Before I get started on what I want to discuss in this post, I would like to take a moment and to apologize to my followers for my extended absence. Truth is that life through me a curve. I had to switch jobs which has put me on a third shift schedule. This switch meant that I am sleeping during the day time and have very little time to write. Additionally, the job change also meant a decreased income, as a result I have returned to school to complete a computer degree I started years ago. This has resulted in the reality that any free time I would have from my new job is usually spent doing classwork. Combining these factors with my family responsibilities, I quickly realized that something had to give. Unfortunately, that something was my writing, and for this I am really sorry.
Having got that off my chest, lets move directly into the topic I had intended for this post, namely- “What does it meant that Jesus is in charge?” I recently had this question posed to me and I responded with the standard seminary answers to the question. However, the more I thought about the question the more I felt the Spirit trying to point out a thread of thought that needed to be unraveled. It was a thought brings us to the heart of what God is doing or not doing.
The thought which gripped me and would not be dismissed is simply this:
If the resurrection inaugurated the kingdom, then Jesus is in charge and the world is not getting any worse. In fact, it should be getting better.
But is this a true statement? I have argued in several posts that God’s intention is the the restoration of all of creation. Assuming that is assertion is correct; it logically does not make sense that God would allow further decay; but rather would bring about agents of change to improve the situation. This He has done through His Son, Jesus, the Bible, the prophets, and everyday Christians.
Furthermore; the Bible itself suggests this is true. Jesus, himself, refers to his coming as being like the days of Noah. He tells the disciples,
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. “
Matt 24:36-39, NIV
Now look at what God said about the days of Noah,
” The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”” 8
Furthermore, in the same chapter, Jesus tells us the atrocities of war are merely routine history (vs-6-7). The world is not getting worse, it is just as wicked as it has always been. So the question becomes is Jesus in charge or not. Again, Jesus tells us,
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
So the Bible confirms that the first two parts of the proposed proposition are true: Jesus is in charge and the world is no worse than its always been. So does this mean that the world is actually improving? As noted historian and theologian N. T. Wright points out,
“For instance, most nations assume some version of human rights; however much we argue about it; however badly we implement it; we sort of assume it. Nobody, but the early Christians, dreamed of such a thing in the ancient world. Most people see poverty and disease as a problem to be addressed. In the ancient world, people just shrugged their shoulders; that’s just how things were. The world is gradually recognizing, as Jesus obviously did, though sadly the church often didn’t, that women are fully human. Much of the world knows in its bones, even though its hard to live up to it, that patience and humility and forgiveness are good things. In the First Century, nobody, apart from a few Jews and those crazy Christians, thought that way at all. We should not downplay or ignore those. Those are major cultural shifts.”
In other words, Jesus being in charge means that the “world” is getting better not worse. It is not heading to some great destruction but a great recreation (cf. Rom 8:18-30) This is what means to say what does it mean for Jesus to be in charge.
So what does this mean for us. It means that God’s kingdom is already at work. It means that we are charged, like with any newly formed government, to create the infrastructure, the culture, and the moral character under which this governance is to occur. It means we need Christian artists to create beauty for beauty sake. We need musicians to write new songs. We need Christ-following architects and construction workers to build Eco-friendly cities. It means we need politicians to push governments into just policies. It means we need school teachers to mentor our kids not just in facts and figures, but in ideas. We need Jesus loving restraunt employees to serve as Jesus served. In short, we need KINGDOM BUILDERS!
The title of this post may seem strange for a blog which promotes the spread of Christianity, but I feel that the explosion of servant evangelism has produced an unintended consequence. I fear that in today’s post modern world with its culture of subjective truth that many Christians present the Gospel as a beneficial practice rather than what it is… namely the TRUTH!
While it is certainly a reality that Christianity has done much good. For example, it was Christians who were in the forefront of providing education to the masses. It was Christianity who built hospitals for the poor. In America, it was Christian’s who were the driving force behind the racial equality movements of the sixties.
However, it is also an equal reality, that Christianity is the impetus of much evil in the world as well. Christianity was behind the crusades. Christianity has been the defense of terrible prejudices towards the LGBT community. Christianity was the used by the K.K.K. to justify lynchings.
As a result, the western Church has responded (and correctly so) by shifting its focus away from forced conversions towards battling the social evils of our day of homelessness, sickness, and hunger. It has, for the betterment, used servant evangelism as way to present Christianity less as a selective club and more a open arms community. However such a shift in focus, in my opinion, has produced a very undesirable effect.
It seems to me as I listen to other Christians present the Gospel the emphasis has shifted from the Gospel being TRUE to its benefits. The Gospel cannot and should not be presented as something that is merely beneficial. It must be presented as something that is a true reality. Christians have become timid in announcing the FACTS of the Gospel.
The facts of Christianity are these:
God created his temple in the form of Heaven and the physical universe
People were created in God’s image to reflect God’s sovereign reign into the temple and the praises of the temple back to God.
People rejected their purpose and worshiped the creation rather than the creator.
Jesus came as God-in-flesh to redeem his creation
Jesus died to bring such redemption
Jesus demonstrated his divinity and right to rule through his resurrection and ascension.
The Church was created to announce that Jesus is Lord.
These facts should produce the servant evangelism, for Jesus’ lordship is for the sole purpose of setting things right. The Gospel is not that Jesus loves you or that Jesus saved you. The Gospel is not that God will see you through your present troubles. While these are all true, they are the consequences of the Gospel. They are not the Gospel, itself. The Gospel is that God is in control and ruling having broken the power of death and instituted justice by inaugurating his Government through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.
As C.S Lewis once wrote,
One of the great difficulties [in sharing the Gospel] is to keep before your audience mind the question of truth. They are always thinking you are recommending Christianity not because it is true, but because it is good.
Left Behind is a series of books written by Tim LaHaye and Jim Jenkins which deals with the Christian doctrine of the rapture. This account of faithful Christians simply disappearing shortly before the collapse of human civilization and the impending second coming of Christ is a work of complete fiction along the lines of Dan Brown’s DaVinci’s Code. However, the theological foundation, upon which the series’ concept rest, is indeed one of serious scholarly consideration. Furthermore, this concept is not limited to merely fringe groups and denominations within Christian fundamentalism but has spread into the culture at large. After examining the readership of the Left Behind series, Amy Johnson Frykholm notes that the rapture and dispensational theology which the series is based upon “must be understood as a fluid part of the broader culture, not as the realm of isolated believers.”
Since the doctrine has permeated such a large part of both Christian and popular culture, it is important for the lay-Christian and scholar alike to understand exactly what the doctrine is; whether or not it is biblical; and if so what does the Bible say about it. These are the questions I will attempt to answer by examining the history of the doctrine, the most prevalent of the three views of the doctrine and the biblical basis of the doctrine. Additionally, I will attempt to show that although a concept of the rapture may indeed be Biblical, the popular teaching and presentation of the doctrine as sort of escapism from the corrupt material world is not accurate based upon the witness of the early church fathers and biblical exegesis.
A Survey of the Doctrine of the Rapture
What Is the Rapture?
The term “rapture” is a designation by premillennialists to the talk about the event in which the church will be united with Christ at his second coming. The term comes from the Latin, rapio, meaning to “snatch up.” The major Biblical passage from which this teaching emerges is found in I Thessalonians 4:15-17 which states,
Let me explain. (This is the word of the Lord I’m speaking to you!) We who are alive, who remain until the Lord is present, will not find ourselves ahead of those who fell asleep. The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord.
From the interpretation of this verse, the popular teaching of the rapture is depicted through the image of the sudden disappearance of Christians from the perspective of non-Christians; leaving non-Christians left behind to deal with the aftermath. The only real point of contention with this presentation and interpretation deals with the relationship of this “disappearing event” and the tribulation which is believed to occur at the end of the age prior to the second coming of Christ. Pretribulationlists believe the rapture is to occur before the seven-year tribulation. Mid-tribulationalists believe this event to occur after the rise of the antichrist, but before the judgements that pave the way for Christ’s return. Post-tribulationist teach that church will leave with Christ after the seven-year period. In all three views, the rapture is the escaping of the Church from the corrupt physical realm to the spiritual realm of bliss for all eternity known as Heaven. However, it is important to note as Arthur B. Whiting does, that Paul’s focus is not in the direction or the final location of the “snatching away” but rather that the church will be in the presence of Christ.
The Origins of the Doctrine
Despite attempts to demonstrate otherwise, the modern presentation of the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively new concept. It isn’t until the nineteenth century, that the doctrine of the rapture becomes influential within the world of Christian thought and teaching. This is largely due to the contribution of John Nelson Darby and his pretribulation “secret rapture” teaching.
However, since it’s proposal, Darby’s teaching of the rapture has been broiled in controversy. However, many modern scholars have begun to question its validity. As Michael J. Svigel observes, “The perception among interested exegetes and theologians appears to be that rapture theology rests not on verifiable exegesis but on inferences drawn from ambiguous biblical passages and on peculiar dispensational presuppositions.” In response to this, Svigel argues that Darby’s interpretation of the passage in first 1 Thessalonians 4 rests upon his exegesis of Revelations 12:1-6 as well as other passages. He concludes,
In sum, four elements came together for Darby to construct his Pretribulation rapture teaching. The first was a consistent futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation. Second, he held to a strong doctrine of the mystical union between Christ and the church, found stunningly exemplified in the vision of the male child in Rev 12:5. The third element was an openness to distinguishing OT Israel from the NT Church, found envisioned in the woman (Israel) giving birth to the male child (the church) —two distinct entities with separate, but intertwined, destinies both past and future. The fourth element necessary to exegetically construct toe pretribulation rapture view was a literal understanding of the chronological indicators in Rev 11-13.
Three Views of the Rapture
The pretribulation view of the rapture is the one adhered to buy most of mainstream Christianity. This view holds that the church will be “snatched up” to Heaven before the seven years of tribulation supposedly described in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations. Clouse notes the spreading of this view through the mainstream scholarship from its origins by John Darby in the nineteenth century. There are several features which are key to this view.
The foremostfeature of the pretribulation view is that of immanency. Holders of this view believe that the rapture is immanent, in so far as there are no prerequisite events which need to occur before the rapture, itself. It can and will occur without warning or notice. The notion of immanency is seen to be evidenced by the repeated biblical refrain of “no one knows the day or the hour.” These words, spoken by Jesus, can be found in three key scriptures. These scriptures are themselves responses to questions asked by Jesus’ disciples on aspects of his teaching. Pretribulationists assert that these questions are referring to the last days, a known point of Jewish emphasis.
The second key feature is the two-stage return of Jesus. The two stages being the coming to “snatch away” the church before seven-year tribulation; the second stage being the coming for the millennial reign. The church, it is believed, will escape the entirety of the tribulation.This feature is a result of the other key features of the view, namely, the literal interpretation of Revelations and Daniel’s prophecies concerning the tribulation and the millennial reign of Christ. Pretribulationalism is the almost uncontested view of those who hold to dispensationalism.
The Midtribulation is very similar to the pretribulation. Both views take a literal view of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Both view see the second coming of Christ as two-stage process. The main difference is that proponents of this view move the timing of the first stage to about halfway through the seven-year tribulation. This means that the Church will experience the beginning of the tribulation but escape the last three and half years of the tribulation.
The proponents of the midtribulation have three main points of disagreements with pretribulationist. First, they disagree with the secret nature of the rapture, the revival to be experienced during the tribulation, and the repeated mention of three and half years in both the books of Daniel and Revelation. These they argue are scriptural inaccuracy which require a reworking of the pretribulationalist’s view. The major critique against this view is that there is very little direct Biblical support.
The final view of posttribulation rapture will not be discussed much in this paper, however it is beneficial to briefly note it. This view came out of the direct response to the problems of the two-stage coming of Christ. The major objection of those who champion this view are the various scriptures which suggest that the rapture will be and subsequently the second coming of Christ will be very public and visible. Additionally, there is a lot of flexibility within this line of thought. Clouse notes there are at least four schools of interpretation that are recognized by scholars within this view.
The Rapture and the Resurrection of the Dead
One of the major problems with the modern presentation of the rapture within evangelical circles is its relationship to another central Christian doctrine, namely, the bodily resurrection of the dead. Michael Williams highlights the issue when he writes, “When we understand the future via the rapture doctrine, we must say that the ultimate purpose of redemption is to take Christians to heaven.” It argues against the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection by suggesting that the “good” of creation declared by God in Genesis 1 has become corrupted to the point that it is now worthless and needs to be escaped. This is made clear from the escapist teaching that heaven is the final goal and destination of the redeemed.
However, the Apostle Paul, seems to be squarely against this idea when writes to the Roman Church, “Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified” (Rom 8:20-21). Therefore, according to Paul, the present physical creation which is corrupt will be redeemed. This would seem to indicate then, that our own redemption will include our own physical nature. Indeed, Jesus, speaking of his own resurrection, said to his disciples, ““Why are you so disturbed?” he said. “Why do these questionings come up in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; it really is me, myself. Touch me and see! Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones like you can see I have” (Lk 24:38-39). Furthermore, the Apostle John writes, “Beloved ones, we are now, already, God’s children; it hasn’t yet been revealed what we are going to be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). In other words, if Jesus’s resurrection was some sort of physical bodily resurrection then ours will be also. If our redemption is physical and the physical cosmos is to be redeemed as Paul claims, then it seems that the escapism that the modern presentation of the rapture teaches seems to be in error because the corrupt created universe will once again become a “good” creation.
This brings up a very important question: What about the scriptures that seem to indicate that people go to heaven when they die such as Jesus’ statement to the brigand on the cross (Lk 23:43). In his book on the resurrection, noted scholar, N. T. Wright argues for a two-stage post-mortem resurrection. He argues that Jesus and the brigand did go to heaven. Jesus returns to Earth in his new physical body, while the brigand awaits his physical body at the second coming of Christ. Wright suggests that when people die they go to Heaven and await Jesus second coming. It is only at the second coming that the believers receive their resurrection bodies. This then would lend support to the “good” creation argument previously expounded as well as deny Heaven as the final destination. As Wright is fond of saying, “Heaven is important, but not the end of the world.”
The Witness of the Early Fathers
As previously stated, the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively new idea. It isn’t until the Darby’s “secret rapture” teaching of the nineteenth century that any great consideration was given. As Clouse notes, “It is obvious that throughout most of the history of the church those that taught premillennialism did not have such a detailed interpretation of the endtimes.” However, despite this lack of endtime interpretations, there are still clues as to what the early church fathers were thinking concerning the second coming and the events which surround it.
One such clue is to be found in the writing of Tertullian. He states,
He teaches them that they must “not sorrow concerning them that are asleep,” and at the same time explains to them the times of the resurrection, saying, For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus shall God bring with Him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of our Lord, shall not prevent them that are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we be ever with the Lord.”
Tertullian does not seem to think of the second-coming of Christ as two stage process. In the passage quoted above, the church father implies that the resurrection and the being caught up in the air happen simultaneously with Christ’s return to Earth with the saints. In other words, for Tertullian there is not one coming in which Christ gathers the saints to escape and another in which Christ returns to Earth accompanied by the saints. There is simply one second coming in which the saints meet Christ in the air and accompany him to Earth.
Another such clue is given by Cyprian. On first glance it appears that Cyprian advocates an escapist reality of the rapture. Cyprian is, in reality, dealing with his present situation of Roman persecution. He writes,
We who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. Do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an early departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence, and sets us free from the snares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom.
In the last line of the quoted passage Cyprian speaks of a restoration. Certainly, he knows that believers will be “snatched up” as Paul describes. However, his point is not that Christians are snatched away to escape a corrupt physical cosmos, but rather that they are saved from intense persecution. When this salvation occurs, according to Cyprian, the kingdom and paradise of the Garden will be restored. This does not speak of two-stage coming, rather it speaks of a single event. At Christ coming, the paradise and the kingdom of God will be consummated in a very real and physical sense.
The crux of any theological proposition must be that it is supported by scriptural evidence. Does the scriptural evidence support the idea? Svigel argues that Darby’s exegetical treatment, which was the basis of his argument, of Revelations 12:5 and in conjunction with Daniel 7, Revelation 3 and 1 Thessalonians 4 certainly do. However, there are several problems with Darby’s exegesis which need to be addressed.
1 Thessalonians 4:16 states, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet.” The Greek word for “come” is Parousia. Parousia has the meaning of a visit by a royal dignitary. This means that Paul’s intention was not to speak of some escapism from the world, but talk about the escorting of the true king into his sovereignty. St. John Chrysostom confirms this, writing,
If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For He received Him up in the clouds, and we shall be caught up in the clouds. Acts 1:9 Do you see how great is the honor? And as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him.
This presents serious problems for Darby’s two-stage advent. Chrysostom is saying that the purpose of the “snatching up” is not to escape the tribulation and then return with Christ at some later time, but rather to escort Christ to his sovereign land.
Revelations 3 and 12
The key component to Darby’s “secret rapture” interpretation of scripture is the immanency of the “snatching away.” This comes primarily from the interpretation of Revelations 3:3 which states, “So remember how you received the message, how you heard it and kept it—and repent! So if you don’t keep awake, I will come like a thief, and you won’t know what time I’m coming to you.” Darby and others point to the phrase “like a thief” as support for their immanent rapture. However, this completely ignores the point that the scripture is making by it’s inherent caveat. The church at Sardis is told to repent, then the warning is issued. The implications are if you are not focused on Christ, then he will come unexpectedly. The unexpectedness is for those not focused on Christ; not believers.
This brings the discussion to Revelations 12:5. This is the Crux of Darby’s argument. It is his corporate understanding of the image of the child who is snatched away in this verse. As Svigel explains that Darby understands the verse as the “vision of the woman in heaven refers to the positional reality of the church, whose subject is Jesus Christ, while the later actions of being pursued and fleeing refer to the actual historical experiences of God’s people.” Darby even has support in this view from Methodius in the fourth century
This does not seem to take into account the historical context from which John’s audience would have understood the image. Radamacher et al, understand this verse to be an echo of Psalm 2:9 and therefore the snatching away as they ascension of Christ. This seems to be more in line with historical context. Commenting on this verse, Keener writes,
Virgil and other Roman also extolled the birth of a divine boy who would bring deliverance to the world, glorifying the first emperor, Augustine…In the various forms of the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern myth, the divine child was sheltered until he returned to slay the dragon. Here he is kept at God’s side until he comes to destroy the dragon. In the light of Psalm 2:6-9, Isaiah 9-6-7, and Micah 5:3, the “birth” probably indicates Jesus death, resurrection and messianic enthronement, not his literal birth.
The first century audience to who John was writing would have understood this to represent Jesus. They simply would not have applied it to the corporate church as Darby and his later followers had. This again presents a huge problem as it is this passage which allows Darby to place the timing of the “Secret Rapture” as pretribulation.
Darby’s whole idea of a “secret rapture” hinges on the idea that certain passages within the Gospel accounts are meant for the church and others for the Jews. It has as its foundation the theology of dispensationalism. Darby argues that Matthew 24 is not intended for Christians, rather it is solely addressed to the Jews. In this manner, Darby dismisses passages such as Matthew 24:29-34 which seeming contradict his immanency and secret rapture theories.
However, Brock Bingaman highlights four deficiencies within the concept of dispensationalism. First, it sees scripture as compilation of facts rather than a narrative moving towards a specific conclusion. Wright supports this view insisting that we have misunderstood the Gospel as compilation of facts rather than a narrative and thereby diminished the significance of the resurrection. The second deficiency given by Bingaman is that it is hermeneutically faulty by committing too strongly to literalism. Third, he suggests that by seeing scripture as a compilation of facts, the interpreter does not give proper emphasis to the historical context. Two examples of this is Paul’s reference to the last trump and Jesus’s “no man knows the hour” references. These are probably references to the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah. This feast is determined by the new moon which in biblical times meant no one knew when it would come. Furthermore, it was celebrated by blowing trumpets and the last blast was known as the last trump. Finally, he states it is deficient in their approach to central tenets and particular texts which are must be imposed upon the text itself.
In sum, the rapture has it has been presented by Darby and most of main stream evangelicalism is simply deficient. The exegesis used to support the claim simply does not pass muster once a close examination of the relevant passages has been completed. Additionally, the underlying dispensational theology which underlies the doctrine is also deficient in several areas. As Benjamin Willis Newton, a contemporary of Darby, pointed out, if one were to accept the Darby’s teaching on the rapture that person would also have to accept that many of the Gospel passages as “not rightfully ours.” This means that many of the promises of hope that Christians cling to do not rightfully apply to us either.
This dilemma begs the question that was asked at the beginning; is the rapture a biblical concept or not? The answer: It certainly is if one means that at the second advent of Christ the church will be “snatched up” to meet Jesus somewhere in the physical atmosphere and escort the King of Kings back to the Earth. However, if you mean the secret rapture of Darby’s imagination then the answer is unequivocally no. Jesus and Paul’s use of Jewish metaphors simply does not allow for the dispensationalism that Darby and others have expressed. There is simply too many deficiencies within the doctrine to conclude that the modern expression of the rapture is biblically valid.
Perhaps there is no more shadowy figure in all of scripture than the High Priest/ King Melchizedek. Only three times is he mentioned in scripture: Genesis 14,Psalm 110 and Hebrews 5-7. Not once are we told definitely who He is. Yet despite his obscurity, Melchizedek remains one of the most important figures in Christian theology. It is the office of High Priest in the order of Melchizedek that the Psalm foretells that coming messiah will obtain. It is this office which the writer of Hebrews argues that Christ received and the superiority of this office over the Levitical priesthood.
So who is this mysterious person of Genesis 14? We simply do not know. Scholars and theologians have yet to come to any sort of consensus. Some have inferred from the passages in Hebrews that it may be a pre-Bethleham appearance of The Word. Others have offered more fanciful and imaginative solutions such as aliens, an uncorrupted Adam, and Angels.
But more important than Who Melchizedek was; is What Melchizedek was. He was a High Priest and a King. Interestingly enough, God would later prohibit Kings to be priest and priests to be King for the nation of Israel. When King Uzziah attempted to perform the duties of a priest God struck him with leprosy (2 Chr. 16:16-26). Yet, in the time of Abraham, Melchizedek was given allowance. Why?
The answer to question is in the role of the High Priest. The most essential role of a High Priest is intercession. The High Priest Hood is the vehicle through which God offers salvation and grace to a sinful creation. The chief of this creation being mankind as they were made in His own image (Gen 1:27).
The existence of a High Priest before the establishment of the Levitical Priesthood means that God had ordained the vehicle of intercession long before the law was given. If, that is indeed the case, it changes everything concerning our perception of the Old Testament.
No longer can the view be held that God was only dealing with a few sporadic people to advance his purposes until He chose to begin to deal with Israel. He was dealing with the entire world. He was offering His Love and Grace to everyone, just as He is now. There is no disposition of Grace; There is only Grace.
I know we like to think that somehow we are special because we live in a time free of the law. The release of the Holy Spirit, is somehow felt to be an entitlement of some kind. Yet the writer of Hebrews points out, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Although, His methodologies may change, God does not. God is love (1 Jn. 4:16). He has always been and always will be in the people business.
The church has a special place in the Heart of God. I don’t want to diminish that. We are his bride and He our bridegroom. That is a very special relationship to be sure. Yet, we must not fool ourselves into thinking we have the lock down on Salvation and Grace. Those gifts are for all who believe (Jn. 3:16). So the next time we are feeling superior in our Christianity and faith, let us not forget the words of the Apostle Peter, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Let us consider The Mysterious Melchizedek.
I believe most biblical scholars and teachers have far to narrow view of the doctrine of salvation. It is human nature, I think, to latch on to something that catches our eye and run with it. We do this without stopping to consider the big picture. I readily admit I am guilty of this my self from time to time. Yet, when we make doctrine or a belief system out ideas that we have not properly fit into the whole, we run the risk of building on a faulty foundation. It is my opinion that this is what has happened to the doctrine of salvation, especially in terms of Christ atoning work. I would like to look at Christ’s atoning work from a point of view of the big picture of salvation.
Salvation’s big picture
We must begin by establishing what the big picture of salvation is. For that purpose I would like to discuss some key biblical verse that will help us put salvation in full view.
Here is the story of the first human sin. I would like to highlight several points of interest which relate to the big picture of salvation.
The first Biblical prophecy concerning Christ occurs with just the first two humans in existence. The timing of the giving of the prophecy would imply that the results of the prophecy were to be for all of humanity (v. 15).
Mankind is never directly cursed for their sin. The serpent is cursed; the land is cursed; mankind is not (vs. 14-17)
God covered the shame of Adam and Eve, himself (v.21).
Cherubim always Guard the throne of God. The placing of the Cherubim to guard the Tree of Life may imply God’s intention to always rule his creation from their own habitation (v.24).
Looking at Genesis 3, we may make the inference that the original plan of Salvation included God ruling from his created habitation over all of mankind. Through his omnipotence God foresaw the entrance of sin and thereby never intended to curse mankind.
This is probably the most well-known passage of the Bible. Although there is disagreement as to who the quote should be attributed to, it cannot be argued that Jesus intended the whole created universe to be included in salvation. The Greek word kosmoslitterally means “something ordered.” Everything that God ordered out of the chaos of that was void, God intended to save. This includes all of the plants, animals, planets, stars, and of course, mankind.
At the end of Revelation, John connects Genesis 3 with the finalization of Salvation. In this passage of scripture, we see God restoring all of the kosmos. We see God’s throne once again upon the habitation of his creation. We see the healing of all the nations.
So what does this picture of Salvation look like? God loved his creation that He planned to save All of it. He planned from the beginning to save everything He had created out of love.
The Atoning Work of Christ.
Concerning the atoning work of Christ, two main views have prevailed since the reformation. The Calvinist view of Limited atonement and the evangelical view of Unlimited atonement. Both views have their flaws. I will address both presently
The Calvinist view of Limited atonement essentially says that their are people destined to be saved, the rest are not.
Redemption is adequate because Christ gave his blood for sin. He therefore redeemed the lost (Towns 2008, 429-30).
There is another argument used by evangelicals against limited atonement. It is this argument that demonstrates the very inadequacy of the view.
“God is one, which means He is Unity and acts in perfect harmony with his nature. Every part of God influences every other attribute of God. One attribute can never act in isolation from the others, hence God cannot be guilty of acting ignorantly or with a double mind.”
“The law could not be abrogated because it was an extension of the nature of God…Jesus nailed the demands of the law to the cross and made and end of the law. The end of the law does not mean Christ put the law out of existence not just for the elect, but that the law is no longer in effect as a moral judge to condemn mankind”(Towns 2008, 429,30).
The above quotes from Elmer Towns show the contradictory nature of the evangelical view. There can only be 2 conclusions that may be inferred concerning the atoning work of Christ from these statements:
1. The acceptance of Christ’s death and resurrection have been rendered useless. The Bible teaches sin is the breaking of the law (1 John 3:4). If the law is no longer used to condemn mankind. There is no need for sinners to come to Christ because the law is no longer in effect. So in effect, there is no law even though the law exists. The apostle wrote to the Church at Rome, “To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). So since there is no sin because the law is no longer in effect, there is no need to accept Christ’s atonement.
2. God is double-minded and Christ’s death did nothing to effect our salvation. If the law is no longer what condemns us, then something else does. Christ’s atonement dealt with sin which is the breaking of the law. Since the law is no longer condemning mankind, God has broken his Unity and thereby denies His own existence. Also Christ’s atoning work does nothing for this new thing which condemns mankind.
While it is my opinion that evangelicals are closer to the truth than Calvinist. The seeming contradiction to Biblical truths within their arguments seem to need answering. I propose the following solution to the problem. Christ’s atoning work did indeed free mankind from condemnation. This, however, does not obligate God to offer everlasting life. It does, guarantee, that even those who reject God, in this present life, will have an opportunity to accept him at their subsequent resurrection at Christ’s second coming.
One of the most important theological ideologies in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the concept of “justification by faith” (Rom. 3:28). Calvin would make the claim in his Institutes that “it is the principal ground on which religion must be supported” (Calvin, 3.11.1). While Moo doesn’t go as far as Calvin, he also supports the importance of “justification by faith by attributing it as a constant motif that runs throughout the letter in support of the theme of the Gospel” (Moo,55-57). But what does “justification by faith” mean? Can a person even be justified? If so, how does one obtain it? What is the time frame of justification? What does a person gain from being justified? Is there any assurance that we will be justified? In his letter to the Church at Rome, Paul teaches that believers are justified now through the belief that God is doing what He said He would do through the physical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Justification is a judicial term meaning to pronounce, view as, and accept in correct standing. Biblical scholars have typically viewed justification as the pardoning of sins by the Grace of God. As Towns observes,
“Justification is the act whereby God declares a person righteous when that person accepts God’s word. Hence, justification teaches that a relationship between God and man can exist. Justification makes a person perfect in God’s sight. It is a declarative act of God. It is not that man becomes perfect, only that God has declared him righteous and therefore he stands perfect in the sight of God” (Towns,458).
Packer adds to this definition by noting,
“The justifying action of the Creator, who is the royal Judge of this world has both a sentimental and an executive or declarative aspect: God justifies, first, by reaching a verdict known and then by sovereign action makes his verdict known and secures to the person justified the rights that are now his due” (Packer,643)
In other words, according to both Packer and Towns, justification is the statement by which God pardons our sins which affront His Holy nature, and declares us blameless before him. While this definition is certainly part of what justification means, it is incomplete. It lacks the fullness to encompass the full scope of Paul’s use of the term in his letter to the Romans.
This is most clearly seen in Paul’s one man comparison in chapter 5 of Romans (5:12-20). The comparison Paul makes does not lend itself to the interpretation of God just pardoning our sins. Rather, the logic that Paul uses seems to go way beyond that to the complete reversal of sin. As I will argue in greater detail later, the Pauline view of justification seems to be that God declares that a person was never under condemnation, despite the reality of our past condemnation. If this is indeed the stance Paul takes, then justification is the process by which God declares a person as never being under condemnation since the foundation of the world, and secures the benefits of a communal relationship with God by which he or she becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
Justification, however, is only half of the equation. It is “justification by faith;” therefore faith must also be defined. Paul defines faith as the “confidence in what we hope for and the assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). As Guzik readily points out, faith is not a substitute for reason; nor is it in contradiction with it. As he says, “[I]t may go beyond reason” (Guzik, Loc.3332).
Faith, then, is the proof of things unable to be detected by physical senses that are assured to be true. This definition is vitally important to the understanding of the Pauline view of justification. In order to completely comprehend the depths of Paul’s ideologies, the two definitions of faith and justification must somehow mesh to form a complete picture. The Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” would then be that the assurance of what we do not detect with our physical senses is the reasoning upon which God pronounces a person as never having been under condemnation since the beginning of the world and thereby is entitled to the benefits of citizenship within the Kingdom of God.
How does this definition help us understand Paul’s views on justification? It does this by defining what we are to have faith in. It’s not in Jesus on the cross that is just a belief based on reasoning from eyewitnesses. For the same reason, it can’t be the resurrection. If it were these things based on the definition that I have attempted to establish, any reasonable person would have to conclude that the apostles are not justified because they were witness to the crucifixion and resurrection; for it was a tangible, historic event. No, our justification comes by the faith in God’s ability to do what he said he would do. Paul would explain to the church at Corinth,
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). In Paul’s view righteousness is not imputed to us, rather we are God’s righteousness because of our justification. In other words, we become the evidence that God will permanently do away with death (Rev 21:3-6). It is faith in Christ to do what He has said he will do that justifies us. Basis
Paul lays out the basis for his ideology in a systematic way. He begins by arguing that both Jew and Gentile are deserving of the wrath God (Romans 1:18). He argues that the Gentiles are deserving of God’s wrath because even the creation reveals “God’s divine nature” even where there is no law (1:21). He then argues that the Jews are just as deserving. He points out, that even though the Jews had received the law from God, they were unable to keep the law; thereby earning a wrathful judgment (1:17-28). He sums it up by stating unequivocally, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
Paul, finally gets to the crux of his argument with two very profound truths. First of all the impact of Jesus must be greater than the impact of Adam. He states,
“Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s (Adam) sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (5:16-17)
Adam did not have faith that God would allow him to die, even though God had declared it (Gen. 2:17). This, Paul states, condemned all men to experience death because of Adam. Paul argues that since sin and death entered to all men by this lack of faith, then Christ’s faith in the Father to resurrect him must bring life to all people (Rom. 5:18). The act that brought life resulted from the faith that was there. As Hooker observes,
“The scales are unevenly balanced because God has intervened: pressing down on the side of Christ: it is the grace of God and his gifts that are at work in Christ; the great reverse has come about because God gave up his son and raised him from the dead” (Hooker,93)
The second truth on which Paul basis his ideas on justification has been largely ignored by scholars. It is, in my opinion, the foundation on which the rest of his basis is set. Paul declares, “[B]ecause the one that has died has been freed from sin” (6:7). It is upon this truth, that Paul hangs his basis and the means for justification. As I have said before, justification is not merely God declaring us free of sin, it is the statement that we never were under condemnation since the begininng. God had already dealt with sin in Genesis when he declared that man would die. What Paul argues is that death justifies a person. The phrase in the original Greek literally translates to “For the one having died has been justified from sin.” God had already dealt with sin through death. Death justifies a sinner.
If this idea is true, it raises a crucial question: what is the need for justification by faith? The answer lies in what Paul meant by death. Moo and other writers put forth the idea that Paul is referring to death as being both of a spiritual and physical nature. Moo offers this explanation for the hypothesis in commentary on Romans 5:
“Paul seems to think of death as both physical and spiritual: separation from the body and estrangement from God. Both are the result of sin. That a physical element is present in death is evident from verses 13-14. But verses 18-19, where Paul replaces the death of verse 12 with “condemnation and being “made sinners” shows his focus on spiritual death” (Moo,181).
In other words, for Moo, justification is dealing with a spiritual death. However, this view does not answer the question of the need for justification. In reality, all it does is create a paradox. If as Paul claims, death justifies the sinner and death is spiritual, the minute a sin occurs the sinner is thereby justified from condemnation because of the estrangement from God. In other words sinning would instantly bring about justification because we would be dead spiritually.
However, if Paul has a physical death in view, then Paul would seem to be advocating a universal justification. This however, seems to fly in the face of “justification by faith.” If at death, human beings are justified by sin there would be no need of faith for justification. All that would be required would be simply to die. The penalty of sin is therefore paid, and all would be set right (Rom3:23).
So what does Paul intend for death to mean? The most likely meaning would be a physical death. The context, which will be discussed in greater detail in the discussion of means of justification, indicates a physical death. The statement in question is made after Paul discusses the ramifications of the death and crucifixion of Christ (Rom 5:5-6). It seems unreasonable that Jesus Christ, as both fully God and fully man, would be estranged from God (Col. 2:9). Beyond this, Paul’s use of the marriage analogy in chapter 7 makes it hard to come to the conclusion that Paul would be talking in terms of a spiritual death rather than a physical one. Paul uses the marriage metaphor to demonstrate that the woman is justified in remarriage through death. This would indicate that Paul thought of physical death as a basis for justification (Rom.7:1).
Means of Justification
The means of justification has recently become a hot topic of debate that revolves around two principle scholars, John Piper and N.T. Wright. For Piper, justification is by faith, through the imputation of righteousness, according to the traditions of the Reformers (Piper,17). Wright seems to hold to a justification by works view, albeit through the power of the Holy Spirit (Wright,148). In an ideal world one or the other of these views would be correct. Yet, in my opinion both are incorrect.
I will start with Wright’s assertion of justification by works. Wright says,
“This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead” (Wright, 260)
The problem that inherently lies with Wright’s assertion is that Paul expressly writes that justification is by faith. He goes to great lengths and spends a considerable amount of time to explain this idea within his letters to the Romans. For Paul, works have no basis in the conversation of justification because works only serve to highlight our short comings and our inability to gain a right standing on our own. If works, even done by the power of the Holy Spirit, could justify us, then grace for a Christian would be rendered unnecessary.
Another problem Wright faces is the Holy Spirit’s role concerning justification. The Holy Spirit does not justify us. The use of the Holy Spirit is a right that occurs as a result of justification (Rom. 7:6). If this then is the case, then Wrights assertion that vindication comes from a life “led in the power of the spirit” must be concluded to be incorrect.
Piper vehemently objects to this view. Relying on the traditional reformation view he believes that justification comes about by the imputation of the obedience and righteousness of Christ to believers through faith (Piper,126). In other words, the works (obedience) of Christ are imputed to us at the time of baptism (faith). While this is a time honored tradition of doctrine, two problems are posed against taking such a stance.
First, the Bible never makes any claim that believers are imputed with the righteousness of God. The phrase is found nowhere in the letter to Rome or the rest of the Pauline letters. For, that matter one cannot find the doctrine expressly stated in any scripture. As Ladd points out, “Paul never expressly states that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers” (Ladd,491).
Although not expressly stated, Romans 4 seems to imply an imputed righteous by using the Greek word λογίζομαι (reckon or impute). Garlington claims that λογίζομαι can mean “to consider to be true.” He claims that the Hebrew word found in Genesis 15:6 has this meaning and thereby attaches this meaning to λογίζομαι since Paul’s use of the passage in Genesis appears in conjunction with the crediting of righteousness (Garlington,46-102).
Second, again despite the jargon and terms used, Piper’s view of imputation is basically justification by works. The idea that Christ’s obedience is imputed to us declares that His “works” are the means of justification. Paul’s contention in the book of Romans is that justification is by faith and not strict observance of the Torah. If this is the case, it poses an integral question: what was Christ’s obedient to? In Paul’s way of thinking, Christ was obedient to death (Phil. 2:8). Yet death came by the actions (works) of one man – Adam (Rom. 5:13). If Christ who did not earn death was obedient to death for our justification, then our justification came by works. This is strictly the antithesis of Pauline thought throughout the book of Romans.
In his letter Paul, argues that the emphasis of Christ’s death is to highlight the resurrection. It is through the resurrection that God has obligated himself to give us life. While this is important to the work of salvation, according to Piper’s progressive and separating view of justification, sanctification and regeneration, Christ’s obedience to death does not justify us. It rather obligates God to give us life as He gave life to Jesus. This obligation does not stem from anything other than God’s self-obligation as witnessed by Abraham (Gen 15:1-5).
So what is the means of justification? Bird is correct in asserting, “Paul’s argument aims to disclose that righteousness and law are to be understood in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (Bird, 264). It is from this point of view that the means of justification must be dealt with. In Romans 6, Paul argues that since believers are united in Christ’s death through baptism, then they are also united in his life (Rom. 6:1-6). He hinges this entire idea on this single premise: Physical death justifies a person (6:7). It does not matter whether the physical death is the non-believers; or Christ. Death justifies.
At this juncture, a very important distinction must be made. Justification through death does not equate to salvation. Physical death, alone, merely justifies by making a person in right standing to the law. It does not guarantee everlasting life. This is in complete contrast to justification by faith in which a believer is incorporated into Christ’s physical death and thereby incorporated into his life as well.
Wright is correct in presenting justification as occurring presently and futuristically. It may indeed occur twice with in an individual’s lifetime (Wright, 260). “Justification to the law” will certainly occur for every individual at the moment of their death in the future. However, it may occur immediately at the moment a person chooses to have faith that God will complete what He has obligated himself to do through His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the “justification by faith.”
It must necessarily be that justification by faith only applies to the living. This application ceases to be of any use upon a believer’s physical death. At that moment, “justification by faith” ends and “justification to the law” takes over. The idea that this is how Paul understood the time factor of justification can be seen in his letter to the Thessalonians. Here Paul declares,
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:15-16).
The dead in Christ will rise first, because God must vindicate those who have died in faith as Christ died in faith. As Paul tells the Church at Rome, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Rom. 8:11).
Paul’s assertion that the dead will rise first is in anticipation of the future vindication of the dead in Christ. It is through the justification by faith at the present that living believers will be changed (1 Cor. 15:52). It is this idea that Paul has in mind as he writes his letter to Rome.
“Justification to the law” has a solitary benefit. It assures that condemnation is not left hanging unfilled. It therefore appeases God’s holy and righteous nature. As Paul points out, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5). As a Pharisee, Paul would have viewed the wrath of God as physical death occurring. “Justification to the law”, then appeases the condemnation of the law by fulfilling its requirements.
“Justification by faith” fulfills the requirement of law by incorporating a believer into Christ’s death and resurrection. While this is also true of “justification to the law;” it has the added benefit of providing for salvation. “Justification by faith” allows for the believer to live in pure freedom from the law because of the assurance of God’s will being fulfilled. Paul emphasis this point in his letter to the Romans.
“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:9-11).
Paul’s point is that through “justification by faith” we have been spared condemnation, justly deserved, while we are still physically alive. Yet, through faith we are spared future condemnation since God has obligated himself to grant everlasting life to those who believe that He will do what He has promised to do. As Paul puts it, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (8:1). Assurance
Paul offers this assurance to those in Rome of their justification:
“[B]ecause through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:2-14-17).
In other words, Paul says that the mere fact that a believer has obtained the Holy Spirit at the time of their justification assures that they will receive the benefit of salvation. Indeed, this is not a new idea for Paul. Earlier in his pastoral career, he stated this very idea to the Galatian believers. He told them that the Holy Spirit was given as a proof of their salvation (Eph. 1:14). It is this Spirit that marks the “children of God” to receive their rightful benefits due them according to God’s self-obligation. It is the Spirit of God within a believer that assures the justification by faith. Bibliography
Bird, Michael F. “Incorporated Righteousness: A Response to Recent Evangelical Discussion Concerning the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in Justification.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, (2004): 253-275.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Vol. 3.11.1. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, (1845).
Douglas, J. D., ed. The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Translated by Robert K. Brown, & Philip W. Comfort. (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, inc, 1990).
Garlington, Don. “Imputation or Union with Christ: A Response to John Piper.” Reformation & Revival Journal, (2003): 46-102.
Guzik, David. Commentary on Romans. Santa Barbara: (Enduring Word Media, 2012): Kindle Electronic Edition.
Hooker, Morna Dorothy. Paul: A Beginner’s Guide. (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Revised. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, 1993).
Moo, Douglas J. The NIV Romans Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Packer, J. I. “s. v. “Justification”.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2001).
Piper, John. The future of Justification. (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007).
Towns, Elmer L. Theology for Today. (Mason: Cengage Learning, 2008).
Wright, N. T. “New Perspectives on Paul.” In Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, edited by Bruce L. McCormack, 243-264. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).
—. Paul in Fresh Perspective. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).
All Scripture References NIV unless otherwise noted.