Friday, January 21, 2011

The Kingdom of God

If you're an avid reader of the New Testament, you've probably noticed that "the kingdom of God" is all over the Gospels; it's Jesus' main message: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15). The good news Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God had arrived. But what exactly is God's kingdom? Is it a land or a physical realm? Is it the church? Furthermore, how come Paul and the other apostles didn't preach or write much about it? Is the New Testament in conflict?

In his magisterial New Testament Theology, George Eldon Ladd argues that basileia theou ("kingdom of God") really refers to neither a realm nor to the church, but to the active, dynamic reign of God--his "kingship" which extends to both people and places (cf. John 18:36 RSV). In a similar vein, over at Kevin DeYoung's blog, Russell Moore provides a similarly helpful clarification--one of the best I've heard yet. His explanation is not only in line with the Gospels, but also shows that the kingdom of God was in fact the Pauline and apostolic message.

Sometimes even those who've followed Jesus for a long time find the kingdom message a difficult one to grasp. We sometimes assume "kingdom" is just a metaphor for "getting saved" or for another denominational program or political crusade. We hear chatter all around us about the Prince of Wales or the local school homecoming queen or the advertising slogans of the "King of Beers" or the "Dairy Queen."

Against this kind of potential confusion, the mission of Christ starts and ends not just in the announcement of forgiveness of sins or of the removal of condemnation--although both those things are certainly true. The mission of Christ starts and ends with the announcement that God has made Jesus emperor of the cosmos--and he plans to bend the cosmos to fit Jesus' agenda, not the other way around.

The kingdom of God, then, is the good news that the right rule of God, and the right rule of man--a rule our ancestors Adam and Eve lost--have come together in the right rule of one right God-man: Jesus of Nazareth. In his sin-resisting life, his wisdom-saturated teaching, his demon-exorcising power, his substitutionary, conquering death, and his justifying, victorious resurrection, Christ is king.

That king, through his Spirit, invites all men to believe by faith what they'll someday see by sight--what everyone will someday see by sight: Jesus is Lord. Jesus forgives. Jesus is king. And his reign will extend to every corner of the galaxy, forever.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Bible for Teenagers

Some of my students have the attention span of a gnat. If you're like them, or if you're a youth pastor swarming with such gnats (just kidding, I love teens), you might relish Dane Ortlund's task of asking 25 pastors how they would summarize the Bible's message in one sentence. Jay Sklar's reply is probably the most simple and effective: "God made it, we broke it, Jesus fixes it!"

One commentor's summary is also really good: "God chose one man (Abraham) in order to make of him one great nation (Israel) so that through it He might bring forth one great Savior (Jesus) and through Him demonstrate God's glory and extend God's grace to all creation." Pretty well said.

My own (rather lengthy) sentence would be something like this: Despite the just curse of death brought through man's sin, God the Father has promised to defeat sin and exalt himself so that those who trust him will enjoy him and live under his blessing forever, and his Son Jesus has lovingly and graciously come in fulfillment of those promises to free us from judgment and bring us home with God--a life we taste even now by the power of his Spirit.

You Can Take a Boy out of the Country . . .

Genesis 18-19 records the account of God's visitation of Sodom and Gomorrah to investigate their wickedness and, if found guilty, to destroy them for it. "Then the LORD said, 'Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know'" (18:20-21; see also 19:13).

Who made this "outcry" to the Lord against Sodom's people? We can infer that there are not even ten righteous persons among the two cities (18:22-33). My guess is that it was Lot, Abraham's nephew. Peter records that "righteous Lot" was "greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked" in Sodom and was tormented within by their daily corruption (2 Pet. 2:6-8).

But that's not the picture that emerges from Genesis 19. Though on account of Abraham and his prayers, Lot is rescued by the angels along with his wife and daughters (19:29). For starters, while he kept up the customary Near Eastern hospitality toward strangers by trying to protect his guests from being gang-raped, he offered instead his two virgin daughters! Then we learn that Lot had allowed unrighteous men to marry his daughters (v. 14). And when the angels urged Lot to flee from Sodom, lest he be swept away, "he lingered" (v.15) and even had to be forcibly dragged out of Sodom. Lot's heart seemed to be with Sodom and its pleasures. Even when he does flee, he argues with the angels to not return to open country but to join a new city instead (cities being associated with the corruption of man in Genesis) (vv. 17-22).

Under such headship, what then did the rest of his family look like? His wife didn't heed the angels' admonition to not look back longingly at Sodom--and she was turned into a pillar of salt. Lot's daughters got their own father drunk and slept with him to become pregnant (with no apparent opposition on their father's behalf).

Apparently it is easier to get the family out of Sodom than it is to get the Sodom out of the family.*

I don't know what Lot's ultimate fate was before the Lord. From this account, everything looks grim. But I think 2 Peter 2:6-8 is the ray of hope. The final word on his life is that he is called "righteous Lot," and he goes down on the record as a man who was vexed within over living among evil people. Lot was simul justus et peccator -- at the same time righteous and yet a sinner--because the only true righteousness anyone can possess is that of Jesus Christ himself. Lot may have been a sinner, and his heart could still have been drawn to the pleasures of Sodom, but new desires had sprung up within that caused him to love the Lord and his law and to hate the wickedness of men around him. He was torn within, just like Paul in Romans 7, because he had been justified and was righteous, and Godward desires had been planted within his heart. "Unbelievers don't have such a struggle," notes Jerry Bridges.

For the most part, they enjoy their sin or rationalize their sinful attitudes. They feel justified in their self-righteousness, their criticial and unforgiving spirits, and their pursuits of pleasure and materialism [note Gen. 19:9]. Occasionally, they regret the
consequences of their attitudes and actions, but they do not see them as sin. . . . They may or may not have conflicts with other people, but there is little conflict within themselves. ("The Discomfort of the Justified Life," Modern Reformation, July/August 2006)

I think the key to figuring this all out is given within Paul's account in Romans 7 of his own struggle to live a new, holy life in Christ. "For I have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out" (v. 18). Paul goes on to explain that it is not truly him but residual sin, the "old Adam" within, that hasn't been fully put to death yet (cf. 8:13). What counts is not so much the degree of our progress in holiness--that is, love for God and for our neighbors--but the desire that we progress. Jesus teaches that when there is "good treasure" within our hearts--God-honoring, pure, loving desires--such desires will overflow into our deeds and will prove that we are at our core "good trees" (Luke 6:43-45).

In the meantime, in what do we then hope? Paul gives us two solid anchors: (1) We can be confident that the day will come when, at our death, we will be freed entirely from the realm of sin into a new home where righteousness dwells (Rom. 7:24-25; 2 Pet. 3:13). (2) When we are "wed to Christ" by faith, we can know that we have "died to the law through the body of Christ" (Rom. 7:4). Our old self under the curse and condemnation of the law has died, and now there is no longer any condemnation awaiting us because Jesus has already fully taken our punishment upon himself in his death (8:1-4).
*I wish I were this witty, but I must give credit where credit's due: This statement is from Leland and Philip Graham Ryken's preface to Genesis 19 in The Literary Study Bible.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Nothing Will Be Impossible for Them

As I've begun reading through Genesis again in my annual trek through the Scriptures, the well-worn story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) spoke to me a new word. Wicked men, unified not only in language but also in their desire to exalt in their own accomplishments, abilities, and ingenuity, erect a tower from which to assault heaven and earn for themselves fame, glory, and autonomy from God. I always laugh that God "came down" to see what they were doing; their tower really fell quite short of imposing upon heaven (v. 5). But what God says next has always unsettled me: "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them" (v. 6). Frankly, I hate this verse. Why? Because it doesn't fit with my idea--and a very biblically consistent idea at that--that God is completely sovereign and in control over all of mankind's activities. No one can thwart the God-of-Angel-Armies.

But this time it spoke to me a new word of hope. It's true that this story of origins--the origin of cities--occurs in the very place man tries to erect a kingdom for himself in rebellion against God (see Gen. 10:10-11). But where is it that the apostles first carry the gospel? Cities: Jerusalem, Damascus, Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, Rome. These were no doubt major hubs of anti-Christ religion and philosophy. Cities were (and are) Babylon in all its hollow pleasures and prides. But that's also the key. The gospel spreads and the kingdom of God invades those strongholds of darkness, upsetting and transforming them--and the culture along with them--at the very root of worldliness and rebellion. Cut off the cities, and you've made a good way to cutting off the devil nationwide. If cities such as Tokyo, Moscow, Berlin, New York, Sao Paolo, Helsinki, New Delhi, Baghdad, or Cairo were to become predominantly Christian, what was once spoken of men in their evil could be true for the kingdom of light: "nothing will be impossible for them." Now, I'm no postmillenial*, but it's cool to see the power of the gospel to bring liberation to Satan's most entrenched outposts and to imagine the ever-present hope that greets those who labor to reach urban areas for Christ.

*Postmillenialism is the view that the Lord will return after (post-) the "millenium." In this scheme, the gospel will spread with increasing effectiveness so that eventually whole nations and cultures will be largely converted and Christianized.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Excellent Overview of Biblical Eschatology

I've often thought of Christianity as "living backwards from the future." By his decisive coming to earth in the past, Jesus Christ has secured the future salvation of God's people--and by his Spirit even now we participate in the firstfruits of that deliverance. We're told the end of the story in advance and are then expected to live our way forward into the life that is to come. But the kingdom of God is not only a coming, future reality; the Gospels declare that it has already come in part and is coming presently, active today. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth--and the Holy Spirit says to all churches everywhere--that because Jesus the Messiah has come, "the fulfillment of the ages has come" along with him (1 Cor. 10:11). We are now living in the grandest era of history, when the promises pledged by God for the salvation of his people are coming true. Thus it is fitting that Jurgen Moltman describes the whole message of Christianity as an eschatological message:
Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving. . . . The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of the Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set.

All that is to say that what Don Garlington has written here is probably the best synopsis of New Testament theology (i.e., eschatology) I've read yet. Even if you don't care about his discussion of Revelation 20:1-6 and the "millenium," the first two sections on eschatology and biblical interpretation are well worth reading.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Adam, Son of God

The third role alluded to in the title Son of God is that of Adam himself, the original and prototypical human. The direct identification of Adam as God's son is most explicitly pointed out in Luke's genealogy of Jesus, who is ". . . the son of Adam, [who is] the son of God" (Luke 3:37). How is Adam the son of God? And what does it mean for Jesus, the Son with a capital "s"?

The very first words about Adam (and Eve, in fact)--that is, Man--give us the answer. "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule . . . .' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:26, 27). This is repeated nearly verbatim in Genesis 5:1-2: "When God created man [Hebrew adam], he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them 'man' [adam]." But then listen to what immediately follows concerning their son Seth: "When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image, and he named him Seth" (v. 3).

Being one's son therefore means bearing the image or likeness of the father. This is not in a mere genetic or phenotypic sense. In Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible, the "image" is what embodies or reflects the personal-spiritual-relational attributes of the father, ruler, or god.* Like God, man was created as vice-regent or steward of the cosmos, who would exercise just and righteous dominion over all things and so live under God's blessing and pass it along to all things (Gen. 1:26-28; 5:2; 9:1-7; cf. Abraham in 12:2-3). In Adam's life and actions--and through all his offspring--all the world would see God in his beauty and worth. We humans were meant to be God-bearers to one another.** But in Adam's transgression we all fell from this glorious role. Adam failed to pass on the wholeness of God's image to his son, but rather diluted it with his own (5:3). And through him, as both the father of mankind as well as our representative head before God, we all inherited his corrupted nature, and the image of God in us is now twisted and dimmed (Rom 5:15-21; 1 Cor. 15:49; Eph. 2:3). "All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

But when Jesus the Son of God steps on the scene, all of that is reversed! The New Adam is here, God's true Son (1 Cor. 15:45)! Paul says that "Christ . . . is the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4) and that "the Son he [God] loves . . . is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (Col. 1:13, 15). Note the very Adamic--that is, human--description of Jesus. He is God's image, revealing God to the world. "The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being" (Heb. 1:3). Where fellowship with God and knowledge of him were lost, Jesus has come to restore our sight (2 Cor. 3:12 - 4:6). But the good news doesn't stop there. It also means that all who trust and follow Jesus are being remade in God's image as well. "You have taken off your old self . . . and have put on the new self, which is being recreated in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Col. 3:10). When through the Son we see both our true Father and Example, we too grow to take on his likeness ourselves (Rom. 8:28-30; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:7-12; 1 John 3:2). The curse is being overturned.

But this is not all the Son of God does as the true Adam. "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (Col. 1:15). Jesus is the firstborn, the beginning of a new family of mankind, as Adam once was (see Heb. 2:10-18). And he is over all creation, exercising kingly and priestly dominion as Adam was ordained to do (Heb. 2:5-9). As God's Son, Jesus is the ruling and representative head of God's new creation (Eph. 1:10, 21-22). Where Adam sinned and brought the curse of death and exile from God's presence to all humans, even to the whole created order, Jesus brings justification, bodily resurrection, and eternal life and intimacy with God in Paradise, where all who are in Christ by faith will enjoy God forever (Rom. 5:15-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 44-49). He exercises the dominion Adam was meant to have, restoring peace to the world. Satan has not triumphed over God and his creation; Jesus the Son--and his saints who belong to him--have crushed his head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20; Col. 2:14-15)!

"He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found" is more than a line from a quaint Christmas carol about a babe in a manger. It is the gospel of God's Son Jesus, God's grace and glory dwelling among us again.


*Dennis Johnson, following Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10, describes the image of God in man as "characterized by right knowing (truth), right ruling (righteous and loving exercise of authority), and right relationship (holiness in God's presence)" (Him We Proclaim, pp. 246 f.).

**I think in many ways we also do not directly reflect God, as if we embodied all his attributes. God is everlasting, unchanging, all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful in ways we cannot be. In our limited and finite power and wisdom in this life, perhaps we show off God's majesty precisely by what we are not and what we cannot do or know. Even now when we point sinners to God's grace and the Savior's cross, we are images pointing the way to God, showing off who he is.