There’s lots of movie reviews about the new film “Noah” by director, Darren Aronofsky. Some praise it, some can it, some grieve that it’s not a close enough depiction of the actual Bible story, and some have even said that the film is “the least biblical biblical film ever made”. Actually, that last quote is from the director, Darren Aronofsky himself (see here), so I don’t know what some Christians are getting so offended by. It’s not a biblical film. End of debate. The film has even been released by Paramount with the following clarifying statement:
“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”
Well, I think it’s maybe a bit of a stretch to say the story of Noah is a “cornerstone of faith”, but at least they point to where you can actually read the biblical account.
Some people debate whether the story of Noah is true history or just a fable. Whether it can be adapted with rock monsters, or whether it is just totally irrelevant for modern audiences. What interests me, as a follower of Jesus, is whether Jesus has anything to say on the topic.
You might not worship Jesus as I do, but most people have a general respect for Jesus and his teaching. Christians are criticised if they ignore things that Jesus clearly taught on, like caring for the poor, and they are also criticised if they focus too much on topics that Jesus didn’t specifically talk about, like homosexuality. And rightly so, I say. Jesus’ teaching matters, and if he taught on something clearly, it should be acknowledged as a core part of Christianity.
Now, Jesus didn’t give a movie review of Aronofsky’s film, but it may surprise you that he did give a commentary on the source material. In both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke it is recorded that Jesus referred to the story of Noah and taught how we should apply it to our own lives. Aronofsky, said in an interview with MTV (see here) that the biblical story of Noah is “the first apocalypse story – it’s about the end of the world” and Jesus picks up on this exact theme. When Jesus reviewed Noah, he uses it as an analogy of the last apocalypse story – the actual end of the world – referring to his Second Coming.
Now, if you have never read the actual original story of Noah, you should probably read it before you hear Jesus’ review of it. It’s not that long and you can find it in Genesis 6-9. But if you are familiar with it, let’s read Jesus’ teaching from the gospel of Matthew (you can find the same account in Luke 17:22-36).
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:36-42)
Now, for a bit of context, this passage fits in a larger section where Jesus is teaching about the “coming of the Son of Man”. This is referring to the idea that some time after his death, resurrection and ascension, he will return as judge and saviour of the world. If the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus or “Judgement Day” is new to you, then you might want to read other places in the Bible that talk about it (like the whole of Matthew 24-25, or much of the Book of Revelation, or even the end of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament) Hebrews 9:28 sums up the first and second coming of Christ very nicely I think: “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
So if Jesus is teaching about the “Second Coming”, why does he talk about the story of Noah? What do they have in common and what aspects of the Noah story does Jesus apply to us as relevant for our lives? He says in verse 37, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” So basically, he uses it as a simile. It’s a sermon illustration. Jesus is saying, experiencing his Second Coming will be like experiencing Noah’s flood. But in what way? Well, Jesus mentions 3 aspects:
1. It will be unexpected.
That seems to be Jesus’ main point. He stressed that only God the Father knows when the Second Coming will happen and concludes with the warning to “keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come”. The story of Noah is used by Jesus as an analogy of this. People were just going about their daily lives (eating, drinking, marrying etc.) and were completely unprepared for the flood to come. In the verse after the passage above, Jesus uses the analogy of a thief coming to rob a house to make the same point. And what is the point? Don’t be like them and be unprepared. You won’t know when it’s going to come, so make sure you are ready for Jesus’ Second Coming. Everyone around you may be unprepared, but don’t you be.
2. Some will be taken away for judgement.
Jesus isn’t in any way afraid or embarrassed to talk about an ultimate final judgement. The idea that God will one day separate all of mankind into two groups – one to live with God forever and one to be separated from God forever – is a reality that is spoken throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament. Anyone who wishes to engage with Jesus’ teaching (and especially anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus) must engage with the fact that Jesus taught very clearly about Judgement Day. He spoke about hell. It’s unpleasant. It’s unfortunate. But you can’t argue that it’s un-Jesus. The most foolish thing to do would be to simply live your lives – eating, drinking and marrying – without engaging with this part of Jesus’ teaching. That would really miss Jesus’ point! Jesus uses the story of the flood that took some away to point us to a future event that will also take some away. Not all will be saved and Jesus is warning us to so that we might not be in that group.
3. Some will be left.
The other parallel to the story of Noah and the Second Coming is that not all will be taken away. Some will be left. Some will be spared. Who are these people? Well, in the story of Noah Jesus says it’s those who “entered the ark”. This is quite similar imagery to the parable of the “Ten Virgins” that Jesus tells in the very next chapter (you can read it in Matthew 25:1-13). In both this parable and the story of Noah, those who are prepared go inside something and those who are unprepared are stuck outside the door. Jesus links both of these as analogies of his Second Coming. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus is represented by the returning Bridegroom. In the Noah story, who is Jesus? Is Jesus saying he is like Noah, ushering people into the place of safety in preparation for the coming judgement? Or is Jesus saying he is the ark itself, and that only in him are we protected from being taken away? Either way, he uses the story of Noah to point to himself as the one who can bring salvation.
In his MTV interview, Darren Aronofsky said of his film, “It’s about justice. And over the course of the film, mercy and grace are learned.” Now, I know as a staunch Atheist he has taken a lot of liberties with the text and probably doesn’t care what Jesus thinks about the message of the story of Noah, but I think the above quote is pretty on the money. Both the story of Noah and the Second Coming are not simply about judgement and justice. They are about mercy and grace as well. That is what the Christian gospel proclaims. That is why Jesus came. That is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. Justice as God condemns sin in the sacrifice of Jesus, and mercy as Jesus dies in our place and we are offered forgiveness.
I might be seeing Aronofsky’s interpretation of Noah later this week. If you want a review of it, there are tons on YouTube (here’s one I like). But in the end, I’m more interested in Jesus’ interpretation of Noah. Jesus’ review is that the biblical story of Noah is an action-packed, dramatic morality tale that also has a redemptive theme and makes relevant commentary for a modern audience as to how they should live and what their future may hold.
I think Jesus would give the biblical story 5 Stars.
Will a true child of God ever renounce their faith?
Is a Christian “eternally secure”?
Is it biblical to say: “once saved, always saved”?
I have my own thoughts on the matter and I might share them in another blog some time, but I just thought I’d provide you with the key passages that Christians use to argue either side of the debate.
I do believe in every one of these verses and so, no matter which side of the debate you fall on, I encourage you to reflect on them all and seeks God’s wisdom and guidance as to how they might be reconciled.
10 PASSAGES THAT SUGGEST THAT YES, A TRUE CHRISTIAN CAN LOSE THEIR SALVATION…
2 Peter 2:20-22
1 Timothy 4:1
10 PASSAGES THAT SUGGEST THAT A TRUE CHRISTIAN CAN’T (OR WON’T) EVER LOSE THEIR SALVATION…
1 John 2:19
2 Corinthians 1:21-22
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
1 Corinthians 1:7-9
2 Timothy 2:11-13
Read these passages and weigh them up. The following questions might help your reflection…
What are the dangers of believing either view too strongly?
What might you miss if you feel insecure about your salvation?
What might you miss if you feel too confident in your salvation?
If I said that you are guaranteed to get into heaven and that no matter what you did you couldn’t lose your salvation, would that inspire you to persevere in the faith with joy or would it inspire you to sin as much as you wanted to?
If a Christian can’t lose their salvation, why does the Bible warn us against apostasy (falling away)?
You might know friends who have thrown in the faith and now no longer call themselves Christians. How do the passages above help us to think about that?
Can you hold a view that reconciles all the passages above?
Write your thoughts in the comments below!
For my non-Christian friends reading this, you may be more interested in some more fundamental questions: What constitutes a “Christian” that you could say they would or wouldn’t “lose their salvation”? What is this “salvation” that might or might not be “lost”?
If these are more your questions, I encourage you to seek the answers and send me an email if you want and advice as to where to look.
One thing that can’t be denied when reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is that Jesus’ death was no accident. Jesus was not just going about his business, teaching people to love and performing miracles; and one day, out of the blue, he was kidnapped and crucified. All the accounts explicitly tell of Jesus’ resolute and deliberate plan to go to Jerusalem where the Jewish authorities were waiting to kill him. Consider Mark 10:32-34…
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles,who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
Jesus’ death, was for Jesus the climax of his short 3 year ministry. It was where it was all heading. It was the point.
This is why the image of the cross is the symbol that represents Christianity. The death of Jesus is at the heart of what Christians are on about. It is at the core of our message. As Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)
The natural question that arises from this is… why? What’s the point? Couldn’t Jesus have done a lot more good if he stuck around for longer? I mean, he could have travelled the world preaching and healing and gaining followers. That’s true. So, we can rightly conclude that teaching and healing was not the primary goal of his mission and his ministry. Clearly, at least he believed, he could do more good by dying than he could if he lived. But what good did he do by dying? What did his death achieve?
Now, this question has been asked by many and is the source of some debate – especially more recently. But this debate does not arise from the New Testament being unclear on the topic. There are countless places in the New Testament (and Old Testament) that explain it. For now, I’m just going to include one reference. It comes from the writings of possibly Jesus’ closest friend and disciple, who was acknowledged as one of the key leaders in the early church. This is of course, the apostle Peter. As he explains, something supernatural was happening when Jesus died…
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; By his wounds you have been healed… For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 2:24 & 3:18)
Now as you may know, Paul the apostle has also written many epistles explaining the meaning of the death of Christ, and I’d love to include many of his great passages, but I decided not to. You see, for an odd reason, some people think that Paul single-handedly invented the idea that Jesus died as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. They claim that the idea of the atonement is not really found other than in Paul’s writings and that the gospels don’t mention this concept at all!
When I was first challenged on this idea by someone many years ago, it was by a Biblical scholar who was many years my senior and I really didn’t know how to respond. On the spot, I couldn’t think of too many places outside of Paul’s writings where Jesus’ death was described as a sacrifice or as something that bore our sins. I am now very sad that I can’t have that conversation all over again! The more I read and understand Scripture, the more I am utterly convinced that there is no way in which you can faithfully read the gospels about Jesus without accepting that this teaching is undeniably there. Passages like the one above are too clear and too frequent.
So why do people claim it is not there? Well, initially it might be due to lack of knowledge about how the New Testament epistle writers like Peter and John back up Paul’s writing on the purpose of Jesus’ death. It may also be that they don’t know the places in the four gospels where this is explained as well. Despite this, more and more I see people who claim to know the New Testament and claim to be faithful to the gospels and its message, who are disregarding the atonement all together. They argue that Jesus’ death did not spiritually achieve anything, but was an act of courageous martyrdom or simply a great example to us about how we should die for what you believe in – like the Buddhists monk, Thich Quang Duc, who in 1963 famously committed self-immolation as a form of protest against the persecution of Buddhists in Cambodia.
The main reason why I think they feel compelled to do this is because the concept of “Jesus dying for our sins” raises lots of philosophical questions for people. How does it work? What does that say about God the Father? Or Jesus’ divinity? Or the reality of God’s judgement and Hell? Or even just the reality of sin? It brings up lots of tricky concepts that, in the end, are not very palatable for many people. And so, instead of grappling with the truth of these ideas or rejecting Jesus altogether, they ignore some clear parts of the New Testament to fit a more palatable message. No longer are we sinners who deserve judgment from a Holy Creator. No longer is Jesus’ death the sacrifice that pays for our sins and provides us with a way of reconciliation with God. The good news is changed so that it is no longer about something that Jesus has done for us, but it becomes about something that we can do… inspired by him.
This version of the gospel may be much more palatable and raise less philosophical questions, but it simply is not faithful to the New Testament. I’m not saying that Jesus’ death is not supposed to be an example for us of self-sacrifice, but to reduce it to that and not see the countless places the New Testament speaks of it as something much, much greater, is to be like someone spending $24 to admire the cup holders in the chairs during an IMAX movie. Worth acknowledging, but not really the point of it all.
But a question remains… What did Jesus think about his own death? Have the other writer’s of the New Testament like Peter and Paul just gotten Jesus wrong? Did Jesus ever talk about his death being a sacrifice for sin? Well, the answer is yes – several times. In fact, he never talked about his death being an example of loving self-sacrifice. If you want that concept, go to the story where he washes his disciples feet (John 13:14-15). When it comes to the cross, Jesus talks about it as a deliberate, purposeful and cosmically significant sacrifice. In his mind he was heading to Jerusalem to achieve something tangible. He was going to pay for our sins with his own death.
Now, I could write several blogs going through all the places where this is found in the gospels, but for now, I will just look at one. It is in one powerfully significant line that Jesus said during the Last Supper…
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
THE LAST SUPPER
If you don’t know the story, the Last Supper is the Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. The gospels record that Jesus had timed his arrival into Jerusalem perfectly so that the Passover would fall at the same time he would be arrested and crucified.
The Passover is one of the most significant festivals on the Jewish calendar, where Jews remember God’s great act of saving them from his own judgement. That’s right. Not saving them from the evil oppression of the Egyptians. The Passover commemorates the time God told his people he would judge every single household, other than those who had the blood of a sacrificed lamb painted on their doorposts. Sound gruesome, I know, but that’s the story. If you had the blood on your door, then it was a sign that a lamb had been sacrificed in your place and God would “pass over” your house.
Every year since then, Jews would sacrifice a “passover lamb” and have a special symbolic meal as an act of remembrance. This is why Jesus chose the Passover as the time to die. He was, as John the Baptist declares, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and as Paul writes, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7) Jesus was what the Passover was looking forward to. Jesus is the lamb that would be sacrificed in the place of anyone who would put their trust in him. He is the true fulfilment of the Passover.
It is during this Passover meal that Jesus decides to initiate a new symbolic meal. This new meal would no longer remember the Passover, but since the Passover was being fulfilled and replaced by Jesus and his death, this is what would now be remembered. This new symbolic meal is now commonly known now as “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” and is today celebrated by pretty much all Christians across the world.
As all four gospels record, at the Last Supper Jesus uses two elements of the Passover meal – bread and wine – as a visual aid to explain what was going to happen to him and what it was going to mean. He took the bread and broke it, explaining that the same thing would happen to his own body. “This is my body given for you.” (Luke 22:19) And then he took the red wine (a perfect visual symbol for blood) and said those potent and profound words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
From this, we can see Jesus explains three things about his blood. Firstly, it’s going to be poured out – as in, he’s definitely going to die. Secondly, his death is going to somehow achieve the forgiveness of sins. And thirdly, his blood is the “blood of the covenant”.
THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT
The “blood of the covenant” is not just any old phrase. It is only used in one other place in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples would have known the story Jesus was referring to and how significant it was that he was using it in reference to his own blood.
After the events of the Passover and the escape from Egypt, the story of Exodus eventually leads up to another very significant moment in Jewish history. God has rescued his people from his own judgement and redeemed them from slavery. He now gives them the famous Ten Commandments and the law that instructs them how – as rescued people – they should now live and relate to God and each other. This is when what is called the “Mosaic Covenant” is established.
A “covenant” is like an alliance or solemn relational contract that is made between two parties. Marriage, for example, is described in the Bible as a covenant (Malachi 2:14). More often though, a covenant is used when a commitment between God and his people is made and a new relationship is established. In the thousands of years of Biblical history, there were only very few covenants made. This is because they were so significant and they mark key moments in the ongoing relationship between God and mankind.
Each covenant usually contains a few elements. Like promises made between both parties, consequences for breaking the covenant, and a “sign” that would remind both parties of the promises made (think for example, “circumcision” with the Covenant with Abraham and the rainbow with the Covenant with Noah). Lastly, each covenant with God usually also involves a sacrifice. As we have already seen, a sacrifice was often a representation of the consequences of the judgement of God. The slaughtered animal reminded the person that their sin deserved death and that without a substitute to bear that death for them, they would face God’s judgement themselves. It wasn’t all gloom and doom though. A sacrifice also gave the people hope. Hope that even when they would inevitably break their promises, God would provide a way that they could be forgiven and remain in the covenant.
During the establishment of the “Mosaic Covenant” two types of sacrifices were made – burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. If you look up the Old Testament instruction manual on what these two sacrifices are all about (Leviticus 1 & 3), you see that those who perform the sacrifice would place their hand on the head of the animal – symbolically transferring the guilt of the person to the animal. The animal would then be killed in the place of the guilty party, and then, as God told them, “it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you.” (Leviticus 1:4)
Read here what Moses did with the blood taken from these atoning sacrifices, as recorded in Exodus 24:4-8, and look out for the phrase the “blood of the covenant” that Jesus was referring to…
Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
So, the “Mosaic Covenant” was established with the blood of atoning sacrifices being sprinkled over the people. Gross, I know. But what a potent symbol! The “blood of the covenant” marked this new relationship between God and his people, and was a stark and rather disgusting reminder that their promise to always obey everything the Lord has said would inevitably fail, and that atonement would be needed for forgiveness to be possible.
This was not an unfamiliar message for God’s people, as atoning sacrifice was a part of their every day life. Although God has shown the Jewish people particular favour, their ongoing relationship with God was not without cost. It was marked by daily sacrifices that reminded the people that there was a major ongoing problem between them and God. God wanted relationship but they could only come to him on the basis of blood and sacrifice.
If this idea seems odd and unnecessary to you, then you may not have ever realised how your sin separates you from God. You should hear what God is saying in the Old Testament sacrifices as a powerful wake-up call as to the seriousness of sin and the fact that we are in desperate need for an atoning sacrifice to provide the way for forgiveness.
In any case, this whole bloody episode with Moses and the phrase, “this is the blood of the covenant” is the concept that Jesus is referring to when he uses the same words in reference to his own blood the night before he died.
JESUS AND THE NEW COVENANT
Jesus is ultimately the fulfilment of all the Old Testament covenants and his death on the cross is the sacrifice that each covenant’s sacrifice is foreshadowing and pointing to.
When Jesus talks of his own blood as being the “blood of the covenant” he is telling his disciples that a new covenant that fulfils the Mosaic Covenant is being established. As with the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, Jesus is saying that it would be like we were putting our hand on his head and our guilt before God was being transferred to him. As Peter described it, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” So, in his death, he would be bearing our sins. He would be our atoning sacrifice and his death would be the blood of this new covenant.
This is why Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” It can not be clearer that Jesus saw his death as being a sacrifice for our sins. His death would make the way, once for all, for our sin to be forgiven. No longer would animal sacrifices be needed. No longer would the Passover be required. Jesus was establishing a new covenant and his death was the means that makes it possible.
This is why Jesus believed that he could do more good if he died than if he lived. This is why Jesus’ death was the goal and climax of his mission. This is why the sign of the cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is the death of Jesus that pays for our sin and establishes a new relationship between God and mankind for those that would trust in it.
Now, you may not believe any of the things I have written about. I hope you do, but I understand there are a lot of concepts like covenants and sacrifices and sin that build upon each other. If you don’t understand one (or if you have a big problem with one) then all the others may not make sense either. For you, I have not written this blog to try to convince you of their truth. I only hope that you see that the old idea that “Jesus died for your sins” is actually faithful to all the writers of the New Testament. More important than that, it is faithful to Jesus’ own understanding of why he was so determined to die for you. You may think Jesus was mistaken, but at least you will be able to see that those who claim that the idea of the “atonement” is not there, are just not reading the text.
Also, I hope that if one day you chose to consider the claims of Christ, you will know what Jesus honestly taught about the meaning of his death in your place.
For those who are already disciples of Jesus – who have accepted Jesus death for what Jesus said it would be, and who know the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation with God – may you do what Jesus asked you to do at the Last Supper… May you remember him and his death for you. Not only when you take “communion” and hold those elements of broken bread and red wine in your hands, but every day, and especially at this time of Easter when these words and events are retold and we are reminded of their reality and significance.
I acknowledge that my blog here focusses on only one verse in the Bible that explains why Jesus died, so if you want to understand more about what the death of Jesus was all about, I can recommend an ebook by John Piper called, “Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die”. It will give you heaps more to think about! Download a FREE copy: HERE
If on the other hand, you are intrigued by the connections between the Old Testament sacrifices and the work of Jesus, I highly recommend you take a look at the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. It is written specifically to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and Chapters 8-10 especially help to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament sacrificial system. There may be lots of ideas that are weird or confusing, but it’s well worth the study.
I’ll leave you with some wonderful words from Hebrews 13:20-21…
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant
brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,
equip you with everything good for doing his will,
and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever.
My brother Tony recently performed an experiment to see if God would prove his existence to him.
He describes what he did and what his experiment taught or confirmed for him.
If you have not read his blog entitled, “Two Jars”, you must stop reading now and click HERE,
as this blog is a personal response to my brother’s blog.
Tony, your blog was really interesting, moving and caused me to reflect on my own experience of God.
Honestly, I am sad God did not move the stones. Unlike the hypocritical theists you refer to in your blog, I do not have any problem with the idea that God could or would do such a thing. In fact, one of the first questions I asked after reading your blog was, “Why didn’t God do it?”
For you, I can see that the experiment and its result was very significant and genuine. I also see that for you, the result does not prompt in you the same question it does for me. For you, it “puts to rest my belief in a particular type of God” and “It was like I had asked if this world was actually the matrix. The answer was that this is real; the earth, sky, my family and me are all very real.” In this blog, all I would like to do is encourage you to be cautious about what exactly you “put to rest”.
Before performing the experiment you prayed this prayer:
“Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please empty the jar I have filled with stones and fill the empty jar next to it.”
Your prayer was simple and innocent and I believe genuine. But by praying this prayer did you think that you were painting God into a corner? Or even, painting yourself into a corner? What I mean is, was your prayer a question or a test? Read your prayer again. Did you allow for God to simply say, “no”?
Now, I don’t mean this as if you were being petty or childish, but was the subtext of your prayer something like, “Yahweh, if you are there and real, then you will give me a sign. I ask that the sign that you use to prove your existence to me be to move these stones from one jar to another.”?
Again, I don’t imply that you prayed that mockingly like the Pharisees saying to the crucified Jesus, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42). I only suggest that, by concluding that a particular type of God was put to rest by your experiment, you had some huge expectations behind it all. And by your “Matrix” analogy, these expectations were as great as if you were questioning reality itself.
The reality is, all you have done is put to rest the particular type of God that proves his existence to us on command with experiments that we set up for him to complete. Did you allow for the possibility of God saying, “I want to prove my existence to you another way.” or “Despite your noble motives, it will not be good for you or others for my existence to be proven to you through such an experiment, so I’m going to answer no on this occasion.” Have you joined in with Nick Cave singing, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” a little too soon?
You experiment actually reminds me of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, who argued for an atheist state (not that I’m saying you’re doing this) by suggesting that if God was real then the first man in space would have seen him: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” (this is often misquoted as something the astronaut, Yuri Gagarin actually said himself). But like you, only a particular type of God was put to rest by this experiment – the type of God that is visible to those who travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But to throw out God completely by this experiment – or by yours – is sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The first issue I want to address is, are you right to expect that if God exists he will prove his existence to you by an experiment like the “two jars”?
This seems fundamental to the whole experiment and your acceptance of this premise seems to come from a couple of biblical examples of people doing similar “testing prayers”.
In your blog you refer to Kings and Judges, obviously referring to the stories of “Elijah and the prophets of Baal” in 1 Kings 18, and “Gideon and the Fleece” in Judges 6. You flesh these examples out a bit more in your previous blog, “Pray em if you got em”, where you also include a third example from Isaiah 7:10-14, where God actually rebukes King Ahaz for being reluctant to ask for a sign. You write, “In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common.” I’d have to disagree with this. These are three of thousands of examples of prayers throughout the bible and I would have to say that “testing prayers” are actually exceptionally rare. They are never commended as a general way in which we should pray and these three examples are quite unique.
In your “Two Jars” blog you ask the question to the Christian reader, “How can they claim the truth of books like Kings and Judges while predicting from the get go that I would not find the stones moved?” Now, I didn’t predict that the stones wouldn’t be moved, but I will answer why I think these stories from Kings, Judges and Isaiah, should not be used as a template for us to ask similar “testing prayers”.
Elijah’s Testing Prayer
For those who don’t know the story, Elijah is a prophet who sets up a test. There are two bulls. The prophets of Baal can pray to Baal. He’ll pray to Yahweh. Whichever “god” sends down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice – they are the real God. This is Elijah’s prayer as found in 1 Kings 18:36-37:
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
The most obvious thing to note from this story is that this whole episode is not about testing God, it is about the people. Elijah is not unsure of who is the real God. He knows Yahweh is God and throughout all the stories of Elijah, including this one, he goes where Yahweh tells him to go, says what Yahweh tells him to say and does what Yahweh tells him to do. That’s what the “prophets” did. He even says in the prayer that the whole two bulls experiment was something he set up at the “command” of Yahweh. This is God’s test, not Elijah’s. It’s something God told Elijah to do because he intended to answer it in the dramatic way he did – not to prove to Elijah that he was real, but to show the people of Israel that he was real. This is much more akin to the story of God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake in Exodus 7:8-12:
Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.”So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.
Basically, my point is, God did not tell you to set up the “Two Jars” experiment and so you shouldn’t use 1 Kings 18 as an example of an equivalent “testing prayer”.
Gideon’s Testing Prayer
The story of Gideon and the fleece from the Book of Judges is much more interesting and seems to be more of what you based your test on (in the fabricated part of your blog, you talk about doing the test twice, each time overnight, and the second time in the opposite direction – just like Gideon).
Unlike Elijah, Gideon’s tests are his own idea and they are specifically set up because of his own personal doubts that God is speaking to him. As he says in Judges 6:17, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.” Gideon wants to know if God’s Word to him is real and he actually tests God three times (before the fleece tests, he asks to set up an offering which God then causes to be consumed by fire).
Describing it this way, it’s seems a perfect example of your “Jars Test”, but I question whether Gideon’s is a good example of us to follow. All three of Gideon’s tests are done in the context of Gideon being uniquely visited by God and being asked by God to perform a very specific task (“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14). There are may parallels in the commissioning of the reluctant Gideon in Judges 6:1-24 and the commissioning of the reluctant Moses in Exodus 3. If you keep reading Gideon’s story, after the fleece tests God has a couple of tests of his own (see Judges 7:1-7). He whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000, down to only a measly 300 men. Why does he do it? Well, in 7:7 he explains that he want to make sure in this battle it is abundantly clear that God is at work. This seems to be a big theme in the entire Gideon story and it may be why God is so gracious to Gideon to grant his request during “testing prayers”. It is not the Gideon doubts that God exists. Gideon doubts himself: “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15). God specifically wanted to show Gideon that God will go with him and God will win the battle that Gideon is being commissioned to lead.
We must also take into consideration the cultural time period this story falls within. It is the time of the Judges. There is no king leading the people in God’s truth. There is no mention of the Old Testament scriptures being accessible or read publicly or privately. Gideon is in hiding as a foreign enemy threatens his life, and God want to send him out to be the leader of the Jewish people. The parallels between Gideon’s situation and yours are pretty limited. You both doubt God (and maybe yourself). But that’s about it. Just because the “fleece” test is how Gideon responds to his doubt, does not mean that is how God expects you to respond. Just because God responded to Gideon’s test with a miraculous answer, does not mean God has set up a biding precedent in which anyone who ever sets up a similar test should expect to be responded to in the same way. There are many, many, many examples throughout scripture of people who have doubts about God and they respond to those doubts in a variety of ways. Some, like Abraham, take matters into their hands. Some, like the psalmists, cry out to God in confusion. Some, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (though his prayer is more about his anguish than his doubt), pray to God for a way out and receive the answer “No”. The problem, which I see many Christians do as well, is to come across an interaction with God mentioned in the Bible and apply it as prescriptive rather than descriptive.
Prescriptive vs Descriptive
To say an action of God is prescriptive is to say that God is promising to do this thing in the same way every time. An example of a biblical prescriptive text is something like 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” or Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” and if you want an Old Testament one, you can see Joel 2:32 which is quoted also many times in the New Testament: “Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.” These along with many other passages, are God’s promises. They can be relied on and I believe they will never fail.
The problem arises when you read a story like Gideon’s fleece and take it to be prescriptive. It is not. It is descriptive. When a passage is descriptive it means that it accurately describes what God truly did at a certain time in a specific circumstance. It shows that God is able to do that thing and so it may reveal something of God’s character, his power, his values, or his agenda. But it makes no promise that God will or should act in the same way, even if the exact same circumstance happens again.
For example, in Genesis 2, Adam needed a partner. So while he was asleep, God took one of his ribs and used it to form Eve. Now, that story is not prescriptive. If you are looking for a wife, you should not read that story and pray, “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please take one of my ribs while I am sleeping and make me a wife.” And if you do decided to do that, you should not conclude that the God mentioned in Genesis does not exist because you wake up and are still single. That may sound like a silly example, but sadly Tony, it is not! I have chatted with some Christians who have become completely disillusioned with God because they have prayed for a marriage partner and God has not provided one. But God does not promise that he will provide everyone with a marriage partner – even though the Bible includes many specific examples of him doing exactly that. This is the vital difference between understanding when a passage is prescriptive and when a passage is descriptive.
So why didn’t God move the stones when you asked him to so that you could have conclusive proof he exists? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. He never promised he would. Maybe he knows it would not have proved anything to you. Maybe he knows it would have developed in you a superstitious faith. Maybe he wants to prepare your heart and your motives before he revealed conclusively his existence to you. You seem to think God could not possibly have any good reason to not move those stones – unless he doesn’t exist or isn’t the sort of God that can move stones – but I would suggest the God of the Bible (if that’s who you were calling out to) is a God who knows all things, can do all things and works all things towards his ultimate goal. As Gandalf the wizard says, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Well, that does apply to us, but it doesn’t apply to God. He sees all ends and he determined that it was best to answer your “testing prayer” with a “no”. That doesn’t seem out of character to me, and I have been walking in relationship with God for nearly two decades now. He has answered many prayers of mine, and he has said “no” to many others – like for example, my prayer for God to prevent my divorce. I had to remind myself that although God’s clear biblical intention is for divorces to never happen, he makes no prescriptive promise anywhere that he will miraculously prevent them, even though I know that he can and does for many Christian couples.
A Wrong Sign
The final suggestion I wanted to make was that God wants to answer “yes” to the first part of your prayer, even if he answered “no” to the whole “moving stones” experiment. It may be that God is saying “Yes, Tony. I am here and real and I will grant your request for a sign.” But God knows what the best sign for us is.
Think about if I said, “Tony, prove you love me by paying off my credit card!” Now, you definitely could pay off my credit card out a motivation of love, and you do want me to really know how much you love me, and you know that if you did what I asked I would feel loved by you… but you still say to me, “Sorry, Simon. I do love you, but I won’t pay off all your credit cards.” In fact you may chose to respond that way out of love – even if I didn’t feel it. Even if I felt hated by that response!
Now, apart from not simply wanting to bail me out of debt when I should work that out myself, one of the reasons why you might not play along with my testing experiment, is because you want me to know that you love me for other reasons. You do want me to be confident of your love, but not because you paid off my credit card, but because of your kind deeds, your thoughtful words and your genuine affection for me as your brother (I’m guessing here, by the way). You don’t want my confidence in your love to be based on the wrong thing – or an arbitrary thing. You don’t want it to be built on the wrong foundation.
Likewise, God may not want your belief in his existence to be based on a “stone moving” miracle. He may want you to be confident that he is real, but he may want the foundation of your faith to be something else. In fact, like the “love” analogy, he may be more content that you don’t believe in him at all, rather than you believe in him based on a sign like the “two jars”. Why? Well, maybe for God, believing in his existence is not really the be all and end all. Sure it’s important – vital even, but atheism doesn’t send people to hell. Think about it… even Satan is a theist. As Jesus’ brother, James wrote, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) God is much more concerned about us being reconciled with him, and maybe moving the stones in the jars would have gotten you only as far as a demon – believing that God is there – but no closer than that.
The Promised Sign
The third passage that you quote from in your blog, “Pray em if ya got em” as an example of “testing prayer” was from Isaiah 7:10-14. Here it is:
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also?Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Now here, God wants King Ahaz to ask him for a sign. Why? Well, not because “testing prayers” are something God wants us to experiment with. It’s because he has a sign that he wants to give him: The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. As you know, the apostle Matthew picks up this passage and in Matthew 1:18-24, he says that this sign that God promised to give to King Ahaz is fulfilled in Jesus.
Maybe Jesus isn’t as immediately impressive as stones moving from one jar to another. Maybe from the outside, you can only investigate Jesus through old manuscripts that you have serious doubts about as well, and the experiences and lives of those that already have a relationship with him – which seems pretty shaky ground as well. I concede, the record and the testimony of the gospel seems pretty weak compared to a miracle in your own backyard. But that is what God choses to use and he uses it every day to bring people from being a stranger to God to a friend.
The Sign of Jonah
Jesus himself was confronted with people wanting a miraculous sign that he really was from God. Understandably so, as Jesus made crazy claims like, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). In all four gospels this issue of a “testing prayer” in regard to Jesus is discussed and grappled with. If you want to get your head around what does the God of the Bible say about asking for a sign to prove his reality, then these would definitely be passages you would have to at least factor in. I will include two times in Matthew that Jesus tackles this question:
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:38-42)
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4)
Jesus calls the Pharisees, “wicked and adulterous” for asking for a sign, but clearly he doesn’t do this because God’s not keen on giving signs, as he goes on to say that he plans on giving them a sign – the sign of Jonah. I think their wickedness and especially their adultery points to their “wicked” motivation which is not inspired by a love for God, but a desire to test Jesus to see him fail publicly. Jesus sees through their motives and tells them that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. And what is the sign of Jonah? Well, in Matthew 12:40 he makes it clear that it’s his death and resurrection. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and then emerged, and Jesus will be in the tomb for three days and will then emerge.
God understands our need for a sign. He understands that we can’t just swallow epic claims without testing them first. As you write, “I think if you are going to claim that ‘Magic happens’ for example then you ought to be able to show it happening.” I think Jesus gets that, but like the analogy of the “proof of love”, not just any sign will do. God has set up one major sign that he wants to be our primary foundation – the resurrection of Jesus. This is supposed to so be the base block of Christianity, that if you take it out the whole thing falls down like a theological game of Jenga. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”
It is the Resurrection that is the sign of God’s existence (as raising the dead is far more impressive than moving stones), but at the same time, on top of that, it also points you to Jesus’ authentication as the one to be followed and worshipped. AsPeter preaches in Acts 2:32 & 36 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”, and as Paul preaches in Acts 17:30, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Now I know that the Resurrection of Jesus has never been a very compelling sign (especially as it is not happening today in your backyard, but happened 2,000 years ago in another part of the world). In a comment on my previous blog, “How God Proves His Existence”, you wrote, “I don’t really understand how to respond to the biblical accounts of the resurrection. I put them in pretty much the same category of documentation of witches and werewolves or demonic possession or all sort of eyewitnessed events that just don’t correspond with my reality.” I understand and sympathise with this. I wish I could show you some magic tricks to prove God’s existence. I wish Jesus would dance like a monkey at my command so I could get him to prove himself to you. But he’s not a trained monkey, he’s an untamed lion, and I trust him when he says, “no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah”. So, I will continue to bang on about Jesus and continue to point you to him and to the Resurrection, even if you never find it compelling.
My Prayer for You
I was very moved by your desire to give God an opportunity to prove himself to you. I know you expressed some form of relief and even joy at the fact that your experiment failed – which does lead me to maybe question the sincerity of your motives – but either way, I do think God hears and responds to our prayers, even when they are half-hearted or prayed with mixed motives. I’ve always been confident that what matters is not the strength of your faith, but the strength of the thing that you are putting your faith in.
And so, if there was an element of your prayer that was putting your faith in God to respond to you, God is big and strong enough to hear and answer.
Also, despite everything I’ve just said about the Resurrection being the primary foundational “sign” of God, I do believe God is active in this world here and now. There are several experiences I have had that are, for me, clearly God working miraculously, and there are thousands more that I experience week in and week out, where I see God at work (though in a less miraculous way). God has proved himself to me, fully and completely, which is what makes me so sad that he hasn’t done the same for you.
But like unfairly-named “Doubting” Thomas, God sometimes provides us with a clear, undeniable sign of his existence and work in Christ. I don’t know if that’s what you really need in order to see and respond to the gospel. If it is, then you have my prayerful support.
To be brutally honest, I don’t think you were wise, biblical or fair to set up the “two jars” experiment. But I do believe God has heard the first part of your prayer: “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me a sign.”
I am praying that God will one day either give you a sign, or make the “sign of Jonah” compelling to you. I know you think that God spectacularly failed your “two jars” test and it has allowed you to “put to rest” the idea of a real, personal, interventionist, biblical God. But I am writing this blog to you to encourage you to let God answer your “testing prayer” in his own time and in his own way.
I hope your testimony will be to one day recall your experiment with fondness and that you can share how you prayed a simple prayer that God heard and answered, even if it took longer than one night and was in a way you didn’t expect.
Until then, I will try to remember to pray on your behalf.
Yahweh, I know you are there and real. Please grant Tony a sign, so he can know that too.
I love you, my brother.
p.s. If you’re wondering what the image is from at the top of the blog, it comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enjoy the video below.
The Magi, (or as they are more commonly known, the Wise Men) are mentioned only once in the whole Bible. Their brief story is found in the first 12 verses of the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel…
1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Despite this story being quite short, the Wise Men have become a staple part of the Christmas nativity scene, inspiring one of my favourite Christmas carols, “We Three Kings”. Sadly however, this carol is a perfect example of how we so easily re-shape Christmas into something that suits our fairy tale version of the Bible, rather than reading and responding to what the gospel record actually says. Here are just a few ways we get the story of the Magi completely wrong:
MISTAKE #1: They weren’t kings.
The Magi are never referred to as kings. The concept of kings coming to see Jesus and pay homage is one that makes a wonderfully powerful statement about the authority of Christ over all human rulers. It just has no basis in the original story. I have even heard it said that God ensured that both the poor (represented by the shepherds) and the rich (represented by the “kings”) were present so that we knew that Jesus came for people of every demographic. But no, the Magi were not royalty. They weren’t even necessarily wise (To me, “Wise Men” gives them a sort of ancient guru-like feel). All the text tells us about the Magi is that they came from the East. That doesn’t even tell us much. Were they Magi from the far, far east? Were they gentiles? Were they Jews? Who knows? Read the text above again. Remember, that’s all we really have to go on.
Now, the term “Magi” is mentioned in several other cultures. Some Ancient Greek sources refer to a specific tribe of people in Ancient Iran (then known as Media), but it also is used as a generic word for any sacred sect or mystical order. This is how we get the generic word “magician” (a “magi” person). Ancient Persian sources refer to the Magi being the religious sect that Zoroaster was born into, and some time before 6 BC, in the eastern parts of Ancient Iran, his teachings became the foundation of the religion, Zoroastrianism, also known as “Magianism”. This religion was alive and kicking at the time that the biblical story is set and this has led some to argue that the Magi were Zoroastrians (or at least converts from Zoroastrianism). If that is true, then they were just some religious guys who were seeking the Jewish Messiah. Now, I don’t want to downplay that. In fact we shouldn’t downplay that. It’s awesome! There’s no need to stretch the story to make them kings or even particularly wise (other than the wisdom they showed in seeking Jesus, but then we should equally call the shepherds “wise men”!)
MISTAKE #2: There weren’t only three.
All the pictures, movies, nativity sets and carols about “We Three Kings”, suggest that the Magi were a small band of men riding camels, making a lonely trek across the sand dunes and joining the quiet and solemn scene, almost just slipping in at the back unnoticed. Over the year’s we’ve even invented names for them – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. But read the story again and you’ll find the only reference to the number three is the fact that they brought three different types of gifts (“Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” Matthew 2:11). Also, the implication from the text is that it wasn’t just three gifts, but multiple amounts of gold and incense and myrrh as it was taken from their “treasures”.
The biggest clue that the Magi included more than three men, is found in the first 3 verses of the story. Verses 1 and 2 describe the Magi arriving at Jerusalem and asking where the Messiah was. If they were three religious men on camels, this arrival wouldn’t have made anyone take notice. Jerusalem was a huge city and it had a constant traffic of visitors from a variety of nations. But when the Magi arrive, what do we read in verse 3? “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
The arrival of the Magi caused a disturbance across all Jerusalem which even reached King Herod himself, enough to make him fearful of losing his own royal position. How many people must have been part of the Magi’s procession for their arrival to have such an epic impact? It sounds more like there could have been hundreds of Magi! There could have been a massive pilgrimage of seekers with horses and elephants and musicians and an entourage of servants carrying loads of treasures for “the one who has been born king of the Jews“! Who knows? There is absolutely no description of the number of Magi who had come from the east or what their group was like. The only thing that can guide us, is the disturbing effect they had on the great city of Jerusalem and the security of Herod the King. Does that sound like three guys? Not likely.
MISTAKE #3: They weren’t even at the Nativity scene.
That’s right! Every children’s Christmas pageant and that beloved family Nativity set that sits on your mantlepiece has got it wrong! The Magi were not there alongside the shepherds and the cattle by the manger. They weren’t even present at the event of the first Christmas! They came along possibly years later, after Jesus and Mary have moved out of the temporary emergency maternity ward mentioned in Luke 2:7 and moved into a house somewhere in Bethlehem (possibly staying with relatives, as Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census due to his family line. See Luke 2:4).
You can read where the Magi actually visited the child in Matthew 2:11-12: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” It clearly states that they came to a house, not the barn, stable or cave mentioned in Luke 2:7.
But is that the only reason why I think they were not there at Christmas? Not at all. The biggest clue is not emphatic, but it does make sense. This is the next part of the story found in Matthew 2:13-16…
13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
Okay, if you’re getting confused, this is how the story of the Magi has gone: Around the time Jesus is born the Magi see a star appear and they somehow get the idea that this signifies that the Jewish Messiah has been born. The story doesn’t elaborate on how they learned this, but they at some point decide to make the journey from where they live to Jerusalem. When they eventually get to Jerusalem, they meet with King Herod who asks them exactly when they first saw the star. They then leave, following the star to the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are now living. They respond to Jesus as a king – bowing down to him, worshipping him, and paying homage to him with their treasures.
Now, they were supposed to report back to King Herod, but God warns them to go back to their home in the east without telling the King anything. The King is furious because he wanted to know exactly where Jesus is living so he can find him and kill him. He only knows two things: 1. Where Jesus is approximately (somewhere in or around Bethlehem), and 2. How old Jesus is approximately at this stage.
He works out Jesus’ age by how long it’s been since the star originally appeared (marking when Jesus was born). We aren’t told exactly when this is, but we are told that Herod orders the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem ages two years old and under. This means that Jesus is not a new born any more. In fact, Jesus could be up to two years old according to King Herod’s logic. Maybe Jesus was only one year old and King Herod ruthlessly wanted to just make sure that he got Jesus by killing children older than he needed to, just in case.
Now, this horrible story, traditionally entitled, “The Massacre of the Innocents” really deserves its own contemplation (my brother wrote a thoughtful blog on it which you can read here), but for the purpose of this blog, it points out that the whole story of the Magi and the star is not set at Christmas at all. Jesus is not a newborn baby lying in a manger when the Magi follow visit, he’s a one or two year old child and they visit Jesus at the house he is living in.
But so what? What’s the problem with tweaking the stories of the Bible so that they fit better into carols and nativity sets? Who cares if the Magi actually aren’t a part of Christmas? Who cares if the “We 3 Kings” were actually “We 300 Zoroastrians”?
Well, I think that’s the problem. We don’t care to read what the Bible actually says. Like in the video above, spoken by the Mayor of Orlando, we are happy to “celebrate the biblical story of the three kings”, without really caring if such a “biblical” story even exists. Although it’s still positive and a quasi-endorsement of the Bible, it’s actually promoting a way of changing the Bible to suit ourselves, rather than grappling the Bible as it stands to let it change us.
The best analogy I can think of to explain why this is an issue, is the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Inglourious Basterds”. You may not have seen the movie, but it’s sort of a fantasy re-telling of the events of World War 2, where a group of US soldiers plan to assassinate Hitler – and they succeed! Now, if you know you history, Hitler wasn’t assassinated by American soldiers, he committed suicide. Of course, one of the things that makes the movie, “Inglourious Basterds” such a clever movie is that this fact is known and so Tarantino can make this film as a sort of “wouldn’t it have been cool if” sort of movie.
But imagine if that movie became the staple history of World War 2? What if all other historical records were ignored and that’s just how the Mayor of Orlando referred to the death of Hitler? What if sermons and songs were written about this fictional history, teaching us about the might of American soldiers and how they were even able to kill Hitler! Not only would this be a lie about America, it would also be an insult to the German resistance, who actually came the closest to assassinating Hitler on the 20th July 1944 with “Operation Valkyrie”. This is actually something I think Quentin Tarantino would hate to have happen, as the power of the fantasy of his film relies on the backdrop of the truthful history being known.
Likewise, when a false version of the Bible is told and re-enforced, it promotes the Bible, not as history, but as mythology and fairy tale. But I believe, more than any other religion, Christianity proclaims the Bible (and especially the gospels) as a record of actual, historical events that are real and true and have effected the history of the world. As Peter, the close friend and follower of Jesus wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
The message of the Magi is one of non-Jews (like most of the people reading this blog) seeking the promised Jewish Messiah. Their message is to bow down and worship Jesus like they did. It is a message worth listening to and following.
But the message of the Magi is also that if we are to really grapple with who Jesus really is and respond to him as he truly is – rather than how we would like him to be – we must not simply listen to the carols and the Christmas Day TV special. We must go back to the source material. Read the Bible for yourself! Don’t trust what I say about it in these blogs. Pick it up and read the actual words that are on the page. It’s hard to throw out the baggage and the expectations you may have about Jesus, but I encourage you to try to do so.
If in the end, you choose to follow Jesus, I want you to follow the real Jesus.
If in the end, you choose to reject Jesus, I want you to reject the real Jesus.
Because in the end, you’ll be standing before the real Jesus, and I’d hate for you to get a shock.
To leave you on a lighter note, I’ll finish this will my all-time favourite example of how we like to design our own Jesus. This scene is from the pretty lame movie, “Talladega Nights”, but it includes a very relevant line for this discussion, especially at this time of year. Will Ferrel’s character, Ricky Bobby says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teenager Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”
Shakespeare wrote the great line, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” But what is our true self? Who are we? What does it mean to be human?
Well, the Bible’s answer to that question is “you are made in the image of God”. The key distinction between humanity and the rest of the animal kingdom (and the plant kingdom for that matter) is that, unlike everything else God created human beings in his image. This defining truth of our identity is found right at the beginning of the Bible in the very first chapter. God has made the entire universe and has filled its emptiness with stars and planets and on earth he fills it will plants and animals, and then on the 6th day of the Creation week, the story goes like this…
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:26-31)
Now, if we left it there at “you are made in God’s image”, it could leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it might not point you in the direction God wants you to go with this sense of identity. The idea the we are made in the image of God has been used for good and evil, for oppression and for humanitarianism, for encouraging humility and for fostering arrogance. So we should look at what God says throughout Scripture about the implications of us being made in his image. What does it say about us, about God and about how we should relate to other people?
Well, there is actually heaps you could say on this topic, but for the sake of time and simplicity, I will explore 6 points over two blogs. This blog (part 1) will cover three things that it DOESN’T mean to be made in God’s image, and then part 2 will cover three things I think it DOES mean.
You may think I shouldn’t start negatively, but I think it is just as important to understand what a biblical concept doesn’t mean as it is to understand what it does. If we are to allow this amazing idea to shape our view of every human on the planet, then we must avoid the temptation to define it however we choose. I’d even say, to have a false idea of what it means to be made in God’s image is probably more dangerous than to not believe it at all. So that’s where we’ll begin…
WHAT IT DOESN’T MEAN
1. Being made in God’s image doesn’t mean you look like God and it doesn’t mean God looks like you.
I thought this one was obvious, but a friend pointed out to me that he knew of many people (most of them from Texas he informs me) that believe this exact thing, and it is true that Mormons teach that “[God] the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine & Covenants: Section 130:22). This is not the Bible’s teaching at all.
The picture on the right is from an atheist website that is trying to mock Christianity for exactly this reason. But the picture has got one thing right – God is invisible. This is clearly taught in Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 1:17 & Hebrews 11:27. The Bible also says this another way, by describing God as “Spirit”. This is most clearly taught by Jesus in John 4:24 and Jesus defines what it means to be a spirit as “not having flesh and bones” in Luke 24:39. Isaiah 31:3 makes the same point as well.
Basically the idea is that God is not restricted to a finite physical form. This allows God to be omnipresent and able to manifest his presence in any place he chooses in any way he chooses (burning bush, pillar of fire, Angel of the Lord, presence in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, etc.). God is often described with use of human-like actions like in Luke 1:51, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” but this is clearly metaphorical or analogous, like in Psalm 91:4 that says, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Now we don’t think God looks like a chicken because of descriptive language like this.
So, if God is an invisible, eternal Spirit, with no fleshly physical body, then being made in his image can not mean that we physically look like God and it definitely doesn’t mean that God looks like us. This is wonderful news because it means that no one human looks more like God than another. In Mormonism, because they believe God looks like a man with a physical male body, then women can never really be “made in God’s image”, or at least men are a closer image to God than women. This is not true in Judeo-Christianity. The Bible’s message is ALL people, no matter what you look like, no matter whether you are old or young, fat or skinny, male or female, able-bodied or severely disabled – you are made in God’s image.
2. Being made in God’s image does not mean you are equal to God.
The fact that we are made in the image of God should not give us a sense of superiority or arrogance over the rest of creation. It does not mean we are demi-gods or divine beings that deserve glory and honour and the submission of all animals and plants. In fact, it should inspire in us exactly the opposite feeling. Think about it. What’s the point of an “image”? The image of the Queen on an Australian coin, or the photographic image of your grandma in that photo frame on your wall. Or even the image of yourself in the mirror. The purpose of an “image” is to point to something other than itself. As John Piper says in his sermon entitled ‘Why Did God Create the World?’:
“The point of an image is to image. Images are erected to display the original. Point to the original. Glorify the original. God made humans in his image so that the world would be filled with reflectors of God. Images of God. Six billion statues of God. So that nobody would miss the point of creation. Nobody (unless they were stone blind) could miss the point of humanity, namely… God. Knowing, loving, showing God.”
Being made in the image of God does not make you a God. It does not make you equal to God. It should never inspire arrogance or a sense of privilege or superiority. It should never justify selfishness or self-glorification. It should never be used, as it sadly has been, as an excuse to kill animals however we want, destroy the environment however we want and use the world’s resources however we want. By it’s very definition, to be made in GOD’s image actually tells us that life is not about us. It’s about God. It puts us under God and shows that we are made for God’s glory, not for our own.
In fact, the very first people who were created in the image of God, Adam and Eve, got it wrong in exactly this way. The temptation of eating the forbidden fruit, was the temptation to disregard God’s authority over them and claim independence from God to choose right and wrong for themselves. This is what the “Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil” was all about. As the serpent falsely promises them in Genesis 3:5, “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The great temptation in the Garden of Eden wasn’t to just do something naughty, it was to become like God. They were not satisfied in being made in God’s image, they wanted to be the original. They wanted to be God.
This is the great heart of all sin and the great problem with all humanity. It is especially tragic when the very concept of being made “in God’s image” is so grossly misused to perpetuate the arrogant idea that we are equal to God – when in fact, it means exactly the opposite.
3. Being made in God’s image does not mean you are a child of God.
Now this point might be the hardest one to accept. I’m sure you can see how the first two false ideas of being made “in God’s image” might be used to oppress or harm, but what could be wrong with saying that everyone is a child of God? Doesn’t that also express the unity of all mankind and the intimate relationship we all have with our Creator? Well that sounds all nice, but the issue is that it’s simply not what the Bible teaches. The Bible does teach that every person, no matter what gender, age, race or religion is created in the image of God, and this is a wonderful, awe-inspiring thing (as I will explain in part 2 of this blog series), but the Bible does not teach that every one is a child of God.
The song, “God Help the Outcasts” that the character Esmerelda sings in the Disney cartoon, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” includes the final line, “I thought we all were the children of God”. Well, a lot of people think this. The idea that everyone is one of God’s children has just become part of our modern quasi-spiritual vocabulary and is seen as pretty much the same thing as the idea that everyone is made in God’s image, but the two are very distinct concepts and it is actually vitally important to see the difference.
As mentioned in the previous point, sin is a problem in our lives. Although God is our Creator, we want to be more than simply his image – we want to be God, choosing our own good and bad and wearing the crown in our life rather than letting God rule as he deserves to. This rejection of God, whether it be conscious or not, creates a fracture between us and God. We go from being friends to strangers – or even enemies. This is symbolised in the Adam & Eve story by them having to leave the Garden of Eden. No longer could they commune with God. God became distant and humanity experienced the great consequences of this distance – confusion of identity, inability to conquer sin, fractured human relationships, a fallen creation and in the end, physical death.
This is the world we still live in today. Most people believe that some sort of God exists (that may be due to our being “images of God”), but everyone feels distant from God and endures the pain and confusion of this fallen world. It may even lead people to think that God doesn’t even exist! But the reality is that we are outside of God’s family. We are lost and need to be found. We need to be adopted.
It may sound offensive to suggest that you are not naturally one of God’s “children”, but hopefully it rings true to your experience. If you feel distant from God or maybe you don’t even know if he exists, then don’t try to comfort yourself by warm and fuzzy bumper stickers trying to convince you that you are God’s child and God is your Heavenly Father. Maybe he’s not! Calling God your “Father in Heaven” (as the Lord’s Prayer instructs us to) is a privilege only for those who have been adopted into God’s family. Read the following passages to see where I get this idea from Scripture:
“He [Jesus] was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent,nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:10-13)
“Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.'” (Luke 20:34-36)
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death…You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ… because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption as sons.And by him we cry, “Abba,Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:1-2, 9, 14-17)
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:1-2)
To be a “child of God” reflect a unique relationship with God. A child of God is an adopted part of God’s family and as these passages show, this is what Jesus came to do. Jesus’ death on the cross has paid the penalty for the sin that kept us estranged from God. Jesus has made it possible for that relationship to be restored. Through trusting and believing in him, we can find forgiveness and reconciliation with God, making it possible for the Father/child relationship to begin.
It may at first offend you to think that although all people are made in God’s image, only followers of Jesus can be called “children of God”, but this offer of welcome and reconciliation is open to all. No matter how bad you think you are and no matter how distant you feel from God, the offer of adoption is open to you.
The reason it is vitally important that we distinguish between the concepts “made in God’s image” and “one of God’s children”, is because if you are taught that you are in God’s family and God is your Heavenly Father, simply on the basis that you were born, you will never see your need to be born again. Eventually you will become disillusioned with the whole concept of God, as on one hand you are told you are as close to God as a child is to their father, and yet your reality is that you feel very distant.
My hope in clarifying this difference is to point you to the great hope that thanks to Jesus, becoming a “child of God” is possible for you. You do not need to be distant from God. You can know his presence, his forgiveness and his Fatherly love, both now in this life and beyond death.
So there we go. That’s a few things that it DOESN’T mean to be made in God’s image.
It doesn’t mean that we look like God, are equal to God, or that we’re his children. It doesn’t mean that God has a body, is equal to us, or that he’s naturally our Heavenly Father.
So, now that we’ve gotten some of the false ideas out of the way, what exactly does it mean?
Well, if this blog has left you feeling like whatever it means, it can’t be all that good, then stick around. Part 2 will be coming in a week or so.
And in part 2 I will explain what it does mean to be made in God’s image and what a wonderful, life-changing concept it is! Getting your head around it and embracing it will completely shape your sense of the identity, purpose and dignity of the entire human race.
So stay tuned!
If you have any comments, please leve them below,
or if you’d like to ask me anything directly, feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org
The story of the crucifixion is a horrible scene of public torture, mockery of God and despair among Jesus’ followers. But in the midst of this dark event, Luke’s gospel records a beautiful and unique conversation that took place between Jesus and one of the criminals who was crucified next to him. Read the story below and I’ll share some of my observations about it. It can be found in Luke Chapter 23, verses 32 to 43…
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
As both men were being publicly executed, their conversation was short and probably quite painful, and yet in this brief moment we hear Jesus tell this man at death’s door, that he should have complete assurance that he will go to heaven. That is staggering if you think about it. Many people would like the assurance of knowing where they’ll be going when they die. Well, this man got it. And who was he? A criminal. Not a priest or a devoted follower who had proved his devotion with years of service. A criminal. A “bad guy”. A convicted robber (as we find in Mark and Matthew). This is the guy who gets to die knowing for a fact that he will be welcomed into paradise. So what is it about this guy that we can emulate if we want the same assurance? What did he do or say or believe that led Jesus to give him this assurance?
Well, as a Christian, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how best to explain the Christian message. This is called the “gospel” which means “good news”. Of all the slogans and mission statements and sermons and political speeches in history, the gospel is the most important message that there has ever been. The gospel, as Paul puts it, “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). But what is it? What is this good news that we must believe in order to be saved and to find assurance of entrance into paradise. Well, I think it involves lots and lots of wonderful things, all surrounding Jesus and who he is and what he has done and if you’re keen you can explore a fuller description of the gospel in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, Colossians 1:19-23, 2 Timothy 1:8-12, 2 Timothy 2:8-13 and even the epic Romans 1-6. But if you wanted to try to peel it right back and find the bare bones of the gospel, this story about the crucified criminal, might be a great place to start.
Here are two main observations I find in this story:
1. What he acknowledges about himself.
This man knows that he is guilty. It’s not just that he knows he did a crime, but his words indicate that he has an awareness of his guiltiness before God. He rebukes the other criminal for trying to simply use Jesus to get out of punishment. He sees his punishment as deserved and so it would be a wrong against God for it to be ignored. This is why he says, “Don’t you fear God?” To fear God is to acknowledge who God is and who you are. His fear of God gave him a humility and an ability to see his guilt and not protest the fairness of his punishment.
What is important to see here is that this totally defies any notion that you get to heaven if you are “good enough”. This criminal did not feel he had any right to enter paradise. He did not feel he had earned it, in fact he acknowledged that what he had earned was punishment.
The other criminal, in contrast, does not care about the justice of their punishment – just the potential for escape. He shows no remorse, no repentance and no acknowledgement of his own guilt or the God before which he must give account. He has no fear of God, only a fear of death. But it is the criminal, who had no “goodness” to offer God, who is the one that is given assurance of entrance into paradise.
2. What he acknowledges about Jesus.
The other criminal tries to use Jesus. He acknowledges that Jesus might be the Christ (God’s anointed king), but if that is the case, he simply wants to ride on the coat tails of Jesus’ escape. Like the mocking crowd, he can’t imagine that the “King of the Jews” would allow himself to die. The “Christ” is God’s king. He is all powerful! He could come down off the cross in a blaze of glory and destroy all his enemies. So he bates Jesus, to prove his authority and power, and while he’s at it, he should rescue him from his painful predicament. But why should he rescue him if he is the Christ? It doesn’t make logical sense. It’s just a sign of how he only sees Jesus as a potential “get out of jail free” card. Nothing more and nothing less.
In contrast, the criminal that is welcomed into paradise, treats Jesus as he truly is. He acknowledges that although he is guilty before God, Jesus is innocent. But more than that, he acknowledges that Jesus is king. He knows he has nothing to offer Jesus. All he does is ask Jesus to remember him, when he comes into his kingdom. HIS kingdom. He knows that the place Jesus is going when Jesus dies is a kingdom that he is the ruler of. What a statement! Sure, if you thought someone was innocent before God, you might expect that they would go to God’s kingdom when they died, but Jesus isn’t just going to be in heaven, where all innocent people go – he’s going home! He’s going back to the castle to sit on his throne. He is going to his kingdom!
Do you think of heaven that way? Is that what paradise is for you? Jesus’ kingdom? Or is heaven to you a place where you get everything you want and can do whatever you want?
Friends sometimes ask me whether I think they are going to heaven or hell. But one of the first things I have to do to answer that question fairly, is to encourage them to reconsider their Hollywood, fairytale concepts of heaven. Heaven is Jesus’ kingdom. He owns it. He rules it. He makes the rules as to who is welcomed into it, and one of the most obvious prerequisites for being welcomed into Jesus’ kingdom is that you treat Jesus as king. If you treat him like the other criminal did, as simply a ticket out of hell, then I think you will be met with the terrifying words that Jesus warns us of in Matthew 7:23, “Then I will say to them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
If Jesus rules in the afterlife, then naturally he rules in this life. I mean, if he’s the king in heaven, then how are we on earth to treat him? As Jesus encourages us to pray in the “Our Father”, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is how the criminal treats him – as the king of paradise – and so consequently, he knows his only hope is Jesus.
In God-fearing respect and humility, with an acknowledgement of his own guiltiness before God and of Jesus’ innocence, he asks Jesus, not to give him what he deserves, but to simply remember him. What is he asking for in that request? I’m not sure. But at the very least it shows that he doesn’t expect that he will be joining Jesus in his kingdom. There’s a sense in which he knows he should be left out and so he asks Jesus, who will be “in”, to remember him. It’s not even that he is asking for forgiveness – it’s less assuming than that. And yet, Jesus assures him that he will not be left outside. He won’t simply be remembered, he will be with Jesus in paradise.
What a promise!
And in that little scene we learn so much about the Christian message and what it means to be a Christian:
It shows that Christianity is not about winning God’s favour by being good. Even a guilty criminal can be welcomed into paradise.
It shows that it’s not enough to think that Jesus “might be” the Christ and to try to just use him at the last minute as a ticket out of hell.
It shows that we must acknowledge our guilt before God and realise that we don’t deserve to go to heaven.
It shows that we must know that heaven is Jesus’ kingdom and we must acknowledge and turn to Jesus as king.
It shows that we can actually have assurance that we will be in paradise with Jesus when we die.
And lastly, it shows that you don’t need to know a great deal about the whole salvation process in order to be saved.
This last point is a really good challenge to me and to other evangelicals who value doctrine and “getting the gospel right”.
I guess the main thing is not that you get the entirety of the gospel right, but that you don’t get it wrong.
I mean, the criminal didn’t say the “Sinner’s Prayer” or believe the “Four Spiritual Laws”. He didn’t get the entire “Two Ways to Live” presentation, or attend short course for seekers. He didn’t even come to a decisive position about Calvinism or Arminianism!
He didn’t even really understand the cross – the very heart of the gospel message. This guy had no idea that the reason why Jesus could welcome him – a guilty sinner – into paradise was because the death Jesus was about to die was a death that paid for his sin. He didn’t understand how Jesus could save him, and he didn’t even expect that Jesus would save him, he just threw himself on the hope that Jesus might remember him. Both the gospel he believed and his faith in it was very simple, but he still received assurance from Jesus.
I guess, my encouragement to us evangelical Christians is, don’t make the kingdom harder to get into than it needs to be! If the criminal could be assured of his salvation with so simple an understanding of the gospel, let’s make sure we don’t expect that every glorious truth is completely understood before we can encourage young Christians with the same assurance.
And my encouragement to those who are yet to become a Christian, or maybe have just expected that they should be welcomed into paradise without any acknowledgement of their guilt or Jesus’ kingship, I would commend this story to your contemplation.
My hope is that you would find in it a very simple gospel message (though still very challenging), and in responding to its call to your life, you too may hear those wonderful words from Jesus that every Christian should rejoice in… “You will be with me in paradise.”
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(If you’ve never read Ecclesiastes, I recommend you read it and thinking about it yourself, rather than just reading my blog about it! Download a special copy I have produced by clicking HERE)
The Book of Ecclesiastes is quite confusing to many Christians. If you don’t know about it, it’s a book of poetry and philosophy found in the Old Testament, written around the mid to late third century BC. The author of the book is potentially questionable, but the voice of the book is King Solomon. Whether he wrote it directly, or whether it was written as a collection of his writings or as a summary of his philosophy, I don’t think that matters. What I think does matter is that the protagonist of the book is, as the first verse says, “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Now “Son of David” could easily also mean “descendant” of David, but as the book progresses, we see that the content of the book – the focus on wisdom and the description of utter opulence for instance – do suggest that it is referring to King Solomon.
The problem Christians have had with this letter often revolves around the book’s key word, which in the NIV is translated “meaningless”. “Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” the King writes. And then he spends twelve chapters describing lots of what we experience in life – the pursuit of pleasure, eating, drinking, laughter, education, career, power and even wisdom – and for each one he concludes, “This too is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes can seem bleak and depressing and also just plain wrong. I mean, how can King Solomon the Wise say that the pursuit of wisdom can be meaningless?? Or how can the King of Israel, entrusted to guard God’s Word and explain it to the people, saying that everything has no meaning?
This is what has confused many Christians, and the response by those who study the book is generally to point out three vitally important things.
1. When it says life is meaningless, it is only referring to life “under the sun”
2. The word “meaningless” is a really unhelpful word to use.
3. That isn’t the conclusion of the matter.
Well, let’s look at these three points briefly.
1. When it says life is meaningless, it is only referring to life “under the sun”.
As common as the word, “meaningless” is, the phrase, “under the sun” or “under heaven” is used 32 times in the book’s 12 chapters. It’s even worked its way into our common language: the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” actually originally comes from this book (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This phrase is not meant to describe all of life in all of eternity. It specifically means our life while we live. We see this clearly in Ecclesiastes 2:3, where the King says, “I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.” It is used similarly elsewhere in the Bible, such as in reference to the Flood in Genesis 6-8, where God destroys all life “under the heavens”.
“Under heaven” or “under the sun” points to the time that we have on earth while we work and live with the sun over us. It does not refer to the heavens themselves or the Creator who resides in heaven, but only to the life of the Creation. Some have stressed this to make the argument, “See, life is not meaningless with God. It’s just meaningless outside of God. That’s what ‘under heaven’ means.” But I’m not really convinced by that argument. I mean, is the writer saying life is meaningless until you go to be with God? I don’t think so. Ecclesiastes is quite silent on the issue of an afterlife (other than the promise of an ultimate judgement in the very last verse of the book). The focus of the book is very much THIS life. So, is the writer saying, if you live a life ignoring God then your life has no meaning? Or that God provides the only true meaning to life and so everything else is meaningless? Well, this is a true sentiment from a biblical perspective, but you can’t really get it from Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of someone who does know God. Sure, King Solomon majorly went off the rails, but still, I think it’s clear that “under heaven” does not mean “outside of the stuff God’s interested in”. God is mentioned throughout Ecclesiastes as actively involved in the life of people, causing both their blessing and their frustration. Whatever life “under the sun” means – it does not mean life “outside of God”. “Under the sun” just means life from birth to death.
When Ecclesiastes says “everything under the sun is meaningless”, the harder part of that phrase to understand is not “under the sun”, but the word “meaningless”.
2. The word “meaningless” is a really unhelpful word to use.
The Hebrew word that the NIV translates as meaningless is “hevel” (הבל). In older translations you may have heard it translated as “vanity”. This is not in the sense of “loving yourself”. “Vanity” here means “in vain” or a wasted effort. This helps us get more of a feel for the meaning of the word, but even that does not capture it. “Hevel” also means “fleeting” or “temporary” or “passing”. Look at the picture at the top of this blog – it’s like breathing on an icy cold morning and you see your breath… and then it’s gone. That’s what “hevel” literally means – “breath” or “vapor”. Ecclesiastes uses a powerful image to describe it as well. Coupled with the phrase, “this is hevel” the writer often adds the phrase “a chasing after the wind”. He uses this description 9 times throughout the book and one other time he uses the phrase, “toiling for the wind”. Throughout the letter “wind” is described as elemental and ever-returning (1:6) but never being able to be caught, tamed or predicted (8:8 & 11:5).
“Hevel” is a concept that, like the wind, is hard to pin down, but I don’t think we’re meant to pin it down. It’s not supposed to be a hard definition for something. It’s supposed to be almost a feeling. That feeling of trying to grasp at an illusion, like a cat trying to catch a shimmer of light on the floor. Life, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, is like chasing the wind. Everything in life is transitory, everything is passing away, nothing stays, nothing under heaven is permanent, and if we work our guts out for it all we shouldn’t be surprised that we find life frustrating. In the end, ultimately, nothing is gained, everything is like breath.
Now, does that make life “meaningless”? Well, I guess that’s up for discussion. It definitely doesn’t force us to conclude such a bleak prognosis about it all. But if we’re trying to work out not just what “hevel” means, but also how we should feel about “hevel”, it’s quite hard to pin down the author’s emotional response. Sometimes he finds “hevel” wearisome (1:8), sometimes it leads him to hate life (2:17) and then other times he speak of how good it is to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his lot in life (2:24, 3:12-13, 5:18, 8:15 & 9:7-10). If everything is “hevel”, what are we to make of it? Is everything depressing or full of enjoyment? Is everything meaningless or meaningful?
As I explored this question myself I decided to re-read Ecclesiastes with a little experiment. As the word “hevel” was a tricky word to translate, I thought I would read through the book and whenever I came to the word “meaningless” (I was reading the NIV translation), I would simply say the word “hevel” instead. What resulted was really enlightening.
The book opens up with the declaration, “Hevel! Hevel! Everything is hevel!” and then launches into a description of how life never changes and yet in every cycle of life, nothing is ultimately gained. He then moves into his own autobiography, how he worked so hard to find what was the best thing to do in life and achieved amazing things that would be counted as great success by our society’s standards, and yet at the end of it all he looked at his hands and everything was “hevel”, a chasing after the wind, nothing was gained under the sun. This seems confusing, as how can he say nothing was gained – he gained so many great achievements – and what does it mean to say it was all “hevel”? Well, from here on, the writer continues for the rest of the book to explain that very question. What is “hevel”? What does it look like? What does it feel like?
For example, consider the following passage:
“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is ‘hevel’, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is ‘hevel’.
So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is ‘hevel’ and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is ‘hevel’.
A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is ‘hevel’, a chasing after the wind.”– Ecclesiastes 2:17-26
What struck me, when I stopped defining “hevel” and just included the original fuzzily-defined word, the meaning of the passage took on a completely different feel. Instead of the writer labelling life as “meaningless”, and saying something like, “You know this thing you do in life, well it’s actually a complete waste of time,” the writer seems to be USING these experiences in life, to help define “hevel”. It’s more like he’s saying, “Everything is hevel, and to understand what that means, let me show you these breath-like, transitory, frustrating things that we all experience.” When he talks about life, he is exploring the fuzzy definition of “hevel” rather than just using “hevel” as a label to attach to all things.
I’m not sure if I’ve explained this point well enough, so I’ll use an example of how Jesus did this. Think about when Jesus talks about sin. Jesus could say, “Lying – that is sin”, but that would be rather limiting and people would just look for the loopholes. Rather, Jesus uses things like parables to get his point across. Like the story of the Prodigal Son. He tells of a son who rejects his father’s generosity and takes and squanders the gifts that the father had given him – that is sin. See the difference? One reduces a complex thing like lying to the simple label of “sin”, and the other expands the complex concept of “sin” by using a real life example.
The same thing could be said of love. When Jesus said, “love your neighbour”, someone asked, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus could have answered that by simply saying “everyone is your neighbour”, but instead he went on to share the story of the Good Samaritan, a story with many layers and a powerful message of love shown by an enemy of the Jewish people. Jesus is saying “love” is big and complex and beautiful and it can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker. And throughout the epistles, whenever “love” is defined, the writer’s point us to the greatest example of the love of God, namely the cross: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”– 1 John 3:16
I think, possibly, the writer of Ecclesiastes is doing the same thing when it comes to defining “hevel”. This, to me, opens up the letter wonderfully. Rather than it being like a conveyer-belt, where as each part of life is described it gets stamped with a big “HEVEL” label, the writer is grappling with the concept, teasing it out, showing it, explaining it, chewing on it and inviting us to see it as well. This doesn’t leave us with no sense of it’s meaning, but like his description of “chasing after the wind”, the meaning of the phrase, “everything is hevel” opens up the discussion rather than closes it down.
3. That isn’t the conclusion of the matter.
Now, all this may leave you a bit confused still as to the point of Ecclesiastes. The writer may not be saying that everything that you do in life is meaningless, but what exactly IS he saying? He obviously wants us to see how life is like chasing after the wind, but is he simply saying that chasing after the wind is a bad thing? I don’t think so. He doesn’t necessarily give any moral value to all the things he describes as “hevel”. He definitely acknowledges that life is frustrating and that our efforts can seem to just dissipate like a vapour, but he also says that’s just the way God’s made it: “Consider what God has done. Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other.”– Ecclesiastes 7:13-14
And this is the ultimate direction the book takes us. Whenever the writer speaks of God, he never uses the word “hevel”. All things under heaven are “hevel” – passing away, like a vapour – but heaven is not. God is not like a vapour. As he writes in Ecclesiastes 3:14, “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.” His point, as far as I can see, is that this whole world is as frustrating as it is, because God has deliberately made it that way so that people will come to him, or at least they will see their need for him to put things right. I wonder if you’ve ever thought of your frustrations in life that way? Could it be that God has made life crooked so that we would turn to him and revere him? To “stand in awe of God” (5:7) and remember him:
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them”… Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. ‘Hevel! Hevel!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is hevel!'”– Ecclesiastes 12:1,6-8
Is the writer’s proclamation that everything is “hevel” sort of a warning? Life is short so don’t forget God.
One other emotion I find throughout the book of Ecclesiastes is regret.
The story of King Solomon is actually quite a sad one. He was the son of the great King David, he was given by God greater wisdom than anyone else in his day, he had the amazing privileges and luxuries that came along with being king, and yet he forgot God. For political reason and to satisfy his own lust, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, all appeasing his every sexual fantasy. These women also worshipped gods other than Yahweh, and as his moral decay grew King Solomon’s faithfulness to God wained and he was led into setting up shrines to these other gods to appease his wives.
I think Ecclesiastes can be seen as a book of philosophy written by an old king who looks back on his life with great regret. He reflects on all his success and writes: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was hevel, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”– Ecclesiastes 2:10-11
He tries to appeal to us not to make the same mistakes. Don’t forget your Creator in the days of your youth! Please! Don’t waste your time and your life on things that are simply hevel. That’s as stupid as chasing after the wind.
The final part of the book seal the deal. He has finished his rant. He has pour out his heart. He has made his point. Now he states his simple conclusion.
I will leave you with these words that finish the book:
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
For more on Ecclesiastes, check the wikipedia article HERE.
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