An Interpretive Key To Hebrews Chapter 1 (Part 1)

The first chapter of the book of Hebrews is often employed by modern day Christian apologists in their effort to defend the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. In their minds, this chapter offers convincing proofs of these doctrines and so is often appealed to as evidence of the same. What I will present in this article is an alternative interpretation to this chapter, which will show the tenuousness of the traditional interpretation. Much of what I will present here has been presented in a few other articles on this blog. Here, I want to bring together what I had previously written with additional material into a single place for easier reference.

Background

Before we look at specific verses I want to give a brief overview of the background of Hebrews. The author of the letter is clearly a Jewish follower of Messiah, but is unnamed. There is plenty of conjecture as to who he was, such as Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, etc. Since the precise identification of the author is not important to this study I will not go there. He is writing to a specific community of Hebrew believers in Jesus with whom he is personally acquainted, probably living outside of Israel. That both the author and the recipients are Jews is established in v. 1, in which the author states,  “God spoke to the fathers … .” Had he said “my fathers”, that would have designated him a Jew, but not necessarily his readers. Had he said “your fathers”, that would have designated the recipients as Jews, but not necessarily the author. By saying “the fathers” and not giving any further indication, the most natural way to understand it is “our fathers”, and it is so translated in the NIV, ESV, ISV, and the NET. “Fathers” here means ancestors and “the” denotes some specific ancestors. If the ancestors he spoke of were not those of the author or recipients, it seems reasonable to suppose he would have designated them as the “ancestors of the Jews” since God spoke long ago to the ancestors by means of the prophets,” can only be referring to the Israelites, to whom the prophets of old were sent. Since the letter was written in Greek and relies upon the Greek version of the OT, it is likely that the recipients were Jews of the dispersion i.e. living outside of the land of Israel.

Now these Hebrew believers were under great pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus, partly because of persecution (probably from their fellow Jews), partly because of a demotion in their minds of the role of Messiah in the purpose of God for Israel (probably from persuasion by some Jewish sect) and partly because of the delay in the return of Jesus to bring in the manifestation of the kingdom of God. The authors purpose is to encourage them to remain faithful to Jesus, to endure until he returns. His method is to show the superiority of Messiah’s mission and role in God’s plan as compared to the mediatorial role of angels, the role of Moses and the Law,  and the role of the Aaronic priesthood and the sacrifices offered in that system.

Two Interpretive Options

In this passage the author speaks of one who he refers to as ‘the son’ in relation to God. The question before us is this: What does the author mean when he uses this appellation? We have two main options in the interpretation of the designation ‘son of God’ in Hebrews chapter 1 – the Greek metaphysical view and the Hebraic view. Now I know that I harp on this often, but it just is a fact that if we have the wrong presupposition when we approach a text, we will draw the wrong conclusions from the text. Every popular, evangelical commentary that I checked, approaches this text from the presupposition of the metaphysical Christology of the conciliar creeds. These commentaries are rather flagrant in their back-reading into this text the ‘son of God’ set forth in the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries. These creeds present a metaphysical conception of the son of God and of his relationship to the God whose son he is, based on philosophical categories of ontology and essence. The Gentile church fathers leading up to that time had consciously abandoned the Hebraic foundations of the faith and recast the whole Jesus event in terms of Platonic and Gnostic ideologies, which were then pervasive. These speculative  philosophies produced the ‘son of God’ of the creeds. And so the whole of Christiandom today is heir to this unbiblical, non-Hebraic concept of the Christ, the son of God.

So-called ‘early church fathers’ (ECFs), from the late second century on, began to move increasingly away from the Hebraic roots of the faith and to view the Christ event more and more through the lens of Greek metaphysics. These ECFs had imbibed the spirit of the different Greek philosophical schools in which they had formerly been educated. Having become Christians it was only natural for them to interpret their newfound faith through these systems of thought, which were so ingrained in their minds. The nature of the ‘son of God’ and his relationship to God became the focal point of much philosophical speculation, producing conflicting schools of thought (e.g. Logos, Arian and gnostic christologies), which led eventually to the son of God of the conciliar creeds. These developments were clearly a deviation from the earlier Hebraic understanding of the first generation of Jewish and Greek believers.

One way that the difference between the Hebraic and the Greek mindsest can be seen is in the categories of thought in which the relationship between God and the son of God might be delineated. The Greek metaphysically trained mind thought in categories of essence and nature, while the Hebrew mind thought in categories of status and function. So the ECFs, trained in Greek metaphysics, naturally came to view the relationship between God and his son as one of ontological equivalence, a oneness of substance and essence. Greek metaphysics had already postulated a God who emanates out of his divine substance other divine beings who thus share in his divinity. The earlier Jewish believers understood the relationship to be one of status and function, where the appellation ‘son’ was taken as an analogy. The Greek mind reasoned that if God begets a son then the son must be of the same nature as God i.e the Father to son relationship is literal. But the Jewish mind perceived the Father to son relationship as a metaphor. This is seen in the fact that the nation of Israel itself was designated to be God’s son {Ex. 422-23; Is. 1:2; Deut. 32:6; Mal. 1:6; 2:10}. This father/son relationship was not based on nature or substance but on the fact that the nation was created i.e. brought into existence by God, hence by analogy, God gave birth to the nation. Even individual Israelites could be designated ‘sons of God’ {Hosea 1:10} as well as believers in Jesus in the NT {Gal. 3:26}. Also, in the Hebrew scriptures, other created non-human beings (typically called angels) could be called sons of God {Job 1:6; 38:6-7; Ps. 89:5-7}. In all of these cases there is no connotation of a metaphysical relationship. In fact, there is not any use of the appellation ‘son of God’ in the OT that has a metaphysical association to it. But even more pertinent to Hebrews 1 is another individual in the Hebrew Bible, who is designated to be God’s son – the Davidic king, Yahweh’s anointed one.

The Interpretive Key

The aforementioned early church fathers, so-called, brought their education in Greek metaphysics to bear on the NT scriptures, and simply read into it the categories of substance and nature. This was particularly true of Hebrews chapter 1. It is understandable how they were so easily able to see these Greek concepts in certain passages, since they were, for the most part, ignorant of the Hebraic perspective, and the Greek perspective just was what they were familiar with. But what I am proposing in this article is that the Hebraic perspective should be presumed when reading the NT. We should presume that the authors of the NT, all being Jews who were highly familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and all being, most likely, unappreciative of Greek metaphysics, would have been setting forth the relationship between God and his son in the same categories of status and function as we saw in the Hebrew Bible’s use of the appellation ‘son of God’. This would mean that the author of Hebrews speaks of the ‘son’ in a metaphorical sense, rather than a literal sense. Why should it be presumed that this Hebrew author was using categories of Greek metaphysics? Well we know why it has been and still is presumed – because that is how the ECFs understood it, and these ECFs have been endowed with a sort of sacrosanct status. But the reason these ECFs understood it the way they did had more to do with their former education in the Greek philosophical schools than it did with their proficiency in biblical exegesis. But what if we take off the glasses of the ECFs metaphysical model and read this passage from the Hebraic viewpoint? Does the passage cohere in this case? I believe it does and even better than the traditional interpretation.

The interpretive key that I am proposing for this passage is that we should understand the appellation ‘son’ as a status which is bestowed upon a person, specifically a descendant of David, to function as the ruler over God’s kingdom on God’s behalf, according to the OT precedent.

Son of God = Son of David

The main thrust of Hebrews 1 is that this one who is designated as son is superior in rank and assumed function than any angel1. The author shows this by presenting a series of OT passages where the status of this son is shown to be greater than that of angels. He also notes what scripture does not say with regard to angels. Before I do a verse by verse exegesis of the passage I want to show how the OT passages the author uses to establish his point, in their original context, all refer to Yahwheh’s anointed one, the Davidic king. The passages are Ps. 2:7 and 1 Chron. 17:13 (quoted in v. 5); Ps. 45:6-7 (quoted in vv. 8-9) and Ps 110:1 (quoted in v. 13). Also in v. 6 there is an allusion to Ps. 89:27.

Psalm 2:7

“I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have brought you forth.’

This is an oft quoted passage by the ECFs, who saw in it the Greek metaphysical concept of emanation. They applied this verse to their theory that the son was generated or emanated out from the Father’s substance before the worlds were made, despite the fact that the verse says nothing of the sort. Let’s see what some orthodox trinitarian sources say about this passage. First, in the introductory comments to Ps. 2 and in the comment on v. 7, the 1985 NIV Study Bible says:

A royal psalm, it was originally composed for the coronation of Davidic kings, in light of God’s covenant with David.

2:7 Son . . . Father. In the ancient Near East the relationship between a great king and one of his subject kings, who ruled by his authority and owed him allegiance, was expressed not only by the words “lord” and “servant” but also by “father’ and “son.” The Davidic king was the Lord’s “servant” and his “son” (2 Sa 7:5, 14)

NIV Study Bible

Here is another reputable source:

You are My Son. A parent-child relationship between the gods and the king was common imagery in the ancient world. Such imagery supported the authority of the king and portrayed his role as mediator between the divine realm and the world in which he was to maintain order . . . Kings in David’s genealogical line also held their kingship by divine adoption, celebrated on the coronation day in Ps. 2. The adoption metaphor in Israel was rooted in the special covenant relationship between Yahweh and the Davidic kings . . . [I]n other ancient Near East treaties . . . [t]he great king was designated as “father,” and the vassal king was his “son.” In this way of thinking, the Davidic king was the “son” of the great King, Yahweh, who was the “father”. . .

Zondervan’s Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible
Comment on Ps. 2:7

And still another:

Jahve has declared to Him: בּני אתּה, and that on the definite day on which He has begotten or born him into this relationship of son. The verb ילד unites in itself, like γεννᾶν, the ideas of begetting and bearing; what is intended is an operation of divine power exalted above both, and indeed, since it refers to a setting up (נסך) in the kingship, the begetting into a royal existence, which takes place in and by the act of anointing (משׁח). Whether it be David, or a son of David, or the other David, that is intended, in any case 2 Samuel 7 is to be accounted as the first and oldest proclamation of this decree; for there David, with reference to his own anointing, and at the same time with the promise of everlasting dominion, receives the witness of the eternal sonship to which Jahve has appointed the seed of David in relation to Himself as Father, so that David and his seed can say to Jahve: אבי אתּה, Thou art my Father, Psalm 89:27, as Jahve can to him: בּני אתּה, Thou art My son.

Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary on Ps. 2:7


The psalm refers to this son in three ways: as the son in vv. 7 and 12; as Yahweh’s anointed one, a common designation for the king in the OT, in v. 2; and as Yahweh’s king in v. 6. From this we can deduce that these titles are interchangeable – the king was the anointed one (Heb. mashiach = messiah) and the son. This relationship was established by God in his covenant promise to David and brings us to the second passage which the author of Hebrews uses to establish his point.

1 Chron. 17:13 (2 Sam. 7:14)

“I will be his father and he will be my son.”

In the context of this passage God sends the prophet Nathan to king David to declare to him the Lord’s promise to establish David’s line to be the only line from which kings would be chosen to rule, in Jerusalem, over God’s kingdom. He promises David that he will raise up from David’s own seed a king to succeed him, which was initially fulfilled in Solomon. It is then that God gives the decree mentioned in Ps. 2, “I will be his father and he will be my son.” We know that Solomon was the first to fulfill the promise based on 1 Chron. 22:9-10 and 28:5-7. These verses clearly mark out Solomon as God’s son, once he is anointed and takes the throne. Let’s see what one of our Trinitarian commentators has to say about this passage.

his father . . . my son. This familial language expresses the relationship God promises to maintain with the descendant(s) of David whom he will establish on David’s throne. It marks him as the one God has chosen and enthroned to rule in his name as the official representative of God’s rule over his people.

1985 NIV Study Bible comment on 2 Sam. 7:14


Now let’s go to the next passage quoted by the author of Hebrews.

Psalm 45:6-7

“Your throne, O God , is forever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

That this psalm is addressed to the king is firmly established in vv. 1-2 which read, “My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king . . . You are the most excellent of men . . . “ The title to the psalm refers to it as “a wedding song,” and indeed vv. 10-14 describe the bride. This psalm was probably used on more than one royal wedding occasion. In the psalm, in vv. 2-7, the psalmist paints an idealized portrait of the Davidic king in his majesty. The king, as God’s ultimate representative, is addressed as “God,” but it must be understood as an honorific given to the king in light of his exalted position and not as a statement of the kings ontological nature. This would be similar to when God said to Moses, “See, I have appointed you god (Heb. elohim)to Pharaoh.” There Yahweh designated Moses as elohim in relation to Pharaoh, for Moses was representing God. Therefore, it cannot be objected that the Davidic king could be so designated in relation to the people over whom he reigned as God’s representative. We have a similar case in Ps. 82:6, where human kings2 are designated as elohim“I said, ‘You are gods, you are sons of the Most High.'” Here is what the 1985 NIV Study Bible says about Ps. 45:6:

O God. Possibly the king’s throne is called God’s throne because he is God’s appointed regent. But it is also possible that the king himself is addressed as “god.” The Davidic king, because of his special relationship with God,was called at his enthronement the “son” of God. In this psalm, which praises the king and especially his “splendor and majesty” (v.3), it is not unthinkable that he was called “god” as a title of honor.

Comment on Ps. 45:6


The final passage quoted by the author of Hebrews is Ps. 110:1.

Psalm 110:1

“The declaration of Yahweh to my lord (the king), ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'”

This is another coronation psalm, which would have been spoken over the newly anointed king. It is the utterance of Yahweh himself (Heb. neum) in which the newly appointed king is invited to share Yahweh’s rule over his kingdom, Israel. To ‘sit at the right hand’ of a great king signified to rule on behalf of that king, so here the Davidic king is given authority to rule on Yahweh’s behalf, with Yahweh’s full support. This was tantamount to the king sharing God’s own throne over His kingdom {see 1 Chron. 29:23}. This language is also seen in Ps. 80:17: “Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have secured for yourself.” Here is what one reputable ‘orthodox’ source says:

1The Lord said unto my Lord] Jehovah’s oracle unto [or touching] my lord! The rendering said (R.V. saith) does not represent the full force of the word ne’um, which is commonly used of solemn Divine utterances (Genesis 2:16, and frequently in the prophets . . .). The Psalmist speaks with the authority of a prophet who is conscious of having received a message from God . . . The message is addressed through the Psalmist to the king, and the king is the subject of it. Strictly speaking the ‘oracle’ is the remainder of the verse ‘sit thou … footstool,’ Psalm 110:2-3 being the Psalmist’s expansion of it; but the whole Psalm is a Divine message of encouragement for the king.

my Lord] The R.V. has rightly dropped the capital letter, as being of the nature of an interpretation. ‘My lord’ (adônî) is the title of respect and reverence used in the O.T. in addressing or speaking of a person of rank and dignity, especially a king.

sit thou at my right hand] The seat at the king’s right hand was the place of honour . . .  But more than mere honour is implied here. This king is to share Jehovah’s throne, to be next to Him in dignity, to be supported by all the force of His authority and power. The idea corresponds to the recognition of the king as Jehovah’s son in Psalm 2:7. Somewhat similarly the king was said to ‘sit on the throne of Jehovah’ (1 Chron. 29:23 . . . )

Cambridge Bible commentary on Ps. 110:1


Finally, let’s look at the allusion to Ps. 89:27 in v. 6.

“I will appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.”

The reference here is to King David, as vv. 19-20 show, but also to David’s descendants, as vv. 28-36 establish, whom Yahweh has appointed as his firstborn son, i.e. the heir of his kingdom.

So we have seen that the passages quoted by the author of Hebrews all point to the ‘son’ being equivalent to the Davidic king. He does bring up one more passage, Ps. 102:25-27, in vv. 10-13, but I do not believe this passage is meant to say anything about the ‘son’ but about the angels, as I will show in my exegesis of the chapter.

Exegesis of Hebrews 1

We come now to the interpretation of Hebrews 1. Based on the information that we saw above, where in seeking to establish for his readers that the son is superior to angels, the author points to four passages directly and one indirectly which all focus on the status and function of the Davidic king. I will be using this as my hermeneutic for this chapter. It must also be noted that these OT passages cited by our author are, in their original context, not specifically or exclusively about the man Jesus. In other words, they are not prophecies about the coming Messiah, but rather are idealized depictions of Yahweh’s anointed one, the Davidic king. So we might say that the man Jesus, being the final and ultimate anointed son of David, who will rule over the kingdom of God forever {see Lk. 1:32-33}, is the only one to fulfill the ideal. I will show how this understanding of Hebrews 1 is completely consistent with a purely human Messiah, i.e. that nothing that the author says about the son in this chapter necessitates that he be divine.

V. 1 – As I stated above in the Background section, this verse establishes for us that both the author and the recipients of the letter were Jews. The adverb polumeros seems to mean many portions, which may refer to time, hence “at various times,” or the like, found in numerous versions. The adverb polutropos means many or various ways and probably refers to the various ways in which God communicated his word, e.g. legal code for religious and civil matters, historical narrative, prophetic utterance, psalms and wisdom literature.

V.2 – Most translations have “His Son” but there is no ‘His’ in the Greek, so this is incorrect. There is also no definite article, so “the Son” would not be correct either. The ISV, NET, and YLT are correct in rendering the Greek as “a son.” Knowing the authors mindset, based on the foregoing analysis, it would be appropriate to think “a chosen son of David,” for as we saw, son of David is equivalent to son of God {ref. Is. 9:6-7}. So the author is saying that in the past God spoke to their forefathers by the prophets but that in these last days he has spoken to them by a chosen son of David. This was ,of course, what the Jews had been waiting and longing for, the messianic hope, that God would raise up from the seed of David a redeemer {see Lk. 1:63-75; Acts 13:22-23}.

This son of David/ son of God has been “appointed heir of all things.” Just as the firstborn son of a family in ancient Israel was the heir to the fathers estate, so the reigning Davidic king was God’s heir to the kingdom. {Ps. 2:8; 89:27; Matt. 21:37-39} The “all things” here refers not to the entire universe but all things that pertain to the kingdom of God. That this son has been “appointed” heir shows that his heirship is not by natural birth, for a natural born son does not need to be appointed heir of his fathers estate, he just is the heir. This shows that his sonship is also by appointment {ref. Ps. 89:27}. This is in keeping with what the author is about to show in citing those four OT passages.

” . . .  through whom He constituted the ages … ” – Most translations say “through whom he made the world” or even “through whom he created the universe.” These are then used to bolster the claim that the ‘son’ was the creator of the material universe. But these translations are unwarranted. There is no reason why the Greek word aion should not be translated, according to the normal usage of the word, as ‘ages.’ The word denotes time not material substance. The word appears 14 other times in Hebrews and always denotes a period of time or ongoing time, with one ambiguous use at 11:3 where ‘ages’ is still probably the best translation. Also the ‘He‘ in this verse refers to God not the ‘son.’ So the verse is not saying that the son created the universe, but that God, through the son, constituted or ordained or established the ages (of time).

Another misconception is that the Father created the universe through the agency (Gr. dia) of the son, which would be more in line with ancient Gnosticism than with biblical theology. Trinitarian apologists are quick to point out that the use of dia  (through) with the genitive pronoun (whom) denotes agency, i.e. it reflects an instrumental connotation. Thus ‘the son’ would be pictured here as the instrument or agent through whom God made the ages, which would imply this son’s existence at the time of the said action. This is how the authors of the document take the passage. But is this the only way dia used with a genitive can be understood? The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament lists five senses in which we can understand the use of dia with a genitive: spatial, temporal, modal, instrumental and causal. The causal sense denotes the reason why or for which something is done. With this causal sense, possible substitutions for “through” would be ‘in consequence of,’  ‘on account of,’  ‘on the basis of,’  ‘in view of,’ and ‘for the sake of.’  Now what reason would we have to take Heb. 1:2 in a causal, rather than an instrumental sense? Or the better question might be “Why should the instrumental sense be preferred over the causal sense?” Well, the evident reason why a trinitarian or modalist or arian would prefer the instrumental sense is that they already hold as a presupposition that Jesus was a divine person who existed before the creation. But since the author is speaking of a son who is a son of David and therefore purely human and so could not have existed before the creation, but had his beginning in the womb of his mother, we should not assume this son to have personally been an agent in the creation of the world. Therefore, the causal sense makes more sense to me.

The final point pertains to the word “made” or as some versions say “created.” The word is poieo and has a wide semantic range: make, produce, construct, create, prepare, appoint, ordain, to do, accomplish, perform, institute. Now if the trinitarian wants to insist that the word should be taken in the sense of create or make then I will point them to Heb. 3:2, which says, “He (Jesus) was faithful to the one who poiesanti him.” Do they want to say that the word here means made or created? I don’t think so. Some versions translate it here as appointed. Possible renderings for our verse could be appointed, established, ordained, arranged, set up or constituted.

With this understanding the verse could be translated in the following ways:

  • “for whose sake he (God) established the ages”
  • “on account of whom he (God) arranged the ages”
  • “because of whom he (God) set up the ages.”

The idea would be that God, in view of his plan to bring the Messiah (the son) into the world, so arranged the ages of time to best accommodate that plan. This would make Messiah the central focus of history.

V.3 – The author here is not speaking of the eternally begotten Son of the creeds, simply because he is speaking of the ‘son’ as a status or a position, based on the understanding of ‘son of God’ in the Hebrew Bible. This verse then is describing the function which this ‘son’ has in relation to God and God’s people. This status of ‘son’ entails a representative function. The ‘son’, a descendent of David, sitting on the throne of Yahweh {1 Chron. 29:23; 2 Chron. 9:8}, given authority to rule over the kingdom of Yahweh {1 Chron. 28:5-6; 2 Chron. 13:5, 8}, is, in effect, the visible representation of Yahweh’s invisible rule. Yahweh is the true King of Israel {Ps.24:7-10; 48:1-3; Is.33:22; 41:21; 43:15; 44:6; Zeph.3:15} and as such stands in a unique relationship to Israel, God’s kingdom. The descriptions of God in the Hebrew Scriptures are not ontological or metaphysical or abstract, but concrete and functional. Yahweh is Israel’s King, their Rock, their Fortress, their Redeemer, their Father, their Lord, their Strength, their Shepherd, their Savior, their Mighty One, their Judge, their Comfort, etc. All of these (and more) are descriptions of God’s covenant functions in relation to his people. The ‘son’, who is the visible representation of Yahweh to His people, will also carry out many of these same functions. It is, in fact, God carrying out these functions through His human agent, the son of David.

Now I realize that this interpretation is probably different than anything you have heard, but stay with me as I work through it.

” . . . the one who is the radiance of His (Yahweh’s) majesty . . .” – The Greek for radiance is apaugasma which literally means ‘a shining out from’, that which radiates from a source, e.g. the rays of light from the sun. This is the only occurrence of this word in the NT. The mistake of the ECFs was to take this literally. Some scholars propose that the author of Hebrews is drawing on the personified wisdom motif of the Wisdom of Solomon (WOS) 7:26, where Wisdom is said to be the “apaugasma of eternal light.” They deduce from this that our author is setting forth the ‘son’ in terms of ‘wisdom christology’. But the mere occurrence of the same word is a rather weak argument for deducing a connection of thought. Now it could be that the author was familiar with the verse from WOS and lifted the word apaugasma to use it, but in a completely different context. In the WOS it relates to God’s attribute of wisdom, whereas in Hebrews it relates to the Davidic ‘son’. Now the glory and majesty of the Davidic king, Yahweh’s human agent, is only a shining out from the original source, Yahweh’s majesty as Israel’s king; the glory and majesty of the Davidic king is derivative {ref. Ps. 21:5 and Ps. 96:6}.

” . . . and the representation [or guarantee] of His (Yahweh’s) reality (as Israel’s King) . . . ” – The Greek for representation is charakter which referred to the impression made in clay or wax or metal by a stamping tool, e.g. the image impressed on a coin or a wax seal; hence an image, likeness or representation. Another way we can understand this word is in reference to the signet ring of a king, which bore his mark or signature, as it were. The king would press the engraving on the ring into wax or clay to make his mark on it, thus sealing a document of some type and thus guaranteeing whatever the document says. The ‘son’ i.e. the Davidic king, would be God’s signet ring, the guarantee of His covenantal support of His people {see Haggai 2:23}. This is the only occurrence of this word also in the NT. The Greek for reality is hupostasis  which has as its primary meaning ‘a standing under, a foundation or base, a support.’ But this word does have a varied semantic range. It is used 19 times in the LXX with various meanings, such as foundation, pillars (support), solid ground, building design (blueprints), and hope (ground for confidence). Hupostasis appears two other times in Hebrews, at 3:14 and 11:1, translated as ‘assurance‘ or ‘confidence’. In Heb. 11:1 it is set in synonymous parallelism to elegchos which denotes a ‘firm conviction’ of unseen realities. It appears twice in 2 Corinthians, at 9:4 and 11:17, where it seems to mean ‘a ground for boasting.’ The word did have among the classic Greek philosophers the meaning of ‘substance’ or ‘existence’ or ‘reality’, but I reiterate that I do not believe the author to be speaking of God in Greek metaphysical terms but rather, in Hebraic fashion, in terms of how God functions in relation to His people.

One idea behind hupostasis seems to be that of a confidence or assurance that one has from standing on a firm and sure foundation, hence it was used to denote a promise or guarantee which engendered such confidence. In this sense God’s hupostasis would be his covenant. It was also used as the title on ancient documents which showed ownership of property. Such a document gave the one whose name it bore assurance that they could take possession of the property, i.e. it was the owner’s ground of assurance and confidence, and his guarantee.

If we were to take hupostasis in the sense of reality it would denote the unseen reality that stands under (and hence supports) that which is seen. In the context of Hebrews 1 it would be speaking of the fact that Yahweh is the reality that stands underneath the Davidic throne. Yahweh is the ultimate King of his kingdom, though unseen, while the ‘son’ is the visible representation of Yahweh’s rule.

With all of the foregoing in mind I offer the following possible interpretive translations of the first part of v. 3:

1.” . . . who is the radiance of Yahweh’s majesty, the imprint of Yahweh’s guaranteed support . . .”

In this sense, the son i.e. the Davidic king, is Yahweh’s signature, as it were, guaranteeing his covenant support of his people

2.” . . . who is the radiance of Yahweh’s majesty, the guarantee of Yahweh’s covenant promises . . .”

This would give the same sense as the first one – the son is the guarantee that Yahweh will fulfill his covenant functions toward his people.

3.” . . . who is the radiance of Yahweh’s majesty, the (visible) representation of the (unseen) reality of Yahweh (as Israel’s true King).

In this sense, the son , sitting on the throne of David, is the visible representation of the rule of Yahweh as Israel’s ultimate King. Yahweh ‘stands under’ the Davidic throne as it’s strength and support.


I think the author uses the concepts of God’s ‘majesty’  and His ‘covenant support’ because these ideas epitomize or sum up the many things said in the OT about God’s relationship to Israel. His ‘majesty’ speaks of His righteousness, justice and salvation in connection with His kingship, as in Isaiah 5:16; 30:18; 33:5; 44:23; 46:13; Psalm 89:14-18; 97:1-6. His ‘support‘ sums up many aspects of God’s covenant responsibilities as Israel’ King, such as to be their Rock, Protector, and Defender; their Fortress, Shield, and Refuge. It also speaks of God as Israel’s hope and confidence. Biblical passages which portray God in these terms are too numerous to list, but a few examples are Deut. 33:29; Psalm 18:1-3,16-18,30-36,46-50; 20:1-2; 28:7-9; 46:7; 48:1-3; 115:9; Jer. 14:8; 17:13.

So Yahweh is the true King of Israel and as such performs all these various functions on their behalf. But how does He do this? Through his anointed one, the son of David, the one chosen to rule on His behalf over His kingdom. But this should not be a surprise. All throughout Israel’s history God has performed these functions through his human agents {see Judges 2:16-18; Acts 7:35}. Once God established the line of David to rule over his kingdom it was primarily through the reigning king, this one He called his ‘son‘, that He manifested His theocratic rule over, as well as His protection and care for, His people.

So what the author of Hebrews is telling his readers in this verse is that the ‘son‘ i.e. the one in the line of David, chosen to rule forever over God’s kingdom, is the visible representation of God’s theocratic rule and the agent through whom God performs His covenant responsibilities toward His people.

” . . . bearing the burden of all things by the word of His power . . . ” – The traditional translation of “upholding all things” and the consequent interpretation of the Son holding the material universe together by his word is entirely unwarranted. The Greek word is phero, of which the primary meaning is ‘to carry or bear’ . The idea of ‘upholding’ as in ‘holding together’ does not fit any of the 66 occurrences of this word. I believe the idea here is of the ‘son’ bearing the responsibility laid upon him by God as His representative. This concept is seen in the following passages:

“All things have been committed to me by my Father.”  Matt. 11:27

“For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.”  Isaiah 9:6

“The Father . . . has entrusted all judgment to the son.”  John 5:22

“The Father loves the son and has given all things into his hand.”  John 3:35

The “all things” that the son is bearing refers to all that God has committed to him to carry out, all that He has laid on his shoulders. The orthodox commentators imagine here, based on the orthodox creeds, that the ‘son’ is holding all of the created order together, sustaining and preserving it. This is sheer nonsense and not in accord with the OT portrait of the ‘son.’ The son  carries out his assigned task by the word of God’s power, not his own.

” . . .  having made purification for sin . . . ” – One of the responsibilities laid upon this ‘son’; a burden he gladly bore on our behalf. This purification was made by the sacrifice of himself to God {see Heb. 10:10-14}.

” . . .  he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” – Having become obedient to God even unto death, he was highly exalted and given authority to rule on God’s behalf over His kingdom. This is what it means for this ‘son’ to sit at the right hand of God. This is plain from the use of the expression in the OT:

“Let your hand (of power) be upon the man at your right hand, the son of man whom you have strengthened for yourself.”  Psalm 80:17

“Yahweh says to my lord (the king), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. Yahweh will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; rule in the midst of your enemies.”  Psalm 110:1-2

To sit at God’s right hand is equal to sitting on God’s throne, as said of Solomon in 1 Chron. 29:23 and 2 Chron. 9:8. Jesus himself said that he sat down with [his] Father on his throne,” {Rev.3:21}.These are metaphors, not a literal location where Jesus literally sits. These metaphors express the truth that the ‘son’ was given all authority to rule over God’s kingdom with and on behalf of God. Of course this implies the son’s subordination to the one who gave him that authority {see 1 Cor. 15:27}.

V.4 – Here we are told that this ‘son’, this offspring of David chosen to rule for God, became  (could also be translated was made) so much better than the angels . . . “ Now if the ‘son’ was the ‘eternally begotten Son’, co-equal with the Father and creator of the angels, would he not have always been, by nature, better than the angels. Yet the text says that he became such which surely implies there was a time when he was not such.  This is explained further at 2:9 where the author says ” … Jesus, who was made for a little while inferior to angels … “ But if Jesus was eternal Deity walking around in human flesh could he have ever been inferior to angels? The man Jesus, the final and ideal son of David, the one chosen to rule over God’s kingdom forever, was for a time inferior to the angels in that he was mortal, whereas angels are immortal. But after he suffered death for the human race he was crowned with glory and honor and exalted “above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given.” {Eph. 1:21}

Why does the author feel the need to tell his readers that this ‘son’ is better than the angels? Perhaps it is because they had diminished the role of the Davidic ruler in God’s plan and were giving angelic mediators more prominence. Or perhaps they were even thinking of Jesus not as a real man, but as an incarnate angel. The author does lay much stress on the humanity of Jesus in chapter two. If it were the case, as we are made to believe, that all Christians from the very beginning understood Jesus to be God in human flesh, so that the author and recipients of this letter would have held that to be true, why would our author have to tell his readers these things? Would not they have already believed he was greater than angels by virtue of his being God? The whole argument of the author here shows the fallacy of that position. It only makes sense if the author and recipients believe the son to be simply a man. In that case the author might have to convince some of his readers that the son is now been made superior to angels.

The ‘son’ has inherited or obtained a more superior name when compared to the angels. I used to think that the ‘name‘ here was that of ‘son’, but I don’t think that is right. Even angels, in the Hebrew Scriptures, are called ‘sons of God.‘ I have come to see ‘name’ here as signifying fame, renown, or reputation based on one’s rank or authority. As the author says at 3:3Jesus has been accounted worthy of greater honor than Moses . . . ,” so here he is basically saying that Jesus has been accounted worthy of greater distinction than any angel. This reveals one of the errors that the author is writing to combat – that the mediatorial role of angels was more significant than that of the Messiah. If this is true, it shows that these early believers did not hold the belief that Jesus was God incarnate, for if they had they would not have regarded him as inferior in status to angels.

V.5 – Here the author begins his series of OT citations, all focusing on the role and function of the Davidic king, as we saw above. For this reason I categorically reject the interpretation of ECFs who saw in these passages some sort of metaphysical relationship between God and the son. The father/son relationship pictured in these statements is not ontological, i.e. by an actual birth of the son from the Father, nor metaphysical i.e. by an emanation of the son out of the Father’s substance. This relationship is symbolic, i.e. the son of David has the status of sonship bestowed upon him by God, because he is chosen to rule on behalf of God. This privilege was never given to any angel.

This ends part 1; please come back for part 2.

Endnotes

  1. Though the Greek word angelos can refer to either human or non-human supernatural agents, I think it is clear that the author of Hebrews is referring to non-human agents in Chapters 1 and 2 of the book.
  2. Here is an article that presents the case for the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 being human kings.







What’s Wrong With Greg Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic? Part 2


We will now continue with the scriptural case against Boyd’s thesis.

3. Does the Depiction of God in the NT Cohere With That in the OT?
A. Paul’s Letters
Since Boyd uses Paul’s understanding of the cross as a basis for his premise that the cross reveals the cruciform character of God, it is necessary to determine whether Paul’s understanding of the cross actually brought him to the same conclusions about God as Boyd. If not, then Boyd’s use of Paul to validate his own understanding of the cross is not justified. We have already seen in Part 1 some indication that Paul did not hold to a ‘cruciform’ view of God, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Boyd denounces the depiction of God in the OT as one who executes vengeance upon his enemies {see Deut. 7:10; 32:35, 40-42; Ps. 94:20-23; Is. 34:8; 35:4; 59:18; Jer. 51:6, 24, 56}. Vengeance in this sense denotes retributive justice, i.e. a recompense or repayment for wrongs done. Now Boyd does not outright deny that God exercises retributive justice on the wicked, he denies only that He does so directly by His own hand. Boyd views God’s vengeance as simply the withdrawal of His protection and the allowing of the natural consequences of one’s sins to play out. We will discuss this idea later, but for now we need to examine the evidence for Paul’s own view of God in regard to vengeance.

A key passage from Paul is Romans 12:17-21:

17. Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . 19. Do not take vengeance, beloved, but rather give place to the wrath (of God), for it is written, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20. On the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink. In so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Boyd references this passage about four times but only focuses on vv. 17, 20 -21 and the first part of v. 19. He never really addresses Paul’s quote from Deut. 32:35. Like I said above, he doesn’t deny God’s retributive justice but frames it in such a way as to fit his pacifistic presupposition. The main point Boyd makes about this passage is that in carrying out these directives one is being like God. He bases this on passages like Matt. 5:43-48 and Lk. 6:27-36. In these passages Jesus instructs his disciples to love their enemies and do good to them because this is how the Father acts toward his enemies. So, if we do likewise, we will be “perfect (or merciful) as [our] Father in heaven is perfect (or merciful).” But is this what Paul had in mind? If Boyd’s exegesis were correct Paul would be saying, “Be like God by not repaying evil for evil. Be like God by not taking vengeance on your enemies, for it is written, ‘It is mine to take vengeance, I will repay’, says the Lord.” This, of course, makes absolutely no sense. Instead, it seems quite clear that Paul gives the reason why believers need not take vengeance themselves – because God himself will do it. So are Jesus and Paul in conflict? No, since they both are teaching that we should love our enemies by doing good to them. It is obvious that the imitation of God is not in the not taking vengeance, for God certainly does so, but in the doing good to our enemies. But even this must be understood in a limited sense. Observe how in Matthews account Jesus puts the Father’s love for his enemies in the most general terms – “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In other words, the most basic features of God’s providential care for humanity are experienced by all people, whether good or evil. This fact does not negate the truth that ultimately the wicked will be repaid for the evil they have done, if they do not repent. We know from other things that Jesus taught, that he is not here teaching that when all is said and done the wicked will enjoy the same blessings reserved for the righteous, because God loves them {Matt. 13:40-43; 47-50}. Luke’s account has Jesus saying “the [Most High] . . . is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” This should be understood in the same general sense of God’s providential care of all. Certainly, we know it does not preclude God’s ultimate meting out of vengeance on his enemies and the rewarding of the righteous {see Rom. 2:6-11}.

Let us also note that when Paul speaks of God’s vengeance in Rom. 12:19 he is quoting from Deut. 32:35. Deut. 32 is an inspired song which Moses recited to the Israelites just prior to his death. Within this song are the very kind of depictions of God which Boyd denounces as false {see esp. vv.39-43}. Yet when Paul quoted this passage he did not feel the need, like Boyd does, to qualify it in some way so as to lessen the force of it. Paul did not tell his readers to remember that God is an unreserved pacifist or that they should understand God’s vengeance in light of the cross, or any other such suggestion. It should be plain to any unbiased reader that Paul had no problem with the depiction of God as a God of vengeance.

Further evidence of this, and on a much more personal note, is what Paul said concerning one of his enemies:

2 Tim. 4:14-15 – Alexander the metalsmith did me a great deal of evil. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he has set himself in opposition to our message.

Did Paul not follow his own advice in Rom. 12:17-21? Did he wish to see the vengeance of God fall upon his enemy? It may seem so at first glance, but I don’t think it is necessary to take it that way. Couldn’t Paul just be reiterating what the Hebrew scriptures have stated more than once {Ps. 62:12; Prov. 24:12; Jer. 25:14; Hosea 12:2} and what he himself had stated previously {Rom. 2:6}. This shows that Paul just accepted the OT ‘s depiction of God without trying to temper it, and this in spite of the fact that he had a revelation of the cross and of God’s mercy expressed in it. The desire for retributive justice to be meted out upon the enemies of God and his people is never characterized in scripture as a sinful desire. In the Book of Revelation, John, in the vision, sees under the altar in heaven many of those who had been martyred for their testimony and he hears them call out to God:

Rev. 6:10 – How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?

Far from these martyred saints being rebuked for their unloving attitude, they are given white robes and told to rest a little while longer. In fact, the vengeance of God on behalf of his mistreated people is a recurring theme in Revelation {6:10; 16:6; 18:20; 19:2}.

We can take Paul as saying that he doesn’t need to engage in repaying Alexander himself simply because he knows that God will do that very thing, according to scripture. As for whether Paul was ignoring his own instructions in Rom. 12:17-21, I don’t think we need to conclude that at all. I can imagine that if Paul would have ever come upon Alexander beaten and bloodied on the side of the road, the victim of bandits, he would have done exactly what the Good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable did {see Lk. 10:30-37}. Paul would have resisted the urge to repay his enemy in that moment and instead would have loved him. But this would not negate the fact that Alexander was still his enemy and still a danger to the those proclaiming the message and that, unless he repented and turned to God, God will one day repay him for the evil he had done.

We saw in Part 1 how Paul’s understanding of the parousia involves the idea that our Lord Jesus is the agent of God who executes God’s vengeance upon the wicked {see 2 Thess. 1:6-10}. The only way I can see for Boyd to escape the clear implications of this is to say that even Paul, in spite of the place that the cross held in his thinking, still had a clouded vision of God, obscured by his own fallen and culturally conditioned mind.

2 Cor. 5:10-11 – For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. So then, understanding the terror of the Lord we try to persuade men.

This passage raises the obvious question: Why would Paul speak of the terror of the Lord if he believed, based on the cross, in the so-called cruciform character of God? Once again, we see, that despite Paul’s profound revelation of the cross and the centrality of the cross in his thinking, he still held in his mind the picture of God found in the Hebrew scriptures {see Is. 2:10, 19, 21}.

Rom. 11:22 – Observe, therefore, the kindness and the severity of God: severity to those who fell, but to you the kindness of God, provided that you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

This once again shows that Paul held the same view of God that we find in Moses and the Hebrew prophets {Ex. 20:6; Deut. 32:39; Ps. 145:8-9,13b-20; Jer. 9:23-26; Lam. 3:19-33; Hosea 6:1}. This view recognizes in God two counter -balancing aspects – kindness, mercy, grace, etc. and severity, harshness, wrath, etc. While Paul, and the NT as a whole, emphasizes the kindness aspect, they do not deny the severity aspect of God. According to Boyd’s thesis all depictions of God in the OT that show God as severe, wrathful, or employing violent means in judging, are merely the projections of the authors’ own fallenness and cultural conditioning. Boyd describes this as a “clouded vision” of God. On the contrary, he believes all depictions of God in the OT that show God as loving, merciful, good, or kind, are the times in which the true light of revelation was able to break through the clouds and reveal God as he really is. But it is evident that Paul did not hold this view of the OT or of God, for here he exhorts the believers in Jesus to consider (Gr. ide = see, understand, know, recognize, perceive) both aspects of God’s character.

Rom. 2:5-6 – 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. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”

2Cor. 11:13-15 – For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ . . . It is not surprising, then, if [Satan’s] servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

Gal. 6:7-8 – Do not be deceived. God will not be mocked. For a person will reap what he sows. The person who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap destruction and the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Phil. 3:18-19 – For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things.

Col. 3:25 – For the one who acts wickedly will be repaid for his wrong, and there are no exceptions.

All of these passages demonstrate that Paul did not believe that the revelation of God which came through Jesus superseded the revelation of God in the OT. What’s more, in at least two of these passages God is seen as personally involved in bringing about retribution. It is not merely as Boyd asserts, that retributive justice is some kind of law built into the universe, like karma, so that “God need not do anything” except let the organic consequences of sin just happen.

1 Cor. 10:21-22 – You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

In this passage Paul is making a direct allusion to Deut. 32:16-21, the relevant parts of which reads:

16 They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols. 17 They sacrificed to demons, which are not gods . . . 21 They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols.

This shows that Paul’s view of God was quite in keeping with the OT depiction of God as a Jealous God {see also Ex. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24}, even if this is the only time Paul mentions this aspect of God in his letters. If Paul had the same mindset as Boyd does, based on the revelation of God in Christ, then he would not have affirmed this false view of God at all; a view which, according to Boyd, would have been derived from the clouded vision of God which Moses possessed.

B. The Book of Hebrews
Boyd makes much use of the book of Hebrews, quoting many passages to prove that the old revelation has been superseded by the revelation of God in Christ. Yet we find something strange – the author of Hebrews seems to have the same view of God from the OT that Boyd thinks is false. It is telling that Boyd neglects to even mention the following passages I will present from Hebrews in his nearly 1500 page book, much less give an explanation of them.

In chapter 11 the author speaks of many of the characters from the OT scriptures and sets them forth as examples of faith. He starts with Abel in v. 4 and takes us all the way to Rahab the prostitute in v. 31, commending all of those mentioned for the things they did out of faith in God. He then says:

32. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. 33. Through faith they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised, shut the mouths of lions, 34. quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, put foreign armies to flight35. and women received back their dead raised to life. 

We note first that the six named men in v. 32 were all men of violence. The first four are known solely for their exploits in war, particularly in taking vengeance on Israel’s enemies. David’s claim to fame was as a psalmist and for his kingship over Israel, but he was known as a mighty warrior and committed much violence against the enemies of Israel. David was even denied the privilege of building the temple of God because of the blood he had shed {see 1 Chron. 22:6-10}. Samuel was not a warrior but a prophet, but he certainly had blood on his hands {see 1 Sam. 15:32-33}. To further show that the author of Hebrews has no qualms about commending these men of violence for their faith, the faith by which they performed acts of violence, he goes on to speak of these men conquering kingdoms, administering justice, becoming mighty in battle and putting the enemy armies to flight.

Now I can see why Boyd avoided this passage in his book, for it seems to me that he would only have two possible ways to escape the obvious implications of this passage. First he could say that the author of Hebrews, like the OT prophets, had a clouded vision of God due to his own fallenness and cultural conditioning, even though this author is on the other side of the cross, which revealed the cruciform character of God. But Boyd has already relied heavily upon the book of Hebrews in establishing his premises, so how could he then deny that the author has a clear revelation. Second, he can simply deny that the author is condoning the violent actions of these men and only intends to highlight the positive things these men did in faith. But this is untenable in light of what the author actually wrote. As noted above four of these men are known for nothing else except executing vengeance on Israel’s enemies. It is clear that part of what the author believes these men should be commended for is that by faith they conquered kingdoms and fought battles valiantly, putting the armies of the enemy nations to flight.

10:26-31 – 26. For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us, 27. but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies. 28. Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29. How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace? 30. For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mineI will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31. It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

12:25- 29 – 25. Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? 26. Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” 27. Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. 28. So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in reverence and fear. 29. For our God is a consuming fire.

These two passages are drawn right out of the kind of imagery of God in the OT that Boyd denounces as “monstrous” and “horrendous.” Why would the author of Hebrews say such things about God, seeing that he is writing after the true revelation of God has been made known through Jesus. Boyd thinks the death penalty pronounced in the law of Moses for certain crimes was not a true expression of God’s will, yet here the author of Hebrews tells us that there is a worse punishment for those who have contempt for the son of God. It would seem that from this author’s perspective the cross has not revealed a less severe God at all. It is clear that this author, no matter what he understood about the revelation of God in Christ or what insights he had concerning the cross, he did not arrive at the same drastic conclusions that Boyd has. I could never imagine Boyd addressing his congregation on a Sunday morning and warning them that “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for our God is a consuming fire.” Yet the author of Hebrews does so without reservation.

C. The Book of Acts
5:1-11 – 1. Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 2. He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 3. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 4. Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!” 5. When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it . . .
7. After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 8. Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9. Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 10. At once she collapsed at his feet and died . . .

I could not find where Boyd addressed this passage in his book but I did find a 2017 podcast where he did so, just prior to the release of CWG. Boyd’s solution to the problem presented by this passage is weak and unimpressive. First, he offers the possibility that Satan killed the couple, since it was Satan who filled their hearts to lie and Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy, and “if anyone would want them dead it would be Satan.” But this is not his best answer, for he then takes nine minutes on his real solution – Peter killed them. He bases this on what he calls “semiautonomous power” (SAP). In chapter 25 of CWG Boyd explains:

“More specifically, I shall in this chapter argue that when God gives someone power, he genuinely gives it to them. To one degree or another, he places his divine power under the control of their power. I refer to this as semiautonomous power because, while the power itself does not exist independently of God, the way it is used is, to one degree or another, up to the agent it is given to, not God.”

He goes on to give some biblical examples of SAP, the first of which is Moses and his staff. Boyd believes that Moses “had some control over how he would use the supernatural power God had given him by means of this staff.” He bases this on Exodus 4:21:

The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power.”

This need not mean that Moses had the freedom to do whatever he wanted with God’s power, but that when he did the things God had told him to do that God’s power would be there to back him up. Of course, Moses could have chosen not to perform the signs that God instructed him to, and that would have been disobedience.

Boyd goes on to Numbers 20: 2-12 to show Moses’ misuse of the power God had given him. In v. 7-8 God instructs Moses to speak to the rock and it would pour out water for the people to drink. But Moses, in anger, strikes the rock with his staff and the water comes gushing out. But Boyd makes way to much out this; it doesn’t really fit his SAP concept. First, God instructed Moses in exactly what to do, which doesn’t suggest that Moses could just do whatever he wanted to do or perform a miraculous sign at will. In fact, when the people complained that there was no water, Moses didn’t just perform a miracle to solve the problem, but he went to the Tent of Meeting to seek God {vv.2-6}. It was then that he received instruction from God. Next, when Moses disobeys God’s instruction to speak to the rock, by striking it instead, he is rebuked by God and punished by not being allowed to enter the promised land {v. 12]. Yes, God did still bring the water from the rock, but this was in spite of what Moses had done and for the sake of the people. To suggest that God was bound to release his power no matter what Moses did is to read to much into the text. We should also consider that Moses was the first individual recorded in scripture to have such power put at his disposal and therefore his experience should set a precedent for subsequent miracle working prophets. In this Numbers passage we see that when a prophet does not follow the instructions he was given by God, but instead strikes out on his own, he is rebuked and punished by God. This should caution us against blaming biblical notables with wrong doing when scripture itself does not.

Now back to Acts 5. Boyd wants us to believe that Peter was free to wield God’s power to kill people at will and against God’s will, and that without rebuke. Does Boyd actually believe that the cruciform charactered God is just letting his servants run around using his power to indiscriminately kill people? This is an absurd notion and should be rejected by all rationally thinking Christians. We should note, that in the passage it no where states that Peter pronounced a curse upon them or commanded that they fall over dead. The text simply presents Peter as rebuking Ananias, who then fell down dead. It is likely that Peter was more surprised at this than anyone else. Boyd makes a point of the fact that the text no where says that it was God who struck the couple down, but for that matter neither does it say that Peter or Satan struck them down. The implication is clear – God judged this couple for their deception, like it or not.

12:21-23 – On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them. But the crowd began to shout, “This is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died.

This is another passage that Boyd failed to address in CWG, but he did deal with it briefly on his podcast back in July of 2017. His solution to this troublesome passage was to suggest that angels are not always necessarily carrying out what is God’s will in what they do. He then points the listeners to Psalm 82 as evidence of this and gives a terse explanation of it. Boyd sees the “gods/sons of the Most High” there as angels, but this is by no means conclusive (for another view of Ps. 82 see this article). So he sees the ‘angels’ in Ps. 82 being rebuked for not carrying out God’s will, as support for his contention. First off, his solution depends upon his interpretation of Ps. 82 being correct, which I deny. But even if it could be shown that Ps. 82 was, without doubt, speaking of angels, it would still be quite a stretch to interpret Acts 12 as angelic disobedience. There is absolutely nothing in the text itself to suggest such a notion, it is only Boyd’s imagination, prompted by his presuppositions, that suggested it to him. The passage reads like similar ones in the OT {see 1 Chron. 21: 14-16; Is. 37:36} and there is no hint that the angel is charged with any wrongdoing. Now, whether one accepts this account as historical or not, it shows that the authors of the NT did not hesitate to see the hand of God at work in such events.

I don’t think Boyd would attempt to explain the passage by saying that what happened to Herod was simply the organic consequences of his sin, but I could see him try to relieve God of any guilt of violence by arguing that God did not kill Herod himself. But this would be like saying that the Godfather of a crime syndicate who orders a hit on his enemy is free from any guilt because he did not pull the trigger himself. The truth of the matter is this – God can judicially will that Herod be put to death and then send an agent to do the job and God is free from any blame of injustice or wrong because “all his ways are just, [he is] a faithful God who does no wrong; upright and just is he” {Deut. 32:4}.

13:8-11 – But the sorcerer Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness – will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand.

I was unable to find any response to this passage from Boyd, in either his books or his podcast. My assumption would be that he would use the same argument as he did concerning the Acts 5 passage, i.e. that this is a case of the misuse of God’s power by one of his servants. But again, this would amount to suggesting that God is a God who just stands by and does nothing while his servants misuse his power to bring harm to others contrary to his will. But is this image of God any better than that which Boyd denounces?


The author of Acts does not give any hint that what Paul did was contrary to God’s will, but rather, by saying that Paul was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” he is showing that what Paul did was under the direction of God and therefore within His will.

D. James, Peter and Jude
James 2:12-13 – Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. For judgment without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy boasts over judgment.

James 4:12 – But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge – the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 5:1-6 – Come now, you rich, weep, wailing over the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted, and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their rust will be for a testimony against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have treasured up in the last days. Behold, the wage of the workmen having harvested your fields, having been kept back by you, cries out, and the cries of those having harvested have entered into the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You lived in luxury and lived in self-indulgence upon the earth. You have fattened your hearts in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and have put to death the righteous; he does not resist you.

These passages show that James, probably the brother of Jesus, held to the same view of God presented in the Hebrew scriptures – a God of retributive justice, who will both reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

1 Peter 4:17-18 – For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? And “if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? “

2 Peter 2:1-3 – But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep.

2 Peter 2:12-13 – But these men, like irrational animals – creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed – do not understand whom they are insulting, and consequently in their destruction they will be destroyed, suffering harm as the wages for their harmful ways.

The apostle Peter shows the same orientation in his view of God’s justice – the wicked will be repaid for the evil they have done.

E. The Book of Revelation
I will not list passages from the Revelation for they are to numerous. Any cursory reading of the book will confirm that the view of God presented therein is consistent with that of the OT. In the book there are more than one series of judgments from God poured out upon the people of earth because of their wickedness (seven trumpet judgments and seven bowl judgments). Of the seven bowl judgments we read:

15:1 – I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.

16:1, 8-9 – Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.
The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had jurisdiction over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.

Boyd goes into a long and tedious, and often one-sided, explication of the violent imagery of the judgments in Revelation in an attempt to distance God from these violent actions. His main argument is that although these are in some sense judgments from God, God himself is not involved in bringing them about. God is simply removing his hand of protection, thereby granting permission to the real culprits, Satan, whom he refers to as the “all but Almighty bringer of woe”, and his demons. In Appendix IV at the end of volume one of CWG Boyd writes:

 “Even if we bear in mind that these violent images are highly symbolic, this way of interpreting Revelation nevertheless produces a stunningly violent portrait of God. While such a portrait is quite at home with the violent strand of the OT we are addressing in this book, it is completely out of sync with the nonviolent revelation of God in Christ and, more significantly for our present purposes, with the lamb-like character of God revealed on the throne (Rev 5:6) that constitutes the centerpiece of John’s revelation, as we will see below. However, if we bear in mind John’s “all but almighty” understanding of Satan as we interpret his depictions of divine judgment, we get a much more nuanced—and, I believe, much more lamb-like—understanding of God’s involvement in them. To begin, while it is clear that all divine judgments in Revelation are in some sense reflective of God’s will, it is surely significant that God is never depicted as the agent who carries them out.”

There are a number of problems with this statement. First, Boyd is begging the question. He admits, that if taken at face value, with the genre and it’s symbolism taken into account, Revelation presents the same portrait of God as found in the OT. But that portrait of God should be rejected becauseit is completely out of sync with the nonviolent revelation of God in Christ and, more significantly for our present purposes, with the lamb-like character of God revealed on the throne.” But Boyd hasn’t proven that premise, despite his labored efforts. In fact, wouldn’t the book of Revelation itself be part of the revelation of God in Christ? Yet we see this book affirming the OT picture of God. Boyd’s “nonviolent revelation of God in Christ” appears to be a figment of his own imagination. Second, Boyd is mistaken that Rev. 5:6 reveals “the lamb-like character of God revealed on the throne,” for the Lamb is not depicted as on the throne in chapter five, or any other chapter for that matter. “Him who sits on the throne” in the Revelation is never the Lamb, but always someone distinct from the Lamb – the Lord God Almighty {see 4:8-11; 5:1, 6-7, 13; 6:16; 7:15}. As noted in Part 1, because Boyd sees Jesus as God, he thinks that God is altogether like Jesus and has always been. Since Jesus was nonviolent in his earthly life this must be how God is and has always been. Boyd’s presuppositions are simply wrong and so then is his thesis.

He tries to validate his assertion that the judgments in Revelation are merely acts of Satan by pointing to those incidents in the book where demons are indeed involved, such as the 6th bowl judgment in 16:12-14. This is actually the only judgment that specifically mentions demons. Boyd’s other example is less explicit {9:1-11} and so he simply interprets them to be demons. But these couple of examples cannot overturn the clear, unambiguous and ample statements which show that it is God who is controlling the release of these judgments. As we see in the passages cited above these judgments are referred to as God’s wrath, not Satan’s wrath. 16:9 explicitly states that God has jurisdiction over the plagues. The agents who are given the seven trumpets are said to be “the seven angels who stand before God,” and the seven angels who pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath are said to come out of the temple in heaven {8:2; 15:5-6}. None of these agents are depicted as acting autonomously; they are commanded when to act. Even when the text is explicit that the agents God uses are unholy it still depicts God as in control and as using them to accomplish his will {see 9:3-4; 16:14; 17:16-17}. Boyd has also tried to extricate God from the guilt of violence by the fact that it is agents, whether good or bad, who actually do the dirty work. But this argument fails, for as noted earlier, a mafia boss is not free of the guilt of murder by ordering a hit on his enemy rather than doing the job himself. In the same way, the violent acts of judgment in Revelation are God ordained and directed and so the buck stops with him. Boyd’s argument is unconvincing, to say the least. What is obvious is that he simply interprets the Revelation in accord with his pacifist predilections.

4. NT Recountings of OT Historical Events

Another line of reasoning to show the coherence of the view of God between the two testaments, i.e. before the cross and after the cross, is how NT authors relate the stories of events in biblical history, such as the flood, the destruction of Sodom, the wilderness wandering and the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Let’s look at the passages:

Acts 13:18-19 – . . . for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance.

1 Cor. 10:1-10 – 1. For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea . . . 5. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7. 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 revelry.” 8. We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died9. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes10. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

Heb. 3:16-19 – Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Heb. 11:29-31 – By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

2 Peter 2:5-9 – . . . if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.

2 Peter 3:5-6 – But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.

Jude 5 & 7 – Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord c at one time delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe . . . In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

We observe in these passages that the authors relate these events in a matter of fact way, without any apparent consternation, as if they presented a conflict between the perception of God related in these stories and the revelation of God they received in Christ. None of these authors, upon relating these events, ever feels the need to defend God against wrongdoing. None of them instruct their readers to use a special hermeneutic in order to understand what was really going on in these accounts or warn them to not accept the depiction of God related in these biblical stories. Make no mistake, these are some the very accounts in the OT which Boyd decries for their depictions of divine violence. But there is not a clue from these authors that the revelation of God they had received from Jesus was in any sense substantially different than what was revealed in these accounts. This is really the nail in the coffin of Boyd’s thesis – no NT author employs the cruciform hermeneutic when recounting OT passages which depict God as using violent means to accomplish his ends.

God-Breathed

The apostle Paul wrote that “all scripture is God breathed” and Greg Boyd affirms that statement. Yet in order to fit his paradigm, Boyd has had to reframe the way in which the scripture are God-breathed. Let’s hear Boyd for himself:

“As morally revolting as these portraits of God are, if we confess Jesus to be Lord, I believe we are obliged to confess all of them, together with the entire canon, are God-breathed. But at the same time, if we confess Jesus to be Lord, we should also be obliged to insist that something else is going on when God’s breathing results in biblical authors ascribing such atrocities to God, for these depictions of God contradict what we learn about God in Jesus’ cross-centered life and ministry.”

“This is why God allowed the sin of humanity to act upon him and to condition the way he appeared when he breathed his supreme revelation on the cross. And this is why God has always been willing to allow the sin of his people – including their sinful conceptions of him – to condition how he appears whenever he breathes revelations of himself. His breathing always reflects the reciprocal give-and-take of a non-coercive, authentic relationship . . . And for this reason, the loving relational God has always acted toward his people to reveal his true self as much as possible. But he also has always been willing to humbly allow his people to act upon him as he bears their sin as much as necessary . . . To the degree that any portrait reflects the cruciform character of God, we can consider it a reflection of God acting toward his people . . . I label these direct revelations, for they directly reflect the cruciform character of God that is supremely revealed on the cross. Conversely, to the degree that the surface appearance of a biblical portrait fails to reflect the cruciform character of God, we can consider it to be a literary testament to God’s willingness to humbly stoop to allow the sin and cultural conditioning of his people to act upon him as he bears the sin of his people. I label these indirect revelations, for to see how these portraits reflect the cruciform character of God we must exercise our cross-informed faith to see through their sin-mirroring surface to discern ‘what else is going on’ behind the scenes.”

“But we can be thankful that this twisted and culturally conditioned portrait of God is retained in the written record of our heavenly missionary’s activities, for it testifies to just how low God had to be willing to stoop to continue to further his purposes for history through this people. This is how God’s stiff-necked and spiritually twisted people were inclined to view him! And since God refuses to lobotomize people into possessing accurate mental images of him, he had to be willing to leave these twisted images in place when he stooped to breath the biblical narrative through them . . . God had to be willing to bear the sin of these twisted conceptions of him and to therefore take on a twisted appearance in the inspired written witness to his missionary activity.”

So Boyd believes that much of what is recorded in the OT is a twisted conception of God, which God allowed to be ‘breathed’ into his written record, because by doing so he was bearing the sin of his people. God humbly allowed his people to act upon him while he was acting upon them to breath his word through them. Although the apostle Peter said that scripture came about as “men spoke from God, being carried along (or led) by the Holy Spirit,” Boyd wants us to accept his theory that the men who wrote scripture, at least much of the time, were the ones carrying the Spirit along. He knows this to be fact because what they wrote, he says, doesn’t line up with what we learn about God in the cross. Note the circular argument Boyd makes. Based on the faulty premise that the cross unveils the revelation of the cruciform character of God, he judges any OT depiction of God that does not match up, to be a product of fallen human imagination.

Boyd also talks about the authors of scripture having a clouded vision of God, so that much of what they wrote about God was simply the projection of their own fallen and culturally conditioned minds. But this is in direct contradiction to what Peter wrote:

2 Peter 1:20- 21 – Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever came about by the prophet’s own imagination, for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. NET

Boyd gives only a brief mention of this verse in a footnote, in which he attempts to lessen the force of it by implying that the meaning is limited only to prophecy in the sense of predictions of future events. But this is unlikely since the word prophecy would have been applied to any utterance of a prophet in the name of the Lord {see 2 Chron. 9:29; 15:8}. Hence, biblically speaking, prophecy can refer to a prophets denunciation of idolatry or other sins, warnings of impending judgment, declarations of God’s actions and ways, etc. Peter is saying that no utterance of a prophet, recorded in scripture, came about by the prophets own interpretation of things. It is clear that Peter believed that nothing that the prophets spoke, came from their own fallen and culturally conditioned minds but from the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

In light of the biblical data which I presented – the ministry, teachings, parables and eschatological forecast of Jesus; the attitude and mindset of the NT authors toward the OT and their continuance of the same depictions of God as wrathful, vengeful, austere, etc. – Boyd’s proposal is simply unconvincing. Boyd’s pacifistic predilections have led him to a dangerous denial of the truthfulness of much of God’s word, all the while affirming the full inspiration of what he rejects. So, in answer to the question, “What’s wrong with Greg Boyd’s cruciform hermeneutic?” I would say “Everything!” His conclusion is reached by weak, circular arguments built upon unsubstantiated premises. His case is built on cherry picking passages from the NT while ignoring those that are detrimental to his thesis. I have also shown that if Boyd’s thesis were true it would lead to some rather obvious absurdities. The worst of what’s wrong with it though, is that it is dangerous. I listened to a sermon of Boyd’s on the Cross Vision and was stunned to actually hear him tell the congregation that they should not listen to or trust what Moses said (and I have to assume this goes for much of what the prophets wrote). Though it was unstated, the clear implication in this was that we should trust in what Greg Boyd says. Does Boyd think that this attitude honors our Lord Jesus – whom Boyd believes is the greatest revelation of what God is like – who unreservedly held to the truthfulness of the writings of Moses and the prophets, referring to them as the word of God. In fact, Boyd’s thesis dishonors our Lord and the God sent him. In the final analysis, every believer in Jesus must decide for themselves who they will listen to and thus who they will honor.

On A Personal Note

That Boyd’s thesis has been even modestly well received shows that there is a perturbation in the minds of many in Christianity today. It is not just Boyd’s book, but the plethora of apologetic works and online resources, over the past decade, attempting to respond to the angst of many Christians concerning the depiction of God in the OT. It appears that much of this was initiated by online atheists who were all to happy to point out what they deem to be an horrendous picture of God found in the Hebrew scriptures, which apparently most Christians, until then, were unaware of. This has led to a profusion of attempts by Christian scholars, pastors and apologists to find a way to reconcile the God of the OT with the God of the NT. I am, by no means, discounting all of these efforts, but I do find it disturbing that Christians are now taking their cues from unbelievers, even from the atheists.

This does show that many Christians have been, for the most part, unfamiliar with the OT. I myself fell into this category for many years of my life as a Christian, when I had focused most of my study efforts on the NT. Sure, I had some idea of how God seemed to be somewhat different in the OT than in the NT, but I was unaware of the extent of it. But when I began to do serious study of the OT, about ten years ago, and saw to a greater extent the depiction of God as using violent means to accomplish his purposes or as condoning the use of violence by his servants, I have to honestly say that I was not greatly bothered by it. I would probably attribute this to the fact that I had already come to see and appreciate this aspect of God even from the NT. I was never one to overemphasize one aspect of God over another, or to favor one aspect at the expense of another, but readily accepted whatever descriptions of God the scriptures revealed. So this phenomenon of God executing and condoning violent means just never disturbed me. I have come to a settled conviction of both the kindness of God and the severity of God.

Personally, I do not feel the need to explain away these hard passages in the OT, or to try to make excuses for God’s actions. God is who and what he is, and it is not for me to change him into something that I can feel unashamed to love and worship. Instead, I acknowledge God as he has revealed himself to be and love and worship him accordingly. If anyone, whether believer or unbeliever, has an honest difficulty with how all of scripture presents God, and you are seeking some way to do away with the so-called ugly aspects of God, I am sorry, but I cannot help you. I can only encourage you to accept God in the fullness of his being, as he has revealed himself to be, and bow before his majesty. Hear the words of King Nebuchadnezzar, after God humbled him with a bout of insanity and then restored him to his right mind and to the throne:

Dan. 4:37 – “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. Those who walk in pride he is able to humble.”



What’s Wrong With Greg Boyd’s Cruciform Hermeneutic? Part 1

Greg Boyd is the senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul Minnesota. He is a degreed theologian and former Professor of Theology at Bethel University. Boyd is also a prolific author with some twenty-two books to his credit. One of these books, which has caused quite a stir, is The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, a two volume work totaling around 1500 pages. This is a scholarly work written for academics, so, for the non-scholar, he has put out a shorter version (292 pp.) titled Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion Of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence. This work came out of Boyd’s many years of struggling with the depictions of God in the Hebrew Bible, which he regards as extremely violent.

Boyd is a pacifist, and of course he believes that Jesus was and still is a pacifist, and despite the abundant scriptural attestations to the contrary, he thinks that God himself is a pacifist. I am not sure which came first; whether his personal pacifism led him to view God this way or if after coming to see God in this way he became a pacifist himself. As a pacifist he believes that violence is never, under any circumstances, an appropriate form of action. This article is not an assessment of the pros and cons of pacifism but is rather a critique of Boyd’s solution to the problem of the OT’s depictions of God engaging in acts of violence, as well as commanding or condoning acts of violence committed by his people. While I have read only portions of Boyd’s 1500 page academic work, I have read much of Cross Vision and have listened to many episodes of his podcast Apologies and Explanations.

Overview Of Boyd’s Thesis

In Christianity there is the belief that God himself became man in Jesus of Nazareth. Since Jesus is God in human flesh then he is the greatest and clearest revelation of what God is like. God looks like Jesus. Boyd approvingly quotes Michael Ramsey from his book God, Christ and the World: “God is Christ-like, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” So then when we look at Jesus we see what God is truly like, and according to Boyd this means God is non-violent, enemy loving, gentle and meek, non-coercive, non-vengeful, would never harm a fly much less put a human being to death. Now for anyone who knows the OT you can see the problem, for God is often depicted in the OT as being quite inconsistent with this picture. To add to this dilemma, Jesus himself seems to confirm the validity of all OT scripture, so one cannot just throw out the passages that are inconsistent with the revelation of God in Jesus, if one holds to the divine inspiration of the OT, as Jesus himself did. Boyd proposes a novel way of reading the OT, which he calls the Cruciform Hermeneutic.

Boyd sees the crucifixion of Jesus as the greatest display of God’s character. On the cross, Jesus, God in the flesh, condescended to allow men to view him as a sinner and a criminal. He could have called down twelve legions of angels to defend him and thus show them all who he really was, but instead he let them think of him as if he were altogether just like they are. This is what it means, in Boyd’s mind, that he bore our sin. This is what Boyd calls God’s cruciform character. But God did not acquire this cruciform character for the first time when Jesus was crucified; he has always had the cruciform character, from the very beginning. Hence, when we read the OT, especially those awful depictions of God acting out in ways contrary to what Christ displayed, we must do so through the “looking-glass cross.” Every ugly depiction of God in the OT reveals God’s cruciform character because in these passages we see a God who condescends to allow his people to view him and present him in ways that are contrary to his true character. In this way God was bearing the sin of his people. He could have used force and coercion to make his people see the truth about himself, but instead he chose to bear the indignity of being misunderstood and even maligned. Therefore, every OT depiction of God acting out in violence, vengefulness, anger, etc., actually reveals his supreme love, the same love he displayed on the cross. This is the Cruciform Hermeneutic.

Boyd’s Premises

Boyd approaches the problem of God’s violence in the OT with a number of presuppositions in mind, which he asserts are grounded in scripture. But his exegesis seems questionable at best. Let’s examine some of these premises and their supposed scriptural basis.

Premise 1
The revelation of God given in and through Jesus Christ is superior to all prior revelation of God and therefore supersedes all prior revelation. Therefore, all OT scriptures are to be understood only through the lens of the NT revelation of God through Jesus. Boyd reasons:

 If all Scripture is divinely inspired, they think, it must all carry the same level of divine authority. In this view, which some refer to as “the flat view of the Bible,” Jesus’ revelation of God is placed on the same level as all other biblical depictions of God, creating a montage mental conception of God. That is, part of the God these Christians envision is Christlike but other parts are vengeful and jealous and capable of doing horrible things like commanding genocide and causing parents to cannibalize their children.

But I’m now convinced that this approach is fundamentally and tragically misguided. While I continue to affirm that the whole Bible is inspired by God, I’m now persuaded that the Bible itself instructs us to base our mental representation of God solely on Jesus Christ. Other biblical portraits of God may nuance our Christ-centered picture, but only to the degree that they cohere with what we learn about God in Christ. As Jesus himself taught, everything else in Scripture is to be interpreted in a way that points to him. Thus nothing in Scripture should ever be interpreted  in a way that qualifies or competes with his revelation of God. And as we’ll now see this all-important conviction permeates the NT.

Cross Vision ch. 2

Now Boyd does believe that the revelation of God which we see in Jesus is on the same level as the former revelation of God through the Hebrew prophets in the sense that they are both inspired by God, but not in the sense that they are both true depictions of God. According to Boyd, the only true revelation of God (i.e. of his actions and ways) is found in Jesus, and, of course, anything in the OT that corresponds to the revelation of God in Jesus. Everything else is an inspired misrepresentation of God.

Jesus is not part of what the Father has to say or even the main thing the Father has to say. As the one and only Word of God (John 1:1),  Jesus is the total content of the Father’s revelation to us. For this  reason, Jesus must be our sole criterion to assess the degree to which previous prophets were catching genuine glimpses of truth and the degree to which they were seeing clouds. Please note: I’m not suggesting that Jesus is the criterion for assessing the degree to which previous prophets were and were not divinely inspired, for their writings are completely inspired. But as we’ll explain later on, to say that a passage is divinely inspired is not to say that it necessarily reflects an unclouded vision of God. . . [Christ] is rather the revelation that culminates and surpasses all previous revelations.

ibid.

Boyd’s assessment of the revelatory role of Jesus is based on a faulty interpretation of certain NT passages, in particular Hebrews 1:1:

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers in the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us in a son . . .”

Here is what Boyd said concerning this verse:

 . . . the author says that previous revelations came in “various ways.” The Greek word for this is polymeros, which can be translated as “diverse portions” (ASV) or as “glimpses of truth” (J. B. Phillips).

Not only this, but while people in the past got “glimpses of truth,” the Son is the truth itself. Jesus claimed to be “the way and the truth and the life” . . .  So, in contrast to the “glimpses of truth” that people in the OT were given, in the Son we have the full unveiling of the true God. Jesus is what God looks like when there are no clouds in the way.

. . .we are misguided to think we need to supplement what we find in Christ with what we find in the OT or in any other source. Everything we need to know and can know about God is found in Christ.

ibid.

There are some real problems with Boyd’s reasoning here. First, he is just wrong about the phrase “various ways” translating the Greek polymeros. In fact that phrase translates the Greek word polutropos, while the phrase “many times” (or many portions) translates the word polumeros. Next, he wants his readers to think that “glimpses of truth” is an accurate translation of polumeros. This is meant to confirm his assertion that the Hebrew prophets did not always get it right in their revelation of God; they only got glimpses of truth. But this meaning of the word polumeros is questionable at best and quite misleading at worst. I could find nothing to confirm this meaning, notwithstanding J. B. Phillips rendering. The word seems to mean consisting of many parts or portions and can even refer to portions of time, hence the rendering “at many times” or the like, found in numerous versions. Most likely, it refers to the diverse forms in which God communicated his word, e.g. legal code for religious and civil matters, historical narrative, prophetic utterance, psalms and wisdom literature.

But even if Boyd’s dubious claim that polymeros means glimpses of truth could be verified, this does not help his case. In Boyd’s view only those portraits of God in the OT that look like Jesus (i.e. meek, gentle, non-violent, loving, compassionate, etc.) would be considered ‘glimpses of truth’, anything else is the result of the prophets own fallen and culturally conditioned worldview. But it is clear that what the author of Hebrews is referring to is all of the OT and it is simply eisegesis to read into his words that he is referring only to those OT depictions of God that look like Jesus. Now if the author meant that all of the revelation of God in the OT was only a glimpse of the truth and that the full revelation is found in Jesus, then okay, but that is different than what Boyd is saying. Boyd wants us to believe that the revelation of God in Jesus supplants all OT revelations of God, that, in his mind, don’t look like Jesus. But Hebrews 1:1 is not saying that what God spoke in the prophets was inadequate or only clouded glimpses of truth, but that the revelation of God in the son is the culmination and consummation of God’s revelation to his people.

The proof that the author of Hebrews does not hold Boyd’s view is seen in the way that he affirmingly quotes passages from the OT which depict God in ways that Boyd thinks is inconsistent with the picture of God we get through Jesus. For example, in Hebrews 10:30-31 the author cites Deut. 32:35-36 and adds his own comment:

For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

If you look at this OT passage in it’s context, especially vv. 21-27 and 39-43, you see a depiction of God that, while consistent throughout scripture (we will see later that this view of God carries over into the NT), Boyd decries. Clearly, the author of Hebrews did not behold the revelation of God in Christ and come to the same conclusions as Boyd. Another example is Heb. 12: 29- “for our God is a consuming fire,” which is taken from Deut. 4:24- “For Yahweh your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” But this is the very kind of depiction of God that Boyd thinks came from Moses’ own fallen and culturally conditioned mind. Yet this does not stop Boyd from asserting that the author of Hebrews, at 1:1, is affirming his own view of OT scripture. Now if Boyd or anyone else would attempt to recast the ‘consuming fire’ of God as something positive, such that to be consumed by God’s fire is to be filled with passion or some other such nonsense, then let these verses put that to rest – Ps. 18:7-15; 50:3; 97:3; Is. 30:27-33; Zeph.1:18; 3:8; Mal. 4:1.

Boyd marshals other passages in his attempt to ground his premise in scripture, citing John 5:39-40, 46-47 and Luke 24:25-27, 44-45. But once again we find him claiming more for these verses than what they actually say.

Not only does Jesus ascribe more authority to himself than the OT, but he had the audacity to present himself as the one whom all previous revelations are about and the one who gives life to them!  In a debate with some Pharisees, Jesus said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  And a moment later  he added: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (5:39–40, 45–46).

ibid.

Is Jesus really saying that all previous revelations are about him? Apparently Boyd thinks so. To say that the Scriptures, meaning the OT, testifies about Jesus and that Moses wrote about him does not mean that everything Moses wrote was about Jesus or that everything in the OT testifies about him. It need not mean anything more than that some of the things Moses wrote and that some of the things written in the OT are about the Messiah. The same can be said of Boyd’s other proof texts, Luke 24:25-27, 44-45:

[Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones and slow in heart in believing all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and from all the prophets he explained to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: All things must be fulfilled which have been written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Boyd interprets these passages as saying that “the whole Old Testament speaks of Christ” and “all of it is about Jesus,” but again, this is saying more than the text demands. All it need mean is that in all of the OT scriptures i.e., in Moses, in the Prophets and in the Psalms there are things written about the coming Messiah. There is no necessity in the language to take it as declaring that every single thing written in the OT is about Jesus. In fact, this kind of thinking has led to some rather fanciful and even ridiculous exposition of OT scriptures through the centuries, as people have tried to find Jesus in passages where he is no where to be found. The irony of Boyd’s use of Luke 24:25 is glaring. Jesus rebukes his disciples for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” But this is exactly Boyd’s attitude towards the OT. In his view, we should only accept as true those words spoken by the prophets that align with the revelation of God in Jesus; all else, though inspired, is false.

Premise 2

The crucifixion of Jesus (i.e. the cross) is the “definitive revelation  of  God’s  cross-like, or cruciform, character.” Boyd further elaborates:

So, if Jesus is the center to which all Scripture points, then the cruciform character of God that was supremely revealed on the cross must be regarded as the epicenter of this center.  And if all  Scripture is about  Christ, then all Scripture is more specifically about  Christ crucified.

Cross Vision ch. 3

Boyd attempts to establish this premise by appeals to various NT passages which focus on the cross as being central to Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry. Now I certainly have no problem with the idea that the cross was the supreme event in the life of Jesus and with the fact that he lived a life of sacrificial love toward others and enjoined his followers to do the same. What I do have a problem with is how Boyd thinks that this means that God could not possibly be as he is depicted in much of the OT. Based on the centrality of the cross in the NT, Boyd extrapolates backwards onto God a ‘cruciform character’.

Time will not permit me to address every argument that Boyd employs to prove his case, but a couple of cases will show how Boyd’s tendency is to overstate what the sources he is drawing from state. For example, he states that the apostle Paul “equates the ‘gospel’ with ‘the message of the cross,’ using the two phrases interchangeably.” He gives a number of verses in a footnote which indeed show Paul speaking of “Christ crucified” as intrinsic to the gospel. But what Boyd cannot produce are verses where Paul draws the same conclusions from the cross as Boyd himself does. Can anyone read Paul and seriously come to the conclusion that Paul believed that because of the cross “there is no aspect of God that is not characterized by the non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy embracing love.” Where are the verses in which Paul repudiates the misguided and even defamatory depictions of God given by Moses and the Hebrew prophets? Boyd doesn’t produce any. Whatever Paul thought about the cross of Christ as being central to the gospel, it is clear that this did not, in his mind, preclude that God could have ever or would ever inflict vengeance on someone or put someone to death {see Rom. 1:32; 2:5-11; 11:22; 12:19; 16:20; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 10:5-10; 11:30-32; 1 Thess. 2:15-16; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; 2:10-12; 2 Tim. 4:14}. Nowhere in his letters does Paul ever instruct believers to read the Hebrew scriptures with suspicion and caution lest they come to believe that God is really like the way he is depicted there.

Another case is drawn from Christian history, in which Boyd praises the German reformer Martin Luther for his cross-centered theology. He gives several quotes from Luther showing that he held the cross to be central to all true theology. He even goes so far as to claim that “Luther’s method of interpreting the Bible—his hermeneutics . . .  most closely anticipates my proposal.” But what is clear is that Luther’s cross-centered approach to scripture did not lead him to the same conclusions that Boyd has come to, as even Boyd admits. Luther had no problem with God exacting vengeance on his enemies and even thought that the state was God’s agent for doing so, even as Paul taught in Rom. 13:1-5. This led Luther to call for the state to violently crush the peasant uprising in Germany in 1525, leading to the slaughter of as many as 100,000 peasants and farmers. Luther is also known for his vitriol toward the Jews, whom he considered the enemies of God and Christ, calling for the destruction of their synagogues and their homes, the confiscation of their writings, the confiscation of their silver and gold, and corporeal punishment for rabbis who persisted in teaching publicly. Boyd never mentions these facts about Luther but does admit that:

Luther was far from consistent in the way he applied his cross- centered hermeneutic. For example, despite his claim to see nothing in Scripture except Christ crucified, Luther held that everything any evil agent does, including everything that Satan does, was directly caused by God. He even refers to Satan and  other evil agents as “masks” of God!  How this belief  is related  to Luther’s claim to derive his whole theology from the cross is not clear to me.
Related to this, Luther never demonstrated how he saw “nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” in portraits of Yahweh commanding Israelites to mercilessly slaughter women, children and infants.

Cross Vision ch. 5

Boyd chalks it up to an inconsistency in Luther, but I think it is better explained by simply recognizing that Luther did not take the meaning of the ‘cross’ to the extremes that Boyd does. I mean could someone possibly be that inconsistent between his theology and his practice? I find it hard to believe. Luther simply did not take his view of the cross to the radical conclusions that Boyd has.

Premise 3

Now here is where I may lose some of my trinitarian and oneness readers. One of Boyd’s overarching presuppositions is the belief that Jesus is God incarnate. The reason I point this out is because it plays a big role in his thesis. Listen to Boyd’s reasoning:

. . . that in Christ, God was stooping to bear the sin of the world to reconcile the world to himself (1 Cor 1:18).

. . . God who, out of love, was willing to stoop an infinite distance to bear our sin, suffer our curse, and thereby take on this revoltingly ugly, sin-mirroring, surface appearance.

Along the same lines, we should expect that the something else that is  going on behind the scenes of these sin-mirroring portraits is precisely what is going on behind the sin-mirroring cross: God, out of his love, is humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people, thereby taking on an ugly appearance that reflects this sin. This is how I propose we interpret all portraits of God in the Bible that on the surface reflect a character that is inconsistent with the cruciform character of God revealed on the  cross, including  especially  the OT’s violent depictions of God.

Cross Vision ch.4

So Boyd’s belief that Jesus is God leads him to conclude that God has a cruciform character. In other words, because Jesus was willing to be abused and rejected and maligned on the cross, while keeping his true nature veiled out of respect for the free will of those who were doing these things to him, then the same is true of God, because Jesus is God. Now Boyd can just cast this image of the cruciform-character incarnate God back into biblical history. If God was willing to stoop to bear our sin on the cross then it isn’t hard to believe that he has always been stooping to bear the sin of his people. The only problem with this is that the NT never once says that God sacrificed himself on the cross, or that God bore our sin on the cross, or that God suffered on our behalf. The NT authors are careful to always ascribe these actions to Jesus the Messiah and to differentiate between Jesus and God. Therefore, it is possible for the man Jesus to have manifested God’s love and mercy to the world by giving up his life as a sacrifice to God and yet God still be a God of vengeance (i.e. retributive justice), who must at times put certain people to death. Jesus himself recognized the validity of vengeance both against and on behalf of his chosen people Israel {see Lk. 18:6-7; 21:20-24}. And as we will see later, Jesus even has a role to play in the execution of God’s vengeance. Boyd is simply wrong; this is where his commitment to pacifism is dictating how he understands scripture, or even how he understands God.

Of course, when Jesus came the first time it was not to be the executioner of God’s vengeance but rather to be the means by which God would reconcile the world to himself. Jesus was the demonstration of God’s love and mercy in desiring and providing redemption for all. But when he returns to bring to full salvation those who have acknowledged him as Lord, he will then be the agent through whom God metes out his vengeance upon those who have rejected the truth, the enemies of both God and His people {2 Thess. 1:5-10; Rev. 11:15-18; 19:11-16}.

The belief that Jesus just is God also feeds into Boyd’s presupposition (Premise 1) that the revelation of God through Jesus is superior to all previous revelation, for if Jesus is God how could the revelation that came through him not be superior to that which came through fallen and culturally conditioned human beings. As God, Jesus would not have had a clouded vision of God like the Hebrew prophets of old. To a Biblical Unitarian like myself, this is untenable. There is no reason, biblically, unless one holds the same assumptions as Boyd, to think that Jesus, in the performance of his prophetic ministry, would have had some advantage over the former prophets, except that he had greater insight into God’s plan of redemption and the restoration of the kingdom.

As the unique son of God what Jesus brought to the people that was new was the understanding of personal sonship, the ability to perceive God as Father on a personal level. Jews of Jesus’ day would have understood the Fatherhood of God on a national level {see Ex. 4:22; Is. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 31:9; Hosea 11:1; Mal. 2:10}, but not many would have been so bold as to speak of God on personal terms as ‘my Father’. Jesus brought the revelation of God as Father on a personal level for those who, like him, seek to live out a faithful, obedient relationship to God from the heart. But this revelation would in no way negate the former revelation of God as a God of retributive justice and as one who will ultimately destroy the enemies of God and of his people. Certainly no NT author thought so.

The Biblical Case Against Boyd’s Thesis
  1. Jesus and Violence
    A. Violence In His Ministry

Because Jesus’ first coming, i.e. his humiliation and rejection, was about the kindness and mercy of God providing redemption for his people, we should not expect to find Jesus engaging in acts of violence during the days of his ministry in Galilee and Judea. Yet we do find some examples of actions of Jesus which may seem inconsistent with what we typically see of him in the gospels. The most obvious of these is the incident where he drove out of the temple area those who were buying and selling. This is recorded in all the gospels {Matt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-17; Lk. 19:45; Jn. 2:13-17} and may have even occurred twice, since John’s account has it happening before Jesus even began his Galilean ministry, while the synoptic accounts have it occurring just six days before the crucifixion. There are also some striking differences in John’s account from the synoptic accounts, which lends credence to the idea that these are two separate incidences. In The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) Boyd makes a rather weak and circular argument against those who claim that this incident shows Jesus acting in at least a mild form of violence. First he states: ” . . . it is important that we understand that this episode was not an expression of unpremeditated anger on Jesus’s part . . .” Well that may be true, but how does that mitigate the fact that this doesn’t look like the meek and gentle Jesus. In John’s account Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives out from the temple area the sheep and oxen. This could have presented a danger to people, especially children, who could have been knocked to the ground and trampled by the animals. Boyd even proposes that “Jesus created an animal stampede.” Also, it is hard to imagine Jesus commanding the merchants to get the animals out of the temple with a polite and gentle demeanor. We are told that he turned over the tables of the money changers, but Boyd doesn’t explain how this is not an act of violence, even if just a mild one. In Marks account we read that, “[Jesus] would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” Did he accomplish this by politely asking them to not do so? I don’t think so; he had to have used some kind of force or at least threats. Boyd boils the incident down to “street theater” done “out of love for his ‘Father’s house’ as well as for the poor who were being oppressed by the corrupt leaders who  ran the temple’s  ‘buying and selling’  system.” I’m confused! Is Boyd advocating that it is acceptable to act in an unloving way to one group of people on behalf of loving another group? But isn’t this exactly what much of God’s retributive justice is all about? Boyd’s argument amounts to this: This event cannot be an example of Jesus acting in a non-loving way because Jesus never acts in a non-loving way.

B. Violence in His Parables

The only parable I was able to find a response to in Boyd’s CWG is the parable in Matt. 18:23-35. In this parable a king forgives an astronomical debt of one of his servants, who then goes out and demands from another servant the payment of a small debt. The second servant is unable to pay and begs for mercy, which the first servant refuses to give. Instead he has the man thrown in prison until he could pay the debt. When the king finds out how the first servant, who was shown mercy, treated his fellow servant, he is enraged and reinstates the formerly forgiven debt and hands him over to the jailer to be tortured. Now Boyd is correct that the import of this parable is “to function as an illustration of the need for disciples not to forgive merely ‘seven times,’ but ‘seventy times seven’ .”  He then goes on to note three observations about the nature of parables which in his mind mitigates the severity of this parable. First, parables have an “is” and “is not” quality, e.g. the king in the parable represents God, but not really. Second, parables are built on familiarities, e.g. sin is presented as a debt. And third, parables often incorporate “absurd elements intended to shock  the audience,” e.g. the punishment inflicted upon the first servant at the end is an almost comical over exaggeration. He then says:

To be sure, part of the lesson of this parable is that there are dire consequences for those who refuse to extend to others the forgiveness they themselves have received, but we are misreading this parable if we think it is intended to provide clues as to how  people  will  actually experience these dire consequences.

CWG ch. 5

The only problem with this is that Jesus’ punch line to the parable doesn’t seem like a joke: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.” Boyd mentions the difficulty of this statement but never addresses it or offers an interpretation of it that is consistent with his view. However one wants to take this statement, it at least shows that Jesus held the belief that the Father is a God who repays men according to their deeds, just like the OT prophets declared.

Now let’s look at some parables that Boyd didn’t mention. Three parables in Luke illustrate how Jesus used violent portraits of characters in parables, who are representative of God or himself. Luke 12:42-48 contains the parable of the wise and faithful steward whose master puts him in charge until he returns. Jesus tells what will happen to this steward should he begin mistreating the servants in his charge and to get drunk:

“The master of the house will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he is not aware. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”

In Luke 19:12-27 we find the parable of the nobleman who went to a distant country to be appointed king and then to return. He called ten of his servants and gave each of them the same sum of money and charged them to put the money to use till he returns. But the subjects of this nobleman hated him and sent a delegation to complain, “We don’t want this man to reign over us.” The man returns, having been made king, and calls the ten servants to him to give an account. The ones who earned more money for the king were rewarded. One servant returns the original amount to the king, having gained nothing with it. He is harshly rebuked and humiliated. But the final line of the parable is revealing, for the king says:

“But those enemies of mine who did not want me to reign over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.”

Now it is clear that the king in the parable is meant to represent Jesus himself. So why would Jesus, if he were a complete pacifist and enemy-lover, portray himself in such a way as this? In light of this parable how can Boyd maintain the belief that Jesus’ command to his disciples to love their enemies is an absolute to which even Jesus and God himself are bound?

Luke 20:9-19 records the parable of the vineyard owner who rented his vineyard to some farmers. When the harvest time came he sent servants to collect some of the fruit, but the tenants beat each of them and threw them out of the vineyard. Finally the vineyard owner sends his son, expecting that they will respect him, but instead they plot to kill him and take his inheritance, which they do. Jesus then asks the question:

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

The implication is clear – the vineyard owner represents God, the tenants are the Jewish leaders and the son is the Messiah, Jesus himself. Jesus, in this parable, unambiguously portrays God, his Father, as slaying his enemies in vengeance. But how can this be so from Boyd’s perspective? If Jesus is the clearest and fullest revelation of God why is he depicting God in the same ‘clouded’ way that the Hebrew prophets of old did?

This third parable was played out in the first century when the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus as the Messiah and had him killed. Within 40 yrs. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the inhabitants were either killed or sent into exile. The first two parables, which portray Jesus himself as acting violently toward his enemies, are probably to be regarded as eschatological. While it is true that in his first coming Jesus was, for the most part, meek and mild, when he returns to reign as king over God’s kingdom, he will be the agent of God’s vengeance.

Let’s look at one final parable which illustrates that Jesus had a view of God consistent with the OT depiction of God as one who avenges, i.e. pays back retribution on behalf of, those who are his people. In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus tells the parable of the widow who persistently sought retribution against one who wronged her from an unjust judge. The judge finally gave her what she wanted not because he was just but because the woman persisted. Then Jesus taught his disciples this:

Lk. 18:6-8 – Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God execute vengeance for his own elect who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will execute vengeance for them speedily.

Many English versions translate this as “give them justice” but the Greek word ekdikesis means to avenge one of wrongs or to bring vengeance upon one. It is the same word used in Rom. 12:19 and Heb. 10:30 where it translates the Hebrew naqam which means vengeance.

C. Violence At His Return

Boyd would have us believe that it is only the OT which depicts God as vengeful and full of wrath. But how anyone who reads the NT scriptures could ever come to that conclusion is beyond me. But not only does the NT convey the same picture of God that is found in the OT, albeit in fewer instances, but even Jesus himself, in his eschatological return, is depicted as the agent of God’s wrath:

2 Thess. 1:6-10 – If it be so, it is a righteous thing for God to repay with affliction those who are oppressing you and to give relief to you, the oppressed ones, along with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his mighty angels, in a fiery blaze, rendering vengeance on those who have not known God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, who will pay the just penalty of everlasting destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power, whenever he shall come to be glorified in his holy ones and to be marveled at by all those who have believed . . .

2 Thess. 2:8 – And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus kill with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the manifestation of his presence.

Rev. 6:16-17 – They call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.” For the great day of their wrath has come and who is able to stand.

Rev. 19:11-16 – Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called “Faithful” and “True,” and with justice he judges and goes to war. His eyes are like a fiery flame and there are many diadem crowns on his head. He has a name written that no one knows except himself. He is dressed in clothing dipped in blood, and he is called the Word of God. The armies that are in heaven, dressed in white, clean, fine linen, were following him on white horses. From his mouth extends a sharp sword, so that with it he can strike the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod, and he stomps the winepress of the furious wrath of God, the All-Powerful. He has a name written on his clothing and on his thigh: “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

Regarding the first two passages in 2 Thess., it is regrettable that Boyd failed to adequately address them in CWG. In Appendix III: Violence in the Pauline Epistles, at the end of Part 3, Boyd references the 2 Thess. 1:6-10 passage but never explains what it could possibly mean from his perspective. All he says is this, regarding verse 6:

. . . I wonder what the point was of Paul reminding the Thessalonians that God “will pay back trouble to those who trouble you” by punishing them “with everlasting destruction” (2 Thess 1:6, 9). Paul is not in this context issuing a loving warning to the Thessalonians or to the people that are troubling them. He rather seems to be satisfying the Thessalonians’ and/or his own fallen thirst for vengeance to come upon their enemies, and nothing about his socio-religious context seems to alter this impression.

CWG Part 3 Appendix III

What rubbish! This is merely the biased opinion of Greg Boyd, a pacifist who views God and Jesus as pacifists. He goes on to tell us what Paul should have said in order to have been loving and Christ-like. But what he never does is explain how Paul, a hand picked apostle of the risen Jesus, who, in Boyd’s own mind, had a true revelation of what the cross was all about and for whom the cross was central, could write such a thing about God and Jesus. I suppose Boyd would just chalk it up to an inconsistency in Paul. But the real reason is obvious – whatever revelation Paul had of the cross, and whatever profound effect the cross had upon his life, it is clear that this did not lead Paul to the same extreme conclusions about God that it has led Boyd to. Paul had no cruciform hermeneutic. He still viewed God just as he did before he came to know Christ crucified, just as he is portrayed in the Hebrew prophets – a God of vengeance, as well as a God of love and mercy {see Rom. 11:22; 12:19; 13:1-5}.

Now regarding the Revelation passages, especially 19:11-16, Boyd has plenty to say, so much so that I cannot here respond to every detail of his long and twisted exegesis. I do encourage everyone who is interested to try to find an online source where you can read this part of his book The Crucifixion Of the Warrior God. It is found in Appendix IV at the end of Part 3. If you have a Scribd account you can read it there.

In this section Boyd goes through an elaborate, yet absurd, attempt to turn all of the violent images in the vision of John into a revelation of the cruciform character of God. Indeed, Boyd makes a valiant though unsuccessful effort to make the book of Revelation, and 19:11-16 in particular, fit into his paradigm. As an example here is a quote from his conclusion:

 Revelation 19:15 provides yet another stunning example of how John turns violent imagery on its head by radically reinterpreting it through the lens of the self-sacrificial Lamb. It constitutes yet another illustration of the remarkable way in which John makes “lavish use of militaristic language”  while infusing  it with “a non-militaristic sense.” It again demonstrates how “apocalyptic terror is transformed through John’s Christology,” for we once  again see that  “Christ conquers by being a lamb , not by being  a  lion.” It provides yet one more confirmation of a theme we have seen is woven throughout this inspired and inspiring work: followers of the Lamb are called to participate in the war and the victory of the Lamb, and we are called to do it the way the Lamb himself did it—namely, by choosing to love our enemies and suffer at their hands rather  than to take up arms against them.

CWG Appendix IV

I’m sorry, but this is a nonsensical and forced interpretation that seems to have eluded the vast majority of Bible readers for centuries. It would be better for Boyd to do what many scholars in our day have done – simply deny that the scriptures are inspired by God and hence deny the validity of such depictions of God and Christ contained therein. I am surprised that Boyd was not embarrassed to put such farcical exegesis in print.

The four passages I cited above unambiguously depict Jesus as the executor of God’s vengeance in the day of God’s wrath at the end of this age.

D. Violence In His Teachings and Public Utterances

Though the public ministry of Jesus was focused primarily on God’s mercy toward his people, there are occasions in his teaching and public utterances where we see that he still held to the concept of God as one who punishes the wicked and unbelieving, and where even he himself is seen in this same light.

Luke 19:41-44 – Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you had only known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and surround you and close in on you from every side. They will demolish you – you and your children within your walls – and they will not leave within you one stone on top of another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Here Jesus foretells the impending judgment to come upon Israel, which he directly relates to the fact that they did not recognize the time of their visitation. Now Boyd does acknowledge this as warning of divine judgment, but Boyd sees divine judgment merely as God’s abandonment, i.e. God is never actively or directly involved in bringing destruction, suffering, sickness, death, or anything else that would be hurtful to people, but simply withdraws his hand which is restraining these things from coming. I will deal with this wrong-headed idea in Part 2.

Luke 21 :20-24 – But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Those who are inside the city must depart. Those who are out in the country must not enter it, because these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! For there will be great calamity against the land and wrath toward this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

Matt. 7:19-23 – Every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by your name, and by your name cast out devils, and by your name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.

John 15:1-2, 5-6 – I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that does not bear fruit. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit . . . I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up.

Even in his resurrected and glorified state we see Jesus giving a warning of violent judgment which he will be directly involved in bringing about.

Rev. 2:21-23 – I have given her time to repent, but she is not willing to repent of her sexual immorality. Look! I am throwing her onto a bed of violent illness, and those who commit adultery with her into terrible suffering, unless they repent of her deeds. Furthermore, I will strike her followers with a deadly disease, and then all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts. I will repay each one of you what your deeds deserve.

I could not find a response to this passage by Boyd in either CWG or Cross Vision, and I can see why he avoided it. Here we have the words of the “son of God”, the risen Jesus himself, who declares that he personally will execute a horrible judgment upon the false prophetess Jezebel and her followers. We also note that Jesus executes vengeance, which is the import of the last phrase.

2. Messianic Psalms and Violence

There are a number of Messianic Psalms that are quoted in the NT in application to Jesus. Among these are Ps. 2, 45, 69 and 110. Various verses from these psalms are quoted throughout the NT writings. But what may not be known by many is that the parts of these psalms that are not quoted contain portraits of violence and vengefulness on the part of the subject of these psalms, whom the NT authors think is Jesus.

Psalm 2 – Verses 1-2 are quoted in Acts 4:25-26; v. 7 is quoted in Acts 13:33 and Heb. 1:5; v. 9 is quoted in Rev. 2:27. But let’s look at other verses in the psalm not quoted in the NT:

vv.4-6 – The One enthroned in heaven laughs; Yahweh scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
vv. 10-12 – Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve Yahweh with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.

The son in v. 12 is the son in v.7, which is applied to Jesus in the NT quotes. So why would the NT authors attribute this psalm to Jesus, with this depiction of him becoming wrathful and destroying those who refuse to honor him, if they believed that Jesus was an unreserved pacifist?

Psalm 45 – Verses 6-7 are quoted in Heb. 1:8-9. Here are some other verses of the psalm:

vv. 3-5 – Gird your sword upon your side, O mighty one; clothe yourself with splendor and majesty. In your majesty ride forth victoriously in behalf of truth, humility and righteousness; let your right hand display awesome deeds. Let your sharp arrows pierce the hearts of the king’s enemies; let the nations fall beneath your feet.

If this psalm is about Jesus, then it depicts him as a warrior, the very image which Boyd repudiates. Of course, one could simply allegorize the language to make it refer to spiritual warfare or take Boyd’s approach that the author’s vision was clouded by his own fallen and culturally conditioned mind. But the more passages of this type add up, one upon the other, the less reasonable or plausible such objections appear.

Psalm 69 – Verse 4 is quoted in Jn. 15:25; v. 9 is quoted in Jn. 2:17 and Rom. 15:3; v. 21 is alluded to in Jn. 19:28-30; v. 23 is quoted in Rom.11:9-10. Let’s see what else the psalm says:

vv.24, 27-28 – Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them . . . Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.

Is this what Boyd’s cruciform character looks like? Does this sound like one who is a committed, unconditional pacifist?

Psalm 110 – Verse 1 is quoted in Matt. 22:24; Mk.12:36; Lk. 20:42; Acts 2:34; Heb. 1:13; v. 4 is quoted in Heb. 5:6 and 7:21. Now let’s look at vv. 5-6:

vv.5-6 – The Lord is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath. He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.

So again, the question must be asked: Why would the NT authors associate Jesus with such violent depictions of Messianic prophecy if their view of him was as an absolute pacifist?

Conclusion to Part 1

So far we have seen that Boyd’s premises are based on faulty interpretations of certain passages of scripture in the NT, and therefore his premises are fallacious. Because his premises are fallacious so is the thesis which is built upon them.

We have seen enough from the gospels regarding Jesus acting out in at least a mildly violent way and teaching things about God that coincide with the depiction of God in the OT which Boyd repudiates, to see that Boyd’s thesis is false. We have seen that the depictions from the NT of Jesus in his eschatological return depict a violent carrying out of God’s vengeance. We have also seen how Messianic psalms from the OT which are applied to Jesus by NT authors depict violence in the messianic figure.

Part 2.



The Doctrine of Original Sin – Truth or Myth?

Within Christianity there are several different views of the doctrine of original sin. The three predominate views are the Roman Catholic (RC), the Eastern Orthodox (EO) and the Reformed. The RC and Reformed views are Augustinian (i.e. based on the doctrine as formulated by Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century), with some differences in the details between them. The EO view is decidedly not Augustinian. The four main assertions of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin are:

1.The guilt of Adam is transferred to all of his descendants, making every person alienated from God (i.e. spiritually dead) and condemned to eternal judgment at birth. In this view original sin is a state into which all are born.

2. All are born with a sin nature whereby we are unable to do any good toward our salvation.

3. Through the fall of Adam and the inheriting of a sin nature man has lost free will so that his will is enslaved to sin and hence man is only free to sin but not to do good.

4. All are born mortal, i.e. physical death is certain for every person.

As stated above, both the RC and Reformed churches hold the Augustinian view. In Reformed churches numbers 2 & 3 are part of what is called the doctrine of Total Depravity. This is the idea that man is so corrupted in all that he is that he can do nothing toward his own salvation and must be saved by a unilateral or monergistic act of God. In the RC view man is considered depraved but not totally depraved; he is born inclined to sin but not enslaved to sin. Regarding number 1 above, the Reformed Church fully accepts Augustine’s concept of transferred guilt. The RC view is different. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all humans.

Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called “original sin”.

As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called “concupiscence”).


So the RC view, at least presently, is a modified or softened form of Augustine’s doctrine, in which man is born “deprived of the original holiness and justice” that Adam had received from God prior to the fall but not born with the guilt of Adam’s sin charged to his account. What this amounts to is that all are born with the sin nature which inclines them to sin.

The EO view is much simpler – man does not inherit Adam’s guilt or a sin nature whereby he is enslaved to sin. Rather, humanity inherits the consequence of Adam’s sin which is physical death; man is deprived of the immortality that could have been his. This is the extent to which man’s nature has been corrupted. Along with this condition man is born into a fallen world in which everything is subject to decay, so that each man is in a constant fight for survival which engenders a self-seeking attitude which plunges him into sin.

So we could say that the Reformed Church is fully Augustinian, the RC church is semi-Augustinian and the EO is anti-Augustinian.

Though I had formerly held to a more Augustinian view, simply because it is the view I inherited or was indoctrinated into, I have now come to a view much like that of the EO church, which I see as the most biblical view. In the remainder of this study we will look at the scriptural support for this view, which I will refer to as the Inherited Mortality (IM) view, and show why the supposed scriptural support for the Augustinian view fails.

Death – The Consequence Of Sin – The Consequence Of Death

Rom. 5:12 – “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and so death spread to all men, on which account all have sinned.”

This is the key passage which Augustine used as a proof text for his doctrine. The underlined words represent the words of the Greek text eph’ ho. There has been much debate as to the proper translation of this phrase, with each side claiming that the grammar supports their view better. I do not think the grammar is going to resolve the issue; it is more a matter of interpretation based on the context. The three ways of understanding eph’ ho are:

1. It refers back to ‘one man‘ and so is translated ‘in whom‘ all have sinned, and so means that all sinned in Adam. This was Augustine’s understanding and is also that of the Reformed churches.
2. It refers to ‘all have sinned‘ and so is translated “because all have sinned.” This would mean that death comes to all men because all men have sinned personally. This is more of the RC view.
3. It refers back to ‘death spread to all men‘ and so is translated ‘on account of which‘ or ‘because of which‘, and so would mean that because of the fact that death spread to all men, all men have sinned. This is the EO view.

Number one is the most untenable since eph does not mean ‘in’ and ho is a neuter pronoun, which makes it unlikely to be referring to Adam. Two and three are both possible renderings of the Greek, but two seems unlikely because this would mean that each person dies a natural death1 because of their own sin. But Paul appears to be arguing that natural death comes to all men, even to those who have not sinned. This is the point of his parenthetical statement in vv. 13-14: “for before the law was given sin was in the world, but sin is not charged to one’s account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who did not sin after the likeness of Adam’s transgression (i.e. by breaking a commandment) . . .” If the sins of people between the time of Adam and Moses were not charged to their account, and natural death is the direct result of one’s personal sin, then why did these people die? Paul seems to be saying that they died as a direct consequence of Adam’s sin. He states this explicitly in vv. 15-18:

” 15 . . . For if the many died by the trespass of the one man . . . 16 . . . the judgment followed one sin (of Adam) and brought condemnation (i.e. the sentence of death) 17 . . . For if by the trespass of the one man death reigned through that one man . . .” 18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation (i.e. the sentence of death) for all men . . . “

Romans 5:15-18

Now there are many passages in scripture which seem to imply that death is the direct result of one’s personal sin, such as Ezek. 18; Rom. 1:32; 6:16, 21, 23; 7:5; 8:6, 13; James 1:15. But this can be explained by the fact that in these passages death refers not to natural death but to death either as a direct judgment from God for one’s sins (such as in the case of Korah and his followers in Num. 16 and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) or as the ultimate and final destruction that comes to one as a direct consequence of his sin. The death that Paul is referring to in Romans 5 is natural death that comes to all men and is not a direct result of one’s own sins. This is why infants and children die, even though they have committed no sin. This is the first death, which is inherited by all from Adam and from which all shall be awakened in the resurrection. Once awakened, all will stand before the tribunal of God to give an account of themselves. Those who are saved in Messiah shall live forever, never to die again; those who are not saved will be sentenced to die, for the second time, but this time for their own sin and rebellion. From this second death there is no awaking, it is an everlasting judgment, a perishing. Therefore, we can conclude that sin and death are inextricably involved in a circular relationship. Because of Adam’s sin, death, i.e. mortality, is inherited by every person born, guaranteeing their own natural death. This mortality then breeds personal sin in us, which, through habitual practice, enslaves us. This personal sin, unless repented of, will inevitably lead to one’s final destruction after the resurrection and final judgment.

So then, if Paul is saying, and it certainly appears that he is, that all men die because of Adam’s sin then this would rule out number two as the best way to understand eph ho in Rom. 5:12. This makes the third option preferable, i.e. that all have become sinners because of the fact that death is a part of our nature which is inherited from Adam. It is not that we are born sinners or born with a nature that can only sin, but rather because we have inherited a corruption in our nature i.e. mortality, and death is the inevitable prospect of every person, this leads men into sin. I will elaborate on this later.

Spiritual Death?

There are many commentators as of late who have come to recognize the validity of the translation of eph ho as “because of which” and so understand that Paul is saying that the result of death spreading to all men is that all men become sinners. But in order to maintain the idea that men are born with a sin nature and even with the guilt of Adam’s sin charged to there account, they make death in Rom. 5:12 to mean spiritual death. They then define this spiritual death as a separation or alienation from God, a condition which is inherited from Adam. Therefore, all are born in this state of spiritual death and so will inevitably sin. But this seems to me to be an ad hoc argument. Why should we understand the word death in this way? The Greek word for death, thanatos, appears four times in vv. 12-21 of Rom. 5 and not once is it modified by the adjective spiritual (Gr. pneumatikos). In fact pneumatikos occurs 26 times in the NT, while thanatos occurs 120 times in the NT. Yet there is not even one occurrence of the adjective pneumatikos being used to modify the noun thanatos. Yet many today see the concept of spiritual death (SD) in almost every occurrence of thanatos.

Another passage which is supposed to clearly teach the concept of spiritual death is Gen. 3, in the account of the fall. In 2:16-17 God had told Adam that he could eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Eve reiterates this warning from God when she is tempted to eat from the forbidden tree {3:2-3}. Proponents of the SD doctrine see in this a sure proof of that doctrine. They argue that since Adam did not die physically on the day he ate of the tree then he must have died in some other sense, i.e. spiritually. This SD is defined as separation from God or the lose of spiritual life in the soul. Also some proponents of this view see further confirmation of it in the Hebrew behind the English phrase “you will surely die.” The Hebrew has mowt tamut which can be literally translated as “dying you shall die.” It is asserted that man died spiritually that day and then eventually died physically. But is there anything in the broader context of the passage that confirms this understanding? Not at all. In 3:16-19, when God confronts the man and his wife about their disobedience, nothing is said about them being deprived of life in their soul or about being separated from God. To the woman he said that he would multiply her sorrow and her conception and that she would bring forth children in pain. This sorrow and pain was not simply physical but involved the knowledge that she was bearing children who were destined to die, and in fact, she may even personally experience the death of her children, as Eve certainly did with Abel. To the man God said that he would be in a life-long struggle to provide the necessary sustenance for his family and himself, until the day he returns to the ground, i.e. dies. Later in the passage, at 3:22-24 man is banished from the garden so that he will not be able to eat of the tree of life and live forever, thus consigning man to mortality. It appears from ch 4 that they still carried on a relationship with God and so did their children.  In fact, in the subsequent material, after the account of the fall, while man’s relationship to God, his surroundings, and other humans is altered in a negative sense, there is not the total separation from God that spiritual death proponents declare is the result of Adam’s sin. Yet it is the common belief that as a result of Adam’s sin all human’s are born in a state of spiritual death, i.e. separated from God. But after Adam’s sin we still see God conversing with the man and his offspring, in chapters 3 & 4. Though the relationship with God is strained it does not seem like a total break in the relationship occurs. The concept of SD is no where to be found here.

The phrase “dying you shall die” which consists of the double use of the word muth (= to die) is an idiom which is used some dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible and always refers to physical death. It is meant to convey the certainty of death, as in  Gen. 20:7; 26:11; Ex. 19:12; Num. 26:65; Judges 13:22; 2 Sam. 12:14; 1 Kings 2:37. That God said “in the day that you eat from it” need not imply the man would actually die on that specific day but rather that from that day he should know that death was his inevitable end.

So it appears that the concept of SD is a myth devised to bolster the claim of Augustine that the guilt of Adam’s sin has been transferred to all of his descendants. Death in the scripture should always be understood, unless the context demands otherwise, in it’s most natural sense i.e. the cessation of life. This is described in scripture as the breath of life departing from a person and them returning to the ground {see Gen 3:19; Job 7:21; 34:15; Ps. 90:3; 104:29; Eccle. 3:18-21}. Of course, there are places in scripture in which death is used figuratively or metaphorically {see Lk. 15:24, 32; Rev. 3:1} and death is even spoken of proleptically {see Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13; Rom. 8:10}, but never does the word death necessitate the meaning of spiritual death. When commentators speak of death in this way, in any given passage, they are simply reading that concept into the passage. For more on the subject of spiritual death see here.

What about Eph. 2:1-3, isn’t this referring to spiritual death? Doesn’t this passage teach that all men are born alienated from God because of Adam’s sin? Ephesians 2:1-3 says nothing at all about all people being born in a condition of SD due to Adam’s sin; this is a purely theological concept that has been foisted upon this passage. Note that the cause of the state of being ‘dead‘ is “your transgressions and sins” rather than Adam’s one sin. So then the death spoken of here cannot refer to SD, that alienation from God into which all are born because of Adam’s sin, but must instead refer to a death which is the result of the transgressions and sins which each individual commits throughout their life. The death spoken of here is that final destruction of sinners (note the difference between this verse and Rom. 5:12-21, which speaks of the first death, the result, not of our own sins, but of Adam’s one sin). Because of our own transgressions and sins we were dead, i.e. doomed to die an everlasting death after the judgment. Paul speaks of this proleptically2 to convey the thought of the certainty of death resulting from the way of life described in v. 2. There is nothing here about having been born in such a state. Now v. 3 is usually taken to denote that this is a condition of birth, based on the phrase “we were, by nature, children of wrath.”  First off, the word ‘children‘ does not signify infants, making this appear to teach a condition of birth. “Children of wrath” should be understood as a Semitic idiom meaning “a people destined for wrath.” Second, “by nature” does not necessarily mean ‘by birth’ but rather should be understood as ‘by the nature of things,’ i.e. by the nature of the fact that we lived “in the desires of our flesh and practicing the inclinations of the flesh.” Wrath was the natural result or outcome of our behavior and this wrath consisted of death, forever.

Mortality Results In Sin

Now let’s look at the scriptural support for the Inherited Mortality view.

In addition to what we saw in Romans 5:12-18, we have another explicit statement by Paul showing the correlation between Adam’s sin and the mortality of the human race:

1 Cor. 15:21-22 – “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so in Messiah all will be made alive.”

Now I am not aware of any other explicit statement in either the Hebrew Bible or the NT which connects man’s mortality with Adam’s sin, so from where did Paul derive this idea? The only possible place from which he could have derived this idea is the story of man’s fall in Genesis 3. Adam was told by God not to eat from the forbidden tree or he would certainly die {Gen. 2:15-17}, and then after disobeying this command the Lord pronounced his judgment in these terms:

“. . . By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

Gen 3:19

Nothing in the text explicitly says that all of Adam’s descendants would suffer the same fate, but Paul must have extrapolated that it was so, based on the fact that this has indeed been the experience of all men ever since Adam and that in Jewish thought a man’s descendants are inextricably involved in the destiny of their patriarchal forebear. Another factor which may have contributed to Paul’s thinking on this is the reality that infants and young children die without having committed any personal sin. If natural death were indeed the direct result of one’s own sin then the death of children is inexplicable.

While there are no other explicit statements in scripture connecting man’s mortality with the sin of Adam, there are statements which speak to the universality of death, such as Ps. 89:48:

“What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of Sheol.”

Other passages which attest to the universality of death are Num. 16:29; Ps. 22:29; 49:7-12; Eccl. 3:2, 18-20 and Is. 40:6-8

Next we will look at 1 Cor. 15:56 -57 – “The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Here Paul tells us that the sting of death is sin. If Paul had intended to mean that sin causes death would he not have said “the sting of sin is death?” Now that would be true in respect to Adam’s sin, which resulted in death for all men. But here Paul’s point seems to be that the fact of our mortality, i.e the certainty of death, has an effect upon us and that effect is sin. Paul says this after a lengthy discussion about the resurrection from the dead and the believers hope of exchanging this perishable, mortal body for an imperishable, immortal body. It is the assurance of this ultimate victory over death that enables us to have victory over sin now.

Heb. 2:15 – “[. . . by his death] he might free those who, by fear of death, were all their lives held in slavery.

At first glance it may look like the author is saying that people were held in slavery to the fear of death, but this is not the only or even the best way to understand the passage. We can take the fear of death as the cause of the slavery rather than as the object of the slavery. Since in the NT, the predominate thought in the figurative use of slavery is slavery to sin {see Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:15-20; 7:14; 2 Pet.2:19}, we can understand the verse to be saying that through the fear of death men become slaves to sin. This is because the natural impulses and inclinations of the body become twisted and distorted due to the fact that man has been thrust into a decaying world in a decaying body. When one then consistently yields to these twisted impulses he becomes enslaved to them. In this sense, fear of death need not be understood as the fear of the act or the event of dying but rather as the odious awareness of one’s mortality, and hence of the brevity of life, and a wish to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.

In Rom. 5:20-21 Paul gives further elucidation of what he touched on in vv.13-14:

20. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase”

Though Paul’s thought is somewhat hard to follow, what I take him to mean is that before the law, the only sin that could be counted as a trespass was Adam’s sin, because he sinned against a direct command of God. Though righteous men may have committed what could certainly be called sin before the law was given, it was not charged to their account because they were unaware that their actions were sinful {see Rom. 4:15}. The law was given to make known to the Israelites what God deems as sinful behavior {Rom. 3:20; 7:7}. This also allowed God to justly punish the Israelites for their sins. Next he says:

” But where sin increased, grace increased all the more . . .”

Since the law was given only to the nation of Israel, “where sin increased” was in that people; but as the sin increased due to the law, the grace of God increased toward them even more, culminating in the coming of Messiah to redeem them. Now here’s where it gets interesting:

21. “. . . so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring everlasting life through Jesus the Messiah our Lord.”

Paul seems to be saying that sin reigned because of death i.e. because of their mortality sin gained power over men. Now Paul’s statement in v. 19, “. . . through the disobedience of the one man many were made sinners . . .” may at first seem to support the Augustinian view that men inherit a sin nature from Adam, but all it really need mean is that because death comes to all by Adam’s sin and in this condition of mortality sin has gained the mastery over us, then in this sense all are made sinners by Adam’s one act of disobedience. Paul is using the word ‘sinners’ here to denote the fact that all have sinned, not in the usual Hebraic fashion to denote those specific people who live their lives in opposition to God and his word. In the Hebrew mind there was a distinction between the righteous and the sinners, but those among the righteous were never entirely without sin {see Eccl 7:20}. We can think of men like David, who was certainly among the righteous of Israel, yet we see that he succumbed to sin at times, though sin was not the constant habit of his life. There are many specific people in the scriptures of whom it is testified that they were righteous and that they pleased God {see Gen. 6:9; Ex. 33:12; 1 Kings 3:6; Job 1:1, 8; Lk. 1:6; 2:25; 23:50; Acts 10:22; Heb. 11:4, 5; 2 Pet. 2:7}. There are also statements about righteous people, in general, as distinct from those who were unrighteous {2 Sam. 4:11; 1 Kings 8:32; Ps. 1:5-6; 5:12; 11:3; 32:11; 34:5, 19; 37:12, 29-32; 55:22; 64:10; 69:28; 75:10; Is. 3:10; 57:1; Eze. 18:5, 9; Hosea 14:9; Mal. 3:18; Matt. 9:13; 13:17; Lk. 15:7}. But how can this be from the Augustinian viewpoint which sees all men born enslaved to sin? What we should learn from these references is that while all men have sinned, not all throughout history have been enslaved to sin. What this means is that enslavement to sin is not a condition into which one is born but a condition into which one grows, through practice.

Paul then goes on, in ch. 6, to show why believers in Christ should not live in the habitual practice of sin any longer and he connects the believers victory over sin to our union with Christ in his death and our assurance that we shall be raised with Christ into immortality.

5. “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection 6. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, so that we are no longer enslaved to sin. 7. For the one who has died has been freed from sin. 8. “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him, 9. having understood that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer rules over him. 10. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” 11. In this way also you should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey it’s (i.e. the mortal body’s) desires.”

So then, in our union with Christ, his death to sin becomes our death to sin, and in view of the fact that we shall share in his resurrection, we should now live in the light of the certainty of our future immortality. In this way the believer can be freed from sin, which had formerly taken advantage of his mortality to enslave him. Paul shows, in ch. 7, how, for the Jew (and even for the Gentile who has placed himself under the law), sin seizes the opportunity to take advantage of their mortality by means of the law. He goes on to describes the war between the mind or heart, which desires to do good, and the flesh (i.e. the mortal body) which desires the very sin forbidden in the law. We will come back to this momentarily, but for now note how Paul expresses the anguish of this struggle in v. 24;

“Who shall deliver me from this body of death.”

Paul sees the ‘body of death‘ i.e. the body which is subject to death, the mortal body, as the main problem from which he needed deliverance. This is what Paul calls ‘the flesh‘. It is not that the body in and of itself is bad, but the fact that it has become corruptible i.e. mortal, due to Adam’s sin.

Romans 7

This chapter has been a source of confusion for many. The main issue is whether in vv. 7- 24 Paul is speaking of himself from a pre or post conversion perspective. Is Paul speaking of his experience as a Jew, under the law, prior to coming to a knowledge of Christ, or is he speaking of his experience in Christ? This is an ongoing debate among expositors, with Reformed exegetes taking Paul as referring to his then present experience in Christ, and non-Reformed exegetes usually coming down on the other side. It seems to me that the reason Reformed exegetes read the passages as they do has more to do with their theological concerns rather than contextual concerns, for Paul says a few things in this passage which they deem would be impossible for an unregenerate man to say {see vv. 18-19-23}. In the Reformed system only a person who has been made spiritually alive by irresistible grace would be able to say “I delight in God’s law” or “I desire to do good” or “the evil I do not desire to do” or “in my mind I am a slave to God’s law.” However, one reason why Paul cannot be describing his own experience as a believer in Christ is that he speaks of being a slave to sin {v. 14}, which would be quite inconsistent with statements he made earlier regarding a believers relationship to sin {see 6:1-2, 6-7, 11, 14,17-18, 20-22}. But there is yet another way to view the passage.

I have now come see that Paul is speaking of the normal experience of Jews who sincerely desired to serve God but found themselves failing. Paul may be relating this struggle in the first person present tense simply for rhetorical effect, to make it more vivid to his readers, though it may reflect his own personal experience before coming to Christ. That this passage is not describing the universal experience of all people is evident by the context. Paul starts off chapter 7 specifically addressing his Jewish brethren and their relationship to the law {v.1}. He says that these Jews were once bound by the law, but have now been released from it {v. 6}. He says {v. 5} that when he and they were formerly in the flesh “the sinful passions were operative in our bodies by reason of the law,” and this is the very thing that Paul goes on to explicate in vv. 7 – 23. Thus, contextually, the passage must be speaking of the typical experience of this specific type of pre-conversion Jew. Gentiles would not even be in view because they were typically regarded as not being under the law {see Rom. 2:12-14; 1 Cor. 9:21}, unless they put themselves under the law by circumcision {Gal. 5:2-3}.

Now it must be understood that not all Jews would have fallen into the same category as far as devotion to God goes. There were Jews who truly loved God and were faithful to the covenant out of a genuine fear of God and were thus counted righteous {see 1 Kings 3:6; Neh. 7:2; Ps. 128:1; Ezek. 18:9; Micah 3:16; Matt. 1:19; Lk. 1:6; 2:25, 36-38; 23:50-51; Jn. 1:47}. Then there were those who had no regard for God or his law; these were the ones called ‘sinners’ or ‘the wicked’ by other Jews {see Ps. 1; 10: 2-11; 14:1; 36:1-4; Matt. 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:17; Lk. 6:32-34; 15:1; Jn. 9:31}. These people put on no pretense of conformity to the law, they lived in habitual and open defiance of God. Then there were the religious Jews, such as the Pharisees, who were for the most part hypocrites, though there were some truly righteous ones among them. These men put on a good outward display of godliness but inwardly they were driven not by love for and fear of God but by a love of the praise and adoration of man {see Matt. 23}. All of their outward acts of righteousness were motivated by a desire to be seen as righteous and thus to be well spoken of and admired by others.

There was still yet another kind of Jew, which I believe is the kind Paul is referring to in Rom. 7, i.e. the Jew who sincerely desired to keep the law but found himself consistently failing, especially with regard to inward obedience. This type of Jew was engaged in a struggle between his inner man or mind, which delighted in God’s law and desired to do the good required in the law and to avoid the evil forbidden in the law {vv. 15-25}, and his mortal body with it’s twisted inclinations. So real and so intense was this struggle and the sinful actions so antithetical to the heart’s desire that it was as if the individual himself was not the one carrying out the sin {vv. 16, 19-22}. When Paul speaks of sin living in him {v. 17, 21} I do not think he was speaking literally but figuratively, i.e. it was as if sin was a living entity within him, always there waging war with the law of his mind. This is much like the hyperbolic way that David described himself after being confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Ps. 51:5

So contradictory was David’s actions to his inner desire to please God that he could only express his disgust of his sin in such hyperbolic terms. The error of Reformed apologists is to take David literally, as if he were setting out a systematic doctrine of inherited sin, rather than simply uttering a highly emotional and exaggerated estimation of his behavior. The same can be said for Paul’s emotionally charged rhetoric in Rom. 7. Instead of seeing this passage as a systematic doctrine of man’s sin nature that is applied universally to all men, I think it is best to understand it as an emotional, hyperbolic description of the experience of a certain kind of Jew under the law.

Romans 8 – The Flesh

There has been much debate over Paul’s precise meaning of ‘the flesh‘, especially in Romans 7 and 8. It is agreed by virtually all that Paul’s meaning of ‘the flesh‘ in these chapters is unique, differing from it’s use by other NT authors, from his own use in other contexts, and from it’s use in the OT. The assumption of most Protestant and RC scholars is that Paul uses flesh in these chapters to denote the sin nature which is part of man’s nature by birth. The 1985 edition of the NIV even went so far as to translate the word sarx (i.e. flesh) in these two chapters as sinful nature. But such a translation probably tells us more about the theological predilections of the NIV editors than it does about Paul’s intended meaning of sarx. Nonetheless, this equation of ‘the flesh‘ with ‘the sin nature‘ seems to be a predominate view in much of evangelicalism, especially of the Reformed kind. If this equation is true, then Paul’s use would be unique and would not have been influenced by the Hebrew Bible’s use of basar (Str. Heb. #1320), which means flesh. But why should we think Paul invented a new meaning for sarx that has no connection with the Tanakh and the prophets? Why not rather assume that his meaning was drawn from the Hebrew scriptures? Can a meaning be found in the OT use that might be a basis for Paul’s own use of sarx? I want to suggest that there is a way to understand Paul’s use of ‘flesh‘ in Rom. 7 & 8 that corresponds to the Hebrew Bible’s use. I propose that Paul is using the concept of the flesh to denote man’s mortality and it’s resultant effect upon man’s behavior.

The Greek word behind the English ‘flesh‘ is sarx (Str. Gr. #4561). It’s foremost use is with reference to physical bodies, of both men and animals, in particular the soft tissue in distinction to bone. It can refer to the meat of animals which is eaten. It is also used to denote human beings and animals in the phrase “all flesh“. This sense may connote the idea of mortality. Two passages in Isaiah demonstrate the connection between flesh and mortality:

Is. 31:3 – “But Egypt is man and not God; their horses are flesh and not spirit. When Yahweh stretches out his hand, he who helps will stumble; he who is helped will fall. They all will perish.”

Is. 40:6-8 – “. . . all flesh is grass and all it’s beauty like a flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades . . . Surely the people are grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of Yahweh endures forever.”

In the first passage Egypt, i.e. the people of Egypt are likened to man (Heb. adam) and contrasted with God, while their horses are regarded as flesh, in contrast to spirit. Both of these ideas imply mortality. As Adam was made subject to death because of his disobedience, so all beings composed of flesh, as was Adam, are likewise mortal beings. This is in contrast to God and other beings composed of spirit, who are immortal.

The second passage states that all flesh, i.e. all men, are like grass which dries up and dies, which is surely implying the fleeting nature of a man’s existence in this world, and hence his mortality.

Other passages which suggest a connection between flesh and mortality are:

Ps. 78:39 – “He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.”

Gen. 6:3 – “Then Yahweh said, ‘My breath will not remain in man forever, because he is flesh; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.’ “

Both of these passages speak of the transitory and evanescent nature of man’s life in this world, which is a prominent theme in scripture. A number of English versions even translate basar in Gen. 6:3 as mortal (NIV, BSB, ISV, NET, NLT). It is clear that there is a connection between man being flesh and his mortality in these passages.

What if it was passages like these that influenced Paul’s thinking and formed the basis of his concept of ‘the flesh‘ in Rom. 7 and 8? It seems more reasonable to me that Paul would be using the term in a manner consistent with the Hebrew scriptures, than that he is investing it with a new theological meaning. I suggest that the concept of man’s mortality must be included in Paul’s use of sarx. The idea of sarx as a sin nature which one possesses from birth may seem attractive in light of English renderings of passages like Romans chapter 8, but this idea ignores the connection between the concept of flesh and man’s mortality established in the Hebrew scriptures.

Another clue that Paul’s usage of sarx conforms with the use of basar in the OT is found in the synonyms he uses for the flesh in Romans 6, 7 and 8. He calls it the body of sin {6:6}, the body of death {7:24}, the mortal body {6:12; 8:11} and just simply the body {8:10, 13}, thus equating the flesh with the physical body in it’s condition of mortality.

Let’s now look at Romans 8 and see how this understanding can be read into the specific phrases Paul uses, such as in the flesh, walking according to the flesh, the mind of the flesh, etc. The best way for me to relate what I think Paul means by these phrases is to present a paraphrase of the passage, interpreting the phrases as I understand them. Afterward, I will give an explanation of my interpretation. I will include the last part of 7:25 and go through 8:17.

7:25. So then, I myself, in the mind serve God’s law, but because of the mortal body, the law of sin.
8:1. Therefore, there is now no sentence of death hanging over those who are in Christ Jesus,
2. because through Christ Jesus the principle of the guarantee of immortality set me free from the principle of sin and death.
3. For the law (of Moses) was powerless in that it was weak on account of our mortality. So God, by commissioning his own son in the same mortal flesh and because of sin, condemned the activity of sin in the mortal body,
4. so that the righteousness of the law (of Moses) might be fulfilled in us, who do not live out our lives governed by the dictates of our mortality (hence seeking as much pleasure and happiness as we can before we die), but in hope of the guarantee of immortality.

5. For those without the hope of immortality are obsessed with fulfilling the inclinations of the mortal body, but those who have the guarantee of immortality are obsessed with the inclinations that arise from that expectation.
6. For the mind focused on the inclinations of the mortal body ends in death, but the mind focused on the hope of immortality ends in (everlasting) life and peace.
7. For the mind focused on the inclinations of the mortal body is in conflict with God because it does not submit to God’s law, neither can it do so.
8. Now those without the expectation of immortality cannot please God.
9. However, you are not without this hope but have the guarantee of immortality, if the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have this frame of mind which Christ had, he does not belong to him.

10. But if Christ is in you, your body is still subject to death because of (Adam’s one) sin but you have the guarantee of immortality because of (Christ’s one act of) righteousness.
11. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is dwelling in you, he who raised Messiah from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through his Spirit who dwells in you.
12. Therefore, brothers, we are debtors, but not to the mortal body, to live in accordance with it’s inclinations.
13. For if you are living by the inclinations of the mortal body you are certainly dying, but if in the hope of immortality you are putting to death the activities of the body you will live (in immortality),

14. For all those who are actuated by the Spirit, the guarantee of immortality, these are the sons of God.
15. For you did not receive a dominating frame of mind of slavery again to fear (of death) but you received the mindset of adoption, by which we cry “Abba Father”.
16. The fact that we have the Spirit itself, the very guarantee of immortality, confirms the testimony of our mind that we are God’s children.
17. Now if we are children then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Messiah, if indeed we share in his sufferings so that we may also be glorified with him (in immortality).

Now you may be wondering why I interpreted most of the references to the spirit as the hope or guarantee of immortality. This is because in Paul’s thinking about the spirit, a central proponent is that the spirit is given to believers as a down payment on their inheritance. Paul expresses this idea three times in his letters – 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5 and Eph. 1:13-14. The word he uses in these passages is arrabon (Str. Gr. #728) which speaks of earnest money given as a pledge that the remainder will be paid. In all three passages, the spirit, which God gives believers, is said to be such a pledge. Eph. 1 :13-14 specifically refers it to a pledge of our inheritance. 2 Cor. 5:5 is most pertinent in that it relates the spirit as a pledge or guarantee of immortality:

For while we are in this tent (i.e. the mortal body) we groan and are burdened because we do not wish to take it off but to put on over it (immortality), so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very thing is God, who gave to us the down payment of the spirit.

2 Cor. 5:4-5

A number of English versions translate arrabon in this verse as a guarantee3. Though Paul does not use the word arrabon in Romans 8 he does speak of the spirit as the firstfruit in v. 23, which may be denoting the same concept of a down payment with the promise of more to come. Other passages which associate the hope of believers with the holy spirit are Rom. 5:5; 15:13; Titus 3:5-7; Gal. 5:5 and 1 Cor. 2:7-10.

Now those who are without the guarantee of immortality as a living hope {see 1 Pet. 1:3} can be said to be in the flesh, because they live their lives obsessed with seeking as much happiness and pleasure while they can. Knowing that they are destined to soon die they set their minds on fulfilling the dictates of their mortality. Paul makes the connection between no expectation of immortality and the wanton pursuit of bodily inclinations clear in 1 Cor. 15:32:

“. . . If the dead are not raised let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”

If there is no resurrection and hence no immortal existence, then the most reasonable thing a person could do in this brief life is pursue the maximum pleasure and happiness he can. In contrast to this Paul speaks of “those who by patient endurance in doing good are seeking (from God) glory, honor and immortality ” {Rom. 2:7}.

The Believers Hope

It is also significant that Paul continues on in Rom. 8:18-25 focusing on the believers attitude of expectant waiting for this guaranteed immortality, which he calls “the redemption of our body.” This he says is the hope of believers. In the English language we often use the verb hope to express a wish for some good outcome but with uncertainty as to it’s actual fulfillment. But we should not think like this when we encounter the word hope in the scriptures. In the NT the noun hope (Gr. elpis Str. #1680) carries the idea of a confident expectation of some promised good. Implicit in this concept of hope is the idea of patient waiting. This implies that we do not yet have, in actual experience, the thing for which we hope, and hence we are waiting for it, confidently expecting it’s fulfillment {vv. 24-25}. Paul says, “For in hope we were saved,” by which he means that when we were first saved i.e. when we repented and turned to the Lord and received the forgiveness of sins and were given the spirit, this was not the end-all but only the beginning, the entry point of our salvation. We were saved with the expectation of becoming like the Lord Jesus in his glorified humanity {v. 18, 29-30; 1 Cor. 15:49}. This is the destiny of all who are in Messiah.

The importance of this hope in relation to the believers victory over sin should not be underestimated. The author of Hebrews tells us that this hope is meant to be an anchor to keep us from going adrift {6:19} and exhorts the believers to maintain this hope as necessary to enduring to the end {3:6-14; 10:23}. In 12:1-4 he shows how the ability to endure and not grow weary is linked to “the joy set before [us]” as seen in the supreme example of our forerunner, Jesus, and relates this to our struggle against sin. John declares that everyone holding this hope of being like Jesus in his immortality purifies himself, apparently of necessity {1 Jn. 3:1-3; also cf. 2 Cor. 7:1}. Peter exhorts believers to “set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” and immediately connects this to living obedient lives before God {1 Pet. 1:13-14}. Hence, when a person has this expectation of immortality as a living hope within him it cannot help but have a profound effect upon his behavior in this present age.

Conclusion

This study is by no means an exhaustive treatment of the subject but is only meant to be a conversation starter. I am not dogmatic about everything in this article. I am firm in my opinion that the Augustinian view of original sin is a myth, and the view presented here, which I call the Inherited Mortality view, I now hold tentatively. I am open to making adjustments to this view where needed and value any constructive feedback. I may possibly do a follow-up article in which I examine the proof-texts for the Augustinian view, which is basically the Reformed view, and show the tenuous support they provide for that doctrine.

Endnotes

  1. By ‘natural death’ I mean death by natural causes, such as disease or old age. This would be in distinction to death caused by the hand of another, either justly or unjustly; to accidental death; to death caused directly by God as judgment for some specific sin. All people will die a natural death unless they die first by one of these other ways.
  2. Prolepsis is a rhetoric devise where a future certainty is spoken of as an already accomplished reality. Another example of prolepsis involving the certainty of death is Gen 20:3 where God says to Abimelech, “Behold dead man, on account of the woman you have taken, for she is married to a husband.” God calls him a “dead man” at first, then later, in v. 7, explains, “But if you do not restore her know that surely you will die . . .” The phrase “surely you will die ” is the exact Hebrew phrase found at Gen 2:17. The prolepsis was used in v. 3 to stress the certainty of death if Abimelech continued on his present course. Other cases of the proleptic use of death are Rom. 4:19; 8:10; Heb. 11:12.
  3. NLT, NIV, ESV, ISV, NRSV, ERV, EXB, MEV, NCV, NTE.

Who Is God According To The Authors Of The NT?

In modern Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, it is simply assumed, on the basis of tradition, that Jesus is God, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But the NT writings are replete with statements that clearly identify who God is in the mind of their authors. The testimony of these men is truly unanimous and unambiguous in this regard and one wonders how confusion about who God is ever caught hold among those who claim to be lovers of the scriptures. In this article I will take us through the NT affirmations about God which patently demonstrate that the authors of these writings identify God as the Father. I will do this by grouping these affirmations into three categories, so passages which are similar in wording will be grouped together.

Passages In Which The Father Is Said To Be Jesus’ God

Rom. 15:6 – “. . . so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Cor. 1:3 – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.”

2 Cor. 11:31 – “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.”

Eph. 1:3 – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.”

Eph. 1:17 – “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.”

1 Pet. 1:3 – “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope . . . “

Rev. 1:5-6 – “Jesus Christ . . . who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever.”

One last passage I want to present establishes the truth that the God of believers must be, and indeed is, the same God as that of our Lord Jesus:

John 20:17 – “Jesus said . . . Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The implication of these passages is clear – the Father is said to be the God of our Lord Jesus. Now to be the God of someone else means that you are superior to the one whose God you are, and to have a God is to be inferior to and subservient to that one. That the NT writers believed that Jesus had a God, the Father, shows that they regarded him as lesser than and in subjection to this God.

But who did these authors think their God was? As we see in John 20:17, Jesus himself thought that the Father was not only his God but also the God of his disciples. Did they agree with his assessment? Let’s see.

Passages Which Equate God With The Father And Distinguish Between God And Jesus

In all of the apostle Paul’s letters he included a benediction at the beginning. This benediction is basically the same in all of his letters with only minor differences. They take three forms:

  • “Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus the Messiah.”  Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2b; 1 Thess.1c; 2 Thess. 1:2; Philemon 1:3
  • Grace, mercy and peace from God, the Father, and Messiah Jesus our Lord.” 1 Tim.1:2b; 2 Tim.1:2b
  • “Grace and peace from God, the Father, and Messiah Jesus our savior.” Titus 1:4b

Basic reading comprehension skills enable us to understand that Paul is speaking of two distinct individuals in these benedictions. The Trinitarian says, “Yes, God the Father and God the Son.” But none of these texts say such a thing as that; one must presuppose that in order to see it there. Again, if we employ basic reading comprehension skills it is clear that the distinction is not between Father and Son, persons within God, but between one who is called God and one who is called Lord and Messiah. The Trinitarian cannot just read the phrase ‘God our Father’ or ‘God the Father’ as Paul’s way of identifying the first person of the Trinity, for that would clearly be a blatant anachronism as well as eisegesis. What Paul intends by these phrases is apparent to any unbiased reader; his meaning is ‘God, who is our Father’ or ‘God, who is the Father.’ Or we could say that the sense of the words is ‘God, i.e. our (or the) Father’. In other words, by saying this Paul is identifying who God (i.e. the one true God, Yahweh) is — the Father. And in distinction to this God, Paul presents one who is ‘Lord’, i.e. the Messiah Jesus. By the way, as a side note, Trinitarianism teaches that the three persons within God are co-eternal, co-equal, and worthy of the same honor and worship. So why is the Holy Spirit never once included in Paul’s benedictions?

Here are other statements by Paul that fall into this category:

1 Cor. 15:24 – “Then the end will come, when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to the God and Father . . .”

Gal. 1:1 – “Paul, an apostle, sent not from men nor by any man, except by Jesus Christ and by God, the Father, who raised him from the dead.”

Eph. 5:20 – “Always giving thanks to the God and Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Eph. 6:23 – “Peace to the brothers, and love with faith from God, the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Phil. 2:11 – “. . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God, the Father.”

Col. 1:3 – “We always give thanks to the God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”

This is one of the most explicit statements from Paul showing that he thought that the God is the Father of our Lord Jesus, hence he did not think of Jesus as the God.

Col. 3:17 – “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God, the Father, through him.”

1 Thess. 1:1 – “Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God, the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ . . .”

2 Thess. 1:1b – “To the church of the Thessalonians in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Thess. 2:16 – “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and the God, our Father, who loved us . . .”

In all of these passages Paul identifies God as the Father and distinguishes between God and Jesus.

The apostle Peter also apparently thought the same thing as Paul regarding who God is:

1 Peter 1:2 – “. . . according to the foreknowledge of God, the Father, in the sanctification of the spirit, unto obedience and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”

2 Pet. 1:17 – “For he (Jesus) received honor and glory from God, the Father, when the voice came to him from the majestic glory . . .”

Again, we note that Peter makes a distinction between one whom he calls God, i.e. the Father, and one whom he calls Jesus Christ. Remember that when these apostles said “God the Father” they did not mean ‘God the Father’ as distinct from ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit’, for such distinctions did not exist at the time of their writing. We only begin to see these kinds of distinctions within the Godhead being made in the late 4th century. The NT writings know nothing of a ‘God the Son’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit’ simply because such designations did not exist at that time. Peter’s meaning is apparent – “God the Father” means “God, who is the Father.”

The author of 2 John expresses the same sentiment:

2 Jn. 1:3 – “Grace, mercy and peace from God, the Father, and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s son . . .”

We note, once again, the distinction made between God, who, according to the author, is the Father, and Jesus Christ. As I stated above this cannot simply be taken as a reference to the ‘trinitarian’ Father for that would be an anachronism.

Jude also agrees:

Jude 1:1 – “To those who have been called, loved in God, the Father, and kept in Jesus Christ.”

Passages Which State That The God Of Believers Is The Father

John 20:17 – “Jesus said . . . Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

1 Cor. 8:6 – “Yet for us (i.e. believers) there is but one God, the Father . . .”

Gal. 1:4-5 – [Jesus Christ] who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Phil. 4:20 – “To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever, Amen.”

1 Thess. 1:3 – “We constantly remember before our God and Father . . .”

1 Thess. 3:11, 13- “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you . . . May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”

We note in these verses that not only does Paul equate the Father with “our God” but he clearly distinguishes between our God, who he thinks is the Father, and Jesus Christ. Indeed, Jesus is never once referred to by Paul as our God.

Miscellaneous Affirmations That God Is The Father

Eph. 4:5-6 – “. . .one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Here Paul lists a number of ‘ones’ starting in v. 4. In v. 5 he lists “one Lord” which is manifestly referring to Jesus. In v. 6 he affirms that there is one God and equates that one God with the Father. So we have in this passage an unmistakable attestation that the one God is the Father and also a clear distinction between the one God and Jesus.

2 Thess. 1:11-12 – “. . . we constantly pray for you that our God may count you worthy of his calling . . . We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Here Paul twice refers to “our God” i.e. the God of Paul and those to whom he was writing. Paul does not here identify the Father as our God, but he has already equated God with the Father in vv. 1-2, and here he distinguishes “our God” from “the Lord Jesus Christ.” In Paul’s mind “our God” and “the Lord Jesus Christ” are two distinct beings. Who would a Trinitarian say that Paul is referring to here when he says “our God”? If he says it refers to the Trinity then Paul would be saying in v. 12 “. . . according to the grace of our Triune God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” But this would be quite odd seeing that, according to orthodoxy, Jesus is a member of the Triune God. So then trinitarians are forced to admit that “our God” here refers to the Father only.

Heb. 1:5 – “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’? Or again, ‘I will be his Father, and he will be my Son’? “

We note that in the mind of the author of Hebrews God = the Father and the son is distinguished from God.

James 1:1 – “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

James, the brother of Jesus, makes a clear distinction here between God and Jesus Christ. While he does not in this verse identify God as the Father, he does so in v. 27.

James 1:27 – ” Pure and undefiled religion before the God and Father is this . . .”

James here equates the God with the Father, showing that in his thinking ‘the God’ just is the Father.

So based on this survey of the NT we see that there is a consistent and uniform understanding of God among the authors of the NT – they think God and the Father just are the same being, whereas they unmistakably distinguish between our God and our Lord Jesus Christ. With these men there is no ambiguity or confusion. For them God = the Father and the Father = God.

But What About . . . ?

I know that any orthodox trinitarian reading this article will now say, “But what about this verse and this verse and this verse?” They will then present a number of passages in which they think Jesus is being equated with God. These passages fall into two categories: 1. passages in which it appears that the term God (Gr. theos) is being predicated of Jesus 2. passages which seem to imply that Jesus might be something more than a mere human being. Since I have given answers to most of the verses which fall under category 2 in other articles on this blog, I will focus attention on category 1 (though I have answered some of these as well).

There are nine strong candidates in the New Testament for verses that seem to apply the term God (Gr. theos) to Jesus – Jn. 1:1; 1:18; 20:28; Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8-9; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 Jn. 5:20. Murray J Harris has written a definitive work on these verses titled Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (1992). In this book he examines each of these passages and then gives his conclusions for each. Of the nine passages he concludes that four are certainly applying theos to Jesus: John 1:1; 1:18; 20:28; 2 Pet. 1:1. Of the remaining five he concludes three are likely or probably, but not beyond doubt, applying theos to Jesus: Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8-9. The last two, Acts 20:28 and 1 Jn. 5:20, he concludes are unlikely to be referring to Jesus as theos. Therefore, he presents seven passages which he believes attribute the title God to Jesus, but only four of the seven with certainty. Harris also examined 7 ‘secondary passages’ – Matt. 1:23; Jn. 17:3; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:5; Col. 2:2; 2 Thess. 1:12; 1 Tim. 3:16. He concluded that each of these secondary passages did not apply theos to Jesus.

At the Evangelical Theological Society’s southwestern regional meeting in 2007, Brian James Wright presented a paper titled Jesus as Theos: Scriptural Fact or Scribal Fantasy? Wright deals specifically with the textual certainty of passages in the manuscripts in which Jesus is called theos. In his conclusion he listed 17 passages (one more than Harris – Jude 4) which appear to apply the word theos to Jesus and rated them. Here are his conclusions:
2 Thess. 1:12; 1 Tim. 3:16; Jude 4 – Do not apply theos to Jesus
Matt. 1:23; Jn. 17:3; Acts 20:28; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:5; Col. 2:2; 1 Jn. 5:20 – Dubious
Jn. 1:18; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1 – Highly probable (but still possible to interpret another way)
Jn. 1:1; Jn. 20:28; Titus 2:13 – Certain

It is instructive to see what Harris and Wright were in agreement on and what they differed on. They agreed on nine passages (ten for Wright) as being ruled out as attestations to Jesus being called theos. Two of Harris’ “certain” passages are labeled by Wright as “highly probable”, while one of Wright’s “certain” passages is labeled “probable” by Harris. This leaves two passages on which they agree are certainly calling Jesus theos – John 1:1 and 20:28. What this shows is that not all trinitarian Christians agree as to what passages are definitely equating Jesus with God. This fact is also seen in that some of the ten passages that Wright and Harris discount as equating Jesus with God are regularly used by popular apologists as proof-texts for the deity of Christ. There is also some disagreement between them on which passages are probably calling Jesus God.

The problem is that for a number of these passages there are variants in the manuscripts (e.g. Jn. 1:18), so that one reading may be more favorable than another in applying the term theos to Jesus. Other of these passages are ambiguous regarding the grammar, with multiple ways to translate them (e.g. Rom. 9:5). I appreciate Wright’s and Harris’ honesty in admitting that their probable passages are open to other interpretations due to this ambiguity. Finally, there are passages in which the text is certain and the grammar is clear, but other considerations may militate against interpreting them as calling Jesus God, i.e. in an ontological sense (e.g. Heb. 1:8).

Regarding these passages which may or may not be equating Jesus with God (and this goes for passages which seem to imply that Jesus may be more than a mere human), let me first say, that in light of the preponderance of the evidence in favor of the authors of the NT equating the Father with God and distinguishing Jesus from God, and in light of the fact that Jesus is explicitly presented as a human person in the NT, the burden falls upon those who think that these passages are equating Jesus with God to prove their position beyond doubt. Since biblical unitarian Christians have been able to provide viable alternative interpretations to these passages that keep them consistent with the overall and dominant NT theme of God = the Father, the question of the true nature and identity of Jesus is far from settled, despite dogmatic pronouncements from church councils of the past.

Both Harris and Wright acknowledge that theos in the NT is typically reserved for the Father. Wright does so with this curt statement:

“No one contests that the NT usually reserves the title Theos for God the Father.”

Wright’s statement would have been more accurate and less theologically biased had he said, “No one contests that the NT usually reserves the title Theos for the Father.” Wright’s presupposition of trinitarianism shows itself in that he makes it sound as though, of the three persons of the trinity, it is typically God the Father who is given the title Theos, not God the Son or God the Holy Spirit.

Harris is able to devote more attention to this matter than Wright and does so with 21 pages in chapter 1 of his book. In that section he cites many of the passages presented in the first part of this article. Here is his conclusion regarding the NT use of theos:

“No attempt has been made in the preceding survey to be exhaustive. But
we have seen that throughout the NT [(the) God] is so often associated with and yet differentiated from [lord Jesus Christ] that the reader is forced to assume that there must be both a hypostatic distinction and an interpersonal relationship between the two . . . God is the Father (in the trinitarian sense), Jesus is the Lord (1 Cor. 8:6). When [(the) God] is used, we are to assume that the NT writers have [the Father] in mind unless the context makes this sense of [(the) God] impossible.”

pg 47 (the words in brackets are in Greek characters in the original)

Like Wright, Harris reveals his trinitarian presupposition by saying, “God is the Father (in the trinitarian sense), Jesus is the Lord.” But this is anachronistic, for in the NT there is never a distinction made between ‘God the Father’ and ‘God the Son’ in the trinitarian sense, but only between God, who is the Father, and Jesus who is the son, the lord, the Messiah. So while Harris acknowledges the distinction between God our Father and Jesus our Lord, he sees this only as a mere distinction within the Trinity, not a distinction of two personal beings. But this concept is not derived from the texts themselves but is only an interpretation of what the texts actually say. These texts are more readily interpreted as God = the Father and the Father = God, and Jesus Christ is a being distinct from God. And in light of this overwhelming evidence of the NT authors equating God with the Father, the few texts which seem to be equating Jesus with God need to interpreted in a way that is congruous with this dominant theme.

John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word (Gr. logos), and the word was with God, and the word was God.”

Harris devotes 20 pages to this verse, carefully examining the grammar of each clause. His analysis seems impressive but it suffers from the fact that throughout, his presupposition of creedal orthodoxy is evident. He simply assumes the traditional interpretation and so it is no surprise that he lands squarely on that tradition in his conclusion. But has he really proven his case beyond doubt? Not even close. He dismisses out of hand other viable alternative interpretations of the ‘Logos’. On pp. 54-55 he acknowledges John’s “Logos concept is informed principally by the OT teaching concerning ‘the word of the Lord’ as God’s agent in creation, revelation and salvation.” But then he never delves into the significance of this. I agree that the best way to understand the ‘logos’ in Jn 1:1 is from the Hebrew Bible’s concept of God’s word, especially as God’s personified agent, as in Is. 55:11. In that passage God’s word is presented as an agent sent out by God to accomplish some specific purpose which God has in mind. All of the elements of agency are present in this verse – the sending of the agent, the agent’s accomplishing the will of the sender, and the return of the agent to the sender. Could John be presenting the ‘logos’ in a similar way i.e. as a personified agent sent out into the world to set the stage for God’s greatest act – the salvation of man? I don’t see why not. Harris even provides a quote from J. D. G. Dunn which agrees with this view:

More recently J.D.G. Dunn has expressed similar views: Until verse 14 “we are still dealing with the Wisdom and Logos figure of pre-Christian Judaism, that is, not as a personal being, but as the wise utterance of God personified” (Christology 242). But verse 14 may well mark “the transition from impersonal personification to actual person” (Christology 243).

pg.58

Of course, the traditional interpretation inherited from early Gentile so-called church fathers is that the ‘logos’ of John 1:1 is God the Son in his pre-incarnate state. But actually this is not derived necessarily from the text. The logos theorists, beginning in the middle of the 2nd century, were the first to promote this idea, and they drew on their education in various Greek philosophies, in which the concept of ‘the Logos’ held a prominent place. It was easy for these men to transfer the Logos concept they had learned in the Greek schools to John’s use of the same word in 1:1. But if John was drawing his concept of ‘logos’ from the Hebrew Bible, as most scholars now believe, then the church fathers were simply wrong to interpret John according to the Greek concept of logos. Again, this was easy for them to do, not only because the Greek concept is what they knew best, but also because by the end of the first century many Gentile converts were already beginning to view Jesus as more than or other than an ordinary human being.1 The idea of Jesus having pre-existed as the ‘Logos’ then developed further into the belief that this Logos, which God emanated out of himself, was of the same substance as God. This then further developed into the Logos being eternal, which eventually led to the concept of the Trinity in the late 4th century, which was then dogmatized and set in stone in the creeds. All dissent was then squelched by imperial force. Hence Christians today have inherited this tradition along with it’s traditional interpretation of John 1:1, and most never question it. However, in the 20th century, there was a shift within Johannine scholarship, which formerly had embraced the idea that John’s ‘logos’ was derived from the Greek concept, to view John’s ‘logos’ as derived squarely from the Hebrew Bible. This shift has led to renewed debate as to John’s true meaning.

Both Harris and Wright concluded that John 1:1 is a NT passage in which the term God is certainly being applied to Jesus. But it is important to see that their conclusion is based on their own commitment to the tradition rather than on the text itself. It is the tradition, which was based on Greek concepts, that informs them that the ‘logos’ in v. 1 is equivalent to Jesus Christ, rather than being a personification of God’s expressed purpose, which is a thoroughly Hebraic concept. So I ask you this – why should we interpret this passage in a way that sets it in opposition to the prominent NT theme that God = the Father and the Father = God, which we saw is the overwhelming testimony of the NT authors. Why not interpret this passage in a way that keeps it consistent, not only with the uniform testimony of the NT authors, but also with the Hebrew scriptures.

I have proposed an interpretation of the prologue of John’s gospel which does just that, which can be read here.

John 20:28 – “Thomas responded to [Jesus], ‘My Lord and my God!'”

Harris dedicates 24 pages to this verse, going through the grammar and all the possible ways Thomas’ words could be understood, and he concludes that the best way to take it is that Thomas’ exclamation is a “confessional invocation”. In other words, Thomas is declaring his personal faith in Jesus as his Lord and his God. Now it is no surprise that Harris lands on this interpretation because this is the traditional interpretation of the verse and Harris is committed to that tradition. One point he makes is that no one should be surprised that John would portray Thomas as confessing Jesus to be his God (i.e the God of Israel, Yahweh) because the term ‘God’ had already been applied to Jesus two other times, and that in the very beginning of the book, at 1:1 and 1:18. But this is a circular argument. Of course, Harris considers these two verses as ‘certain’ in applying theos to Jesus, but as we have seen, the matter is far from certain and the interpretation of 1:1 is largely dependent upon one’s presuppositions. As for 1:18, Wright puts it in the category of ‘highly probable’ (but still possible to interpret another way). Therefore to use these two passages as confirmation that at 20:28 theos is being applied to Jesus amounts to circular reasoning.

Though Harris offers many convincing arguments to bolster his conclusion, he never deals with the glaring evidence that is against it. Basically, what Harris wants us to believe is that upon seeing Jesus alive, after his crucifixion, Thomas comes to believe that Jesus is his God, though he had doubted this before seeing Jesus alive. Harris thinks this is what John intends the reader to deduce from the whole pericope involving Thomas (20:24-29). Let me state emphatically – this is pure fiction, and I will now present a number of objections to it. First, this scenario requires us to think that what Thomas was doubting, prior to seeing the risen Jesus, is that Jesus is the God of Israel. But no where in the pericope is any such notion found. We do not read that the other disciples who had seen Jesus alive came to believe he was their God and that they tried to convince Thomas of this fact. The pericope is rather straightforward. The disciples, minus Thomas, see the risen Jesus. They tell Thomas that they have seen him and that he is alive. Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus is alive. One week later Jesus appears to the disciples again with Thomas present. Thomas upon seeing Jesus comes to believe that he has indeed been raised from the dead. If v. 28 were excluded no one would doubt the scenario I just presented.

The correctness of this scenario is seen in the fact that in order for the pericope to hold together, what Thomas comes to believe in vv. 28-29 must be the same thing that he was refusing to believe in v. 25, which manifestly is that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In Harris’ scenario what Jesus says to Thomas would amount to this: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop doubting that I am God and believe.” And after Thomas’ exclamation: “Because you have seen me, you have believed I am God; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe that I am God.” But this creates a clear disconnect from vv.24-25 where what Thomas is doubting is clearly the fact that Jesus was risen from the dead, not that he is God.

Next, what Harris fails to deal with is why a first century Jew would conclude that a man whom he knew to be dead but was then found to be alive again, must be his God. Is this really something a faithful Jew would conclude? And he would have concluded this even though he had not thought of this man as his God prior to his death and resurrection, so that the main reason for coming to this conclusion is the resurrection itself. But how is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead a proof that he is God? Against this view is the fact that in all of the recorded mentions in the other NT writings (which by all accounts were written prior to John’s gospel) of Jesus being raised from the dead, there is not even a hint that this event implies an inherent divinity in Jesus, much less that it proves him to be the God of Israel.

In the book of Acts the resurrection of Jesus is the principal theme of the apostolic message and is mentioned some 16 times {1:3, 22; 2:24, 31, 32; 3:15; 4:2, 33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 34, 37; 17:3, 18, 31-32}, yet not once is it ever said to be a testimony to Jesus being God, nor is it recorded that anyone ever came to that conclusion. Not only this, but in most of these passages it is stated that God raised Jesus from the dead, clearly making God distinct from Jesus. Of particular note are 3:15 and 17:31. In the 3:15 passage it states, “You killed the pioneer of life, but God raised him from the dead.” But who is this God who raised Jesus? Verse 13 tells us – “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This is how any Jew in the first century would designate who his God is. No doubt that when Thomas spoke of “my God” he could only mean “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” But here this God is distinguished from Jesus in the clearest terms – Jesus is the servant of the God of Thomas. In the 17:31 passage Paul speaks of God having appointed a particular man through whom He will judge the world and that God has given assurance of this by raising this man from the dead. At once we note a clear distinction between this God and the man whom he appointed and raised from the dead. And who is this God who appointed and raised up this man? Verse 24 reveals his identity – he is “the God who made the world and everything in it . . . the Lord of heaven and earth.” Again, this is who any Jew, and so presumably Thomas, would have declared to be his God. Yet Paul speaks of this God and of the man whom He appointed as two distinct entities. If Paul truly believed that Jesus was in fact the God who made the world, based on the fact of the resurrection, why did he mislead his Gentile hearers by drawing a clear distinction between this man and the God who appointed him and raised him from the dead?

Furthermore, when we look into the epistles we find the same situation. There are many references to the resurrection of Jesus but never once is the resurrection pointed to as reason for believers to think of Jesus as their God {Rom. 1:42; 4:24-25; 5:10; 6:4, 8-10; 7:4; 8:11; 10:9; 14:9; 1 Cor. 15:4-8, 12-19, 20-23; 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:15; 13:4; Eph. 1:20; 2:6; Phil. 3:10; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 4:14; 2 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 1:3, 21; 3:18, 21}. In most of these passages we see, once again, that Jesus is distinguished from God, who raised him from the dead. The case is the same with the synoptic gospels – each one speaks of the resurrection of Jesus but there is no suggestion that this should lead anyone to the conclusion that Jesus is the God of Israel.

The immediate context of the passage is also against seeing Thomas’ exclamation as confessing Jesus as his God. In v. 17 of the same chapter the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and instructs her:

Go to my brothers (i.e. his disciples) and tell them, “I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

John 20:17

Thomas was, no doubt, to be included as a recipient of this message, clearly showing that from Jesus’ own perspective, the God of Thomas was the Father. The fact that Jesus did not correct Thomas upon his supposed confession of Jesus as his God proves that this is not the import of Thomas’ words.

Another objection that can be raised from the immediate context is that three verses after John records Thomas’ exclamation he tells us the reason he wrote his book – “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In Harris’ scenario John leads his readers to the pinnacle of Thomas’ confession of faith in Jesus as his God and then three verses later {v. 31} he demotes Jesus from being the God to being the Messiah, the son of the God. To be sure everyone understands what John was saying he places the titles Christ (i.e. Messiah) and son of God in apposition to each other. Still further, when we look at chapter 21 of John we see the disciples’ interaction with the risen Jesus, but there is nothing in their intercourse with him that tells us they believed him to be the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator of the heavens and the earth. Is this the way men would act if they truly believed their God was standing in front of them in the form of a man?

So if Thomas’ exclamation is not to be regarded as a confession of Jesus as God, based on the above objections and on the uniform testimony of the authors of the NT writings that God = the Father and the Father = God, as proved in the first part of this article, how should we understand it. Unitarians believers have, over time, offered various explanations of the statement of Thomas which seek to reconcile it with the overwhelming biblical evidence that Jesus is a distinct being from the God.3 My former preferred way of interpreting the passage was to view Thomas’ exclamation as simply one of surprise and shock, much like someone might utter “O my God!” when they encounter something which is incredible or awe-inspiring. The main objection to this explanation is that the text says, ” And Thomas said to him which would imply that he said the words to Jesus, whereas such exclamations of surprise and shock are not uttered to anyone in particular. This objection, in my opinion does not negate this explanation, for it could be understood in this sense, “And Thomas responded to him” i.e. Thomas’ verbal response upon seeing Jesus alive was to make this exclamation. It is argued that if it was John’s intention for his readers to understand Thomas’ words in this way he could have said it better than this. That may be so, but Greek was probably not John’s first language and we shouldn’t expect that he wrote perfectly according to the rules of Greek grammar. It can be said of most people who might write something in a second or even third language that they could have worded something better than they did in order to express what it was they were trying to express. In any case, this is no longer my preferred explanation of the passage.

How could Thomas’ exclamation be understood so that he is giving an answer to Jesus’ exhortation to “stop doubting and believe” and that keeps Jesus’ response “because you have seen me you have believed” consistent with the fact that Thomas was doubting the resurrection of Jesus and not that Jesus was God. I think a workable explanation is to take Thomas’ exclamation as an oath, i.e. he is swearing to Jesus that he does now believe by invoking his Lord and his God i.e. Yahweh. This idea came to me when I came across a passage in 1 Samuel where Jonathan swears to David that he will do a certain thing for David. In the NIV the passage reads:

“Then Jonathan said to David, ‘I swear by Yahweh, the God of Israel . . .’ ”

1 Sam. 20:12

But this is not how the actual Hebrew text reads. The NIV has added the words “I swear by” which are not in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew literally reads:

“Then Jonathan said to David, ‘ Yahweh, the God of Israel . . .’ “

1 Sam. 20:12

What it appears that Jonathan is doing is invoking Yahweh as a witness that what he is about to promise David he will certainly do. This is confirmed later in the pericope when in v. 23 Jonathan says: “As for this matter of which you and I have spoken, Yahweh [be] between you and me for ever.” The NIV reads, “the LORD is witness between you and me forever.” Again we see that the words ‘is witness’ are added by the translators to give the sense of the Hebrew. Jonathan wants David to know that he can be trusted to do what he has promised to do for him and he does this by invoking the name of Yahweh. Now let’s look at the two passages together:

1 Sam 20:12 – “Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Yahweh, the God of Israel . . .’ “

John 20:28 – “And Thomas said to [Jesus], ‘The Lord of me and the God of me.'”

The similarity between the two passages is quite striking. Both involve one person saying something to another person. And both include an invocation of God. Now no one takes the first passage as Jonathan confessing David to be Yahweh, the God of Israel, but this is how all trinitarian apologists view the second passage, i.e. as Thomas confessing Jesus to be his God. But why can we not understand John 20:28 the same way our English versions understand the Hebrew text of 1 Sam. 20:12, i.e. as invoking God as a witness. Thomas’ words would then be understood like this: “By my Lord and my God, I do believe.” Now let’s look at the fuller context from this perspective:

Then [Jesus] said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe (that I am risen from the dead).” And Thomas said to him, “( by) my Lord and my God (I do believe).” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me (alive) you have believed.”

John 20:227-29

Now the obvious objection to this will be that words have to be added to Thomas’ exclamation in order to maintain this view. True, but this is also the case with the 1 Sam. 20:12 passage, where all English versions add some words in order to clarify the meaning. And in a sense even the traditional interpretation of John 20:28 must add words to maintain it’s meaning (You are my Lord and my God). Apparently it was not necessary for a Jew, when wanting to confirm to a fellow Jew the truth of a matter with an oath, to have to always say the words “I swear by”, but simply uttering the name or some title of God was sufficient and would have been understood by the parties involved as invoking God as a witness. In this view, the flow of the passage, as seen in the previous citation, is much more consonant with the overall theme of the pericope i.e. the refusal of Thomas to believe the testimony of the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. This view of the passage also keeps it consistent with the uniform attestation of the NT authors that Jesus is someone distinct from their God, whom they identify as the Father.

So then we see that the two passages agreed upon by Harris and Wright as certainly attributing the title God to Jesus are far from conclusive in that regard. I have only dealt with these two passages because they are the only two they both agreed on, but the same could be said of the other verses that they each deemed as certain, as well as those they deemed as probable. Therefore, the case for the NT explicitly referring to Jesus as God is extremely weak, especially when seen in light of the evidence presented in the first part of this article.

Endnotes
  1. The so-called Gnostic Christians were the first to view Jesus as of heavenly origin, as something other than a human. They were also the first to equate the ‘Logos’ of the Greek philosophical schools with ‘the Christ’. Hence, the titles ‘Christ’ and ‘son of God’ were divested of their Hebraic meaning, namely, the anointed king from David’s line who would rule over God’s kingdom on God’s behalf, and took on the connotation of a spirit being who came to earth.
  2. Many mistakenly think that Rom. 1:4 is saying that Jesus was shown to be divine by his resurrection from the dead. But this is to totally miss Paul’s point and to engage in eisegesis. What Paul is saying in this passage is that first, Jesus is a lineal descendant of David. The import of the phrase “according to the flesh” is according to natural descent, hence Jesus was by natural descent of the seed of David. This was an anticipated qualification for the promised Messiah, because the coming Messiah would be ruler over God’s kingdom and this privilege was given only to David and his descendants {see 2 Chron. 13:5,8; Ps. 89:20-37}. Second, he points out that this specific descendant of David was “marked out” or “determined” (Gr. horizo, Str. G3724) to be the chosen one, out of all of the other descendants of David that were then living. While only descendants of David would rule God’s kingdom, not any descendant could, but only the one chosen or “marked out” by God {see 1 Chron. 28:4-7}; this chosen one became the “son of God”. Jesus was so “marked out” as the chosen one by virtue of “a spirit of sanctification” i.e. being set-apart from all other descendants of David, by his resurrection from the dead.
  3. For another well-reasoned alternative interpretation of Jn. 20:28, from a unitarian perspective, see this article or listen to this podcast.


The Beatitudes: A Hebraic Perspective

Too often in studies on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, many present Jesus as the founder of the new Christian religion, teaching his followers, the first converts to this new religion, the tenets of this new religion. But this is a rather anachronistic approach to the material. It is understandable that pastors and Bible teachers would want to read back into Jesus’ teachings the many ideas and traditions that have grown up over the centuries around the Christ event. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the cultural context of Jesus’ ministry and his words. What happens is that we end up putting meanings upon Jesus’ words that he never intended and that the original hearers would never have understood to be his meaning. These wrong ideas about the meaning of Jesus’ words become entrenched and continue to get passed down from generation to generation. For example, Jesus said much about the kingdom of God, and many Christians think they know what that means. What they don’t realize is that what they think it means is probably something that has come down as tradition from church fathers who lived hundreds of years after Jesus and who were ignorant of the cultural context. These misunderstandings of the meaning of Jesus’ words become the norm and give us a false sense that we have a good handle on Jesus’ teachings. But in order to get back to the original meaning of what he taught we must endeavor to understand his teachings from within the cultural context they were given. We must ask ourselves, when studying Jesus’ teachings, “What would the first century Israelites who heard him speak have understood him to be saying.”

Cultural Context

A key to understanding the context of Jesus’ teaching is found in Matt. 15:24: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Jesus said this in response to a Gentile woman’s request for him to heal her daughter. Now, of course, this does not mean that God doesn’t care about Gentiles, for Jesus did grant the women’s request, but that the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry was the Israelites, the most of whom had gone astray. In this regard Jesus was viewed by many as a prophet, in line with the Hebrew prophets of old {Matt. 13:57; 21:11, 46: Mk. 6:15; Lk. 4:24; 7:16; 13:33; 24:19; Jn. 4:19; 7:52; 9:17; Acts 3:22}. As a prophet, Jesus’ commission was to call the wayward ones in Israel to return to God {Lk. 5:32}.

But this was not the only role that Jesus performed in his ministry. Once a sinner within Israel repented and wanted to learn more of God’s ways, Jesus then took on the role of a rabbi, i.e. a teacher. At this point in history the designation ‘rabbi’ was an informal title denoting one who was a teacher of the things of God and who gathered to himself disciples. Pharisees and teachers of the law were sometimes called rabbi {Matt. 23:7}, as was John the baptizer {Jn. 3:26}. That Jesus was considered a rabbi by those who followed him is uncontroverted, for the gospel accounts give ample evidence of this {Matt. 26:25, 49; Mk. 9:4; 10:51; 11:21; 14:45; Jn. 1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:81}.2

In light of Jesus’ role as a Hebrew prophet and rabbi, it is incumbent on us to understand his teachings from the perspective of a Hebrew teacher instructing his fellow Jews in the things of God. As such Jesus’ main source of knowledge of God is the Hebrew scriptures, the Tanakh. We must divest ourselves of the notion that Jesus is the first Christian teacher of the new religion of Christianity, instructing newly converted Christians in this new faith. In fact, the religion of Christianity did not exist at the time Jesus was carrying out his ministry in the towns and villages of Galilee.

Another aspect of cultural context to consider is the mindset of the Israelites at this time in history. After the fall of the Davidic dynasty (and hence the Israelite kingdom) under Babylonian domination, God began to speak, through the prophets, of the coming of a king in David’s line under whom the kingdom would be restored. A remnant of Israel later returned to the land, but still under Gentile domination. This engendered a strong hope and longing for the restoration of their kingdom under this coming King, who had come to be designated as the Messiah. But as time went on and centuries passed without that hope being realized, expectation of the coming Messiah waned. By the time of the 1st century most Jews living in the land had abandoned this hope. This is evident by the way NT authors mention certain people who still had the hope alive in them; they stand out as special or unusual in this regard {Lk. 2:25-26; 38; 23:50-51}. John the baptizer was sent ahead of Jesus to call Israel to repentance, and to renew the expectation of the coming of Messiah, saying, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” All of this is the cultural milieu into which Jesus came and began his public ministry.

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-12

We will now seek to read this portion of Jesus’ teaching in light of the context of Jesus as a Hebrew rabbi and prophet, instructing his fellow Jews in the things of God, in particular, regarding the promised and longed for restoration of the kingdom.

What exactly are the beatitudes? What purpose do they serve? Remembering what was said above, we should first of all understand them as having specific and special relevance to the Jewish people. Jesus the rabbi is instructing his Jewish disciples about the kingdom of God. They are, therefore, not general principles for humanity or a recipe for how to live a ‘blessed’ life in this world. Neither are they the ‘new law’ of the Christian faith, since at this time no one had ever heard of Christianity, simply because it didn’t exist yet. I have come to see the beatitudes in a different way than I had for most of my Christian life. John had come and proclaimed that the kingdom was near, followed by Jesus who preached the same message.3 Many had and were turning back to God and many were drawn to Jesus, not simply because of the miracles he performed, but also because he was obviously from God and should therefore be listened to when he spoke about the things of God. Now Jesus is teaching them something about the kingdom that was near at hand.

Here is a brief overview of the beatitudes as a self contained unit. It appears that vv.3-10 comprise a literary devise known as an inclusio. Inclusio refers to a section of literature where similar language is used at the beginning and the end of the section, framing, as it were, the material between. In this self-contained unit, the first and the last beatitude both contain the phrase “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Another way to translate this phrase is “for of such belongs the kingdom” i.e. this is the kind of person who inherits the coming kingdom. Within the context, as noted, the meaning is “these are the ones from Abraham’s seed who will inherit the coming kingdom.” It was clear from the preaching of John and Jesus that not every individual descendant of Abraham would inherit the promises, but only those whose hearts were turned to and faithful to God. The beatitudes are a description of those who were such. So the first and last beatitude state the blessedness of such in general terms, i.e. the kingdom belongs to them, while the beatitudes which are sandwiched between them state the blessedness of the inheritors in more specific ways.

The word “blessed” begins each beatitude. The Greek word is makarios (Str. G3107) which corresponds to the Hebrew word esher (Str. H835). The words speak of happiness, but not simply as an emotion. It rather speaks of a lasting state of happiness, of the enviable state of the the one whom God favors. This favor is realized through specific blessings which God will bestow. In the beatitudes, the blessing in mind is a place or share in the coming kingdom age, and those who stand in position to inherit are indeed blessed. The pattern of the beatitudes is, first, the statement of a characteristic which is distinctive of an inheritor, now, in this age, followed by the promise of blessedness to be experienced in the kingdom age.

v. 3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, of such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

This being the first beatitude, it is reasonable to assume this is the chief characteristic of one who inherits the kingdom, so we want to know with certainty what Jesus meant by poor in spirit. The clue is in the phrase ‘in spirit’; so what exactly does that mean? ‘Spirit’ here refers not to some constituent part of man’s being but rather to a disposition of the heart or mind. It may be that when Jesus spoke these words he simply said, “Blessed are the poor” {see Lk. 6:20}, but Matthew gives the intended meaning of the words as “poor in spirit.” It is hard to reconcile, with all we know from scripture, that Jesus would be declaring a future blessedness upon those who are materially poor simply because they are so. Therefore, “poor in spirit” denotes a certain disposition of the heart. Since it is more probable than not that Jesus originally spoke these words in Hebrew, the corresponding Hebrew word for ‘poor’ would have been ani (Str. H6041), which can connote 1.) the materially poor i.e. those destitute of daily needs – Ex. 22:25; Deut. 15:11. 2.) the afflicted i.e. those burdened with troubles or with persecution from the powerful – Ps. 25:16-19; Ps. 70. 3.) the humble and lowly of heart i.e. those not too proud to acknowledge their dependence upon God – Ps. 18:27; Prov. 3:34; 16:19; Zech.9:9. We can rule out the first meaning because of what I said above and because we are looking for a disposition. I don’t think the second meaning applies to our verse since a later beatitude deals with those who are persecuted i.e. afflicted, and because, again, we are looking for a disposition of the heart. So then the third meaning is surely what Jesus intended his disciples to understand.

Poor in spirit then denotes the disposition of humility, the attitude of the heart that acknowledges it’s dependence upon God for everything, especially his mercy and goodness. The ones who are poor in spirit feel themselves utterly destitute without God and are not too proud to call upon God for help and salvation. Such as these know that if they are ever to obtain a place in the age to come it will only be by God’s mercy. It encompasses trust in God as well as obedience to his will, as Ps. 40 shows {see also Zeph. 3:12-13}. This sense of ani is used in parallel with the righteous as in Ps 37: 12-17 and Ps. 34: 6, 15-19. It is used also in contradistinction to the proud and arrogant, as in Ps. 18:27; Prov. 3:34; 16:19. Prov. 16:19 is significant in that it contains the synonymous phrase shaphal ruah i.e. a humble spirit (disposition), in parallel with ani {see also Is. 57:15}. Thus we can see why Jesus puts this first in the beatitudes, for without this disposition none of the other characteristics are even likely to develop.

v. 4 – “Blessed are the mourning ones for they will be comforted.”

This beatitude helps to demonstrate how the cultural context is important to rightly understanding Jesus’ meaning. Is Jesus referring to those who mourn for any reason, say perhaps over lost loved ones or over some great time of distress and pain? I don’t think so. Most commentators refer it to the sorrow one feels over his own sins, but this also, I believe, misses the real meaning of this beatitude within the 1st century Jewish context. It is not likely that that is what anyone hearing Jesus first speak these words would have thought. Rather the beatitude declares the blessedness of those among the Israelites who mourn over the sins of the nation and the consequent state of affairs to which that sin has brought it.

In the first century the Israelites were a people scattered among the nations, despised by the peoples they lived among. The descendants of those who had returned to the land under Persian rule were now languishing under the severe conditions of Roman rule. There was no descendant of David ruling over God’s people from Jerusalem, the city of God, which was in bondage to Rome along with her people. All of this was the direct result of the nation’s turning from God and breaking his covenant. The godly ones among the Israelites felt a deep sense of mourning over this state of affairs and, in fact, this mourning over Israel’s degraded condition was a hallmark of this godly remnant. Yahweh had planned a glorious destiny for the nation he had chosen and for the capital city, Jerusalem, the only place on earth where he placed his name forever. Yet at the time Jesus delivered this teaching, Israel was so far from her ideal destiny and as a result Yahweh’s name was not being glorified through his covenant people. This was a lamentable state of affairs for those who loved God and desired his glory. But as for the ungodly among them, they mourned solely because of there own personal misfortunes.

While this mourning may have specific relevance to Jewish believers, engrafted Gentile believers can and should participate in this mourning over Israel’s and Jerusalem’s present state and should long for the day when her destined glory will at last be realized, to the glory of Yahweh, under Messiah’s reign.

The prophet Isaiah, in ch. 66, a passage which Jesus may likely have had in mind at the time he gave this teaching, speaks of this mourning among those who “tremble at His word” and of the comfort that will be theirs in the kingdom age:

“Hear the word of Yahweh, you who tremble at his word . . . Rejoice with Jerusalem and exult in her, all who love her; rejoice greatly with her, all those mourning over her. For you will nurse and be satisfied at her comforting breasts; you will drink deeply and delight in her overflowing abundance . . . As a mother comforts her child so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted in Jerusalem.”

Is. 66:5a, 10-11, 13

The blessedness of those that mourn will be experienced in the comfort and overwhelming joy that will be theirs in the time of the restored kingdom. God spoke again, through Isaiah, concerning this comfort, “I have seen his (Israel) ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel” {Is. 57:18-19}.

v.5 – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

This statement by Jesus is drawn from Ps. 37:11 – “But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” The word ‘meek’ is one of those nebulous words that are difficult to define in short. It seems to be related to the idea of humility, but as the first beatitude already spoke about humility, I think we should define meekness differently. The Greek word is praus (Str. G4239); the Hebrew equivalent (used in Ps.37:11) is anav (Str. H6035), which is related to ani, which we studied earlier. Anav seems to have a similar semantic range as ani, and is translated as poor, afflicted, meek. The two words often refer to the same group of people, i.e. the righteous. Both words appear once each in Ps. 37, where they are set in opposition to the wicked, and we can glean some understanding of their meaning there. Anav seems to speak of the patient endurance of the evils and injustices of men, waiting for God to take vengeance in his own time. The following verses, in Ps. 37, leading up to v. 11, reflect this meaning:

v. 1 – “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do evil.”
v. 7 – “Be still before Yahweh and wait for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.”
vv. 8 -9 – “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who wait on Yahweh will inherit the land.”
vv. 10-11 – “For yet a little while and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.”

Other verses in the psalm speak of the day when the wicked will be no more: vv. 12-13, 17, 20, 22, 28b, 34c, 35-36, 38. This calls for meekness in the righteous and faithful ones.

The blessedness of the meek is that they will inherit the land, i.e. they will enjoy the fulness of God’s blessing in the very land promised to Abraham and his descendants in the age to come, and they will see the wicked cut off from this inheritance. Note how many times this is mentioned in Ps. 37 – vv. 9, 11, 18, 27, 29, 34.

v. 6 – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

This seems like a rather straightforward statement. The metaphor of “hunger[ing] and thirst[ing] for” something is a graphic way of expressing intense longing and desire, in this case, for righteousness. But righteousness is another one of those vague concepts whose precise meaning often eludes us. The most common interpretation of this beatitude, given by evangelical commentators, is that the righteousness spoken of here is either personal righteousness or the righteousness which is given as a gift or credited to individual believers in Jesus {see Rom. 4}. But again, we want to understand what the original hearers of this teaching would most likely have understood Jesus to mean. We cannot neglect the overarching focus of the beatitudes on the kingdom age and the blessedness to be experienced in that day.

Two reasons cause me to reject the idea that this is referring to either personal righteousness or the credited righteousness which believers receive. First, the definite article appears before the word righteousness in the Greek text, so the sense is “the righteousness.” This seems to point to some specific righteousness. Second, the being filled with this righteousness is the blessed state of those who inherit the kingdom, i.e. it is in the kingdom age that this being filled with the righteousness that is longed for now, in this age, is experienced. Since the righteousness which is credited to believers in Messiah is experienced now in this age, then this must be referring to some other righteousness, that specific righteousness longed for by the faithful ones among Israel. This righteousness speaks of when those in power do what is right and just for all of the people over whom they rule, creating a society where peace and security are the norm.

Isaiah spoke of the future coming Messiah and his kingdom in this way:

“He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and even to forever.”

“But with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will decide for the meek (Heb. anav) of the earth.”

“In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it, one from the house of David, one who in judging seeks justice and is skilled in righteousness.”

“See, a king will reign in righteousness . . .”

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations . . . In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice in the land. The coasts shall hope for his law.”

“Listen to me my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.”

Is. 9:7 – 11:4 – 16:5 – 32:1 – 42:1-4

The hallmark of the coming kingdom of Messiah will be widespread or universal righteousness and justice in the land. Israel, over it’s long history had been ruled by many kings who were wicked, and consequently unrighteousness and injustice in the land were often the rule rather than the exception. It was typically the righteous ones in the land who suffered injustices at the hands of the unrighteous who were in power. This situation and the promise of a future righteous king who would bring about a state of righteousness and justice in the land, fostered in the faithful ones in Israel a longing for that day. Here Jesus promises such that they will be satisfied in the coming age.

Now, of course, this has application for Gentile believers, for most governments in the world have been and are now ruled by the unrighteous, and in most nations, if not in all, injustice and unrighteousness in the government are the norm. Therefore, all true believers long for the time when this state of affairs is reversed, when the righteous rule with justice and the wicked are no more.

v. 7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”

The old saying “something was lost in translation” comes to mind when I think of this verse. The English seems simple enough, those who show mercy to others will be shown mercy. The Greek is straightforward enough also: makarioi (Blessed) hoi (the) eleēmones (merciful) hoti (because) autoi (they) eleēthēsontai (shall be shown mercy). The problem is, that in all likelihood, Jesus spoke these words in Hebrew; they were then translated into Greek by Matthew. But what would have been the most likely Hebrew word for mercy used by Jesus when speaking this beatitude? The word in the Hebrew Bible that is translated mostly by eleos (Str. G1656) in the LXX is hesed. But hesed (Str. H2617) is one of those words that gives translators fits. There is no adequate way to express it’s full meaning in just one word. But as many Hebrew scholars have pointed out eleos does not accurately or adequately translate hesed, and has narrowed the meaning of hesed. The meaning of hesed is best seen in it’s usage in the Hebrew Bible, but I cannot in this article take an in-depth look at this word, so we must settle for a brief survey.4

One of the best passages to show the meaning of hesed is Psalm 89. The word appears 7 times in this psalm and in 5 of those it appears in conjunction with the Hebrew word emunah (Str. H530) and once with emeth (Str. H571) both of which mean faithfulness. What is significant about it’s use in Ps. 89 is it’s close association with God’s covenant with David. Vv. 1-2 speak of God’s hesed and emunah and then connect them to his covenant with David in v. 3. Then in the context of this covenant God expresses that his hesed, as well as his emunah, will never be taken from David and his descendants {see vv. 24, 28, 33, 49}. This shows us that the concept of hesed, when used of God’s action towards men is linked to the ideas of covenant and God’s loyalty to act in accordance with his covenant. This idea also comes across in the NT in Lk. 1:68-75 where Zechariah prophesies proleptically about the coming Messiah. In v. 72 it says that God raised up this “horn of salvation” ( a reference to king Messiah) “to perform eleos (read hesed) to our fathers and to remember the covenant he swore to Abraham.” This shows that eleos is not carrying it’s usual Greek meaning of pity upon those in need, but is being used in the sense of hesed, for it implies God’s obligation to the covenant made with the fathers, to do good to their descendants.

The word is also used of man’s action to other men, and most often in the context of some kind of relationship between two parties that obligate them. In 1 Sam. 20:8 David implores Jonathan to show hesed to him because of the covenant he had made with him {see 18:3-4}. This covenant obligated Jonathan to do good to David. Jonathan then implores David, in 20:14-15, to spare his life and those of his family, when David would become king. David is obligated by the covenant to do good to Jonathan and his family. Later when David is king he inquires to find out if there are any remaining family members from Saul’s house so that he can show hesed to them for Jonathan’s sake.

Another example is found in Gen. 20:13 when Abraham asked Sarah his wife, that wherever they went to say he was her brother. Sarah was obligated to Abraham, as her husband, to show this kindness to him. Similarly, in the book of Ruth, Naomi blesses Boaz because he has not forsaken his obligation to assist his relatives in their need (hesed) {v. 20}.

If indeed, hesed is the word Jesus originally spoke then we can take him as saying, “Blessed are those who perform hesed, for they will be shown hesed.” This is a characteristic of those who will inherit the kingdom, they are loyal in performing good to whom it is due {see Prov. 3:27}. The blessedness of such is that they themselves will be the recipients of God’s hesed in the age to come.

v. 8 – “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Jesus may have had in mind Ps 73:1, which reads:

“Surely God is good to Israel, to the ones pure in heart.”

Pure in heart denotes sincerity and singleness in one’s devotion to God. It is not to all Israelites, to those who are merely physically descended from Jacob, but to those Israelites whose worship of God is from a pure heart, that God is good. Many Israelites, throughout their long history, did worship Yahweh, but not alone. Often they would worship other gods beside Yahweh. They would attend the temple during feast days and then also attend pagan shrines; they would take their oaths in Yahweh’s name and in the name of other gods. There was a mixture in their worship. The faithful remnant within Israel are those who worship God alone, who do not lift up their souls to idols or swear by what is false {see Ps. 24:4}. In Jesus’ day it was not so much that Israelites were worshipping other gods, but rather that their traditions had become the main thing, their religion was a matter of dead works {see Matt. 15:3-9; 23:1-32].

The blessedness of the pure in heart is that in the kingdom age they shall see God. Whether this should be understood literally or figuratively is not clear. Whatever way it is it will be a blessed experience.

v. 9 – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

This is not referring to people in the world who try to bring about peace agreements between warring nations. Such people may receive the Nobel Peace Prize but they are not necessarily qualified to be called the sons of God. This, again, is a characteristic of the ones who will inherit the kingdom. There is no corresponding Hebrew word for eirenopoios (Str.G1518) found in the Hebrew Bible and it only occurs here in the NT. It is a compound word formed from eirene = peace and poieo = to do, make, accomplish, perform etc. It could be that when Jesus spoke these words he actually used two Hebrew words shalom= peace and asah = the same semantic range as poieo, to mean those who bring about shalom. Perhaps the closest thing in the Hebrew Bible to this is in a psalm which we have already seen to have been in Jesus’ mind i.e. Ps. 37. In v. 37 it says:

“Consider the blameless, observe the upright; there is a future for the man of peace.”

This speaks of those who seek not only their own shalom but the shalom of others. The word shalom conveys more than simply what our English word peace does. Shalom refers to well-being in general not simply to the absence of conflict. Those who are of the ones who will inherit the kingdom are actively working toward the well-being of others, which does include peace of mind, peace with others and peace with God.

The blessedness of such is that they will be called God’s children. While it is true that they are now God’s children, in the age to come these will experience the fullness of what it means to be called such.

v. 10 – “Blessed are those who have been persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

In this present age those who stand to inherit a place in the age to come i.e. the righteous, are often and usually the targets of those who will not inherit the kingdom i.e. the unrighteous. This was true in Israel – the righteous within her were always persecuted by the unrighteous within her. Once again Ps. 37 comes to mind – see vv. 12, 14, 32. There is a cost, now in this age, for those living a life of faithfulness to God, but in the age to come “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Verses 11-12 are an expansion upon the previous and final beatitude, so let’s take a look at them.

v. 11 – “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
v.12 – Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Here Jesus expands the concept of persecution on account of righteousness to include persecution of his peculiar followers because of their association with him. In fact, allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah would become the dividing factor between the righteous and the unrighteous. God was now calling his chosen people to receive this man as the chosen one and all Israel would be divided over him {see Matt. 10:21-25, 32-36}. Those among the Israelites who would acknowledge Jesus as the promised son of David, the Messiah, would be hated and persecuted by those who reject Jesus. And what is more, the followers of Jesus would be hated and persecuted by all nations {Matt. 24:9}. But Jesus tells his followers to see this as a reason to “rejoice and be glad” because they have a great reward stored up for them with God in heaven, which God will bestow upon them in the coming kingdom age.

Endnotes

  1. Luke never uses the word rabbi in his gospel, maybe because his gospel was specifically meant for gentile congregations. Instead he uses the Greek word didaskalos (Str. G1320), meaning teacher, which is what a rabbi was.
  2. Of course, Jesus turns out to be more than just a prophet or rabbi. He is acknowledged by some of his closest followers as the Messiah, the son of God, the chosen one from the line of David, prior to his death and resurrection. After his resurrection he is openly proclaimed as the promised Messiah by his disciples.
  3. For a biblical and Hebraic understanding of the kingdom of God see this article.
  4. Here is a PDF of Nelson Glueck’s Hesed In The Bible


Why I Believe Jesus Of Nazareth Is A Simple Human Person

Before I present why I believe Jesus of Nazareth is a simple human person, I must define what I mean by simple, since the word has many applications. I will use the Collins online dictionary definitions for simple that pertain to what I mean in applying this word to Jesus. Here are the applicable definitions:

1.having or consisting of only one part, feature, substance, etc.; not compounded or complex; single
2.without additions or qualifications; mere; bare
3.pure; unadulterated

What I am trying to convey by the term ‘simple’ is that Jesus of Nazareth is a mere human person, an unadulterated human being, having only one nature i.e. a human nature. This is, of course, in contradiction to the orthodox Christian tradition which says that Jesus is a divine person, possessing the nature of deity, who has joined himself to a human nature and therefore is a divine person with two natures, a divine and a human one.

Jesus – Human Person or Human Nature?

A little known fact is that in orthodox, creedal Christianity Jesus is not regarded as a human person. Now this may sound shocking to some, and you may think I am just making it up. So here are some quotes from orthodox sources.

The dogma asserts that there is in Christ a person, who is the Divine Person of the Logos, and two natures, which belong to the one Divine Person. The human nature is assumed into the unity and dominion of the Divine Person, so that the Divine Person operates in the human nature and through the human nature, as it’s organ.

Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 144

For, Jesus is not a human person; he is a divine Person who has taken himself a human nature.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, Fundamentals of Catholicism Vol. 2, p.217

If we were to say Jesus is a human being, that is a human person, we would be saying that his identity or who he is as a Person, was created. That would be wrong. His human nature was created, but not his Person or Being.

Is Jesus a Human Being?, Defending The Bride website

And according to the revelation we have been given in Scripture and Tradition, Jesus is an example of a divine person who possesses a fully human nature but is not a human person . . . we can readily see just how Jesus Christ could reasonably have two natures, one human and one divine . . . subsisting in one . . . person . . . who is God.

Tim Staples, Catholic Answers website, Is Jesus a Human Person?

Even protestant Christian leaders agree with this ‘orthodox’ understanding of Jesus of Nazareth1:

Christ is the second person of the Trinity, who pre-existed his incarnation. He is God, pure and simple. He is a divine person, not a divine-human person. For that reason medieval theologians were always careful never to refer to Jesus as a human person. He is a divine person who has assumed a human nature in addition to the divine nature that he already had. In virtue of having a complete human nature as well as a divine nature Christ is both God and man, human and divine. But he is not a human person. He is a divine person who possesses a human nature as well as a divine nature.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith website, Was Christ a Divine-Human Person?

The humanity taken up into the person of the Logos is, then, not a personal man but human nature without personal subsistence.

Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 416

Reason 1 – A Jesus Who Is Not A Human Person Is Implausible

The premise that Jesus is not a human person is based upon 5th century definitions of person, substance and nature drawn from Greek philosophy, and based upon circular reasoning. Way before the philosophically constructed definitions were worked out in the 5th century, it had already become the ‘orthodox’ position within Christianity to confess Jesus as a divine being or person. The Nicene creed of 325 stated that Jesus was “true God of true God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This itself was a further explication of the Logos theories of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, which asserted that the Logos or Reason of God was emanated out from God to become a rational being, distinct from God in number but one with him in purpose and will. This was the central idea within such Greek philosophies as Platonism and Stoicism. These philosophies taught that there is one Supreme Being who, being too transcendent and immutable to have created the cosmos himself, emanated out of himself a being, a second god, or a mediating principle, who or which would do the hands on business of creation on behalf of the Supreme One. That early Gentile Christian apologists, formerly educated in these prevailing philosophies, posited this Logos to be synonymous with Jesus, the son of God, is clear. This itself was a deviation from the simple message of the first generation of Jewish believers that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited Messiah, the son of David, foretold in the Hebrew scriptures, whom God raised up and through whom he would redeem His covenant people.

So then, by the 5th century, the idea that Jesus was a divine being had become firmly entrenched within the minds of most of Christendom. Yet this belief created problems which had to be worked out through philosophical wrangling among the educated elite within it’s ranks. How can the concept of a second god, distinct in number from the Supreme One, avoid the charge of polytheism, since it was clear that scripture taught that there is but one God? Once this was overcome by the development of the Trinity concept, another problem presented itself. How could the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, become fully human without ceasing to be the divine personage he is? Since it was clear from scripture that Jesus was of the human family, it had to be explained how this could be so without detracting from his deity in any way. How could Jesus become fully human while still maintaining his deity?2 This was eventually achieved by advancing nebulous definitions of substance, nature and person, and of what it means to be human. Let me illustrate this from the article on the Catholic Answers website cited above. In answer to the question of whether we can say that Christ is a human person, Tim Staples answers with an emphatic NO! He explains:

To understand why, we must define three essential terms without which any explication would be futile: person, substance and nature.

He then defines person, according to the 6th century philosopher Boethius’ definition, as “an individual substance of a rational nature,” that is to say an individual subject possessing a rational nature. He then defines substance as “that which constitutes an individual thing and does not inhere in anything else. It is not a property of a thing, but the thing itself.” He then gives examples of substances, such as “a ‘tree’, ‘horse’, ‘man’, ect. “ He explains that person and substance are closely related but different because “although all persons are substances not all substances are persons.” For instance a horse is a substance but not a person because it does not possess a rational nature. He then proceeds to define the third term, nature, as “the what of a thing – in contrast . . . to the individual subject being considered.” He then states that “nature and substance are almost synonymous, but not quite” because substance, “though similar to nature in referring to what constitutes a thing, also refers to the subject as well.” Is anyone else confused yet?

So, all of these terms, substance, nature and person, are all closely related but have fine distinctions between them, which must be understood correctly in order to rightly understand how Jesus can be fully human without being an actual human person. On top of this, he defines the substance of man as “the body/soul composite. Without either a body or soul you don’t have the ‘substance’ of a man, you don’t have a man in the fullest sense.” So then the logic of Christ being fully human but not a human person is dependent upon the hypothesis of the dichotomist view of man, which is dubious at best. Now here is the clincher. Staples asserts with all confidence, “consider that all living human beings are persons, but person is not a part of the definition of what it means to be fully human.” But why should anyone accept that definition? So by arbitrarily defining man as a body/soul composite alone, individual personhood can just be eliminated from the definition of what a human being is. This enabled the philosophizing church fathers to say that Christ is fully human while maintaining that he doesn’t need to be a human person to be so. In case you think I have misunderstood Staples, I quote him further, “There is nothing in the definition of a human (being a body/soul composite) that requires it to be a person. Thus, even though this only actually happens in the case of Christ, there is nothing unreasonable about positing the possibility.”

Is the circular reasoning not clear enough. Church fathers, having come to believe that Jesus was a divine person, had to devise a way for him to have become fully human without including a human person in the mix, for this would mean that either the divine person would have had to cease to be (at least while he was a man) or there would be two persons in Jesus of Nazareth, a human person and a divine person. By defining the key terms to there own advantage they were able to work out the formula for a fully human divine person. Note what Staples said regarding being fully human but not a human person – “this only actually happens in the case of Christ.” But how can they say this? Because they believe Christ to be a divine person – therefore it has to be true that a divine person can be fully human without being a human person, although all other individual human substances are human persons.

My friends, this is simply not a plausible hypothesis. It depends on dubious definitions of the abstract ideas of substance, person and nature, as well as the dubious definition of human being as a body/soul composite. Orthodoxy also declares that Christ has a human mind and will as part of his human nature. So Christ has a human body, soul, mind and will, but can still be said to not be a human person? Then this must be true of all human beings; it must not be our body, soul, mind and will which makes us human persons. So then what is it exactly that makes us human persons? As Boethius defined person as “an individual substance of a rational nature” then accordingly, any individual human substance able to think, reason and will is a human person. But isn’t it rather obvious that any living, individual entity with a human body is a human person, for even if such an entity lost the ability to think or reason or will, due to brain damage, it would not cease to be a human person. Now if one does not hold to the presupposition that Jesus is a divine person then he understands Jesus in the same way he understands all human beings, i.e. as a human person. But how can we be sure Jesus is a human person and not a divine person? This brings me to the second reason why I believe Jesus is a simple human person.

Reason 2 – Scripture Presents Jesus As A Human Person

Before I show how scripture presents Jesus as a simple human person, it is necessary first to show why I believe scripture excludes Jesus from the category of God. It will be easier to accept the simple humanity of Jesus once it becomes manifest that he cannot be regarded as God. To do this I will appeal to three passages in the New Testament. Now I have always held, along with many Bible expositors and commentators, to the general maxim “Ambiguous passages should be interpreted in the light of clear passages.” The three passages I offer here clearly tell us who is our God, and by extension, who is not our God.

1 Cor. 8:5-6 – 5.”For even if there are so-called ‘gods’, whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods . . . 6. yet for us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Messiah . . .”

Eph. 4:4-6 – 4. “There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5. one Lord (i.e. Jesus), one faith, one baptism; 6. one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all.”

John 20:17 – ” . . . Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Now I am aware of the ways in which apologists finagle these passages in an attempt to mitigate the very clear and explicit claim made in them, but the claim is simply too unmistakable to be so easily dismissed. In the first passage Paul unequivocally declares that the one God of believers is the Father. In the category of the one God, Paul places the Father alone. He does not say that the one God of believers is the Triune God, i.e. the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even though this is what most Christians have been saying for 1600 yrs., neither does he say that the Son is the one God of believers. The force of this affirmation that the one God is the Father is seen in the pitiful attempts made to abrogate it.3 In the same sentence Paul goes on to tell us what category Jesus belongs to – that of Lord. That Paul means that Jesus is the one human Lord, the one who is above all, is evident by two facts. First, Lord here cannot be synonymous with God because Paul here clearly differentiates between the one God and the one Lord, neither can Lord mean Yahweh, as some apologists claim, for then Paul’s statement would amount to this absurdity: “For us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Yahweh, Jesus Christ.”

In the second passage, Paul states practically the same thing, differentiating between the one God, declared to be the Father, and the one (human) Lord, Jesus. Again, when Paul speaks of the one God he does not refer to a Triune Being but to the Father. If the Trinity were in fact true, then every mention of the one God in scripture should be a reference to the Trinity, for the one God could never be just the Father, or just the Son, or just the Holy Spirit, for all three together would comprise the one God.

The third passage, while not using the word ‘one’ to describe the Father as the God, shows clearly who the God of the believers is. Let us note that Jesus, in this statement, completely identifies with the disciples, putting himself on the same level with them before God, calling them his brothers, and equating his Father with their Father and his God with their God. That the God of both Jesus and the disciples is the Father could not be more clear.

That this understanding of the one God as the Father was the view of the earliest believers is confirmed by what had become known as the Apostles Creed, which states emphatically:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord.

Please observe how this coincides with Paul’s unambiguous affirmations.

Now, if we follow the principle of interpreting less clear or ambiguous (I use this word in the sense of open to more than one interpretation) passages in light of the clear passages then we must let these clear passages guide us to a correct understanding of those passages which seem, on the surface, to be saying that Jesus is God (e.g. Jn. 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Heb. 1:8; Titus 2:13; etc.). For every passage put forward by apologists for the deity of Jesus as proof of that belief, is open to plausible alternative interpretations.

Now, having settled that Scripture clearly presents the Father alone as the one God, there are only a few options as to what kind of being Jesus could be. He is either another god, emanated out from the one God, who then took on a human nature; a spirit being, such as an angel, created by the one God before the foundation of the world, who then took on a human nature; or a pure and simple human person, who was foreknown and chosen by the one God. We will now turn to the testimony of Scripture regarding Jesus’ humanity.

The Full Humanity Of Jesus

Heb. 2:11, 14, 17 – “Both the one who makes holy and those who are made holy are all of one ( origin or family). Therefore he is not ashamed to call them brothers . . . Since the children are sharers together of flesh and blood, he (i.e. the founder or pioneer of their salvation – see v. 10) likewise participated in the same humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death . . . For this reason it was necessary that he (i.e. the founder or pioneer of their salvation) be like his brothers in every respect, in order that he might be a merciful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”

This passage is very important for understanding that the one through whom God would effect the salvation of man had to be a man himself, in every respect. Now if all human beings are human persons, and this is granted by all, then the one who would make atonement for all other human persons must himself be a human person. And this is precisely what the author of Hebrews is saying. Now the trinitarian will loudly object and avouch his belief that the divine person, the Son of God, became fully human, so what is the problem? The problem is that the affirmation that a divine person with a human nature is a fully human being is simply an empty assertion, and there is no good reason why anyone should think it is even rational. The whole point of the author of Hebrews in this passage is that the savior of humanity could not be of the angel family (all of chs. 1:4-2:18 are meant to show this), which apparently some of the believers in this particular congregation had come to believe, but must be of the same family as those he redeems. But can a divine person clothed in a human nature really be considered to be of the same family or origin as all other human beings? I don’t see how that is possible. This passage is not telling us about the supposed incarnation of a divine person, but of the necessity that the one who would provide purification for sins (v. 1:3) and make atonement for sins (v.2:17) by his death (v. 2:14) be a member of the human family in every respect. This eliminates the possibility that Jesus was some other kind of being, who simply took to himself an impersonal human nature, whether an angel or a second divine person within God. Jesus was fully human because he, like us was a human person, i.e. a human being with a body, rational mind and human will.

The apostle Paul also believed that our salvation had to be effected by means of a human person and that Jesus’ salvific work is based squarely on this fact:

Rom. 5: 15 – 19 – 15.“For if many died by the trespass of the one man (i.e. Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus the Messiah, overflow to the many . . . 17. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah . . . 19. For just as through the disobedience of the the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

1 Cor. 15:21-22 – “For since death came through a man, the resurrection from the dead also comes through a man. For as all in Adam die, so also all in Christ will be made alive.”

1 Tim. 2:5 – “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, a human being, Messiah Jesus.”

Now these statements seem clear enough, but the philosophical wordplay of orthodoxy obscures the plain meaning of the text. Let’s plug in the cleverly devised orthodox definition of Christ’s humanity into the appropriate places in these passages to see if it makes much sense:

Rom. 5: 15 – 19 – 15.“For if many died by the trespass of the one human person (i.e. Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one divine person with a human nature, Jesus the Messiah, overflow to the many . . . 17. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through that one human person, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one divine person with a human nature, Jesus the Messiah . . . 19. For just as through the disobedience of the the one human person the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one divine person with a human nature the many will be made righteous.”

1 Cor. 15:21-22 – “For since death came through a human person, the resurrection from the dead also comes through a divine person with a human nature. For as all in Adam die, so also all in Christ will be made alive.”

1 Tim. 2:5 – “For there is one God and one mediator between God and all human persons, a divine person with a human nature, Messiah Jesus.”

Now, friends, I ask you to be honest with yourself – do you really think this is what Paul meant when he wrote these words? Is it not clear from the first two passages that Paul assumes Jesus to be ontologically the same as Adam? Note the word also in both passages, which clearly has the force of likewise, and see how the orthodox interpretation breaks the correlation between Adam and Jesus. And is it not clear from the third text that Paul places Jesus in the category of humanity and not in the category of God. If Paul believed Jesus to be a God-man he could have said so and that would have been the opportune place to do so.

We will now look at further biblical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a human person just like us.

Jesus Was Able To Be Tempted To Sin

Heb. 4:15 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way like us, yet without sin.”

Lk. 4:1 – “Jesus . . . was led by the spirit into the desert, where he was tempted by the devil . . .”

The fact that Jesus was able to be tempted shows him to be a human person, not a divine person with a human nature. According to orthodox Christology, the real self who is Jesus is a divine person and would therefore be, not only incapable of sinning, but, as a consequence, incapable of being tempted to sin. Scripture says that “God is incapable of being tempted by evil” {James 1:13}. There is nothing in the being of God that can in any way be influenced to sin and therefore it would be impossible for him to experience the desire to do evil. If Jesus were a divine person then this would be true of him. It is not reasonable to suppose that the impersonal human nature of Jesus was tempted to sin while the divine self who controlled the human nature was unaffected by the temptation. If the divine personal self of the man Jesus is incapable of experiencing the force or the pull of temptation, then in what sense can he be credited with having overcome and having remained without sin. Most Catholic and Protestant theologians would affirm that Jesus was incapable of sin, being a divine person, but to be incapable of sin would make one incapable of temptation. For example, if one would were incapable of lying how could the temptation to lie truly affect him? He would be impervious to the temptation. But is this the picture of Jesus that we get from scripture?

If Jesus were a divine person he would be incapable of sin and this would make a mockery of the testimony of Scripture regarding his temptations. That Jesus “was tempted in every way like us” would then be meaningless. Our Lord Jesus had to be capable of sin in order to experience real temptation and hence cannot be a divine person, but must be a human person like us. The fact that he was able to sin, but, having been tempted, remained obedient (i.e. was without sin), only magnifies his worthiness before God {see Heb. 5:7-9; Phil. 2:8-10; Rom. 5:19; Rev. 3:21; 5:5}.

Jesus Was A Direct Descendant Of David

Matt. 1:1 – “A record of the origin of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David . . .”

Acts 13:23 – “From the seed of this man (David) God has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus, according to a promise.”

2 Tim. 2:8 – “Remember Jesus the Messiah, raised from the dead, descended from David.”

Now this should not be controversial, for everyone acknowledges that Jesus was a Jew from the line of king David. But when we stop and think about how this could be true from the orthodox position, something just doesn’t add up. It is difficult to see how an eternally divine person could be considered, in any real sense, the descendant of any human person. In this case, what we would have to say is that the impersonal human nature attached to the divine person was the descendant of David, but not the person who operated within that human nature. This kind of contrived meaning forced upon the clear statements of scripture engenders incredulity. No one reading these passages, apart from the presupposition that Jesus is an eternally divine person, would perceive any other meaning in them than the obvious meaning – that the man Jesus was a direct descendant of king David.

Just a word about one passage that is typically put forward to show that Jesus’ descent from David is simply referring to his impersonal human nature – Rom. 1:3, which reads in the 1985 NIV: “Regarding his son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David . . .” But this a misleading translation which is colored by a bias in favor of orthodox Christology. The phrase “as to his human nature” translates the Greek phrase kata sarka, which means according to the flesh. This phrase has a few idiomatic uses in the NT, one which conveys the idea as to natural descent or ancestry. This meaning can be seen in these passages – Rom. 4:1; 9:3, 5; 1 Cor. 10:18; Gal. 4:23, 29. The passage, correctly translated simply says:

“Concerning his son, the one coming to be out of the seed of David as to natural ancestry . . .”

Note that the text is explicit, once translated correctly, that God’s son is the one who came to be (Gr. aorist participle form of ginomai, Str. G1096) from the seed of David.4 Yet orthodoxy teaches that the Son is eternally begotten from God and simply acquired a human nature in the incarnation, so how could Paul say the son came to be out of the seed of David? The only logical sense in which Jesus of Nazareth can be considered a true lineal descendant of king David is if he is a true human person. To speak of an eternally existing divine person as the descendant of any human being is to be disingenuous.

The 2011 edition of the NIV changed the translation of the phrase kata sarka to “as to his earthly life”, which again shows the bias of the translators, wanting to give the implication that Jesus had some other life prior to his “earthly life”. In all the other passages noted above, they translate the phrase as “according to the flesh”, as do most English versions.

Other Things To Consider

When orthodox Christians speak about Jesus during his life on earth they will often make a distinction between his divine nature and his human nature. But many do so in a way that sounds a lot like there were two selves in Jesus (a belief historically known as Nestorianism). For example, when Jesus said he did not know the day or hour of his coming, this is explained as he did not know it in his human nature, but, of course, he knew it in his divine nature. But natures do not know or not know things, persons do. If there is but one person in the man Jesus and that a divine person, then how can the man Jesus not know something, if omniscience is an essential attribute of divine persons? If the Divine person, God the Son, is the self of the man Jesus, that controls the human nature to which he is joined, then how can he not know something in his human nature? These kind of things are not thought about much by the average Christian who just assumes that Jesus is fully God and fully man. But just a little thinking on these matters reveals that things are not as clear cut as the keepers of orthodoxy pretend.

Another thing that shows the irrationality of the orthodox position is the apparent impossibility of one person possessing two distinct and completely contradictory natures at the same time, so that at the same time, this one person is bound to an eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, immortal nature and a created, finite, mortal nature limited in knowledge and abilities. How can someone possess immortality and mortality at the same time? How can the same person, at the same time, possess unlimited power and limited power? This makes the concept of one person possessing two natures highly unlikely.

Add to this the fact that scripture no where states this doctrine in any clear-cut manner. If the doctrine is derived from scripture at all, it is only done so by inference. But why should a doctrine that would be so important and necessary to understand be so inexplicit in scripture. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of two natures in one divine Christ can only be deduced from scripture by reading between the lines. There are zero explicit statements for either doctrine. Listen to what the Evangelical theologian Millard Erickson said regarding the Trinity, but which also applies to this doctrine:

It is claimed that the doctrine of the Trinity is a very important, crucial, and even basic doctrine. If that is indeed the case, should it not be somewhere more clearly, directly, and explicitly stated in the Bible? If this is the doctrine that especially constitutes Christianity’s uniqueness, as over against Unitarian  monotheism on the one hand, and polytheism on the other hand, how can it be only implied in the biblical revelation? In response to the complaint that a number of portions of the Bible are ambiguous or unclear, we often hear a statement something like, ‘It is the peripheral matters that are hazy or in which there seems to be conflicting biblical materials. The core beliefs are clearly and unequivocally revealed.’ This argument would appear to fail us with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, however. For here is a seemingly crucial matter where the Scriptures do not speak loudly and clearly. Little direct response can be made to this charge. It is unlikely that any text of Scripture can be shown to teach the doctrine of the Trinity in a clear, direct, and unmistakable fashion.

God in Three Persons: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity, pp. 108-109

One final thing to consider, and this is probably the most damaging consequence of the orthodox position, although it has probably never even been pondered by most who hold this position. If the orthodox position is true then the death of Jesus amounts to a personless death, i.e. it is a death in which no personal being actually dies. If, as orthodoxy demands, Jesus is a divine person and not a human person, then how could his death be the death of a personal being? It can’t. If Jesus is not a human person then no human person was involved in his death. If Jesus is a divine person, and a necessary attribute of divinity is immortality, then the divine person who is Jesus could not have died and hence did not die. Most orthodox Christians when they think of Jesus’ death will reason that Jesus died in his human nature, understanding that divine beings can not die. But what does it mean to ‘die in a nature’ if there is no human person there to die. Can a human nature die, without there being the death of any person, and can such a death be sufficient to save humanity. Jesus’ death then amounts to nothing more than the death of a personless human nature.

Christians will often assert that the Savior had to be God or else his death could not be effective. But why should this be the case? If the divine person did not die, because he is essentially immortal, then how does his being God make the death of his impersonal human nature efficacious? Christian philosophers who have thought about this issue have usually postulated some theory of how the divine person was somehow able to experience what death was like, to taste death without really dying, by virtue of being attached to the impersonal human nature which did die. But this is all foolish speculation, devised merely to save a doctrine from it’s inevitable but undesirable consequence.

When scripture speaks of the death of Jesus it speaks in a straightforward manner, without any kind of philosophically contrived explanations. The death of Jesus is presented in scripture as him giving himself for us {Gal. 1:4; 2:20; Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14}. But in orthodoxy, can it really be said that Jesus gave himself for us, when in fact he would have merely given up his human nature to death. The scriptures are clear – Christ, the person, died for us. But this is impossible within orthodoxy for divine persons can’t die. Therefore, if Jesus, the person, died for us then he had to be a human person, for only human persons can die.

Conclusion

The orthodox dogma that asserts that Christ is a divine person who took on himself a human nature in addition to his divine nature, was manufactured solely to give a rationale for how Jesus, as an eternally divine person, can be considered fully human while being fully God. The philosophically astute church fathers were able to define the terms in such a way so as to appear to provide rational support for what seemed an absurdity. Yet scripture is silent regarding this doctrine, which must be inferred from the scriptural evidence, while being explicit regarding the simple humanity of Jesus.

ENDNOTES

  1. Many Evangelical teachers and apologists do not even seem aware of the orthodox denial of the human person in Jesus. Most simply refer to the dogma that Jesus is “fully God and fully man” without ever considering how a human nature without a human person can be counted as fully human. GotQuestions.org is probably typical of the Evangelical confusion about this matter when in answer to the question “What is enhypostasis and anhypostasis?” two contradictory statements are given. First the writer says, “Jesus did not pretend to be human—He possessed real human nature. The word enhypostasis is used to denote this fact. En– means the same as the English word in—Jesus was really “in” human nature and was a real human person.” But then he goes on to say, “Jesus added to His divine nature and person, and what was added was a real human nature, not a human person.”

    2. There were competing views of the incarnation in the 5th century over which the ‘orthodox’ view won out, marking all others as heresy. These other views were: Nestorianism – the incarnate Christ consisted of two distinct persons, one human and one divine, each with it’s own nature.
    Apollonarianism – in the incarnate Christ the Logos took the place of a rational human soul so that Jesus’ humanity consisted solely of his human body.
    Monophysitism – Jesus Christ is one divine person with only a divine nature.
    Docetism – Jesus Christ was a divine being with no human nature at all, who only appeared to be a real man.
    The reason all of these concepts are wrong, including the orthodox understanding (Chalcedonianism), is that they all begin with a faulty premise i.e. that Jesus was a divine spirit person who descended from heaven.

    3. One such pitiful attempt is the idea that in 1 Cor. 8:6 Paul is splitting the Shema (from Deut. 6:4) between the Father and Jesus and thus including Jesus in the one God. For a refutation of this idea see this article here.

    4.What Paul is saying in Rom. 1:3-4 is not that Jesus has two natures, a human and a divine. Rather he is saying two things about the man Jesus, God’s son. First he notes that he is a lineal descendant of David, a recognized qualification for the promised Messiah, because the coming Messiah would be ruler over God’s kingdom and this privilege was given only to David and his descendants {see 2 Chron. 13:5,8; Ps. 89:20-37}. The second thing he points out is that this specific descendant of David was “marked out” or “determined” (Gr. horizo, Str. G3724) as the chosen one, out of all of the other descendants of David that were then living. While only descendants of David could rule God’s kingdom, not every or any descendant could, but only the one chosen or “marked out” by God {see 1 Chron. 28:4-7}; this chosen one became the “son of God”. Jesus was so “marked out” as the chosen one in virtue of “a spirit of sanctification” i.e. being set-apart from all other descendants of David, by his resurrection from the dead.




Why John 6:25-71 Does Not Prove The Deity Of Messiah

John chapter 6 is one of the main passages utilized by Christian apologists to support the belief of the deity of Jesus. A number of statements made by Jesus in this chapter do seem to give credence to this idea. It boils down to this – Jesus claimed to have come down from heaven. No where is it recorded in this chapter that Jesus claimed to be God, but just that he came down from heaven. From this the apologists make a number of assumptions which are based on the presupposition that Jesus is God.

Assumptions of the Apologists

The first assumption is that Jesus was speaking literally instead of figuratively. The second assumption is that by saying that he literally came down from heaven, Jesus was making a claim to deity. The third assumption is that the people hearing Jesus speak also thought Jesus was speaking literally rather than figuratively. The final assumption is that the twelve apostles understood Jesus’ claim to be God and believed him. Let’s go through these four assumptions to see if they are in fact substantiated by the text.

Assumption 1

Upon close examination of the text it appears that the only good reason for taking Jesus’ words literally is that such a reading supports the ‘orthodox’ presupposition that Jesus existed in heaven as God before being incarnated on earth as man. But if one did not hold this presupposition what reasons would one have for taking Jesus’ words in a literal rather than a figurative sense? The first clue that Jesus’ words about coming down from heaven should not to be taken literally is that they are in response to the disciples’ mention of God’s provision of manna for their forefathers {6:31}. In Exodus 16:4 we read:

“Then YHWH said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you.’ “

Did YHWH mean that the manna he would provide for the people literally came from heaven i.e. the dwelling place of God? Was the manna literally in heaven and then brought down to earth? Well, some may say yes, but I say no. First off, YHWH said he would rain down the bread, yet no where in the subsequent narrative is it said that the people saw bread falling out of the sky. Instead, in vv. 13-14, we are told that:

“. . . and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor.”

This is presumably the way the manna arrived every morning for the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Never once, in the rest of the Pentateuch, is it said that manna actually fell down out of the sky, yet God said he would rain down bread from heaven. What we should infer from this is that YHWH’s words are not to be understood literally but figuratively. A similar type of expression used by God is found in Malachi:

“Test me in this (i.e. in paying tithes),” says YHWH of hosts, : and see if I will not throw open the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing to the degree that you will not have enough room for it.

Mal. 3:10

The promised blessing was that of a bountiful crop, i.e. God would see to it that their crops did not fail but produced a great harvest. The language of the “windows of heaven” being opened and a blessing being poured out is clearly figurative language. In the same way, the language of “rain[ing] down bread from heaven” is meant to figuratively denote God’s provision. But what of other passages which speak of this bread from heaven? In Nehemiah 9:15, Nehemiah, in recalling the account while in prayer, simply repeats the figurative language used by YHWH – bread from heaven = God’s provision of food. The same can be said of Ps. 105:40. But what about Ps. 78:24-25; surely this can’t be taken figuratively.

“. . . [He] opened the doors of heaven; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the food of angels . . .”

Ps. 78:23b-25a

First, the phrase “opened the doors of heaven” is almost exactly like the Malachi passage, which we saw must be regarded as figurative language. The phrase “rained down manna” is taken from YHWH’s own words in Ex. 16:4, and should be understood figuratively, for the reasons noted above. The remainder of the passage, I suggest, is simply hyperbolic language, which is often found in such poetic passages. Because manna was unknown to the Israelites {see Deut 8:3} the psalmist poetically speaks of it as the “grain of heaven” and the “food of angels.” Even today we may speak of someone whom God has used to bring blessing into our lives as “an angel from heaven,” not at all intending that anyone should understand us literally.

The point is that the mention of the “bread from heaven” in Jn. 6:31 is the impetus for Jesus’ declaration that he is the “bread of God . . . who comes down from heaven.” It is reasonable, therefore, to take the words of Jesus figuratively, just like the words regarding the manna being “from heaven” should be taken figuratively.

The next clue that Jesus is not speaking literally is the fact that he refers to himself as ‘bread’ which is clearly a metaphor. He also speaks of feeding on himself as the ‘bread of life’, which again, is clearly figurative language. What the apologists want us to believe is that Jesus is speaking figuratively when he says he is bread and that we need to feed on him, but that he is speaking literally when he says he came down from heaven. Most of these apologists are Protestant Christians, who would likely see Roman Catholicism’s literal understanding of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, as ridiculous, yet they will insist that we should take Jesus’ words about coming down from heaven literally.

The next clue is found in v. 51:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world.”

Jn. 6:51

Now do any of these apologists, or does any orthodox Christian for that matter, believe that Jesus’ flesh was literally in heaven and then came down from heaven to be born from Mary. Absolutely not! The orthodox teaching is that Jesus received his human nature, i.e. his flesh, from Mary. This can only be understood as figurative language.

So if Jesus being the bread that came down from heaven is not to be taken literally, what exactly does it mean? It is simply saying that the man Jesus is God’s provision for all men, by which they can obtain immortality.

Another possible way to understand this figurative language is from the perspective of non-literal pre-existence. Ancient Jewish sages regarded things which were in the purpose and plan of God, and which were to be realized at some point in history, to have a sort of pre-existence in heaven with God. This pre-existence was not literal but ideal, in the mind of God. Norwegian theologian and professor Sigmund Mowinckel, in his work titled, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, wrote this concerning pre-existence in Jewish thought:

That any expression or vehicle of God’s will for the world, His saving counsel and purpose, was present in His mind, or His “Word”, from the beginning, is a natural way of saying that it is not fortuitous, but the due unfolding and expression of God’s own being. This attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel . . . as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah. It is said that his name was present with God in heaven beforehand, that it was created before the world, and that it is eternal. But the reference here is not to genuine pre-existence in the strict and literal sense . . . It is an ideal pre-existence that is meant . . . of the Messiah. It is his ‘name’, not Messiah himself, that is said to have been present with God before creation. In Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that “from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.” This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.     p.334

E. G. Selwyn in his commentary on 1 Peter wrote: “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven.”

Emil Schurer in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol.2 p.522 wrote: “In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven.”

Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, on p. 218 of Born Before All Time?, wrote: ” … in the synagogue a particular kind of pre-existence was always associated with the Messiah, but it did not set him apart from other men. This is pre-existence in God’s thought, the ideal pre-existence of the Messiah.”

Reverend Maurice Wiles, Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote in The Remaking of Christian Doctrine:

Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds … Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Talk of his pre-existence ought probably in most, perhaps in all cases, to be understood on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind.

Now when the thing which God predestined, and promised through his prophets, finally became a reality in the real world, it could be said, figuratively, that that thing has come down from heaven. This would certainly apply in the case of the Messiah, who was “foreknown before the creation of the world, but made manifest in these last times” {1 Pet. 1:20}.

Assumption 2

Most orthodox Christians who understand Jesus’ language about coming down from heaven to be literal, then conclude that this is proof of his full divinity. But the conclusion does not necessarily follow the premise. If it could be proven beyond any doubt that Jesus meant his words literally this still would not get us to the full divinity of Jesus. At best it could prove that Jesus pre-existed in heaven in some form before coming down to earth. Jesus’ statement, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but to do the will of him who sent me,” could be said by any celestial messenger, a.k.a. angel, and therefore does not provide proof of his deity. Ancient Arians, gnostics, JWs, Mormons and others believe that Jesus pre-existed in heaven in some form before coming to earth but that he was not God in the fullest sense. This assumption is clearly false.

Assumption 3

This assumption involves understanding the response of those who heard Jesus speak to indicate that they took his words literally. The hearers of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 consists of three categories: the twelve apostles {v. 67}, a group of the disciples from the larger group of followers of Jesus {vv. 24-25, 60-66}, and ‘the Jews’ {vv. 41-42, 52}, which were a group of Pharisees, priests and/or teachers of the law sent by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to observe and question Jesus. The only direct response we are given to Jesus’ statement about coming down from heaven is in vv. 41-42, and this by the Jews, not those of the other two groups:

“At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he then say, ‘I came down from heaven.’ “

Now does this necessarily mean that they understood Jesus to be speaking literally? These Jews, who were certainly hostile toward Jesus, would often, I believe, purposely distort Jesus’ words in an attempt to make him look foolish. They would take Jesus’ statements which were clearly meant figuratively, and pretend like he had meant them literally, thus hoping to make him appear ridiculous to the people. Other examples of this behavior of the Jews can be discerned in 2:20; 8:57; 10:33. It is reasonable to suppose that they understood Jesus to be speaking figuratively but feigned understanding him to be speaking literally. These Jews were not uneducated fools, they knew figurative language when they heard it. Rabbis often taught their disciples using parables, metaphors and figures of speech.

But even if we were forced to read the text as saying that the Jews understood Jesus literally, this still would not mean that he was speaking literally, only that they understood him to be so.

Later, in v. 52, the Jews again likely understand that Jesus is using figures of speech, but want to minimize what he is saying about eating his flesh. They do this by making out that he means it literally. I think it is likely that they understood Jesus to be claiming to be the Messiah, but not understanding all that this Messiah would accomplish in God’s plan, they probably didn’t grasp how eternal life would be dependent upon this man.

In v. 60 some disciples of Jesus say, “This is a difficult word, who can accept it.” I will deal with this later in the article, as I do not see this as a comment on Jesus’ statement about coming down from heaven, but rather about something else Jesus said.

Assumption 4

The final assumption made by the apologists is that the twelve apostles understood Jesus literally about coming down from heaven and so believed that he was God incarnate. The only thing in the text that reports the apostles response is in vv. 67-69, where Jesus asks them:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God..”

We note that nothing is said specifically about Jesus having come down from heaven here, nor is anything said which demands we should think the apostles believed Jesus to be deity. The fact that they called him ‘Lord’ simply reflects that he was their rabbi and teacher {see 1:38, 49; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8, 28; 13:13-14}. (For further analysis on why Jesus was addressed as ‘lord’ by his disciples see this article here.) That they believed he had the words that lead one to everlasting life is simply to say that they believed God had sent him to speak the message which God gave him to speak, and this is what Jesus always confessed to do {see 5:24; 7:16-18; 12:49-50; 14:10, 24}. What about the fact that they believed him to be ‘the holy one of God‘? It should be observed that they did not say, “We believe that you are God, the holy one” or “you are God come in the flesh” or any such thing. They confessed him to be the holy one of God, which certainly implies they did not regard him as God himself. To be the ‘holy one of God‘ simply denotes that one is set apart by God for a special commission, as can be seen in Ps. 106:16 where the text calls Aaron “the holy one of Yahweh.” It is certainly fitting that the ideal son of David, Yahweh’s anointed one, should be so designated.

So we can conclude that the assumption that the apostles understood and believed Jesus to be saying that he was God come in the flesh is without merit.

Further Evidence That Jesus Came From Heaven?

The apologists believe that they find further support for taking Jesus’ statement, that he came down from heaven, literally, in vv. 60-62:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a difficult word, who can accept it? Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the son of man ascend to where he was before! “

John 6:60-62

The assumptions of the apologists are these – 1.) that what Jesus said in this message was too hard for the disciples to understand 2.) that Jesus refers to his later ascension into heaven 3.) that heaven is where he was before i.e. that Jesus was originally in heaven and then came down to earth. But why do they assume these things from this text? I assert that it is because they presuppose the pre-existence of Jesus based on tradition. But if one approaches this text without that presupposition is he then not able to make any sense out of the words? There is a tendency in all Bible expositors to see ones theological predilections in the text of scripture and to not think beyond that. Not holding to the traditional idea of Jesus being God incarnate enables me to think deeper about the text to discover what Jesus’ words might mean within the original context, and having done so, here is what I see.

When these disciples complained that Jesus’ words were too hard or too difficult they were not saying that they did not understand what he was saying. His words were difficult for them to receive or accept precisely because they understood his meaning. Now what part of Jesus’ message are they specifically referring to? I don’t think they had in mind the statement that he is the bread that came down from heaven. They would have understood this figurative language to denote that he was claiming to be the promised Messiah. I also do not think that they were referring to Jesus’ statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, for they surely would have taken these words figuratively. What was difficult for them to accept was that he said he would give his flesh for the life of the world, which they rightly understood to mean that he would have to die. Remember, these are not the antagonistic Jews who would have been glad for him to die, but disciples who had come to think that Jesus might possibly be the long awaited son of David, who would free them from gentile rule and restore the kingdom to Israel. Just the day before they were so impressed by the miraculous sign that Jesus did that they intended to declare Jesus as the king, the rightful heir to David’s throne {see vv. 14-15, 22-25}. When we understand that the Jews of that day were awaiting a son of David whom God would raise up to take the throne of Israel and not a divine being who would die for their sins, then we can see the difficulty these disciples would have when the one they supposed could be this promised one is speaking about dying. We see this same incredulity among the crowds later when Jesus said that he would be lifted up. Knowing that he meant he would be crucified:

The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The son of man must be lifted up’ ?”

12:34

When Jesus first told the twelve that he must die, Peter actually rebuked him saying, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” {see Matt. 16:21-22}. For a Jew in the first century a crucified and dead Messiah did not fit their expectations {see Lk. 24:19-21}, which were based on what the prophets had foretold. That Jesus said he would die was a real stumblingblock for these disciples. Jesus asked them, “Does this cause you to stumble?” He was asking them if the fact that he would die is a cause for them to doubt that he is the Messiah, and in fact it was, for “from [that] time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” {v. 66}. The apostle Paul also noted that Jesus’ death on the cross was a cause of stumbling for the Jews {see 1 Cor. 1:23}. This is why the main aspect of the apostolic preaching was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

What Jesus said next to these doubting disciples must be taken in the context of the stumbling of these disciples at Jesus’ declaration that he would die. So Jesus said to them, “What if you should see the son of man ascend to where he was at first.” I used to think he was saying something like, “Hey if that causes you to stumble wait till you see me ascend into heaven,” but now I read it as, “Hey I understand that you are stumbling at the fact that I said I will die, but if you should see me rise up to where I was before would that make a difference .” I see it as a declaration of his resurrection not his ascension into heaven. This means “where he was before” is not heaven but among the living. The word translated ‘ascend’ is anabaino (Str. G305) which has a number of uses, both literal and figurative. It is used of Jesus ‘going up’ to Jerusalem in Matt. 20:17; of Jesus, at his baptism, ‘coming up’ out of the water in Matt. 3:16; of smoke ‘rising up’ in Rev. 8:4; of plants ‘springing up’ from the ground in Matt. 13:7; of thoughts ‘arising’ in the mind in Luke 24:38; and yes, it is used of Jesus’ ‘ascension’ into heaven in John 20:17. So while the word is used in John’s gospel of ascension into heaven, of it’s 16 occurrences 11 refer to some other meaning. Now one relevant fact to note is that the Hebrew equivalent of anabaino, which is alah (Str. H5927), is used three times of resurrection from the dead, in Ezek. 37:12-13 and Job 7:9. This may have been the exact word Jesus actually spoke, which was then translated by John into Greek with anabaino. So because the word is used of both ascension into heaven and coming up out of the grave, the way one interprets Jn. 6:62 will probably depend upon one’s presuppositions.

The next thing to consider is how this interpretation of v. 62 flows into vv. 63-64. Verse 63 is very ambiguous and so not readily interpreted, as a perusal of popular commentaries shows. The best way for me to present my interpretation is to offer a sort of expanded translation of the passage; so here it is.

60. Therefore, many of his disciple having heard (what Jesus had said about dying) said, “This is a difficult word, who (of us) is able to accept it?” 61. But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Does this (fact that I must die) present an obstacle to you (believing that I am the Messiah)? 62. What if you should (be privileged to) see the son of man (having died) come up (again among the living) where he was at first. 63.The spirit is that which gives life (to the dead); the flesh (i.e. your descent from Abraham in and of itself) benefits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you (if believed and appropriated) is what will result in (your possession of the) spirit and then life (in immortality). 64.Yet there are some of you who do not believe (that I am the Messiah).”

So from this perspective, Jesus, in vv. 61-64, is seeking to dissuade these doubting disciples from their unbelief. If they turn from him they have no hope of receiving the spirit {see Jn. 7:38-39} and the resulting immortality {see Rom. 8:11}. This is confirmed by what happened next, after many of the disciples walk away:

Jesus asked the twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words that lead to eternal life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God.”

Jn. 6:67-69

Peter, speaking for the twelve, shows that they understood that Jesus was the promised one, the Messiah, and even if they could not fully understand what this talk of him dying entailed or how it fit into God’s plan, they knew that his word, which was really God’s word, must be believed.

An Alternative

An alternative interpretation of v. 63 is that Jesus speaks of his transformation into immortality, through death, as a necessary prerequisite to reigning in glory. “The flesh [which] profits nothing” would be speaking of his becoming king without first dying and then being raised in immortality. This would be of no profit for he would eventually die and so leave the kingdom once again open to attack by hostile Gentile powers. It is therefore indispensable that he first die and be raised to newness of life, that his reign may be without end. Thus “spirit and life” refer to the new existence of Jesus post resurrection {see Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 5:16-17}.

Who Are The Seven Angels Of The Seven Churches In Revelation?

This will be a short article in response to the recent Naked Bible podcast, # 360, in which Dr. Michael Heiser was commenting on Rev. 2:1-7. Once again, Heiser has not failed to confirm what I have been saying about him in some of my blog articles, namely that his exegesis of scripture is driven by his theological predilection for the divine council paradigm, which he has made the core of his teaching. Heiser’s method of exegesis appears to be that when he encounters something mysterious or ambiguous in the text, and the language can accommodate it, then he just plugs the divine council motif into the passage and viola! he has the correct interpretation. I find this extremely irritating and quite pedestrian.

In his current podcast series on the Revelation, Heiser has demonstrated this tendency a number of times already and he’s only on chapter 2. As the title of this article suggests, he has done so with regard to the identification of the seven angels of the seven churches found in chs. 1-3. In the podcast noted above, he identifies the angels as members of the divine council who have each been given oversight of a particular congregation. How he arrives at this conclusion is typical of his method. He tries to interpret the imagery of the seven golden lampstands in 1:20 in conjunction with Zech. 4:2 and 10b, as if they refer to the same thing. Yet Jesus, in the vision, reveals the meaning for us, so it’s not really necessary for us to guess what the image might mean. Heiser thinks the vision from Zech. 4 informs us to the meaning of Rev.1:20. But the imagery is not the same. In Zech. 4:2 there is a single gold lampstand with seven channels, each with a lamp on top of it, i.e. a seven branched menorah. Zech. 4:10b then tells us that these seven lamps on the branches of the single menorah represent “the eyes of Yahweh, which range throughout the earth.” In Rev. 1:20 the image is of seven gold lampstands, which is interpreted for us in the same verse as representing the seven churches of Asia, previously mentioned in 1:4, 11. Why does Heiser go to Zech. 4 to interpret an image in Revelation when the meaning of that image is already given? So, can you guess what Heiser thinks the “eyes of Yahweh” are in the Zech. vision? Right, divine council members. He then carries that over into Rev. 1:20 and makes the seven stars and seven lampstands, which he just seems to merge together, as being supernatural beings. We are told in the text that the seven stars represent the seven angels of the seven churches, and Heiser thinks these are supernatural members of the divine council. He finds further confirmation of this in 2:1 where the angel of the church of Ephesus is addressed and the imagery of the seven stars and seven lampstands is reiterated. He thinks this proves this angel must be a supernatural being because these things wouldn’t have any connection to a human. But since the seven stars and seven lampstands are, in his mind, related to the divine council, they would only have relevance to a supernatural member of the council. All of this is quite disappointing and unsatisfactory from an exegetical standpoint.

Heiser also confuses the seven stars, a.k.a. the seven angels, with the seven spirits mentioned in 1:4, 3:1 and 4:5. I think he believes this gives more credibility to these angels being non-human entities. But there really is no good reason to equate these two things. The closest connection between these two is found at 3:1, but all this is saying is that Messiah possesses both the seven spirits and the seven angels, i.e. both groups are his servants. He also seems to merge the seven gold lampstands with the seven spirits because in 4:5 these seven spirits are represented as seven lamps. But this is incoherent. The image of the seven lamps in 4:5 is interpreted for us as “the seven spirits of God”, probably the same as in 1:4 and 5:6. And the image of the seven gold lampstands in 1:12 is interpreted for us at 1:20 as “the seven churches” of Asia. The word for lampstands in 1:12 & 20 is a different word that the ‘lamps’ of 4:5. The gold lampstands are most likely menorahs while the lamps of 4:5 are more like torches.

I want to offer a simpler but more nuanced interpretation of the seven angels of the churches. Think with me for a moment. John is exiled on the isle of Patmos, far from the seven churches of Asia. He is not free to travel to the mainland for he is in effect under arrest. God gives him a vision and tells him to write it down and send it to the seven churches of Asia. How is he going to get this vision, along with the seven specific letters for each congregation, to them. It seems to me that God had already somehow made it known to these seven churches (perhaps by a dream or prophetic word) that they were to send a representative to Patmos in order to receive a copy of the revelation given to John. Therefore the seven angeloi would be the seven representatives of the seven churches sent to receive the revelation. If we were to translate the phrase in 2:1 as “To the messenger from the church of Ephesus write . . .” it becomes clearer as to what the text is saying.

It is interesting to note that in the message given to each church all of the pronouns are singular. Heiser points this out and says it’s because a group can be designated as a single entity, which is true. But a better way to understand it is that a rhetorical device is being employed here, i.e. the acclamations and rebukes written to each congregation is addressed to that congregations representative. The singular pronouns would produce a more profound effect upon each individual member of the congregation when the letter is read publically.

Now Heiser might object to taking the seven angels as human messengers, for, as he points out in the podcast, all other occurrences of aggelos in the Revelation are clearly referring to supernatural beings. I am not sure if that is true, but if it was it would be irrelevant. Since the word aggelos can and does refer to human messengers, each occurrence must be taken in it’s own context. It is possible, that of the 77 occurrences of the word in Revelation, all but the 8 which occur in relationship to the seven churches, refer to supernatural beings, while the other eight refer to human beings. I mean if John wanted to mention human messengers how else would he do it – aggelos is the proper word. This is the problem with our English versions transliterating aggelos as angel instead of translating it as ‘messenger’.

Please feel free to interact with me in the comment section if you disagree or take issue with the exegesis I have offered in this article.

Psalm 82 – Of Gods or Human Kings?

This is not an exegetical commentary on Psalm 82, but rather the purpose of this article is to advocate for a different perspective regarding the identity of the ‘gods’ who are mentioned in v. 1 and addressed in v. 6 of Ps. 82. My premise is that these ‘gods’ are actually the kings of the earth, and I will show why I believe this to be a more satisfying view than the view that the ‘gods’ = literal divine beings or the ‘gods’ = some other human figures, such as Israelite judges or all Israelites. This is a modification of my previous view found in this article: An Analysis Of How Dr. Michael Heiser Interprets Scripture In Relation To His Divine Council Concept. There, I limited my understanding of ‘gods’ to the kings of Israel only, but now I see these ‘gods’ as all the kings of the earth, including the Israelite kings.

For many centuries it was virtually unanimous among biblical expositors that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 was a reference to the human judges of Israel. This was also a well known Jewish interpretation found in the Midrash on Psalms and Targum Jonathan. Another rabbinic interpretation sees ‘gods’ as referring to the nation of Israel at Sinai. There they received the Torah and became obedient to it thus making them immortal i.e. ‘gods’. But having later become disobedient, God declared that they would “die like Adam.” While the first of these views has some validity, the second one is rather nonsensical. Then there is, of course, the view popularized by Dr. Michael Heiser, that the ‘gods’ are literal divine beings, members of a supposed council of gods over which Yahweh stands as the Supreme God. In this article I will also engage with Heiser’s views concerning this psalm as found in this 2010 paper: http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/ETS2010Psalm82.pdf

Overview

My general take on this psalm is that the inspired psalmist is portraying God’s relationship to the kings of the earth by analogy to the divine council of the pagan religions, i.e. Yahweh is the Supreme God who stands in the council of the lesser gods (the kings of the earth) who are set in place to administer his righteousness and justice in the earth. The psalm depicts God calling these ‘gods’ to account for their failure to maintain the proper order in human societies {vv.1-2}. The psalmist lays out their divine commission which they have failed to carry out {vv. 3-4}. These kings, a.k.a. gods, are depicted as having no knowledge or understanding, probably of Yahweh and his righteousness and the fact that he has set them in power to rule on his behalf. Therefore the foundations of human society, righteousness and justice, are overthrown {v. 5}. Though Yahweh has given them a divine status {v. 6}, yet they will die just like men and like the lesser rulers who rule under them {v. 7}. The psalmist then calls upon God to rule the earth himself.

Kings As Gods

It is no secret that in the ancient Near East kings were regarded as divine figures. This was not necessarily because they were considered as actual gods, i.e. by nature, but because they were viewed as chosen by and ruling on behalf of an actual god. In this respect they were designated as ‘son’ of the god on who’s behalf they ruled. It was a matter of divine status not of divine ontology. In the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible we read:

A parent-child relationship between the gods and the king was common imagery in the ancient world. Such imagery supported the authority of the king and portrayed his role as mediator between the divine realm and the world in which he was to maintain order . . . In Egypt and for a few kings in early Mesopotamia, this relationship was portrayed in terms of a semi-divine king. The Egyptian king manifested divinity in his human form in the embodiment of a deified office . . . (For) the king in Mesopotamia . . . the metaphor of relationship was understood in terms of election and decree to kingship . . . But Assyrian kings were never described with divine titles or worshipped as in Egypt. Kings in David’s genealogical line also held their kingship by divine adoption . . . The adoption metaphor in Israel . . . used terminology similar to that found in other ancient Near East treaties . . . The great king was designated as “father” and the vassal king was his “son.” In this way of thinking, the Davidic king was the “son” of the great King, Yahweh, who was the “father.”

Comment on Psalm 2:6 by John Walton

The fact that kings were regarded as ‘sons’ of the gods on whose behalf they ruled, is what gave them their divine status. We see this concept expressed in v. 6 of Ps. 82: “I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ “ Therefore, in this passage ‘gods’ = ‘sons of God’. If this is true then the converse is also true i.e. ‘sons of God’ = ‘gods’, but again, as a matter of status not nature.

Seeing then that kings were generally understood to hold a divine status, and that the Davidic king was at least once addressed by the title elohim {see Ps. 45:6}, it may be that other references to ‘gods’ in the psalms are actually references to earthly kings rather than to the deities of the nations. An example may be Ps. 58:1-2:

“Do you indeed speak righteousness, O gods? Do you judge uprightly, O sons of men? No, in heart you work unrighteousness; on earth you weigh out the violence of your hands.” NASV

Verse 1 of this passage is obscure because the word here translated ‘gods’ is translated in other versions as ‘silence’ (ASV, ISR, ISV, ERV) or ‘silent ones’ (NKJV, YLT, WEB). This is because there are two words in the Hebrew which have the same consonants but different vowel pointings in the Masoretic text- elem and elim. Elem is an masculine adjective which acts as a noun and comes from the verb alam meaning to be mute, hence ‘silent one’. Elim is the plural form of el which is translated as God or god. The idea of ‘silent ones’ or ‘silence’ does not seem to fit the context of the verse, for then you would have ‘silent ones’ speaking or speaking ‘in silence’, which makes little sense. There have been various attempts to explain the verse from this perspective but they always seem strained. Another problem with elem is that it is a masculine singular construct, whereas the verbs for speaking and judging are plural. Also if the plural ‘sons of men’ is meant to parallel the singular elem, then again we have a problem. Therefore, it seems best to repoint the vowels differently than the Masoretic text, and in fact many scholars favor doing so, and read elim instead of elem. This gives us a plural noun agreeing with the plural verbs and the plural parallel ‘sons of men’. This change of the vowel points is reflected in the following versions: AMP, CEB, EHV, ESV, ESVUK, NASB, NASB1995, NRSV, OJB, RSV.

Other versions accept the reading elim over elem but translate it as ‘mighty ones’ or ‘rulers’, because el is sometimes used of great rulers in the Hebrew Bible {see Ezek. 31:11 where it refers to Nebuchanezzar}. El appears in plural construct in Ezek. 32:21, where the context reveals that it refers to kings and princes of the nations. As noted above, this application of the title el to these rulers is probably in reference to their divine status.

Now Heiser might object that if elim is the correct reading then the passage may refer to the members of the divine council, which in his understanding are actual ontologically divine beings. But this seems ruled out by the parallelism in Ps. 58:1 between these elim and the ‘sons of men’. Now some versions translate the passage as if the ‘sons of men’ are the recipients of the judging of the elim rather than as a parallel designation of the elim:

  • CSB – “Do you judge people fairly?”
  • CEB – “do you really judge humans fairly?”
  • ERV – “You are not judging people fairly.”
  • ESV – “Do you judge the children of man uprightly?”
  • ISV – “How can you judge people fairly?”
  • NIV – “Do you judge people with equity?”

These translations leave open the possibility that the elim are heavenly beings rather than earthly kings. But if the two clauses of verse 1 are meant to be parallel, and I think this is the case, then ‘sons of men’ should be taken as vocative just as elim is in all of the above versions. Hence, the NASV, quoted earlier, would give the best rendering of the verse, making the elim equivalent to the ‘sons of men’, thus ruling out elim as a reference to heavenly beings. Furthermore, if the ‘sons of men’ were the recipients of the judging or the sphere in which the elim judged, we would expect a preposition such as be or le to be prefixed to the word ‘sons’ such as at Num. 8:17 and Ps. 12:8. Thus, Ps. 58:1-2 is good evidence of earthly kings being referred to as ‘gods’.

Another possible reference to earthly kings as ‘gods’ is Ps. 89:27, where speaking of David and his descendants after him who attain to the throne, God says:

“I will appoint him my firstborn, the most high of the kings of the earth.”

Here the Davidic king is regarded as Yahweh’s firstborn son. But this implies other sons besides the Davidic king i.e. the kings of the earth. The kings of the earth are also designated, then, as ‘sons of God’, though the Davidic king holds the highest rank among them, and as we saw earlier sons of God = gods i.e. divine status.

Still yet another possible instance of earthly kings being called ‘gods’ is Ex. 15:11:

“Who among the gods (elim) is like you O Yahweh? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”

Why should we take this as a reference to earthly kings rather than of the deities of the nations? The context of the passage is a song of praise which Moses and the Israelites sang to God after the Egyptian army was destroyed. The song depicts Yahweh as a great warrior king who has just defeated his enemies in battle. While this could be taken in the sense that Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt, it was in fact Pharaoh and his army which Yahweh defeated. This defeat is described in great poetic strains and the focus is always on Pharaoh and his army and never on the gods of Egypt {see vv. 1-12}. In vv. 14-15 the song speaks of the nations of Canaan hearing of this great defeat of the mighty Egypt and trembling in fear. Verse 15 specifically speaks of the kings of the Canaanite nations fearing their own demise at the hand of the great warrior king Yahweh, and uses parallel terms to do so. The first term is alluwph which is translated as chief; the second is el which, as we’ve already seen means god; and the third is yashab, a participle meaning the inhabiting ones, but in this case probably means the sitting ones i.e. the ones sitting on the throne {for this use see Is. 10:13; Amos 1:5; Ps. 2:4; 9:7; 22:4; 29:10; 1 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam 6:2; Ps. 99:1}. Once again, no mention is made of the deities of the Canaanite nations only of their earthly rulers. For these reasons the ‘gods’ of v. 11 should be taken as human rulers, in the sense that Yahweh, the king of Israel, is greater than the kings of all the nations and none among them can compare with him.

Other passages show how, often, kings took their divine status beyond what was proper and, becoming puffed up, began to regard themselves as being more than simply a representative of their god. Two passages which vividly depict this with mocking tones is Ezek. 28:1-19 and Is. 14:12-15. In these passages God taunts the proud and arrogant kings and tells of their demise {Ezek. 28:19 and Is. 14:9-11}. This is very reminiscent of Ps. 82: 6-7.

Kings Are Responsible To God

In Scripture the kings of the earth are depicted as being set in place by God and ruling on behalf of God. The clearest statement of this is in the NT:

Everyone must submit to the supreme authorities, for there is no authority except under God. Those which exist are under God, having been established . . . For he (i.e. the one in authority) is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do evil be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, the one carrying out justice unto punishment to the one doing evil.

Romans 13:1-4

That this refers to kings in particular can be seen by the fact that 1 Peter 2:13 used the same word Paul used, huperecho, translated in the quote above as ‘supreme’, and applies it specifically to kings. Paul believed kings were set in place by God and were therefore under God i.e. responsible to him for how they carried out their office. There can be no doubt that Paul derived this view from the Hebrew scriptures. Some passages which come to mind are:

  • Dan. 2:20-21“Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever . . . he deposes kings and raises up kings . . .”
  • Dan. 2:37-38“You, O king, are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory. In your hand he has placed mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Wherever they live he has made you ruler over them all . . .”
  • Dan. 4:17“. . . the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to whoever he pleases and sets over them the lowliest of men.”
  • Jer. 27:5-7 “With my great power and outstretched arm I made the earth and it’s people and the animals that are on it, and I give it to anyone I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar . . . all nations will serve him . . .”

Here is another pertinent passage which deserves some attention:

The nobles of the nations have gathered together the people of the God of Abraham, for the shields (i.e. kings) of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.

Psalm 47:9

The term ‘shields’ is a metaphor for kings. This can be seen in the synonymous parallelism of Ps. 89:18, where the Davidic king is viewed as belonging to Yahweh. Whether Psalm 47 depicts some period of time in the past or envisions a future time, it portrays the kings of the earth as also belonging to God. In the Hebrew text the lamed is prefixed to elohim (God) signifying to or for God, thereby denoting that the kings of the earth render service to or on behalf of God as vassals kings. This is confirmed by v. 2 which speaks of Yahweh as the “Most High, the great king over all the earth,” and by v. 8, which declares, “God reigns over the nations.” This need not imply that the kings of the earth know or acknowledge that they serve at the behest of God, but only that from God’s perspective they rule at his pleasure.

Now let’s see what the main duties of a king was from God’s perspective:

  • 2 Chron. 9:8“Praise be to Yahweh your God who . . . placed you on his throne as king to rule for Yahweh your God . . . he has made you king . . .to maintain justice and righteousness.”
  • Psalm 72:2-4, 12-14He (the king) will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice . . . he will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor . . . For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence . . .”
  • Jer. 21:11 – “Moreover, say to the royal house of Judah, ‘Hear the word of Yahweh; O house of David, this is what Yahweh says, “Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.”
  • Jer. 22:1-3“This is what Yahweh says, ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: “Hear the word of Yahweh, O king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne . . . Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.”
  • Prov. 31:4-9“It is not for kings, O Lemuel, not for kings to drink wine . . . lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights . . . Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge righteously; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

I think it is safe to say that God established kingship in the ancient world as a means of bringing some level of order and peace to human societies. Without such a form of centralized rule societies in the ancient world would have quickly collapsed into anarchy and chaos. In order to accomplish this it was indispensable for kings to maintain justice and equity toward all the people under their rule. Although the passages above were primarily written with regard to the Davidic king, I believe we would be justified in extrapolating that God required of all kings the same concern for maintaining justice and equity on the throne.

This leads us to the charge made against the ‘gods’ of Psalm 82. In v. 2 we read:

How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked.

Ps. 82:2

And then comes the call for them to fulfill their divine duty in accordance with God’s purpose in establishing kingship:

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain justice for the afflicted and needy. Rescue the weak and oppressed; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Ps. 82:3-4

The question must be asked – if the ‘gods’ of v. 1 are ontologically divine beings ruling over earthly kingdoms from a heavenly sphere, in what way did they “defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” It must be stated categorically that the duties enjoined in vv. 3-4 are the duties of earthly kings not of heavenly beings. There is no passage in scripture that I am aware of that makes the justice and protection of the weak and afflicted envisioned in this passage, the commission of heavenly beings. Yet, we are explicitly told that these are the duties of human kings.

The ‘gods’ are further rebuked in v. 5:

They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Ps. 82:5

Once again, does this fit better with members of a heavenly divine council or with earthly kings who are ignorant of the true God and the fact that they rule at his pleasure and are therefore responsible to him. Could it really be said of the ontologically divine members of Yahweh’s council, who would know Yahweh personally and would know their responsibility before him, that they know and understand nothing?

Answering Heiser’s Objections

In his 2010 paper Heiser makes the claim that arguing that these [gods] are human beings is inescapably incoherent. In the paper he claims that he has demonstrated that there is no coherent argument in favor of the human identification. But Heiser has failed to do this because he simply argues against only one particular version of the human identification view, i.e. that of the human judges of Israel. My view actually eliminates immediately one of Heiser’s objections to the judges of Israel view. On page 8 of the paper Heiser says:

First, it is worth noting that these judges (of Ex. 22:7-9). . . are rendering decisions for the nation of Israel – not the nations of the world as is the case in Psalm 82 . . .

Heiser’s 2010 paper p. 8

You can see that my view that the ‘gods’ are metaphorical of the kings of the earth removes this objection completely. I agree with Heiser that v. 8 of Ps. 82 requires a focus on the nations and not just Israel. This is partially why I revised my former view which saw the ‘gods’ as only the kings of Judah and Israel.

Another objection of Heiser’s is found in v. 7 where it is said of the gods, “you will die like men.” He thinks this rules out that the ‘gods’ are men because why would men be told that they “will die like men?” He believes God is announcing his judgment against these corrupt members of the divine council, which judgment being that “they will lose their immortality.” But there are a couple of problems with this objection. First, it is a bit myopic and prosaic. Heiser reads the psalm as if it were literal prose instead of the highly poetic work that it clearly is. A better way to understand the verse is that they “will die like men” is said in contrast to Yahweh’s designation of them as ‘gods’; though they hold a divine status they will die like the men they are. Second, what exactly would it mean for pure spirit beings to die. In Heiser’s world when men die they only die physically, but their spirits live on in a disembodied state – this is what it means for men to die in Heiser’s view. Since he takes the passage literally then these spirit beings will “die like men.” Yet he seems to be saying that these beings will cease to exist i.e. being pure spirit beings who live forever, they will lose their immortality and so die. But how is this dying like men, who do not cease to exist when they die, from Heiser’s perspective. To die like men these divine beings would have to merely shed off some form in which they now exist to exist forever in some other form not suitable to their own domain. I would like to hear a clear explanation of the death of these divine beings by Heiser.

I will now address the six items that Heiser lists at the end of his paper which he thinks proves conclusively that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 cannot refer to humans. Please refer to the paper for each item as I will not repeat them here.

1.) This point hearkens back to pp.2-3 in the paper, where Heiser lists six figures in the Hebrew Bible who are called elohim – Yahweh, both the loyal and disloyal members of Yahweh’s divine council, the gods of the nations, demons, the disembodied human dead, and angels. First off, I’m confused, because he lists the members of the divine council and the gods of the nations as distinct things. But I thought that in his view the gods of the nations are the disloyal members of the council. Anyway, He then says that what all these have in common is that “they are by nature not part of the world of humankind.” Heiser gives the impression that the term elohim is never applicable to humans, but this is false. I have heard Heiser himself acknowledge that Ps. 45:6 refers to the Davidic king by the term elohim, but he fails to mention this in this paper. Also in Exodus 7:1 Yahweh says to Moses, “I have appointed you elohim to Pharaoh.” Of course, both of these instances reflect a representational application of the term i.e. it is a matter of status and function, not of nature. Heiser never seems to address this use of elohim for humans though I can’t imagine he is unaware of this concept. So we see that the term elohim can be applied to humans in a certain sense.
2.) This point I do not believe Heiser has proved conclusively despite his confident assertions. All he has proven is that the language of Deut. 32 and Ps. 82 could accommodate the idea of a divine council, and from this he extrapolates that the language requires such an interpretation. But these passages can easily be interpreted within a biblical framework without recourse to the concept of a divine council of gods ruling over the nations. Heiser simply wants the scripture to conform to the pagan religious texts of the ANE. He states that “no text in the Old Testament assigns to human Israelite judges [authority over the disinherited nations].” Well I agree, but there are plenty of texts that state emphatically that God has given authority over the disinherited nations to human beings, namely kings: 1 Kings 4:21; Ps. 115:16; 148:11; Is. 14:9; Ezek. 31:11; Dan. 2:36-38; 4:17; 5:19.
3.) I am not sure what Heiser thinks ‘demons’ are, though I think in his book titled Demons (which I have not read) he equates them with the disembodied spirits of the Nephilim. But Deut. 32:17, which he quotes on p. 6 of the paper, seems to equate demons with the gods worshiped by the nations, which Heiser believes are members of the council. This seems to be an inconsistency in his position (perhaps his book clears it up). Nevertheless, this point is totally irrelevant to whether the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are human or divine. His point seems to be that if demons = the gods worshiped by the nations, then these gods have to be actual beings and not just imaginary gods. But this is not a necessary conclusion. If demons are actual spirit entities which crave and thrive on the worship people give to false gods in the form of idols, this would not necessarily mean that the demons are literally gods, but just impersonators of gods. This seems to be confirmed by 1 Tim 4:1 which equates demons with deceitful spirits. The adjective deceitful (Gr. planos) denotes misleading, deceiving, and when used substantively it denotes an imposter or deceiver.
4.) This point is really the whole crux of the matter for Heiser. Everything must be made to conform to the pagan religious texts of the ANE. This is what drives much of Heiser’s exegesis. But what if these texts were inspired by those very same deceiving spirits mentioned above, in an attempt to confuse the truth of God with the errors of the pagan nations? Wouldn’t Heiser be playing right into their hands?
5.) Here, once again, Heiser’s exegesis lacks nuance and so falls flat. In the paper, he looks at the passages where elohim is typically thought to be referring to judges – Ex. 22:7-9 and 21:2-6. In both of these passages individuals are required to come before or be brought before God (i.e. elohim) and this has been taken to refer to the judges. Now I agree with Heiser that elohim in these verses does not refer specifically to the judges themselves. But Heiser fails to recognize the role of the judges in these situations. When someone was to come before God where would they go? Or when someone was to be brought before God, to where would they actually bring them? The answer is to the judges, who were acting as representatives of the people before God {see Deut. 19:16-18}. This is similar to when an individual Israelite would bring an offering to Yahweh he would literally bring it to the priest. The priest was not Yahweh but represented the person before Yahweh. In the same way, to follow the instructions given in these two passages one was probably required to go to the judges in order to bring their case before God.
6.) This point is only relevant if one thinks Jesus is deity and that he quoted Ps. 82:6 in order to prove his deity, both of which I deny. The passage in John 10 makes perfectly good sense if one does not think a.) that Jesus is deity b.) that the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are actual gods c.) that Jesus is trying to prove his deity by quoting Ps. 82 in John 10. Or said another way, it makes good sense if one sees a.) Jesus as the chosen son of David destined to take the throne b.) the gods of Ps. 82 as kings and c.) Jesus’ point in John 10 is that, based on a.) he had a right to the title ‘son of God’.

Final Thoughts

So why does this even matter? So what if the ‘gods’ of Ps. 82 are real gods or just a metaphor for human kings? Well, in the larger scheme of things it probably doesn’t matter much for many. But I do see a lot of confusion about this passage and about Jesus’ use of the psalm in his conflict with the Jews in John 10. Heiser’s take on John 10 borders on ridiculous and is a prime example of eisegesis, i.e. reading one’s presuppositions into the text. He thinks the only way to adequately understand John 10 is through the paradigm of the divine council. He thinks that John is presenting Jesus’ deity in 10:22-42. He thinks that Jesus quotes Ps.82:6 in order to “establish his claim to be God.” None of these ideas are explicit in the text; Heiser is simply reading the text in accordance with his theological predilections. I will not take the time here to refute his claims on John 10, as I have done so in the article linked at the beginning of this one, and also in this article. So it matters because, when a certain misinterpretation of Ps. 82 is then used to support a certain misinterpretation of Jesus in the gospels, it becomes necessary to address the errors that led to that misinterpretation.