Posts tagged ‘Ben Witherington’

Christ was there. Christ is here.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend and he shared with me a dark time he had gone through years ago.  He was in the midst of a spiritual crisis, and he decided to move overseas and explore the world.  Unfortunately, his move away from home only precipitated his fall.  He fell in with the wrong crowd, he did the wrong things, and, one night, he found himself at a point of despair.  Walking alone along a dark street, he cried out, “Jesus, if You’re there, I really need You to show up right now.”  After making his way to a phone booth, he fumbled through the phone book inside, deposited his change, and called the first church he could find.  The pastor of the church answered.  The next day, the two of them had lunch.  And thus began my friend’s re-awakening to the glory of God and the grace of Christ.  My friend felt all alone on that dark night.  But he wasn’t.  Christ was there.  In that phone booth.

One of the texts that has long been compelling to me is 1 Corinthians 10:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.  They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

Paul is here recounting the history of Israel during the Exodus.  And he uses Israel’s history to warn the Corinthians against the dangers of unrepentance:

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.  Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.”  We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did – and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.  We should not test the Lord, as some of them did – and were killed by snakes.  And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. (1 Corinthians 10:6-10)

In the midst of the unrepentance, evil, and rebellion of the Israelites, Paul says, Christ was there.  In that rock.  The same rock which poured forth water in the wilderness for the Israelites to drink (Exodus 17:1-7).  What a strange place for Christ to be!  And yet, Christ was there.

The other day, I was reading an article by a prominent evangelical theologian, who was bemoaning the dangers of inserting Christ recklessly and relentlessly into every page and phrase of Scripture.  He wrote, “Christ cannot be found under every rock.”[1]  I would agree – in part.   It is dangerous to present Christ in ways that the biblical text does not mean present Him.  For instance, the Church Father Origen, famous for his excessive allegorizing of the Bible, reads Exodus 17:9 – “Moses said to Joshua, ‘Choose some of our men and go out to fight’” – as “Moses said to Jesus,” since the Hebrew name for Joshua, Yeshua, comes to us in English as “Jesus.”  Origen comments:

Up to this point the Scripture has never anywhere mentioned the blessed name of Jesus.  Here for the first time the brightness of the name shines forth.  For the first time Moses makes an appeal to Jesus and says to him, “Choose men.”  Moses calls on Jesus; the Law asks Christ to choose strong men from among the people.  Moses cannot choose; it is Jesus alone who can choose strong men; He has said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”[2]

Origen’s words here certainly strain the bounds of responsible biblical exegesis.  To so immediately equate Joshua with Jesus presents a whole host of problems, not the least of which is that Joshua was flawed and fallen (e.g., Joshua 9:1-14), something which Jesus was not.  Thus, we must be careful in how we interpret biblical texts.  However, there is a sense in which, contrary to what this scholar says, we can indeed find Jesus under every rock, for Jesus is the center, focus, and locus of the Scriptures.  Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 10:4, we don’t just find Christ under a rock, He is the rock!  Indeed, this is the very doctrine of the incarnation:  that Christ shows up in the strangest of ways and places – even under rocks.  Christ was there.  In the phone booth of my friend.  Christ was there.  In that rock.  Christ was there.  In the manger.  Christ was there.  On the cross.  And Christ is here.  In the pages of Scripture.  Christ is here.  In the waters of baptism.  Christ is here.  In the bread and wine of Communion.  Christ is here.  In our hearts.

Christ was there.  Christ is here.  This is the mystery and glory of the incarnation – and of Christmas.

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[1] Ben Witherington III, “Towards a Biblical Theology – Part Two” (11.21.11).

[2] Origen in Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans, 1999) 86.

December 26, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Where You Begin and Where You End

I have often said, when teaching in various settings, “Where you begin is where you end.” This is my axiomatic, though admittedly somewhat simplistic, way of expressing the truth that all of us come to a situation, a problem, or a challenge with our own preconceived notions and biases. These preconceived notions and biases, in turn, inevitably color the conclusions we draw and the solutions we formulate. This is especially true when it comes to working with the text of Scripture. If you approach the Bible with a stance of pessimism and incredulity, what you find will be appropriately pessimistic and incredulous. Conversely, if you approach the Bible with a stance of awe and a desire to “give the Bible the benefit of the doubt,” as it were, the conclusions you draw will strengthen your faith soothe your troubled soul. It is no secret that I am in the latter camp of how I approach Holy Scripture. In light of my ABC yesterday on the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, I thought that this quote from Ben Witherington III, given at the Greer-Heard Forum last Saturday at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, offered some keen insight into why I am in this latter camp:

I don’t believe in “justification by doubt.” I don’t believe that philosophical skepticism is the same thing as critical thinking, and I also don’t think that the sort of historiography that is undergirded by such a prioris can help us very much with the question are the Gospels reliable, truthful witnesses when it comes to the historical Jesus. In fact, if you want to actually get at the truth of something, you have to enter into dialogue with that source giving it the benefit of the doubt, allowing it to have its say, and while one doesn’t put one’s critically thinking cap aside, if you do not approach the material with an open mind and a willingness to learn from it, you won’t get at the truth of the matter, not even the historical truth of the matter. You can’t possibly analyze the actual nature of a raging fire, by pouring cold water on it, and then picking over the ashes and charcoal thereafter.

February 28, 2011 at 9:55 am Leave a comment

What’s Worship?

Worship is fundamental to the church’s life.  The other day, I came across a paragraph from Ben Witherington III in his book The Indellible Image, where he comments on 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Witherington’s comments on this passage iare helpful in illuminating what is of first importance in worship:

There is no basis in the New Testament for the idea that Christian[s] offer vicarious sacrifices for others or for the world, nor is there any reoffering of Christ to God…One has to import all sorts of Old Testament ideas into the New Testament practice to come up with what some have in “high church” practice.  This is a questionable hermeneutical leap at best.  Nor is the Lord’s Supper seen as a sacrifice; rather, it is like Passover.  It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.  The main sacrifice that believers offer to God in worship or in particular in the Lord’s Supper is what Paul suggests in Romans 12:1:  themselves.  However, we must remember that even this offering in itself is not acceptable; as 1 Peter 2:5b suggests, it is acceptable only through Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice. (356)

There are several aspects of Witherington’s statement worth noting.  First and foremost, biblical worship is primarily about God meeting His people with His gifts rather than people meeting God with their gifts.  The primary direction of worship is from God to man, not from man to God.  This important point is lost in many theologies of worship.  Indeed, Witherington’s opening statement about “reoffering Christ to God” is a reference to Roman Catholic theology, where the worship service, and especially the Eucharist, is conceived of as an event during which the priest reoffers Christ to God in an “unbloody sacrifice.”  The Council of Trent explains:

Forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy Synod teaches, that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory and that by means thereof this is effected, that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid, if we draw nigh unto God, contrite and penitent, with a sincere heart and upright faith, with fear and reverence. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation thereof, and granting the grace and gift of penitence, forgives even heinous crimes and sins. For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different. (Council of Trent, Twenty-Second Session, Ch. 2)

The Council of Trent could not be clearer.  Worship in Catholicism is believed to be a re-sacrifice of Christ by a priest, albeit in an “unbloody” manner, for the forgiveness of the worshipers’ sins.  This is a patently false view of worship.

Second, it is important to take to heart Withernington’s statement concerning the Lord’s Supper:  “It is a celebration of redemption, once for all accomplished by God in the past, whose benefit is appropriated in the present.”  In more traditional parlance, we would say that the Lord’s Supper is a “means of grace.”  The great Lutheran dogmatician Francis Pieper explains thusly: “[The means of grace are] the divine transmission of the grace which Christ has gained for all men [when] it joins immediately to the objective reconciliation or justification of sinful mankind” (Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3, 105).  In other words, the means of grace are the ways in which God’s grace gets “delivered” to His people.  The Lord’s Supper is certainly one of these ways as Christ comes to us with His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Thus, rather than re-sacrificing Christ to God as Roman Catholic theology teaches, the Lutheran Church confesses that Christ is giving His already sacrificed and risen body to us!  Thus, once again, we see that worship is primarily about God meeting us and not about us meeting God.

Finally, it is important to note, along with Witherington, that worship does indeed involve our gifts to God.  But these gifts in no way merit our salvation or gain God’s favor.  Instead, they are only in grateful response to what God has already given us in worship:  His forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  Indeed, our gift of ourselves to God would be despicably sinful in His sight were it not for “Christ, who offered the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice.”  Christ’s sacrifice of salvation sanctifies our sacrifices to God in worship.

So, the next time you join us for worship, remember, you may have hopped in the car and driven a few miles to come to church, but God has crossed heaven to earth to meet you.  In worship, God is the One coming to you.  God is the One who desires to meet with you.  And God is the one who has His good gifts of grace for you.  And who wouldn’t want to receive those?

July 8, 2010 at 4:45 am 2 comments

Letting Jesus Pick And Choose

One of the joys I have as a pastor is being able to think through theological questions with the great folks here at Concordia. And the great folks here at Concordia aren’t afraid to ask. From questions about Christ’s work on the cross to questions about suffering to questions about heaven to questions about Hebrew and Greek, I’ve received plenty of terrific queries which have been a joy – and many times a challenge – for me to answer.

From time to time, I not only like to answer people’s questions in a meeting at my office, or on the phone, or in an email, but also on my blog, especially if it is a question that I commonly receive. And that is what I thought I’d do with this often asked question: “How does the Old Testament relate to the New Testament?  If both testaments are God’s inspired Word, then why do we insist on following some of the Old Testament’s laws like the Ten Commandments while at the same time disregarding its ceremonial and sacrificial stipulations?”   This is a good, and very complex, question!

It is true that, on the surface, it can almost seem like Christians sometimes pick and choose which Old Testament laws they would like to follow.  The one about honoring your father and mother (cf. Exodus 20:12)?  Yeah, we ought to keep that one around – especially if we have children.  The one about sprinkling a bird’s blood over a house after it has been cleansed from mildew (cf. Leviticus 14:33-57)?  We usually take a pass on that one.

So why do we follow some laws and not others?  Classically, a distinction has been made between those laws which are moral and those which are ceremonial.  Moral laws stand through both testaments.  Thus, honoring fathers and mothers, as a moral mandate, continues to hold sway over our thoughts, words, and deeds, as do all of the Ten Commandments.  Ceremonial laws, however, with all of their sacrifices and rituals, have been abrogated by Christ.  As the preacher of Hebrews writes:  “When [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God…And where [sins] have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin” (Hebrews 10:12, 18).  Following Jesus’ sacrifice, no more sacrifices are needed.  Therefore, to insist on following the Old Testament sacrificial stipulations is an affront to and a debasement of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Finally, the reason we do not follow every Old Testament stipulation is because of the way we read our Bible.  We read every page, even the ones with all of the strange rules and regulations, through the lens of what Christ has taught, done, and fulfilled.  As Jesus Himself says, “These are the Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39). Martin Luther echoes this sentiment when he writes:  “I have often said that whoever would study well the Bible, especially the spiritual significance of the histories, should refer everything to the Lord Christ” (What Luther Says 207).  Thus, we interpret and follow the Scriptures of the Old Testament the way that Christ follows and interprets the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  No Old Testament Scripture, then, is to be read apart from God’s revelation in Christ.

Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has perhaps written the finest, most succinct statement as to how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament that I have found:  “Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching” (The Indelible Image, vol.1, 32).  This is precisely right.  As Paul writes, “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4).  The Greek word for “end” is telos, meaning “goal.”  Thus, the Old Testament laws find their goal in how Christ arbitrates, abrogates, interprets, and fulfills them.  You cannot read the Old Testament correctly if you do not read it with Jesus in mind.

So why do we not offer sacrifices to God when our homes are filled with mildew?  Because Christ has offered the perfect and final sacrifice for all time.  Why do we still continue to honor our parents?  Because Christ has taught us to do so (cf. Mark 7:9-13).   We let Jesus pick and choose which laws we continue to follow and which laws have been abrogated by His work on the cross. Reading the Old Testament is as simple as listening to Jesus.

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May 31, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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