Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Two times in chapter 4 of 1 John, it is said that God is love (v8, 16). The larger context is focusing on the love of God as exhibited by sending of the Son into the world as a supreme expression of love. While the text does not say that God is only love, or that love is God, it is clear that love is so basic and intrinsic to God's very Being that he actually personifies this quality in total perfection. So when we want to know what perfect love is, 1 John is telling us to look to God, and more specifically to look at the gift of the Son.

This is important, because the Christian faith confesses that this Son was both divine and human. There is a sense in which the human nature of Christ is somehow involved in the perfection of love. What does this mean for us? One thing it means is that to the extent that we participate with Christ in authentic humanity, we can exhibit authentic love too. As images of God, love is basic to our constitution as well. We cannot not love, because to do so would be to no longer be human and to eradicate completely God's image in us.

We are made to love, and we are desperate to love. This is both a wonderful blessing and a potentially disastrous curse in a fallen world. It is an enormous blessing to have the capacity and desire to love. Love may not be all we need, contra John Lennon, but we also can't do without it. It's integral to who we are, and there are precious few things in the world more exhilarating, fulfilling, and meaningful than authentic love. It makes us feel whole, and this is no accident since it indicates that we are living an authentic humanity. But in a fallen world, this unquenchable need to love is also dangerous. Our craving for love makes us vulnerable to every perversion of love. All of us love something, usually multiple things. But the things we love, and the way in which we define love, are often polluted and out of step with the authentic love personified in Christ. The extent to which our love mirrors the love of Christ is the extent to which we can rejoice in the intimacy of our union with Christ and the perfect humanity he personifies. In particular, the sacrificial characteristic of Christ's love may be the aspect of perfect love that our culture most needs to rediscover and embrace.

When the culture says that sacrifice is bad, Christ's perfect example of love provides a very different paradigm. If Christians are supposed to be the transformers of culture, there is no shortage of areas in the culture that are in need of transformation. How we define love and what we love the most are certainly on the list. God has shown us what perfect love is, and he has given us the ability to love authentically as his images. What are we waiting for? The world needs to be changed, and we can change it if we not only radically profess Christ on our lips but radically live Christ in our hearts.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Vos on Hebrews

Geerhardus Vos is hardly light reading, and even I find him to be too dense on a fairly regular basis. But I have found that if someone really sticks with him, Vos can yield a lot of insight into how to understand Scripture in a redemptive-historical way. It's hard work, and it doesn't always pay off. But often enough, it does.

Vos really provides some fairly understandable gems regarding the book of Hebrews and its treatment of 'covenant'. Hebrews is the one book of the NT that directly uses 'covenant' language very heavily. For Vos, the deemphasis on covenant in the rest of the NT is the result of a momentous change in the development of redemption. Under the new administration, a person's whole manner of life has become determined by their relation to Christ. In most of the NT, covenant is used to refer to the old administration in contrast with the new, and this use is indeed present in Hebrews as well. Like the rest of the NT, Hebrews is magnifying the contrast between the old Mosaic legislation and the new covenant brought in by Christ. However, Hebrews goes farther than Jesus or Paul in its stress on covenant. Why? Because in Hebrews, 'covenant' becomes a valuable concept that is theologically suggestive. The covenant becomes effective as a result of the death of the covenant-maker. The covenant is certain; the death of Christ inevitably secures all the effects for which the covenant was intended.

One of the main aspects of the covenant idea in Hebrews is that of covenantal fellowship and intimacy with God. The new covenant is the ultimate and final covenant, in that the will and law of God are now internalized in a way that is beyond all previous covenants. This is part of the reason man now has no excuse before God, because he cannot claim ignorance in regards to his covenantal status before God. The new covenant has been written on the hearts of all, so that is a way, everyone is in a covenantal relationship with God in a way that Christ's death certified and solidified. This is a wonderful thing for the believer. It is decidedly not wonderful for the unbeliever.

In addition, Vos is quite good in comparing the Hebrew 'berith' with the LXX use of diatheke as its Greek equivalent. Etymologically, berith does not clearly emphasize the divine sovereignty and will in regulating the religious life of Israel, even though the OT as a whole clearly teaches this. For Vos, the diatheke etymology actually enhances the congruity between the meaning of the word itself and the conceptual idea that is being expressed in berith. Put simply, there is great congruity in the concept of covenant between the OT and NT, even though the etymology is not quite as clean.

Lastly, Vos thinks the author of Hebrews was unusually oriented toward a philosophical approach to revelation. While Paul in particular greatly stresses the practical in his writings, the author of Hebrews brings with him a very well-defined high-level doctrinal conception of the Christian faith. Hebrews is a very mature and thoroughly theological treatise from start to finish. Vos believes that unlike Paul, the author of Hebrews applies the already/not yet eschatology of Paul to the concept of covenant. The new covenant is the world to come, while the present world is equated with the old covenant. Redemptive history in Hebrews is expounded within the concept of covenant, and this makes Hebrews unique. But Hebrews actually goes farther than this. In agreeing with Paul that two ages exist side by side rather than successively, the linking of the two worlds with two covenants helps solve the problem of how the Old can prefigure the New and be identical in substance. For Hebrews, the same world of heavenly spiritual realities which has now come to light in Christ already existed under the course of the old covenant as well. This means that those under the old covenant, even though they were not privy to the grand revelation of Jesus Christ, had access and even communion with the higher world. The relation of the two covenants is not purely evolutionary, but organic. The way of salvation did not somehow change with the coming of Christ. One of the reasons this is so is because of the continuity of covenantal theology that links the OT and NT, while at the same time properly highlighting the staggering move forward in redemptive history through the Incarnation. Good stuff!

Monday, September 11, 2006

The 9/11 Anniversary

I sometimes wonder why humans are so attached to commemorating anniveraries, and whether this attachment is appropriate. But then I remember that God established the Passover for the express purpose of remembering the mightiness of God in delivering his people from the tyranny of Pharaoh. Scripture does indeed provide sanction for the goodness of remembering important events. And so it is that we find ourselves doing this very thing today.

In the days and years after 9/11, many people said that everything had changed as a result of what happened. I was never sure this was true even in the immediate aftermath, and I'm even less sure today. "United We Stand" quickly became "United We Stood", and at least from my vantage point, it didn't take long for much of our thinking and outlook to return pretty much to where it was before. True, some people's sense of security and comfort were seriously rattled. And for them, I think there has been a more lasting affect.

What I take away from 9/11 is the trueness of Reformed anthropology. What we saw that day and in the days that followed was both great dignity and great depravity. Reformed anthropology is famous for affirming the 'total depravity' of man, which means that in every way, the human constitution has been tainted by sin. Man's physicality, emotional state, reasoning faculties, and desires are all polluted. But what is less known is that Reformed anthropology also strongly affirms the dignity of man that results from humanity being made in the image of God. Dignity and depravity coexist in all of our faculties and war with each other constantly. 9/11 was a vivid example of this conflict and warfare; this enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent that Gen. 3:15 prophesied would be the history of humanity as a result of sin.

It is good and right to remember with deep sadness the tragedy that occurred 5 years ago. As a nation and a world, we should grieve with those who were most directly and tragically impacted by what happened. It is a sad day. As a Christian, today makes me long ever more fervently for the new heavens and new earth, where such tragedies will never take place again. Come Lord Jesus.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Some Lessons from Pss. 42-43

I subscribe to the virtually unanimous view that our present day Psalms 42-43 were originally one psalm with the Ps. 42 superscription applying to both. While many analyses have been done on this combined psalm (including one that I did earlier this year), I'd like to limit the scope of this post to a couple of practical application items.

Psalm 42-43 offers a breathtaking movement from doubt and despair to hope and cautious confidence. The first 7 verses offer unrelenting despair and the crushing absence of God. It is not until v8 that there seems to be a genuine turning around of the emotions of the psalmist. A significant change has occurred here and continues into Ps. 43. What is the change?

In my view, what has changed is that the author has gone from soliloquy to dialogue. It is very significant that the first 7 verses offer us a picture of a despairing man who is mainly talking to himself. He is not really talking with God. He is lamenting God's absence and possibly God's judgment, but he is not really voicing his laments to God. Instead, he is wallowing in self-agony. It isn't until v8 that we get a definitive break in this pattern, and the psalmist begins addressing God directly rather than keeping his sorrow to himself. This new pattern escalates in Ps. 43, so we should not be surprised that the end of Ps. 43 sounds almost triumphant, in contrast to the crushing despair of the first half of Ps. 42.

This is critical for us today. Like the psalmist, we often internally contain our concerns, questions, and torments, and choose to enter into ongoing soliloquies with ourselves rather than reaching out to God. This psalm seems to suggest that doing too much of this only increases our level of frustration, bewilderment, and hopelessness. Inner reflection can be a good thing and is something that too many are afraid to enter into at all. But there seems to be a point where such reflection crosses the line into something damaging if it is not released to God. While the questions the author asks to himself, and then eventually to God, are questions many of us have voiced from time to time, the psalm’s stress is not on answering the questions. Instead, the psalm intends to teach that the first step to being satisfied and renewed is not with quick answers to difficult questions, but in faithfully dialoguing with God and trusting him. This requires a long view of suffering that is greatly frowned upon in Western society, but is an approach that is almost always more substantive and transformative than quick fixes. The uncomfortable teaching of this psalm is that while we may want answers on demand, we are unlikely to get such answers quickly. Further, our ability to ever obtain the answers we seek is severely stunted if we choose to remain in soliloquy with ourselves indefinitely rather than communicating to God. The entire tone of the combined psalm changes when the psalmist starts releasing his emotions to God, rather than warring with them all by himself. This is cogent wisdom for us today, especially when we feel overwhelmed with anger or frustration.

Another major implication of this psalm concerns doubt. Many Christians are often taught that it is a sin to be angry with God, or to doubt him. This psalm seems to take issue with that teaching. Rev. 15:3-4 (not to mention Job) is clear that it is out of bounds to question the justice of God, but this is different from experiencing times of doubt and even anger that often results from a lack of understanding why we suffer the way we do. The psalmist is not condemned for feeling what he feels and wondering aloud why God has seemingly abandoned him. This psalm seems to give both comfort and discomfort to those who struggle with doubt and despair. While it is okay to feel these things, it is not okay to wallow in these feelings indefinitely and to shield oneself from God. Legitimate feelings of despair can easily lead to illegitimate feelings of bitterness and defeatism if such feelings are allowed to fester and build through uninterrupted soliloquy rather than released in dialogue with God. One of the great difficulties of the Christian life is to trust God even when we doubt that he is trustworthy. This eventually becomes the outlook of the psalmist, and it is the key to his confidence that he will be delivered from despair. So it will be with us if we take heed of his words.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Carolyn, You're Fired! Time to read Ecclesiastes

Apparently, Carolyn Kepcher was on the wrong side of the table when Donald Trump ended her 15 minutes of fame recently by firing her. This blog entry is not an obituary, but a commentary.

I don't watch reality tv, so I was never attached to The Apprentice and the loony goings-ons that no doubt occurred season after season. But Carolyn Kepcher's unceremonious departure from Trump's inner circle is a very clear object lesson for the rest of us. Put simply, ladder climbing ain't all that. Kepcher's story up until her firing was celebrated as a great success story. She made a ton of money, wrote a book that was successful for about 3 weeks (as most celebrity books are), and she commanded a $25K speaking fee as she gave speeches all across the country. And then, just like that, it's gone.

Now I don't like or dislike Carolyn Kepcher; it's a benefit of not being consumed with a contrived reality show. But her rise and fall mirrors similar rises and falls that have occurred countless times before. Ladder climbing ain't all that. Kepcher's sudden firing demonstrates that an obsession with earthly success (and the fame and stature it sometimes brings) as an end unto itself is little more than chasing after the wind. This doesn't mean we shouldn't work hard, or try to be successful at what we invest our energy in; not at all. What it does mean is that our efforts and our goals need to be properly based on things that will last and cannot be taken away. Money can be taken away. A job can be taken away. A person's power or celebrity status can be taken away. Even freedom can be taken away. And all of these things can be taken away either through our own mistakes, or by circumstances beyond our control. These things are hardly the kind of stable foundation upon which to build anything that will last.

So many of us chase after the wind, even though we know it's a fool's errand. I do it, and so do many others because we convince ourselves that we're doing something more meaningful and tangible that wind chasing. Many people base their day to day living on the stories they've constructed for themselves in order to try and give their lives structure and meaning. Some stories are better than others, in that some stories actually enter the realm of non-fiction rather than just being another addition to the fantasy genre. It's funny how stories that start out on solid footing can so easily morph into fiction when we become enticed by things that are more ethereal than real. It's a great challenge to keep our stories committed to what is real, and to live our lives that way no matter what happens. Earthly success and earthly failure both put the life stories we've constructed to the test, and they help reveal what we're really living for and what values and guiding principles we've really adopted that largely dictate what we do and how we do it. In Kepcher's case, the public reason for her firing is that the celebrity she enjoyed went to her head so that her priorities changed for the worse. I don't know whether this is true or not. I do know that chasing after celebrity is just as ethereal as chasing after cutthroat business success. Taken by itself, it's all just chasing after the wind. Or, as someone much wiser than me once said, "All is vanity."

Introspection is both a great and terrible thing, I've found. Introspection is good in that I don't think I'm living life on the surface, or am embracing superficial and temporal principles that honest introspection will brutally expose. But on the other hand, introspection can also lead to despair precisely because human introspection without divine intervention often turns into a car going down a mountain without any brakes.

Carolyn, and the rest of us, would do well to read Ecclesiastes. As much as any book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes speaks to our wind chasing culture, and shows its folly in spades. Unlike many, I think Ecclesiastes is a very hopeful book, because it stresses redemption and deliverance from the great conundrums of life through a sovereign God who is the keeper of all wisdom. Ecclesiastes really shows us that when God is our boss, we'll never get fired, because eternal security is diametrically different than wind chasing.

I wish Carolyn Kepcher well.