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The Purpose of John’s Gospel – Produce Faith or Reinforce Faith?

Toward the end of the fourth gospel the author states his purpose for writing:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

That you may believe. The Gospel of John is written to persuade people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Or is it?

Many Greek manuscripts of John contain the Greek term that means “come to believe,” πιστεύσητε  (pisteusete). But many manuscripts have a different term, πιστεύητε (pisteuete), which means “that you may hold the faith.” It’s only one letter’s difference, but it makes a big difference in this case. Is John writing so that his readers come to have faith, or is he writing so that his readers hold onto the faith they already have? Most of our English translations choose the former (like the ESV above), but my limited reading on the textual evidence suggests that the slightly better attested reading is reflected in versions like the New Living Translation: “that you may continue to believe .”

If this is the case, why would John write such a gospel? Why is he concerned about whether his readers will persist in their faith in Christ? One answer might be a distinctive emphasis of the fourth gospel, the threat of expulsion from the synagogue. John’s gospel is the only one of the four that mentions this threat.

  • His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. (9:22)
  • Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue. (12:42)
  • I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. (16:1-2)

Late in the first century, in response to the spread of Christianity, the rabbis included into the cycle of benedictions at the synagogue a prayer that condemned heretics like the “Nazarenes.” This prayer, the Birkat ha-Minim drew a line in the sand for any Jewish believer in Christ – reject the Christian heresy or face the consequences. Since the synagogue was the center of religious and social life for first century Jews, to be excommunicated from the synagogue was to be disowned by your family and your community.

If the original wording of John’s stated purpose was to encourage his readers to continue to believe, such a backlash against Jewish Christians around the Empire may offer a reason for his concern. And it may also explain the unique structure of the gospel, which focuses on the signs of Jesus’ ministry in chapters 1-11, and the “glory” of Jesus’ death and resurrection in chapters 12-21. John wants his readers to know that the faith they have placed in Jesus is well-founded so that as they face suffering they will maintain their commitment in light of the promise of  glory to come.

That makes the fourth gospel incredibly relevant to our own time. The social structures of the contemporary culture here in America are exerting tremendous pressure on Christians to surrender fundamental commitments of faith. It is going to get more difficult to hold on to our confession that Jesus is Lord and King. John has already explained why this is happening:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20)

And Jesus told his first disciples that hatred of him would redound to hatred of them:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)

No one wants to be hated. I certainly don’t! But if Jesus is who he says he is, then I would rather be hated by others and loved by him forever. And the signs of the first half of this gospel are designed to assure me that Jesus is indeed who he claimed to be, so that I will greater confidence in the promises he claims to give.

If you need encouragement to hold on to your faith, I suggest you take a look at the Gospel of John.


Over the next several weeks I will be preaching through the Gospel of John, and if you would like to follow along, you can listen to the lessons on our church website. Here are the first two sermons:

That You May Believe

The Word (John 1:1-5)

 

 

 

Christians Need to be More Judgmental with Each Other

What?!?!? More judgmental? Shane, have you lost your mind?!? Everyone knows that Jesus said we are not supposed to judge each other. “Judge not lest ye be judged!” And see, I even quoted it King James style just to let you know I’m really angry!!

If I may slip a word in edgewise, let me explain what I mean by “judgmental.” I don’t mean hyper-critical, or hypo-critical, but I do mean critical – critical in the sense of holding each other accountable when we need it.

And it turns out, that’s what Jesus meant as well. Look at the full context of the verse you quoted-

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Was Jesus condemning all “speck removal”? Not at all. In fact, Jesus quite plainly says that he wants us to be able to see clearly enough to take the speck out of our brother’s eye. But what Jesus was condemning was a hypocritical mindset that is eager to point out the mistakes in the lives of others while self-righteously ignoring the glaring problems in our own life.

We know for certain that Jesus was not opposed to making any judgments. In the very next verse, he insists that we make a very serious judgment:

Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:6)

Who are “dogs” and who are “pigs”? We have to decide – judge – who fits this description.

A few verses later, Jesus goes on to say that we must discriminate between right and wrong choices to make:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

And in the next breath, he warns about the insidious danger of false prophets, who we must distinguish from those who teach the truth-

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-16)

Taken in its broader context, Jesus’ statement that we should not judge simply cannot mean that we are never to make critical judgments about a person’s character, or about certain beliefs, or about choices in life. What Jesus is teaching is that we must do so from a profoundly humble posture that has as its first impulse careful introspection rather than careless criticism.

But just as surely as a speck in the eye needs to be removed before it causes permanent harm, we need to help each other confront the mistakes we have made before those mistakes cause greater damage. Here’s how Paul expresses the point:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)

Like Jesus, Paul says that we should help heal or restore a brother who has slipped into sin (has a speck in the eye). And like Jesus, Paul says that we should do so having first examined our own behavior (“keep watch on yourself”), guarding against prideful self-righteousness (“lest you too be tempted”). But the bottom line is the same. In the right spirit, and with the right motives, we need to call each other to account. According to Paul, this is a measure of whether we are truly “spiritual.”

I’m convinced that the root problem with many of the hot-button issues prevalent in our culture right now is the refusal of professed Christians to hold each other accountable. For instance, the generation that is younger than me really struggles with the clear biblical teaching that same-sex actions are sinful. It seems arbitrary to them for this one behavior to be singled out as sinful. But same-sex conduct is not singled out for censure. ANY sexual relationship outside of the one man + one woman for life relationship of marriage is sinful. When the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask him about divorce, here’s how Jesus answered the question:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)

According to Jesus, God’s design is the inseparable “one flesh” relationship of a man and woman in marriage. Since divorce violates this design, Jesus condemns it, and says that remarriage after divorce (with one exception) constitutes adultery:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)

So does this mean that homosexual acts are sinful? Yes. But it also means that premarital sex, extra marital sex, and divorce and remarriage are wrong as well. The reason that the biblical injunctions against homosexual conduct seem arbitrary is because far too many professed Christians have been arbitrary in what they have taught and practiced. Christians who wink at sex outside of marriage or casually engage in serial divorce and remarriage but suddenly draw the line at homosexuality aren’t living by conviction; they are just bigots.

Similarly, how many Christians object to the horror of abortion as an affront to the sacred value of human life while at the same time harboring prejudice toward others merely because their skin is a different color? Have we held each other accountable for racial prejudice, or have we just swept it under the rug? Aborting a fetus is wrong because that human being bears the image of God. But what about hurling racial epithets?

With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9-10)

We can’t claim to stand for the dignity of human life while despising and denigrating human beings whose skin is a different shade than our own.

Brothers and sisters, the world can see through our inconsistencies. And above all, the Lord who judges the thoughts and intents of our heart can see through us (Hebrews 4:12-13). The answer is not to surrender to the culture and walk away from the standards of God’s revealed truth. The answer is for us to be more consistent, to hold each other to greater accountability, to “judge” each other with a deeper and holier love for God and one another.

 

 

 

Your History Is Not Your Destiny

Mom and I

Eighteen years ago today my Mom passed away after suffering a massive stroke. I will never forget the sense of dread that swept over me when the president of the college where I was teaching came to my classroom and told me I needed to call my Granny. My worst fear had always been that something would happen to my Mom, and then Granny would die shortly after, and I would be all alone.  On April 11, 2000, that nightmare seemed to be coming true.

As it turned out, I was wrong (as is often the case with the anxious worries we experience). Granny lived ten years after Mom passed away, and I can’t imagine any grandson having a closer bond that I did with the woman I talked to every day for a decade. And the same year that Granny’s body began to slowly wear out, I reconnected with a friend from my college days and started dating. Granny never got to meet Kristi, but I told her about my new love, and Granny was very happy.

By the spring of 2011 I knew that I was going to ask Kristi to marry me – I just needed to pick the right time. And then it hit me – April 11. That had been such a sad date for so long, but I could choose to give it new significance. And so, the evening of April 11, 2011, I popped the question, and Kristi said, “Of course.”

There are things in life that we cannot control and cannot change (like my Mom’s passing). Sometimes these events are the result of choices other people make that we have no influence on at all (like my father’s decision to abandon Mom when she became pregnant). Sometimes we make bad choices or let good opportunities slip away (why didn’t I pursue Kristi in college?!?!?!). But whatever has happened in the past, we have the freedom to make better choices in the present and create a better future.

Is there a clearer example of this in the Bible than the apostle Paul?

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4b-11)

Paul’s encounter with Christ forced him to dramatically reevaluate his past and chart a different course for the future. Paul’s history was not Paul’s destiny! And Christ can make the same difference in your life.

Perhaps there is a date in your life that marks a heartbreaking loss. Grief and remembrance are an important part of life, but this may also be a great opportunity to give that date new significance by serving someone else. During one of our trips to Moffitt Cancer Center for Kristi’s treatments we ran into the husband and daughters of one of our church members who had passed away. They were marking the anniversary of her death by passing out flowers at the clinic. What a beautiful gesture!

Or, maybe there is a day seared into your conscience because of a moral failure. That date on the calendar might become a reminder to get away and spend time alone with the Lord – or to spend a day sharing the gospel with others. Or, perhaps it could be a time to seek out the fellowship of Christians who will encourage and reassure you.

And there may be a day that is memorable because of something good that happened that you can reassign an even greater spiritual significance. This is what the Lord did with the sabbath command, which was first given as a day of rest from toil (Exodus 20:8-11) but invested with additional meaning as a celebration of the deliverance from the toil of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). And it is what Jesus did in taking the Passover and (in musical terms) raising it to a higher key through the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29).

The point is that we should not ignore the past, but neither should we feel imprisoned by it. Christ enables us to put the past in its proper perspective because of what he has in store for us in the future, and that gives us the guidance we need to live in the present.

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

 

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 4)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering the question of whether God changes his mind. Here’s what we’ve looked at so far:

 

  • In the first post in this series I observed that many passages of Scripture say that God does change his mind, while others say that he does not.
  • In the second post, I argued that because God has infinite presence and knowledge, he doesn’t change his mind.
  • In the third post, I suggested that given the infinite nature of God, the passages that speak of God as changing his mind should be interpreted as accommodative language, language that says something about God in terms that are sort of like but not exactly like what such language would mean about human beings.

Let me say a bit more about this matter of accommodative language. Accommodative language helps us to understand profound truths in concepts that we can grasp. When the weather person talks about “sunrise” and “sunset”, she is describing something that is really true – our position relative to the sun is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or scientifically the case (the sun isn’t moving – the earth is). In the same way, when the Bible speaks of God changing his mind or regretting a decision, it is describing something that is really true – someone’s relationship with God is changing – but in language that accommodates how things appear to us rather than what is technically or theologically the case (God isn’t changing – people are).

But can we have a genuine relationship with God if he doesn’t change?  For instance, if God doesn’t change his mind, why should we even pray to him? To some people, the notion of an unchanging God means that God is static and unresponsive. But I would like to suggest that the fact that God is unchanging doesn’t make God less relational – it makes him far more relational than we can imagine.

The only reason we would think that God’s unchanging nature makes him unable to relate to us is by assuming that God must relate to us in the same way that we relate to each other. In human relationships, we don’t possess infinite presence or knowledge. We are bound by time and space. I can’t be two places at one, and I can only do one thing at a time (“multi-tasking” is really doing a bunch of different things switching back and forth one at a time). And while we can sometimes predict what will happen and plan accordingly, that ability is limited and imperfect since we are locked into the flow of time.

But these same limitations do not hold true for God. He can be two places at once (actually, all places at once!). And he can do more than one thing at a time (he’s not limited by time at all!). God is not locked into the flow of time, but transcends time in his eternity. So if we are imagining that God can only respond like human beings respond – in time and space – we are severely truncating the limitless nature of God.

For God to be truly responsive, what must be the case is that our choices really matter to God. But this doesn’t mean that he must be restrained by time and space like we are. All that is necessary for God to be responsive is that if we did not make certain choices, God would not make certain decisions. But the fact that our choices are made in time and space whereas God’s decisions are made in eternity doesn’t diminish the reality of the relationship. To be responsive is to act because of something, not necessarily after something.

In God’s eternity, all of the moments that are past/present/future to us are like “now” to him. And so, what is sequential and episodic to us is present all at once to him. It is sort of like what we experience when we look at a diarama, like this Cyclorama in Atlanta. It portrays various events in the Battle of Atlanta. These events took place at different times and in different locations, but we can see them all at once. God’s view of all time and space is like this, only infinitely greater.

With this in mind, consider the story of Jonah. Did God have to wait to see what Jonah would do, step by step, in order to respond to him? Not at all. In his eternity, God sends Jonah. He sees that Jonah runs. Because Jonah runs, God sends the storm. Because of the storm, Jonah is thrown off the ship. Because Jonah is thrown off the ship, God sends the great fish. Because Jonah is in the fish, he prays. Because God sees and hears Jonah’s prayer, he saves him.  In Jonah’s world of space and time, these events happen sequentially, one after the other in time. But in God’s eternity, he sees this all at once. But this eternal perspective doesn’t eliminate the genuine choices Jonah makes in time, and it doesn’t eliminate the genuine responsiveness of God. God acts because of Jonah’s free choices, but not after his free choices. In God’s eternal nature there is no “after” but there is responsiveness.

In fact, there is far greater responsiveness than we can imagine. We are limited by time and space in the way that we respond to each other. I’m often frustrated by my lack of time, resources, and availability to help other people. But almighty God is not so limited. In fact, because my future is swallowed up unto his eternal “now,” God already knows what I need, and is already at work providing answers to prayers that are yet future to me in time but present to God in eternity.

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

But why do we even bother to pray if God already knows what we will ask? Because prayer is about more than treating God like a heavenly ATM machine! It is about a relationship, a melding of our will with God’s. As John Chrysostom wrote sixteen centuries ago:

But if he already knows what we need, why do we pray? Not to inform God or instruct him but to beseech him closely, to be made intimate with him, by continuance in supplication; to be humbled; to be reminded of our sins. (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 19.4).

Distinguishing God’s perspective in eternity from our perspective in time also helps us to understand various passages in which God says one thing will happen, but something else actually happens. In the story of Jonah, the LORD gives Jonah this message for the people of Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). But after forty days, Nineveh was not destroyed. Who changed?

“When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

On the surface, it seems like God changed – just like it seems as if the sun rises and sets. But the deeper change was on the part of the people of Nineveh – they turned from their evil way. And since they turned from their evil way, they experienced the God of holy love in a much different way than had they persisted in their sin.

In his eternity, God knew that the Ninevites would repent. But as God related to the Ninevites in time, he addressed the situation on the ground as it was from their perspective. So long as they were in sin, they faced the wrath of his holy love. But when they repented, they encountered the mercy of his holy love. Since God relates to us in time, our choices are truly meaningful (see Jeremiah 18:7-10). He just isn’t limited to our time-bound frame of reference.

This discussion is a little mind-bending for sure. But what else would we expect when we creatures of the dust try to grapple with eternal God’s nature and power?! The most important point to take away from this look at God’s unchanging nature is that since he doesn’t change, we can always count on God. We often falter and fail; God does not. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). And the faithfulness of God assures us that whatever happens in this transient world, God is constant and dependable.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Abide With Me, Henry Francis Lyte (1847)

Take Up Your Cross

And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:21-23)

Jesus predicted his death three times in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and with each prediction Jesus also taught about the nature of discipleship – what it means to follow him. To follow Christ is to imitate Christ, to do what he did, to go where he went. And in this passage, Christ laid out the grim destination of this call to imitation – the cross.

Jesus came to do the Father’s will, regardless of the cost to himself. And he invites us to follow him in the same self-denying journey of commitment to the Father’s will. So that none of us would misunderstand the painful nature of this commitment, Jesus expressed it in the most graphically violent way imaginable in the first century. We are summoned to follow Jesus in the shameful procession to Golgotha, bearing our own cross on the march to the grisly execution called crucifixion.

This language is not to be pressed into crude literalism (although many Christians through the years have been put to death for their faith – even by crucifixion). But this language should not be diluted, either.  Following Christ in absolute commitment to the will of the Father is very, very difficult.

It means surrendering your desires to God’s. It means ignoring the jeers of the crowd to stay on the unpopular path of conviction. It means loving and forgiving those who are undeserving (though never as undeserving as you were of the Father’s love). It means sacrifice, and some day it could even mean death.

But the final destination of the way of Christ is not the cross – it is an empty tomb and a glorious new life. Jesus promised. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24). Following Christ means losing your life to save it, becoming first by becoming last, seeking greatness by serving others.

So take heart! Yes, those of us who have joined the procession of cross-bearers have chosen the most difficult path of all. But our Lord’s resurrection guarantees that the journey will be worth it.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
and there’s a cross for me.

How happy are the saints above,
who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love
and joy without a tear.

The consecrated cross I’ll bear
till death shall set me free;
and then go home my crown to wear,
for there’s a crown for me.

Upon the crystal pavement down,
at Jesus’ pierced feet,
joyful I’ll cast my golden crown
and His dear name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from heaven comes down
and bears my soul away.

Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone by Thomas Shepherd (1693)

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 3)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

In the first post in this series I laid out two sets of passages, those that indicate that God doesn’t change his mind, and those that indicate that he does change his mind. In the second post, I made the case that since God is present to all points of time and space, he never encounters new information that requires him to change his mind. So, the short answer to the question of whether God changes his mind is NO.

But what about the passages that say otherwise? As a reminder, those include:

  • “And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Genesis 6:6 ESV)
  • “So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” (Exodus 32:14 NASB)
  • “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me.” (1 Samuel 15:11 KJV)

What are we to make of these passages if in fact God does not change his mind?

Let’s remember the most basic fact of Scripture – God is the creator (Genesis 1:1). The gap between the Creator and the creation is infinite – unless God chooses to reach across that gap and communicate with us. But to do so, God must necessarily “stoop down” to our level to accommodate our limited and finite minds. Language about God is always going to be “sort of like” rather than “just like” what it would mean for us. For instance, God is the Father, and I have a father, and because of this common use of terms I can grasp something about who God is – so long as I bear in mind that God’s Fatherhood is infinitely greater than human fatherhood.

Sometimes the Bible speaks of God’s arm (Isaiah 30:30) and hand (Exodus 9:3) and eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9). Because I have an arm, a hand, and eyes, I can grasp some of what these passages are saying about God’s power, actions, and knowledge, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that God has a physical body like I do. When the Bible describes God, it does so in language that is “sort of like” but not “just like” the language we use as creatures.

Consequently, when the Bible portrays God as changing his mind, or repenting of an action, or regretting a decision, we must bear in mind that this language is not going to mean for God what it means for us. And given God’s infinite presence and perfect knowledge, such language could not be literally true of God. For this reason, commentators through the centuries have traditionally suggested that such passages should be understood accommodatively. Here are three examples from the fifth century:

Regarding Genesis 6:6, Salvian observed:

Rather, the Divine Word, to impart more fully to us a true understanding of the Scriptures, speaks “as if” in terms of human emotions. By using the term “repentant God,” it shows the force of God’s rejection. God’s anger is simply the punishment of the sinner. (Governance of God 1.7)

Regarding Exodus 32:14, Augustine commented:

Though we sometimes hear the expression “God changed his mind” or even read in the figurative language of Scripture that “God repented,” we interpret these sayings not in reference to the decisions determined on by almighty God but in reference to the expectations of man or to the order of natural causes. (City of God 14.11)

And regarding 1 Samuel 15:11, John Cassian argued:

Although, indeed, the foreknowledge of God could not be ignorant of his miserable end, he chose him from among many thousands of Israelites and anointed him king…And so after he became reprobate, God as it were repented of his choice and complained of him with, so to speak, human words and feelings, saying, “I repent that I set up Saul as king, because he has forsaken me and not carried out my words.” (Conferences 17.25)

So to summarize:

  1. There are passages that say God does change his mind, and there are passages that say he does not.
  2. Given what the Bible says about the omnipresence and omniscience of God, especially regarding the future, the notion that God changes his mind is incoherent.
  3. That means that the passages that claim that God does change his mind should be understood as accommodative language.

But this leaves us with a serious question – if God doesn’t change his mind, then does that mean God doesn’t respond to us? And if God is not genuinely responsive, then why should we bother praying to him? Or for that matter, why should we bother doing anything?

I hope to show in the final post that because God is unchanging in his omnipresence and omniscience, he is actually more responsive than we could ever imagine! But that’s for next week, Lord willing.

 

Truth vs Feelings (or, Why You Should Whisper in the Library)

Several years ago while teaching at a small religious college I had an experience that perfectly captures the spirit of the age. I was in the college library doing some research. A few minutes into my work, one of my students joined some friends at the table next to mine and proceeded to talk with them – loudly. There was no effort to whisper (which we were barely permitted to do when I was a student at the same school). This was a boisterous conversation!

At first I just made eye contact with the kids and glared at them. That had no impact. A few minutes later (and a few decibels louder) I looked over and gave them the “SHHHHHH.” That momentarily broke the chatter, but in no time they were as loud as ever. Finally, I just blurted out, “Will you please be quiet!?!” That finally made the point, and they stopped talking.

Later that same day back at my office my student secretary came in with a concerned look on her face.

She asked, “Are you having a bad day?”

I said, “Not at all – I’m doing great! Why do you ask?”

She replied, “Well, I ran into _______ and he said that he thought you might be having a bad day because you yelled at him in the library.”

Now, just consider this from the point of view of the student I reprimanded. In the range of possible reasons why I called him down, the notion that he had done something wrong did not even appear on the radar screen! The only explanation he could envision was that I was in a bad mood. It certainly could not be the case that he had done something wrong.

That student’s response reflected an underlying belief that is symptomatic of where we are as a culture – there is no objective standard of right and wrong, only subjective personal experience. A generation ago, everyone knew that you weren’t supposed to talk out loud in a library. Think of the “Marian the Librarian” scene in The Music Man. But this student was oblivious to any standard of decorum. In its place he substituted subjective personal experience – my mood.

I wish this was an isolated incident, but it is not. And it reflects the deeper cultural climate. This student obviously had very high esteem – so high it was unimaginable to him that he could be at fault. Studies show that the self-esteem of American students is rising while at the same time performance is declining.  This paradoxical reality makes sense once you understand that the overwhelming majority of millennials believes that right and wrong are a matter of personal experience.  This sort of relativism breeds emotionalism – what counts is not what is true but how you feel.  And if someone criticizes your behavior and makes you feel bad, they are wrong (or having a bad day!).

And remember, my encounter in the library took place at a school built on Christian principles. I wish that Christian kids were immune to these broader trends, but they are not. And this combination of narcissism, relativism, and emotionalism is going to wreak havoc on families and churches – unless those of us who follow Jesus are aware of just how insidious these trends really are and consciously, intentionally, and aggressively resist them.

It is crucial to hold our kids to standards, to teach them that the world doesn’t revolve around them, and that how they feel is irrelevant to what they should do. Recently while preaching about responding to correction I encouraged our kids to embrace discipline rather than resent it. After the sermon, one of my favorite little kids came up to me and said, “You know how you were talking about when our parents get after us? I don’t like that!” He was honest! And I was honest as well when I said, “Well, I didn’t like it, either – but SO WHAT!”

It isn’t just kids that need to learn this lesson. As he pointedly rebuked them for their flirtation with heresy, Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:17). We cannot allow ourselves to be swept into the babbling, incoherent waters of our culture’s self-centered and irrational rejection of truth. Holding each other accountable is what the love of Christ is all about.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2).

The antidote to self-centeredness is humble Christ-centeredness. The counter to relativism is the truth of the gospel. And the answer to emotionalism is the critical evaluation of conduct.

In a word, the solution to all of these problems is repentance.

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 2)

(For the first post in this series, click here.)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

In this series of posts I am contemplating the question of whether God changes his mind. In the previous post I listed several passages that claim that he does, and several that just as firmly claim that he doesn’t. Some of these even occur in the very same chapter of the Bible, such as:

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).

And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:35, KJV).

While our English translations usually use two different words in these passages (“change His mind” and “repented”), in Hebrew the word is the same in each case – נָחַם (nāḥam). So, one passage says God changes his mind/repents, and in the same chapter, another passage says the opposite. What are we to make of this?

Whenever you encounter a puzzle like this, the best thing to do is to begin with what is clearly and unequivocally taught in Scripture and then work from there. So that’s how we will begin to tackle this question. What truths can we set down as clear guideposts on our journey toward an answer?

Creator of Space and Time

The place to begin is the beginning. The most fundamental fact in Scripture is stated in its very first verse – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God is the creator of the universe, and as such he exists prior to and outside of the world of time and space. And what this means is that God is not confined by time and space like we are. In this sense, God’s relationship to creation is sort of like Shakespeare’s relationship to one of his plays. Shakespeare is not merely one character in the play, confined to a scene or the flow of the plot. As the creator of the play, Shakespeare transcends the limits of the play. And as the creator of the universe, God transcends the limits of time and space.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

We’ve all experienced the frustration of needing to be two places at once, or having limited time on our hands. We are space-bound and time-bound creatures. But since God exists far above time and space, he is present to all points of time and space-

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-28a)

This means that God’s “here” and God’s “now” are radically different from ours. My “here” is sitting in my office in our home in Plant City. My “now” is 12:00pm Eastern Daylight Savings time, March 14, 2018. God’s “here” and “now” are not like this. Let me illustrate. Here is a Google Map that shows my approximate location –

My location in space can be pinpointed. What about God’s “location,” though? Imagine making that red marker bigger and bigger, encompassing the entire state, the entire country, the entire planet, the entire solar system, the entire galaxy…you get the point. Since he is unbound by space, God is present everywhere. Imagine that one of the characters in Macbeth could talk to Shakespeare. The conversation might go something like this:

Shakespeare: Well, hello, Macduff! I’m Bill Shakespeare!

Macduff: (Looking around) Who’s talking? Shakespeare? Where are you?

Shakespeare: I’m right here!

Macduff: Where? I don’t see you!

Shakespeare: I’m right here!

Macduff: I’m scared! I’m going to hide from you in Macbeth’s castle! (begins running)

Shakespeare: Umm, that’s not going to make any difference.

Macduff: What do you mean? (running faster)

Shakespeare: I’m there as well.

Macduff: What?!? (frozen in place) I don’t understand!

Shakespeare: Well, you probably can’t fully get what I am saying, but I ‘m not just another character in the play like you are. I am the playwright, and so I am present to all scenes in the tragedy.

Macduff: Wait – tragedy? What do you mean by that?

Shakespeare: Well, it’s not going to be a tragedy for you.

Shakespeare is “present” to all the scenes in his plays because he exists outside of his plays. Similarly, God is present to all points of the world because he exists outside of the world. God is omnipresent. Or, to put it another way, God’s “here” is everywhere.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

The same is true with God’s relationship to time. My existence is time-bound. (It is now 12:09 pm). In other words, my “now” is defined by a specific slice of time just like my “here” is defined by a specific slice of space. I exist on an ever- changing mark called “the present,” with the past behind me and the future ahead of me. So, my “now” looks like this –

But what about God’s “now”? Just like we expanded the red dot on the map to encompass all points in space for God’s “here,” we would have to do the same for God’s “now” – it would include all points of time, past/present/future. God is present to all points of space, and he is also present to all points of time.

God is omniscient. He knows everything – including the future – because what is future to us is part of God’s “now.” God’s eternal “now” includes our past and our future, which is why God can reveal what is going to happen before it occurs.

Remember this and stand firm,
    recall it to mind, you transgressors,
remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
    and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
    and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:8-10)

Because God is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, he unrestricted by time and knows what will take place in our world of time and space before it happens.

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
    Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
    Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.” (Isaiah 44:6-7)

Now let’s take these observations and direct them toward the question of God’s changing his mind.

God Is Not a Man That He Should Repent

Why do we change our minds? Right now I am working on my NCAA tourney predictions. I’ve looked at my bracket several times, and I still can’t make up my mind about a few games (like Kentucky vs Arizona in the second round!). The reason I keep changing my mind is because I am limited by time and space and have no idea what will happen in the second round out in Boise (or if UK will even make it to the second round). If I could see the future before it happened, I would be the greatest NCAA prognosticator ever. I certainly wouldn’t change my mind about my picks. I could make predictions flawlessly, since my “now” would include the future as well as the present. If I was omnipresent and omniscient, there would simply be no reason for me to change my mind.

By the same token, since God is omnipresent and omniscient, he doesn’t literally “change his mind.” I don’t know what will happen in Boise, Idaho on Saturday afternoon because I am limited by space and time. But what is true of my “here” and “now” is not true of God’s “here” and “now.” Boise, Idaho is just as present to God as Plant City, Florida is. And Saturday afternoon is just as present to God as Wednesday afternoon is. And since God’s “here” and “now” are radically different from humanity’s, he doesn’t change his mind.

Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind. (1 Samuel 15:29, NASB).

But if that is the case, what are we to make of the passages that say that he does? And if God doesn’t change his mind, why do we even bother to pray to him? Does anything that we do make a difference to God?

Those are great questions, and Lord willing we will take those up in the next post.

(Many thanks to my friend Dr. Eleonore Stump for the “red dot” illustration! Check out her explanation here).

 

 

Does God Change His Mind? (Part 1)

Image from Ligonier Ministries

This quarter I have been teaching a class on the nature of God. One of the questions we tackled this quarter is whether God changes his mind. Over the next few posts I want to share some thoughts on this question. And it is a really interesting question! It involves all sorts of intriguing puzzles, such as God’s relationship to time, the relationship of divine foreknowledge to human freedom, and the purpose and power of prayer.

To set the stage for the future posts, here are some relevant biblical texts.

First, some passages in the Bible seem to say that God does not change his mind, or change – period. Some examples (and various translations):

Numbers 23:19

  • ESV God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it
  • NASB95 God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?
  • KJV God is not a man, that he should lie; Neither the son of man, that he should repent: Hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?

1 Samuel 15:29

  • ESV And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.
  • NASB95 Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.
  • KJV And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
  • NKJV And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.

Malachi 3:6

  • ESV For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.
  • NASB95 For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.
  • NKJV For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.

James 1:17

  • ESV 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.
  • NASB95 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
  • NIV Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

On the other hand, there are passages that seem to say that God does change his mind, such as:

Genesis 6:6

  • ESV And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
  • NASB95 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.
  • KJV And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.

Exodus 32:14

  • ESV And the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
  • NASB95 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
  • KJV And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
1 Samuel 15:11
  • ESV “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night.
  • KJV It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
1 Samuel 15:35
  • ESV And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
  • KJV And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.

So, what do we make of these different perspectives (some of which, in the case of the passages in 1 Samuel 15, occur within just a few verses of one another!)? In the next post, I will take the first steps in offering my thoughts about this conundrum by looking more closely at the nature of God.

Our Emerging Two Party System – Authoritarians VS Totalitarians

Last week offered two news stories that reveal the political future of America.

Story 1: a middle school teacher here in Florida was revealed to be a white nationalist. As first reported by the Huffington Post, a Crystal River teacher named Dayanna Volitich hosted a podcast and Twitter account (under an alias) in which she routinely voiced the typical positions of the Alt-Right, targeting blacks, Jews, and Muslims. Once her secret identity was revealed, Ms. Volitich claimed that her opinions were merely a form of satire. That seems unlikely, given her previous comments, and really – it is beside the point. There are many people for whom such opinions are deadly serious.

Story 2: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was forced to resign from the charitable foundation of the Country Music Association because of the policy positions he espoused regarding issues like same-sex marriage. Various LGBTQ activists expressed indignation that someone like Huckabee would serve on the board of this foundation that focuses on music education in schools, despite his proven track record in education reform as a governor (which one of the critics conceded). Even though he was clearly qualified to serve on such a board, his traditional Christian views regarding matters like same-sex marriage disqualified him from service in the eyes of some activists. And it is clear that for growing numbers of people on the Hard Left, no one who holds similar views (evangelical Protestants, confessing Catholics, orthodox Jews, mainstream Muslims) should have a voice in public life. In their mind, the moral tradition of the monotheistic religions is simple “hatred.”

This is where we are headed as a nation. On the Alt-Right we have authoritarians who are fixated on tribal loyalty and racial superiority. And on the Hard Left we have totalitarians who are determined to coerce everyone to accept their radical redefinitions of marriage, gender, and personhood. Both extremes reflect the worst kinds of bigotry that have plagued America (racial and religious). The only difference is that the Alt-Right proudly embraces its bigotry, while the Hard Left is self-righteously blind to its bigotry. And since neither extreme acknowledges any sort of transcendent truth, what drives both is the pursuit of and exercise of raw power. That explains the growing phenomenon of Neo-Nazi violence by the Alt Right, and violent campus protests by the Hard Left.

Ideally, fair-minded people on both sides of the political aisle would call out and confront the radicalism that is emerging from their end of the ideological spectrum. There are indeed many conservative commentators who have denounced the Alt-Right (such as Ben Shapiro, David French, Rod Dreher). There are far fewer liberal commentators who have challenged the Hard Left (Jonathan Haidt being the rare exception). This is because (as Pew data shows) the Left has lurched far more to its extreme than has the Right. But we don’t need polling to confirm this. In the mid 90’s, the Defense of Marriage Act passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support and was signed into law by a Democrat president who also declared that the “era of big government is over” and that abortion should be “rare.” That seems like ancient history. Today’s liberals aren’t calling out the Hard Left because they increasingly are the Hard Left. The net result is that both extremes are feeding each other.

And for those of us who are committed to following Christ, this increasingly polarized political environment is going to place us in the crosshairs of both extremes. The Alt-Right has made it clear that it detests the Christian commitment to brotherly love that knows no racial, ethnic, or national boundaries. And the Hard Left equally despises the Christian commitment to the Lordship of Christ rather than personal autonomy in matters of sexual ethics.

This is nothing new, though. Christianity is just as counter-cultural in the 21st century as it was in the first century when tribalism and relativism were also dominant. And as we declare and display the gospel with Jesus’ mix of conviction and compassion, we can call people to an identity that rises above race and tribe, and that transcends lust and gratification. Is this going to be easy? No. It requires tough-minded love. But tough-minded love is what the cross Jesus bore and we have chosen to bear is all about.