Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Astounded by the Resurrection - and Newsweek and MSN!

A few minutes ago I logged on to the Internet, and on the MSN homepage, all the featured articles were about Easter, the resurrection, and heaven! I read this one from Newsweek magazine, and despite being written by a self-professed "literal-minded skeptic," the author actually seems to get it right.

Leading into a summary of her book Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, Lisa Miller begins thus:

It's Easter—that most pleasant of springtime holidays—when children stuff themselves with marshmallows and stain their fingers with pastel dyes. In reality, of course, Easter is about something darker and more fantastic. It's a celebration of the final act of the Passion, in which Jesus rose from his tomb in his body three days after his execution, to reside in heaven with God. The Gospels insist on the veracity of this supernatural event. The risen Lord "ate barbecued fish [Luke] and walked through doors [John]," is how a friend of mine, an Episcopalian priest, puts it. This rising—the Resurrection—remains at the center of the Christian faith, the narrative climax of every creed. Jesus died and rose again so that all his followers could, eventually, do the same. This story has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer. For, truly, it's unbelievable.

She goes on to show how easily people find the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection absurd or incredible, preferring options such as metaphor or some sort of vague "spiritual newness." But these just don't cut it (aided by, of course, N.T. Wright). "Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it."

She seems to finish strong with a quote from Harvard Divinity School professor Jon Levenson, himself a Jew: "It's no use to ask, 'If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?' The belief in resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event. It's a special act of grace or of kindness on God's part."

Sadly, she ends by saying, "For my part, I don't buy it." But what a wonderful testimony that God the truth of God is not far from any of us, so that people "would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him" (Acts 17:27).

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On the Covenant of Redemption

Thinking more and more about John 17 and being "given to Jesus," I went back to my bookshelf as I recalled words that had impacted me in the past. Here are a few morsels I found.

The covenant of redemption . . . is an eternal pact between the persons of the Trinity. The Father elects a people in the Son as their mediator to be brought to saving faith through the Spirit. . . . Our salvation, therefore, arises first of all out of the joint solidarity of the divine persons. The joy of giving and receiving experienced by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit spills over, as it were, into the Creator-creature relationship. In the covenant of redemption, the love of the Father and the Spirit for the Son is demonstrated in the gift of a people who will have him as their living head. At the same time, the Son's love for the Father and the Spirit is demonstrated in his pledge to redeem that family at the greatest personal cost. (Michael Horton, God of Promise, pp. 78-79).

Therefore Richard D. Phillips can encourage doubting, weary saints with the fact that

There is no debate raging within the Godhead concerning our place in salvation, no tension; there are no awkward silences or heated conversations. Rather there is a grand and cohesive conspiracy of love originating in the eternal and sovereign grace of the Father (Chosen in Christ, p. 33)

Theologians refer to this council as the covenant of redemption. God the Father laid a charge on the Son on behalf of his foreknown chosen people. The Son voluntarily accepted this charge, namely, that he would take up their cause and die for them upon the cross. In return, the Father promised him the salvation of all the elect, those chosen in eternity for eternal life as his people and bride. . . . This is good news for all who believe, for here is the foundation of your salvation--not something in you, who are so weak and changing, so mixed in your affections, so inconstant in your faith--it is the foundation of God's sovereign choice from eternity past. 'He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.' (Ibid., pp. 43-44)

Election and predestination are often misconstrued to be some sort of mechanical or abstract process. Consequently many are left wondering, "Am I among those whom God has chosen and given to Christ?" Michael Horton comforts such questions with the fact that all of redemption is mediated "in Christ" and that we are "chosen in Christ":

This is why we are not to search out God's secret decree of predestination or try to find evidence of it in ourselves, but, as [John] Calvin urged, to see Christ as the "mirror" of our election. God's predestination is hidden to us, but Christ is not. The unveiling of the mystery hidden in past ages, the person and work of Christ, becomes the only reliable testimony to our election. Those who trust in Christ belong to Christ, are elect in Christ. (God of Promise, p. 79)

In other words, if you believe yourself to be a sinner under God's wrath and in need of redemption, and Jesus as the Lamb slain for your sins and exalted to God's right hand, then you are one who is "chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). You possess the "eternal life" of knowing God and Jesus, a knowledge given by the Holy Spirit only to those given to Christ so that they may have life (John 17:2-3).

And what future lies in store for all who trust in Christ Jesus and belong to him?
This is the soul's end--the blessing beyond which no better can be imagined or conceived: an infinite, eternal, mutual, holy energy of love and pleasure between God the Father and God the Son flowing out in the Person of God the Spirit, and filling the souls of the redeemed with immeasurable and everlasting joy. (John Piper, commenting on John 17:24, 26 in The Pleasures of God, pp. 311-312)

John 17: Given to the Beloved to Be Loved

In my previous post I mentioned this idea of an ancient plan within the Trinity, one that even antedates creation: the Father's plan to redeem sinners through the sacrifice of his Son, who would receive those sinners as a gift and indwell them through his Spirit, to bring them into the unending life and joy of God. Of all things that could have been on Jesus' mind in the hours before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, it was this plan upon which Jesus dwelled and brought to his Father in prayer.

20"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

"Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

"Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." (John 17:20-26)

Who are we? We are today those who believe in Jesus through the message of his apostles (v. 20). We are also those who are given by God as a gift to Jesus (v. 24). Those given to Jesus believe in Jesus.

To whom are we given?
We are given to the Beloved. Jesus reveals in this prayer that he was loved with an everlasting love, one that existed before the world was (vv. 23, 24, 26). A loving Father gives gifts because he is good and because he longs to see his child's joy. Jesus the Son is completely full of his Father's own glory and excellence (John 1:14, 18; Colossians 1:15; 2:9; Hebrews 1:3). Because there is nothing more admirable or beautiful in the whole universe than God himself, God must enjoy and behold and love his Son with an unsurpassed love.

Who are we (again)? We are therefore given to Jesus as a gift coming from the overflow of God's own love for his Son. If we are given to the Son as a result of God's love, then we must know two things: First, the Father would not give his Son what is not valuable or prized. No loving Father would give junk to his children (see Matthew 7:11); he gives the best. So we are truly precious to God. This shocks me, because in my theological tradition (Reformed) it is the lowliness and sinfulness of humanity that are so often emphasized that we neglect the value we have in God's eyes.

Second, we can know that just as fully as the Father wants his Son's good and happiness, and as we belong to the Highest in Heaven, we know that God can only be for our good. He would not scorn his Son nor disparage his own gift to him. We can know that God is ever for us, because possessed by his Son we too are to become Christlike children.

For what purpose are we given? Given to the Son and belonging to him, Jesus reminds his Father that "you . . . have loved them even as you have loved me" (v. 23). In Christ we are loved by God to the same extent as Christ himself! We too, in Christ, have been loved before the creation of the world, before the beginning of time (v. 24). We are now also the object of God's joy and held fast near his heart. He will fight for us until the end of time, to purify us as a bride for his Son, and to bring us home to dwell with him and drink forever from his river of delights (v. 24; Psalm 36:8). We are given to the Beloved to be loved.

On what basis are we so dear, co-equal with Christ? "I [am] in them, and you [are] in me," Jesus says (v. 23; cf. v. 26). The Son is in perfect fellowship with his Father, and we share in communion with the Son by faith and through the work of the Spirit (John 14:16 ff.). How can we, so ugly and marred by sin, be loved? Because this perfect Son has taken upon himself the stain and deformity of our sin and has put it to death forever in God's sight. In Christ we too rise out of the grave and stand upon Mount Hermon in radiant white and hear "This is my son, whom I love" (Mark 1:11; 9:7).

What does Jesus do for those he loves? At the end of his prayer Jesus proclaims that "I have made you [Father] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them" (John 17:26). Jesus, who is endowed with the fullness of God, makes God's name--all that God is--known to us. This he does by having purchased the Holy Spirit with his blood and sending him to illuminate God's Word to us. Jesus' greatest desire for those he loves is that we would know and see God's glory, a glory and wonder and beauty made known through Jesus (v. 24). As we know God better and better, we trust him more and more. This faith-life, this fear-of-the-Lord, is the very life of Jesus as God's perfect servant, the true Man. And so the more and more we know God through Christ, we find that the love God has for Christ is also in us (v. 26).

But beyond that, as Christ dwells in us and is formed within us, something else happens: we find that we love the Father more and more too. When Jesus prays "that I myself may be in them," he is praying that we would be filled with obedient, glad love for the Father. And because Jesus' prayers are always effectively heard by the Father (John 11:41-42), we can know this for sure: one day we will be free from all lesser affections and, beloved in Christ, we will see and love our tender Creator and Redeemer and find our heart's home in him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

John 17: Given through the Cross

John 17 is what many call Jesus' "high priestly prayer." In it he prays for himself (vv. 1-5), his present disciples (vv. 6-19), and all who would come to believe through the disciples (vv. 20-26). Throughout this prayer, Jesus refers to believers as those whom God has given to him (vv. 2, 6, 9, 24). It is said that these people belonged to God the Father (v. 9), which is implicit in the fact that he is the one who gives them to Jesus. These people are also given to Jesus "out of the world" (v. 6), that is, not all of the world's people are given to Jesus. We know this because of verse 2: "For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him." We already know that not all people will receive eternal life through Christ, for not all will repent and embrace him as Lord. This is the clear testimony of Scripture. But note also that Jesus, while possessing "authority over all people," only uses his position to give life to "all those you have given him." Being given to Jesus overlaps with receiving eternal life (cf. John 6:35-40; 10:26-29); they are one and the same.

Why are these people given to Jesus? Or how does he obtain them from God?

Acts 20:28 encourages overseers to "be shepherds of the church of God [some manuscripts have of the Lord], which he bought with his own blood." In Revelation we hear worshipers sing of Jesus the Lamb: "With your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (5:9; see also 14:4). And Paul instructs the Corinthians that they now belong to Jesus because they were "bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:20). So the answer is, Jesus bought the church with his blood shed at the cross. The goal of his death was to receive his bride.

Does this contradict all this talk of being "given" the church in John 6 and 17? No. Rather, having lived a perfectly obedient life for his Father and dying to cleanse the stain of guilt and shame upon the world, Jesus is not only vindicated and given life in his resurrection. He is also given the church as his reward. This is hinted at even in the Old Testament: "Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him [Jesus]; / he has put him to grief; / when his soul makes an offering for guilt / he shall see his offspring . . . . Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied" (Isaiah 53:10, 11 ESV).

This transaction between Jesus and his Father, that Jesus would come to save the elect and win them for himself so that they would glorify God forever, is sometimes called the "covenant of redemption." It is an eternal pact within the Godhead planned before the world existed (2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8 NIV). But for what reasons are we given to Christ? What does that do for us? I'll turn to this in my next post.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Evolution Rap

Whether you love Evolution or hate it -- ya gotta love this rap by Tom McFadden at Stanford. It's a dead-on parody of "'93 Till Infinity" by the Souls of Mischief.

Now that I'm wrapping up my Genetics unit in school and I'll begin teaching Evolution next week, you might expect more posts to come.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Hymns for Haiti

For those of you in the RVA (and if that means nothing to you, then this isn't for you):

Next weekend Alex Mejias is putting on a "Hymns for Haiti" benefit concert at West End Presbyterian Church to raise funding for Compassion International in Haiti. Mejias is a talented young musician who, much in the vein of Indelible Grace and RUF, adapts classic evangelical hymns to modern arrangements so that their timeless truths can be heard and appreciated by modern worshipers.

Why am I posting this here? Because for the past five-plus years I have sponsored Janvier Delson, a boy in Melinette, Haiti. Delson is now 13 years old. In Melinette most people are unemployed, and the average employed person only earns about $50 per month. It has been cool to trade letters with this "pen pal" of mine in Haiti while knowing that my $28 per month is able to help provide his family with food, clothing, and medicine. While in Melinette and in Haiti public schools can be scarce, Compassion's Child Development Centers give children education they need to help them grow spiritually, academically, socially, and personally.

So if you're in the Richmond on March 20, please consider attending this concert.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Face To Reframe

When I lived in Turkey, I remember being stunned the first time I saw someone there with Down syndrome. It struck me: it took almost two years in a city of 12+ million people to see someone with this condition. Either meiotic nondisjunction is a rare occurrence in Turkish women, or people kept them hidden away. After asking around, I sadly found that it was generally the latter case. Down syndrome and other congenital defects are often looked down on as a source of shame for the family.

Beth Bruno, an American expat whom I got to know while living over there, has put her photography skills to work by creating A Face To Reframe. It's a project in which Turkish children with disabilities were given cameras and allowed to define beauty. And as it turns out, no matter what you think someone looks like on the outside, they share the same sense of beauty, virtue, and creative artistry that even the best of us have. Check it out.

Monday, March 1, 2010

How close should you live to your church?

I've been wondering off-and-on this year: How important is it to live nearby to the church you worship in/with? (Here I am referring to the church as a building where the baptized gather for weekly worship.)

Of course in years past, when people lived among ethnic enclaves within either a more distinct rural or urban setting, and at best had one car--and forget expressways--this wasn't a real question. In my German- and Pole-stocked childhood hometown of Bay City, Michigan, there were three options: Catholic churches for the Poles, Catholic churches for the southern Germans, and Lutheran churches for the northern/western Germans. Churches were everywhere, and everyone near Germania St. was German, and over by Kocscuisko you were a Pole. Every Lutheran church belonged to the Missouri Synod and used the same liturgy, hymnal, and sermon texts. It just didn't matter.

But nowadays we have a smorgasbord of church options. What happens if the "best" church is farther away from a "good" or even "so-so" church? And how far is "too far"?

Certainly I think it can be difficult for a church's members to invest themselves in a church if they live far away. People are less likely to come to other meetings or take up opportunities to serve if they have to drive thirty minutes instead of five. And I think living far away also hinders one's ability to buy into a church's vision and outreach. A church's mission focus ought to be the neighborhood around it. But if your church is in the middle of the city, and you live fifteen miles out in the suburbs, how much harder might it be to invest your heart in city-dwellers whom you may walk past on Sundays but who aren't truly your neighbors?

Anyway, I'd appreciate any feedback and thoughts you have to offer.