Friday, July 8, 2022

The Power of Suggestion

A few years ago, I came across the results of The State of Theology doctrinal survey, put out by Ligonier, which had apparently found that an alarming percentage of professing evangelicals actually believe Jesus was a created being. When I looked at the survey itself, I found that this statistic was based on a question that went like this: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. True or false?” A whopping 70% of participants either agreed with the statement or were unsure.

First off, it could very well be the case, and even seems pretty likely to me, that many evangelicals are fuzzy on their doctrine of Christ. I’m not disputing that. And the survey responses to this question in particular demonstrate that a lot of evangelicals don’t know what sort of errors to be on guard against.

Yet it also seems to me that the question is essentially a trick, or at least demonstrates the power of suggestion. The notion of Jesus being created sneaks in at the end of the sentence, making it feel secondary to what the question is primarily asking, and thus rendering it likely that many will overlook it and instead focus on Jesus being the “first and greatest being,” which of course sounds like something that should be affirmed.

It reminds me of the old joke I heard as a kid: “How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” Of course I confidently answered, “Two!” To which the other kid triumphantly declared, “It was Noah, not Moses!” This joke is effective at tricking people because the primary question being asked has to do with the number of animals taken on the ark. The person who took them on the ark is not being asked about, but assumed, which is what makes it easy to replace Noah with Moses without people realizing it.

Another example comes to mind. A teenager once asked me if Rome was still a country, by which I understood him to essentially be asking if Rome still existed today. So I answered yes. Someone else spoke up and said, “No, Rome’s a city!” Honest to goodness, I did know that Rome was a city and not a country. But the teen’s misidentification of Rome as a country simply fell out of my mind, as it wasn’t pertinent to the heart of his question as I understood it.

Similarly, in the theology survey’s true/false question, the primary concern of the question appears to be Jesus’s supremacy and greatness, not his status as a created or uncreated being. The notion of Jesus being created is assumed at the end of the sentence, and so people are naturally inclined to gloss over those last few words in the same way many gloss over Moses replacing Noah in the old joke.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Is the book of Jonah a literary masterpiece?

The ESV Study Bible states, “The book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece.” Is it really? Are we really culturally close enough, or linguistically steeped in Hebrew enough, to judge a book like Jonah as a literary masterpiece? What’s the basis for claims like this? By what standard can we judge an ancient Hebrew text to be a literary masterpiece? (The same questions could be asked of New Testament texts also—gospels, epistles, etc.)

My theory is that claims like these come from a starting point of revering the text as God’s word, which perhaps makes people feel compelled to laud the text from a literary standpoint as well. That’s just a theory—I don’t presume to know how people’s minds operate. And to be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate the text or make the counter-claim that Jonah’s actually bad literature. But would I be confident to say that it’s good literature? Not really. I’m happy to be agnostic on that. (In all honesty, I’m not exactly sure how to judge any literature as objectively good or bad, although I would at least feel significantly more comfortable doing so with literature of my own native tongue.)

Even though I’m not willing to say whether Jonah is good or bad literature, I would argue that neither assessment is inappropriate or problematic. I don’t mind saying, the book is exceedingly odd from a modern literary standpoint. Its pacing is unusual and it ends very abruptly, without any kind of conclusion one would expect by today’s standards. And this at least makes me less likely to think “literary masterpiece” when I read it. But again, who am I to say?

It seems possible to me that some bookish people put such a premium on literary quality that they couldn’t bring themselves to revere a text that was not “good” literature? But maybe there’s actually an important theological truth on display in the fact that the Bible may sometimes contain “bad” literature. The power of Scripture is not tied to literary eloquence or beauty. It’s the simple fact that it’s the word of the living God, even if it’s sometimes literarily warty from our perspective. Paul himself said, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1).

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Believer’s Baptism: A Short Explanation

If someone were to ask me why our church practices believer’s baptism instead of infant baptism, this is a short explanation I would give them.

1. There is no clear example in the Bible of anyone being baptized as an infant. The consistent pattern seen in the New Testament is the baptism of believers.

2. Beyond that, there are multiple statements in the New Testament which strongly imply that baptism should only be undergone by a believer in Christ. I’ll just talk about one of them here.

“Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).

This is an intriguing verse in some ways, but one simple conclusion we can draw from it is that baptism pertains to salvation. Peter actually says “baptism saves you.” That’s obviously a pretty strong statement, and if we’re honest it probably makes a lot of us uncomfortable. As evangelical Christians, we’re far more likely to emphasize that baptism doesn’t save you, and yet here’s Peter apparently telling us that it does.

But I’m convinced Peter’s not against us here, and we’re not against him. He does say “baptism saves you,” but the way he follows up that statement is very important: “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.” So he immediately clarifies that he’s not speaking in reference to the watery baptismal act itself. That is not what saves you. Instead, he’s speaking in reference to the appeal that is made in baptism, which is an appeal for a “good conscience.”

I believe this is basically another way of expressing the act of calling on the name of the Lord: “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). A person’s conscience is burdened by the weight of sin, and thus they recognize their need for a Savior and ask God for forgiveness based on the work of Christ. That is the “appeal” for a good conscience that Peter speaks of, and it’s essential to what baptism is all about. Peter can say “baptism saves you” because he’s speaking of baptism as a representation of this appeal that someone is making to God.

So in summary, baptism closely pertains to salvation and also represents our appeal to God for a good conscience. I don’t believe anyone can reasonably expect an infant to experience a burdened conscience due to sin, much less to then make an appeal to God for forgiveness based on the work of Christ. And for those reasons, infant baptism would seem to be out of place.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Devotion: Jesus Is Better (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The letter to the Hebrews has a very memorable introduction. The writer begins the letter in this way: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

So the writer is making a contrast the past with the present. He says at various times in the past, and in all different kinds of ways, God spoke to his people through the prophets. The first person to be called a prophet in the Bible was actually Abraham. God spoke to Abraham through visions, and even in the form of a physical person in one instance, which is pretty intriguing. Moses was also a prophet. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and Moses in turn spoke on behalf of God to the Egyptians and to the Israelites.

Similar things could be said about Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and all of the minor prophets. This was God’s pattern in the Old Testament, to make his will known to his people through the mouths of prophets. And this is what the writer of Hebrews is talking about in verse 1.

But then in verse 2, he makes a very important contrast. He says, “but in these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” This is being presented to us as something that far surpasses any kind of communication or revelation that God had given in the past. Because the writer is then quick to point out that God’s Son is the “heir of all things,” and it was through him that the world itself was created. As great as the prophets of old were, these are things that simply could never be said about them. God didn’t send us just another prophet; he sent his own Son.

And right here at the beginning of Hebrews, we’re seeing what is arguably the most important theme of the entire book, and it’s the simple truth that Jesus is better. He’s better than the Old Testament prophets. Later on in this same chapter, he’s better than the angels. In chapter 8, his New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant. In chapter 9, his perfect atoning sacrifice is better than all animal sacrifice. Repeatedly throughout Hebrews, the writer is telling us that Jesus is better, and also warning us against putting our hope and our trust in anything else.

Hebrews was originally written to Jewish converts to Christianity. And their big temptation was to go back to the old religious rituals and ceremonies that were so familiar to them in the Old Covenant. That’s why they needed to hear the truth that Jesus is better. But the reality is, you and I need to hear this truth too. Our temptation may take a different form, but we’re all prone to look to other things besides Christ to give us peace or fulfillment or value, whether it be a relationship, or a career, or a social status. So we need to hear the truth that Jesus is better.

More than anything, we need a heart like the apostle Paul displayed, in Philippians chapter 3, where even in light of all of Paul’s achievements, he would still say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Sometimes we might be tempted to think that the time period of the Old Testament was when God was really moving. Because obviously, it’s in the Old Testament that we read about spectacular events like the flood, or the parting of the Red Sea, or Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. And if we’re honest we might even admit that sometimes we wish we had lived in those days. But the writer of Hebrews helps us to recognize that, as Christians, we actually live in a greater era of the history of redemption. When we consider the revelation that God has now given his people through the person and work of Jesus, alongside of the outpouring of his Holy Spirit who indwells us as believers, it should actually make us thrilled and thankful to live in this era of redemption.

Because Jesus is better.