Thoughts on the Kingdom of God: Nature of the Kingdom of God

We might well ask, “What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus was asked that question. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst’” (Luke 17:20-21, NIV). It is evident from Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees that the kingdom of God is not visible because it is not an institution such as the church or any other grouping of people. It is a spiritual entity as we will see when we come to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.

When Nicodemus came to Jesus one night he already accepted that Jesus was a teacher sent from God because of the miracles he had performed. We might think that Nicodemus would have been given a better welcome. After all he was both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish council. Instead, when Jesus responded to Nicodemus’ praise it was with a seeming impossibility and a mystery. Both of these are essential to understanding the kingdom of God.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’” John 3:3-8 (NIV).

Nicodemus took Jesus’ first statement literally and saw immediately that it was something that could not happen. Jesus’ explanation of what he meant makes things both easier and harder. There are many people who take “born of water” to mean baptism. However, the next sentence begins “Flesh gives birth to flesh.” This seems to me to refer to the breaking of the mother’s water that precedes birth. Jesus is simply saying here that physical birth is one necessity for people to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The mystery comes in trying to figure out how “the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” There is disagreement, of course, concerning our spiritual natures. It does though seem a clear understanding from Scripture that all people who have flesh also have a spiritual component. This is sometimes designated a soul. The issue is whether the birth brought by the work of the Holy Spirit is an enlivening of the existing soul or the addition of a spiritual entity that did not exist before. We probably cannot resolve this issue. However, we need to keep in mind that our spiritual birth is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit and one that we do not, at least generally, see the logic of. This is because basically we have nothing in ourselves that would make us worthy of this immense gift.

This does not mean there are not prerequisites for rebirth. In Acts 8:12 (NIV) we are told that faith in the words of Philip brought a new birth to some people. This birth was symbolized by their baptism. “But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” It has been clearly evident since Abraham that faith is the only path to a right relationship with God. That has not changed so it appears that faith in the deity (name, as Luke put it) of Jesus is essential to spiritual birth and entry into the kingdom of God.

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Thoughts on Consciousness

“I think therefore I am” is a famous saying. It would have been better, I think, to say, “I am therefore I think.” The reason for this is that I am going to consider two levels of consciousness. I will begin with a very basic definition that applies to everything that has sentient life. All these forms of life have the ability to react to their internal functions and external environments and then act appropriately. As animal life forms became more complex their consciousness increased to match their growing ability to perform various functions. Up until the creation of humans all consciousness was a biochemical-electromagnetic phenomena.

We are told of the coming of a different level of consciousness in Genesis 1:27 where we are told that God created humans in his own image. There is a difficulty here. What is meant by image? It cannot be anything physical about humans. At the time of human creation God had not taken on any physical characteristics. The three persons of the Trinity were pure spirits and people he created were formed from the dust of the earth. How could we and God share any common image? It must be that God added to the biochemical-electromagnetic consciousness that all animals have. This addition must have been portions of his infinite consciousness.

For these two levels to work together God’s consciousness must be compatible with that of humans. I think I can show they seamlessly fit together by pointing you to the person of Jesus Christ. He had a human consciousness and a fully divine consciousness but there no evident separation when he performed miracles. He would be talking to people, do a supernatural act, and then continue to talk as if nothing spectacular had happened. When he did pray before a miracle it was not that he needed to but that he needed to show people he was one with his Father.

Our two levels of consciousness make it possible for us to think and experience on both physical and spiritual levels. Since neither science nor theology have complete understandings of either level, I think we should just be thankful for what we have and be glad that God shared enough from his infinite consciousness so that we could come to know him and believe in his Son.

What I Believe: Common Marriage

What follows is a letter that I wrote to Touchstone magazine and that was printed in their May/June 2016 issue. The post following this one will tell you my beliefs concerning Christian marriage.

David J. Theroux in his article “Higher-Order Marriage” (Touchstone January/February 2016) showed us that Martin Luther was wiser than we might have otherwise known. He writes that Luther believed marriage should be a function of the civil government. Now, why might Luther think that? Well, if we go back before Jesus, Moses, Abraham, and Noah we arrive at Adam and Eve and the first marriage. Marriage was given to our first ancestors as a common good for all of humanity. It occurred in a manner open to the whole human race: cohabitation.

Theroux’s argument that Christian marriage is a higher-order relationship is true—and a truism. Everything of Christianity is a higher order of living. However, this does not deprive others of the common goods God has provided for the human race. For marriage to be available to all male/female couples it must be a function given to the civil authorities for they are the only institutions with universal jurisdiction. This I think might have been Luther’s logic.

Our civil authorities have failed in their responsibilities to God in the realm of marriage, and in many other ways. They will pay the price. In the meantime, I think we need to look very carefully at ourselves to see if we have pushed people away from finding a higher-order marriage in our churches by raising too high the standard required for a valid marriage.

What I Believe: Election and Divine Calling

The problem here for me is how to reconcile election and divine calling with the freedom of human will. This has been a problem in theology for a long time. As for me, I am very fond of election because I know I never would have had a chance to become a child of God without it.

Election

Election is always for God’s purposes but it is not always about redemption, as we normally think of it. The Old Testament contains numerous examples of elections in both directions. Joseph was elected to save Israel from starvation while Nebuchadnezzar was elected to destroy Jerusalem and send the Israelites into exile. In turn, another pagan ruler, Cyrus, was elected for the return of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the city and the Temple.

Eleven of the twelve apostles were elected to do Christ’s work on earth and then go on to eternal glory. One was elected for infamy on earth and annihilation as his eternal destiny. Jesus said of Judas that it would have been better for him if he had never been born.

Those who are elected will eventually do what God wills them to do. Even if as in the case of the Egyptian pharaoh, it takes ten plagues. Or as it was with Jonah a whale of an adventure.

Apparent Contradictions

Election and divine calling do not negate human will. No one comes to Christ or rejects him except by his or her own choice. So how can God ensure that people make the choice he means them make. This seems a hard problem unless we believe that God is active in our world. Once we accept that, we can see there is no limit to the forms of persuasion that can be applied to convince one of the elect to choose what he or she had always been meant to choose. Human will is malleable not sovereign. On the other hand God can leave those who reject him to have what they desire—the absence of God. In either case, God’s will is certain to be accomplished. Thus we rightly pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven and, sure enough, it is.

Universal Offer

As to the question of why Christ’s work needed to be sufficient for all humanity although not everyone would avail their selves of the offer. I believe this is to ensure that no one who rejects God or willfully believes in false religions, philosophies or ideologies can claim that they were not able to be redeemed.

Jesus’ work on earth in its power and scope was sufficient that anyone who seeks God will find redemption. This is because they are one of the elect. This means that those who refuse to seek God, as they should because of the evidence of God’s work and creation all around them, are responsible for their earthly and eternal destinies.

The gospel and the entire message of Christ are to be brought by Christians to as many people as possible that they might be encouraged to do in regard to God what they are responsible for doing. Those who do not have an opportunity to receive the gospel will be, I believe, judged rightly according to how each of those persons would have responded to the gospel. Justice will be done in each case.

Effectual Divine Calling

Each person who comes to an effective faith is Christ arrives there by a different chain of experience. This is not to say all paths lead to God. There is one Way and each of us walks on our own portion of that narrow road.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit that gets us on the right road by convicting us of our sins and enlightening us in regard to the actually of Jesus. Then, at the proper time, I believe, we are brought to offer our lives to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Our offering will be accepted, as Jesus promised, and we will be received, redeemed, and reconciled. The other good things of the Christian life will start happening at that point.

What I Believe: Interpretation

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24 ESV). I interpret these verses as providing a basis for our interpretation of Scripture although there are other meanings in them and other verses that guide interpretation. I believe the interpretation of biblical passages must enhance our understanding of the reality of spiritual things and bring us closer to a fuller knowledge of God’s revelation.

This does not mean we should not use such wisdom as has been provided us by others who have worked at interpreting Scripture. Interpretation is such a complex subject it has its own name—hermeneutics. The article in my Bible dictionary says interpretation is both an art and a science. Science begins with accurate observation and in interpretation this would mean, as far as possible, correctly reading the passage. From there we go on to context, comparison with other Scripture, other people’s interpretations and whatever we have learned from interpreting other passages.

There are rules for interpretation. These serve the same purpose as what are called the laws of nature do in the physical sciences. They put bounds on what are legitimate interpretations.

The art of interpretation is the work of the Holy Spirit as we pray for guidance and meditate on the possible meanings to see as much as God would have us see in a particular passage. Art is not static so what we may not understand originally may become clear as we continue to seek understanding.

What I Believe: Inerrancy

A typical statement concerning the inerrancy of the Bible reads “The Scriptures are without error in the original autographs.” The problem with this statement arises in Scripture itself. We read about what happened to one original autograph in Jeremiah 36:23 (ESV) “As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot.” (The complete story of this event is contained in Jeremiah 36:15-30). Fortunately for us and others, that manuscript was rewritten and we have many other prophecies and stories from the life of Jeremiah.

We do not know what happened to the other original autographs but we do know that none of them are now available to scholars. We do know that Jesus and the apostles had confidence in the reliability of the copies of Scriptures they knew, whether in Hebrew or in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint.

What would we do if we had an inerrant Bible? I think we might concentrate too much on the content of the Bible and too little on developing the proper relationships we should have with each Person of the Trinity. My own tendency would be to (figuratively) beat up my fellow Christians with the certainty of my own interpretations. An inerrant Bible would be no easier to understand in all its passages than the one we have.

We need to be helped in our spiritual growth and I am not sure an inerrant Bible would not just make our love of physical religion, all the things we do, even stronger and make meditation and contemplation even less a part of our lives. I believe God knew what he was doing when he made even the tablets of the Ten Commandments unavailable for our worship.

I believe that it is not the content and form of the original manuscripts that should be of major concern to us but that we have the living word of God in the documents we do have. Thus, we can celebrate the revelation that has been preserved for us.

What I Believe: Inspiration

When we use the word “inspiration” we are using the English form of the verb inspiro which comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. The form of the word might make us think that God did something to words that already existed. However, the Greek word theopneustos used in the New Testament means “God-breathed.” This should remind us of the work of the Holy Spirit in physical creation. In other words, Scripture is a creation of God and can be compared to physical creation as a mystery of God’s intentions.

The common source, the Holy Spirit, of both the Old and New Testaments is shown by the linkages between them. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament cited the Old Testament as foundational to an understanding of the new covenant that Jesus had brought into existence.

I regard “The Holy Scriptures are the only sufficient, certain, and infallible standard of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience (2 Timothy 3:15-17; Luke 16:29, 31; Ephesians 2:20).” If this is true, then inspiration is how they got that way.

Inspiration is inextricably intertwined with special revelation and providence. Let me illustrate. Paul’s letters were written to various people and groups of people at different places and times. The circumstances that prompted his writing resulted from the working of God’s providence. The teaching of Christianity, particularly when Paul used the word mystery, was him transmitting the special revelations he received from Jesus Christ. However, when Paul wrote letters he did not intend to create Scripture. That part of it is the Holy Spirit shaping Paul’s writings to Christ’s purposes.

Inspiration is the work of the Holy Spirit in the creation of each of the books. Each book has a unique history of its formation. Jeremiah received God’s special revelation and Baruch wrote it down to give us the book of Jeremiah. The Psalms are an anthology of Jewish music presumably assembled by one of the leaders of the Temple singers. Inspiration guided the selection of songs to be included—special revelation and providence provided the songs.

There are other people who contributed to the coming into existence of the books of the canon in addition to the people whose names are on the books or who are credited with their writing. These are the scribes, collators, copyists, editors, redactors, and all others who contributed to providing us the Holy Bible. These also were inspired by the Holy Spirit. “As inspired, the Scriptures were not produced by human will (2 Peter 1:21).”

I believe grace provides us with the faith we need to understand the inspired words of the Bible. For instance, as new Christians we may have found a favorite verse that had a special meaning for us at that stage of our Christian walk. Perhaps, after a long walk of faith we will find in the begats (those listings of ancient lineages) a richness that eluded us when we first encountered them in our Bible reading. I believe God energizes his Word through the faith and needs of its readers. Where there is much faith there is much finding of inspiration. Where there is no faith we get things such as courses like “The Bible As Literature.”

What I believe is that without faith no one can discover the inspiration of Scripture just as no one can know creation without faith (Hebrews 11:3). This does not excuse anyone for not seeking to find the truth of God’s word in the Bible any more than there is any exemption for people who do not seek God in creation from their responsibility to worship him.