With the landmark decision from the Supreme Court this week, striking down DOMA, proponents of gay marriage have scored a huge, if not final, victory in their pursuit of marriage equality. The Court’s decision reflects popular opinion. In our society, marriage (and all of its benefits) is understood as a civil right, and therefore cannot be legally denied to anyone who wishes to be married. While I disagree with this understanding of marriage, and personally believe that homosexual practice is on the spectrum of sexual immorality, I am not overly concerned by what this ruling means for our society. What concerns me, rather, is what I’m hearing and seeing in the Church, and how it understands what the Bible has to say about homosexual practice.

There is a movement happening within the Church, and particularly within Evangelicalism, to reconcile the Church with the homosexual community. I believe in this movement. I want to be a part of this movement. I am convinced that this is one of the things that God is doing in the American church today. However, I’m concerned that, in an effort to follow God’s leading, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As Christians are pursuing reconciliation and love, the Scriptures are being misinterpreted, misunderstood, ignored, or even denigrated. In a well-intentioned attempt to be humble and contrite about sins committed against homosexuals (and those sins are real and many), many Christians are abandoning the millenia-old biblical sexual ethic, and, more importantly, the understanding of the authority of Scripture over the life of the believer.

I want to be clear about something. The problem lies not with what the Bible says or does not say about homosexuality; the problem lies with the hostile attitudes, condemning words, and proud hearts that Christians have had toward homosexuals. What I see and hear happening, though, is that for many Christians the Bible is the problem. When the Bible becomes the problem, and as a result you throw it under the bus, you step outside of historic, orthodox Christian faith. So what I’d like to do in this post is address some of the issues regarding Scripture and homosexuality that I’ve seen raised in the past few years.

1. Jesus never talked about homosexuality.

This is, perhaps, the most common objection to the biblical teaching on homosexuality. This is also a true statement. Jesus never directly addressed homosexuality; or to put it more accurately, the Gospel writers did not  include statements about homosexuality in their books. If Jesus did say something about homosexuality or homosexual practice, it has been lost to history. The inference that many people make from this silence is that Jesus, therefore, approved of homosexual practice, or at the very least he approved of loving, monogamous, homosexual relationships.

All-the-thingsThe trouble with this reasoning is that arguing from silence is the weakest argument one can make. Take a look at the picture on the left. You have three circles. The largest circle is “All the things,” which symbolizes everything somebody might possibly believe. The smallest circle is “The things Jesus said,” and the circle that is slightly larger than that is “The things Jesus believed.” I believe that it’s safe to assume that Jesus believed more things than what the Gospel writers credited him as saying. In other words, Jesus believed more than he said. That, I take it, is self-evident.

However, the trouble comes when trying to determine what, exactly, lies outside of the red circle but inside of the blue circle. Some assume that, because of the importance of homosexuality, Jesus would have spoken against it if, in fact, he believed that homosexual practice was wrong. But because he did not speak of it, he must have either, a) not been too concerned about it, or b) approved of it. (A third inference would be that, because Jesus didn’t talk about it, neither should the Church.)

While I agree that homosexuality is a really important issue, there are  a lot of other issues of equal importance that Jesus also did not talk about. Just in relation to human sexuality and sexual activity, Jesus did not address any of the following issues:

Polygamy/polyamory
Bisexuality
Cross-dressing
Rape
Child sexual abuse
Bestiality
Group sex
Public nudity or exposure

Using the same logic as above, we must assume that Jesus either, a) wasn’t too concerned about these issues, or b) approved of them. Of course, this is absurd. If we believe that the following statement is true, Jesus didn’t talk about homosexuality, therefore he approved of the exercise of it, then by mere reasoning we can substitute any activity for homosexuality, as long as Jesus did not expressly condemn it in the Gospels. Besides the list of sexual activity above, we could include extortion, kidnapping, and a host of other evils. There are even some good things that Jesus never spoke about; for example, romantic love. Arguing from silence breaks down into absurdity because it is based on mere speculation. It is unreasonable to believe that, because Jesus never explicitly talked about or condemned homosexuality, he therefore approved of the practice of it.

In fact, when Jesus speaks about sexual ethics, he makes it clear that his position on human sexuality is even stricter than what is found in the Old Testament. For Jesus, sexual holiness and wholeness extend to the individual’s heart, so that external adherence to biblical laws is not a sufficient sexual ethic in the kingdom of Jesus. Whether Jesus was talking about lust or divorce, he consistently added to the teaching of the Old Testament, indicating that he expected more from his disciples than what the Bible called for. It would be shocking, then, if Jesus were lax on the issue of homosexual behavior, which is condemned in Leviticus 20.

2. The prohibition of homosexuality in the OT is right next to the command not to make a garment of two types of material.

The implication of this statement is that, because nobody pays attention to the garment command, neither must we pay attention to the sexuality command. This same reasoning pops up with certain commands in the New Testament, particularly about women speaking in church or having short hair.

I am somewhat sympathetic to this objection. Why, after all, must Christians be hard-lined on sexual behavior and not other behaviors? When did we decide which Scriptures we could ignore and which we had to enforce? If we’re going to let men have long hair and women have short hair in our churches, then we should have a good explanation of how we’re obeying the spirit and intent of those commands rather than just ignoring them altogether.

With that said, it is hard to ignore that there is a consistent sexual ethic to be found in Scripture. While Leviticus 20 presents the bare bones outline of this ethic, it is expounded upon in many other places in the Bible, and even made stricter by Jesus. Unlike the kosher food laws, the Old Testament’s sexual ethic is never abolished in the New Testament.

Furthermore, the selective application of Scripture by some Christians is not a reasonable argument for the selective application of Scripture by other Christians. And just because some Scriptures seem absurd and outdated to us doesn’t mean that other Scriptures, whether in adjacent chapters or in the other Testament, should be treated as such.

3. David and Jonathan were gay lovers.

The question of the nature of David and Jonathan’s relationship has gotten a lot of attention lately. Indeed, their relationship was complicated and intense. Jonathan took off his robe in front of David. David said that his love for Jonathan was greater than the love of women. They kissed and wept together. So they were gay, right? Not necessarily.

First of all, Jonathan almost immediately recognized that, though he was Saul’s firstborn son and rightful heir to the throne of Israel, it was David who would become king. Rather than become his rival, however, Jonathan became David’s friend. The act of taking off his robe (and also his tunic and sword) and giving it to David is most likely the symbol of Jonathan’s surrender of the throne to David. The covenant that they made together, recorded in 1 Samuel 18, is not a covenant of marriage, but a covenant of power and of the throne of Israel.

Secondly, the love that David and Jonathan had for one another was not necessarily sexual in nature. The Hebrew word found in this passage (ahobah) has a wide spectrum of meaning, much like our own English word “love.” According to Holliday’s Lexicon, the word can mean the love between a husband and wife, the love between friends or people in general, or God’s love for his people. The overwhelming majority of occurrences in the OT describe the love between friends or the love between God and his people. It’s important to note, too, that most marriages in the Ancient Near East were not based on romantic love, particularly for someone with the political power of David or Jonathan, so the love that David had for his wives was likely not as strong a force in his heart as the love I have for my wife. (I readily admit, of course, that this is speculative. But it’s important that we remember just how different our culture is from Israel in David’s time.)

Third, the kiss was a common greeting and “goodbye” in ancient Israel. Examples of two men kissing can be found in Genesis 29:13, Genesis 33:4, 1 Samuel 10:1, and 2 Samuel 19:38-39. None of these kisses are sexual in nature. For a much fuller treatment of the relationship between David and Jonathan, please check out this post from pleaseconvinceme.com.

4. The NT authors were talking exclusively about abusive homosexual relationships and cultic sexual practice.

The implication of this statement is that, in places like Romans 1:26-27, 1 Timothy 1:9-11, and 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul is talking about the abusive homosexual relationships, common in Roman culture, between an older, dominant man and a younger, passive man, and not monogamous, same-sex relationships based on love and respect. He may also have been talking about sexual activity in the worship of idols, which is a common theme in idolatry both in the Old and New Testaments.

This argument might be convincing if Paul were Greek or Roman. Though he was a Roman citizen, Paul was a Jew, through and through. He was, at one point, a Pharisee–a teacher within the strictest sect of Judaism. As I have already mentioned, there was a strong sexual ethic within Judaism, and particularly within Pharisaic Judaism, that would have understood homosexual practice, as well as many other sexual activities, as contrary to God’s command. The defining element of the nature of the relationship was not whether it was abusive or cultic, but that it was homosexual. While Paul would have also condemned heterosexual cultic sexual practice (and any other kind of cultic sexual practice), as well as abusive heterosexual relationships, because of his strict upbringing in Torah, he would not have accepted or embraced monogamous same-sex relationships.

But what about when he recognized Jesus as Messiah and his life was changed by God’s grace? As we have already seen, God’s grace does not necessarily mean a relaxing of the sexual ethic of the Old Testament. In fact, based on what Jesus communicated in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, the sexual ethic of Jesus’s kingdom is more strict than what is found in Torah. We have every reason to believe, especially given what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, that Paul, following the lead of Jesus, draws a clear line demarcating appropriate sexual behavior for the believer, and homosexual practice lies on the far side of the line.

5. The authors of Scripture knew nothing about sexual orientation.

This is probably true, but I don’t think it matters. The Bible never tells us to “be true to ourselves” or to “follow our hearts.” The truth is, when we follow Jesus, we are called to say “No” to the natural desires of our hearts. None of us are oriented to take up our cross and follow Jesus. None of us are oriented to lay down our lives for our friends, love our enemies, or go the second mile for anybody. There’s nothing natural about following Jesus. And yet these are the basics of being a Christian.

For all we know, the authors of Scripture knew nothing about being introverted and extroverted. There is so much that Jesus demands of me that forces me to set aside fundamental aspects of my personality (INTJ–the best!) for the sake of others, himself, and his kingdom. I find, very often, that being a Christian, much less a Christian leader, is very unnatural and difficult for me.

I want to finish by saying this: Jesus is opposed to anything that is more fundamental to your identity than himself. Jesus is opposed to anything that leads you away from closer communion with himself. Jesus is opposed to anything that you love more than himself. Sexual orientation is not more fundamental, more important, or more true than the person of Jesus Christ.

The central message of Christianity is something we Christians call the Gospel, a word that literally means “good news.” Christianity is a “good news” religion. It exists to tell the world that something good, something true, something beautiful has happened, and now everything can start to get better again. Everything can start to be remade, rebuilt from its brokenness–even you and me!

One of the things that I love most about being an evangelical is that the Gospel is constantly put front and center in my life because I hear it proclaimed from the pulpit in church nearly every week. I see it in action in the lives of my friends. I watch as it transforms people, moving them from sinner to saint. And we evangelicals are careful to tell you that there’s nothing you can do to earn this Gospel, this salvation. It’s a free gift from God. It comes by grace, through faith. You can’t buy it. You can’t work for it. You can’t earn it.

Why is that? It’s because of what the Gospel is. The Gospel is an event, a story. It’s the story of Jesus.

Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15.

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to [many].

The Gospel is the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. When we proclaim the Gospel, we proclaim the news (which just so happens to be very, very good) that Jesus died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day, appearing to many. The Gospel is a proclamation of historical fact, which like all facts of history, can neither be changed nor earned.

This is a profound comfort. A comfort so glorious and gracious, in fact, that we find it very difficult to live with. The fact is that you and I are prone to change the Gospel. We’re apt to add to it, to make it earn-able. We engulf it in doctrinal tests to determine who’s out and who’s in. We define it in terms of behavior, turning the Gospel into some sort of morality test. (Which, of course, isn’t good news at all, because if Jesus is the standard of morality, then who among us could ever hope to pass that test!) We’re all tempted to add things to the Gospel, but adding anything to the Gospel destroys it, changing it from an event in real time and space to a philosophy, a doctrine, a list of rules, or a set of behaviors.

But the Gospel is not abstract. It is not intangible. It is not conceptual.

The Gospel happened. The Gospel is blood and flesh, nails and wood, thorns and fists. The Gospel is a tortured scream, an agonized groaning, a declaration of God-forsakenness. It is a desperate look to heaven, a final breath, a surrendered spirit. The Gospel is a suffocated man on a Roman cross. A man who was God. Now dead.

The Gospel is myrrh and aloe, a king’s burial. It is strips of linen, a stranger’s tomb. The Gospel is silence. Burial.

The Gospel is the first breath back from the dead, renewed hands folding up burial clothes. The Gospel is a stone rolling away from the inside, terrified soldiers, gleaming light. It is an angel laughing, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” It is the tears of Mary, hands grasping at the gardner’s feet–Jesus’s feet. The Gospel is two men walking along the road talking with a stranger, the risen Jesus they did not recognize. The Gospel is doubting Thomas’s fingers running across the wounds on Jesus’s hands, proof which led to his declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God!” It is Jesus and Peter, sharing a breakfast of reconciliation. “Do you love me? Feed my lambs.”

This is news. World-changing news. But this news cannot be changed. This news cannot be earned. You can no more earn the Gospel than you can earn the Revolutionary War. It is an event that happened long before you were born. Earning it is simply not part of the equation.

And yet we do. We change it. And I think most of us change it one way–we limit it. We say, “Sure, Jesus died and rose again. God loves the world so much that he offers salvation to everybody for free! That’s all true and it applies to every one…every one, that is, except for me. I am depressingly special, because I still have to earn my way back to God.”

This is what we believe in our deep, deep hearts, isn’t it? We think that God only likes us if we’ve had a day of little to no sin. We think that God will only bless us if we set the course of our lives to accomplish some great thing for him. We so easily forget that the Gospel is a true story that does not change as the years pass. It’s not a philosophical statement. It’s not a logical argument. It’s not even a doctrine! The Gospel is a statement of historical fact. It’s the story of Jesus.

When we change the Gospel, when we believe that God will only accept me if I don’t sin or that I have to somehow earn God’s saving grace, we are denying the story, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We change it from the story of Jesus into the story of me. We put ourselves into the middle of the story of the world. We say, “I’ve got to pull myself up by my own moral bootstraps. I’ve got to make my way, against all odds, back to God!”

But the Gospel is not about you; the Gospel is for you. It’s the story of Jesus dying and rising for you. You don’t have to do anything to earn his death and resurrection. That already happened. What could you possibly do to earn something that already happened? Could you earn the Revolutionary War? How ridiculous! And yet everyday we live our lives as though we have to earn the Gospel, that God loves us so much that his Son came, died for our sins, was buried, rose again, and was seen by many.

We receive the Gospel. We receive it by faith. We say, “Okay, God. This is what you’ve done. I can’t change that fact. I can’t go back in time and pull you off the cross. I can’t do anything to earn what you’ve already done. I believe it. I receive it. Thank you.” The Gospel has happened, and that is good news. Jesus’s death and resurrection have provided the means for you to be reconciled back to God, to be forgiven of all your sins, and to be made new. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn it.

{Edit: If you would like to download the sermon audio from which this post is taken, please click here. The sermon is from Ember’s first series, Run with Horses, on the book of Jeremiah. It is called Letter to the Exiles.}

One of the hardest words I’ve ever had to preach came from the passage that most Christians memorize for the comfort and hope it brings them. You know the verse I’m talking about: Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Go ahead and admit it. This is your life verse. It’s the desktop wallpaper on your computer–superimposed over a kitten in a basket. It has brought you comfort in times of trouble. It has helped you to hold out for God’s best when you just wanted to give in or give up. This verse has been a sparkling promise of God, like the North Star on a dark night.

I get it. Really, I do.

But here’s the thing. This verse doesn’t mean what we think it means. When we look at the rest of Jeremiah 29, we get a very different sense of what God is saying here. We get the sense, even, that he’s saying the opposite of what we thought. You see, this verse comes within a much larger prophecy to people in exile. They had been ripped away from their homeland, the Promised Land, the holy land. They were living in Babylon, a strange country where the customs, people, and language were foreign to them. Engulfed by the unfamiliar, they longed desperately to taste, to see, to touch what they had always known. They longed to be home.

Most of the prophets living with them in exile saw this and had compassion on the people. They prophesied compassionately. “Just two more years,” they proclaimed, “and God will bring us back to Jerusalem. Just two years longer and he will crush the head of our oppressors.” But compassionate prophecy is often false prophecy. The term of exile would not be two years, Jeremiah declared, but seventy.

For grown men and women, seventy years is a death sentence. For all but the youngest of the exiles, this meant they would never see their homeland again. They would die in this foreign land. They would be buried by unclean hands in unholy soil. Exile is a fate worse than death.

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.” In other words, live in Babylon as though you were living in Jerusalem. Engage with your new reality. Embrace your exile.

We hear a lot of talk these days about finding God’s best life for ourselves. We talk a lot about destiny and calling, always with the thought in mind that we are meant for something great. “God has a great plan for your life that will exceed all your wildest expectations!” It sounds so breathtaking and exhilarating–the spiritual equivalent of climbing El Capitan every day for the rest of your life. How many Christian brochures have you seen with a guy standing on the top of a mountain with his arms spread wide? The message behind the message is, “This should be your typical spiritual experience. This is what God destined you for!”

We hear this message again and again about personal greatness, about achieving your destiny, about realizing your dreams and actualizing the genius within you. And so images of personal significance and professional greatness dance in our heads as the false prophets of Christianity tickle our ears with the repackaged nonsense of Tony Robbins and the positivist promoters of a self-help philosophy that is nothing more than a theology of self where you have replaced God at the center of creation. “I’m going to do great things! …for God. I’m going to take this city! …for Jesus. I’m going to make my life count! …for the Lord.” False dreams interfere with honest living, as Eugene Peterson has said.

Jesus talked a lot about losing your life, and how losing your life for his sake is the only way to really find it. Did he mean that, or was he just joking? Is that how we’re being encouraged to live these days? To lose our lives for the sake of Jesus? To surrender our dreams? To relinquish our genius? To forsake personal greatness? Are any of Christianity’s prophets talking about how to live well in Babylon, or are they all selling us roadmaps back to Jerusalem?

You and I are being seduced by a Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up, lived, and died under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire; no, we are being seduced by a Christianity that has everything to do with the cult of the self and the drive for power. We are taught that Jesus is most supremely interested in me, and making me a very important person, helping me to actualize my potential and realize my dreams. In Christian America, Jesus isn’t a Savior who died to free you from the curse of sin and reconcile you back to God; he’s a life coach that shows you how to be the best you you can be.

Embrace your exile. God has never promised to make all of your dreams come true. He has never told you to follow your heart. He has not guaranteed your best life now. The truth is, most of us are born for Babylon, and we need to embrace our exile or we will be miserable our entire lives, chasing false hopes and kicking on escape hatches that will never open. Can you live with Jesus if living with him means living in Babylon? Can you follow Jesus if it means you may never see all your wildest dreams come true?

The only place you have to be human is where you are right now. The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at this moment. …The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love. -Eugene Peterson

You cannot live God’s life for you, you cannot live life with God, if you are always trying to get out of the life you have been given. You cannot live with God if you are constantly trying to get out of your circumstances, dreaming of being somewhere else, someone else. Escape from exile is not the answer. Escape from this world, this life, these problems, is not God’s way. Every day you face the choice between comfort and depth, between escape and engagement. Every day the unredeemed desires of your heart will allure you away from the reality in which you live, to daydreams of a so-called better life. But there is no other life out there. The life you’ve been given is the only life you have in which to live deeply and thoroughly for and with God.

Embracing our exile allows us to live in the reality in which God lives, the reality that he has given us, and the only place we can find him. As we embrace our exile we learn to embrace God, and trust him no matter the circumstances. God is the God of the good times and the bad. He is the God over Jerusalem and the God over Babylon. Embracing our exile means being content with God’s presence within, and oftentimes despite, the circumstances of our lives.

Only by embracing our exile will we learn to live with hope, real hope that transcends our circumstances and rests not in the actualization of our potential or realization of our dreams, but in the resurrection of our bodies and life forever in the full presence of God. We look forward to a future where the victorious Jesus rules and reigns over all creation, where God’s dream has been fully realized, and where we have become fully and perfectly human, ruling and reigning with Jesus the king on this throne.

And so we come back to everybody’s favorite verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  So what is God’s plan? What is this prospering he promises? What does the future look like?

We think that God’s primary agenda is to pull us out of exile, to lead us out of Babylon and into Jerusalem. We think his plan is to make our lives better. But the plan has always been, and will always be, simply this: Jesus Christ. Jesus is your prosperity. Jesus is your hope. Jesus is your future. And we will always find Jesus in the midst of our exile. Jesus walks through the deserts of Babylon, not to lead a mass exodus to Jerusalem—not yet. No, he walks through Babylon to find you, to sit with you, to say, “I am with you. I am here. I am your God, and you are mine. Worship me, only. Follow me, only. And in doing that, become like me.”

We have hope, not because Steve Jobs rose from rags to riches and we can too, but because Jesus Christ rose from the dead and we will too. And on that day he will welcome in all who put their trust in him and not their own potential, who put their faith in him and not their own power, whose hope was in him and not in their own dreams. If you are in exile, embrace your exile. That is where you will find Jesus. There are no shortcuts to realized hope. Only by embracing your exile will you learn to live with the true and lasting hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Postscript.

In many ways, my life is not what I wanted. My son’s health has forsaken him, leaving him a shell of the boy he was and could be. My dream of Ember Church died. Six months ago, I was fired. I am not in pastoral ministry–the vocation to which I sense that I am so strongly called, and toward which I have directed my entire life–and I don’t know when or if I will ever be again. Like many others I know, I live in an existential exile. Embracing this is hard. Daydreaming is easy. So is bitterness. My sense of entitlement drives me to dark places. But if I am to find God in this life–the only life I have–I must embrace the circumstances of the hours I wake and the ground on which I walk. I must embrace my exile in order to find God’s presence, and it’s when I find God here, in Babylon, that I am reminded that the only hope worth having will never be fully realized in a fallen world, but it awaits us as sheer grace, utter gift, on the other side of faithfulness. God’s plan for the world, and for me, is Jesus. There is no harm in Jesus. There is everlasting prosperity in Jesus. The only future worth having is found only in Jesus. That helps me. A lot. And I hope it helps you, too.

This morning, my old friend Nate left an insightful comment on the Facebook post of my review of David Platt’s book, Follow Me. I think he raises many valid points, and I would like to take the time to address them. I’ve chosen to do that here, on the blog, rather than on the Facebook thread so that I can better interact with his comments. To see what he is commenting on, please click here, and scroll down to the section titled, My Criticism. Nate’s comments will appear in the gray boxes, with my responses to each immediately following.

My first contention is with your statement that basically God initiated our salvation at the Cross and now he’s waiting for us to “make that salvation available.” What does the Holy Spirit do? Isn’t he the one who convicts and convinces of sin (John 16:7-8) and also the one who initiates our spiritual birth (John 3:5-8), or are these verses “metaphorical” as well? What is his mission? To wait around until we build up the gumption to surrender to Christ and then he moves in? That’s not Biblical in the slightest.

In my attempt to be brief, I left out a lot of important information, as you have pointed out. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is actively wooing nonChristians to Jesus through a variety of means, particularly convicting of sin. God is not sitting back in his heavenly arm chair waiting for us to accomplish his mission. But here’s the point I wanted to make–neither are we sitting back in our sinful arm chairs waiting for God to save us and everyone else. We are active agents in the Great Commission. We were told by Jesus, “Go. Make Disciples. Teach. Baptize.” (And surely he is with us, always.) God did what only he could do–pay the price for the sin of humanity on the cross, then destroy death through his resurrection. Then, as Matthew 28 makes explicit, he told his first disciples to tell the rest of the world about what has happened, and in that telling they would bring the message through which all could be saved. (Acts 11:14) God has partnered with his people to bring about salvation for all who will believe. Paul makes the point most clearly, I think:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:9-15)

To sum it up:

  • We are saved by calling on the name of the Lord;
  • We call on the name of the Lord because we believe in him;
  • We believe in him because we have heard of him [and the Gospel];
  • We have heard because someone has preached to us.

I’m not saying that you or I can save anybody. Nor am I saying that God has nothing whatsoever to do with our salvation, now that the crucifixion and resurrection have happened. What I am saying is what I think both Jesus and Paul are saying, which is that God has sovereignly chosen to make his disciples active agents in his plan of salvation. Isn’t that what missions is all about? I think Platt would agree with me on that, at least.

Regarding your statement about the parable of the treasure; I think you’re missing an important component. Namely, how does this man know the treasure has value? I know that seems simplistic, but seriously, what tells this man “this is worth my life savings”? If you say it’s obvious that it’s valuable, then why don’t some people see this value? Why do many people who are saturated with the Gospel never see its worth? Are they not as smart as us? Not as spiritually sensitive? Are they simply more in love with their sin than we are? If you say the difference between them and us is anything but the grace of God (and the work of the Holy Spirit), then you have just added works/merit to our salvation and stepped into potential heresy (I’m not accusing you of intentional heresy, simply that you are treading on thin ice).

I thought this was a great point, and I thought about it for a long time. Then it struck me that Jesus may have had something to say about this.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred,sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

[Jesus then goes on to explain the parable.] “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13)

It seems to me that Jesus is describing four types of people that characterize four different responses to the Gospel. Jesus says that there are three reasons for why people reject the Gospel: 1) They don’t understand it, and so Satan has snatched away the message that was sown in their heart; 2) Trouble and/or persecution comes upon a new believer who has no root, and so they give up; and 3) The worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke out the Gospel, so that it fails to bring forth fruit. The fourth soil–the only one in which the Gospel bears fruit–produces a thriving crop because, as Jesus says, someone heard the word and understood it. Jesus did not say that this was because of the grace of God or the work of the Holy Spirit. He says that the Gospel took root in them and was fertile because they heard and understood it. So I will say what Jesus said: The difference between those who receive the Gospel and those who reject it is that the ones who receive it understand it.

At this point, it may be tempting to ask, “Why did they understand it?”, and then to answer, “Because of the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.” But that’s not what Jesus said. He left it at “someone who hears the word and understands it.” To explain the mechanism of understanding is to eisegete the text. You said, “If you say the difference between them and us is anything but the grace of God (and the work of the Holy Spirit), then you have just added works/merit to our salvation and stepped into potential heresy.” But this is precisely what Jesus has said. I would argue that if your theological system puts you in the position of accusing Jesus of “potential heresy,” then it is time to abandon your theological system.

Your treatment of Ephesians 2 is confusing. If Paul didn’t mean that we are spiritually dead, then what exactly did he mean? Paul used the word nekros there, and while I don’t know Greek perfectly, that means dead. A corpse. Without life. You mentioned that it may be metaphorical. Honestly, if he were referring to our physical bodies, you would be correct because obviously the reader was alive and able to read. But our physical life isn’t what he had in mind, he was referring to our spiritual self. This isn’t Gnosticism, this is Biblical. Gnosticism is that the spiritual and the physical are unrelated so what happens to one is independent of the other. That’s not what he was teaching.

Also, I don’t think I need to go into detail that the Bible considers unsaved people to be dead. That is clear. To think that when I was unsaved I was ALMOST totally dead, but I had a spark of divinity that could choose God is semi-Pelagian at best. I don’t want to get aggressive here, but it concerns me that every time a passage is presented that contradicts your theological view, instead of trying to reason it out within Scripture, your default response is that it must be metaphorical. You’ve done it with both creation and prophecy in the past. I don’t argue those because they are not critical to the faith. But to say that the clear Biblical teaching that we are helpless corpses in our sin is simply metaphorical is untenable. If we start throwing this word around then we run into problems such as was the virgin birth simply metaphor? What about the miracles? What about the nature of the atonement? Was the resurrection metaphorical or literal? The Second Coming? I’m not trying to be belligerent, and I’m not questioning your fidelity on these issues, I’m simply saying you enter a slippery slope whenever you throw the word “metaphor” around loosely when the Bible doesn’t intend to be taken metaphorically.

You’re correct in identifying the basic teaching of Gnosticism. John saw this Gnostic storm brewing in his church at Ephesus, and so we got the incredible book of 1 John, which just so happens to be my favorite book in the Bible. But if Paul is saying that the spiritual can be dead while the physical is alive, isn’t he saying the same thing (though with the opposite side being dead or useless) as the Gnostics? Isn’t this kind of division of the spiritual and physical Gnostic, in and of itself?

As for Ephesians 2, perhaps I ought to go back to Ephesians 1 to help explain why I think Paul is using a metaphor. Ephesians 1:12-13 says this: “…we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit…” (I’ve italicized the portions I think are relevant to this discussion.) Can dead people put their hope in Christ? Can dead people believe? Platt argues that dead people can’t invite Jesus into their hearts. In fact, dead people can’t do anything! But Paul says that these people, whom he calls “dead in your transgressions and sins” in chapter 2, believed in Christ. Paul does not say, in chapter 1, that they were infused with belief by God. Rather, he plainly states: When you believed. They were dead in their sins, and then they heard the Gospel and believed. (This sounds quite similar to the parable of Jesus I quoted above.) This, as well as the contrasting vocabulary Paul chooses in chapter 2 (You were dead in your…sins in which you used to live), leads me to believe that Paul is using the term dead metaphorically.

As for your concerns about interpreting Scripture, I try to remain as faithful as possible to the text, which, for me, means understanding the text within its original context, however much a thing is possible. I’ve used this quote from Fee & Stuart again and again, and I live by it: The Bible cannot mean what it never meant. What it meant when it was written is what it means today, though obviously we apply the text in a vastly different context. I’m not afraid of becoming liberal anymore. Many people believe that I’ve already arrived there. No, my greater fear is being unfaithful to Jesus and the Scriptures. The reason that I rail, at times, against certain Calvinistic doctrines is because I believe that they are, in fact, unfaithful to Jesus and the Scriptures.

Finally, (and this is turning out to be longer than I expected) while I agree with you that Genesis 1&2 are eternal and will return someday, the fact is that Genesis 3 distorted that image, like it did everything else. Certainly, Christ began the reversal of the curse on the Cross, and someday he will reverse it completely when he returns, but until then, sin rules this world and blinds the eyes of the lost. Before I was saved, I was dead, blind, and useless. When God gave me life and raised me from the dead spiritually, I was able to enter a relationship with him again. Not because I’m better than anyone else, but because God is gracious.

I agree with so much of what you write here, but I would say this: sin does not rule this world, Jesus does. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Jesus, not sin, is Lord. Jesus is presently reigning from the right hand of the Father, that glorious place of cosmic authority from which he is presently putting all his enemies under his feet.

The core of our disagreement, I think, is that, in my opinion, you give sin too much credit. The creative act of God is more powerful and more enduring the destructive acts of Satan or humans. If Jesus is Lord, then sin, death, hell, Satan, or anyone or anything else is not. The Genesis 3 world is passing away, and the Revelation 21-22 world (which is really just the mirror image of the Genesis 1-2 world) is coming. Jesus has already defeated sin, evil, and death. He is defeating them. And he will defeat them.

I hope that I have sufficiently answered your concerns, and I look forward to continuing this discussion.

One of my seminary professors, a systematic theologian named Dr. Richard Lints, told me that all good theology begins in Genesis 1. If this is true, which I believe that it is, then we must think about Genesis 1 correctly if we are going to think appropriately about God. This first chapter of Scripture lays the foundation for the way in which we understand God. It’s no wonder, then, that this is one of the most contentious and hotly-debated texts in all of Scripture. Coupled with the trajectory of modern science since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the interpretation of Genesis 1 has served for many as a litmus test for true belief. Yet even within evangelicalism, there is a vast spectrum of belief on this text, ranging from Biologos to Answers in Genesis, and many in between.

There are many different ways to interpret Genesis 1, just as there are many different ways to interpret, for example, the book of Revelation, or Daniel, or the Psalms. It is worth noting, though it should go without saying, that people who love Jesus very much can come into sharp disagreement over the interpretation of biblical passages–especially Genesis 1. The litmus test for true belief, however, is not what one believes about Genesis 1, but whether or not one believes the Gospel–that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. With that said, I’d like to lay out what I take to be the meaning of Genesis 1.

What God Wanted to Say

The first and most important question we must ask with any biblical text is this: What did God intend to communicate through the original author to the text’s intended audience? We ask this question because the meaning of a text cannot change. As Fee & Stuart have written in their excellent work, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, “The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.” While personal and communal applications of a text may change across time and culture, the meaning of a text does not change.

So when it comes to Genesis 1, we must ask the question: What did God intend to communicate through Moses (or Abraham, or Ezra, or whoever actually wrote the passage) to the Hebrew people in the hymn that is Genesis 1? Approaching the question this way, one thing should come immediately to mind: Moses did not write Genesis 1 as a polemic against Darwinian evolution. Darwin’s book was published roughly 3,000 years after Genesis 1, so to assume that this text is about evolution/creation is to commit an historical anachronism of the first order. It’s simply not possible. 


The litmus test for true belief is not what one believes about Genesis 1, but whether or not one believes the Gospel–that Jesus died for our sins and rose again.

When we step into the culture of the Ancient Near East (which you can’t physically do, but two books, The Lost World of Genesis One and The Bible Among the Myths, can help you understand a great deal more about it) we see that Genesis 1 is not a polemic against Darwinian Evolutionary Theory or naturalistic materialism; it is, however, a polemic against pagan pantheism. The real problem that Genesis 1 sets out to address is not the mechanism by which God created the universe, but rather which god is the true creator.

In fact, the unique genius of Genesis 1 is that it presents a monotheistic theology of creation that holds humanity in high esteem. Typically, the creation myths of Israel’s neighbors presented a pantheistic (many gods) view of creation with the heavens and the earth being the byproduct of some cosmic war. In this pagan scenario, humanity is an unwelcome addition to this world of chaos, thereby establishing their bottom-rung value in the universe, useful for little more than serving the needs of the gods.

But in Genesis 1 we get something radically different. We see a singular God speaking the heavens and the earth into being by himself and on purpose. What is more, in this story humanity is the pinnacle of creation, bearing the very image of this all-powerful, speaking Creator God, who called humans “very good.” Even more radical than this, the text declares that God created humanity male and female, meaning that women have as much inherent, created dignity, worth, and purpose as men. You might say that Genesis 1 erases and rewrites everything–EVERYTHING–that Hebrews, inundated by Ancient Near Eastern cultural values, knew about creation, divinity, and themselves. It may just be the most powerful, worldview-deconstructing and -reconstructing text ever written.

Imagine that you are a Hittite, or an Egyptian, or a Babylonian living around 1400 BC. You believe in many gods, and they are all powerful, vengeful, angry, and often possess little or no moral character. They are strong, but they are not good. You also believe that humanity exists to be, in essence, the slaves of the gods, and are completely subject to the whims of the members of the divine pantheon. Furthermore, whatever dignity exists within humanity is entirely invested in males, especially firstborn males. Women are good for child bearing and little else. This is your worldview. These beliefs, more than anything else, form the way you look at the world. And then you find the text of Genesis 1. What happens to you? No one has ever even conceived of these things before! You have no category for what you read here. Creation comes into being, not through divine warfare, but through divine proclamation. All creation is called “good.” Human beings, both men and women, are called “very good.” This changes everything.

The Pattern in the Days

I had been reading Genesis 1 for a long, long time before someone pointed out to me the pattern in the days. Have you ever noticed it before? The first three days line up with the second three days. In other words, day 1 is associated with day 4, day 2 with day 5, and day 3 with day 6. Check out the tabbed table below for more info on the days.

[tabs] [tab title=”Day 1″] On the first day of Creation God made light, separating it from the darkness. He called the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Notice that he hasn’t yet created any celestial bodies to shine or reflect any light, much less anything for the light to shine upon. No light-producers–no sun, moon, or stars. He has simply created light. It’s as though light exists as an empty field or canvas, unpopulated and unmarked. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 4″] Three days later, God created the celestial bodies–the sun, moon, and stars–to govern the passage of days. In other words, God filled or populated the empty field called “light” he made on the first day. Now, light does not simply exist, but serves the function of the passage of time. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 2″] The second day is really interesting because it is the separation of the waters. This concept comes from Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, in which it was understood that there was water behind an “expanse” or “vault” in the sky. This was how they understood the process of rainfall, which, given the scientific understanding of the time, is perfectly reasonable. What happened on this day, though, was that God separated two realms–the sea and the sky. Like on the first day, there are not yet any inhabitants of these realms. They are empty. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 5″] On the fifth day, God created the fish and the birds–the inhabitants of the sea and the sky! He painted an empty canvas on the second day, and then, just as with day four, he filled it up, though this time with beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring creatures. [/tab] [tab title=”Day 3″] The third day was when God pulled back the waters of the sea and created dry ground. An interesting note about this day is that, unlike with days 1 and 2, the land produced something on day 3–vegetation! This points to the Hebrew understanding that vegetation and land are one and the same, and that the land exists to produce vegetation for… [/tab] [tab title=”Day 6″] Animals and humans! Day 6 is connected with day 3 just like the other two pairs in that God first created an empty field, and then filled that field with his creatures. God created spaces, and then he filled those spaces with creatures. [/tab] [/tabs]

There is an unmistakeable, and, I believe, a God-breathed pattern in the first six days of Creation. God creates a space, and then God fills that space with creatures who give it purpose and life. The order of the Creation text is no accident, and is, in fact, meant to lead us to an understanding of the order of Creation itself. But it leaves us with a question, doesn’t it? What about that seventh day? Why no pair for that day? What does it mean?

Divine Enthronement

The design of Genesis 1 is meant to point us to a profound cosmic reality, one that gets lost in the modern debate over the age of the earth and the origins of the universe. The three pairs of days are meant to point our attention toward the final, unpaired day, and make us ask the question, “What is so special about this day?”

Of course we all know that the seventh day is the Sabbath, the day that God rested. We imagine that this is the day God kicked up his feet, drank some lemonade, and maybe read a good book. Or took a nap. Whatever he did, we think of it as God taking a break from work. But there’s a crucial question that we haven’t been trained to ask, and that is this: “What did it mean, in the Ancient Near East (the culture in which Genesis 1 was written), for a god to take his rest?” In his excellent book The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton writes that an ancient god always takes his rest in his temple.

So what happens on the seventh day is not so much a prolonged divine lunch break as it is a moving day. God takes his rest in his creation. Creation is God’s temple. God moves into creation. God is present within, while at the same time distinct from, the cosmos he has just created. All creation is God’s holy place. The creation myths of Israel’s neighbors begin, so to speak, with a world already thrust into chaos, sin, and death. But the Hebrew creation story begins with a good creation inhabited by a good and beautiful God–a holy world functioning in perfect harmony because of the presence of its Creator.

It is vital, I believe, for us to understand the world, and ourselves, primarily in the light of God’s original creation. Too many Christians functionally believe that Genesis and 1 and 2 are nothing more than happy myths, faerie tales, and that the Bible doesn’t really start telling the truth of creation until Genesis 3, the fall. Too many Christians think of themselves, the world, and even God, as though Genesis 3 were more true than Genesis 1. But Genesis 1 describes reality as it was and will be again, while Genesis 3 describes reality as it is now but will someday no longer be.

The Living God

Genesis 1 isn’t about geology or biology; it’s about a good Creator creating a good world, a home suitable for creatures that are more like he is than the angels are. On that sixth day, God made human beings, and he made them in his image. This is significant.

In the Ancient Near East, every god’s temple had to have an image–a statue, an inscription–to signify whose temple this was. For example, Dagon’s temple would have an image of Dagon in it. Baal’s would have an image of Baal, and so forth. So what did God choose to put as his image in his temple? Us. Humans. We are the inscriptions, the living statues on earth that testify to every living creature to whom this temple belongs, what sort of God he is, and how we might know him.


Genesis 1 tells us that God is alive because you are alive.

If you understand human beings from a Genesis 3 perspective, you would naturally conclude that the God in whose image they were created is a foul, nasty, cowardly, shallow deity bent on sex, food, and power. But if you understand human beings from a Genesis 1 perspective, you would see the Creator God as a good, wise, benevolent deity who sought the best for his creatures. (It’s important to note that Jesus was a Genesis 1 kind of human.) But here’s the most important part: all the images of all the other gods were made of wood, stone, or metal. In other words, they were dead. The breath of life was not in them. But the image of the Hebrew God is made of flesh and blood. It breathes. It moves. It is alive. And if God’s image is alive, how much more alive is that God? Genesis 1 tells us that God is alive because you are alive. You are a living apologetic to the existence of God.

God is not like the other gods. He does not need anyone to make him a house or a temple. He made his own temple and came to dwell within it, setting up his own living images to govern and care for it. His intention was and is for his living images to spread over the earth, subduing it, caring for it, ruling over it in the same way he rules over the cosmos–with wisdom, strength, and mercy. These living images, however, were not merely his minions, created solely to do his bidding. They were and are individual lives, minds, and personalities, meant to know and be known by one another and, most importantly, by God himself. God’s intention has been, from the very beginning, to dwell with humanity within his creation–within the beauty and holiness of his temple. This is the way it was, and to the praise of his glory and grace, the way it will be again.

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