Below you will find short interactions with classic theological literature to help introduce you to some of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. There will also be irregular posts formed out of sermons, Bible studies, or coffee after 5:00pm.
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Last week I quoted Hebrews 2:17, which by way of reminder says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The point being made was that Christ was “made like his brothers,” in service of the fact that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man.
But what about that funny little word toward the end there? Propitiation? When’s the last time that came up at the dinner table?
It’s actually an important word for a robust doctrine of the atonement, or what took place because of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Propitiation: noun. The aspect of the atoning work of Christ that is focused on the wrath of God being satisfied in the substitutionary death of his Son on behalf of the elect.
The atonement has many different aspects, but the primary way of describing why it happened and what took place is bound up in the word propitiation. Let’s stick with Hebrews 2:17 at first to see what it teaches.
Throughout the Old Testament, there was a need for a mediator between God and man. Enter the priests. God established Moses’s brother Aaron as a priest and developed the tribe of Levi as the priests for all of Israel. The primary responsibilities of the priests were to facilitate the necessary sacrifices from the people (and themselves) and to teach the people the law, or instruction, of God.
Because there is only one God, God cannot be a priest. What kind of being mediates himself? 1 Samuel 2:25 says, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?”
Samuel is also thought of the prototypical priest. 1 Samuel 2:26 says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man.” Now who else does that sound like (cf. Luke 2:52)?
In the same way that there was always a longing for (and of course the promise of) a king to be on the throne of David, which Christ also satisfies, there was also a longing for a priest who fulfills his duties for the final time. There was a desire for a day when sacrifices would cease because there was no more need for them. Read: sin was fully and finally dealt with. The major prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah deal heavily with this.
When Jesus Christ became our priest, it’s because he was also fully a man. He was the prophet better than Moses, the king better than David, and the priest better than Samuel.
The priests of the Old Testament were instructed to use the blood of bulls and rams. God has always required a life for sin. But as Hebrews 10:4 tells us, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The Old Testament sacrificial system as a whole was only a shadow of what Christ would do. Animal sacrifices could not satisfy divine justice.
But when Christ offered himself in our place, the priest also became the sacrifice, something no other priest could have done. Christ’s perfections and his obedience to the law of God made him suitable to be a substitute for the wrath of God. And that is the sacrifice that ended the sacrificial system forever. Hebrews 10:12 says, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
Propitiation summarizes that truth. Christ appeased God’s wrath by substituting himself in our place according to the divine will and foreknowledge of God.
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In the last few decades or so, it's became fashionable to sing worship songs to Jesus as if he was the church's high school sweetheart. If we aren't careful, this radically changes the way we think about our Savior. Everything else that's true about him falls into the category of "Other."
One area that's happened especially is in the doctrine of the natures of Christ. It's not always seen as something significant since it's not immediately applicable to life's biggest problems, or so we think.
So this week's theological dictionary term is:
Hypostatic Union: noun. The joining of a human and the divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ without any damage done to the other nature or the creation of a third nature.
In Jesus Christ, something otherwise impossible occurred. The Son of God lowered himself, took on the form of a servant, and dwelt among us. Jesus was not equal parts man and God, but fully man and fully God. Jesus Christ was not a new kind of being, like a demigod. He was not Hercules. He was 100% human and 100% divine.
So why does this matter? Because Jesus is the fulfillment of 100s of years of prophecy. He's the suffering servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53. He's the unblemished lamb the whole sacrificial system pointed to. He's the prophet better than Moses of Deuteronomy 18.
We need a better priest, someone to atone for our sins. But we need a better prophet, too, someone to teach us about God. We need a better king, someone who will obey God perfectly.
We also need a better sacrifice—a lamb free from the effects of sin who is willing to take on our sins. And if the blood of lambs and goats can't do that, then who can? God cannot take on sin, or he would be a sinner, and therefore not be God. So, using language very carefully, we can say that Jesus died on the cross. But we must be clear, the human nature of Jesus faced death, not the divine nature. God did not die on the cross.
Jesus had always been God, but he became a man at a specific point in time, IE, the incarnation. However, he did at times work within the specific limits of humanity. For instance, he was often thirsty or tired. He also, at times, would act in the power of his divinity. Jesus multiplied food, calmed the waves, and raised the dead.
Hebrews 2:17 says, "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people."
Jesus is our priest, faithful and final, and the incarnation made that possible.
Philippians 2:8-11 says, "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Because Jesus took on flesh (which was the plan from eternity past), because he was obedient as a man, and because he died as a man, God has made him king and given him full authority over us.
This also implies that Jesus Christ is still to this day fully God and fully man. They hypostatic union continues. Right now, Jesus is the God-man, interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. When he comes again, he'll bring all of his fleshy divinity with him.
If you studied a foreign language in high school or college, one of the more difficult facets of learning a new language is learning a new way of thinking. Language and thinking are both like the potter, and they are both like the clay. They mold each other.
Theological language is no different. Most of the time, you and I don't create new theological terms (and we should weary of those who do). We inherit them. And when we inherit language, we are also inheriting the process of thinking by which those new terms were deemed necessary.
Another issue with language is that it eventually becomes jargon. Encyclopedias are packed into a single word. As more and more books are written on a topic, more and more ideas are packed into a single word. Words inherit baggage in like way we inherit the words. The further we're detached from the world of words, the harder it is to be familiar with the jargon.
So what I want to do is bring up some classic theological language and explain the ideas behind the words. This will help all of us be more familiar with the way not just theologians speak but the way the Bible speaks, and therefore, the way God speaks.
The Bible is a big book. If we don't have ways of quickly summing up what it says, we'll never get anywhere. And jargon, or theological language, is the way that happens.
We won't necessarily go in alphabetical order since ideas don't come in alphabetical order. Besides, some words are just more important than the others.
So let's start with a good one.
COVENANT: noun; a relationship initiated by God including binding obligations between two parties; is the primary way God moves salvation history forward.
The Bible speaks of creating covenants in two ways: to "cut" a covenant and to "establish" a covenant. To "cut" a covenant is to begin the covenant. To "establish" a covenant is to essentially renew it or recommit to your side of the covenant's obligations.
Sometimes, you might hear of a covenant being "unilateral" or "bilateral." That just means that either one party has all the obligations (unilateral) or both parties have obligations (bilateral). The truth is more complex than that. All of the covenants have obligations for both parties. The real difference is really if the particular covenant has a termination date.
The Bible is full of covenants. There is a covenant made between God and Adam and Eve (even though the word isn't used in the story, all the marks of a covenant are there: binding obligations on both parties). If Adam and Eve are faithful, they will inherit eternal life. One side of the covenant fails (start looking for a theme there), and the covenant is broken. Adam and Eve are removed from the land God had given them and will die a physical death. But before being dismissed from their home, God promises that there will one day come a child way down the line who will undo what they did.
Then, there is a covenant between God and Noah. After purging the earth of most of its sinners through a worldwide flood, God promises not to do so again. The world will be destroyed again one day, but there will be less water. Even this covenant, marked by the rainbow, has obligations for both parties: God will not destroy the earth by water, and mankind will not eat meat while still on the animal. This must have a been a bone of contention in Noah's day. Some parts of the world still do this: carve meat off of a living animal. So we can eat meat, but we cannot be cruel to animals.
Then, of course, there is the covenant with Abraham. Some have argued that there are multiple covenants with Abraham. But really, it's all one, even though components of it are added throughout Genesis 12 through 17. In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises to bless the whole world through Abraham's family. Specifically, this covenant is actually a partial fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve that one of their far-off children would fix everything.
The Mosaic covenant is made at Sinai, and it involves the giving of the law (or better, instruction) to the people who are themselves a partial fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, that a nation would be made up of Abraham's children (do you see all the interconnectedness yet?). When the people obey the instruction, all goes well and they show the world how God acts in righteousness. When they disobey the instruction, all goes poorly and they show the world how God acts in righteousness.
The Davidic covenant is made specifically with the family line of David (who is a subset of Israel, who is a subset of Abraham). The kings will be the official keepers of the law and will be responsible for the people's faithfulness to the law. Part of this covenant is that there will always be a king in David's family line on the throne, as long as the nation is obedient. One day, a king of David's line will rule forever and the people will never again rebel against God.
The Old Testament promises a new covenant in the future when God promises to do just that: to remove all sin from the community of righteousness. There will be a king from David's line who rules the people of God forever. The new people of God will not be a mixed people, where you are considered an Israelite just because you were born an Israelite. The new people of God will be born twice: once physically and once spiritually.
The new covenant was instituted by Christ at his death and resurrection. Now, all those who are in Christ are the true Israel because Christ is the true Israel. In the new covenant, all of God's promises made in the previous covenants are fulfilled in Christ. Many, if not most, of them are inaugurated, meaning they have been proven but not yet finalized. That is yet future, when Christ returns a second and final time.
God works through covenants, and that is the primary way of reading Scripture.
As Pilate and Jesus end their interaction, we come to the fourth and final question between them. Jesus has established that he is a king and that he came to preach the truth about God and his will. Now Pilate, in all his frustration, essentially throws his hands up and makes a rash decision.
Jesus has established that he is a king and that he has come to bring people to a knowledge of the truth. Pilate now asks what seems like a logical question:
“What is truth?”
Philosophy has asked this question as long as there have been philosophers. So is Pilate being serious? Is he joking? Being sarcastic? It could be that since Jesus has just said everyone who listens to his voice is of the truth, that Pilate now really wants to know what that truth is. But his actions betray him.
Jesus seemingly gives no response—but he has actually already answered Pilate’s question. If Jesus answered Pilate’s questions affirming his kingship, then he has also answered Pilate’s questions affirming that he is the truth. So what is truth? What does Jesus say it is?
Truth doesn’t start with a proposition. Truth starts with a person.
This really isn’t a genuine question from Pilate. We know that because after going back out to to the people one more time, he finally decides to have Jesus killed. As governor, he has to make an impossible decision: free the innocent man or feed the mob.
It was customary to free one prisoner this time of the year. Barabbas has genuinely been charged with insurrection and found guilty. Jesus has been charged with blasphemy, but the governor can’t give a sentence for that. Besides that, even the priests can’t clarify the blasphemy charges.
Ultimately Pilate rejects the truth placed before him. He can’t deal with the tension of what people expect of him and the truth that he’s just been confronted with.
If you want to find truth, where do you go? Do you even believe in truth? Our post-modern age rejects the notion of objective truth. If truth even exists at all, it’s subjective, relative, open for debate, individual choice. For example, standpoint theory says truth and knowledge is dependent on you social position.
Christianity outright rejects this claim. The very definition of truth is altered in such a way that it’s unrecognizable.
The end of the search for truth is Christ and him crucified. There’s always more to learn, more truth to find, but the only starting point is Christ himself.
We all want to know the point—of living, of working, of raising kids, of being married—we want to know the point of why we exist. So the most important question we can ask is “What is truth?”
What Pilate got wrong was that he was face to face with the truth, but because the truth interfered with his life, because he would have to answer to people who hated Jesus, he backed down and couldn’t stand the idea of being mocked and harassed by the right people.
The same choice is yours, and you’ll be faced with the same problem as Pilate. As you answer the question, “What is truth,” there will be people and groups who do all they can to force you to answer a certain way.
The answer to all of life’s questions are found not in a proposition but in a person. No other philosophy or theory of why something exists instead of nothing can account for our search for meaning. The Christian embraces all the hard questions because the search for truth is over. We have found the truth, or rather, the truth has found us. And the truth is a person—the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Until we know Christ, that God is holy, we are not, but he can make us so, we will fill in the gaps in the truth we know and believe just about anything. We see that going on all over.
Christ says everyone who is in the truth listens to his voice. The fact that there is truth means that error is possible. We can believe wrong things and we can believe right things. Yes, Jesus is exclusive in his claims, but he offers the narrow path to all who will come and listen.
The subjectivity of our culture is a lie. Christ calls on you to decide whether or not you really want the answer to the question, “What is truth?”
The accusation of bigotry and closed-mindedness is nearly meaningless is today’s culture. Don’t fear being mocked or rejected like Pilate. Stand firm in the truth and embrace it.
Christians especially can embrace the truth, because truth is a person.
Jesus is facing a sham sentencing after facing a sham trial. He stands before Pilate, and Pilate has no idea what to do with him. Pilate has an angry mob of people whose religion and culture looks nothing like his own. He doesn't understand. But as governor, the buck stops with him. He's going to give the people an answer, and both answers are going to end poorly.
Pilate is facing two disparate truths: Jesus appears innocent of the charges, but there is no one coming to his defense. Pilate seemingly hasn't even heard of Jesus before this day. Why of all a sudden is Jesus a villain?
Pilate has asked two other questions of Jesus so far: who are you? and why should I care?
And Jesus has answered both of those questions truthfully, even if they weren't the clear answers for which Pilate had hoped.
Now Pilate asks a third question in John 18:37. "Then Pilate said to him, 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.'"
You can sense the frustration. Pilate thinks he's getting nowhere. But Jesus's answer is perfect. He definitely answers Pilate's question, but he gives the answer Pilate doesn't know he needs to hear.
Jesus clearly admits to being a king. "For this purpose I was born..."
Jesus did not arrive in the incarnation like a king that Pilate was used to. Jesus is a king who came to be the king of truth. Everything Jesus says is true, regardless of how much work it takes to understand it, no matter if the world understands it or not. There will always be people to reject the truth of Christ, but that should not deter Christians from embracing every word that comes from the mouth of God.
The flesh, or the world, has one set of presuppositions. The flesh presupposes that we can define ourselves without relation to God, that we can determine our own destiny, and that we are free.
The spirit, or the kingdom of God, has another set of presuppositions. The spirit presupposes that we are defined by our relation to our heavenly Father, that God is sovereign, and that we are either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ.
One set of presuppositions is true, and the other set is damning. One set results in human flourishing, and the other set is the result of the fall.
Each one of us needs to examine ourselves and what we believe so we know which set of presuppositions we adhere to. Do we believe a lie, or do we believe in the one who came to show us the truth?
Everyone who is of the truth listens to Christ's voice and adjusts their philosophies and theologies accordingly. That is discipleship. So if you are not living according to the truth, the spirit calls us to repent and change our system of belief.
You can apply this to your identity. Am I forming my own identity based on what culture tells me, or am I increasingly learning about who God says I am?
You can apply this to your relationships. Am I seeking personal satisfaction and using other people to do so, or am I seeking to serve other people before myself?
You can apply this to your job. Am I building cars, practicing medicine, or sweeping floors and complaining about it, or am I dutifully serving my Lord in whatever capacity he has placed me?
"Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice."