A few years ago, I read a Christianity Today article titled “Go Overboard Celebrating Christmas.” A provocative title, especially given the Evangelical tendency to decry materialism and consumerism this time of year. Of course, those warnings are important to heed, but sometimes warnings and alarm and outrage are the entirety of our message to the world. So the author’s perspective was a breath of fresh air:
Celebrate the stuff. Use fudge and eggnog and wine and roast beef. Use presents and wrapping paper. Embedded in many of the common complaints you hear about the holidays (consumerism, shopping, gluttony, etc.) are false assumptions about the point of the celebration. You do not prepare for a real celebration of the Incarnation through thirty days of Advent Gnosticism.
Celebrate the stuff?! I could imagine such a message rubbing Evangelicals the wrong way. As if an exhortation to embrace celebration and gifts and food is inherently selfish and therefore wrong. If that’s your first impulse when you hear this, let me suggest a helpful distinction to free you up a bit from what I think is a distorted view. We must distinguish between selfishness and appropriate self-interest. This distinction is vital to grasp. Self-interest is not wrong. Do you desire food and shelter? Do you wish to take care of your loved ones? I hope so. Are these just greedy, selfish desires? Of course not. Indeed, appropriate self-interest is assumed by Jesus. How does He tell us we ought to love others? As we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39).
I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis's explanation in his essay “The Weight of Glory”:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive…. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.
Does self-interest have limits? Of course. When appropriate self-interest is abandoned and we move into selfishness, we have crossed the line into sin. Paul tells us, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests [appropriate self-interest], but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4). But selfishness must be dealt with within the individual’s heart and not merely pawned off on the “stuff”:
At the same time, remembering your Puritan fathers, you must hate the sin while loving the stuff. Sin [is] not resident in the stuff. Sin is found in the human heart—in the hearts of both true gluttons and true scrooges—both those who drink much wine and those who drink much prune juice. If you are called up to the front of the class, and you get the problem all wrong, it would be bad form to blame the blackboard. That is just where you registered your error. In the same way, we register our sin on the stuff. But—because Jesus was born in this material world, that is where we register our piety as well. If your godliness won't imprint on fudge, then it is not true godliness.
So in your holiday celebrations, go overboard. Did not God go overboard for us?
Some may be disturbed by this. It seems a little out of control, as though I am urging you to “go overboard.” But of course I am urging you to go overboard. Think about it—when this world was “in sin and error pining,” did God give us a teaspoon of grace to make our dungeon a tad more pleasant? No. He went overboard.
[The disciples] never agreed with Paul’s concept of Jesus as being divine. Anything written in the Bible to suggest that they did is probably a result of later editing by some of Paul’s followers. Such a belief would have been an exceptional departure from the Jewish faith.
How would you respond to this one? Be careful to follow the line of thought here so you can evaluate it: Would a Christian idea’s “exceptional departure” from the Jewish faith prove it wasn’t believed by the Jewish followers of Jesus? Can you see an unspoken assumption behind that reasoning? What reasons do you have to think the disciples did think Jesus is divine? How would you respond to the charge of “later editing”?
Answer this challenge in the comments below, and be sure to see Tim’s video response on Thursday.
Is Eternal Punishment Just? by Tim Barnett: “This young Christian schoolteacher took issue with the idea that a loving God would send a person to Hell for eternity for a finite number of sins committed while on earth. ‘It just doesn’t seem right,’ she exclaimed.... At first blush, this question seems to resonate with our moral intuitions concerning justice and fairness. However, at the heart of the question lies a fundamental misunderstanding about man and God. Specifically, we minimize the seriousness of man’s sin and guilt, and we distort the perfection of God’s holiness and justice.” (Read more.)
Despair in 2016? Never. God Will Do Big Things by Brett Kunkle: “[T]he modern university is an intellectual wasteland, as well as a moral mess. This is the chaos our young people walk into as they attend secular universities across the country. A cause for concern? Absolutely. If we don’t win students’ hearts and minds before they head off to college, the secular culture will. A cause for despair? Never. No matter how bad things get, nothing will put Jesus Christ back in the grave. We can be confident the gates of Hell will not ultimately prevail against His church (Matt. 16:18). So I’m not despairing, I’m redoubling my efforts.” (Read more.)
Still Following Jesus by Alan Shlemon: “Before returning to the Father, Jesus commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations and teach them to obey His commands (Matt. 28:19-20). Although I live 2,000 years later and 7500 miles away, that Great Commission still animates my life today.” (Read more.)
Today we celebrate the coming of the One who rescues us from the chains of our sin. Merry Christmas to all of you!
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us.... (Romans 8:1-4)
When you tell Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus is uncreated, they are likely to take you directly to Proverbs 8:22-30 in their New World Translation (NWT). They believe this is undeniable proof that Jesus was the first created creature. Before looking specifically at this passage, we should familiarize ourselves with the context. This chapter begins with a personification of wisdom as a woman calling out in the streets. A personification is a figure of speech where human qualities are given to non-human things. For example, telling my wife that opportunity is knocking at her door is a personification of opportunity. It would be foolish for her to go check the door to see if someone is literally there knocking. Opportunity is not an actual person. In the case of Proverbs 8, personal qualities are attributed to the virtue of wisdom so that it sounds like a person (Prov. 8:12), but it’s not really a person.
Solomon’s primary intent of verses 22-30 is to communicate that God used wisdom when He created the world. God was wise from the beginning. David echoes this idea in the Psalms. He writes, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psa. 104:24). Solomon stresses the same point. He writes, “The Lord possessed me [wisdom] at the beginning of his work” and “I [wisdom] was beside Him, like a master workman…” (Prov. 8:22, 30). The question is, is this passage about more than wisdom?
Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that this description moves beyond a personification to describing a personality; namely, it describes the person of Christ. Furthermore, their NWT translates verse 22 as “Jehovah produced me as the beginning of His way” (Prov. 8:22). According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, if wisdom was created, and the wisdom of God is Jesus (1 Cor. 1:30), then Solomon must be saying that Jesus was created.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument hinges on the meaning of the verb qanah, which they translate as produced, or created. There are two reasons to reject the NWT’s rendering. First, most Bible scholars, think that possess is the best translation of the original language. Therefore, Solomon is saying that Jehovah possessed wisdom, not that He created it. If Jehovah didn’t create wisdom, then their argument that Jesus was created disappears.
Second, logic demands that the Jehovah’s Witness translation be disregarded. Clearly, Jehovah could not have produced wisdom. Wisdom is one of His essential attributes that Jehovah has possessed from eternity. If the NWT is correct, then Jehovah lacked wisdom until He produced it. Since Jehovah is eternal, this means that He eternally existed without the virtue of wisdom until He produced it a finite time ago.
If this passage comes up in discussion with your Jehovah’s Witness friends, ask them, “Do you believe that Jehovah lacked wisdom?” This question puts them between a rock and a hard place. If they answer yes, then their view of God is mistaken. The God of the Bible is omnisapient, which means all-wise. Therefore, there cannot be a time when He lacked wisdom.
If they say no, then their translation of verse 22 is mistaken. The NWT clearly says, “Jehovah produced wisdom.” God could not have produced wisdom since He already possessed it.
Your Jehovah’s Witness friends might object at this point. “This passage isn’t about wisdom; it’s about Jesus,” they might exclaim. However, this response makes a gross exegetical error. Whether or not someone believes this passage applies to Christ, we all recognize that it is at least talking about the virtue of wisdom. It may be about the virtue of wisdom only, or it may be about the virtue of wisdom and Jesus. But the context will not allow this text to be about Jesus alone.
At this point, I need to employ an important hermeneutical principle. When it comes to Scripture, you always interpret what is unclear in light of what is clear. That is, you start with what is clear and work out to what is less clear. Reinterpreting clear passages to make them fit with less clear passages is bad hermeneutics. Yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses do this all the time.
For example, I was discussing John 1:3 with a Jehovah’s Witness to establish that Jesus is the uncreated Creator. He responded by citing Proverbs 8:22 and stating, “Jesus is Jehovah’s first creation.” Given what I’ve have already said about John 1:3 and Proverbs 8:22, it should be obvious to any honest person that the former is much more clear than the latter. Consequently, it would be an egregious error to reinterpret a straightforward passage, like John 1:3, to accommodate a debatable reading of Proverbs 8:22.