A Neglected but Necessary Doctrine: How Christ’s Ascension Clarifies Our Theology and Comforts Our Souls

clouds and blue sky

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
— Acts 1:9–11 —

   He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
— The Apostles Creed — 

In Acts 1:9–11 Luke reports the ascension of Jesus from earth to heaven. This event has been a staple in orthodox confessions, as listed in the Apostle’s Creed, but it has also been spiritualized by some (like Origen and Rudolph Bultmann) and overlooked by others (too many to count!). But what about you, how do you think about the ascension?

Do you think about it all? Does it form your theology (especially your eschatology), or do you skip from Christ’s resurrection to his return? What about your daily life, how does ascension bring the good news of heaven to your earthly struggles? If the ascension is absent in your thoughts, you are missing a chief way that we know and experience the presence of Christ. For that reason, we need to go back and see what Scripture says about this  vital doctrine. Continue reading

Seeking the Kingdom of God with the Church of Jesus Christ

three kings figurines

Is the kingdom of God present or future? Is it now or not yet? Could it in any way be both? If so, how? These are important questions for anyone who has read the Bible, and for anyone who is studying the book of Daniel—a book that speaks of God’s kingdom throughout.

In evangelical circles the question of God’s Kingdom has been answered for the last half-century with a view called “inaugurated eschatology.” This view affirms Christ’s present royal position as seated at God’s right hand (Psalm 110), even as he rules the church by way of his Spirit (Matthew 28:20; John 16:7; Ephesians 1:21–23). At the same time, his kingdom has not been yet consummated, and the people who have believed the good news of the kingdom await the day when he will return to establish his rule on the earth.

Among the many names who have advocated this position, few are more important than George Eldon Ladd, the late New Testament professor from Fuller Seminary. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, his books on the kingdom of God engaged Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology alike. And in each, he provided a rich biblical exposition on the subject.

Ladd maintained that the kingdom of God is found in Christ’s reign more than the location of his rule (i.e., his realm).[1] He understood the kingdom as a future reality, but one that had broken into the present. Against a view of the kingdom of God as spiritualized in the individual—a view based on a poor translation of Luke 17:21 (“the kingdom of God is within you,” KJV; rather than “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” ESV)—Ladd centered the presence of Christ’s kingdom in the church, without confusing the church with the kingdom. In this way, Ladd opposed both the replacement theology of Covenant Theology and the radical division of God’s people (Israel vs. Church) in some forms of Dispensationalism.

Today, Ladd’s work remains invaluable for students of eschatology. Indeed, those who are unfamiliar with him or inaugurated eschatology, in general, are missing some of the best exegetical research on the kingdom of God for the last two generations. While certainly fallible—as Ladd’s biography shows—his studies have been a major catalyst in evangelical theology.

In what follows, I will offer a summary of five points from a chapter entitled “The Kingdom and the Church” in his A Theology of the New Testament.[2]. In these five points, he shows how the Kingdom of God does and does not relate to the Church of Jesus Christ. As we consider the kingdom of God throughout the book of Daniel, these basic points of theology can help us from going astray from Christ and God’s plan to unify all things in him (Eph. 1:10). Continue reading

The Theological Message of the Twelve

worms eye view of spiral stained glass decors through the roof

In his book The Unity of the TwelvePaul House argues that sin, judgment, and restoration are three themes extant in each prophet. He argues these themes also organize the Twelve (i.e., the Minor Prophets), where the first six books stress sin, the next three judgment, and the last three judgment. For him, this is the plot line that puts the Twelve together.

Complementing that vision, while not completely affirming, Richard Alan Fuhr and Gary E. Yates, in The Message of the Twelvepresent four themes that repeat through the Twelve: (1) repentance and return, (2) the Day of the Lord, (3) a new covenant, and (4) the coming messiah can be found in the Twelve. I will outline these below. Continue reading

The Light is Dawning on Those Whom God is Saving: 10 Things about John 3:1–21

hence-the-boom-vbQsU3kVVPI-unsplashFor God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, 
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
— John 3:16 —

John 3:16 is a glorious diamond, but it only one jewel in the crown of John 3.

Many times we quote, hear, and share John 3:16 without its context in John’s Gospel. This is not a bad thing. A single diamond is beautiful, but set in an engagement ring or on a king’s crown, the placement makes the diamond better. The same is true when we put John 3:16 back into the Bible and see what comes around it.

In what follows, I outline ten things about John 3:1–21 to help us better understand this whole section of John’s Gospel.

1. The flow of John 2–4 moves from light to darkness.

It is well recognized that John’s Gospel turns on the themes of light and darkness. Already in John 1:9 we heard John say, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” Later, Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). But what about in between? Is there a theme of light dawning in chapters 2–8? I believe there is, or at least we see a progression of light in John 2–4. Consider this outline: Continue reading

Behold, the Lamb of God: 10 Things about John 1:19–34

hence-the-boom-vbQsU3kVVPI-unsplashJohn 1:19–51 begins the multi-faceted book of signs (John 1:19–12:50). In the first chapter, we find the testimony of John (v. 19) and wide variety of titles that are assigned to Jesus. These titles give us a panorama of who Jesus is and help us to know the Son of God who is presented in John’s Gospel. Here are ten things from verses 19–34 to better understand who this Jesus is.

1. John 1:19–51 is organized around four days.

John uses four days to arrange four “pictures” of Jesus. More exactly, he lays out John’s testimony in four days, with each day the glory of John fading and the glory of Jesus’s rising. Which is to say, John 1:19–28 focus on John and his greatness; John 1:29–34 records John’s own understanding of Jesus’s greatness; John 1:35–42 show how John “gives” his disciples to Jesus; and John 1:43–51 concludes with no trace of John. Like a fading shadow John decreases across these four pictures, but only so that Jesus might increase (John 3:30).

In order we can see how each picture develops along similar lines:

Picture #1: John 1:19–28

WHAT: What John is not!
WHEN: The first day . . . (cp. vv. 29, 35, 43; 2:1)
WHO: Jewish Leaders, Priests and Levites, Pharisees, and John the Baptist

John the Baptist

    • is not the Christ
    • is not Elijah
    • is not the Prophet
    • is the one who prepares the way for the LORD
    • Jesus is the LORD

Old Testament

    • The Messiah: All the Law and the Prophets (v. 45)
    • Elijah: Malachi 4:5 (vv. 21, 25)
    • Prophet: Deuteronomy 18:15–18 (vv. 21, 25)
    • The Voice: Isaiah 40:3 (v. 23)

Summary: Jesus is the Lord . . . the One greater than John, whose greatness led the Jewish leaders to inquire. Continue reading

Ten Truths about God’s Incommunicable and Communicable Attributes

joshua-fuller-9QF90iLO0q0-unsplashIn his theological summary of Christian doctrine, Our Reasonable Faith, Herman Bavinck provides a number of illuminating points about the attributes of God—namely, their incommunicable and communicable attributes. Here are some of Bavinck’s observations listed under ten points.

1. The Language of incommunicable and communicable is most effective in holding together God’s transcendence and immanence.

The effort to take account of all the data of Holy Scripture in its doctrine of God, and to maintain both His transcendence of and His relationship to the creature, led the Christian church to make a distinction very early between two groups of the attributes of the Divine being. these two groups were variously designated from the early church on. The Roman church still prefers to speak of negative and positive attributes, the Lutheran of quiescent and operative attributes, and the Reformed churches of incommunicable and communicable attributes.

At bottom, however, this division amounts to the same thing in all of these churches. The purpose for each of them is to insist on God’s transcendence (His distinction from and His elevation above the world) and on God’s immanence (His community with and His indwelling in the world). The Reformed names of incommunicable and communicable attributes do better justice to this purpose than the names which the Catholics and the Lutherans employ. The insistence on the first group of attributes saves us from polytheism and pantheism; and the insistence on the second group protects us against deism and atheism. (134–35) Continue reading

At Christmas Don’t Lose Jesus’s Divinity: Celebrating the Incarnation with ‘Extra’ Care

pro-church-media-kSjsDWDn3WM-unsplashWhat happened was that at the incarnation, while continuing to exist eternally in the form of God, He added to that by taking the form of a servant.
— J. N. D. Kelly —

 Given the importance of the extra in historical theology, it is surprising how quickly it is rejected or replaced with something else. The extra is crucial in helping the church to explain the full scope of the Scriptural presentation of the incarnation and how the Son functioned in and through both natures,
— Stephen J. Wellum —

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. And with candles glowing and carols singing, we draw near to the babe born of Mary and celebrate the fact that God is with us—Immanuel.

At the same time, when we celebrate Christ’s condescension, there can arise a significant misunderstanding about Christ’s humanity. In song, as well as sermon, we find lyrics that describe Jesus “leaving heaven,” or not knowing about why he is coming to earth—“Baby Jesus, do you know you will die for our sins?”  These boilerplate Christmas tag lines, but are they true? Do they faithfully represent the miracle of the Incarnation?

On the surface, they may sound fine. They praise God for Christ’s birth and his sacrificial mission to bring salvation. Yet, when we probe more deeply, it becomes apparent lyrics like these and many unchecked thoughts about the birth of Christ assume beliefs that have often been described as heretical in church history.

In particular, Christmas has a way of unwrapping the kenotic heresy—the belief that when Jesus emptied himself (ekenōsen) and became a man,  he also left many (or all) of his divine attributes behind. The theory, expressed in many ways, asserts that for the Son of God to become human, he must set aside his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his omnipresence. After all, true humanity does not uphold the universe, right?! For Jesus to be fully human then, his humanity must be fixed in one place, ignorant of many things, and unable to do all the things that God does. Continue reading

The Problem with All Critical Theories of the Bible

hans-peter-gauster-3y1zF4hIPCg-unsplash.jpg5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
— 1 Timothy 1:5–7 —

In his excellent commentary on the book of Joshua, pastor and Old Testament scholar, Dale Ralph Davis, addresses the problem of critical theories used to interpret the Bible. Taking aim at the documentary hypothesis, a view which conjures up multiple sources behind the Old Testament, Davis singles out the real problem of this approach—it eviscerates the reliability of God’s Word and mutes God’s message. By adding undo complexity, it obscures the clarity of Scripture.

In response to this cumbersome and faith-eroding approach, he gives wise counsel: Continue reading

Give Thanks For the Gifts Jesus Gives You: A Thanksgiving Meditation on Ephesians 4

pro-church-media-p2OQW69vXP4-unsplash.jpgBut grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
— Ephesians 4:7–8 —

As we approach Thanksgiving, it is good to remember that thanksgiving is more than a feeling prompted by turkey and stuffing. Thanksgiving is a way of life for those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. And thanksgiving is one of the chief ways that Jesus builds up his church.

Here’s what I mean: Scripture teaches us that we are created to give thanks to God for all that he has given to us. We praise him for his good gifts in creation, and we adore him especially for his mercy in salvation. Yet, in Paul’s letters to the churches, there is peculiar focus on giving thanks for the people whom Christ has given us. And it is worth considering this particular gift as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Continue reading

Imagine . . . : 16 Observations on Imagination, Theology, Discipleship, and the Church

michael-aleo-DpgzNS1yvWg-unsplash.jpg“Imagine there’s no heaven.”
— John Lennon —

“Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations,
captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life.”
— Kevin J. Vanhoozer —

In seminary I took a class called “The Worshipping Church,” where one of our assignments included visiting churches outside our denomination. In one of those visits, I went to a local Roman Catholic Church, where before, during, or after the service (I cannot remember), the instrumentalist played the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. If you are unfamiliar, the lyrics begin

Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try
No hell below us / Above us only sky

Admittedly, the instrumental tune is soothing, but the casual denial of heaven and hell is satanic. And though the words were not sung aloud in the service, to anyone familiar with the song, it was not too difficult to imagine what the song was saying.

I bring up this occasion not to bemoan the presence of that song in church—it’s exclusion from the worship set should be obvious. I bring up the song “Imagine” to observe the lack of imagination that cripples so many of God’s churches. As Kevin Vanhoozer has observed, “Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life.”

Going further, Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, reiterates the need for churches to engage the imagination. Indeed, this is more than a hat tip to the arts; as Vanhoozer argues, imagination is a necessary (and biblical!) step between theory and practice, between faith and love.

As he has (for years) sought to bridge the chasm between knowledge and action with what he calls “theodrama” or “the drama of doctrine,” Vanhoozer rightly observes the importance of imagination. And in what follows I want to cite sixteen of his observations on this subject and why it is so vital for the church. Continue reading