Sunday, October 29, 2006

Metaphors for the Church: The Body of Christ

And He is the head of the Body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. Colossians 1:18
My brother is currently in basic training for the Army. He graduates in the very near future and I have never been more proud of him than I am now. He has written me several times and through my communication with my mom and his letters to her, I have seen an incredible maturity in him that I have not seen before. When he first began writing, he did a lot of complaining; homesickness, unable to get along with anyone, the food was terrible, waking up too early, extreme dislike for the drill sergeant. But it is the army, right?

One of the last letters I have received chronicled how he and his platoon spent a three day stint in the woods learning flanking maneuvers; indispensable training. Reading between the lines, he expressed a newfound respect and admiration for His drill sergeant as well as the men in his platoon. Three days with no shower must forge real community.

What arrested my attention through the course of his letters has been the progression of respect and admiration for the drill sergeant as well as the platoon. Regardless of his feelings for the members of his platoon, they were able to work together, because they realized a common purpose, a singular goal. Without one another, they understood that failure was the only perceivable outcome. Though my brother experiences minor differences with several members of the platoon, the platoon subordinates their personal feelings and biases to the drill sergeant because the goals they hope to achieve can only be accomplished under His leadership and guidance.

This is a very clear picture of the church in action, the church as who she is supposed to be. She is to act and serve in such ways that make people see Jesus in what is done. This brings us to the second metaphor for the church; the church is the body of Christ.

This means that we are to do on earth what Jesus would do if He were here physically. This is the most common analogy for the church in the New Testament, used fifteen times. What does it mean? For 33 years, Jesus was God incarnate, God in a human body. Through that body he went about doing good. With His eyes He saw the hurts of the oppressed. With His feet He went to their side. With His hands He reached out and healed them. With His mouth He lovingly and passionately taught them. And now, Jesus perpetually incarnates Himself in this new body, the church.

The church then is the means by which Jesus Christ expresses Himself on this earth; it is the means by which He ministers. The world does not and will not see Jesus Christ unless it sees Him in and through His church. Paul Powell said, “What His physical body was to the incarnate Christ, so the church is to the risen Christ.” The church should take her cues from the pages of the Gospels; what did Jesus do in His human body? He fed the hungry, He clothed the naked, He healed the sick, He befriended sinners, He visited prisoners, He taught the masses, He preached the Gospel, and eventually He laid His life down for the very world that rejected Him. Jesus put His body at God’s disposal for the service of humanity; should the church do no less?

These truths have several implications. As the body of Christ, respond to Him. We are members of His body and He is the head of that body. My head is the control center of my body. It is the location of my will, my decision-making capacity, logic, reason, and understanding. Without it, I do nothing.

My college anatomy text taught me that my neurological system works by a complex series of electrical signals. I pick up a ball from the ground because a complex series of electrical signals, originating in my brain, moves throughout my nervous system and instructs me to squat down at my knees, bend at my waist, reach out my hand by extending my arm, and grasping with my fingers, clutch the ball. In the same way, Jesus, the head, is to direct His church. The church responds to carry out His will, obey His commands, fulfill His wishes, and follow His precepts.

It is possible for a person’s mind to be sharp and clear, to function normally, yet the body to not function as it ought to. Joni Eareckson Tada, one of the sweetest figures in contemporary Christianity, had a paralyzing accident when only seventeen years old that halted all her hopes and dreams. It is possible for Christ as head of the church to be alive and well, healthy and whole, yet the church as His body to be paralyzed by such things as fear, apathy, and a lack of faith.

A body can be weakened by disease, and no disease afflicts the Body of Christ more greatly than sin. A body can atrophy from inattention and lack of use. There was a time when I shared the body mass index of a wire coat hanger. Now when I exercise, I discover those muscles I used to have. My mind is in good shape, yet my body does not respond as it used to. A great tragedy in the church is the Body is not as healthy and vigorous as it could be, failing to live up to her true potential.

As the body of Christ, serve others. 1 Corinthians 12 is Paul’s’ treatise on the unity of the Body of Christ and his great illustration is God’s placement of all the parts of the human body exactly as He has chosen them to be. Some parts of the body are more prominent than others. Some places in God’s church are up front, like the eyes and the mouth. Some places are that of stability, balance, and support, like the knees or backbone. Some are necessary yet inconspicuous, like the wrists and elbows. Some are seen, some are not, but they all are important.

And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Corinthians 12:26). When my leg itches, I instinctively reach down and scratch it. If I bang my thumb with a hammer, I put it in my mouth to soothe it. But I do not spend all my time worrying about myself; I also minister to those around me. I scratch another one’s itch. I don’t spend all my time rubbing and patting on myself; neither do I walk around all the time with my thumb in my mouth. I use that same hand to soothe another one’s hurt.

As the Body of Christ, be united. This is perhaps the most important point. A lone soldier does not make an army, which my brother quickly discovered. Unity is the key; a marriage is not a marriage without a bride and a groom. A family is not a family without relatives. Parts together make a body. And people together, united in Christ, make a church.

Paul’s great treatise in 1 Corinthians 12 shows us the futility of division and strife among the Body of Christ. A foot cannot be a hand, an eye cannot be an ear, though some will inevitably strive to be. But God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased (1 Corinthians 12:18). These various parts of the Body all work in tandem with and not contrary to one another. All the parts are different but perform a vital role necessary to the function of the entire Body. If one part is sick, diseased, or atrophied, then the other parts suffer along with it. When one part isn’t functioning properly, then the function of the entire body is compromised. And the church is made up of many members, each one blessed with a spiritual gift to be used for good for the whole Body. There are no useless parts of the Body of Christ!

In Matthew 10:42 Jesus says that giving out a cup of cold water in His name is worthy of reward in heaven. Even the slightest service among the Body of Christ does not go unnoticed by the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Last year as we studied history in homeschooling, I discovered something I had never known before. The medical science of reattaching severed body parts actually began in India. That shocked me, for the first ear was reattached over two thousand years ago. I believed that medical reattachment technology was a relatively new science. Through the wonders of medical science, many parts of the body that have been severed can be reattached with minimal complications. Yet God has been in this business for millennia. Are you severed from the Body of Christ? If you are severed from the Body of Christ by sin, then the Great Physician can perform a miraculous reattachment “surgery” grafting you back into your rightful place in the Body.


All Scripture taken from the NKJV.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Metaphors for the Church: The Bride of Christ

The church is the only movement Jesus left on earth to represent Him. George Bernard Shaw once said, “If you destroyed all the churches tomorrow, people would the very day afterwards begin to build them back again. That’s true because the church stands for something vital and essential.” The church gains its significance because it is the institution Jesus Christ left on earth to represent Him to the world. It like nothing else in the Bible, other than Jesus Himself, has the stamp of God’s divine approval on it. It is to the church that Jesus committed the work of extending the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ entrusted several sacred tasks to the local church; evangelizing lost sinners, edifying the saints of God, ministering to the needs of humanity, and worshipping Him.

Jesus did not entrust these tasks to a parachruch organization, the Salvation Army, the federal government, the seminaries, or any of the plethora of humanitarian aid societies. He left these tasks to the church. Perhaps it is because we misunderstand the church and her function in the world that we so readily turn these activities over to another organization, or fail to do them altogether. How best should we understand the church? The Bible gives us several analogies by which we can better understand her and accomplish the great mission God has assigned us while we remain in the world. This will be the first in a series of posts that will explore the biblical metaphors of the church.

First, the church is the bride of Christ. A bride is a woman to whom a man has committed Himself. So, the church is the people to whom Christ is committed. Ephesians 5:22-33 is in my estimation, the single most beautiful passage of Scripture regarding the relationship of Christ to His church. It speaks of the most intimate of all relationships, that of a husband to his wife.

The idea of God related to His people in a marital relationship is rooted deep in the Old Testament. Only a brief smattering of verses reveals this truth to us.

“I will betroth you to Me forever.” Hosea 2:19

“For your Maker is Your husband.” Isaiah 54:5

“Return, O backsliding children, says the Lord, for I am married to you.” Jeremiah 3:14

“I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them.” Jeremiah 31:32

Numerous other times the prophets of old spoke of Israel as the chosen bride of God, she whom God would love forever. This imagery presses on into the New Testament, as Jesus referred to Himself as the bridegroom in Matthew 9:15. John the Baptist used the same metaphor in John 3:29. The virgins of Matthew 25:1-13 wisely met the bridegroom, having neatly trimmed their lamps.

The Apostle Paul also relied profoundly on this analogy, applying it heavily in Ephesians. He warned against false teachers who were seducing the Corinthian Christians away in 2 Corinthians 11:2. And in the Apocalypse, John writes of the glorious marriage supper of the Lamb, of which all believers will partake. The idea is that true believers, the church, are now engaged to Christ and the marriage will be consummated upon His return.

The Scriptures use the metaphor of a married couple as the model of the church and her relationship with Jesus. And from that metaphor we can derive a few principles of how we ought to be related to Jesus. As his bride we should love Him supremely. Jesus is the object of the church’s affection. Everything in the church should be centered on Jesus; why? Ephesians 5:25 is the answer: Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her. Jesus died for no parachruch organization; hence the believers’ resolute commitment to Jesus. Josh Harris recently wrote a book entitled Stop Dating the Church, and its basic premise is that people are in more of a dating relationship than a committed, monogamous relationship with the church. So many dating relationships are on again, off again, and that is the way a lot of people treat God’s church. They have a dating mentality, or worse, serial monogamy, that if this one upsets me I’ll just go down the street to another one. Simply dating the church will never cause one to fall head over heels in love with the church and the relationship will never proceed to the intimacies incumbent to marriage.

As His bride we are to be intimate with Him. Intimacy is a fundamental requirement of marriage. It speaks of that familiarity, closeness, and confidence that comes from being in a stable relationship. Ephesians 5:30-31 expresses this truth; just as the husband and wife become one flesh in the marital relationship, so we become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. Some Christians may know Christ, but never become intimate. Intimacy calls for transparency, a willingness to open oneself up to the other and can only be fostered in a genuine, trustworthy relationship. I have numerous friends, but only one I am genuinely intimate with; my wife. She knows my deepest secrets, my most painful hurts, my most profound joys, and my most earnest desires. I share my life with no one else in this sense; it is reserved absolutely, totally for her (and hers with me!). Moreover, intimacy necessarily leads to fidelity.

As His bride we are faithful to Him. What this means is you forsake all others. Fidelity is the cornerstone of marriage. What if a young lady I knew in high school called me and asked to have lunch with me? She had not seen me in a really long time and wanted to get caught up. I tell my wife it is absolutely harmless, nothing to worry about. We will grab a bite to eat and I’ll be home later. We may hold hands for old time’s sake, I might wrap my arms around her for a hug, but nothing to be concerned about! Do you think my wife would settle for this kind of fair-weather relationship? As a husband is faithful to his wife, so we are to be faithful to Christ.

Fidelity is the cornerstone of marriage. Without it, a marriage will cease to be. The delight of the unbelieving world is to see a church unfaithful to her bride. As an unfaithful spouse becomes a mockery to the covenant that is marriage, so believers shame the name of Christ when they hop into bed with other lovers. Remember, you belong to Him exclusively. There are other wonderful organizations that deserve your time, influence, and your money. But Jesus died for the church; He died for you. Therefore, He has conjugal rights with you and you alone. He is to be your first love and He deserves your devotion and fidelity.

When my wife lovingly accepted my hand in marriage, she also took my name upon her. She dropped the usage of her original surname and became identified with me. She was not ashamed to be called my wife and just as the ring on her finger symbolizes her absolute faith and trust in me, so does the acceptance of my name as her own. In commitment to Christ we take upon ourselves His name, unashamedly, in absolute commitment, in total purity.

For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:30-31


As always, all Scripture taken from the NKJV.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Seduction of Politics

Lately I have been involved in great discussion with a new friend, Streak. He and I have been discussing politics and numerous other issues, all even-handedly. He has plugged David Kuo's new book Tempting Faith. I have yet to read the book, but there has been much brouhaha over it and the quality of President Bush's one and a half terms in office.

I have been enocuraging the congregation I serve not to sell out to a political system and remember that Christianity is not synonomous with Republican. Dr. David Black has written a timely article and he courageously expresses my sentiments in regards to the the Christian's involvement in politics. He expresses it much more eloquently than I ever could, so here is a brief snippet and the link.
Today God and conservatism have practically merged into one, with the “wonder-working power” of politics driving a large segment of the Christian right. This momentous hour finds our generation of Christians, not filled with the Spirit, not focused on missions (as we should be), but drunk with wine – not the wine from a bottle (abstemious as we are) but all the stimulants of the evil one, the intoxications of Satan. And never has he devised more concoctions to give men false expectations as when he weds religion to politics. What a time for the church to be inebriated with empty political promises when she should be awake and alert to the real challenges of the hour!

Whenever government tries to make men good without being righteous – something the devil would love more than anything in this fallen world – the professing church becomes cluttered with hosts of superficial saints who never sell out to Christ. Anyone who reads the New Testament will see that Jesus refused to identify Himself with any of the politico-religious parties of His day, whether they were called Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, or Zealots. Christians must maintain an ultimate commitment to Christ and eschew loyalty to a political party – any political party.
Please read the sum total of Dr. Black's article and strongly consider his words. They are needful and timely for a church that has been seduced by politics.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Did Christ Descend into Hell? Part 2

If you have not read the first part of this post, itis necessary for complete understanding of the treatment of this topic. Click here or simply scroll down to the first post. This post picks up with analyzing some Scriptures typically marshaled to lend support to this erroneous doctrine. And Les, if you are reading, I hope to see your views on 1 Peter 3:18-19.

The final and most tedious passage of Scripture to scrutinize in the topic, "Did Christ Descend into Hell?" is 1 Peter 3:18-19: “For Christ suffered once for all, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” To say this is a puzzling passage is an understatement. There is almost universal disagreement on the exact meaning of this passage of Scripture. Numerous interpretations are given of what exactly the spirits in prison are, the linchpin of the passage. Are they spirit or human? There are four summary views of who the spirits are.

The first speculation is that after Christ died, He went to hell and preached to the fallen angels. This verse takes into account Genesis 6:1-4, another puzzling passage, where the sons of God are fallen angels and they cohabited with human women. This cannot be so, for angels are without sex; neither male nor female. Moreover, Jesus affirmed their “sexlessness” when He taught in Matthew 22:30 that angels neither marry nor are given in marriage. This interpretation also presses an alien meaning upon Genesis 6:1-4, where it is not entirely clear if the sons of God are indeed angels. Now in other passages of Scripture, notably Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7 it seems that the phrase "sons of God" is used interchangeably with "angels," though it does not seem to be the case in Genesis 6:1-4.

A second conjecture is that the spirits in prison are human. They are possibly people that were already in hell before the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and Jesus went to hell to preach a message of triumph over death and evil to those lost souls. A question of necessity must be asked; why would Jesus do this? People were saved the same way in Old Testament times as they are in New Testament times, by way of belief in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, it was looking forward to the cross, in the New, it is looking backward to the cross.

The punishment also remains consistent on both sides of the cross. Would those in hell not know that they are there? In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus taught that the individual consigned to hell would be fully aware of his fate: “But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.’” Why would they need Jesus to come and let them know they are in a place of eternal punishment?

Maybe Jesus went to proclaim release to those who repented just before the flood. This view is also unsound because for the saved individual, heaven is the guarantee (John 3:16), not temporary consignment to a place from where one must be released. Moreover, 1 Peter 3:20 teaches that only eight souls were saved. Some say that possibly Jesus went to those in hell to offer a second chance at salvation. The Bible clearly teaches in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed unto men to die once, but after this the judgment.” After death there is no second opportunity to respond to the free gift of salvation through Christ.

A fourth and more justifiable view is that Jesus preached through Noah when Noah was building the ark. 1 Peter 1:10-11 teaches that the Spirit of Christ preached through the Old Testament prophets and it stands to reason that Jesus could have done the same through Noah. The Spirit of Christ preached through Noah, where Jesus Himself pleaded for souls yet none were saved. Peter calls Noah a preacher of righteousness in 2 Peter 2:5 and though not proof positive that Jesus was preaching through Noah, it does indicate that Noah was more than just a shipbuilder. Noah had the unenviable task of explaining why he was building a big boat and for what reason. Genesis 6:17 says that “every living thing that is on the earth shall die.” This could then make the spirits in prison the people whom Noah attempted to reach before the flood—now in the prison of hell for their disobedience (1 Peter 3:20). Peter is speaking of those disobedient souls in their present condition, though they were not in that condition when Noah reached out to them. It is possible to speak this same way in English; for example, one could say, “I knew Pastor Tony when he was in college” (though he was not a pastor then).

This interpretation seems to be the most harmonious with the rest of Scripture and by far seems to be the most likely solution to the conundrum of 1 Peter 3:18-20. A word must be said in regards to proper biblical interpretation and a rejection of the building of a doctrine upon an unclear passage of Scripture. It is sound biblical interpretation to build doctrine upon clear passages of Scripture, of which obviously 1 Peter 3:18-20 is not completely clear.

For instance, a doctrine of the virgin birth could be built upon Galatians 4:4; “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Paul could be referring to His belief in the doctrine of the virgin birth. More likely, he is referring to Jesus’ humanity by making mention of the fact that Jesus was born of a woman. It is not to be doubted that the Apostle Paul believed in the virgin birth, though none of his writings mention it. Galatians 4:4 could lend additional weight to the doctrine but could not be called upon to justify it altogether. Rather, a doctrine should be built upon Scripture that clearly teaches the particular doctrine; in this particular case, Luke 1:26 teaches unambiguously that Mary was a virgin. 1 Peter 3:18-20 does not present a persuasive case that Jesus went to hell during the three days of His death and neither does any other passage in the Bible. Therefore, a doctrine of the descent of Christ into hell is unjustifiable simply based upon sound methods of Bible interpretation. Though Scripture does not support a descent of the Savior into hell, it is still widely taught and preached. It is difficult to let go of a tradition.

The doctrine of the descent into hell is not a recent development. It actually finds roots in the mid fourth century in the development of the Apostle’s Creed, a creed still recited in many contemporary worship services, notably Episcopalian and Presbyterian. Many denominations record this as an essential doctrine, necessary to the understanding of Christ’s atoning work. The basis of the doctrine is found not in Scripture, the only sure and certain source of doctrine, but rather in many years of church tradition. The doctrine of the descensus ad inferos, the Latin phrase used by most theology texts and biblical commentaries to refer to this teaching, translated “descent into hell (literally, underworld),” is fraught with problems.

It is surprising that the actual phrase “descended into hell” is found nowhere in Scripture. It was formulated and incorporated as an essential teaching of Christian faith in the Apostle’s Creed, which took shape not at an individual church council as many creeds, but rather through the process of several editions over about five hundred fifty years (200-750 A.D.). The text of the Apostle’s Creed is as follows, not to mention it has been popularized by deceased contemporary Christian music artist Rich Mullins in his song Creed, recently remade by Third Day ;-) :
I believe in God the Father; Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven; and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
The insertion of a statement into a creed, even though this creed is about 1500 years old, hardly makes it essential to doctrine and a creed is simply a tool, not a reliable source for adopting orthodox doctrine. (See my previous post, What are the Demands of Orthodoxy?) This is the nature of a creed; it is simply a statement of belief, and just because one believes something does not necessarily make it correct. Moreover, there is discord among denominations as to the use of the creed, omitting the questionable phrase “he descended into hell” in their recitations of it.

One argument proposed for the use of the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed is that it lends additional support to the fact that Jesus actually died and His death was not faked, nor was it a “swoon” as some claim. This is a noble objection to the proposition that something other than death occurred at the conclusion of the crucifixion yet a strained effort to offer additional credence to the fact that Jesus actually died. The weakness of the argument becomes apparent in that the inclusion of “he was buried” affirms the death of Jesus just as readily.

This was precisely the preface of Paul’s argument at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s defense of the resurrection and its historical reliability. “…Christ died according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (verses 3-4). The burial actually took place, confirming Jesus’ death, therefore giving further historical support to the fact of the resurrection. Logic demands that if a burial took place, it was naturally preceded by death. If not, there could have been no resurrection. Hence, using the descensus phrase lends no support to the fact that Jesus really died.

Though it is true that Jesus died and He continued in that state until resurrection morning, Scripture does not support a descent into hell during that time. A descent into hell makes for excellent drama, fascinating literature, startling works of art, and especially good preaching. What well-meaning Christian would desire not to deny that Jesus endured hell, the imposing, rightly feared, nether world of lost souls and demons? This speculation is referred to by the Catholic Church as Christ’s “harrowing of hell,” an engaging drama indeed.

However, holding such a view undermines the true atoning work of Christ and makes Jesus out to be a super-hero rather than a Savior. All the passages stated earlier are at best vague and ambiguous regarding a descent and provide insufficient evidence to adopt the descent as a definite doctrine. Moreover, sound biblical interpretation mitigates against the building of a doctrine of the descent of Jesus into hell simply because there is not a single passage of Scripture that teaches such a “doctrine” clearly. It is even more dangerous to formulate doctrine based on tradition (Mark 7:13) which is where the descent is steeped. A close analysis of the Biblical evidence regarding a descent of Jesus Christ into hell between His death and resurrection drives the answer to the question to be decisively no.


As always, all Scripture is taken from the NKJV.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Did Christ Descend into Hell? Part 1

This issue has sent more than one preacher into a theological tizzy and often gets inadequate treatment. This post is an attempt to clarify a biblical position on a very difficult issue indeed.

It is sometimes argued that Jesus Christ descended into hell after He died. Some believe that this was an additional step in the humiliation of the Son of God as He endured the shame that was set before Him so that salvation might be secured. Many maintain, as more than one Halifax County, VA preacher, that Jesus Christ actually descended into hell during the period between His death on Good Friday and resurrection from the dead on Easter morning. This belief, it will be discovered, is steeped in tradition rather than biblical proof.

Simply and convincingly, Scripture teaches against a descent of the Savior into hell. Many passages are turned to in order to justify a descent yet the Scriptural evidence weighs more heavily against it. As Christ hung on the cross, the penitent thief implored Him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ’s response in Luke 23:43 is telling: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This confirms several facts. Jesus died that day, as did the thief. Both their bodies were left on earth as their souls were translated to heaven. Moreover, there would be no delay as Christ went to hell, but the thief would be with Him that day in paradise. This is confirmed by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:8, that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”

Another one of Christ’s agonizing cries from the cross confirm that Jesus underwent no further torment than what was expected of Him on earth. In John 19:30, Jesus pronounced, “It is finished.” This strongly suggests that the alienation of the Father from the Son at that moment was brought to an end and that He would not descend into hell but rather He would meet His Father in heaven. There was no further work to be done in securing salvation for sinners.

Moreover, the Gospel of Luke records a third telling cry of the Savior: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit (23:46).” It is clear from this declaration that Jesus understood that the work of atonement was completed upon His death and hell would stand conquered by virtue of His resurrection and clearly not a descent of His spirit into it.

A further compendium of biblical evidence can be taken from Romans 6:23 and Hebrews 2. Romans 6:23 informs all that “the wages of sin is death.” Sin has as its just penalty death, not hell. Hell was a place created for the devil and his angels, according to Matthew 25:41. Hell was not created for the unrepentant sinner, though it is the final destiny of all those who refuse to believe on the Lord Jesus for salvation.

Hebrews 2 concludes with this same argument. The writer of Hebrews warns against neglecting the great salvation found in Christ and makes plain that disobedience will be punished (2:2). Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “…that through death [and not a descent into hell] He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” It is by virtue of His death that Jesus redeems those who believe and victory is secured over hell; a descent into hell would actually accomplish nothing.

The texts indicate that Jesus in His death experienced the same things every other believer experiences in death; He died, meaning His body ceased functioning, and His body remained here on earth. However, His soul passed immediately into the presence of God and He was then raised from the dead, His spirit reunited with His body. Jesus died in the same way it will happen to all who believe in Him, notwithstanding those alive at the Second Coming. However, many preachers and teachers will search for texts to support a descent of the Savior into hell, though many of the texts are pressed to mean something they do not. Many Scriptures are marshaled to lend support to the descent, primarily Psalm 16:10, Ephesians 4:8-10, Romans 10:6-7, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 1 Peter 3:18-19.

Psalm 16:10 is the only Old Testament passage to consider: “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow your Holy One to see corruption .” The difficulty arises with the use of the term Sheol. The word is a translation that is used numerous times in the Old Testament and is the actual Hebrew term brought directly over into English; a transliteration. It is translated as grave, pit, and hell in the verses the term is used. The commonality between the three translations is that each speaks of what happens after death, so the context of the verse the word occurs is crucial to determine the exact meaning.

Most often, Sheol means the grave, the place where one is buried after death. Though it can mean hell, the place of eternal torment for those who reject Jesus, context does not dictate this meaning in this Psalm. It seems simply to mean that death will have no eternal power over Jesus; His body will not decay as dead corpses do. This was also Peter’s usage of the verse when he preached the sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:27, using Psalm 16:10 as a primary text. It is sound biblical interpretation to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, and the Psalm cannot be pressed to mean more than what the Apostle Peter meant it to say in His kerygmatic usage. He compared the resurrected Jesus to King David whose tomb “is with us to this day (Acts 2:29).” Obviously therefore, Peter was arguing not for a descent into hell, but the objective reality of the resurrection of Jesus.

To complicate matters, the King James Version translates “Sheol” in Psalm 16:10 as hell. This seems to be an unfortunate rendering, possibly imposed on the term by biased translators rather than an accurate translation, for more recent translations, such as the New American Standard and the New King James translate it as Sheol. The New International Version renders it as “grave.” Quite possibly, the translators had the Apostle’s Creed in mind, which will be addressed at the conclusion of Part 2 of this post. (The KJV was first published in 1611, whereas the Apostle’s Creed was formulated between 200-750 A.D., so it isn't a stretch of the imagination to assume that the KJV translators knew and possibly were influenced by the Creed.)

In Ephesians 4:8-10, Paul writes, “Therefore He says, ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’ (Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)” Does this verse refer to a descent into hell? Context places these verses in a description of the giving of spiritual gifts upon salvation. It is unclear what exactly the Apostle Paul means by the phrase, “the lower parts of the earth.” However, the New International Version of the Bible translates the phrase as “the lower, earthly regions.” Though the NIV does include a footnote on that verse, meaning the translators are unsure as to the exact meaning for the footnote reads “depths of the earth," that translation of the phrase does not force a foreign meaning upon the verse, nor does it do any violence to the context. Therefore, verse nine seems simply to be descriptive, underscoring the humiliation of the Incarnation, the fact that Jesus laid aside His glory in heaven to come down to earth.

Verse 10 seems to make it clear that the “descent” of Christ was not a descent into hell but rather a descent from heaven down to earth. In effect, the Savior is leading a victory procession. It was not uncommon for the victor of a battle to take home spoils and give gifts to those along the route of the procession. Jesus is leading a victory parade, having conquered sin, death, and hell, and is now handing out the spoils of the battle, through spiritual gifts to His church. These verses do not substantiate a descent into hell, but rather a descent into the earth from heaven and then an ascent back to heaven.

Romans 10:6-7 also seems to have a descent in view though not necessarily so. In these verses the Apostle Paul asks two open-ended questions in regards to the nearness of Jesus. “But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is to bring Christ down from above) or, “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is to bring Christ up from the dead).’” The affirmation of a descent into hell hinges on two elements. First, what is the abyss referring to? Like the Hebrew term Sheol, context is key.

The abyss, in other places in the New Testament, actually does refer to hell. Numerous times in Revelation the term is rendered “bottomless pit,” a plain reference to hell. The demons begged Christ in Luke 8:31 not to command them to go out into the abyss, also a clear reference to hell. The context however dictates that Paul is using the term “abyss” in a metaphorical sense to disprove the Romans’ belief that Jesus is unreachable; the second element. In effect, the apostle is asking, “Who may ascend to a place inaccessibly high to find Christ? Who may descend into a place inaccessibly low?” Can one indeed find Jesus in heaven or in hell? Is it necessary to “look” that extensively to find Him? Verse eight draws the conclusion that rather, He is very near, close enough to call upon (an earshot, perhaps?) for salvation (verses 9-10). Paul uses the term “abyss” as a clear contrast to heaven to give the sense of a place unreachable to humans, which neither is heaven, save through the atoning work of Christ. In actuality, hell is the more reachable place for humans. The Apostle then makes the point that Jesus is close by, not unreachable; “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). Therefore, there is no clear affirmation of a descent into hell in these verses.

A fourth Scripture to examine is 1 Timothy 3:16, possibly a fragment of an early Christian hymn. It reads, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up in glory.” Like Psalm 16:10, this verse is pressed to mean something it clearly cannot. The angels are believed by some to represent the fallen angels, or demons, and their witness of Christ as He entered hell. In other places in the New Testament, it is made clear if fallen angels are in view. As in Mark 1:26, an unclean spirit came out of a man. In Luke 8:30 many demons had entered a man. If God’s holy angels are in view, the term “angel” is simply used and there is no arguable reason to say that the angels of 1 Timothy 3:16 are not holy angels.

In the next post, I will look at the most tedious passage of Scripture, 1 Peter 3:18-19 and the prodigious error of including the phrase "He descended into hell" in the Apostle's Creed. Then I will draw some necessary conclusions and potential dangers of holding to a belief in the descent of the Savior into hell.


All Scripture taken from the NKJV and Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology was invaluable in the course of this study.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Outsourcing Parenthood

One of my recent commenters, Spunky, directed me to one of her posts that addressed the same topic I addressed in my previous post. It is definitely worth your time and attention. The essay addresses a common problem among parents, not one that only affects homeschoolers, but all parents no matter your schooling choice. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite and the basic premise of the essay:
We are outsourcing parenthood. Parents are knowingly giving the job of raising their children over to another. No parent would readily admit this of course. But the increased reliance on day care, before school, and after school programs demonstrates something else.
After reading Outsourcing Parenthood, make sure you drop Spunky an encouraging note.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Character Formation in Children: Not a By-product

One of the local Christian radio stations plays a vapid little commercial encouraging Christians to pray for their pastors. Two ladies are gossiping while attending to the needs of several children, who can be heard playing in the background. One lady fusses at one child as you hear laughter and the sounds of things breaking.

Then one lady remarks that Jerry is especially troublesome and she makes the comment, “And to think that he is a pastor’s kid!” The commercial ends with a happy ending, Jerry having been justified for his ill-mannered behavior and the conclusion that pastors’ families are human families and they need prayer, too. Yet, there is an underlying assumption in this commercial that is easily missed and it is a common assumption, not just of pastors’ families, but most Christian families. It was assumed that since Jerry is a pastor's kid, then by default, he also must be a good kid. Godly character formation in children is not a by-product of any particular system or institution. Character formation in children is an intentional, parent-led endeavor.

Attending an Encouragement for the Homeschool Family conference two weeks ago, my heart was nearly wrenched in two as Steve Maxwell pointed out a dire problem in the shepherding of my children and one I feel is important enough to share that none of us miss it. I had made the assumption that since my children were homeschooled that good, godly character would naturally flow from that. I could not have been more wrong.

My kids are sinners. Don’t call Social Services or anything like that on me. They don’t need any instruction in lying, covering up the truth, exaggerating, being mean, nasty, and ugly to their sisters, backtalking, and the list goes on. What I discovered was that I was not being intentional in training this behavior out of them. If my children are that way it is because I have not led them to be otherwise.

I made the terrible assumption that character is a by-product of the homeschooling endeavor, and it isn’t! So many parents make this fatal mistake, even parents who don’t homeschool. I have heard testimonies from public school teachers as well who feel that unruly children are not the problem; it is unruly children’s parents that are the problem. They receive comments like, “I can’t do anything with him either. During the day from 7-3 he is your kid. You can’t handle her? Huh. Neither can I.”

In the same way that I assumed homeschooling would engender good character in my children, so do parents who public school make that same assumption. And even worse than that, many parents are content to let the church do its job for them as well. Two hours of church attendance a week brings about very little if any good, godly character in spoiled rotten kids.

The problem is that parents are too happy to farm their God-given responsibilities off on someone else. I stand in the midst of this indictment, so no finger-pointing, here. Homeschooling was a way to ease my responsibilities to my children. I had even further justified my case, because my wife and I are unique homeschoolers in that she and I split the workload, almost neatly in half, so I was a participant in this “character-molding” enterprise. I stood back and scratched my head wondering, “Why aren’t my kids good?” One of the reasons we began homeschooling was because of the character of children who are public schooled typically is less than desirable.

It was then that I discovered that I was being wholly disobedient to the commands of Scripture. The rub came in that I knew Ephesians 6:4; “And you fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” It was a verse that I often prayed, beseeching my Heavenly Father for wisdom in raising my children. How deaf I had become!

The commands of Ephesians 6:4 are made to a peculiar group of people; fathers! I felt I had been perfectly obedient. We were homeschooling, for crying out loud! What more did we need to do? But the lesson is: character formation in children is not a by-product.

Yet what I had discovered was that I was not perfectly obedient to those commands, and I still am not. Neither are most parents! The commands (present active imperatives) of Ephesians 6:4 are twofold: do not provoke to wrath and bring up. I think that the Apostle Paul issued this directive almost as a reverse conditional. You see the result, wrathful kids, a product of their fathers’ failures to “bring them up,” and the fathers’ responsibility for their turning out the way they did. It is dad who “provoked” the children to be this way because he failed to “bring them up.”

I have come to see this play out in my own children. Children who have no boundaries typically become angry kids; angry when they don’t get their way, angry when they get left out, angry when they think they have been maltreated, angry when boundaries are enforced that were never placed there to begin with.

However, when boundaries are there, rules enforced, the rod applied for willful disobedience, true joy is the result. So the next few posts begins with an admonition to fathers. Don’t farm your responsibilities out to someone else. Children are a blessing from God, and should be treated as such. Don’t make these fatal assumptions in the character formation of your children.

The church cannot do your job for you. It is easy to use the church as a scapegoat, almost natural. The church is where good is supposed to be instilled in children, they are taught right from wrong, how to recognize sin, how to deal with sin, and the good and godly alternatives to sin. Yet the evidence the children receive in Sunday School and church is only empirical. They have no raw data. They have not had the pestle applied to them in the crucible of experience. The church can only go so far, and rightfully so.

Neither think that the youth group can step in and substitute either. I agree with brother Steve Maxwell and others that believe youth ministry needs to be eradicated altogether. Brother Steve shared a poignant testimony about a young man at a conference who accosted him because of his radical ideas about youth ministry. The boy bellowed, “How dare you say that about my youth group! I have something in my youth group, I have a spiritual mentor!” Brother Steve then asked rhetorically, “Who is that, your father?”

The schools cannot do your job for you. Whether parents homeschool or send their children to public school, character formation cannot be farmed out. So many teachers’ hands are tied because they deal with discipline issues rather than do what tax dollars are collected for their express intent; teach! In homeschooling, the assumption is just that much more insidious. At least in public schooling, parents can conveniently blame the teachers. As with myself, I discovered it was solely me to blame for those failures (which incidentally, are not my kids’ failures).

Only dad can successfully do the job God has called Him to do. Obedience is a terribly difficult thing, but aren’t our children worth it? My repentance on this issue has been thoroughgoing for I have taken a more active role in “bringing my children up.” They deserve it.

I worked as a purchasing agent at a 250+ bed hospital for about 2 ½ years. One of my responsibilities was bidding out outside companies to perform services that were traditionally handled by hospital employees. It was not a task I relished, because I knew eventually that someone would be losing a job. It made sense to the upper management because it saved on payroll and benefits to “outsource” services. Some services were never meant to be outsourced, though.

Bringing up our children in the training and admonition of the Lord is hard, but was never meant to be outsourced.


Monday, October 02, 2006

What are the Demands of Orthodoxy?

The standard and norm of Christian orthodoxy is of course the Word of God, the Bible. It would seem right and proper to assume that since we have an infallible rule of faith and practice that orthodoxy would come naturally. It is easy to claim orthodoxy yet very difficult to achieve and maintain. We live in a woefully fallen world and that causes orthodoxy to be easier said than done.

We are not naturally orthodox. Romans 8:7 says, “The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.” Christian orthodoxy then naturally begins with regeneration. Yet, even after regeneration and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, orthodoxy is still a difficult endeavor. Always struggling against the flesh, battling against reason and good common sense, orthodoxy strikes against the evil heart resident within. There will always be that evil heart that longs to be unfettered and venture out on its own apart from the God who fashioned it and redeemed it.

A third problem is the imperfect and sinful world we live in. The influences of unbelief, wayward thinking, and error are a constant threat and are always making their attacks on the Christian who would desire to be truly orthodox. Add to the struggle with the old man so many competing ideas that present themselves daily for consideration and Paul’s words become dire: “Bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). For these reasons, Christian orthodoxy can and must make several demands.

To be truly orthodox, the Christian must have a pure heart. As I stated in the last post, orthodoxy is more an exercise of the heart than of the mind. An earnest desire to know God more must be present and an active pursuit of His Truth must follow from that desire. This will flow from a heart longing for God, not one that is unshackled looking for one’s own way. Jeremiah said in 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, who can know it?” Yet Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Purity of heart comes from acknowledging before God that its pursuit is not natural and much help is needed.

Even though, a mixture of idolatry can invade even the heart with the purest of motives. Some will quickly belittle discussion of sound teaching. Instead of attempting to benefit from such discussion, you might hear something like, “Christ unites and doctrine divides.” “You should not ask, ‘What do you believe?’ Rather you should ask, ‘Whom do you trust?’” The minimization of doctrine is common. Can pursuing Christ with a pure heart substitute for holding to sound teaching? In a sense it can, but it is not sufficient. The apostles taught that to depart from sound teaching is a departure from Christ Himself. “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 9).

Purity of heart has its place but only at the beginning. Orthodoxy begins with a pure heart and is sustained by a pure heart, but at best it is orthodoxy’s minimum requirement.

To be truly orthodox, the Christian must have a clear mind. One of my life verses is Matthew 22:37. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Loving God with all your mind is not simply giving mental assent to the teachings of God, but rather willfully embracing them and allowing them to become the texture of who you are. Again, John Murray: “It is thus that we shall become assimilated to [the Word of God] and that it will be assimilated by us.”

Much talk is made of how much one must understand in order to be saved and it may sound as if I am painting a grim picture of excluding the mentally deficient or the very young. In no way am I doing that. I believe the Gospel. I believe that in order to be saved a sinner must see his need for forgiveness, see that it can only be supplied by Jesus, turn from his sinful ways, and accept Jesus’ work on the cross as sufficient to pay the debt for his sins. The Gospel in a nutshell is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, stated more eloquently by the beloved Apostle than I could ever proclaim. “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” I believe orthodoxy can end there for the one who is mentally deficient and is by physical limitation unable to understand much more.

For the very young and all the rest (including me), I believe orthodoxy is a continued endeavor. Peter ended his second letter, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” The word grow in the New Testament, auxano, can have the simple meaning of increasing in size, as plants grow, but can also carry a very technical meaning of the increase of Christian growth. Not to mention the fact that “grow” comes to the Christian as a command (present active imperative). And in what are we to grow? We are to grow in grace and knowledge, a perfect union of heart and mind. The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis, which can mean just knowledge in general, but used in this context, it refers specifically to the body of teaching that Peter understood as beginning with the holy prophets and continuing through the apostles of the Lord and Savior (2 Peter 3:2). This perfectly compliments a previous post where I stated, “Sound doctrine is an active pursuit of the Christian.”

To be truly orthodox, a Christian must have clean hands. What use is it to know God’s Word, to believe God’s Word, and to study God’s Word, if we do not practice (obey) God’s Word? Orthodoxy must progress beyond sterile academics. It is a prodigious mistake to think that we can have a reservoir of truth, filled once for all, and that without any further effort, it will supply our needs and the needs of others for the rest of our days. If we ever come to the point where we are content to rest upon our laurels we have already become part of the conceit that is, ultimately, Satan’s deceit. We must constantly replenish our minds and fill our hearts with the pure Word of God that will put us on that path of straight thinking and therefore true orthodoxy.

This leads to a second concern I have, and an exceptional mistake made in holding to orthodoxy as simply an academic exercise. Holding to creeds, affirmations, statements, or confessions does not an orthodox Christian make. Such things are useful tools, but that is exactly what they are; tools. I see nothing inherently wrong with making statements of faith as long as they do not progress beyond the natural bounds of Scripture nor read anything back into the Scriptures; nor should they make any exacting requirements of the members of the body to whom the document serves. Such mistakes elevate creeds and formulas to the status of idols, imposing unnatural requirements upon Christians, that in order to be seen as truly orthodox, one must affirm a statement or creed.

Orthodoxy rather flows from a pure heart, a clear mind, and clean hands, ready to get dirty doing the work of the Lord. The work is done not out of obligation, contractual duty (because You saved me, I will do…), in reverence of a creed, but because one knows God, has been redeemed by Him, and desires to do the right things because they believe the right things about Him. Orthopraxy is borne of orthodoxy; it necessarily follows. Pastor James understood this.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:18-19). James attacked a wordy and worthless faith. James is referring to the greatest confession that a first century Jew could make, the doctrine that God is one God. Deuteronomy 6:4 was often on the lips of the orthodox Jew and often in the phylacteries they tied upon their foreheads; shema israel adonai elohenu adonai echad. Hear O Israel, the Lord your God the Lord is one. It was the highest confession a Jew could make, that the Lord is one.

James wrote in effect that he agrees that the oneness of God is an important doctrine but on the other hand even the demons acknowledge that. They exercise a rudimentary faith. Even the demons ar orthodox to a certain extent. James however demonstrates the inadequacy of words not backed up by action. “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20). I once heard a preacher call James the New Testament man from Missouri. Missouri is nicknamed the “show me” state. So for James, if you were to tell him you had faith, he would respond by saying, “Show me.”

That is my conclusion to this matter; if you tell me you are orthodox, my response is, “Show me.”


*All Scripture taken from the New King James Version.