Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 5)

Have you ever understood the Bible's names for God, about how and why God is called Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Have you ever wondered -- or doubted -- whether we can trust
those names?  And by "trust" I mean two things:  the Bible being accurate in its teaching, and trusting God intimately as we come to know him more every day.  I've been trying to understand that myself, and am attempting to explain it briefly here.

So far we've talked mostly about the name Father, and why the Bible describes him that way.  Let's examine, briefly, whether that name includes gender, or male sexuality. We've already said that Jesus called God his Father many times in the Gospels; that God is called the Father of our Lord; and that Jesus said he came to reveal the Father (John 14:9, Matt. 11:27).  In Matt. 23:9 Jesus says to us not to call a human person Father, but why would he say that?  To stop us from projecting human ideas onto God, and polluting our view of him, from two sources:  from elevating a human person too much, and from our notion of fatherhood, however good or bad.  (We've talked already of the difficulty some have of not being able to think of God as Father, because of problems with human fathers.  This is what Jesus rules out here.)

Some say that the name or title "Father" is a way to make male humans more important, and that men wrote the Bible to oppress women.  So then, is the Bible's description of God any different than other religions of the time when it was written?  Here's an extremely brief sketch.  Actually, the writers of the Bible could see many examples in the pagan world around them, of  mythological deities described as being male or female, like humans, and because of their greater powers they misused their male or female qualities worse than the humans did.  Some societies had female gods to worship, but history shows that didn't make the status of women any better.  Because of the broken relations between the sexes in the world around them, people predictably worshiped the mythological gods in broken ways:  there was temple prostitution and all kinds of other horrible activity, in the name of their gods, whether male or female.  The Bible was specifically, carefully, written to exclude all those ideas in referring to the true God.

So what do we come back to?  The God of the Bible, who is described as infinitely loving, giving and concerned for us; who has given himself, in the person of Jesus, to rescue us; and unlike the pagan gods of mythology, doesn't have the weaknesses we do.  We can trust God as Father, so long as we think of him in the way he describes himself and not in other ways.  We'll look at some other ways language is used to describe God -- including some feminine characteristics!-- next time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Immanu-El, part 1

Humans have always had a sense of something greater than ourselves.  "Primitive" civilizations
create lists of gods, usually from the seasons and natural events, and devise ways to appease the anger of those gods.  "Advanced" civilizations reject those gods, explaining natural events by the sciences. 

But the God of the Bible reveals himself as the Creator of all the objects the primitive civilizations worshipped:  sun, moon, stars, etc. This God made humans also, the man from "the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7) and the woman from a rib from Adam's side (2:21-22), to show an intimate connection of being (2:23-24).  The description shows a God who was involved in the welfare of these people he had made, a God who was connected with them and present with them.

Tragedy resulted.  The humans listened to temptation from the serpent, the embodiment of their arch-enemy Satan, who gave them the "gifts" of doubt and desire.  Turning away from trust in their Maker, they rejected the single restriction from God (not to eat of the 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil,' 2:16-17) and broke that intimate connection with him. Even then, God continued to seek them:  "When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees.  Then the Lord God called to the man, 'Where are you?'" (3:8-9).  

God then uttered the first prophecy of the One who would rescue their descendents.  "And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel" (3:15).  Hebrew scholars, and Bible students to this day, recognize this as the first foretelling of the Messiah, who would be wounded but in that wounding would forever crush the power of the serpent.

God continued acting in human history to work out his purpose.  He chose Abraham as the ancestor of a nation, Israel, through which he created the vocabulary of salvation:  sin, sacrifice, the blameless lamb,  the priesthood, the temple and more.  Israel's history shows God pursuing them in love, in spite of their sins, just as he did Adam and Eve, and promising reconciliation.

In Isaiah 7:14 he promises "Immanuel (which means 'God with us')."  The promise that God would be with us again, loving us and walking and talking with us, fills our deepest desire for something meaningful.  It is the true destiny of humanity.  But how could God be with us -- we who are filled with sin and shame?  That's the greatest wonder of all!  We'll look at that next time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Living in the W

It's been a tough year for a lot of us.  My dad had a pacemaker put in, then had complications.  Several of my friends have
illnesses and all the attendant problems like tight finances and too much time tied up in doctor visits.  The Lovely Joanne had a car wreck and is still dealing with it.  Many people we know have lost loved ones, including two in the last three days.  A dear friend and fellow pastor is afraid his wife may have cancer.  My father-in-law has health problems.  And on it goes.

Where does it all end?  When will it be over?  What can we do to make it better?  Why is this happening? 

I don't know the answers to any of those W's but I do know one W that makes the whole thing bearable.  In fact, this W makes it all make sense.  That's the "Who" question -- which is the only place to start, and is the key to the entire puzzle.  In this case, it's Who is in charge?  And the answer is another question:  Who is Jesus? 

Jesus is the Word who was with the Father before creation and still is (John 1:1-4), and who came to be with us (John 1:14), in the flesh with all our same weaknesses and needs (Heb. 2:17) the unique Son of God who gave himself to save us (John 3:16-17).  He's the One the Father sent because we didn't listen to the other messengers very well (Heb. 1:1-2) and he is absolutely of the same being as the Father (Heb. 1:3).  He paid for all our sins on the Cross, willingly (John 19:30) and rose from the grave (John 20:1-10).  He ascended bodily to the Father (Acts 1:9) and is at the right hand of the Father now, ruling the entire universe -- in fact, containing it all in himself and having brought the whole created order back to God in a state of favor (Col. 1:17-23, Heb. 1:3) .  In all those ways, he perfectly represented us, so that when he died, we died and don't fear death anymore, because when he was resurrected, so were we (2 Cor. 5:14-17) and when he ascended to the Father, he took us with him in spirit and we stand before God the Father without a single fault (Col. 1:22) -- totally blameless, in Christ.  Through Jesus we have been adopted into the very household of God for God's glory and this made him very happy (Eph. 1:3-6).  He will return again in glory and finally set everything right: " I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Rev. 21:3-4).  We have the Holy Spirit as our guarantee, living within us every day, as the down payment on the life we've been promised by God through his Son Jesus (Eph. 1:13-14). And Jesus will never leave us, but will be with us to the end (Mat. 28:20). 

That, my friends, is the Gospel.  Now, with all that in mind, what exactly were you and I worried about a few minutes ago?  Whatever it was, Jesus Christ already knows about it; has experienced it in his own body, and knows exactly how you feel; is walking with you through it; and will never let you go.

We need to keep our eyes on Jesus and keep asking the "Who" question, because that one.  Or as I have come to call it, "Living in the W."  Are you there with me?

Saturday, December 8, 2012


In a classic passage in Philippians 2, Paul describes Jesus, who "though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.  Instead, he gave up
his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being" (verses 6 and 7).  The phrase "gave up his divine privileges" (New Living Translation) is from the Greek word "ekenosen" and means "he emptied (himself)."  Paul was describing the self-giving of the Son of God, who was willing to become human -- with immeasurably fewer privileges than his existence in eternity -- in order to bring all humanity into fellowship with himself. 

Without going into all the technical dynamics, (if you want more, visit I'll just say today that this self-emptying isn't a new thing with God.  In the biblical descriptions of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit showing the Triune nature of God, this self-giving is the core of God's being.  In John's Gospel, especially, the Father is shown as being "in" Jesus and vice versa (John 10:38 and 14:10, for instance) -- and the Greek means, literally, "in" as a position relative to the other.  Jesus says "The Spirit...will not speak on his own, but will tell you what he has heard...All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” in 16:13-15.  These sayings tells us that the Father has given -- sent out from himself -- all himself to the Son, and that the Son also gives himself to the Spirit who passes that on to us.

In these and many other scripture passages -- too many to list today -- the nature of God is described, to put it most simply, as "giving".  So for the Son of God to give of himself, becoming human to save us, is to continue the giving nature of who God is, this time toward us.  "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son..." in John 3:16 -- that is the reason we note and celebrate the coming of the Son of God in the flesh (John 1:14) at this time of year. 

The question is, will "ekenosen" describe you and me too?  Will we give "all that we have" to God, so we have room to receive all he gives us?  Or will we continue to be self-absorbed, self-actualized, self-willed and full of ourselves?  God leaves us that choice, because he won't force his love on us.  But the offer has already been made; the Son of God has already given himself for you.  How much of him will you accept?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What Is God's Name? (Part 4)

We've been talking here about God's name as Father (we'll look at God's other names later).  We said that we can let God, as a perfect Father, define
for us what fatherhood should be.  And since none of our physical dads measured up to God's perfect standard, let's recognize that they did "they best they knew how" (Heb. 12:10) and learn to forgive them for being human, however long that takes us.  That way we stop missing out.  Make sense?

Jesus said in Mat. 23:9 "you have one Father, and he is in heaven," and he was specifically taking all our patriarchal ideas of fatherhood and booting them out of the discussion, to focus on who God really is.  In Mat. 11:27, Jesus insists that one of his jobs is to tell us about the Father:  "no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."  So in Jesus we have 'inside information' on God the Father!  And we'll see that our human negative concepts of fatherhood as a closed patriarchal system, or an abusive, angry authority figure, just don't hold up to Biblical scrutiny.

So, is God a Father in the same way as a physical father?  No, it's not the same idea, and we don't think of him creating children like the Greek and Roman gods did.  But to help us understand him a little, God has "commandeered human language and named himself as Father" according to James B. Torrance.  This was a major topic in the church, in the 300's AD.  We began to realize we should be very careful when using words to describe God, since human language is so limited! 

But when we think "theocentrically"  -- by attempting to understand God from his own words -- we see a different picture. God the Father is not simply called "a father" at random.  Jesus calls God his Father about 60 times in the Gospels (half of those in John).  He's "our Father" twice in Isaiah; and eight times in Paul's epistles plus once in 1 Peter, he is called "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."   He's the Father in relationship, because he's the Father of the Son.  This is not the result of a male-dominated set of Biblical writers, but from his own words.

We'll close with this one thought:  God the Father is love (1 John 4:8) and it's clear from Jesus' own words that he loves you and me: "May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me" (John 17:23).  Maybe your own dad knew how to love you well, but your heavenly Father loves infinitely more.  Will you let him love you?