Jesus and Authority

If the “Son” is sent by the “Father,” and if the “Son” comes to do the will of the “Father,” does it not stand to reason that God wishes by this language to indicate something of the authority and submission that exists within the relationships of the members of the immanent trinity?

– Bruce Ware, quoted here (see also here).

It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first.

– J.I. Packer in Knowing God (1973), quoted here.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. …”

– Matthew 28:18 (TNIV)

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:9-11 (TNIV)

So is Jesus the one who submits to authority or the one who exercises it?

A proof of the Virgin Birth?

It is a little past the Christmas season when people might expect to see such stories. But I have only just come across this: a post by Anglican Curmudgeon, written in November this year, called The Physics of Christianity: Frank Tipler on the Virgin Birth.

I have come across Frank Tipler before. He is certainly a mathematical physicist with top credentials, as is clear from the Wikipedia article about him. His best known contribution to physics is his Omega Point Theory, an argument that the universe will end by collapsing into a point singularity. But he is also considered something of an eccentric because he has dared to identify this Omega Point with God!

Back in the 1990s I read Tipler’s book The Physics of Immortality (1994), supposedly written for a “popular” audience but in fact mathematically complex enough that I was glad of my postgraduate studies in mathematical physics. In this book Tipler argues that as the universe collapses into the Omega Point an infinite amount of computer power will be available, and will be used to provide for everyone who has ever lived an eternal life in a perfect, but virtual, universe. The problem for me is, in what way would that simulated future in fact be my future – especially if there is potentially a large, even infinite, number of simulated futures for me?

It seems that Tipler has now written another “popular” book The Physics of Christianity (2007), in which he has gone beyond his earlier claims that physics implies the existence of God and immortality in rather general terms, to more specific claims in which he

identifies the Omega Point as being the Judeo-Christian God, particularly as described by Christian theological tradition.

Anglican Curmudgeon has read this 2007 book (I have not) and describes it as

one of the most remarkable books about Christianity that I have ever read. In fact, the book is so remarkable that I have decided, at the risk of my reputation as a reliable curmudgeon, … to tell you instead about some of the things which this amazing book shows are inescapably correct about traditional Christian belief.

The example of Tipler’s brilliance which the Curmudgeon chooses to highlight in this post (he promises a series of further posts, and has written the first of them) is in fact not a matter of mathematical physics but one of genetics. Now this is not really Tipler’s field, not the Curmudgeon’s, nor mine. But if what Tipler has discovered is indeed correct, it is quite amazing! I must say that it is so amazing that I cannot quite believe it. It is the sort of thing I might expect to find in a cheap thriller, but not in a supposedly non-fiction book by a respected scientist.

This is what Tipler claims to have discovered, from what I can tell from the short extracts quoted in the Anglican Curmudgeon post: the bloodstains on both the Shroud of Turin and on the Sudarium of Oviedo (supposedly respectively the burial shroud and face cloth of Jesus) contain a unique form of DNA, exhibiting both the very rare XX male syndrome (a human genetically female but physically male) and some other unique characteristics which I do not understand. Tipler writes that he found, in raw data from analysis of the bloodstains,

the expected signature of the DNA of a male born in a Virgin Birth!

The Anglican Curmudgeon writes:

Thus The Physics of Christianity not only provides a physical explanation for how the virgin birth reported in the New Testament would be possible, but it also uses the available physical evidence to provide a stunning verification of Tipler’s hypothesis—a verification which is all the more amazing because it is based on reported results that were never properly presented or interpreted by those who obtained them.

It is for this reason alone that I commend Frank Tipler’s book to all who wish to ground their faith on the physical evidence and common sense that God has given us. Professor Tipler is a unique breed: he is someone who has followed the available evidence, and who has worked out the consequent mathematics, to a conclusion which, no matter how much his colleagues might wish to avoid it, shows that:

A. There is definitely a God Who created the universe in which we find ourselves (to be faithful to his proof, I should use the plural, “universes”—but more on that later);

B. This God indeed has an only-begotten Son, Jesus, who together with the Holy Spirit constitute three separate persons forming one indivisible trinity;

C. The Son—Jesus—although existing before (and throughout) all space and time, came to this planet and took on the form of a man, the product of a unique and one-time Virgin Birth; and

D. Evidence for that unique and one-time birth, as well as for His Resurrection itself, has been waiting for nearly two thousand years for mankind to develop the skills and technology needed to assess it.

It is, as I say, a remarkable thesis, in what is an even more remarkable book.

Indeed – if the thesis is in fact true.

The Faith of Christ

There has been quite a storm of blogging about the phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ pistis Christou, literally “(the) faith of Christ”, which is found in a number of Bible passages, including Romans 3:22. Traditionally this has been translated “faith in Christ”. But in recent years many scholars (especially as part of the “New Perspective on Paul” movement), and at least one translation, the NET Bible, have preferred to understand the phrase as “the faithfulness of Christ”. The noun πίστις pistis can indeed mean “faithfulness” as well as “faith”. Also many people consider that the simple Greek genitive construction is more naturally understood as “subjective”, i.e. with Christ as the subject of faith or faithfulness, rather than as “objective”, i.e. with Christ as the object of faith.

But not everyone is happy with this new interpretation, not least the pseudonymous blogger NT Wrong. Now I generally avoid reading pseudonymous blogs, unless there is a good reason for not giving a real name as in the case of Roger Mugs. So I have not read Wrong’s own arguments. But I have read various reactions to them, most notably those of Doug Chaplin, who grants Wrong no mercy, here, here and here. The matter has also been discussed at Better Bibles Blog, in a post which also links to a number of others.

I will not attempt here to settle the question of what the Greek phrase can or cannot mean. If the many scholars who have looked at the issue cannot settle it, then what chance have I? But I will express some more theological thoughts about this matter.

Several blog commenters have questioned whether there are only two alternative understandings, “faith in Christ” and “the faithfulness of Christ”. Indeed there are not. There is a third alternative which I would like to suggest: “the faith of Christ”. And while that English expression could be understood in a rather general way, something like “Christian faith”, the meaning I have in mind is “the faith which Christ had”. That is, I am suggesting that human salvation depends in some sense not only on our faith but on Jesus’ faith.

I thought I had blogged before about Thomas Aquinas’ teaching that Jesus did not have faith, but all I can find is a passing mention in this BBB post. The great mediaeval theologian’s argument was that Jesus as Son of God was omniscient and so had no need for faith. But I see two inadequacies in this argument: firstly, Jesus as a man on earth chose to limit his omniscience and so did know everything about the future; and secondly, the implied definition of faith as intellectual assent to propositions not known to be true is highly inadequate.

Against Aquinas there is a biblical argument, and not only from the phrase I am discussing here. True, I don’t think that anywhere does the Bible speak explicitly of Jesus believing or having faith. Probably the only example of Jesus being the subject of the verb pisteuo “believe” is John 2:24, where in context it means “entrust”.

But it is in Hebrews 12:2, which should be understood as the finale of the great Hebrews 11 chapter on heroes of faith, that we see that Jesus had faith, and how it relates to our own faith. Here we read that Jesus was “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (TNIV). The word translated “pioneer” means something like “the one who opens up a new path”. And so this expression suggests that Jesus was the first to tread the new and better path of faith  (compare 11:40) and to open up the way for others to follow. As the rest of the verse explains, he did this by enduring the cross, “for the joy that was set before him” which he could see only by faith.

On this understanding or model of Jesus’ life and death, as a model or guide for our faith as well as the opening up of a path, it should be clear how πίστις Χριστοῦ pistis Christou can be understood, according to its literal rendering, as “the faith of Christ”. Of course on this model there is no clear distinction between “faith” and “faithfulness”: Jesus’ life of faith meant faithfulness to his calling, and the same should be true of our life of faith. Romans 3:21-22 can then be understood as the righteousness or justice of God being revealed to us through the way in which Jesus lived his life of faith which led him to the cross. This life of faith then becomes an example to us but also more than an example, indeed an atoning sacrifice.

Reimagining Church: the debate continues

Last Saturday I posted some thoughts about the first part of Ben Witherington’s review of Frank Viola’s book Reimagining Church. Since then he has posted parts two, three and four, all long and making a total review of 26,000 words! He has graciously allowed Frank Viola to respond, this time in two parts, another 15,000 words. And he promises one more post from himself and a final word from Viola. I would have liked to comment further on this debate, but in a busy week it has been as much as I can manage to read it all.

For more about the book, see the Reimagining Church website and Frank Viola’s blog of the same name. I wish I had time to read these as well.

I do intend to write more about this in due course, but my life is getting busier at the moment so I can’t promise anything soon.

To keep you all going, an extract from part two of Frank’s response to Ben:

Subordination is mutual in the Godhead. The Father totally gives Himself in His fullness to the Son. That’s why the Son is the Logos, because He contains the Father in His fullness. The Son’s very essence is that of a gift from the Father. How, then, can that not imply some moment of mutual subordination in the Trinitarian dance of love? The Father isn’t saying to the Son, “Hey, I’m here to run your life.” That’s not the giving of a gift. The Father’s relationship to the Son is an act of love, and act of self-giving, of dispossessing Himself for the sake of the Son, who in turn, dispossesses Himself back toward the Father and surrenders Himself to the same Father who in effect surrendered Himself to Him. So there’s a mutual surrender involved. Ben’s rejection of this is at the heart of his view of the Trinity. Functional subordination, then, occurs among all the members of the Trinity, not just of the Son to the Father. It happens in a distinctive way in each case, nonetheless it really happens. The Spirit also subordinates Himself in that He comes to glorify Christ.

Reimagining church without worldly hierarchy

Usually I greatly appreciate what the well known Methodist Bible commentator Ben Witherington III (BW3) writes on his blog – although I don’t always have time to read his longer posts. But I have some serious issues with what he writes in his latest post, the first part of a review of Reimagining Church by Frank Viola.

I haven’t read Viola’s book, and more or less all I know about it comes from BW3’s review. Here BW3 writes quoting a key pasaage:

[Viola] describes very straightforwardly how he reimagines how the church ought to be– “organic in its construction; relational in its functioning; scriptural in its form (aha! it has a form); Christocentric in its operation; Trinitarian in its shape; communitarian in its lifestyle; nonelitist in its attitude; and nonsectarian in its expression.” (p. 26). Now that’s a tall order. Let’s see how he develops these ideas and blueprints for the 21rst century church.

While BW3 appreciates many of Viola’s ideas, he offers sharp criticism of some aspects of them, and especially of Viola’s suggestion that the church should not be hierarchical. BW3 writes:

I also have a problem with those who have a problem inherently with the notion of hierarchial leadership structures, because in fact such structures are Biblical not merely in the OT, but in the NT as well, as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear.

Much later in the review he returns to this issue, and roots it in the doctrine of the Trinity:

the blueprint Godhead provides us with a reason to expect that in the church there will be a hierarchial pattern of ordering things. … it will involve a leader and follower, shepherd and sheep, pastor and congregation, apostle and co-workers hierarchy— something Frank wants to avoid at all costs, seeing it as either inorganic or simply fallen human structures.

But surely BW3 gets this wrong. The Bible, in the Old Testament as well as the New, offers stinging criticism of worldly models of hierarchy. When the Israelites asked for a king, this was God’s response through Samuel:

Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

1 Samuel 8:10-18 (TNIV)

But, despite “you yourselves will become his slaves”, the people insisted on having a king, so God granted their request (8:19-22), not because hierarchical leadership was his plan but because he respected his people’s wishes. Even then, God had special requirements for the king of Israel, to keep him humble and not like the kings of the surrounding nations,

so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:19-20 (TNIV)

So it was really nothing new when Jesus gave his own teaching which effectively outlaws hierarchical structures among his disciples:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45 (TNIV)

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. …”

Luke 22:24-27 (TNIV)

Indeed Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also modelled it, in his life as well as in his death:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. …”

John 13:12-17 (TNIV)

So, in the light of this fundamental teaching from God spoken out by Moses, Samuel and Jesus, what do we make of the evidence BW3 has in mind, that “hierarchial leadership structures … are Biblical … as documents like the Pastoral Epistles and Acts make clear”?

First, as always we have to be very careful about taking what we read about what happened in the New Testament church as normative. The early believers sometimes got things wrong, and were corrected for it. This means that we should always give priority to specific teaching of Jesus and the apostles over following examples recorded without explicit teaching to commend them.

Nevertheless, we must accept that the apostles did arrange (here I deliberately use a very generic word) that certain people would have leadership positions, such as being elders, in local churches, and Paul explicitly taught Titus to make similar arrangements (Titus 1:5). Since Paul called himself “a slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1, literally, Greek doulos), it is easy to infer here a hierarchy: Jesus > Paul > Titus > elders > ordinary church members.

But is this what the Bible really teaches? No, because Paul’s instructions must be understood in the light of the teaching of Jesus which I already quoted. And this was Paul’s understanding; in accordance with Jesus’ words “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” Paul called himself a slave of Jesus but a servant (diakonos) of the church (Colossians 1:24-25, compare 1 Corinthians 3:5, also 2 Corinthians 4:5 which uses doulos), and he notes that even Jesus took the very nature of a slave (doulos) (Philippians 2:7). Peter appealed to elders to be “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3, TNIV).

So what are the models of leadership which are commended in the Bible? As we have seen, clearly not the hierarchical model as understood by “the kings of the Gentiles”, in which each person is in effect the slave of the one in authority over them. I find the following models (I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive):

  • Leader as steward or manager (oikonomos): This important model is obscured in many modern Bible translations, but the idea goes right back to the creation (Genesis 2:15) and is found in Jesus’ parables (Luke 12:42-46, 16:1-8) and in Paul’s instructions for overseers (Titus 1:7; also 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, 9:17, Ephesians 3:2,9, Colossians 1:25, 1 Timothy 1:4, 1 Peter 4:10). The point here is that leaders are commissioned by God to do his will, and have no independent authority to impose on the people entrusted to their care.
  • Leader as shepherd or pastor: This image also goes back to the Old Testament, with God as the shepherd of his people (Psalm 23:1) and human leaders also as shepherds who are held accountable by God (Ezekiel 34). In the New Testament Jesus is the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:4, John 10:14) and elders in the church are shepherds (or “pastors”, the same word in Greek) of the flock that has been entrusted to them (1 Peter 5:2-3). This model is similar to that of the steward.
  • Leader as father or mother: This is a significant biblical model of leadership, and one which goes back to all eternity in that it is a Father and Son relationship, not one of master and slave, which is found in the Trinity. (This is the answer to BW3’s attempt to root hierarchical subordination in the Trinity; a son is not just in submission but he is also the heir to his father and so is or should be treated with respect and love by the father.) In the Old Testament authority was primarily through extended families known literally as “fathers’ houses” (Exodus 6:14, Numbers 1:2 etc, see KJV). The judge Deborah was called “a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7). Paul made use of both of these metaphors: “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you … For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children …” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8,11), and he called Timothy and Titus not his servants but “my true son” (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:4). Paul also saw the church as a family (patria) under one Father (pater), God (Ephesians 3:14-15) Nevertheless Jesus cautioned against human use of the title “Father”, along with “Rabbi” and “Teacher”, because of the way such titles are abused by “those who exalt themselves” (Matthew 23:8-12).
  • Leader as servant or slave: We have already looked at this one, so I will reiterate it simply by quoting Paul’s instructions for relationships between Christians which must include those between leaders and those they lead:

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a human being,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:5-8 (TNIV)

Lambeth creed drops "and the Son"

In a comment on another blog a few days ago I referred to the infamous filioque addition to the Nicene Creed, or, more correctly, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. The original 4th century version of this Creed, adopted at the Council of Nicea and revised at the Council of Constantinople, affirms that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”. In Western churches by the sixth century this had been changed to “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, by the addition of the Latin word filioque “and (from) the Son”. This is the form normally used in Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgies. But the addition has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox churches and has become a major point of contention between eastern and western churches.

Pat Ashworth, reporting in the Church Times Blog from the Lambeth Conference, writes the following in describing the opening service in Canterbury Cathedral:

Then the Nicene Creed: it caused us to stumble, said as it was in its ancient form, without the phrase, “and the Son”.

So why was the filioque clause omitted from the Creed as recited in Canterbury? I suppose that it was because of a resolution from a previous Lambeth Conference, which unlike the present one actually discussed substantive matters and made decisions. This is from section 5 of Resolution 6 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference, the resolution about Anglican-Orthodox Relations (Wikipedia‘s link to the Anglican Communion website is broken, I have given the current link):

Asks that further thought be given to the Filioque clause, recognising it to be a major point of disagreement, … recommending to the provinces of the Anglican Communion that in future liturgical revisions the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed be printed without the Filioque clause.

So I suppose whoever designed the liturgy for the Lambeth Conference is at least following the conference’s own resolutions. It would also appear that in the twenty years since 1988 not many provinces have actually implemented this resolution, for many bishops stumbled over the revised wording. Indeed in the Common Worship liturgy of the Church of England, “Copyright © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England, 2000-2006”, the form of the Nicene Creed without the filioque is specified only as

may be used on suitable ecumenical occasions.

And as such occasions are rare it is not surprising that even most Church of England bishops stumbled at this point.

The comment I made a few days ago makes an argument from Revelation 22:1 that the Holy Spirit does indeed “proceed” (whatever this means – the Greek word simply means “go out”) from the Father and the Son, thus giving a theological justification for the filioque clause. So I would have to suggest that the filioque clause is theologically justified. However, the Anglican Communion’s position, as reflected in the 1988 Lambeth resolution, is not rejection of the theology of the filioque. The position seems to be that the proper text of the Nicene Creed is what was agreed at the Ecumenical Councils including both eastern and western churches, rather than in subsequent decisions of the western church alone. On this basis I can accept the creed without the addition – although I too would be likely to stumble over it.

Todd Bentley follows Jesus' example

A certain “Doozie”, apparently of Arkansas, USA, who has a private blog (what’s the point of giving me that URL, Doozie?), has commented a few times on this blog in the last day or so. His or her name means “Something extraordinary or bizarre”, and that is a good description also of the content of this comment, which includes the following:

Show me in the NEW Testament where it supports an evangelist/prophet/disciple or anyone else standing in front of large masses conducting themselves as a Leader…….that is focusing only on healing and not repentance. The example of Jesus doesn’t count.

Yes, he or she, apparently a Christian, wrote “The example of Jesus doesn’t count.” I am gobsmacked! Sorry if this doesn’t sound too “Gentle”, but Christian “Wisdom” requires that I correct this amazing error, not because the mysterious Doozie makes it but because this attitude of rejecting Jesus’ example seems to lie behind much of the criticism of Todd Bentley.

In an early post on this blog, nearly two years ago so long before the Lakeland outpouring, I wrote that Jesus is Our Fully Human Example. As I argued in that post, Jesus carried out all of his ministry as a human being filled with the Holy Spirit. That implies that we as Christians should expect to be able to do all the same things that he did – although if we are crucified it won’t have the same significance as Jesus’ crucifixion. We are not perfect and so will not follow Jesus’ example perfectly, but our aim should be perfection according to the model which Jesus taught us (Matthew 5:48).

If we look at Jesus’ ministry, we see a man who started out on his ministry by preaching and teaching (Mark 1:14-15,21-22) and building a team around himself (1:16-20). But he soon found himself healing and casting out demons (1:23-31). Indeed that very first evening of his public ministry he found himself as the focus of a large healing meeting (1:32-34), “standing in front of large masses … as a Leader”. The “Capernaum Outpouring” had begun! But Jesus was concerned to meet a broader need than just in one small town, so he starting a touring ministry of healing – and of asking those who were healed to look for authentication of their healing (1:35-45). Within a few days the crowds had become unmanageably large, but he had also attracted the attention of critics (2:1-12). Soon, despite there being no TV or Internet in those days, his ministry was bringing in international visitors, with people travelling as much as a hundred miles from Idumea, probably on foot, for healing (3:8). At this point he commissioned others in his team, initially 12 and later 70 or 72, to broaden his ministry, and imparted to them the power and authority to heal and cast out demons (3:14-15, Matthew 10:1, Luke 9:1-2,6, 10:1,9) – a ministry they continued after Jesus’ death and resurrection (Mark 16:20, Acts 5:12-16).

Few people alive today are following these aspects of Jesus’ example more precisely than Todd Bentley. He started as an evangelist but soon found himself at the centre of crowds seeking healing. And by the power of God he was able to provide this healing, not perfectly as Jesus was because he is imperfect, but enough to convince crowds to come back for more. For years Todd, like Jesus, has travelled from place to place. He stayed in Lakeland for a time as this allowed his message to get worldwide coverage through TV and the Internet. From this base he has commissioned many others to take his message and his healing power throughout the world. But of course he has attracted his critics. Eventually Jesus’ critics had him crucified. I hope and pray that Todd won’t meet a similar fate! But I also hope and pray that he, like Jesus, will remain steadfast in the face of criticism to complete the ministry which God has for him.

Todd, like Jesus, has encouraged those who are healed to get proper evidence of this. And he has provided this evidence to the press, for example in a binder full of medical records which was given to ABC’s “Nightline” programme. It is sad, but understandable in a litigious age, that doctors are reluctant to confirm healings. But as Christians we should not depend on such confirmation, especially when it implies that we trust the non-Christian media more than the reports of our Christian brothers and sisters. In John 20:26-29, whereas Jesus graciously gave Thomas the verification he required of the resurrection, he implicitly rebuked him and blessed those who believe without demanding proof. Similarly, we should not insist on this kind of verification of God’s works. We should rather trust what we believe God is doing, and allow the Holy Spirit to verify its truth to our hearts.

But God does graciously provide some evidence. TC Robinson has posted a testimony of partial healing from a medical professional. Also I found the following in Todd’s book “Christ’s Healing Touch”, volume 1 (Fresh Fire Ministries 2004, ISBN 0-9736387-0-2), pp. 296-297, concerning Todd’s mission to India in 2004:

Doctor Rod Thompson, a medical doctor from the Pacific North West in the USA, was able to check and document the validity of many healing testimonies. If this procedure does not convince the skeptic, nothing will. Again and again, after examining the people the doctor verified Jesus Christ still heals today. Here is part of his report:

“Todd had called out a word of knowledge for a blind 13 or 14-year-old girl. A 13-year-old girl came for prayer. I examined her eyes with an ophthalmoscope and found a dense cataract in the left eye. She reported that she was totally blind in that eye. After Todd prayed for her, she reported partial sight. I re-examined the eye and to my amazement, the cataract looked like it had broken into several pieces. Medically, this does not make sense, but that is what I observed. I believe God was breaking up the cataract and restoring her sight. …”

In the book there is a picture of Dr Thompson examining an Indian woman. Presumably he could be traced and asked for an independent copy of his report.

Jesus also said:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 your enemies will be the members of your own household.’

37 Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10:34-39 (TNIV)

In his own day, and indeed ever since, this Jesus who preached peace and reconciliation has been a cause of strife and division, within nations and even families. This was necessary in order to separate the true people of God from those who, while claiming to know him, would not accept the messenger he sent. And it seems that Todd is following this aspect of Jesus’ example as well. He has become a cause for division within the church, the family of God.

Now I would not want to suggest that Todd’s ministry has the same significance as a cause for division as Jesus’ ministry. But I might suggest that there is a real analogy between the way that many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time rejected his ministry and the way in which many Christians today reject new ways in which God is working in the world. This situation has been foretold in the Bible:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, … 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. 9 But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.

2 Timothy 3:1-2,5,8-9 (TNIV)

Today there are both Bible deists and people who claim to be charismatics who presume to pontificate on what God can and cannot do today. Some of them assert principles such as that God cannot do anything which he isn’t recorded as doing in the Bible. Where did that come from? Not from God, who said

See, I am doing a new thing!

Isaiah 43:19 (TNIV)

– ironically the one thing God did in the Bible which these people don’t allow him to do today – nor from Jesus, who said

Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

John 14:12 (TNIV)

Christian ministers today can do different things, greater things than what is recorded in the Bible, because Jesus is risen and ascended to the Father.

Among Jesus’ critics were those who accused him of ministering by the power of demons (Matthew 12:24). This is part of his response to them:

Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 12:32 (TNIV)

I hope and pray that this will not be the fate of those who reject the working of the Holy Spirit in these days. Instead, I long to bring them back to the truth about what God is doing today, following James’ final exhortation:

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring them back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5:19-20 (TNIV)

Another take on the Ascension

I wrote about the Ascension on Ascension Day, last Thursday. But it was no surprise to me that my own church seems to have completely ignored the Ascension this year – no special services on Thursday, no mention on the following Sunday, except possibly at the one of three services which I did not attend.

However, many churches marked the Ascension yesterday, and several bloggers who are also pastors of some kind have blogged their sermons. I won’t link to these as I don’t usually read sermons posted on blogs.

But I did read Maggi Dawn’s short homily, with its charming story about the Ascension, which well illustrates her point:

It’s a common mistake in Sunday School theology to make the Ascension sound like the moment when earth and heaven are separated from each other… as if Jesus looks back at the messy earth, post resurrection, and says, “job done, I’m out of here.” A view of the Ascension that separates God from us, heaven from earth, is a woeful theology, and misses the balletic beauty and completeness of the Easter season. … it was only by leaving the earth that Jesus could become permanently present with all of us. … the disciples stood there gaping at the sky hoping he would come back, when what they need to do was go and wait in the Upper Room like he’d told them, so that he could send them his Spirit.

Why the Ascension was necessary

Today, May Day, is also Ascension Day, in the western church calendar. The pagan and Christian festivals coincide today for the first time in nearly a century, because Easter was exceptionally early this year, and because it is always on the fortieth day after Easter (based on Acts 1:3 and counting inclusively) that the church marks the Ascension to heaven of the risen Jesus. And because this fortieth day is not a Sunday, the Ascension is often ignored by the church, perhaps marked by a poorly attended midweek service, but not taught about in a prominent way.

The Ascension is the one known incident in Jesus’ life which is not definitely reported in any of the four gospels. The mention in Luke 24:51 is both textually and contextually rather doubtful. But it is clearly narrated in Acts 1:1-11. It is also a difficult doctrine for modern Christians, because it seems to imply a rather primitive worldview that heaven, the home of God, is literally in the sky. We are used to artistic representations based on that worldview, but we find it hard to believe that they represent what really happened.

One such representation illustrates Michael Barber’s post Five Reasons the Ascension Was Necessary. In this post Michael follows up earlier seasonal posts on the Cross and the Resurrection with a similar summary of Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on the Ascension. Here are his five points:

  1. The Ascension helps foster faith in Christ;
  2. It inspires hope;
  3. It impels us to grow in charity (I didn’t understand the connection here);
  4. It helps us grow in our reverence for Christ;
  5. In it Jesus enters into heaven with our humanity.

I would say that here there are three or four reasons why the Ascension was helpful, and one, the fifth, why it was necessary for the completion of our salvation. For indeed it was necessary for Jesus, the pioneer or trailblazer, and perfecter, of faith (Hebrews 12:2), to open the way for our redeemed humanity to be taken up along with his humanity into God’s presence.

Michael finishes with this quote from Aquinas:

Christ’s Passion is the cause of our ascending to heaven, properly speaking, by removing the hindrance which is sin, and also by way of merit: whereas Christ’s Ascension is the direct cause of our ascension, as by beginning it in Him who is our Head, with whom the members must be united.

But let’s not think of the Ascension as Jesus being taken from the earth into a heaven situated in the sky. Under point 5 Michael quotes Aquinas quoting Ephesians 4:8-10. This passage is perhaps the clearest biblical teaching on the meaning of the Ascension, and shows that Paul’s worldview is not the “primitive” one that Jesus went upwards to a heaven in the sky. For it teaches that Christ

ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.

Ephesians 4:10 (TNIV)

So we should not think of the risen and ascended Jesus today as having gone away to some distant heaven far above us in the sky. This is not the time referred to in Mark 2:20 and parallels, when the wedding guests will fast because the bridegroom has been taken from them. No, the outcome of the Ascension is that the risen Jesus is with us always (Matthew 28:20), wherever we go, because he fills the whole universe. This outcome is confirmed by the pouring out, ten days later at the feast of Pentecost, of the Holy Spirit, who is the agent through whom the continuing presence of Jesus is made manifest in his people.

So let’s not forget about the Ascension of Jesus, neither because it took place mid-week nor because we are embarrassed by how it has been depicted in art. Instead, let us celebrate this day as assuring us that our humanity is fully acceptable in God’s presence and that Jesus is with us always and wherever we go.

At the Last Supper, did Jesus know he would rise again?

An interesting question has come to my mind in the renewed discussion on whether the risen Jesus has blood. To a slightly off topic question about the Last Supper from Rick Ritchie I gave an answer on which I am now expanding.

Rick thought it strange that Jesus would ask his disciples to do something in memory of his death before that death actually happened. I disagreed, writing:

I don’t see an inherent contradiction in the disciples being asked to repeat this in remembrance of him. I can quite imagine for example a dying old man taking his children to his favourite place and asking them to gather there regularly to remember him after he has gone. Similarly with Jesus’ Last Supper, on the understanding that he knew he was about to die.

But this question then occurred to me:

Would Jesus have said this if he had been sure at the time that he would rise again?

That is, would Jesus have asked his disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine in remembrance of him if he had known that his death was only a temporary matter, for a few days? Continue reading