Friday, May 01, 2020

Jesus on the cross. What are we to say?

When it comes to the death of Jesus Christ, there is, I think,  a lack of definiteness in how people describe it. Of course we must respect Paul’s emphasis that ‘great is the mystery of godliness’. (I Tim.3.16). Yet  it is one thing to respect the unfathomableness of the Incarnation, but quite another,for example, to allow ourselves to makethe claim that God died on Good Friday, presumably experiencing  resurrection on the third day. Death of God? Resurrection of God? The oddity and incoherence of these expressions should alert us that somewhere, someone has made an unwise inference.

First clarity, Jesus Christ is God incarnate

Here is Calvin on the Incarnation,

Certainly when Paul says of the princes of this world that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), he means not that he suffered anything, in his divinity, but that Christ, who was rejected and despised, and suffered in the flesh, was likewise God and the Lord of glory. In this way, both the Son of man was in heaven because he was also Christ; and he who, according to the flesh,dwelt as the Son of man on earth, was also God in heaven. For this reason,he is said to have descended from heaven in respect of his divinity, not that his divinity quitted heaven to conceal itself in the prison of the body,but because, although he filled all things, it yet resided in the humanity ofChrist corporeally, that is, naturally, and in an ineffable manner. There is a trite distinction in the schools which I hesitate not to quote. Although the whole Christ is everywhere, yet everything, which is in him is not everywhere. I wish the Schoolmen had duly weighed the force of this sentence, as it would have obviated their absurd fiction of the corporeal presence of Christ. (Inst . IV.17.30)

It has to be borne in mind that the Incarnation, comprised of the divine and the human natures of Jesus Christ, was not a case of fifty-fifty. The human nature was subordinate to his divine nature as befits the creature to his Creator.  In loving grace God the Son, the eternal Logos, very God of very God, took on human nature, the natural progeny of the Holy Spirit and the lineage of Mary. He was ‘clothed in our flesh’ as Calvin puts it more than once. It was not at all a case of the human nature also taking on divine nature. So there was an asymmetry. This is central to his condescension and of his humiliation. When the word become flesh (John 1.14), neither his full deity nor his full humanity were compromised or changed in their natures. He, the Logos,  was  taken of a new relation. He was related to ‘flesh’ at a precise time, the date of the change in  Mary’s life. Eternally he was purely spirit and in the person of the Son took on 'flesh', a instance of human nature. In ‘became flesh ‘ the ‘became’ is not to be understood as the transformation of the Logos into something that was not the Logos, nor of humanity that was not fully that, but of the acquiring of a new relation to something that is the Logos, but was also united to ‘flesh’, human nature.

If evangelical preachers are excited by the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the extent that they allow themselves to talk of the ‘death of God’, this is an exaggeration that they should not allow themselves, but rather discipline their thinking.  

The Incarnation and the three offices

Consider, from another strand of Christendom, the idea of the death and resurrection of Christ as a sign of hope, or of the coming of Spring (though not so in the Southern hemisphere), or of the triumph of love over adversity and death, of human life over death. It is a symbol new life. Hence bunnies and daffiodils and chocolate eggs are intrinsic to such a view of Easter.  

Such wide varieties of interpreting Christ’s resurrection suggests that these momentous events, on which the history of the race pivots, are not so much a deep mystery, as a conundrum, a blank, in which we can use their imagination to paint or colour, as we see fit. The person of the God – man is forgotten. What happened on the death of Jesus, was not  the humiliation or the death of the God – man, but the triumph of human nature over death, without any details, or perhaps, more confusedly, of the triumph of God over death.  

Each extreme view that we have sketched also ignores the place of the  offices of the Incarnate Saviour in the events of the Cross. He is the Messiah. He is prophet, priest and king, of which the fundamental office is that of priesthood. The drama of the death and resurrection were actions of the economic trinity, the trinity not in itself  but in its arrangements in respect of the redemption of the church by Jesus Christ.  And it is evidence of the ‘calvinistic’ character of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms that these documents adopt John Calvin’s emphasis. In Chapter VIII ‘Of Christ the Mediator’,  the character of his Mediatorship is that he is, ‘the Prophet, Priest, and King;  the Head and Saviour of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the World…’ (VIII.1). And the Larger Catechism explains it from question 42 onwards, with emphasis on the practical application of these offices of Christ in the Christian life.

All this was to in order for him do the Father’s ‘work’ that he gave his Son to do. (Jn. 17.4) And it is a relationship that, having been made, has no end, for the Logos bears that nature, human nature, as eternally glorified. That these are mysterious matters no one can doubt, for they are intimate and unique relations of the Creator and the seed of the woman. Although Calvin’s three-foldness is that of a prophet, priest and king, yet there is biblical evidence as the office of priest that is the basic, primary office. The duties are the most basic.

Hugh Martin says,

The Divine Spirit does not affirm that His appointment either to his prophetic or His kingly office “glorified” him. But the affirmation is expressly made of His appointment to the sacerdotal office: “God glorified Him to be made an high priest." (Heb. v.5). To inaugurate Him into the office of prophet or of king we read not that the dread solemnity of the Divine oath was had recourse to. “But the Lord  hath sworn and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Psa. cx.4). Four times is this remarkable oracle quoted in terms [i.e. explicitly] in the  New Testament.’ (Heb. vi. 16 – 17,  vii 20-21, 28., vii.17, vii.21) (Hugh Martin, The Atonement, Knox Press, Edinburgh, 1976, 54.

These titles and offices, as Martin insists, are not literary devices to embellish the Incarnate One,   not vague expressions of mere adornment. The are literally true of the Logos, what he became. Indeed we may say that he is the paradigm and perfect example of each office. His offices define his character, selling out his identity. He was truly a prophet, priest and king, particularly a priest who made a real sacrifice, and who was himself the offering. The great high priest  was as a prophet….. and as a king.

The moral is that the work of Christ is essential to his identity, expressed as his  character of prophet, priest and king. The character of Christ as a substitute, offering etc. are intrinsically  related to his character, and not to be a vehicle of human imagination and inventiveness, nor to be forgotten, or re-modelled as the work of Christ the remembrancer of the coming of Spring.

So if we bring together his humanness and his deity, and enumerate  the offices, these marvellous changes fill in the essential detail of the work of Christ on the cross, and so determine what it means and why it matters. We are not to shun detail when we think of the cross and Christ on it. This act was not a blank outline waiting for descriptions from ‘religious writers’ using their imaginations. He was really a priest, as well as being a king and a prophet and real himself the offering. As a prophet he expressed in revealed language the character of his priesthood. (55) And as  king he rules his kingdom. (Eph.5.5)

NOTE, Hugh  Martin, (1822 – 85)  from whom I have borrowed some of the material used above, was a nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, who left the ministry due to ill health. Besides The Atonement, among the other books he  wrote  were The Prophet Jonah (1866), The Shadow of Calvary (1865), and Christ’s Presence in the Gospel History,(1865) and was the author of articles in The British and Foreign Evangelical  Review.

See also

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Coronavirus19 – What’s It for?

What do Creed–reciting  Christians have to say about the plague? ? They believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. How do they relate sudden evils such as we are presently enduring, to God’s almightiness? Many different theological and religious approaches are able to say the same Creed, reflecting  the varieties of theism (and deism) extant. Some say that in the Apostles’ Creed we find ‘mere Christianity’, a universal set of Christian beliefs.  Others will have met the Creed earlier in life, its importance gradually waning over the tears.

A Reluctance

What is surprising is that there has not any bringing together of God Almighty and the Coronavirus plague. Asking the question, what does the common Christian creed say to us about the plague? A least not to my knowledge. (Since writing this I have  heard  Hugh Palmer, Rector of All Souls, London, "What is God saying through the Virus?" on  22nd March. No doubt there are others by now.)

 Of course, perhaps this reluctance is the result of reading  endless opinions, written and spoken, on 'the problem of evil', that people have become tired with any implausible answers.  Despite this,  I thought I would have a try.

There are two types of answer, three if ‘silence’ is a possible answer. The first, let us call it ‘the public problem answer', is to have something positive and intelligible to say to people in general, relating what evils are apparent to the goodness of God. The other is the personal or individual case of evils and God’s goodness. I have a suggestion about each type of answer, relating them to Jesus’s own teaching.

The Public Case

In Luke 13 Christ comments on the fall of the Tower of Siloam, a tower near a reservoir of Jerusalem, whose fall, a contemporary tragedy, which killed eighteen people. What does Jesus say to this ‘hard question’.

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam  fell and killed them: do you   think that they were worse offenders than all who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent , you will all likewise perish. (13.5)

This follows his answer to those Galileans who had been killed by Pilate, who then mixed the shed blood with  the blood of a sacrifice, to whom Jesus gave a similar response. Perhaps this was is a case of anti-Semitic action on the part of the occupying Romans, including governor Pilate, and perhaps those who asked Jesus about this did so to try in turn  to stir up anti-Roman feeling in Jerusalem. This prompted the following retort of Jesus, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you, unless you repent. You will all likewise perish’. (Luke 9, 1-3)

 There are some Creed-repeaters who esteem Jesus for his actions and teaching of the primacy of selfless love and community, will find these words disappointing. The references to sin and guilt and repentance will put them off. But a contemporary Jesus – follower, who values Jesus’s words, should he not value these words? But no one, or scarcely one, of his followers today, quotes them, but shuns them. Jesus is silenced. When there are references, to sin, evil and judgment to come, there is a deafening silence. A person who respects Jesus' words  sees the purpose of the Coronavirus plague and other such evils as prompts to reflection and penitence, for Jesus calls all people are called to penitence for their evils even if, outwardly respectable, they convince themselves that they have no such need.

The individual, personal case

The second example  is the account of the young man who was  born blind,  in John 9.  Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. This prompted a controversy between Jesus, the man’s neighbours, his parents, and the Pharisees. At the beginning of this encounter, his disciples asked  him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ To which Jesus answered ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the  works of God might be displayed in him’. So this could be called a theme of Jesus’s ministry, could it not?

Interestingly, the pool of Siloam figures in this also, as Jesus bids the man (or boy, perhaps) go and wash in the pool of Siloam. He did, as an act of faith in Jesus' command, and thereby gained his sight.

The mind set.

There is a common mindset in both examples, that evils occur as God’s punishment for evil. One difference between these stories and (as we are seeing) the reactions of the contemporary liberal and secular mindset, are obvious. Who needs to repent and to come to Christ for forgiveness? We must not forget that the call to repentance was prominent at the beginning of Jesus’, and of John the Baptist’s, ministries. (Matthew 3) For ignorance of the need for repentance is in sharp contrast to that of Jesus attitude.  For a modern person, plagues have a cause, of course, but their occurrence seems random. They elicit a response, hundreds of responses, of loss and of fearfulness, as we are seeing, but they are otherwise mute.They are not to affect us spiritually.

For Jesus and those who trust him, like the beggar lad of John 9, the occurrences of evils speak. More precisely, for Jesus they speak, like the tragedy of the fall of the tower of Siloam. And what they say is of importance to him. Somehow, they too, are to elicit faith. The boy, we are not told how, had learned that this rabbi was, ‘Jesus’ (v.11). He was  granted the grace of  faith in Jesus the Christ. The blindness that had plagued him from birth , immediately vanished. And that remarkable physical change was the sign of a deeper, spiritual change.

His  faith in the rabbi aroused various reactions. The Pharisees, not able to deny the evidence, made a legal point. They objected to Jesus’s alleged violation of the Sabbath. They  said that Jesus was a ‘sinner’, a Sabbath-breaker. By contrast the boy believed that he was a prophet. (v. 13f). All they knew was what they saw, blindness and then seeing. The boy’s parents, fearing that they would  be excommunicated from the synagogue if they opened their mouths in criticism of the Pharisees, were too scared to say anything, so passed on the problem to the boy who was old enough to speak for himself. He seems rather stroppy, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen….Do you want to be his disciples?’ (v.34) The Pharisees did not pay any sympathy to his story, and alleged that he was illegitimate. That explained his blindness. They cast him out after all.

When a little later Jesus sought him out, having heard of all this, and found him, who was who interested to know more about him, confessed Christ, and worshipped him, perhaps kneeling. Jesus sought the boy and told dim that he was  more than a prophet, he was the Son of Man.

Jesus had a final word: ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind’. The judgment was a division, not any more about blindness and sightedness, but the separation between those who are poor and needy, like the young man, and those who were self-sufficient and self-satisfied, like the Pharisees. No more was heard of the boy. The incident ends:

Some of the Pharisees near Jesus got to hear what he had been saying, and asked him. ‘Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them,  ‘If you were blind, you would have no guilt: but now that you say, “We see”, your guilt remains’. (40-1). Terrible words.

The current plague

Prompted by the current plague, we have turned to some of the words of Jesus. You’ll find that at such time some emphasise this and that bit of the Bible. Here I have gone to the very words of Christ about  affliction and loss, the words of him who was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Pontius Pilate, was crucified , dead, and buried’. We have looked at two sorts of affliction, public and individual. Jesus did  not react as the Puritans, who thought of the occurrence of plagues (including the London plague of 1645), as a society-wide divine punishment.

Here surely they forgot that whatever purpose plagues played in the O.T., we should hold to the fact that now the people of God are no longer  ‘slaves’ but ‘sons’ (Gal. 4.3), Jesus taught that evils  act as ‘reminders’ or as warnings of human mortality and weakness and need, and of the personal accountability before God of each of us. As we get older, such reminders are gradual, and increasingly persistent, occasional; at other times they are spectacular, as currently. As Paul said when he was in Athens, ‘He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’. (Acts 17.31) We should judge that like then, as now, some people will mock, while others reacted like those mentioned by Luke,  ‘some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman Damaris and others with them.’ (Acts 17.34)  


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Easter gifts

This is my second effort at themes for Easter, if you keep Easter. The first dealt with the tearing of the Temple curtain from top to bottom, signifying the new way made by Christ’s work.

New Life

An Augustinian, Reformed confession holds that our Lord Jesus Christ, through his atonement, brought his people new life: regeneration and all the steps of the ordo salutis. Through his death and resurrection,  the Holy Spirit came as the energizer of them, (gifts unto men).

Among these gifts was that of prayer through the mediatorship and  high priesthood of Christ, whereby the people of God cry ‘Abba, Father’. For a moment, contrast this with the fact that we live in a Christianised culture which has left a legacy  of prayer, chiefly routine prayer for the dying, and at death, on public occasions, for Christmas presents, and the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. Beside, in our culture there are Jewish prayers, Muslim prayers,  and so on.

New Testament Prayer: The Mediator

The letter to the Hebrews is the place which gives us the idea of Christ's mediatorship. His priesthood is introduced in 2.17, based on his deity and his humanity. ‘So that he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make  a propitiation for the sons of the people.... he is able to help.....he is able to those who are being tempted.' (Heb 2.17)  He is keeper of God’s house (3.6).  The idea of Melchizedek’s priesthood enters in chapter 7, and it is developed in Ch. 8., and climaxes with teaching on his uniqueness  9.24;‘Christ has entered, not into places made with hands,  which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now  to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.’ And especially the application at 10.19f. ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…..Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering…..Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.’

His Mediatorship is endorsed elsewhere in the New Testament, but rarely. Paul , the Apostle to the Gentiles, hardly touches on it, unless he is thought of as the author of Hebrews, the long-time view which now is discarded.  In Galatians 3. 19-20 he  uses mediator/intermediary once in a rather different connection. In I Tim. 2.5 he states to Timothy, ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.’ There is what is called Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17.           .

In the New Testament there are two conditions that presuppose and govern prayer, Christian prayer. Not conditions that the one praying has to fulfil, but conditions of there being such prayer.  The first is that in the New Testament, men  and women have a mediator, Jesus Christ, who by his death made access to the holy of holies sure. The torn Temple curtain bears witness to this. Christ is revealed as our Great High Priest, whose death and resurrection paid for sin, and purchased righteousness, and which glorified God, and especially that by his resurrection he ever lives to make intercession for his people.

His death, a glorifying

Not only ‘glorified’ but they are instances of the glory of God. In his teachings recorded in the Gospel of John, Christ refers to his forthcoming death as a ‘glorification’. His  death was not what happened to Jesus  but an event in which he takes control. For example he teaches that he is going to his ‘Father’s House’ which contains ‘many mansions/rooms’ (14, 1-3) which he prepares and  will return for his people. That is one theme, glorification, (13.31-2, 14.13,16.14, 17). 4,5. A5.8, 16.14, 17.1,4, 5,22,24)  And the other is the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter sent by his Father (14.26,15.26,7. 16.7) But the emphasis on Christ’s case is not with the glorifying of martyrdom but with that death glorifying the Godhead, and inaugurating glory for the people of God.

Jesus is the Mediator, or intermediary, as the OT priests represented the nation of Israel on the day of atonement annually. It was repeated, therefore, as the author of Hebrews argued, Jesus Christ, the God-man, divine but bearing our nature sinlessly, is alone to having a full or adequate nature for this, and so is alone to be a fitted to be this Mediator. Two locations in the new Testament emphasize this: Gal 3 19-20 , and Heb. 8.6, 9.15, 12.24. There is also a reference  at I Tim 2.5. He mediates two  parties, sinful human beings and God, reconciling the sinful human. For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God by faith. So Jesus the Christ can bring many sons to glory, ‘You are all sons of glory, all one in Christ Jesus, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise’ (v.29)

Christian Prayer: The Spirit

So Hebrews (mainly) gives us the first condition, with the second  condition, prayerfulness, at the end of Gal. 3 ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.’ And as a result of this new arrangement of grace, those for whom Christ died are sons, ‘and because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba! Father! So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. This also is foretold in John 16. 5-15.

That he is the Father, to whom they have a familiar, intimate, relationship, is similar to the fuller statement in Romans 8.12,  If we are sons, then we address him in prayer; as we pray, pleading the person of Christ our mediator, even though not all prayers need to sign off  with ‘in Jesus name’. To appreciate what happened at the first Easter, see  Rom 8.15, Gal 4.6.

Some Consequences

What becomes clear is that in the new Testament there is a sharp distinction between prayer, already mentioned, and Christian prayer, prayer founded on the one Mediator. ‘There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle…a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.(I Tim.2.5-7)  Here Paul is stressing the international character of Christian prayer.

In my experience, in the present, given these NT strands of teaching, pulpit prayer is weak and disappointing, with little solemnity or feeling. The fact that the uttering of such prayer has been won by Jesus is rarely mentioned, never developed. References to the word and spirit, yes, but the language of his great priesthood is seldom utilized. 

So so the incarnation is God’s gift, another gift is the work and agency of the one Mediator, and a third the gift of prayer,  a gift of the Son and the Spirit. When we survey the New Testament, this requesting and intercessing in Christian prayers,  has as its scope the growth in grace of God’s people, the prosperity of the church’s ministry, its evangelistic and missionary mandate. The same Spirit who is at work in the groanings of the prayers of Christ’s people is to be the one who energises their praying. In the later chapters of John’s Gospel,  Jesus describes himself as the Resurrection and the Life ((11.25), and contrasts ‘loving the glory that comes from man’ and ‘the glory that comes from God’. (12.43). Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. (18.36) and praying for it must be in accordance with the needs of such a kingdom. So it is in this vein that Jesus teaches, ‘Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.’ (14, 13-14)  And the promised coming of the Spirit, the Helper, ‘who will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness and judgement. (16.8)

These are the gifts of Easter, not bunny rabbits, daffodils and eggs. It is not an entrance into spring, but celebration into glory of the people of God.