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.
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.
Is it unloving to tell people they are sinners? While thinking about this question, an analogy immediately came to mind that I think brilliantly articulates why telling people they are sinners is not only loving, but also life-giving. I hope that you find this illustration as helpful as I have.
Imagine a young man named Joe goes to the doctor to get a couple of routine tests done. A few days later, the test results come back, and each test shows that Joe has cancer. This particular cancer is completely curable if Joe gets the right treatment. However, the doctor cares too much to give Joe that bad news. He has known Joe for quite some time and considers him a good friend. He knows this news will be emotionally upsetting. Furthermore, this diagnosis is going to alter Joe's current lifestyle. The treatment will be intense, so Joe won't have the energy to do what he used to, he will need more bed rest, and he will even need to change his diet. Since the doctor doesn’t want to come across as unloving, he changes one of the test results to indicate that Joe doesn’t have cancer and flat out ignores the other tests. Rather than give the truth, the doctor chooses to misrepresent and even ignore the truth.
I believe this illustrates the mentality of many Christians in the church today. For example, some Christians are so worried about coming across as unloving, bigoted, intolerant, and judgmental to their homosexual friends or relatives that they would rather alter the clear teaching of Scripture or just flat out ignore it. Of course, whoever does this isn’t really doing his homosexual friend any favors. His friend needs to know his sin before he can repent of it, in the same way a man with cancer needs to know he’s sick before he will seek out the cure.
The gospel—that Christ died for our sins—is the good news for sinners. However, it only makes sense in light of the bad news—that we are sinners. One of the earliest oral creeds recorded in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. This Christian oral tradition dates back to within a few years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The message our brothers and sisters from the 1st century were communicating was “that Christ died for our sins.” But this doesn't mean anything to people who are ignorant of their sins. Think about it! Healthy people don't need a doctor; sick people do. Likewise, righteous people don't need a Savior; sinners do.
Getting back to the illustration: The most loving thing that the doctor can do is to gently and graciously share the truth with his patient that he has a deadly disease. Only then can he offer the lifesaving cure. In exactly the same way, humbly and graciously telling people that they are sinners—like you, and I, and the rest of mankind—is the most loving thing you can do, because only then will they turn to the life-giving Savior.
The case can be made that God killed or authorized the killings of up to 25,000,000 people. This is the God that Jesus looked up to and of whom he was allegedly an integral part. That is to say: Jesus himself was an accessory to these massacres. Therefore, Christianity cannot extract itself from these atrocities; it must own them and admit that their God is in fact a serial, genocidal, infanticidal, filicidal, and pestilential murderer.
Does the history of the Old Testament include genocidal, infanticidal, filicidal, and pestilential murders committed by God? How would you respond to this challenge? Leave your comments below, and then be back here on Thursday to hear Brett’s response.
Over the past year, I’ve listened to my best friend tell me about her little church—how attentive, kind, and caring the elders are, how close the people are, how they preach the Gospel, speak the truth, and worship God. I even got to see it for myself just a few weeks ago.
This was the church of Garrett Swasey, the police officer and church elder who was killed in Colorado Springs last week, and it has been surreal, to say the least, to see this elder and his congregation suddenly propelled into the limelight—to hear everyone I regularly read and listen to speak about this man and even link to his sermons. I’m thankful that the ordinary Christians in this solid little church were ready and able to glorify God by responding with the Gospel in the face of evil. I’m awed by the way Garrett has preached the Gospel even in his death, to an untold number of people—both by dying for others and through his last sermon, which has been downloaded thousands and thousands of times over the last week. None of us ever knows when and how God will use us, and I stand in awe of what He has done through this church in the last week. I know Garrett would echo Paul’s rejoicing that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Many have written excellent responses to the accusations made against pro-lifers as a result of last week’s murders (see Ross Douthat, Tim Brahm, and Scott Klusendorf—see also what I’ve written previously in condemnation of violence against abortion clinics), so I direct you to them for those discussions.
I want to say something about justice.
We have seen much evil over the past week, and it’s not wrong to long for justice. After hearing about Garrett’s funeral last night, my Bible reading happened to be in Psalm 9, and its praise of God’s judgment of the wicked and rescue of the afflicted was what I needed to hear:
I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart; I will tell of all Your wonder. I will be glad and exult in You; I will sing praise to Your name, O Most High.
When my enemies turn back, They stumble and perish before You. For You have maintained my just cause; You have sat on the throne judging righteously. You have rebuked the nations, You have destroyed the wicked; You have blotted out their name forever and ever. The enemy has come to an end in perpetual ruins, And You have uprooted the cities; The very memory of them has perished.
But the Lord abides forever; He has established His throne for judgment, And He will judge the world in righteousness; He will execute judgment for the people with equity. The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, A stronghold in times of trouble; And those who know Your name will put their trust in You, For You, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.
Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion; Declare among the peoples His deeds. For He who requires blood remembers them; He does not forget the cry of the afflicted. Be gracious to me, O Lord; See my affliction from those who hate me, You who lift me up from the gates of death, That I may tell of all Your praises, That in the gates of the daughter of Zion I may rejoice in Your salvation. The nations have sunk down in the pit which they have made; In the net which they hid, their own foot has been caught. The Lord has made Himself known; He has executed judgment. In the work of his own hands the wicked is snared….
The wicked will return to Sheol, Even all the nations who forget God. For the needy will not always be forgotten, Nor the hope of the afflicted perish forever. Arise, O Lord, do not let man prevail; Let the nations be judged before You. Put them in fear, O Lord; Let the nations know that they are but men.
We human beings are odd. We both desire just judgment and intensely hate it. This is why you’ll hear people rail against God for not bringing about justice, while in the next breath they call God unjust for judging people in Hell.
Justice is terrible and good. We all know this. We love justice because we long to uphold the good. Yet we know perfect justice perfectly upholds the good, and so we fear it. It’s terrible (that is, formidable and awesome in its greatness) in the sense that true justice absolutely and unforgivingly deals out what is deserved.
You can’t understand the Gospel if you don’t love justice.
Our love of justice is a reflection of our love for the perfections of God’s character. He is righteous. He is loving. He is good. In the deepest part of us, we know that everyone who rips away at God’s reflection on earth rightfully deserves condemnation, and we desire the fulfillment of that condemnation. It’s when we recognize that this applies even to our own sins that we become desperate for grace.
[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness…so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Because of my love of justice and need for grace, those are my favorite words in the Bible. The amazing truth we know as Christians is that God is both just and the justifier. God will not cheat His justice. We need not worry that any evil will ultimately go unpunished, but neither need we fear the fact that no evil will go unpunished. For all of us who come to Jesus, desperate for grace, He has achieved perfect justice by bearing our sins. Those who do not come to Jesus for grace will bear their own sins. The justice we long for will be complete.
We “never take our own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God” not because justice is wrong, but because we can trust justice in God’s hands. On earth, government is the authority established by God to act “as a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil,” and the cross is our guarantee of both justice and grace, now and in the future.* For this reason, says Romans 12, when our enemy is hungry, we can feed him, and if he is thirsty, we can give him a drink. We rest in God’s righteous statement, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” and in doing so, we are free to show mercy and pray for the repentance of others without denying our love for God and our desire to see goodness vindicated.
*This includes the guarantee of justice through judgment in Hell for those who are not united to Christ; for if the wrath of God endured by Jesus on the cross was necessary to fulfill justice on behalf of those united to Him, then those who are not united to Him will be required to endure that same wrath of God. Since we, unlike Jesus, are limited beings, that will require Hell.