Congratulations to our five winners from last week’s book giveaway.
- Bo Bowman
- Jerry Goodwin
- Trisha Priebe
- Mark Williams
- Jason Woelm
Your books are in the mail. And thanks to all who commented on the post.
From time to time publishers send me free books in the hope that their books will be reviewed in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal. Some of these end up being reviewed in the journal, but others do not. Right now I have five books published by Crossway sitting on my desk ready to be given away. Here are the titles:
Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross
Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word
Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson, ed., Fallen: A Theology of Sin
Vern Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God
David Wells, God in the Whirlwind
In order to have a chance to win one of these books, you just need to leave a comment on this post indicating which book you’d like to win. This Friday afternoon (April 15), we’ll randomly select five winners to receive the book they requested. Winners will be contacted by email, and then the winners will be announced on the blog.
In perhaps John Lennon’s most famous song, “Imagine,” he calls people to envision a world that would be at peace—where “the world will be as one.” He views certain ideas or beliefs as currently standing in the way of this utopia, including countries, religion, and possessions. But the first obstacle he names is belief in an afterlife:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
These lyrics reflect a common sentiment: believing in things like heaven and hell only lead to conflict. If people stopped thinking some of us are going to heaven while others are going to hell, we could all get along.
Why are beliefs in heaven and hell blamed for conflict? Perhaps it is their connections to religions, which are often blamed for the violence and fighting in our world. Perhaps it is the idea that believing you are going to heaven while someone else is going to hell leads you to be arrogant and hateful towards others. Perhaps it is the idea that focusing on the afterlife makes people not care about this present world.
Rather than trying to answer all of these potential reasons, let’s take a moment to actually imagine that there is no hell. This life is all there is, and when you die you cease to exist. Is that a better reality? Is the world better if there is no hell?
Some people may prefer this reality. Some may want no hell because they hate the idea of loved ones being in a place like hell. But others would love for there to be no hell because that would mean they could do what they want without fearing any consequences.
So what happens when people stop believing in hell? Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who was tortured under the Soviet Regime, shares what he saw was the result of denying the existence of hell.
The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe. When man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil, there is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, “There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I have heard one torturer even say, “I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.” He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners. (Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Co., 1967, 1998), 36.
Let’s consider one person who did not believe in heaven or hell: Mao Zedong. As a young man he wrote: “Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me….People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.” [Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 13]. And he lived out his philosophy. He refused to visit his mother on her deathbed because he was concerned it would leave him with an unfavorable image of her (p. 18). He abandoned his second wife (his first wife had died about a year after they were married) and three children in order to advance his military career, then married his third wife less than four months later. Later, his second wife was executed in revenge after Mao attacked the village where she lived (80). He declined to visit his third wife after she was nearly killed by a bomb because he was “tired” (149). The hardships he forced his third wife to experience eventually led to a mental breakdown (197). As the leader of the people, he confiscated private property whenever he wanted in order to build multiple expensive private residences, rarely ever visiting them after they were built (p. 193).
Ultimately, he was responsible for the death of over 70 million people during “peacetime,” many of them starving because Mao confiscated food as payment in order to buy military weaponry (p. 3). Yet, as he neared the time of his death, he was able to make deals so that his fourth wife and other high ranking officials would be punished for his evils in this world (609-10). Thus, he died a relatively peaceful death, without facing any real consequences for his atrocities in this life. And if there’s no hell, he never faced any justice.
What is often lacking in discussions of hell is the issue of justice. Crime sometimes does pay. The good die young, while evil men live long and prosperous lives. Elderly people are robbed of their retirement by deceptive schemes, while those who devise these schemes enjoy their ill-gotten gain. Innocent people are sexually abused, often for years, while their abusers remain respected and free in the community. People go on shooting sprees in schools, set off bombs in public places, and commit genocide. And without hell, many of these people would get away with their crimes. The cries for justice from those who have been abused by wicked and powerful people would go unanswered.
Imagine there’s no hell. Then thank God there is.
Once again the anniversary of Christ’s death is opening up the question whether it is proper to say that God died on the cross, with good men leveling arguments at and past one another. Some argue that God, being immortal (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; etc.), by definition cannot die. Others, citing passages like Acts 20:28 and Galatians 2:20, which actually state that God died, conclude oppositely.
They can’t both be right, and the Bible is never wrong, so how do we achieve resolution? I’d like to suggest that the starting point for resolution necessarily begins with theological definition. What exactly does it mean for God to die? Some theses for consideration:
- All agree that when Christ died, the Second Person of the Godhead did not cease to exist, but of course death never means annihilation anyway, so this resolves nothing.
- We must also agree that Christ did not cease to be God when he died, or else his death would have no value for his people. Only an infinitely holy divinity could bring infinite value to Christ’s sacrifice. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
- For the same reason, we must agree that Christ’s humanity and divinity were not divorced from each other on the cross. Christ is indivisibly both God and man, with neither division of his person nor conflation of his natures.
- We must further be careful not to affirm that the Trinity itself was in breach or suspended for a period of time while Christ was on the cross. God is eternally, immutably, and indivisibly Triune, and cannot be otherwise.
- When God “forsook” Christ and poured out wrath upon him, Christ personally experienced that wrath in his indivisible person, effectively knowing death in an experimental way apart from which God could not have known it.
- This forsaking falls short, however, of an inter-Trinitarian “estrangement.” God did not viscerally hate Christ on the cross—God is impassive and incapable of such angst. Nor did they “lose fellowship” with each other (whatever that means). His was a dispassionate and judicial wrath that in no way interrupted the stream of eternal and necessary inter-Trinitarian love and delight that each person of the Trinity has in the others. Without this, again, God would not be God (John 10:17).
So may we say that Jesus the man died? Absolutely. His material and immaterial were disjoined, the former being entombed and the latter dismissed to go elsewhere.
May we say that Christ the God-man died? An equally firm “Yes.” The hypostatic union is such that the experiences of the one person can never be partitioned off into distinct experiences of his respective natures.
May we then say that the Second Person of the Trinity died? Absolutely not. God is immortal. While it might be said that God knew death by experience through the hypostatic union in a way that he could not have experienced it apart from that union, we cannot say that he died—at least not without gutting the idea of death of all its known meanings.
Those of you who know me know that I don’t like to self-identify as an evangelical. The label has some usefulness, of course. Were I to use it, the label would inform people that I hold to inerrancy in some form. It would inform people that I am not a card-carrying devotee of mainstream Protestant denominationalism—at least as my first family. And it likely would still communicate that I am not a Modernist: I still accept the “fundamentals” of the early 20th century as binding, whether or not I regard them as particularly urgent. Using the label might communicate slightly more to evangelical “insiders,” but not a whole lot.
For anyone who is not an evangelical insider, being evangelical has for decades communicated primarily something about one’s view of culture and society. It meant that one is Neo-Kuyperian. To be Neo-Kuyperian (at the risk of offering a woefully simplistic gloss) is to blur the lines of distinction between common grace and special grace, using each with little restraint in the service of the other. Civil/secular society is to be domesticated and manipulated to serve the Church and its many causes; the prospering Church reciprocates by throwing its collective shoulder into redemptive or “faith-based” solutions to the many problems facing civil/secular society—war, poverty, racism, injustice, and concern for cosmic renewal.
For about the last half-century, we could count on evangelicals to vote pretty much as a bloc for candidates who promised to advance Christian concerns. The problem of abortion, especially, spurred evangelicals to vote “pro-life,” and the problem of homosexual marriage, more recently, spurred them to vote “pro-family.” Of course, not all evangelicals were Neo-Kuyperian, and even those who were could be teased away from their assigned voting bloc by “lesser” socio-economic concerns; still, this was the reputation that the evangelicals earned over time.
Donald Trump’s popularity among Republicans generally and among evangelicals specifically defies this pattern. Few know and fewer care about Trump’s views on abortion or homosexuality. Indeed, whether he is conservative in any sense (social, fiscal, foreign policy, etc.) seems totally irrelevant. How do we explain this? If I can hazard a guess, I would say that more and more evangelicals each voting cycle view Neo-Kuyperianism as a lost cause. They’ve not yet reached the tipping point (it still appears as though Rubio and Cruz collectively still have more support than Trump), but the threshold is not far away.
So what are the disenfranchised evangelicals doing? They are becoming fearful, angry, and even belligerent toward the politically correct machine that is creeping inexorably toward them, threatening to destroy all they have built. And Trump not only offers a garish and realistic picture of that threat, but also promises to wreak havoc on the machine. That is his one “virtue,” it seems, and that virtue appeals to a great many.
What I want to do in this post, then, is not to promote any one candidate (and, incidentally, we won’t allow this to happen in any discussion that might follow). But since this is in part a Christian/evangelical phenomenon, it is to that degree a theological phenomenon—whether a conscious or an unconscious one. And it behooves us to become conscious of the theological nature of not only our personal voting proclivities, but also those of the churches we serve.
“You can’t legislate morality.” I see this phrase come up in often in discussions of the government’s role in moral issues. Whether debating previous laws against adultery or current laws about drug use or marriage, many people argue that the government has no ability to dictate right or wrong.
I think part of the sentiment behind the statement is true: you cannot transform people through laws. The only way to truly bring about change is through God’s work of renewing hearts and minds. In that sense, you cannot make people moral through legislation.
However, the idea that “you can’t legislate morality” is mostly wrong. First, it is wrong because one of government’s primary God-given roles is to restrain evil and promote good (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:1-5; 1 Pet 2:14; 1 Tim 2:1-2). God instituted government as a means of maintaining morality. Second, because many of our laws are directly tied to morality. Laws against murder, theft, and rape are pretty clear examples. But other laws indirectly flow from moral understandings—the particulars of laws concerning divorce, adoption, unemployment, building codes, etc. flow from what is considered right or wrong.
In his book Politics, Wayne Grudem offers a brief reminder on the role the government plays in shaping morals as one means of highlighting how important it is for believers to work to try to get the right people into government.
Governments have an immense influence on the conduct of people in a society. The psalmist knows that there are “wicked rulers” who “frame injustice by statute” (Ps. 94:20)—that is, they pass laws to enable wrongdoing! Isaiah says, “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression” (Isa. 10:1). Another psalm implies that evil rulers can influence people toward wrongdoing, because it implies that if “the scepter of wickedness” (a symbol of authority held by wicked rulers) ever would “rest on the land allotted to the righteous,” then there is much greater likelihood that the righteous would “stretch out their hands to do wrong” (Ps. 125:3). Sometimes governments can pass laws that authorize horribly evil deeds, as when Haman persuaded King Ahasuerus to sign a decree that all the people in the kingdom of Persia could “annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day” and then “plunder their goods” (Esth. 3:13).
This is one reason why Paul encouraged Christians to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions,” so that Christian believers “may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). Once again, the implication is that good rulers can influence a nation toward good conduct, while evil rulers can encourage and promote all sorts of evil conduct among their people.
In part, the influence of government comes by personal example….
Another reason that government influences conduct is that laws have a teaching function. For many or perhaps most of the people in a society, if the government passes laws that say something is legal, people will also think that it is morally right. If the government says that something is illegal, then many people will think that it is morally wrong. This is especially true for people who do not seek moral guidance from the Bible, but it can also be true for Christian believers.
The teaching function of law is one reason why there are still so many abortions in the United States, for example. Many people take the easy way out and reason that if the government allows something, society must think that it is morally right or at least morally permissible. So they decide to have an abortion, perhaps even going against the quiet inward voice of their conscience. But if there were laws prohibiting people from taking the lives of preborn children, then many of these same people would find that their conscience agrees with the law and would support it and think that it is right.
To take another example, my own conversations in the state of Arizona (where I live) suggest to me that the large majority of evangelical Christians there would think it perfectly natural and morally right for Christians to own a gun for purposes of self-defense in case of an emergency. But I suspect that a similarly large majority of evangelical Christians in England (where I have stayed many times for study or for teaching) would think it morally wrong for Christians to do this. I do not find this surprising, since the laws of England make it nearly impossible for private citizens to own guns, but the laws and customs in Arizona make it very easy for private citizens to do so. The laws have a teaching function, and they influence people’s ideas of right and wrong.
The same considerations apply to people’s attitudes about same-sex “marriage,” the proper grounds for divorce, the age at which it is appropriate for children to drink alcoholic beverages (compare laws in the United States with much more liberal laws in Europe), the place of secular religious speech in public activities, and so forth. Laws have a teaching function with respect to the general population.
In addition to this, what the government considers legal or illegal affects what is taught in schools to the children in any society. Recent court actions that legalized samesex “marriage” in Massachusetts, Iowa, and Connecticut will give added incentive for schools to teach that homosexual conduct is to be considered normal and morally right, and to attempt to silence anyone who would express the view that homosexual conduct is morally wrong. This influence on the children in a society will have a profound influence on their sense of moral right and wrong and their future sexual conduct.
Therefore the laws and policies of a government have enormous impact on the conduct of people in a society. Christians should care about this, first, because sin destroys people’s lives and Christians are commanded, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), and, second, because the entire course of a nation is set by the moral conduct of its individual citizens, and “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34). While it is true, then, that government cannot save people or fundamentally change human hearts, whenever we say this, we must simultaneously affirm that government policy and laws do have an immense influence on a nation for good or for evil.Wayne A. Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Zondervan, 2010) pp. 97-99.
Dr. Kyle Dunham will join the DBTS faculty full time in the fall of 2016 as Associate Professor of OT.
After earning his Master of Divinity and Master of Theology in biblical studies from DBTS, Dr. Dunham completed his Doctor of Theology in Old Testament from The Master’s Seminary.
A distinguished scholar and author, he has published multiple articles and is currently co-authoring an in-depth commentary on Ecclesiastes with Dr. Robert McCabe. His areas of theological interest include OT wisdom literature, a theology of kingdom and Ancient Near Eastern theodicy.
Dr. Dunham also brings his passion for ministry to the classroom. He and his family assisted with a Baptist church plant in Bakersfield, CA while he completed his ThD. He has also served as a short-term missionary in Ecuador and taught abroad in Kenya, South Africa, and southeast Asia. As a “churchman,” he desires to see pastors and missionaries fully equipped to handle the Word of God with accuracy, integrity, and compassion.
Dr. Dunham and his wife Judith, a Michigan native, will relocate to the Detroit area this summer along with their two daughters. DBTS will also feature Dr. Dunham at the Rice Lecture Series on Friday, March 18. His topic will be “Holy War: Past, Present, and Future Implications” (more information here). We encourage you to attend the lecture and hear Dr. Dunham address this vital topic.
Please join us on Friday, March 18 from 8:30 am to noon for the 2016 Rice Lecture Series. Dr. Kyle Dunham will speak on the topic: Holy War: Past, Present and Future Implications.
Date: Friday, March 18, 2016
Time: 8:30 – Noon
Location: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary
Speaker: Dr. Kyle Dunham
Theme: “Holy War: Past, Present, and Future Implications”
8:00-8:30 a.m. Complimentary Continental Breakfast
8:30-9:30 a.m. Session 1: “The LORD Is a Man of War: Holy War in the Old Testament”
9:30-10:00 a.m. Fellowship Break
10:00-10:50 a.m. Session 2: “The Cross and the Crescent: Genocide, Jihad, and the Christian”
10:50-11:00 a.m. Fellowship Break
11:00-11:50 a.m. Session 3: “The Once and Future Holy War: Eschatological Implications for Israel”
11:50-12:20 p.m. Q&A
12:30 p.m. Complimentary Luncheon
About Our Speaker
Dr. Dunham will address questions that skeptics often ask, such as:
- Was the God of the Old Testament a vengeful, hateful God?
- Why did He command “genocide” for the inhabitants of Canaan?
- Isn’t the holy war of the Old Testament the same as Islamic jihad?
His goal is to help you address these questions with honest, thoughtful, biblical answers and defend God’s word effectively.
As always, you’ll have an excellent opportunity to connect with ministry colleagues, area pastors, alumni, and students. It’s going to be an encouraging, edifying morning of learning and fellowship.
We’ll provide a continental breakfast beginning at 8:00 am and a complimentary luncheon following the lecture at noon.
We look forward to seeing you!
In the past few months I have encountered several conflicting ideas about forgiveness in unexpected counseling situations. Nor is the confusion confined to the uninformed or immature. The biblical idea of forgiveness is an elusive one that is often missed entirely or sometimes mixed with other ideas—ideas that are not necessarily bad, but that are not exactly what the Bible is trying to convey by its use of the word forgiveness, either. Note the following:
- Forgiveness is clinically defined as releasing thoughts/feelings of animosity, bitterness, or revenge toward someone who has wronged you. Biblically speaking, this is the immediate response required of all those who have been wronged. Period. We should not harbor and nurture bitter thoughts of vengeance—vengeance is not the proper purview of the individual, but rather that of God and the state; further, such bitter intentions can be personally/psychologically debilitating (Rom 12:19, etc.). The idea of “letting go of bitter feelings,” however, while necessary to biblical forgiveness (the root meaning of ἀφίημι, in fact, is “to release” or “let go”), is more of a prequel to forgiveness than the act of forgiveness itself. IOW, while forgiveness requires “letting go,” it is more than this.
- Forgiveness is legally defined as releasing the wrongdoer from all punitive or legal debt/obligation. This legal definition is sometimes reflected in Scripture, especially when the forgiveness of a material debt in in view (Matt 18:27), but this definition likewise does not exhaust the semantic range of the term. We also observe in Scripture that while the cancellation of the consequences of sin may be a gracious accoutrement of forgiveness, it need not be in every case. Even God’s own forgiveness of his children does not mean that he will automatically free us from every consequence of sin. This is particularly important in a counseling setting, in that it makes room for a Christian victim to seek legal protection from, file legal complaint against, and even seek reparations from a wrongdoer without violating God’s command to be ready to forgive.
- Forgiveness is popularly imagined at times to involve ignoring an offense or pretending that a sin has never happened. For this understanding, appeal is sometimes made to 1 Peter 4:8, where “love covers a multitude of sins.” Now this verse surely teaches that, having been biblically addressed and forgiven, sins should not be made a matter of public broadcast to be rehearsed over and again (so also 1 Cor 13:5). Peter is most definitely not teaching, however, that believers must adopt a general policy of ignoring or concealing sins (so Matt 18:15, among dozens of other texts). Not only is such a policy detrimental to the spiritual life of the offender, but it can also put the safety of other potential victims at risk (e.g., when we “cover up” chronic abuse, sexual assault, or tendencies to physical violence)….so again, counselor, be warned. Forgiving and forgetting are not coextensive concepts; more than this, forgiving and ignoring are mutually exclusive concepts.
- An amalgamated construct of forgiveness extracted from pieces of all three concepts above is the idea that forgiveness necessarily includes the reinstatement of a wrongdoer to the status/office/rank that he held before being caught in a sin. This simply does not follow. Just as there may be lingering legal consequences for the forgiven, so also there may be practical consequences for the forgiven. An elder, for instance, who violates the qualifications requisite to his office (1 Tim 3) forfeits his office even when he is forgiven. And it goes without saying that we should not restore a person caught abusing a child or embezzling funds, upon being forgiven, to the functions that he may have had in prior to his sin in, say, children’s ministry or the treasurer’s office, respectively. That simply is not what forgiveness is. That’s stupid!
- What, then, does biblical forgiveness require? Well, some of the ideas above contribute to our understanding, but none, I think, captures the totality of the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness begins by abandoning feelings of bitterness and vengeance and may graciously expand to include the cancellation of debts (financial and/or punitive), but these are not properly forgiveness, the former being a prequel to forgiveness and the latter a hopeful accessory of forgiveness. The heart of biblical forgiveness is instead reconciliation, or the restoration of a mutual relationship and even mutual respect (1 Cor 5:17–21). The term mutual is critical here, and suggests that forgiveness rests necessarily on an overture by the wrongdoer: forgiveness in its proper sense is not a unilateral action; the offender must instead humble himself to seek it by expressing repentance. Only then may the “record of the offense” be erased and the sin “covered.” The biblical requirement is not that believers forgive willy-nilly, but that they stand ready at all times to extend forgiveness to those who confess and repent of their sins, following the example of God in Christ (Eph 4:32; 1 John 1:9).
To summarize, God’s requirement that we forgive others as God has forgiven us does not mean that we must (1) ignore sin, (2) conceal sin, (3) endure sin silently, (4) let sins go unresolved, or (5) abandon all hope of relief from abusive sin.
But his call to forgive others as he has forgiven us does demand that the obedient Christian (1) eschew bitterness/vengefulness, (2) seek reconciliation and stand ready to extend it instantly upon a genuine expression of repentance, and, thereupon, (3) respect the repentant wrongdoer enough to “cover” the sin without resentment or personal censure.
For more information on this topic, see Moises Silva, NIDNTTE, 1:444–49 and esp. Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness (Crossway, 2008).
After serving for thirty-three years as the Professor of Old Testament at DBTS, Dr. Robert McCabe will retire at the end of the 2016 spring semester. During his tenure he established the seminary’s solid foundation in biblical languages, OT hermeneutics and exegesis, and biblical creationism. An avid supporter of six-day creationism, he is nationally recognized for his expertise in defending a literal understanding of Genesis 1-3. He is also a leading scholar in Ecclesiastes with a forthcoming commentary.
In addition to scholarly pursuits, Dr. McCabe has invested in the lives of many DBTS students and alumni through his years of service. Outside the classroom, he enjoys chatting about theology, current events, his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, and his family. In retirement, Dr. McCabe and his wife Linda will move to the Phoenix area where they can enjoy the fellowship of family and grandchildren. Dr. McCabe will continue serving in the local church, working on writing projects, and speaking on creationism.
We thank Dr. McCabe for his many years of faithful service to his Lord and the DBTS community, and we wish him all the best in the days ahead.
When I was an associate pastor, I remember “Grandma” Audrey, an eighty-year-old woman, asking me why Jesus required His disciples to keep His true identity a secret (e.g., Mark 8:29-30). I was thankful that she had been reading her Scripture in such a way that questions were naturally generated. I trust that you likewise have faced this question. So did Jesus, the Light of the World, seek to put it under the bushel? (I feel compelled to say, No!)
The answer to this question is complex, and so the responses here may not exclude others. Nevertheless, some answers are clearly illegitimate. A gospel critic at the turn of the twentieth century, William Wrede, argued that Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah. After Jesus’ death, the early church sought to connect Jesus to Old Testament prophecies, making Him a Messiah figure. That Jesus never claimed to be Messiah was clearly a problem for the church. To overcome this obstacle, the early church fashioned a messianic secret whereby Jesus suppressed statements of His true identity. Consequently, the only reason for the Messianic secret in the gospels is to mask the historical inaccuracy that Jesus’ claimed to be the Messiah.
Before giving some inspiration-compatible reasons for Jesus’ “messianic secret,” let’s recognize that Jesus’ Messianic identity is not always presented in a masked way. This is clear in John’s gospel where Jesus makes explicit His Messianic identity to the woman at the well (John 4:25-26). Further, even the synoptics portray Jesus as openly declaring His Messianic identity (Matthew 21:7; Luke 4:21). Any answer, therefore, that always makes Jesus’ identity a secret fails to follow the biblical data.
Here we will provide two answers to why Jesus would limit the spread of His messianic identity. First, an open declaration would have changed the entire chronological landscape of Jesus’ death. Let me explain. Remember Jesus’ Nazareth sermon? This sermon certainly occurred late in Jesus’ ministry, but Luke, as a capable and intentional writer, situated the sermon early in his gospel because it foreshadowed the response Jesus would receive from the Israelites. By placing this sermon first, Luke summarizes some of the main points of his gospel. In the sermon, Jesus read from a passage in Isaiah that was widely interpreted to refer to the coming Messiah, boldly declaring that it referred to Himself. However, when Jesus indicated the limitations of His Messianic task (being limited to those with faith) and the scope of His Messianic task (the gospel will go to the Gentiles), the people sought to kill Him. The point of importance for us is the response of the audience. Having heard that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, their expectations were aroused, and when their expectations were not met, they sought to kill Jesus (4:29).
So, to repeat, Jesus, in declaring His Messianic identity, aroused expectations that when not met resulted in threats to His life. It is clear that Jesus had a perfect timetable for when He would die. This plan, wrought in eternity, did not lack in specificity. The millennium, decade, year, day, hour, and moment were planned with precision. Jesus knew the vitriolic responses that would come from His claims and actions, and He planned the open revelation of His identity to be progressively revealed until the appointed time had come. This explains why Jesus was willing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey. This is the only time Jesus is recorded to have ridden an animal, and so the meaning is quite clearly to fulfill the Messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. In sum, an open declaration of His Messianic identity would have prematurely hastened the path to the cross, preventing much of Jesus’ teaching and other ministry.
A second answer also pivots on the expectation of Jesus’ audience. While it is no longer popular to suggest that Messianic expectation included a conquering hero who would free the Israelites from the bondage of the Romans, there is much historically and biblically to support this position. As such, declaring oneself Messiah had significant political overtones. Certainly Messianic texts do speak of Jesus’ kingship, yet the progress of revelation revealed that there would be two aspects to the Messiah’s activity. In fact, when Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus’ response was designed to correct Peter’s false expectations (Mark 8:29-31). Instead of conquering as a King, Jesus would suffer as a Servant. The request to keep His Messianic identity a secret, then, had less to do with masking His identity than with allowing the messianic identity to be defined by Jesus’ actions. Too much misunderstanding would result from a simple declaration.
I think this second point explains another strange element of the Gospels; namely, why doesn’t the early church pick up Jesus’ favorite designation of Himself, the Son of Man? I think the answer lies in the masked nature of the self-identification. On the surface, the title might simply refer to a son of a man—a rather innocuous title. On the other hand, its use in Daniel 7 to refer to the Son of Man who will come with the clouds of heaven to receive His kingdom is not innocuous. Nevertheless, the data we have for Jesus’ historical context suggests that “the Son of Man” was not used widely as a designation concerning the Messiah. But did Jesus use this title in reference to Daniel 7? Consider Jesus’ response to the question by the high priest concerning whether Jesus was the Messiah: “I am, and You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62, NIV). The early church’s use of Son of Man is no longer needed after the death of Jesus, since no one could then misunderstand His Messianic purpose to be primarily political. After this point, the church’s favorite designation of Jesus is Christ, that is, the Messiah.
In sum, it appears that Jesus’ “Messianic Secret” was historically intentional. It prevented misunderstanding and allowed a longer timetable for Jesus’ ministry. Jesus never denied His identity; rather, He carefully guarded this identity, preventing others from interpreting it falsely. In this way, the actions of Jesus—not the expectations of others—provide the definition of the Messiah’s activity in His first advent.
 William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, trans. James C. G. Grieg (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971).
Back when I was in seminary, one of my professors used to warn us seminarians to be neither “more pious than Paul” nor “more Christian than Christ.” Such a stance might win us halos on earth, but no crowns in glory. This instruction was never more vivid to me than when I read John Piper’s pacifist critique of the Second Amendment.
Piper makes a few helpful points. For instance,
- He rightly encourages believers not to develop a disposition of violence. Christians should not be a pugnacious people who rabidly seek multiplied occasions for legal expressions of force.
- He reminds us most helpfully that believers should not be in the revenge business, a point made throughout both testaments of Scripture.
- He also affirms that the Christian message must never be advanced by means of the sword, noting the damage to the Gospel that has been caused by error in this regard.
- Finally, Piper makes an excellent case for submitting to religious persecution without violent retaliation.
All good. But here’s the thing. There are other reasons than these for carrying and using a gun—reasons that are biblically commendable. In addition to just war (which is not really the point of the article—Piper allows, it seems, for governments and their duly constituted armies to bear the sword), there is the matter of self defense. To make preparations to defend my life or my family’s in the face of assault or physical threat is not to adopt a “disposition of violence.” Nor is it to sanction revenge. Nor is it an attempt to advance the Gospel by means of the sword. Nor is it an attempt to meet religious persecution with violence. It is the exercise of my God-given obligation to function responsibly in civil society as a good husband, father, neighbor, and citizen. As such, I would argue that almost none of the passages cited by Piper has any bearing at all on our exercise of the constitutional right to bear arms.
One passage, however, Luke 22:35–38, does speak immediately to the issue. It suggests that believers, even in the broad exercise of religious duties, should take necessary precautions to use capital force (a sword) to meet personal violence. In fact, it was Christ’s explicit command that they do so! Christ does add qualifiers: (1) self-defense shouldn’t be an obsession (two swords are fine for a dozen apostles) and (2) capital force in the face of legalized persecution is inappropriate (so vv. 49–51). But for what other reason than self-defense would Christ command his disciples to carry swords, pray tell? To pare their fingernails? I think not.
The problem, I believe, lies in a failure to discern God’s multiplex purpose for the present age—a failure to recognize Calvin’s “two governments of God” (or Luther’s “two kingdoms”)–in lieu of a Neo-Kuyperian merger of all God’s purposes into one monolithic monstrosity. Piper makes clear that there is but one goal for believers in the present age—to advance the Gospel. Anything we do that impedes the Gospel (e.g., in Piper’s article, killing a violent man who is raping my wife and thus cutting off his opportunity to repent and embrace the Gospel) is therefore wrong. This is absurd. The Gospel may be the Church’s mission, but it is not the whole of God’s plan for the universe. God is also concerned for the civil advance of justice, order, peace, and civil society—causes that quite often are achieved only with a sword.
There is “a time to kill and a time to heal,” so says the Preacher. It is impossible, in the name of Christian piety, to eliminate the former and cling only to the latter. The complexity of this issue is much too great for such a simple solution.