutual attraction of the husband and his spouse?
So Gary’s optimism is misplaced. Love is avid. When we know the Son it all makes sense. And Ricky saw that love in Linda’s devotion to Jesus. But he wasn’t interested. And that’s the tragedy.
“Let all things be done for building up.” This call wrapped up Paul’s response to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 14:26 on the question of spiritual gifts. He was dealing with a divided and spiritually immature church—“infants in Christ”—who wrestled, ironically, with how to be godly in their new relationship with God.
So here’s my question for the day. How good are we at building up others—with helping new children of God to be more godly? Not just as individuals but in our church ministries? And in parachurch ministries?
I ask this as an honest question in the afterglow of a global workers’ conference in Oak Harbor, Washington. One of my highlights was a midweek visit with the Navigator ministry at the local Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The “Navs” feature outreach and discipleship—a building-up ministry—with a unique focus.
I spent time with the Navigators decades ago during my two-years as an Army draftee. I still remember that time with pleasure—in my being built up by others. I later met and worked with the first fruit of the Nav ministry—Les Spencer—a sailor on the battleship West Virginia who started meeting over the Bible with a mentor, Dawson Trotman, in 1933. Another of that first round of Navs was Ed Goodrick who marked me deeply as one of my Bible college teachers. Ed combined a dynamic mind with a robust devotion to Christ.
These men were great building block figures in my own growth. As was Art Branson, my high school youth pastor. For Art the Scriptures were an artesian well of God’s overflowing heart—where we could “taste and see” God’s love for us. He ministered to more than a hundred youth but he still had time for me as an individual. He was a ready coach and companion to any of us who were hungry to grow.
And that’s what I have in mind as I write this. How many of us are good at helping others to grow? In doing what Jesus did with his small core?
As an example of the need, as I started writing this entry at a local coffee shop a young man was sitting at the same long table with his Bible open. We struck up a brief conversation about Bible reading—my own Bible was obvious—and he was soon promoting a well-known “kingdom” cult. After he left I couldn’t help but wonder how a Dawson or an Art might have helped him in his first days of Bible reading—in doing some “building up” on a proper foundation.
Over the years I’ve noticed certain tendencies in the church at large. Some feature star-based ministries—churches led by charismatic orators. Other churches promise wealth and health. Still others offer therapeutic ministry—ways to find more satisfaction and success in life. But these approaches rarely produce biblical maturity—the sort of well-rounded believers who live and talk like Jesus.
So where are ministries that feature authentic spiritual construction?
I’ve also noticed that the fastest-growing churches I’ve been part of over the years—those that still proclaim a clear devotion to Christ and to his teachings—are often thin in offering what Art offered me. Home groups that review last Sunday’s sermon are the high-water mark for most. It’s not a bad approach but the more robust work of digging and developing truth from closer Bible study is rare.
So here’s a thought. Are the pastors in such churches operating with a spiritual gift that needs to be complemented by other gifts? I can think, for instance, of Billy Graham’s realization in the 1950’s that the many people who responded at his crusades needed to be helped. He soon got in touch with Dawson for help on that score and the Nav ministry started to multiply.
One of the apostle Paul’s big points in what he wrote to the immature Corinthian church was his so-called “love chapter”—1 Corinthians 13—located in the middle of his discussion about spiritual gifts. As Paul reached the finale in his letter about building up others he had already elevated love as the only proper basis for ministry.
So I’ll end with that thought. We all need to love and be loved. My mentor, Art, reflected Christ’s love for him. And he shared it with those of us who were hungry to grow. We jumped at the more focused times he offered. As I look back that only amounted to a few of us—out of the larger group of more than a hundred—but he was always there. He loved God and he loved us. He was infectious.
Paul offers a bottom-line we need to notice. Who is available today for the young and hungry believers found in any ministry setting? Shouldn’t churches and ministries today do more in offering more robust pathways to maturity? Let’s call it a constructive suggestion.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem—“because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
So, given the Son’s presumed power to grant salvation to the elect why was he weeping? Let me poke this question with a pair of affective insights—insights that recognize the heart as the defining motive center of both God and humans.
Earlier in Luke the author confronted the social and spiritual leaders who dismissed Jesus. These, in contrast to tax collectors who responded to Jesus, were said to have “rejected the purpose of God for themselves.”
In Acts 2 we also read of God’s ultimate control of the rejection of the gospel by Israel’s leaders: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Here we see just a small part of how the combined Luke-Acts—taken as a single original composition—offers a glimpse into the interplay of human and divine initiatives. Luke, as we just read, can be as strong as any other Bible author in asserting complete divine rule over creation—including God’s selection of some humans, but not all, for salvation.
Yet he also affirms human culpability for rejecting God’s grace on a number of occasions—as if human initiative is the key feature in what takes place.
So in the perpetual debates over the basis for salvation—pitting God’s will against the priority of human free will—is Luke clueless?
We have some evidence to chase. The intersection of human sin and divine redemption is called repentance—something required if humans are to be saved from Adam’s fall. John the Baptist, for a starter, came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Jesus also featured this theme: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). And in Peter’s Pentecost sermon of Acts 2 he replied to the convicted listeners’ question of “what shall we do?” with a call to “repent.”
This call-and-response seems to elevate the human will in achieving salvation: the reader is called to act. Yet there’s a caveat. Bible scholar Leon Morris noticed that Luke always treats repentance as a gift of God. As in the case of Peter’s visit to Caesarea and the conversion of Cornelius and other non-Jews. This convinced the Jewish Christian leaders that “to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
On the other hand it’s also clear that Luke regularly portrays grace as something humans can resist—as we noticed already. In Asia Minor Barnabas and Paul shifted their ministry focus from the Jews to the Gentiles because of this: “Since you thrust it [the gospel] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
Now let’s add another feature. How do we define grace?
In my book, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness, I trace a division among 16th century Puritans. Many Puritans unwittingly followed the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas who defined grace as a supernaturally-supplied human capacity: God gives this grace to empower the fallen human will. But it’s a gift God only gives to the elect. And, according to these Puritans, only the elect—those who have a grace-enhanced will—can effectively choose to repent.
In this arrangement Aquinas rejected Peter Lombard’s earlier portrayal of grace as God’s personal presence in the soul: the gift of the indwelling Spirit. So the Puritans who followed Aquinas battled the Puritans who agreed with Lombard by way of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both men dismissed Aquinas, as did Sibbes a century later. They all held the Spirit to be the presence of God’s grace in the soul.
If we track this debate over time the divide has only hardened. One way to see this today is to ask whether grace is portrayed by a teacher as a “what”—something humans have and use—or a “who”—the Spirit who comes and captures souls by revealing Christ’s love.
And that difference sets out two competing versions of salvation.
If, for instance, we follow the Thomistic view—that in order to repent a person needs a grace-empowered-will, the focus is on human responsibility. Yet with that comes an odd corollary that grace is “irresistible” because it represents a divine power that never fails. God’s will, in effect, overrides the weaker human will in the elect in a way that is always “efficient.” In effect it treats humans as divinely manipulated objects.
And with this arrangement we can conceive of “non-elect” people as those who may long to be saved but who are unable to achieve the faith needed to be saved. Let’s call it the crippling consequence of being human—born in sin as Adam’s fallen children.
But if we follow Augustine-Lombard-Luther-Calvin-and-Sibbes—among many others—and read the Bible as portraying the Spirit as God’s grace—as his gracious life-giving presence—we have a different scenario. We are still Adam’s fallen children but the problem reveals the same ambition Adam unleashed: we want to explore the “freedom” to be “like God.” So the problem of sin isn’t a crippled will but a robust will that doesn’t want God to be God! It’s a robust self-love.
This points to a second feature of the Puritan divide. In the Augustine/Lombardian view the human mind and will are instruments of the heart. We always do what we love to do; and our minds then rationalize our love and guide our choices. So the problem of sin is that we love to sin. And Satan knows how to manipulate our love—Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:1-3.
A proper gospel, then, dismisses the Thomistic portrayal of a disabled human will as the problem. The real issue is that we are forever resisting God’s grace as offered by his Spirit. We, like Adam, still manage to grieve, quench, and blaspheme the Spirit who is forever witnessing to the beauty and love of God as revealed in Christ.
The good news is that some—usually the poor, the lame, the weak, and the social outcasts who are “sinners” or “blind”—are drawn to God’s love. His winsome wooing overcomes self-love, especially in those who fall short of being “like God.” The woman at the well, Zachaeus the tax collector, and the man born blind offer examples of this. God, in fact, allows weaknesses in a fallen world—as in the man born blind—as unique pathways for grace. And the parable of the wedding feast says as much: “many are called but few are chosen.”
So is Jesus still weeping over Jerusalem? Over those who despise him and resist his grace? Yes. But he also knows that some—his “sheep”—will recognize his voice and respond. And “sinners” hear his voice better than those who are already “righteous.”
Today began in Serbia—in Sremska Mitrovica. Last Sunday was Jos, Nigeria. In between were a couple of days at home in Camas. So my body—my sleep cycle—is confused. Call it a game of perpetual catch-up!
But what about the soul? What offers stability, no matter what I happen to eat and where I get to sleep? Chicken for meals is a standard but a host of spices and sauces can make an adventure of every chicken I meet. So it’s not the food that makes for security. Nor the bed where my head rests. Something more profound is needed.
What we all need is a place where the heart can rest. And that’s a gift best offered by good companions. Both in our receiving care from them and in sharing our care in turn. It may be a gift from traveling companions or from the companions at a destination. The broad word for this care is “love”—we need to love and to be loved.
But we often struggle with the language of love. Is love an emotion? Or is it more objective: a determination to do good things for others?
Certainly it’s more than this either-or opposition. If, on the one hand, if we call love a determination to offer benefits, we’re only looking at behaviors. At something a good hotel can offer. A smile. A request to see my passport and my credit card. Then a room key with a brief word—“Take the elevator, in the next hall to the right.” So I have an empty room with a bed, a bath, a television and the Internet—all offered for a price.
Yet the language of love can also be clumsy. To call love an emotion—a nice sentiment—hardly hits the mark. Someone can say, “I sure love you!” but it doesn’t mean much if that person also “loves” a car, or a pastry, or a photo, or a dog with the same sort of mundane enthusiasm.
Love is more than this. It’s the heart of companion who wants to share worlds—who refuses to be isolated from my heart. A companion takes me away from the island of indifference the airplane represents. I know I’m loved when I’m met with a broad smile at the airport exit and flooded with questions that tell me our last conversation from many months ago is still remembered.
Love is the rich tapestry of thoughts in which the voices build each other up to be stronger and more noble. Where insights and honor are shared with truth, tears, and laughter. Love has emotions—of course—but love also stirs objective actions. The bed, bath, and benefits of a home all feature the personality of the homemaker. The questions—“Can I bring you another blanket? Would you like something to drink?”—all speak of a desire to please.
So companionship breathes the atmosphere of mutual care. Companions give each other the space to be different as well as the joy and security of shared values.
And this is where Christian faith has so much to offer to profound companionship. In knowing Jesus each partner in a friendship is oriented to one whose life is ultimately other-centered. Jesus counts others more important than himself. He came to serve rather than to be served. Yet his heart also invites his followers to come and explore his care. He invites curiosity. His goodness is unending. And he wants us to know more about his family—about his Father.
And that brings me to the joy of my work as a global traveler. I have opportunities to be with those I love and who love me in turn. Not so much because I’m lovely or they’re lovely, but because we share a devotion to the God who loves us all. His love then spills through us to each other.
I know this can sound like a bit of pie-in-the-sky. But I promise you, as I travel I’m secure and satisfied. My unique role in life is to care for those who are caring for others. And when I get to visit them I find consistency. Global workers who are good at loving others are also good at loving their guests. And my role is to offer a little bit of care in return.
It all works because we find our ultimate companionship in one whose spreading goodness is steady and unconditional. His love is constant. And that keeps us going.
Tomorrow I’ll be in Seville, Spain, with another group of Christian companions. Thank God for his love that started it all!
The Provost spoke the traditional words, “Christ is risen!” and the hundreds of students responded in full voice, “He is risen indeed!” It was the Thursday chapel before Easter—just before the students left for home to attend Good Friday services. I was in Nigeria at the Gindiri Theological Seminary—both far from home but still at home.
Easter remembrances among Christians, worldwide, point to the power of the resurrection to change lives. Until Jesus defeated death humanity had no real answer to questions about “what comes next? Is there life after death?”
Yes, indeed, because Christ is, indeed, risen. And so are all who are his. While we aren’t yet with him—alive forever with resurrected bodies—that will come soon enough.
Easter also reminds us that Adam’s decision to dismiss God’s warning not to eat the forbidden fruit—with death as its immediate fruit—continues to carry its shattering impact into the world. Yet because of Easter we don’t despair.
When Easter Sunday came I attended the Headquarters Church of the Church of Christ in Nigeria—COCIN—located in Jos. This time more than a thousand voices answered the pastor’s call, “He is risen indeed!”
Why this trip to Nigeria?
I had been invited, along with a friend, to provide a lectureship at Gindiri. That was reason enough for the trip, but I had a second motive in play. Soja Bewarang, a seminary classmate and friend from the early 80’s, once pastored this church. I hadn’t seen him since ’82 and he still lives in Jos—so a reunion was in order.
On the Saturday before Easter he and his wife, Mercy, hosted Rick and me. And to our delight he included three other former seminary classmates at the luncheon. It was a feast of friendships! And it gave me a chance to ask some questions.
I asked him, for one, about his time as the COCIN pastor. In 2001 Jos was featured in the worldwide news. Islamic radicals launched a set of deadly attacks on Christians. Many Christians retaliated and hundreds—perhaps thousands—died in the upheavals that followed.
Soja told us of a moment in those tragic days when some of the church members who were guarding the church from the radicals approached him. They had captured one of the Islamic radicals on the property.
“Shall we kill him?!” they asked Soja.
He immediately vetoed the idea. “No, just put him in a secure place and feed him. Then tonight, after things settle down, we’ll send him back to his people.” And they did just that.
What came next was remarkable. The man, once he was released and able to return to his side of the embattled city discovered that his own people also had a captive they were planning to kill—but in this case it was a Christian. He immediately insisted that his life must be spared.
“The Christians spared my life. So we must spare this Christian’s life.” He was able to convince his companions to set the Christian free and the man was soon back at the church telling his own story of survival.
As I thought about Easter Soja’s story was a notable example of how life in Christ is always giving, not taking. His immediate impulse to spare the life of the Islamic radical was a mercy that bred mercy. In a country where death was everywhere at the time. Yet Soja was among those who could and would say, “Christ is risen.” And he displayed what a heart, now risen in Christ, is ready to do to quench the power of death. He offered Christ’s own mercy. And God used that mercy to save a life.
Our reunion was a real encouragement. And it made me look forward to our greater reunion yet to come, when death is swallowed up by life. Thank God for Easter—for God’s mercy in Christ. And we all need it, don’t we! Wherever we happen to live.
Any of us who do bold Bible reading—the three-or-more-read-throughs-a-year folks—will have conversations with God as we read. That’s our insiders’ information . . . what makes the reading so satisfying and keeps us going.
I’m happy to promote relational Bible reading once again for a couple of reasons.
First, it’s a wonderful opportunity—a rich and realistic option. Reading the Bible each day at a normal reading pace, to be with God, has real rewards. Jesus called all his disciples to “abide in my word.” “Abide” as in “spend time and enjoy what I’m saying.” Even thirty to forty minutes each day will carry us through the Bible in three to four months.
A happily married couple will illustrate this sort of abiding love. My mother commented, after my dad’s passing, “You kids never got to know the really thoughtful side of your father—what he shared when we talked at night. It was such a treasure to me.”
I’m pretty sure mom wasn’t saying she would listen to dad talk for six or seven minutes and then pull out her notebook to journal about it for twenty minutes. Or that she spent time the next morning researching what he shared. Their communion was its own reward.
The marriage comparison has its limits. Bible reading isn’t the same as having someone else in the room; and study has a role. I spend hours digging into Bible texts when I get ready to teach or preach. But let’s not let the pendulum swing too far, as in the knowledge-as-a-commodity version of faith. Christ’s ambition is for us to know and love him; and to delight in his Father.
And that sets up the second reason—one already hinted at—for this entry.
It’s this: God’s word always stirs a response. The more we’re exposed, the more we respond. And at this stage of God’s work in history it’s his way of drawing and protecting us. He knows we’re saturated with the values and ideas of the world. The market economy—what meets us on the Internet and in every other sort of media—turns on this: marketers know we grow accustomed to what we see and hear. And repeated exposures move hearts . . . along with time and money. Yet the love and enjoyment of Christ is ignored.
Let’s tighten the focus. My promotion of Bible reading is just a prologue. The real point is to share something of my response to reading Isaiah this week.
For context, on Wednesday I drove to Hug Point on the Oregon coast and stayed overnight at Cannon Beach: great places for Bible-reading. This trip happened to include hours of hurricane-force winds, an extreme high tide, and lost power. It seemed dumb at first—I knew the forecast—yet it proved to be a wonderful scene for thinking about a dynamic creator.
In the two-hour drive to the coast I listened to about half of Isaiah. On reaching the coast I found Hug Point fully awash from both the sea and sky, so I only stayed and prayed for about fifteen minutes. Then, with my coat and Levis soaked, I drove back to a viewpoint just south of Cannon Beach and parked with wipers wiping. The “pacific” ocean was raging!
As the car rocked and shuddered in the pelting rain I revisited and underlined verses in the sections I’d listened to on the drive. Isaiah, accompanied by gale-force winds, is uniquely impressive! I’d done something like this many years ago with two high-school read-through partners from my youth group. Ben, a senior then, went on to be a Navy Seal but I can’t claim a connection!
In Isaiah God is a provocateur, displayed through his feisty prophet. Picture a man called on by God to walk around stark-naked for three years to make a single point.
Isaiah can startle the unwary reader, especially by its abrupt swings: from affirming good to confronting evil; in setting out dark, then light; in presenting God as both angry and anguished. We find shifts between a particular divine “servant”—Jesus will later say “that’s me”—and a broader and faithless national servant-nation, Israel. We find shifts between a promise that deadly nations will swallow Israel; and another promise of a coming banquet when Death will be swallowed.
And this moral oscillation is where my conversations with God are always lively. At the many shifts, bumps, and turns I find myself saying, inwardly—and sometimes even aloud—“Wait! What just happened here? Who are you talking about? Why this?”
So I find Isaiah fascinating: a transparent prophet who shares God’s heart with us. He calls for close listening and a response. In Isaiah God is clearly triune: the Father is called father; the suffering Servant is divine and sent by the Father; and the Spirit hovers over the whole.
Let me leave you with one example of an “Oh, ouch!” from my reading-in-the-storm. As the book reaches a crescendo God offers a number of encouraging glimpses of a glorious future for his people: his goodness will spread even to “those who did not seek me.” And he will create a “new heavens and a new earth” where weeping is ended.
Yet in the final chapter we still find a warning. God confronts sloganeering faith as set against Bible-defined faith. I’ll cite it and invite reflection—does it anticipate Christ’s time? Or ours? Or both?
“Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word: ‘Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name’s sake have said, “Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy”’; but it is they who will be put to shame” (Isaiah 66:5).
Isaiah always leaves us thinking . . . and praying!
Sin is ironically powerful. It has all the power of a runaway human ego. It can undermine great rulers, break the strongest vows, blind the most able scholars, and even crucify God himself.
But ironic? Yes, ironic because sin has no extrinsic power over the sinner. Sin, instead, is an inner ambition of the soul. The sinner wants to sin; and in a given test no sinner ever un-wants what he wants. Martin Luther called this the Bondage of the Will and taught that only a new and stronger desire can ever break the desire to sin.
Can this be true?
Yes—or so the Bible says. In the Scriptures we learn that Satan captured Adam and now rules humanity by misshapen ambitions. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 2:1-3 by attributing the Devil’s power to his manipulation of human passions and desires.
Jesus had already said as much in John 8:31-47. There Jesus set out a polarity of those who embraced his word over against those aligned with Satan’s heart: “If God were your father you would love me” but, instead, “you do the desires of your father, the Devil.”
So, too, in John 9 Jesus used the plight of a blind man to emphasize his point. Sinful people—those who are blind spiritually—don’t recognize their own sin: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
The men Jesus was challenging—the religious leaders of his day—were engaged in sin without realizing it. So only the man who had been blind and was healed saw Christ’s point. And his example was just part of a wider problem, as when Jesus called Jerusalem’s religious leaders “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16).
Paul, in Romans 3, also saw sin as pervasive—“there is none righteous.” So spiritual blindness is inclusive and lasts for as long as the blinded person presumes to see. We can link this to another use of sight as a moral metaphor in Paul’s prayer of Ephesians 1:18 that the readers would have “the eyes of your hearts enlightened” to see and accept God’s handiwork.
This was tangible stuff for Paul. When Jesus confronted him—he was still called Saul—on the road to Damascus he blinded him. We then read in Acts 9 that Ananias was sent to him “so that you [Saul] may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” In that moment some scale-like impediments fell from his eyes and he regained his sight at two levels.
Let’s return to the earlier claim that Satan’s power consists in misled desires. The Bible account of Eden, we notice, doesn’t suggest any metaphysical wizardry was present in Adam’s fall. All the Serpent did was display an attractive fruit and an even more attractive promise; an attraction that still captivates fallen souls.
He promised that disobedience—eating the forbidden fruit—would not result in death and would offer a new wisdom. And by this he indirectly charged God with being a liar. God, after all, had already told Adam not to eat it, and if he did he would die on the very day he ate from it.
So Adam and Eve ate and died. God was truthful and the Serpent had lied. Yet God’s truth is still being challenged by Satan’s lie until today. And death still reigns over humanity.
Be sure not to miss the motivation, the dangled desire, of the Serpent: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The act of disobedience was formed, as are all sins, from a desire.
Satan’s offer—to displace God and his version of good and evil—allowed Adam to recreate reality in every way imaginable. With a self-deifying status—along with new forms of religion—sin prospered. Self-love replaced a love for God and humans reversed roles with God: they would now lead and God must either follow or be ignored.
The Serpent, in his ongoing animation, pretended to have ongoing life but he was dead to God and ruled over the realm of spiritual death. And Adam joined him there. So Jesus needed to remind Nicodemus in John 3 that only God’s Spirit brings real life. The Spirit, grieved by sin, had abandoned Adam and humanity in the fall. But he was still jealous for his proper place in human hearts. Yet Adam carried on in the “life of the flesh” until his physical death came as an outcome of the cosmic curse.
In John 3, then, Jesus implicitly made the Genesis 3 debate about death into the defining issue of salvation: God offers his love in Christ over against a human love for Satanic darkness.
In this polarity Adam adopted darkness instead of light, and moved from dependence on God to independence; from reliance on God’s word to rationalizing God’s words; from God-focused responsiveness to human-based moral responsibility. Christ came to reverse the entire scheme and was killed.
But Jesus conquered death and sent his Spirit. So in Paul’s conversion we notice that his new capacity to see—both physically and spiritually—came with the assurance from Ananias that he would also “be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Paul treated this as critical in 1 Corinthians 2—as the means to “have the mind of Christ.” Listen to Paul’s summary: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
So just two versions of wisdom emerge. One is full of light and the other loves darkness. One trusts the mind of Christ; the other prefers common sense. One embraces God’s morality; the other insists on doing what is right in his or her own eyes.
For those of us who can see the difference—who can say, “once I was blind, but now I see”—here’s an appropriate ambition: “Please, Lord Jesus, show us even more!”
“Christendom” is the collective rhetorical tag for all who are now or have been associated with historical Christianity. To outside observers—whether Hindu, Buddhist, Islamist, or secularists—the links are loose and ill-informed. But the result is that Christendom – that is, the Western world – is a monolithic spiritual opponent.
And when outside observers are hardened against Christendom—as in some Islamic or Hindu circles—an ill-informed opposition to Jesus grows. It may be a hatred of Western entertainments, social conduct, or even clothing. For them all the “whats” of a Western lifestyle are tied to Christian beliefs. Call this the curse of Christendom—the illicit linkage of Christ to what-is-not-Christ.
Of course all Christian communities dismiss the label of Christendom as a fog that obscures our actual faith. Yet an uninformed Hindu or Buddhist is still unable to distinguish a Presbyterian from a Baptist or a Roman Catholic; or even from a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. In such settings all Westerners are seen, generically, as Christians.
So it’s unfortunate when authentic Christians help produce that fog. When believers make it hard for nonbelievers to believe.
Consider the problem. An overstated devotion to creeds, for instance. Christians tend to subdivide around statements of faith. These claims of doctrinal purity then strike unaligned watchers with the impression that Christianity is a perpetual debating society. All of which is done in the name of Christ, but without actually reflecting Christ. That’s not how he did ministry.
A devotion to particular practices can also lead to fog.
Baptism, for instance, can be a contentious issue between infant-baptizers and adult-baptizers. The differences invite careful conversation, of course, but once it becomes too public the debate turns sour. Our convictions about practice, liturgy, or polity must remain secondary concerns and not dividers. To do otherwise is to embrace the fence-building efforts Christ’s opponents used to block his message and ministry.
What, then, is meant to be our focus?
Christ and Christ alone. And this answer properly moves us from talking about all the “whats” of faith to maintaining a concern with “Who.” Think of how Jesus challenged a question about “what good things” an inquirer needed to practice to get to heaven. Christ’s counter-premise was that goodness is only found in God: in the ultimate Who, and not in various whats.
When Jesus is our focus he reveals his Father to us. We then respond to Jesus and the Father by the Spirit’s witness in our hearts. As Paul pointed out in 2 Corinthians 2:15 we engage in the “Christ to God” relationship. And that produces a distinct relational “aroma” that draws some and repels others.
This is the stuff of Trinitarian Christians. We believe in one God—the Father-Son-and-Spirit God. But how do we best offer our relationship-sharing God to a spiritually disengaged world?
I hope, for one, we all agree that shouting out our points in debate isn’t the best invitation to faith. The only way for Christ to be kept distinct from Christendom is for Christians to keep our eyes on him and to reflect him in all we do. Our debates can remain in the classroom—and even there we always need the Spirit’s presence: his love, joy, peace, patience, and more.
But this is easier said than done. Years ago—in the mid 90s—I recall a fog-producing conversation on a secular radio station. An advocate for the Moral Majority was saying that abortion is inhumane. God, he insisted, is the author of life; and in the Bible we read that God himself knits infants together in the womb. So we’re opposing God whenever we kill a fetus.
I nodded in agreement. And then, almost without a pause, the same commentator went on: “And another evil we have to confront is President Carter’s 1977 treaty that gives the Panama Canal to the Panamanians! The Congress needs to stand up! They must reverse this treaty!”
Suddenly Christendom—not Christianity—had descended on the conversation: a thick, confusing fog! And the truth about God’s work of creating each human was lost in a blast of nationalistic rhetoric.
Another much more sophisticated fog-producer came in a book about the Trinity I read a few years back. It was brilliant: as clear and effective as anything I’ve read. It challenged the ways in which the truth about our Triune God have been lost or distorted in church history.
But then, halfway through, the author shifted to a second-tier theological issue. It was a debatable matter at best—nothing a Bible reader would spot unless he was wearing unique creedal eyeglasses. It became an instant fog-producer. So I’ve avoided mentioning his book to others: it did more to confuse than to clarify who Jesus is. How I wish he had written two books—one for the public, and another to be published by Brill or some other academic press!
Let me end with this: whenever we present Christ we are like the rotating airport lights of old, offering safe-haven to all flyers who could see it. Or, in Paul’s metaphor, may we be a fragrance of life-to-life to those the Father is drawing to himself.
Our Who is far more important than any whats that divide us.
The word “compassion” appears twice at the end of 2 Chronicles. In 36:15 we read the God “had compassion” on his people and his temple: given their responsiveness to God they were spared from disaster. But a moment later, in verse 17, we read just the opposite. God unleashed the Babylonian army on his people, an army that “had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged.”
Why this contrast?
The answer is offered in the intervening verse, 16: “But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy.” This sums up the biblical story of God’s chosen people over hundreds of years, a story that started with Abraham and continued to the time of the Chaldean victory.
So what should we do with these verses? Do they still apply today? Or is the Old Testament a story of wrath? And can Christians safely ignore it in light of Christ’s New Testament mercies?
In answer, yes, it does apply. And, no, the Bible doesn’t adopt this dichotomy. In our reading we don’t find an angry Old Testament God replaced by a loving New Testament Christ. Instead all of God’s self-disclosures—his words—offer truth spoken in love. So to dismiss his prophets and apostles is to dismiss his love.
Let’s do a quick review.
In Eden Adam believed Satan rather than God. God, undeterred, promised the Seed—his Son—to reestablish faith on the earth. And when the promised Son arrived he once again offered God’s winsome love. But, again, the world despised him and crucified him.
God, still jealous for human hearts, then sent the Son’s followers to preach the cross as a doorway to life. But today the message of the cross only draws a few. Most people still prefer to follow the Prince of the Power of the Air.
So verse 16 in 2 Chronicles 36 offered a lesson that still applies today. God is compassionate as he warns sinners against embracing evil. In every warning he also calls people to his Son who reveals his love; and the Son, alone, is the remedy to sin.
Here’s the lesson. Poor poll ratings don’t stop God. He understands the human heart. His love is what we need whether or not we know it. But he doesn’t force himself on anyone.
Instead God graciously allows people to taste the bitter fruit of evil—not just their own evil, but the evil of a fallen world too. So the consequences of spiritual autonomy roll like tsunami-waves over the landscape of both bowed and unbowed hearts.
Evil then devastates the lives of both the just and the unjust. But relief always follows a great wave of evil. And in the aftermath of destruction people—now alert to the destructiveness of unrestrained evil—begin to rebuild a better world.
Here’s the sequence. Devastation brings humility. And humbled people are better listeners: more alert to God’s words and ready to walk in his ways. The humble prove to be builders, not destroyers. They are more likely to recognize God as trustworthy; and they, too, prove to be trustworthy.
Think, for instance, of the last century and the incredible destruction of the Second World War. An environment of human autonomy, led by the ungodly ambitions of evil leaders, unleashed a huge wave of evil. But as the wave passed and a trough of peace followed there was a time of dramatic recovery.
What recovery? There was an economic boom, of course. But, more importantly, a time of spiritual revival followed the war. The story of Louis Zampereni in Unbroken is a more dramatic account of countless stories of divine grace at work. New campus ministries appeared; Billy Graham’s crusades prospered; and Bible-centered colleges and church movements appeared. Time magazine even declared 1976 to be the “Year of the Evangelical.” Faith in God’s word found space to grow and prosper in a humbled world.
Are we alert to this pattern today? We should be. Especially as we feel the swell of a new wave of godless entertainments, educational values, and political forces emerging.
And we recognize how huge waves of evil are common features of history. The Bible can be read as a survey of spiritual and social tsunamis. And our text in Chronicles should be read as God’s way of working in every age.
Think about it. Adam’s fall in Genesis 3 was met with the message of grace in Abraham’s conversion story of Genesis 12-22. But the time of the Patriarchs was followed by the chaos of the Judges and Saul’s reign. But then we read of a restoration in David’s time.
Then came Solomon’s failures, a civil war, and the moral collapse of the northern kingdom. Yet God soon raised up Elijah and Elisha—from among just 7,000 faithful men—and a revival followed. In the southern kingdom—Judah—we also read about Hezekiah and Josiah as God’s counterpoints to the waves of evil rulers who separated their reigns. And, later, we celebrate the restoration of Ezra and Nehemiah after the humiliation of captivity in Babylon.
Let’s return now to God’s promise of compassion. Is it a perpetual promise? Yes. It remains as the backdrop to all of history. And it comes to us by way of his word. And by way of those who listen to his word and who share it faithfully.
But there will also be times of tsunami-like evil that wash over us. And that humbles us. Even these reveal God’s compassion—but any remedy always awaits spiritual humility. And God, in his compassion, knows how to humble us.
In the final chapter of Isaiah, the prophet speaks God’s words of both warning and invitation to his people: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (66:2).
God is setting out a sharp contrast between those who are religious—offering ceremonial sacrifices—but who have actually “chosen their own ways” and delight “in their abominations” rather than in God. Yet these autonomous figures still defend their godly motives—calling out, “Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy” even as they hate those “who tremble at [the LORD’s] word” (66:5).
It’s striking in this context that the theme of humility—of one who “trembles” at God’s word—is twice repeated. How many of us actually tremble when we read the Bible? I suspect we more often snooze, or regularly check on our smartphones, as we read. So, we ask, is Bible reading what Isaiah had in mind as he reported God’s words here?
Before chasing that question let’s consider the language of trembling. All of us can picture a trembling child who comes into the parents’ bedroom after waking from a nightmare. Is that what God wants from us?
The answer is both yes and no. Yes in the sense that when our ways oppose God’s ways we ultimately lose . . . and that has frightening implications! But, on the other hand, what of God’s disposition—is he an angry being? One who means to frighten us? The answer is a firm, no! As the Bible says virtually from first to last, God’s love and mercy endures forever.
The real focus of Isaiah is on God’s word. It’s his word, after all, that reassures us of his love and mercy. And his word is what the serpent challenged in Eden and continues to challenge. God’s word presents truth; and it exposes the serpent’s lie that we creatures can presume to live like gods.
A second feature of Isaiah 66:2 is God’s invitation to humility. It’s a parallel element in his call for us to tremble at his word. If we recall Eden as the ultimate measure of this theme, humility is our recognition that Adam was wrong in accepting the serpent’s premise. We are not gods and we never will be. So to be contrite is to say, “I was wrong, very wrong. Have mercy, O Lord.”
But there’s still more to explore here. God’s word is more than a collection of thoughts, themes, and theologies. For one, followers of Christ speak of him as the living Word. John’s gospel starts with this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
In this summary we find a communing and communicating God: One God who exists eternally in his distinctions as Father, Son, and Spirit. And through the creation he pours himself out to us, sharing his loving communion with all who listen and respond to him—to both the Word and to his words.
And this is where the friction starts. Many people are ready to affirm a silent, innocuous God—a God who allows us to enjoy self-deification. But the actual God who is rich with words and who invites us to a conversation that centers on his beloved Word is hardly passive and innocuous.
And in that sense God is dangerous—because all who reject the Son “shall not see life” (John 3:36). The Father loves us enough to send the Son to confront and resolve our sin. And the Son—Jesus—is the antidote to pride. He reveals his Father to us. He gives us his life by sharing his Spirit with us. And he embraces the humility of crucifixion to make it all work.
Yet those who don’t tremble are legion.
Some are Christian intellectuals who started as church kids but who now stand aloof from the simple faith of the Bible. In scholarly conferences, for instance, the discrimination is often made between “critical thinking” and “pre-critical thought.” At one level there’s a point being made—sound academic work relies on careful, formal analysis, with broad awareness always in play. But in too many cases the call to “critical thinking” is a cover for a complete and arbitrary—presuppositional—dismissal of the living and speaking God. This is just the opposite of a humble and contrite spirit.
And there are, far more often, those who simply prefer what the world offers. And by “world” I’m recalling Jesus in John 17 who prayed for his followers whom the world “hated” in the same way they hated Jesus: because he offered his Father’s words. Words of truth and life.
So what does God want? More than anything else God the Father wants us to enjoy his Word; and God the Spirit will happily help us embrace the sweet humility of listening to the one who is Truth. It’s what we were made for!