Thursday, 29 March 2018
Two weeks ago I had a bit of an awkward experience. I shared some thoughts with a bunch of folk who we gather regularly with around the the atoning work of Christ and why I believe that it is better suited to the language of union or identification than it is with the more traditional language in the Western church of substitutionary atonement. What made the message awkward is that it completely went over everyone's heads. It was met with a little skepticism, some family friendly banter and a lot of confusion. So I am hoping to do better here on the blog with the same message that I shared last week.
I don't want to repeat what I have said in previous posts before so let me just start by laying a quick foundation. it might come as a surprise, but the Bible never uses the word substitution, neither does it refer to Christ's sacrificial death by using phrases like 'instead of' or 'in the place of' either. There are a few places where people with a substitutionary mindset might read the concept into certain texts (like Isaiah 53 or 2 Corinthians 5:21) but in reality, it's simply not there. What we do see however are phrases like 'in Christ', 'in Him', 'together with' and 'through Him' hundreds of times.
Christ never died for us in the sense of a substitute, for everyone one of us must still face death as well. Neither did Jesus take a cup of the Fathers wrath for us on the cross in our place. What He did do is that He took upon Himself our cup of suffering (as well as our curse, sin, shame and death) and then promised that we too would drink from that same cup (see Luke 12:49-50 and Mark 10;35-39). The early church not only understood this, but they rejoiced in it (Acts 5;40-41, Romans 8;16-17, 3 Timothy 3:12, Philippians 1:27-29, 3:8-10). The cross is not the story of a divine pardon but of a glorious union between God and man. The true message we should be hearing over Easter is that God, in Christ, has reconciled us to Himself, Jesus has identified with man and joined us in death that by Him, in Him and through Him, we may be raised with Him in glory.
The reason that I feel so strongly about this message is that if one were to follow the logic of substitutionary atonement deep down the rabbit hole then your personal conduct in this life means nothing. Who needs deliverance from sin if you can just be forgiven? Any teaching that tells you NOT to pick up your own cross and follow Jesus is extremely dangerous and contrary to the words of Jesus (Mark 8:34-35). As followers of Christ, we in no way avoid the shame of the cross, everything we read in scripture points us toward union with His death (Romans 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 6:17, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:4-6, Colossians 2:12, 3:3, Hebrews 2:14, 2 Peter 1:4, Revelations 12:11-12).
Let me today encourage you to think of the cross in a different light than the one so many churches will be speaking on this morning. Jesus has died for us. He has taken our death into Himself and made it His death. He becomes our dying that our dying might become His life. He has taken our sin into Himself that we might take His righteousness into ourselves. The forgiveness of God is wonderful but it is not attained by blood sacrifice as it was with the pagan deities. God has always shown forgiveness and mercy to people. The cross does not point us to the wrath of God but to the love of God (John 3:16). What we needed was life and deliverance from the power of sin. This has being granted to us through the victorious Christ who now lives in us.
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy. Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. - Philippians 2:1, 5, 8 , 12, 13.
Saturday, 10 March 2018
I normally try to avoid writing posts that sound too academic, I am not sure that I will be able to do that today but I will try my best. Not so long ago I wrote a review of Anthony Bartlett’s book Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach theNonviolent Bible. It was and is an incredible book that opened me up to so many new ideas. For today specifically though I want to share something from Second Isaiah which he brought to my attention. If referring to a second book of Isaiah looked like an error on my behalf, it was not, I know that there is only one book called Isaiah in the Bible but Isaiah is actually three separate books. First Isaiah is chapters 1-39, Second Isaiah chapters 40-55 and Third Isaiah 56-66. There are many reasons for believing this and it is well known in theological; circles but let’s not get side tracked and just play along with me here.
What I want to share today is that the tone of Second Isaiah is very different from First Isaiah, it reveals God as gentle and compassionate while the message is one of consolation to the people. But there is something else as well which is incredible and quite unique to this portion of scripture in that God often uses two first-person pronouns and one third-person pronoun when speaking. One would think that the One True God would speak using first person singular pronouns but He does not. Instead of saying “I”, He says, “I, Myself, He” or “Me, Myself, He”. We don’t pick it up in our Bibles because our translations have changed the literal Hebrew words to more comprehensible and readable phrases. So “I, Myself” becomes “I AM” and “I, Myself, Myself” becomes “I, I am he” (see Exodus 3:13-14 for example). Before getting to my main point let me share some examples.
Who has performed and done it, Calling the generations from the beginning?
‘I, the Lord, am the first; And with the last I am He.’”– Isaiah 41:4
You may notice in your Bible that the word ‘am’ here is in italics because it has been added, a literal translation of the verse here would read , “The last, I, He, who has worked and done it, calling the generations from the beginning, I, the Lord, the first.”
“I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins.- Isaiah 43:25
In Hebrew here the phrase should read, “He, Myself, Myself” and the wording is ‘anoki, anoki’.
“Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. – Isaiah 48:12
The Hebrew here is literally, “I, He, I, the First, I and the Last”.
“Listen to Me, O Jacob, And Israel, My called: I am He, I am the First, I am also the Last. – Isaiah 51:12
This is literally “Myself, Myself, He who comforts you” (anoki, anoki, hu).
The only other place in the Bible where this language is repeated is in Deuteronomy 32:39 (I, myself am He which literally says “I, I, He” (ani, ani, hu))
These verse might look strange but what makes them worth mentioning? As Anthony Bartlett notes in his book, “The tripled pronouns become the name God gives himself. They signify a deeply personal address. The same style of address is repeated several times”. What I personally find interesting in these phrases though is how they link to the teaching of the Trinity. Bartlett notes these texts and highlights how the repeated pronouns emphasize the statements made. In this particular context, it is that God’s compassion is intensely personal. He states on page 136, “It is like the very heart of God is a relationship, his very identity”. I could not agree more with his statement but I would like to take it one step further. I believe that the very heart of God is relational because He Himself exists as the community of the Father, Son and Spirit. Before anything was spoken into being, God was love and God was relational because the reality of it was already being lived out within the Godhead. As my friend Mako Nagasawa has pointed out, Allah cannot claim love or relationship to be at the heart of his being because before creation, there would not have being anything to love. This is not so with the God of Christianity in whom love and relationship have always existed. I find the language of Second Isaiah interesting not only because I believe that the tripled pronouns point us to a triune God (I don’t think the repetition is necessarily only for emphasis) but also because a triune God and a gospel centered on union with Him in Christ invites us into that community grounded in love, relationship and more.
The focus of many of my future posts will be on union (as opposed to substitutionary atonement) and on how an understanding of the Trinity enlightens all areas of theology. I hope that you will find them as meaningful as I am finding them as they have begun to shape my own thinking.