Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Concept of Blamelessness in 1 Corinthians 1:8

In 1 Cor 1:8, the Apostle Paul speaks of how Jesus keeps believers firm in the faith until the end in order that they might be “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word translated as blameless or guiltless is the Greek adjective ἀνέγκλητος, which means not accused or without reproach.

The translation of ἀνέγκλητος into English as blameless or guiltless is potentially problematic if the word is understood by the English reader as conveying the idea of absolute moral perfection on the day of judgment. In 1 Cor 1:8, Paul does not have the absolute moral perfection of the believer in mind. Nor does he have the absolute moral perfection of Christ imputed to the believer in mind. The blamelessness in view at this point is rather a legal status on the level of covenant obedience. The covenant obedience in mind is perseverance in faith, i.e., faithfulness to the new covenant.

An examination of the use of ἀνέγκλητος elsewhere in the New Testament illustrates this. In the four other uses of this term in the New Testament (all by Paul), three of them are clearly not talking about absolute moral perfection. In 1 Tim 3:10, being ἀνέγκλητος is a moral quality that is required to be shown by a new deacon under probation. In Tit 1:6–7, being ἀνέγκλητος is a moral quality required for ordination as an elder. Elders and deacons (before the return of Christ) will never be absolutely free of personal sin; but high moral standards, and practice consistent with these standards, are required for them to be leaders in the church of Christ. The use of ἀνέγκλητος in Col 1:22 is more difficult to adjudicate. Here Paul speaks about how God has brought about our reconciliation with himself through the death of Christ “to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him.” Paul could have the gift of being covered in the absolute moral perfection of Christ in view at this point, however the condition of continuation in the faith that is mentioned immediately following (i.e., in Col 1:23) gives cause for considering that Paul probably has the covenant righteousness of the believer in view in Col 1:22. Surprisingly perhaps, ἀνέγκλητος does not occur in the LXX; however the use of ἀνέγκλητος in 3 Macc 5:31 by King Ptolemy IV Philopator as a description of the Jews who had been fully loyal to his ancestors is a good extrabiblical instance of ἀνέγκλητος denoting general moral goodness or loyalty.

To interpret 1 Cor 1:8 and possibly Col 1:22 as Paul expressing the need for believers to present themselves before Christ on the day of judgment as personally holy (i.e., as people who have persevered in the faith) is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Phil 1:10–11, where he prays that the Philippian Christians might know what is morally good, so as to be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness.” It is also consistent with Paul’s teaching in 1 Thess 3:12–13, where he links abounding in love for others with God establishing “your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” It is also consistent with Paul’s blessing in 1 Thess 5:23, where God sanctifying the believers completely is linked with the full preservation of our spirit, soul, and body “blamelessly at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul’s teaching in these passages is also consistent with Peter’s teaching in 2 Pet 3:14, where, in the context of a discussion about the end of the current state of the world, Peter encourages his readers to “be diligent to be found by [God] without spot or blemish” while waiting for the new heaven and new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

The goal of the process of sanctification is cleansing with a view to the church, and all the members thereof, being made “holy and without blemish,” in order to be presented to Christ “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph 5:26–27). The process of sanctification can be viewed as Christ preparing his bride for the eternal marriage that will take place on the day that he arrives. Paul’s understanding is that every Christian should be morally beautiful and pleasing to the Lord on the day that he returns on analogy with the way that a bride makes herself beautiful before meeting her husband on the day of their wedding. The moral beauty of personal righteousness, cultivated through the power of God’s word and Spirit, is the blamelessness which Paul desires that all Christians will display before the Lord on the day of Christ’s return. This is the proper conceptual framework for understanding Paul’s use of ἀνέγκλητος in 1 Cor 1:8.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Solution to Pain and Suffering according to Revelation 21:1–4

When Christians get sick, or when things start to go wrong, we can pray to God, asking him to bring healing, deliverance, or relief. God definitely has the power to change our lives for the better in the here and now, but what do you do when it is not God’s will just yet to bring healing or relief? It is a fairly well documented fact that, for all our prayers, Christians still get sick. And it is a fact that Christians, no matter how strong their faith, still get old and eventually die. All of this poses the question, therefore: when and how will the pain and suffering end?

The Bible points to the coming of Christ as marking the point when all pain and suffering will end for God’s people. This is clear, for example, in the vision given to John in Rev 21:1–4. These verses indicate that pain and suffering will not end fully for God’s people until God brings about the renewal of the cosmos.

According to the vision that God showed John regarding the future of the world in Rev 21:1–4, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, because the first earth will have passed away. God has created the world to exist eternally, but the Bible tells us that the world as we currently know it will not exist forever. The world as we know it is a world that has suffered the effects of sin and disease and death, but God’s plan is to bring about the renewal of the world, which will result in the removal of the effects of sin, disease, and death from the world.

The new heaven and the new earth will not be totally new in the sense that God will destroy the original creation in order to replace it with a totally new creation. Just as Jesus’ resurrection body was his old body transformed, so too the new world will be a transformation, not a replacement, of the old world. God’s plan involves refining the current world through fire. The Apostle Peter states that:

“the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of the judging and destruction of ungodly people … the day of the Lord will come like a thief, when the heavens will disappear with a roar, and the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (2 Pet 3:7, 10)

The role of fire when the day of the Lord comes helps us to see that the new earth is the old earth refined and purified. When people refine gold, for example, they put the lump of gold which contains impurities into a furnace. The lump of gold melts and becomes liquid, allowing other substances in the lump to be separated from the gold. This allows refined gold, often up to 99.99% pure to be produced. This refined gold is not new gold. It is the old gold that has been purified. In a similar way, the fire of judgment will refine the world, transforming the old world of sin and death into the renewed world of righteousness and life. This idea of refining, plus the basic continuity in the appearance of the risen Jesus compared to the appearance of his pre-resurrection body, suggests that the new earth will basically look like the world that we currently know, but without any impurities or imperfections.

After seeing the new heaven and the new earth, John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from the presence of God in heaven (Rev 21:2). Jerusalem is the capital city of the kingdom of God, the place where God has chosen to establish his throne on earth. The new Jerusalem, therefore, is basically God’s palace. The perfection of the palace of the eternal King will be the centerpiece of the new world. The new Jerusalem will be beautiful, just like a bride on her wedding day.

Revelation 21:3 records the powerful voice of God explaining the significance of the coming of the new Jerusalem to John: “Behold, God’s tent is with humanity, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself with them will be their God” (Rev 21:3).

The new Jerusalem is the ultimate tabernacle, the ultimate temple, the presence of God among humanity. The coming of the new Jerusalem symbolizes the coming of God to be present in the world in a physical way. God’s plan in creating the world was for God himself to enter into our world in a physical way at some point in the future. The ultimate goal of creation, and the key purpose of the existence of the universe, is fellowship between God and humanity. Christianity is not such much about us going to be with God; it is about God coming to be with us. Immanuel: God with us! God created the human race back in the beginning with a view to being physically present with us in a fully intimate way at the time of his choosing at a certain point of time in world history. This is the significance of Jesus’ first and second comings. Having entered physically into the world in the person of Jesus, God is going to return to the world in order to be physically present in our world eternally in the person of Jesus.

The implications of the personal physical presence of God in the world are massive. According to Rev 21:4, when God appears in the person of Jesus at the time of the second coming in order to be physically present in our world eternally, this will mean the end of all forms of suffering. God can comfort us in the here and now. He can give healing and relief from pain in the here and now. But God also has a timetable. And according to God’s timetable, full relief, full healing, full comfort, will only be realized when the new Jerusalem appears.

According to Rev 21:4, on the day that Jesus returns, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This implies that before Jesus comes back, there will be occasions when God’s people will suffer and shed tears. This world is a world in which evil and the effects of the fall still exist, and Christians are still impacted by these negative forces. In this world, Christians still get sick, the ageing process still affects us, and like everyone else eventually we die. But continual pain and suffering are not our ultimate destiny. One day God will wipe away our tears. As a result of Christ’s return, “death will be no longer; neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain will be any longer” (Rev 21:4).

Pain and suffering and death will not exist in the new world, because “the former things” will have passed away (Rev 21:4). Suffering is part of this world as a result of the fall. But through the refining fire of judgment, and the return of Jesus to be King over the world in a fully realized sense, the old will be swallowed up by the new, meaning that suffering and all of the other effects of the fall will finally no longer exist for those who have the privilege and right of living in the new earth.

Whatever our pain or hardship, the return of Jesus, and the resulting transformation of the cosmos, provide the ultimate solution. When Jesus returns, everything will be perfect; and those who have have been victorious over evil through faith are assured that a place in the new earth, and a full experience of the truth of Immanuel, will be their eternal destiny (Rev 21:7).