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Baptism and Hebrews 10:22

Thursday, December 12, 2019

When a Scriptural subject is as hotly debated as the necessity of baptism for salvation is, we might assume that the Scriptural witness is somehow unclear.  With baptism, though, this is hardly the case.  From beginning to end of the New Testament, many texts inform us that baptism leads to forgiveness of sins, washes away sins, gives new life, clothes with Christ, and saves.  Without the “help” of false teachers, any reasonable person would read those passages and properly understand the importance of baptism.

This teaching appears not only in passages that explicitly mention baptism, but also in some that do not.  Many Christians cite John 3:5 and its context as an example of this, but few pay similar attention to Hebrews 10:19-22.  Here, the writer says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

In this Scripture, the writer urges us to confidently draw near to God.  All told, he enumerates five things that ought to give us the assurance to do so:  three heavenly things that are present, and two earthly things that must be present.  The three heavenly things are the blood of Jesus, the way that He opened through the veil into God’s presence, and His priesthood over the house of God. 

As necessary as these things are, they are not sufficient.  Otherwise, even the idolater and the atheist would be able to come into God’s presence without changing anything about themselves.  Certainly, the unbelieving Jews of the Hebrews writer’s day would have been able to, which would have nullified the whole point of the book! 

Instead, only a limited class is able to take advantage of the way that has been opened.  If we want to draw near, our hearts must have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies must have been washed with pure water.  Note that the conjunction here is “and”, not “or”.  Just as the work of Jesus is not enough by itself, so only one of these things is not enough by itself either.  We can’t just think that we have been saved to form a relationship with God.  We must have been baptized too.

Indeed, this text even indicates what mode of baptism is appropriate.  Sprinkling as it is practiced today is nothing like a washing of the body, nor is pouring (typically, the baptizer only pours water on the head of the baptizee).  Only immersion resembles a bodily washing. 

The point for us is plain.  Either we are in God’s presence, both now and eternally, or we will be outside God’s presence, both now and eternally.  If the former is what we want, we have to submit to God’s will to get there, a will that ordains both faith and baptism.

A Note on Romans 16:7

Thursday, December 05, 2019

During my sermon last week on women exercising authority in the church, I noted in passing that some brethren try to argue for the existence of female apostles from Romans 16:7, but that I did not find the argument convincing.  I had assumed that most were familiar with the argument, but after services, my wife told me that my offhand comment generated a flurry of page-flipping in some quarters.  I guess I’d better explain!

The textual question in 16:7 is not obvious in most translations.  The ESV says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners.  They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”  Standard Pauline greeting, right?  What’s the big deal?

The argument that this is a text about a female apostle is twofold.  First, it identifies the person the ESV calls “Junia” as female.  Second, it asserts that the ESV rendering “well known to the apostles” should instead be translated as, “prominent in the apostles.”  Thus, Junia would be a prominent female apostle, which would have all kinds of implications for our understanding of the role of women in the church.

The problem is that this conclusion rests on shaky foundations.  First, it is by no means certain that “Junia” is female.  The ESV thinks so, but the NASB thinks “Junias” is a better translation.  “Junias” would be a contraction of “Junianus”, and thus male.  Most translations opt for “Junia” here, but reasonable doubt on the issue exists.

Second, it is unclear what relationship Junia/Junias has to the apostles.  Are they merely well known to the apostles, or are they a prominent member of the class of the apostles?  The Greek here is πσημοι ν τος ποστλοις, which is literally translated as “of note in/among the apostles”. 

The text does not straightforwardly say that Junia/Junias was a remarkable apostle, as Barabbas is described as “a notorious prisoner”  in Matthew 27:16 (“notorious” being the only other use of this word in the NT).  Instead, it allows for either interpretation.  Additionally, if Junia/Junias is a prominent, famous apostle, how come Romans 16:7 is the only place where they appear? 

On balance, I think that “Junia” is probably correct, but I also think that she is well-known to the apostles rather than being a well-known apostle.  However, that conclusion is not necessary to settle the issue.  It’s enough to observe that the gender and position of Junia are uncertain. 

In such cases, the principles of Scriptural interpretation call us to a) prefer harmonious to contradictory readings of the Bible and b) read unclear passages in the light of clear passages.  1 Timothy 2:12 is clear (except to those who are engaged in eisgesis rather than exegesis), and it forecloses the possibility of women taking on authoritative roles (like the role of an apostle) in the church. 

Thus, we are compelled to adopt a harmonious rather than contradictory reading of Romans 16:7.  Sorry, Junia!  You’re not an apostle, because if you were, you’d be violating 1 Timothy 2:12.

All of this probably strikes many brethren as a finicky, fussy sort of argument, which is why I did not spend much time exploring it during the sermon.  There’s a reason, though, why the subject of women in authority generates these kinds of arguments.  If you stick to the obvious stuff in Scripture, you’ll never find reason to believe that women should lead in the church. 

However, if you believe that women ought to be leaders, and you’re searching for Scriptural justification for your beliefs, that will drive you into the weeds.  Here, as elsewhere, we must be suspicious of subtle arguments that contradict the plain meaning of the text.  Their presence is usually a sign that somebody is trying to serve not God, but themselves.

God's Word Does Not Return Empty

Friday, November 22, 2019

Isaiah 55 is one of the more uplifting chapters in what is a fairly gloomy book.  Many Christians are familiar with God’s self-description in vs. 8-9 of the chapter, but vs. 10-11 are also worthy of our attention.

In them, God declares, “For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” (CSB)

At first glance, this promise seems strange to Christians.  God wants all men to be saved, and He has sent forth the gospel so that they might be.  However, we know from experience that not everyone who hears the truth obeys it.  In fact, most do not.  How can we reconcile these apparently paltry results with the absolute nature of God’s declaration?

The answer, I think, is that we need to take a more complex view of God’s purposes in the gospel.  God wants us to be saved, yes, but even more fundamentally than that, He wants us to make a choice.  He wants to see whether we will use our free will to seek Him or to reject Him. 

The gospel is the means that He uses to compel humankind to make that choice.  We can exist in a spiritual no-man’s-land until we hear the word, but once we do, our reaction reveals what kind of people we are.  Either we have chosen to obey, and that will be obvious, or we have chosen to rebel, and that will be equally obvious.

Sometimes, in fact, God uses His word primarily to drive the wicked out into the open.  This is especially obvious in the book of Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 18:11-12 (and many other such places), God instructs Jeremiah to warn His people while simultaneously predicting that they will not listen.  He does this to mark them as His enemies and to deprive them of any claim that He is being unjust in destroying them.

Certainly, we should present the word to sinners as persuasively as we can.  However, when they harden their hearts against it, we should not feel like we have failed.  We have done what God intended for us to do, just as His word has done what He intended it to do. 

His purpose is worked out in the salvation of the humble, but it also is worked out in the destruction of the proud.  As His word left the wicked people of Jeremiah’s day without excuse and ripe for judgment, it leaves the wicked people of our day without excuse and ripe for judgment.  Everybody who hears His word will glorify Him.  The only question is whether His glory will come from redeeming us or putting us to everlasting shame.  

Gene Editing and God

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

While most of us have been paying attention to sports and the political drama in Washington, a quiet medical revolution has been taking place.  Since the sequencing of the human genome about 20 years ago, medical researchers have been using this newfound understanding to develop treatments for genetic disorders.  These treatments employ what is known as gene editing.  Gene editing involves the use of a virus or some other vector to remove a harmful mutation from a patient’s DNA and replace it with genes that will function correctly.

As abstract as this sounds, its consequences have been profound.  This year alone, the FDA has approved genetic therapies for spinal muscular atrophy and cystic fibrosis.  I know Christians whose children suffer from these afflictions.  They are burdened both with the care of a medically fragile child (which is far more time-consuming and expensive than most of us can imagine) and, often, with the knowledge that their child’s disorder will lead to premature death.  For those in such a position, the appearance of these transformative therapies must seem like a miraculous dawn of hope.

However, some brethren are uneasy with the moral and spiritual implications of genetic editing.  Once we start monkeying around with DNA, haven’t we trespassed into areas that properly belong to God?  Aren’t we defying His will?  Also, how do we draw the line between genetic editing for these reasons and genetic editing for any reason?  What’s the difference between curing SMA and creating a future NBA All-Star?

To answer these questions, I think we must consider the events of the first three chapters of Genesis.  When God created Adam, he held within his seed the potential to give the vast diversity of mankind that we see across the globe.  Every race, every individual difference, all of those things were part of God’s original intent.  He saw all of them and pronounced them good.  I will never be an NBA All-Star, but I still reflect God’s plan for mankind.

However, genetic disorders appear on the scene not in Genesis 1, but in Genesis 3.  They are part of the curse that Adam’s sin invited.  We die not because our deaths please Him and fulfill His will, but because our rebellion left Him with no other choice.  If the wickedness of Adam’s first, long-lived, descendants was so great that God had to destroy the world with water, how wicked would we become with an eternity to perfect our wickedness?

I am skeptical of efforts to do a better job with God’s creation than He did, but I see no problem with fighting against sickness.  Ultimately, such efforts will prove vain.  Even children who have been relieved from the burden of genetic illness will someday die.  However, if resisting the great enemy of humankind is wrong, then Jesus Himself was wrong.  How many hopeless people did He heal?

Certainly, the technology used in genetic therapy can be abused, but I believe that the therapies themselves are something to celebrate.  In this fallen world, even the innocent often suffer, but when we use understanding and skill to relieve their suffering, it is a godly act.  I rejoice in the hope that genetic therapy offers to Jayden and Abigail and Sam and their families, as well as to many others whom I do not know.  This is a new kind of healing, but it still comes from the One who gives all healing.

Authenticity and Following the Rules

Friday, November 15, 2019

We live in an age that values authenticity above all else.  It’s perfectly OK to practice whatever sin, so long as you’re Really You while you’re practicing it.  Conversely, through the years I’ve heard a number of indictments of brethren as being Not Really Authentic.  Supposedly, members of churches of Christ are the spiritual heirs of the Pharisees.  They’re so focused on following the rules that they forget about loving God.

That’s never sat quite right with me, so I decided to put it to the test on that impartial arbiter of wisdom, Facebook.  Is this actually a Scripturally intelligible concept?  Anywhere in the Bible, do we see people who follow God’s rules without caring about Him?

When I posed this question on Facebook, it generated a great deal of discussion, but nobody could come up with a clear Biblical example.  The Pharisees weren’t heartfelt followers of God, but they weren’t obedient either.  Instead, they were hypocritical lovers of money who won their reputation through self-promotion.  The church in Ephesus had left their first love despite having all sorts of good works, but the cure to their disease was still repenting and doing the works that they had done at first.  And so on.  It seems to be universally true in Scripture that everybody who has a heart problem has an obedience problem too.

On the other hand, being on fire for God, passionately sure that you’re doing what is right, showing everybody how much you care, does not appear to be a guarantee of righteousness.  Saul of Tarsus thought he was doing good by zealously persecuting Christians.  Apollos thought he was doing the right thing by preaching the baptism of John.  Both learned that they had some changes to make.

It seems to me, then, that the cultural idol of authenticity isn’t actually a very good way to evaluate somebody’s spirituality, whether our own or somebody else’s.  Saul was a really authentic enemy of God.  Somebody else can spend all day long gushing about God’s goodness, yet be at best misled and at worst a hypocrite.  We ourselves can be 100 percent convinced that our feet are on the path to heaven, yet be 100 percent wrong.

Instead, if we want to learn the truth, we have to turn to the time-honored pastime of fruit inspection.  We learn who people are by what they do.  Somebody who loves God will keep His commandments, and nothing but love can provide the motivation for an obedient life.  Faithfulness reveals the truth, both without and within.

You want to indict Christians or churches for hypocrisy?  Fine.  You want to criticize them for loving tradition more than the Bible?  Go ahead.  You want to condemn them for Malachi 1 apathy?  Sure.  However, recognize that all of these are fundamentally obedience problems, and they are measured by the word.

On the other hand, saying that somebody cares more about the rules than they do about God is logically incoherent.  Failure to emote appropriately is not a spiritual problem.  Some people simply aren’t emoters.  I preached both of my parents’ funerals without a single catch in my voice or a single tear.  If you want to conclude that I didn’t love my parents, you’re at liberty to do so, I guess.

Rather than pointing to a spiritual weakness, concern with obedience points to a spiritual strength.  People who truly do want to get everything right in their service to God are people who care about God and are committed to Him.  That might not read as authentic, but it’s as real as godliness gets.

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