On the Trinity

Perhaps nothing is as difficult to understand or explain as the concept of the trinity. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. Those who do not acknowledge the Triune God of the Bible as their true creator especially use the difficulty and “illogic” of the truth as one of their chief protests against Him. But is all this confusion and frustration warranted? Absolutely not, and here are a few reasons why.

Difficult

Have you ever considered the concept of zero? What about nothing? Can your mind fathom zero? The absence of everything. No laws of logic, universal laws of nature, or matter. Zero is something completely made up and conceptual. It does not actually exist and cannot exist. One basic reason why it cannot exist is found within the laws of thermodynamics which include the natural law that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. There can never be zero. Ever. Yet, we have no problem using it in common vernacular. It represents the lack of something within a fixed environment. But just because the car dealership sells you 0% financing doesn’t mean that percentages or interest do not exist at all, but only in a specific way and sense. The word itself represents something we need to communicate but cannot actually fathom in our own experience. This is a good way to think about the word Trinity. No, you won’t find that word anywhere in the Bible; but we use it to express revealed truths from the Bible that we simply cannot fathom in our experience or adequately describe in words.

We also often see divine concepts within other religions that are foreign to our created experience but that we as Christians nonetheless affirm as well. For instance, there is nothing created that is omniscient, yet we describe God as being omniscient. If we were to ask for an example of what omniscience is like from creation there is nothing we could appeal to. The only way we could know what omniscience is would be to define it as a concept. Since God has revealed in the Bible that he knows all things, you could say that omniscience is a concise way of describing a revealed truth. This is the same with Trinity. What is revealed about God is that He is one God who exists as three Persons.

But allow us to take this point one step further. We acknowledge that trying to answer the question of “how?” God exists as tri-unity is difficult. But the same can be said of God’s omniscience. How is God omniscient? If your answer is, “because he’s God” then you would be right. And that answer holds true with God’s trinitarian nature as well. How can God be one God eternally existing as three distinct persons, neither dividing the essence nor confusing the persons? Because he’s God. And if this is not a satisfactory answer for trinity but it is for omniscience then there is inconsistency in the way revealed truths about God are being handled. Furthermore, simply because something is difficult to understand or explain does not make that thing untrue. Difficulty should never be an excuse for denying our creator, but that is exactly what this line of argumentation is doing.

Unique

What concepts such as God’s omniscience teach us about God is that he is unique. And when we say unique we do not mean how each of us has a unique DNA code, or how someone may dress with unique fashion. What we mean by unique is that God is independent of his creation such that there is nothing like him and there will never be anything like him. While he does have traits that he shares with his creation such as love and justice, he also has traits that he in no way shares with his creation. Those traits that he does not share with his creation are called his incommunicable attributes.

Some of these incommunicable attributes include his eternal nature and his unchangeableness, to name a couple. We have a fixed beginning, God does not. We change, God does not. We exist as one nature (human) and one person (yourself), God does not. God’s tri-unity, or trinity, is part of his uniqueness. It is something he does not share with his creation. Therefore it should not be considered impossible for God to exist in trinity, but rather it should be considered incommunicable. This is the correct way to think about our creator.

Does the Bible teach that there is one God?

There are many things we can know about God apart from a special revelation of him. Romans 1:19 states, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” But there are certain things we can only know about God if he chooses to reveal them to us via special revelation. The means by which God has provided his special revelation is through what we find in the Bible.

Within the Bible we learn that God is one, meaning there is only one God. Perhaps the most central revelation of this truth comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 which says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This passage is quoted by Jesus as being the single greatest commandment. Other passages include: Isaiah 42:8, “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” Zechariah 14:9, “And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.” And finally, 1 Corinthians 8:4, “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.””

These passages are sufficient, but not exhaustive, to show that the Bible clearly teaches there is only one God. Christians believe this and in no way deny it.

How should we understand passages like Genesis 1:26?

One of the first instances we see of the multiple personage of God is in Genesis 1:26 which says, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The “us” and “our” here should not be read as the plural of majesty. The plural of majesty is not used anywhere (not one single time) within the Hebrew writings of the Old Testament; this is an actual plural that God is referring back upon himself. He is not speaking to the angels or any other heavenly beings. The language is clear, God is referring to himself using plural pronouns. In fact, it is so plain and obvious that even the earliest church leaders such as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, and Tertullian used this very passage as a defense of the divinity of Jesus and what would eventually be defined as “Trinity”.

Other passages from the Old Testament include Genesis 1:1-2 where we see the Holy Spirit involved in creation. Job 33:4 tells us that the Holy Spirit creates, Psalm 139:7 tells us that he is omnipresent, and Isaiah 63:10 tells us that he is grieved by our sin (which is a divine phrase).

Psalm 45:6-7 says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” The passage is addressed to God and yet tells of God’s God. How can God have a God when there is one God? Pretty easily when you’re talking about the one true, triune, God of Scripture. This is why the New Testament writers cited this passage as being about Jesus. Other instances of where God refers to God can be found in Malachi 3:1 and Hosea 1:7 to name only a couple.

Did Jesus ever claim to be God?

Yes! But, you didn’t come this far for such a short answer. Mark 2:5-11 demonstrates that Jesus had the power to forgive sins. In fact, Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders of his day rightly confessed that only God could forgive sins. Jesus then proved to them all that he had authority to forgive sins by healing the man whose sins he had forgiven. By doing so, Jesus showed himself to be God.

In fact, Jesus was so explicit in his claims that he was God that the cited reason why the Jewish leaders said he should be killed was because Jesus called himself God to their faces. Mark 14:61-64 recounts the dialogue in which Jesus was accused of blasphemy for declaring himself God. The way in which he did it was to declare himself to be the divine Son of Man from Daniel 7. The religious leaders of that day correctly understood exactly what Jesus was saying and charged him with equating himself to God.

Did Jesus indicate that the Holy Spirit is God?

In his final instructions to his disciples, Jesus gave them the trinitarian baptismal formula whereby he instructed that his disciples were to be baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Here we see the co-equality of the three persons of God. Jesus had earlier shown the divine nature of the Holy Spirit by declaring that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven (Matthew 12:31).” The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible defines blasphemy as, “Profane or contemptuous speech or writing about (or action toward) God.” It is true that the object of blasphemy is divine in its essence and Jesus says that the Holy Spirit can be blasphemed. Therefore, logic dictates that the Spirit is divine in his essence. There is no other way to understand the words of Jesus here.

Did the Apostles believe Jesus was God?

The apostle John began his gospel speaking of Jesus as the Word of God. He said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).” Since Jesus is the Word then Jesus is God. The apostle Paul also declares Jesus to be God when he wrote, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Romans 9:5).” Finally, the apostle Thomas declared Jesus to be, “My Lord and my God (John 20:26-28)!” These are only a few examples of the many ways the apostles declared Jesus to be God.

Did the Apostles indicate that the Holy Spirit is God?

Paul wrote, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom… For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17–18).”

Peter wrote, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:10–11).” This is an amazing passage showing the unity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets of Israel to declare the coming of Jesus.

What did the generations of Christians after the apostles teach?

The simple answer is that they taught what the Bible says, which is what was taught to them from the prophets.

“But they declared that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ, as to a god… – Pliny (the Younger) AD 62-113” This is coming from a non-Christian witness. Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who was persecuting Christians in his area. He wrote these words to the emperor testifying that the Christians were worshiping Christ as a god. This language “as a god” is not a detriment to the Christian testimony but is rather an expression from a pagan who sought to say that Christians worshiped Jesus as divine. This is an amazing testimony!

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God. – Ignatius of Antioch, “The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans” AD 30 – 107” Here was see Ignatius, an early church leader, declaring directly that Jesus is God.

“that the name of the true and only God might be glorified – Clement of Rome (AD 30 – 100)” This passage from Clement’s letter further demonstrates the Christian message of one God. This is critical to have correct in our thinking so that the essence of God (1) is not confused with the persons of God (3).

“For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. – Justin Martyr (AD 110 – 165)” Here we have Justin Martyr bearing witness to the trinitarian baptismal formula. The name of God is here declared to be threefold: Father, Saviour, and Holy Spirit.

“From all which we learn that the person of the Holy Spirit was of such authority and dignity, that saving baptism was not complete except by the authority of the most excellent Trinity of them all, i.e., by the naming of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. – Origen (AD 185 – 254)” This passage is very important as it demonstrates the refinement of Christian expression of the biblical truth of the triune nature of God. Notice here that “trinity” appears 100 years prior to the Council of Nicea.

So, what happened at the Council of Nicea in 325?

For the sake of the length of this article we will address the events of Nicea at a very high level. The controversy began when a bishop from Alexandria, Egypt by the name of Arius began teaching something new and peculiar about Jesus. The popular phrase that encapsulated his argument was, “there was when He was not.” His argument was that Jesus was created by the Father and was not eternally God. His greatest proof text from the Bible were the instances where Jesus is said to be “begotten” of the Father. Although Arius viewed Jesus as the highest of the Father’s creations he nevertheless did not view him, or the Holy Spirit, as equal with God.

Arius’s views grew popular and threatened to split the church, which had just come out from under the systemic persecution of emperors prior to Constantine. Therefore an ecumenical (or church) council was called and attended by hundreds of bishops from across the Roman empire. It was there that the council of the Bishops condemned the teachings of Arius and clarified that the teaching of historical Christianity was that Jesus is eternally God. As part of the Nicene Creed testifies: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.”

Nicea did not create the trinity, it clarified its meaning against incorrect teaching. The council was not called to define God, but to defend him.

Where did the word “trinity” come from?

The earliest documented use is from Theophilus of Antioch between AD 150 – 188. However, his use is natural, not definitional, meaning he is making reference to something his reader would already have familiarity with. This indicates that, at least, the term was common vernacular among the Antiochene Christians at the time of this writing.

Hippolytus (AD 170 – 236) and Irenaeus (AD 120 – 202) helped to explain the “economic Trinity” or, how the three persons operate.

Most of the Trinitarian language we use today came from Tertullian (AD 145 – 220) as he stated in his work, Against Praxeas;

“While the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God.”

Here we have testimony to the Nicene spirit a full century before the council came to be called. The trinity is the historical, biblical, and true teaching of Christians and always has been.

In conclusion

We affirm the words of Athanasius who said, ““We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.” Amen.

Son of God?

About a year ago we were sitting at dinner with a friend and we got on the topic of Jesus being the Son of God. Our friend is a Muslim and he brought up what he had been taught was meant by the title “Son of God”. He stated that when Christians call Jesus the Son of God they meant that God had a son the way people do; through natural means. Even though we had heard this before it was still a shock to our senses to hear it put like that. Never have the true followers of Jesus thought of him like that. Never. The Bible certainly doesn’t teach that and anyone who has read the Bible, or even knows a Christian, knows that. So, where did this idea come from?

Lost In Translation

There are several passages in the Quran denouncing Jesus as the Son of God (2:116; 5:17, 72; 9:30; 19:35) but we’re going to focus in on 6:101 as it seems to play a key role in the line of thinking of our friend. Here it is from the Sahih International translation:

[He is] Originator of the heavens and the earth. How could He have a son when He does not have a companion and He created all things? And He is, of all things, Knowing.

The word translated “companion” above should be clear from the context but for the sake of prudence we’ll point out that the way this word is written puts it in the category of “wife” or “spouse”. Here’s a nice visual aid from the Corpus Quran website to round out the point.

Now, this passage does not single out Jesus as being a son in this way, but speaks more broadly as a condemnation of the idea of God having a son at all. To be clear though the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God does fall under this condemnation. As the well known commentator Ibn Kathir wrote:

Allah mentions the misguidance of those who were led astray and claimed a son or offspring for Him, as the Jews did with `Uzayr, the Christians with `Isa and the Arab pagans with the angels whom they claimed were Allah’s daughters. Allah is far holier than what the unjust, polytheist people associate with Him. (see qtafsir.com on this chapter and verse)

And here’s the bigger picture: the underlying belief in the Quran is that if you say that someone is God’s son then what you mean by that is that God has to take a wife and produce that son in a natural way. This is what our friend had been taught to believe about Christianity. Somewhere along the path from what Jesus, the earliest disciples of Jesus, the Church Fathers, and the Ecumenical Councils all taught about what Son of God meant to the meaning (misunderstanding) we find in the Quran something was lost along the way and a serious error found its way into one of the most influential books in history.

Titles From The Gospels

When we encounter this dilemma we like to ask a simple question: What are we supposed to make of the way we see Son of God used in the Gospels? One of the first places Jesus is called Son is at his baptism when a voice from Heaven says to Jesus “you are my beloved son.” (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:22-23) But it’s not only heavenly voices, even the demons call him God’s Son. Mark 5:7 says, “And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.'” Even pagan Roman soldiers called Jesus the Son of God at his crucifixion (see Mark 15:39). And finally we see that Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God when he says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) So, what are we to do with the fact that the Father called Jesus Son, demons recognized it, faithless pagans recognized it, and Jesus claimed the title for himself? To put it simply, we call Jesus the Son of God like everyone else in the Gospels. But does that mean what our friend was taught it means?

Not Made

Christians believe in the eternal preexistence of Jesus as the Son of God. This means that from all eternity Jesus has existed as God, the second person of the Trinity, and was not created at any point. This is presented most clearly in John’s gospel, so we’ll look at some passages and teachings from Jesus to demonstrate where we got this idea from. We’ll begin in John 1 where John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” John started his Gospel with Genesis language “In the beginning” and he did it with the intention of demonstrating the eternally divine nature of Jesus. Where Genesis 1:1 starts off by saying “In the beginning God” John starts off with “In the beginning was the Word”. This is a big deal. Right off the bat we’re supposed to be clued in that Jesus is God. Later John wrote “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” More imagery from the Torah! This time John is drawing our attention back to when the tabernacle was erected in the wilderness after God delivered Israel from Egypt. Exodus 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” In fact the same word that was used to translate “tabernacle” from Hebrew to Greek is the same root word that John used and English Bibles translate “dwelt”. Just as the divine glory filled the tabernacle on earth in the wilderness, so now in John’s gospel is that same glory filling the tabernacle of flesh in the person of Jesus.

Let’s now consider something Jesus said that is recorded in John 17:5, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” This is such a rich text and it’s only one sentence in an even more theologically rich passage! First of all, Jesus shared in God’s glory which is one reason why we as Christians say that God is one in his essence and three in his person (more on that another time). Second, Jesus was with the Father before the world existed. This means that before creation, there was Jesus. Why do Christians say Jesus exists eternally? Because Jesus said it. We like it when things are that simple. And that’s part of the point we’re making here. The Christian belief and understanding about Son of God is very straight forward if you’ve read the most popular Gospel writer in history. What’s concerning to us is that the Quran, though it claims divine authorship, seems to misunderstand or misrepresent this clear teaching.

Warning!

Finally, for those who might be reading this having been taught and/or believing the teaching of the Quran we need to share a warning with you from the Apostle John (the same guy as the Gospel writer). Early on in Christianity there was a group of people called the Gnostics (and their sister religion the Docetists). They taught that Jesus did not come in the flesh but that the “Christ” was a spirit who took over the body of Jesus at his baptism but departed from him just before his crucifixion. They even went so far as to say that it only appeared that Jesus died (see St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, chapter 2). But it was against this group that John was writing in 1 John where he wrote, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” To deny that Jesus is the Son is to proclaim yourself an antichrist. Our deep concern is that on the day when Jesus sits in judgement over all the earth (see Matthew 25:31-46) he will look upon those who have fallen prey to the ignorance of false teaching about Jesus and call them “antichrist”. So we proclaim to you good news that “Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”

We pray this is beneficial for those who may have questions about this topic. Please contact us with any other questions you may have.

Peace

Jesus Contradicts Himself?

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34

At the face of it this saying of Jesus certainly seems to undermine his other words which are the foundation of our ministry:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” – Matthew 5:9

So, what are we to make of this and how does it impact the way we here at 5:9 operate? Well let’s first start with the broader context of Matthew 10. Jesus was giving his disciples instructions on proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. They were to go to villages proclaiming this good news and performing signs to confirm their message such as healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, and casting out demons. But when they did this Jesus warned them that they would be persecuted, that the path ahead would not be easy, and that they would suffer. However, Jesus charged his disciples to fear God more than they feared man. In fact, in Matthew 10:32-33 Jesus said, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

So, on the heels of this charge, Jesus spoke plainly that the message and signs he had given to his disciples would be divisive. The remaining words of Jesus that he gave to his disciples during this charge speak of how “a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” but then charges them that “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:36-37).” So no, Jesus is not commanding his followers to violence but is warning them that violence would be perpetrated against them, even from their own family and those who love them most.

Two Types of Peace

When we think about Matthew 5:9 we know we should be applying this to the broader community around us and that, as much as it is in our power and ability, we should be striving to live peaceful lives and making the places we live peaceful places. This is good and is a very important aspect of our ministry. We seek to promote peace through dialogue and gaining understanding. We also know the value of sharing a meal with one another so we do that too!

But there is another kind of peace which Jesus is concerned about in Matthew 10 and that is peace with God. Recall the words of Jesus where he said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).” While it is good to be at peace with our neighbors, it is best to be at peace with God. This is the higher and greater peace, the eternal peace which all who believe in Jesus possess. When sinful and rebellious people see this peace they recoil and attack. They hate the peace which God gives through Jesus and they seek to destroy those who proclaim it.

Not Ashamed

Why write all of this? Because we received news recently from a friend who is working in another country and the message he sent was, “Welcome the newest member of the body.” There in that picture was my friend, his friend, and a young man who had heard the truth about Jesus’ sacrificial death and responded by professing faith in Jesus to save him from eternal death and sin. And we celebrated this like crazy. This young man had just turned away from Islam. But we didn’t celebrate because a Muslim became a Christian. It doesn’t matter to us what a person believed before, so long as they believe the truth now. Our desire is the same for every person we meet – that he or she comes to know Jesus personally. Do we risk blow back from writing about this and celebrating the saving work of God in this man’s life? Maybe. But as much as we love Muslims here at home and want to promote peace with them and genuinely desire for them to live peaceful lives here without fear or hatred we want everyone everywhere to know the peace of God so much more. And so we cannot be ashamed when we hear of someone coming into the Kingdom of God but instead we celebrate, just as Jesus says the angels in heaven do when a sinner turns to Christ.

If you would like to know more about how Jesus forgives our sins and how you can have peace with God through Jesus, please check out our post on Sacrifice and reach out to us with any questions.

Iftar 2019 Recap

We put a short video together recapping our recent group trip we took to break fast for Ramadan. Enjoy!

Is It True? – Jesus Did Not Die

You might be asking yourself, “Is this really a question?” And depending on your background you’d be asking that question for different reasons. Let’s look at why this question matters.

Islam’s Perspective

The Sahih International translation of the Quran translates Surah 4:157 as follows,

“And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that; according to the Quran, Jesus himself did not die. The Study Quran’s commentary on this verse provides a good overview of historical perspectives on how this took place.

Although the verse only directly criticizes a Jewish claim to have killed and crucified Jesus, it is widely understood in the Islamic tradition as meaning that Jesus was not crucified or killed at all; it only appeared so unto them, that is, to the Jews as well as to most of Jesus’ followers. Various accounts are given to explain how it appeared so unto them. According to some commentators, when the Jewish authorities came to arrest Jesus, he was among a group of his followers. They did not know who among them was Jesus, because a Divine ruse had made them all appear the same, and one of Jesus’ followers was thus taken and killed in his place (IK, Ṭ, Z). Some accounts indicate that one of Jesus’ followers in particular volunteered to sacrifice himself by assuming Jesus’ likeness (IK, Ṭ, Z). According to one account, this follower was crucified (i.e., publicly exposed) after being killed (IK). This follows the order mentioned in the verse itself: they did not slay him; nor did they crucify him, and in general, Muslims understood crucifixion as a punishment carried out after death in most, though not all, cases.

Christianity’s Perspective

It seems quite limiting to declare this to be Christianity’s perspective only. It is, after all, the majority perspective of Historical Jesus studies regardless of faith background. It has been the overwhelming view of history, including the accounts of first-hand eye witnesses. Nevertheless, at its root this is a Christian issue because of the meaning behind the death of Jesus. For more on this, please see our post on Sacrifice.

To begin, Jesus himself said that he was going to die. Mark 8:31 says, “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” John, the disciple of Jesus, was with Jesus when he was arrested, tried, and crucified (John 18-19). Ancient writers such as Josephus and Tacitus recorded that Jesus died. Enemies and friends alike all declared that Jesus died.

Further, the Scriptures (what we now know as the Old Testament) said that Jesus would die. Isaiah 53, which is a prophecy about the Messiah who was to come, says this:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭53:4-9‬

As an interesting side note here, the Scripture is using past tense language to speak of a future event. The language itself is showing the certainty of God’s plan for the Messiah to come and die.

What’s The Problem?

Let’s start with what the problem is not: it is not a problem of someone in history dying on a cross. Islam affirms that someone died. The issue is a theological issue first and foremost. In Islam’s perspective God deceived people, even the disciples of Jesus (who many Muslims say were Muslim as well). Some have argued that those who crucified Jesus deserved to be deceived. That doesn’t really solve the problem of a deceptive God and overlooks the problem that, according to Islam’s own religious teaching and tradition, God deceived Muslims (ie, the followers of Jesus). There were innocent people affected by this, too. If God deceived his loyal followers, can he really be trusted?

Is It True?

At the core of any person’s search for God should be a pursuit of truth. Our Christian position is that Jesus himself did die. We trust the Scriptures which prophesied of the death of Jesus, the testimony of Jesus himself, the testimony of the eye witnesses, and the testimony of history – both from friend and foe alike. We reject a deceptive God who intentionally misled his own followers who had devoted their lives to him. We find that position untenable, especially considering its source is a man who is six hundred years removed from the actual events. While we can see how Muhammad might have been trying to honor Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) by denying that the Jews gained the upper hand and murdered a prophet, his possible good intentions have led billions of people astray from a plain and simple fact of not only world history, but God’s redemptive history. We pray that all people everywhere, especially Muslims, will come to know this truth.

Lunch & Learn – Justice

We try to have regular gatherings of Christians and Muslims to discuss shared moral values or beliefs as a way to better understand each other and build relationships on common ground. We call these Lunch & Learns and the gathering is what it sounds like. We learn about each other, and then eat lunch! It’s a great time every time! We just recently had one of these Lunch & Learns on the topic of Justice. Here’s a quick recap of what we, as the Christians, had to say.

What is Justice?

Justice is rendering to everyone that which they are due.

So, if you break the law, justice demands that the penalty you are due should be rendered to you. That would be what we might call negative justice. On the other hand if you are a worker and you perform the work you have been hired to do, justice would demand that you be paid according to what was agreed to be rendered. This would be what we might call positive justice.

The nature of justice is relational. Where there is no plurality of parties there can be no such thing as justice. This may seem like common sense but there’s a deeper truth to be learned there.

What is God’s Justice?

God’s justice is when God renders to all that which is due.

God is the one who determines every aspect of what should be rendered, how it should be rendered, and when it will be rendered. In the Bible we read passages such as Deuteronomy 28- 30 which speak of the blessings which God will render to those who obey him and the curses which he will render to those who disobey him (covering both the positive and negative sides of justice). Even Adam, who was told that in the day he ate of the forbidden tree he would die, faced God’s justice when he disobeyed. In fact, just like with Adam, the punishment for even one sin has remained death, per God’s unchanging justice as it was given to Adam in that first command not to eat of the forbidden tree. When we read in Genesis that God allowed for a substitute death of an animal in Adam’s place, this speaks also to the mercy of God who allows his rebellious creation to live and still receive blessing in this life in spite of our sinfulness; until the day we die and are faced with the righteous Judge of all the earth who does not spare the guilty.

God’s justice is part of his very nature. It is uncreated, eternal, and has its being in God. God, being eternally unchanging, has always perfectly executed his justice. But how? Justice is relational in nature. To whom has God eternally rendered that which is due? Is there something outside of God that is co-eternal with him? No, not at all. Instead we, as Christians, know the truth: God is relational in his very being. The one true God is not unitary but triune. A unitary God is incapable of having justice within himself, because he is one in person and one in essence. It is not until he creates something with moral capability that he would be able to have even the capacity for justice. This kind of god (a unitary one) could therefore not be immutable (unchanging) because he would be adding to his character a new trait upon creation; namely, justice. Instead, the triune God who eternally exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (one in essence and three in person) is perfectly capable of rendering justice within himself and thereby remaining unchanging when he creates.

How do Christians see justice?

First of all, we as Christians (as well as all humanity) are charged to render to God that which he is due and to render to others that which they are due. We echo what Jesus said the two greatest commandments are. The first is to love God will all our heart, soul, and mind. The second is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Since none of us is capable of doing these things perfectly, we execute, at best, imperfect justice. But to say that we execute imperfect justice is merely a polite way of saying we are unjust. And the penalty due from God to us for this injustice? Death.  Just the same as it was set up in the beginning with Adam.

Because God is perfect in his justice this penalty which is due to us must be rendered to us. But God, in his grace, allows for a substitute to take what is due to us on our behalf. For example, it does not matter who is fouled in a soccer match, the penalty kick is assigned to the best player. That player takes the place of another and is able to perform on behalf of the entire team. Likewise, God allows what is due to us to be taken by a substitute. Historically this was seen in animal sacrifice, as God did the first one in the garden on behalf of Adam, but saw its ultimate and final fulfillment in Jesus. For more on this substitution, please see our post on Sacrifice.

In keeping with the same example above, we as Christians understand that Jesus lived perfectly on our behalf too. Just as the best penalty kicker is used in soccer to represent the entire team, God has given us Jesus – the only perfect one – to represent what is owed to God on our behalf. Jesus is the only one who both loved God and people perfectly, thusly rendering to God that which is his due on behalf of human flesh.

So, Christians still must render to God and neighbor that which is due. We cannot neglect justice in any way. But because of the perfect life of Jesus on our behalf our imperfect justice is made perfect in God’s sight through the substitutionary life of Jesus.  Seeking to render justice in our daily lives here on earth is an outworking of our understanding what Jesus has done for us – he has won our eternal salvation.  This does not let us off the hook for daily actions, but those daily actions will never add to or take away from what Jesus has rendered to God on our behalf – perfect justice.

Was it just for Jesus to die for sins? (Part 3)

This is our final part of a series where we are exploring a question asked to us during one of our Lunch & Learns. A Muslim neighbor who attended asked how it was just for Jesus to die for sins. In the first post we looked at some of the deeper meanings of the justice of God and his gracious giving of propitiation. In our second post we looked at prophecies about the death of Jesus, and now we will consider what Jesus himself had to say about his own death.

Pleased
Jesus was pleased to die for our sins because that is what pleases the Father, as evidenced in the prophetic witness to the death of Jesus. Jesus said, “And he who sent me is with me, He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him (John 8:29).” If, therefore, Jesus always does what is pleasing to the Father, and the death of Jesus on behalf of sinners is pleasing to God, then why would Jesus not have willingly done this? Jesus himself said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father (John 10:17-18).” Much of the sting of the argument of whether it was just for Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sins revolves around some brand of “cosmic child abuse” (whether those words are used exactly or not). But, when we realize that the Son and Father are of the same essence, we realize that they are working in conjunction with one another. Jesus’s own words demonstrate this clearly. Jesus willingly, under no compulsion, died for your sins and mine.


To look at this a different way, consider the type of sacrifice that Muslims around the world make today. They choose a blemish free animal as their sacrifice. But why? Is God not pleased with any kind of animal, or does God want and expect the best? Would God accept a flawed animal as a sacrifice? Could it have three legs? Cancer? A withered feature? Why do we bring the best we can to God? Because we know that is what God requires. God requires something that is blemish free; perfect.

So, if God was going to present a sacrifice, what would it be like? It would be the best, wouldn’t it? It would be without blemish. It would be perfect. Jesus is the best of any flesh in all of creation because he was perfect, sinless. How much more valuable to God is moral purity than physical purity? It wasn’t physical impurity that caused Adam to be cast from the Garden; it was moral impurity. It isn’t physical perfection that will grant us eternal life; it is moral perfection. But that’s just our problem – we’re all sinners and are morally impure. This is why the Scriptures say, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we might be inclined to offer the best of a flock or herd to God, God has offered the best of humanity on humanity’s behalf. And he has done this because he loves you.

Was it just for Jesus to die for sins? (Part 2)

This is the second part of a series where we are exploring a question asked to us during one of our Lunch & Learns. A Muslim neighbor who attended asked how it was just for Jesus to die for sins. In the first post we looked at some of the deeper meanings of the justice of God and his gracious giving of propitiation. Now we will consider that God’s salvation has come by his own eternal decree, as evidenced by the prophets.

Prophets
When Jesus told his disciples that he had to die he wasn’t making up some new thing about himself. This might get lost a bit when we read the (not original to the text) headings in our bibles. Matthew 16, starting in verse 21, has a heading that reads “Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection”. That’s true, he does foretell both his death and resurrection. But let’s examine this text a little bit closer.


“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Notice something here, and it’s very important, Jesus wasn’t saying this to his disciples, he was showing his disciples that he had to die. What was he showing them from? He was showing them from all the prophets before him, who were prophesying about him, in what we call in our Bibles the Old Testament. Although this will not be an exhaustive list, let’s look at some of these prophecies.


He Must Go To Jerusalem
The prophet Zechariah said, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).” Later God said through Zechariah, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn…On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness (Zechariah 12:1-13:1).”


He Must Suffer Many Things from the Elders and Chief Priests and Scribes
The prophet David said, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’ (Psalm 22:7-8)”
The prophet Isaiah said, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:3).”


He Must Be Killed
The prophet Isaiah said, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:5-9).”


On The Third Day He Would Be Raised
The prophet David said, “I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:8-11).” The apostle Peter expounded on this by saying, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up and of that we all are witnesses (Acts 2:29-32).”


So, we see here that by dying for sins Jesus was fulfilling a purpose that was established and prophesied about long before his incarnation (coming to earth as a human). In fact, the Bible tells us that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Ephesians 1:4). To kick against this is to kick against the plan of God and the words of the prophets.


But, as stated in our previous post, it also speaks to a heart condition. As soon as Jesus began showing his disciples that what was to happen to him had been spoken about by the prophets, something happened which relates well to the heart of this question.
 “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man (Matthew 16:22-23).’”


See, as soon as we begin to think that Jesus dying is unjust or shouldn’t be, we fall into the same error as Peter did in this particular encounter. Yet, Jesus’s rebuke was severe. He said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” It is Satan who does not want Jesus dead. It is Satan who does not want God’s salvation to come. When we throw our lot in with this line of thinking the Bible is clear about where we stand, and it is in opposition to God. Because, as Jesus says, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Our next post will be the third of three posts where we will consider what Jesus’s attitude was about his own death.

Was it just for Jesus to die for sins? (Part 1)

How Is It Just For Jesus To Die For Sins?

This was a question we were asked at our Lunch & Learn on Sacrifice and it’s a very good question. There are a few things to consider in answering this question: 1) God, in his justice, allows for a propitiation; 2) God sent prophets to tell us that Jesus was going to do this; and 3) Jesus willingly died for our sins. Let’s look deeper into these important points as we attempt to understand the justice of God in the salvation he gives.

Propitiation

That’s a word we don’t use every day, but it’s an important word from the Bible. Propitiation is defined as a means of forgiveness, or atonement. It has to do with sin and how God forgives it.  Here’s one place where we see it used in the Bible:

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:22-26).”

So, propitiation is a means of forgiveness. In this text from the book of Romans, the means of forgiveness is the blood of Jesus – meaning the death that Jesus died. As God said to Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life (Leviticus 17:11).” See, it isn’t so much that Jesus shed blood, but that Jesus died. It was the blood of Jesus that made atonement by the giving of his life.

To take this a little further the word that Paul used here that we translate as propitiation is the same word that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) used as the lid, or mercy seat, of the ark of the covenant (see Exodus 25:17-22). This mercy seat is the place where the priest would take the blood of the sin offering for God’s people and sprinkle it for atonement for sins (see Leviticus 16:15-16). Remember, the punishment for sin is death, as it always has been (see Genesis 2:16-17), but God in his mercy and love for us has allowed for a propitiation – something to take our place and satisfy his justice – in order that we do not have to suffer the just penalty for our sins.

And what was the purpose of God putting forth the life of Jesus as a propitiation? It was to show his own righteousness so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Recall from the post on sacrifice that the foundation of God’s throne and the way of the Lord is righteousness and justice. God’s salvation will be consistent with all of his attributes.  There is no attribute of God that is greater than another as it is impossible for God to be “less” in any way. If, in fact, God is the greatest, then his characteristics will be equal in greatness. Thusly,  his salvation is 100% in keeping with both his righteousness and his justice.

It is useful at this point to broaden the question from  “Was it just for Jesus to die for us” to “Was it just for an innocent animal to die for sins.” The purpose of broadening our scope here is to show that the question actually distracts from the heart issue actually at play.  The heart issue here is a problem with God’s justice.  It does not matter whether we are discussing Jesus’ death, animal’s death, or any other living creature’s death.  Seeing as how God is the one who defines all things and is, in himself, truth, he has revealed the truth that a propitiation is acceptable in his justice. This is why it is said that God is both “just and the justifier” – meaning that God keeps his justice but also justifies (makes righteous) as well.  As men and women created by God, we do not get to question morality that God has put in place.  To ask the question of whether it was just for Jesus to die for us is to place our own sense of morality and justice over and above God’s.  This speaks more toward our rebellion from God rather than the morality or immorality of God’s justice.  At first glance, it sounds like a good question. The truth is, though, that asking the question actually reveals a sinful heart in need of forgiveness.

In our next post we’ll address the prophecies concerning Jesus’s death. Please leave us a comment or question! We’d love to continue this conversation.

Sacrifice

The story of sacrifice is a story that goes all the way back to the earliest times of creation. God created Adam and Eve and he placed them in the garden. He called them good and they were holy. God gave them one command, to not eat from a certain tree. But they disobeyed God and sinned against him which changed them from being holy to being sinful. Because of their one act of disobedience they were cast out of the garden. One sin was enough to lose paradise. This raises a basic question: how can we, with many sins, expect to regain paradise and holiness?

The answer is forgiveness. And what we know of God’s forgiveness is that it will be consistent with his character and the way he rules over his creation. God said that the way of the LORD is “by doing righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19).” The Psalmist wrote that God “loves righteousness and justice (Psalm 33:5)” and that righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14). So we’re pretty clear on God’s character. How does God’s forgiveness fit within his character?

If God is perfectly righteous (holy, or sinless) then his forgiveness makes us righteous. And if God is perfectly just, then his forgiveness satisfies his justice. When God gave Adam the command to not eat from the tree, he set forth a law: Do not eat from that tree. What did God say would be the consequence of breaking that law? In his justice he declared the penalty for disobedience to be death. So, when Adam sinned, how did God display his forgiveness?

When Adam sinned, he realized he was naked, and became ashamed. So, he made a covering for himself from leaves in order to cover over his own shame. However, God replaced Adam’s attempt to cover his own shame by covering Adam with the skin of an animal. This was God forgiving Adam. God sacrificed an animal himself and used the skin of that animal to cover over Adam’s shame and demonstrate his forgiveness. God, in his mercy, allowed for a substitute to take the punishment that Adam deserved. God himself sacrificed, killed, an innocent animal in order that his justice would be satisfied. He then used that animal as a sign of Adam’s forgiveness which resulted in his being made righteous by God. Adam did not earn his righteousness and he did not pay the penalty himself. Instead, God did everything on Adam’s behalf.

In this new paradigm of being cast out of the garden, Adam and Eve taught their children what they had received from God. They taught them sacrifice. Two of their children, Cain and Abel, made offerings to God one day. Cain made his offering with wickedness and evil in his heart. Abel made his offering by faith. God accepted Abel’s offering but rejected Cain’s. God accepted Abel’s offering because it was by faith. Interestingly, Abel’s offering was a blood sacrifice. The offering of the person of faith was a blood sacrifice.  The pattern of sacrifice can be seen in these first two generations – blood saves because there is life in blood sacrifice. As God said through his prophet Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life (Leviticus 17:11).”

Years later God’s people were enslaved in Egypt under an unjust ruler. They cried out to God for salvation and he heard his people. God sent punishments upon Egypt, the last of which was to kill the firstborn son of every household. God used his prophet Moses to warn the people of this final punishment and told them that if they sacrificed a lamb and put it’s blood over the doorposts of their houses, then they would be spared from God’s punishment. The blood of the sacrifice saved God’s people from God’s  punishment.

Later in history, God gave his people a king named David. David was also a prophet, and God showed David that there is a deeper meaning to sacrifice. David questioned how the blood of animals could be sufficient to cover sins in any kind of meaningful way. Year after year God’s people had to sacrifice animals. Wasn’t there a better, more permanent sacrifice? God also revealed to David that someone from his household would always rule over God’s people. In time, after God’s people rebelled against God and he punished them, God sent prophets to declare that a king from David’s household would come to save God’s people and rule them forever. This coming king became known as the Messiah.

Around 700 BC God sent a prophet named Isaiah. God spoke through Isaiah that the coming Messiah would be born of a virgin. He also said that the Messiah would be a suffering servant. He would be one who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our sins, and that the punishment that brings us peace would be upon him and by his wounds we would be healed. This pointed to the deeper meaning of sacrifice. Blood from animals had been the accepted sacrifice by God but here we see God revealing that a person would be the accepted sacrifice. How could this be? Well, if we think about what sacrifice does, it takes the punishment that a person deserves and places it on an animal. But, an animal’s blood isn’t the same as a person’s blood, because an animal’s life is not as valuable as a person’s life to God. What’s unique about this coming Messiah is that he would be the only person who God ever says would or should shed blood for the sins of others. No other person would be accepted.

Long after Isaiah, we meet John the Baptist, who was a very important prophet. He revealed who the Messiah was. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared him to be the Messiah and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is the only person whose blood God will ever accept. Jesus was the final sacrifice. Jesus lived sinless. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God that we cannot live. He alone is the righteous man. The blood of the only righteous man was shed for unrighteous sinners. If God allowed for a physically blemish-free animal’s blood to satisfy his justice, how much more the blood of the morally blemish-free man? In this way God’s justice has been satisfied in full. God’s righteous requirement of perfect obedience obtained by the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. God’s forgiveness is offered through the death of Jesus and made sure through his resurrection.

If we could summarize this story, the entire Bible (all of human history, really!), it would be in one verse: Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” What is a wage? It’s something we earn. Do we earn righteousness? Do we earn forgiveness? Do we earn mercy? No. We earn death because we sin.

By contrast, what is a gift? It is something given, not earned. It is given freely by the one who can give it; but it must be accepted. What is God’s gift? Eternal life is the gift of God. But this gift is only given through Jesus. God has given us a gift and all it requires of us is faith in the sacrifice of Jesus. As we see through the story of Abel, God is pleased by faith. We are saved by faith alone, through Jesus Christ alone. This is God’s gift to us. We are saved from God’s punishment by the blood of the Lamb. Our shame of sin is covered by the sacrifice of Jesus. All we have to do is accept God’s gift by faith.