He is worthy. . .

I saw that there was a scroll in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. The scroll was written on the inside and the outside, and it was sealed with seven seals. I saw a strong angel announcing in a loud voice, “Does anybody deserve to open the scroll, to undo its seals?” And nobody in heaven or on the earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look at it. I burst into tears because it seemed that there was nobody who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. One of the elders, however, spoke to me. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Look! The lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has won the victory! He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

~ Revelation 5:1-5, TKNT

Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne. When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They took up a new song, saying,

“You are worthy to take the scroll
and open its seals,
because you were slain,
and by your blood
you purchased for God
persons from every tribe, language,
people, and nation.

You made them a kingdom and priests
to our God,
and they will rule on earth.”

~ Revelation 5:6-10, CEB

I think we’ve all said (or heard it said) at some point in our lives, “Jesus is worthy of my worship.” It’s a nice sentiment, but I sometimes find myself asking, “Why is he worthy of my worship?”

Is it simply because he is God, and that’s how it should be? We’re supposed to worship God, right? That’s just the way things are. We’re finite, and God is infinite. He’s infinitely powerful, infinitely just, and infinitely holy, so that in itself is motivation for worshiping him.

The book of Revelation is admittedly a very difficult book. And that’s okay. Apocalyptic literature is never easy to figure out, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t wrestle with it. Here’s what I (and by “I,” I mean, “theologians and scholars that I currently agree with”) think is going on here.

First question: What’s the deal with this scroll? What is it and why is it so important?

Answer: There are a ton of ideas about what this scroll could be, and many of them contradict each other, but here’s where I land currently. All of Scripture is the story of God’s interaction with the world. He created a home in which to dwell and placed his children into the world to be its overseers. But these children decided to move in their own direction apart from the Creator’s design and sent this world—themselves included—into a tailspin. God set into motion a plan through which he would restore everything to its rightful relationship with him. The scroll in Revelation 5 appears to be God’s plan to redeem and restore his creation to its rightful state of perfection, even unbroken relationship with him.

Second question: Why can’t God the Father open the scroll and unveil this plan of restoration?

Answer: Each of the seals that hold the scroll shut appear to be part of a series of judgments that will purify the earth and eliminate the wickedness that runs rampant upon it. No one in the throne room seems to be capable or qualified to break the seals and purify the earth. No one, that is, except the Lamb (Jesus). Why is the Lamb qualified? The text says, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain” (emphasis added). We can infer a few things from this qualifier. First, the Lamb entered the human condition. He suffered and died. That means that he can identify with us, and the judgments he pours out don’t come from someone who is detached from humanity, but someone who can sympathize and empathize with us in our plight. His purification of the earth is not arbitrary or unfeeling.

Second, he was motivated by love. John wrote that God is love, and what better way to show love than to give your life up for the object of your love? Jesus did that, and when he judges the earth, he is motivated by a self-giving love, the depths of which we cannot possibly fathom.

Third, death—and by extension, resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Jesus—is incredibly important. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the very thing that qualifies Christ is his self-sacrificing action on the cross. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes the following:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There’s a lot here, but we can infer that the operative principle when considering the Messiah’s worthiness is his incredibly humble attitude. Paul tells his audience that this attitude—this humility—is the attitude to adopt. This is why the Lamb is worthy to break the seals of the scroll and begin the process of purifying the earth and eliminating wickedness. This is why the Lamb is worthy to open the scrolls and set in motion the restoration of all things.

Because he is uniquely humble.

Third question: How does any of this change how I worship God?

Answer: Maybe it doesn’t. But I would submit that the reason we worship God should be brought into examination. The Greek word translated in 5:9 as “to take” (“You are worthy to take the scroll”) is the same word translated in 5:12 as “to receive” (“Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing”): λαβεῖν. The parallel shouldn’t be missed. The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals in the same way that he is worthy to receive honor and glory. His humble, self-sacrificing death qualifies him.

This realization should change things. Think of the following exchange:

“Why do you worship Jesus?”

“I worship him because he is worthy.”

Where do you think it could go from there? I think we need to be cautious of an answer like this because it can quickly and subtly turn into something to the effect of, “I worship him for no reason that I am truly aware of or can accurately and/or succinctly articulate right now.” That can lead us to an artificial or unsustainable worship of Jesus that may last for a season, but that will falter because we can’t find a good reason to worship him.

Or consider this possible ensuing exchange:

“Why is he worthy?”

“Jesus is worthy because he is all-powerful, completely just, perfectly holy, and infinitely wise.”

Fair enough, but for starters, I think Scripture is far more explicit about why Jesus is worthy of our worship, and while those attributes are given in Scripture, I don’t think they’re used as motivation for worship (though I could be wrong about that; this is, after all, a blog and not a dissertation).

We become like that which we worship, and I believe that can be also be stated as this: we take on the attributes we hold most dear of that which we worship.

That’s why when we see people who obsess over God’s power, justice, and wrath, over and against God’s love, we often find people who are arrogant, dogmatic, and unloving. (Though ironically they often say things like, “I’m only saying this because I love you like Jesus loves you.” If you truly loved like Jesus loved, you’d be setting your agenda aside and laying your life down for the sake of that other person. . . but I digress.)

But when we see people who obsess over God’s love, we find people who always set aside their own comforts and ideologies for the sake of those around them. It’s almost as if they’ve taken ownership of the Messiah’s words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

So why is Jesus worthy of my worship?

He is worthy because he was slain. He is worthy because he emptied himself. He is worthy because without his death on the cross, the scroll would remain closed, and the restoration of creation would be unattainable.

“But thanks be to God, who in the Messiah constantly leads us in a triumphal procession and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of what it means to know him!”

Celebration. . .

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful!
Let Israel celebrate its maker;
let Zion’s children rejoice in their king!
Let them praise God’s name with dance;
let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre!

I often feel more worshipful at a wedding than I do at a church gathering.

The dancing, the laughter, the sheer joy that exists in that environment. There’s almost the sense of God’s celebratory joy overwhelming the place when everyone hits the dance floor.

I’m not a big Chris Tomlin fan, but I can’t help but think of these words from his song:

I feel alive
I come alive
I am alive on God’s great dance floor

And then for some reason, when I’m at my church gathering, I don’t celebrate. I look around me, and I see few people celebrating. It’s as though people have been lulled into near mundanity.

I almost want to stand up and shout, “The universe’s Creator and King LOVES US. He died for us, but now he LIVES AND REIGNS VICTORIOUSLY! Let’s sing! Let’s dance! We have LIFE!

And I wonder if that’s on us. Maybe, as leaders, we need to change the culture a little.

I live and work in New Jersey. We wear our cynicism like a badge of honor and proudly display it wherever we go. But as Christians, we have an incredible joy that should spill out into everything that we do—especially our corporate worship response!

In many cases I think we’ve allowed our cynicism to infiltrate our worship. It could be our cynicism, it could be our pride, or it could be our unwillingness to be vulnerable. It could even be a combination of all three. I used to think (read: come up with the excuse) that this lack of expressiveness in worship response is an attempt at contextualization, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I was closing off a part of my heart when I sing words like, “Jesus Christ, you are my one desire. Lord, hear my only cry—to know you all my life,” and keep my hands in my pockets.

Yes, the area to the left of the Hudson River is known for its disenchantment, but I believe that as Christians, we shouldn’t be giving in to any of that. God himself rejoices over his people.

The LORD your God is with you. He is a hero who saves you. He happily rejoices over you, renews you with his love, and celebrates over you with shouts of joy.
~ Zephaniah 3:17 GWT

The Hebrew phrase translated “he happily rejoices over you. . . and celebrates” looks like this: יָגִ֥יל The word celebrate here literally means, “to spin around under the influence of violent emotion.” God is dancing over us!

So if that’s how God feels about us, shouldn’t we at least try to respond to him similarly?

I went to visit my brother’s church, and—say what you will about churches with 10,000+ attendees—there’s a celebratory atmosphere there that is pretty rare in churches. Here’s a video of my brother leading his congregation in one of my favorite new celebration worship songs.

Who am I? . . .

For years, he crafted an identity. His parents’ deaths gave him the identity of orphan. Hunger gave him the identity of thief by necessity. Repeated escape attempts from prison hardened him, and he earned the identity of criminal. Nearly twenty years as a prisoner transformed him into a desperate and broken man.

Then a chance encounter with grace introduced a new story, and following the guilt and shame he experienced after spitting in the face of the gift he’d been given, he began to work on a new identity.

No longer the thief, no longer the criminal, no longer the escaped convict known as Jean Valjean, he took on a new name. Monsieur Madeleine, he called himself. A new name, a new life, and a new city to call home.

But it wouldn’t be long before his previous life caught up with him. His former jailor, now an inspector with the police, sees something familiar in M. Madeleine and decides to investigate further.

When it seemed inevitable that he would be exposed for the thief and criminal he once was, a man bearing his face emerges as an escape from the ghosts of his past.

He soon faces the question of his own identity. Is he the criminal of so many years ago? Is he M. Madeleine, the benevolent mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer? Or is he someone completely different?

At some point in life we face the same questions Jean Valjean faced. Am I [insert sin here]? Or am I [insert accomplishments here]? Or is there something else that defines me?

Valjean’s conundrum in Les Misérables represents the problem that the world imposes upon each of us: what you do defines who you are. At work, you arrive at your position based on how much effort you put into your job. On your career path, you often receive your title based on the degree or certification program you completed before entering the workforce.

If you constantly make mistakes, you’re a failure. If you fight a losing battle with sexual immorality, you’re filthy and lustful. If you give in to your vices over and over again, you’re an addict.

How you live dictates who you are.

But for God, the complete opposite is true. Scripture tells us that who we are dictates how we live.

We are daughters and sons of God (Romans 8:14-15), so we can be joyful and grateful.

We are Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), so we share the incredible news that our King has come.

We are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3), so we can live freely because we have nothing to fear.

Suddenly we don’t have the pressure of living for something. Instead we can live from something—joy, peace, freedom.

Suddenly finding our identity is as simple as looking at our King.

Just know that even though it’s simple, it’s far from easy. This world is screaming other identities at us so loud that it can drown out the voice of the King. But if you listen, not for another deafening scream, but for a whisper, a “still, small voice,” if you will, you’ll hear him.

“You’re mine. Your identity is in me. You are my child, and I love you.”

Love and glory. . .

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

from the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Lately I’ve been thinking about what glorifying God looks like. How do we do this? What does it mean?

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been pulled into these musings is that it’s been a recurring theme coming from those in the neo-reformed camp.

Glory.

“Give God the glory.”
“Don’t rob God of his glory.”
“God gets all the glory.”

There was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that wouldn’t go away when I considered the idea of glorifying God: God is self-serving, and interested only in his own glory. At some level, I suppose, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, if you’re the most powerful, magnificent, and other being in the universe, who else would you glorify?

But the deeper I dug into this thought, the more uncomfortable I became with it. Questions started to arise in my mind that I was afraid to address. Was God so insecure that he would demand (read: dictate, determine) the praise of his creatures? What exactly was it about him that needed to be glorified or magnified? Power? Holiness? Distinctness? Sovereignty?

Is that what set him apart from all other deities?

I began to grow weary of the pat answers that did little more than create an image of a god who was after nothing more than his own glory.

Then again, why shouldn’t he be? He is God after all.

But isn’t there something inside you that balks at the thought? Isn’t there something in all of this talk of glory that, despite all the logical consistencies of something like TULIP, makes God frightening? Or worse yet, unloving?

What if we took a step back and looked at what God is trying to communicate to us through the whole of Scripture? There seems to be a story unfolding that reveals a most unusual central character.

As he reflected on the story, St. John wrote, “The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love” (emphasis added). So this is who God is.

Obsession with one’s own glory hardly looks like love, and if love is how God defines himself, shouldn’t that be how we see him?

I turn at this point to N. T. Wright, who said it far better than I could have said it myself.

“[John Piper] sees [God's righteousness] as God’s concern for God’s own glory, which implies that God’s primary concern returns, as it were, to himself. There is always of course a sense in which that is true. But the great story of Scripture, from creation and covenant right on through to the New Jerusalem, is constantly about God’s overflowing, generous, creative love—God’s concern, if you like, for the flourishing and well-being of everything else. Of course, this too will redound to God’s glory because God, as the Creator, is glorified when creation is flourishing and able to praise him gladly and freely. And of course there are plenty of passages where God does what he does precisely not because anybody deserves it but simply ‘for the sake of his own name.’ But ‘God’s righteousness’ is regularly invoked in Scripture, not when God is acting thus, but when his concern is going out to those in need, particularly to his covenant people. The tsedaqah elohim, the dikaiosynē theou, is an outward-looking characteristic of God, linked of course to the concern for God’s own glory but essentially going, as it were, in the opposite direction, that of God’s creative, healing, restorative love. God’s concern for God’s glory is precisely rescued from the appearance of divine narcissism because God, not least God as Trinity, is always giving out, pouring, out, lavishing generous love on undeserving people, undeserving Israel and an undeserving world. That is the sort of God he is, and ‘God’s righteousness’ is a way of saying, ‘Yes, and God will be true to that character.’”

This truth cannot be overstated.

God is, by definition, love. All other attributes and actions that God possesses and commits must conform to this standard. It is who he is, and that is what remains unchanged and unchangeable about him.

John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament wrote the following concerning 1 John 4:8: “‘God is love.’—This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.”

What then does this say of God’s glory?

John Piper famously said that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Not necessarily untrue, but if I understand John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and Philippians 2:5-11 correctly, then this statement would be far truer if styled, “God is most glorified in us when we most explicitly model his self-giving love to those around us.”

God’s glory is found in his love.

Just trust. . .

I’ve been thinking lately about the concept of “God’s will for my life,” and what makes me a bit sad is when I see people around me (and often, I confess, myself) agonizing over what God’s will is in one circumstance or another, particularly with regards to decisions that we make in life.

Should I pursue a relationship with this girl or that one? Should I take this job offer or the other one? Should I stay in this town or relocate somewhere else?

I suppose one could take comfort in believing that God has it all mapped out and planned anyway, so we can just trust that whatever decision we make will be the one God decided for us ahead of time. Frankly, that belief leads me down the path towards determinism and eventually fatalism (If I make a destructive decision, was that God’s will for me? How can God be loving, or even good, if he determined that I would make a self-destructive choice?), but if that brings you comfort, hold tightly to that.

But if you’re like me, and you don’t believe that about God, how can you feel safe making decisions? How will you know what God’s will is for you? There’s an old adage I heard often when I was in school: “If you follow God’s daily will for your life, he’ll reveal to you his long-term will.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it always true? What if I’m doing justice, embracing faithful love, and walking humbly with my God everyday, but when I face that life-altering decision, I still don’t know the answer?

Here’s where I find comfort. God asks us to trust him. He loves us, and he has our best interests at heart. The more we get to know him, the more we’ll discover what he desires for us. It may never be specific, but here’s the cool thing. No matter what we choose, God is there.

Maybe that’s what it means to believe. Maybe it’s knowing that God has given us the freedom to use our minds and hearts to make good decisions, and that in whatever decision we make, God is there. So trust him.

Pull the trigger and trust him.

Because we could easily think ourselves into paralysis, killing our effectiveness.

So when you come to that fork in the road (I know, I’m tossing in unexpected metaphors that weren’t alluded to at the beginning of this post, but I’m just thinking on the fly here), go left or go right. Don’t just stand there and wonder which one is God’s will.

Because God’s will is that you trust him whether you go left or right. He’ll be there if you turn left, and he’ll be there if you turn right.

Trust the Lord and do good;
live in the land, and farm faithfulness.
Enjoy the Lord,
and he will give what your heart asks.
Commit your way to the Lord!
Trust him! He will act
and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
your justice like high noon.

Some thoughts on Noah. . .

PHqmdhBN3MUetx_1_mIt’s one of the season’s (if not the year’s) biggest blockbusters, and I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to sit down with this film. (I have to admit that as my friend Ken and I were walking into the theater, I came pretty close to changing my mind and standing in line for the midnight opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but for the sake of conversation, I stuck with Noah.)

This blog post was originally going to be a review of the film, but given the controversy surrounding the movie, I decided to do some research and instead write more of a commentary on the film. I may write a full review at some point, but for now here’s my quickie review: Russell Crowe did a good job being Russell Crowe. He’s his usual emotionless self in this movie, but thankfully the cast around him was incredible. Of particular interest are Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife, and Emma Watson as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law. Theirs were some of the most disarming and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known Connelly is a talented actress, but she stood out in a big way this time. The surprise to me was Watson’s performance. I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I found it a bit difficult at first to divorce her from Hermione Granger, but it didn’t take long for her to show off just how good an actress she is. Even without the mind-blowing special effects, this film would be worth it simply for those two performances.

Okay, now that my review is over, let’s dive into the meat of this post.

There are several streams of thought regarding this movie. One is the traditional evangelical approach which falls just short of boycotting this film for no reason other than that they “heard” the movie is very “unbiblical.” My problem with this approach is multifaceted. First, I’m never a fan of boycotting. It sends a terrible message, and in many cases it gives off an air of ignorance. Second, I think it would be wise to gain firsthand knowledge of the material you’re attacking before making your assault. You may find yourself laying down friendly fire if you don’t. Third, I think we should ask ourselves, “How well do I actually know the biblical account of ‘Noah and the Flood’?” After watching the movie, I found myself returning to the Scriptures to do some fact-checking, and I was quite surprised at what I found (and didn’t find) in the text.

Another stream of thought coming from some of the “liberal” camps essentially views this movie as a kind of midrash aggada—a form of rabbinical storytelling that involves interpreting Scripture passages by “filling in the blanks,” as it were—from the director Darren Aronofsky (who, by the way, is not an atheist as many believed that he claimed to be) given his Jewish heritage. Aronofsky is a master storyteller who is just as much a preacher as he is a filmmaker. Just look at some of his previous films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

The third stream of thought that I see emerging is that Aronofsky’s Noah is not based on the story found in the Judaic Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. Rather, this stream of thought sees the Gnostic Noah account being displayed in this film. Theologian Brian Mattson wrote, “This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources.” There are a number of Christians who read his posts and found his interpretation compelling, especially given his knowledge of the subject matter. He claims that because Aronofsky’s Noah is a Gnostic retelling, the movie flips the roles of God and Satan, and, using the snakeskin shed by the Serpent in Eden as a vehicle for this characterization, claims that the “Creator” is really the evil deity in Gnosticism and that the Serpent is really God in disguise (that was a paraphrase of Mattson’s conclusion on the matter, but it’s essentially what he’s getting at). The problem with his argumentation is that while Kabbalah and Gnostics agree in a number of ways, there are some crucial inconsistencies that render his interpretation invalid.

The argument makes sense on some level when you think about it. Aronofsky’s first full-length feature, Pi, betrayed a fascination with Kabbalah. But while he may have drawn from Kabbalah’s understanding of the story of Noah, it’s pretty clear that his primary source material was the ancient Judaic retelling of the story (the one accepted by most Christians). Also, Aronofsky doesn’t appear to exhibit much interest in Gnosticism or even the Gnostics.

To be sure, there are likely many key elements of Kabbalist tradition found throughout the film (references to Zohar, Adam and Eve’s luminescence, humanity’s division into the evil descendants of Cain and the righteous descendants of Seth, fallen angels who can be redeemed, etc.), but these elements aren’t exclusively Kabbalistic. In fact, (with the exception of the Zohar reference) these supposedly “exclusively Kabbalist” elements are found in Judeo-Christian history as well.

But let me try to address some of the more basic concerns Christians might have with the movie, apart from any Gnostic or Kabbalist references.

First, the character of Noah. In this movie, Noah is depicted as a deeply conflicted man. As the story progresses, he becomes even more extreme and zealous to the point of betraying his own family. I was at first uncomfortable with this, but when I went back to the story as found in the Bible, I found no descriptions of Noah’s personality at all. The Bible describes him as a righteous man, but “righteous” in this context doesn’t mean “good.” It simply means that he practiced justice and mercy. This description leaves much to the imagination, and seems to have been placed there simply to set Noah apart from the morally corrupt around him. The Noah character found in this movie is completely human—flawed, broken, and stubborn. He clings to what he believes God’s message is, even when confronted with evidence that he might have misinterpreted God’s will. Sound familiar? Russell Crowe’s Noah reminded me a little bit of myself in some very disturbing ways (minus the notable lack of emotional expression).

Second, the Watchers. Some have said they’re loosely based on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:1-4. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go very far in explaining these bizarre creatures. What’s more likely is that Aronofsky took from the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish text that was considered part of the canon of Scripture by some early church fathers like Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian), which goes into greater detail about the Watchers. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers were angels that had been sent to earth to look after humanity after Adam’s fall, but after being around humans for a while, they began to have sexual relations with human women. The result of these unions were the Nephilim.

Aronofsky mercifully leaves out the details about fallen angels having sex with humans, but he portrays these angels as having the ability to return to righteousness and glory. Some Christians would take issue with that, as nowhere in Scripture does it say that fallen angels can be redeemed. But even within Christianity, a debate raged on regarding the permanence of these angels’ fall from God’s mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the earliest promoters of the doctrine of a triune God) expressed a belief that even Satan himself would repent and be reconciled to God!

I think it’s worth noting here that Aronofsky appears to be less interested in mainline and evangelical interpretations of Genesis than he is in ancient-Hebrew and first-through-third-century Christian interpretations. There are a lot of things about this movie that seem strange, but upon further investigation, actually make sense in that historical context. More recent historical discoveries and theological musings refute many of these ideas, but in the rich, diverse histories of Judaism and Christianity, the ideas Aronofsky purports may be odd (and in some cases, just plain wrong), but they aren’t foreign to these religions’ histories.

(I don’t know where Aronofsky got the idea to depict the Watchers as rock giants, but I couldn’t help but think of the Gorignak from Galaxy Quest whenever the Watchers were on screen.)

Third, Adam and Eve’s luminescence. I hesitate to even mention this one because it seems trite that Christians would be bothered by it, but someone in another blog used it as fodder for for his argument that this movie is “unbiblical,” so I decided to bring it up. It’s an argument easily refuted by reminding ourselves that luminescence is a theme that’s seen throughout Scripture, from Moses’ encounters with God (he’s described as radiating in Exodus 34) to Christ’s transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus even says in Matthew 13 that “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” Given that information, it’s not such a stretch to think that Adam and Eve radiated light prior to eating the fruit.

Fourth, environmentalism as the primary theme of the movie. Much has been said about how this movie depicts the Creator as wanting to destroy mankind because of how they mistreat creation. While that’s an element of why the Creator sends the flood, it’s pretty clear in the film that mankind’s wickedness overall, not just their poor stewardship of the earth, is the reason the flood is on its way. In a scene where Noah is walking among the descendants of Cain, people are trading girls for food, killing for fun, and exhibit nothing but an overt willingness to satiate their own basest desires.

Additionally, Noah’s own error involves environmentalism. He misinterprets God’s message thinking that humanity has no place in the world. In fact, when he recounts the story of creation to his family, he leaves out (or minimizes, I can’t remember which) the fact that humanity was created in God’s image. [SPOILERS AHEAD. Highlight the text to reveal.] Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, when he tells Ham the story of creation, makes a point to emphasize the fact that humanity was made in God’s image. He concludes that that means humans should dominate the earth and possess the right to exploit all of its resources with no regard to good stewardship. But at the end of the movie, when Noah comes to terms with his mistakes, he retells the creation story. This time he doesn’t leave out the point about being made in God’s image, but unlike Tubal-Cain’s rendition of the story, Noah concludes that as image-bearers we don’t have a right so much as a responsibility to properly care for the earth. Admittedly, environmentalism is a fairly heavy-handed theme throughout the movie, particularly at the end, but it doesn’t go so far as to run contrary to what Scripture teaches us about stewardship. My primary concern here is that the film fails to acknowledge humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. It appears that the best notion isn’t Noah’s idea that the earth is better off without humanity, nor is it Tubal-Cain’s belief that creation exists to serve man. Instead, the film presents a sort of peaceful coexistence between humans and the earth as being the best option. It’s almost as if the film were trying to portray God as a Master Gardener with humans as his gardening tools rather than God as a Father with the earth as a gift to his children. Both ideas are better options than the movie’s two “bad” options, but only the latter works as a theme seen in Scripture.

Fifth, the snakeskin. I’ll admit, I was pretty confused by the snakeskin metaphor in the film. Movie blogger Ryan Holt shed some light (pun not intended) on the snakeskin motif in his post about the movie:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Similarly, in his review of the movie in the National Catholic Register (a review that I highly recommend, by the way), Steven D. Greydanus wrote the following:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

* * * * * *

If you’re looking for “biblical accuracy,” you don’t have to look very far. Aronofsky claimed that Noah is the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” but I think that really depends on your understanding of the term biblical. Aronofsky made that statement in response to scores the film received after different versions of the film were presented to test audiences. I’m not sure where the following story came from, but I heard a rumor that a predominantly Christian test audience had asked for the removal of the scene wherein Noah was depicted as a drunkard because they believed the Bible didn’t portray Noah in such a way. I hope that’s not a true story, but if it is, it only goes to show how biblically illiterate many Christians are.

I understand people’s hesitance in seeing this movie. It’s puzzling in a number of ways. It forces you to think and question your preconceived notions about the beginning of Genesis. But it’s probably the most “biblically accurate biblical movie” I’ve ever seen. Yes, it takes some liberties, but all movies do. You may not believe this, but I’ll say it anyway, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah contains fewer extra-biblical artistic liberties than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (did you know that Gibson’s primary source material wasn’t the writings of the four Evangelists, but those of Anne Catherine Emmerich?).

A few weeks ago I overheard a conservative talk radio show wherein the host exhibited anger over the fact that Noah would replace the Bible (referencing the adage, “[A movie] is the only Bible some people will ever read”). I heartily disagree with him. Does anyone recall the sudden boost in readership of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when those movies hit theaters? While I don’t think we’re going to see massive sales of the movie edition of the book of Genesis, this movie will likely prompt its viewers to read the account of the flood in Scripture (which is a mere four chapters in the Bible), and that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie is full of incredible special effects and great action sequences, has some of the best acting from Connelly and Watson that I’ve ever seen, is well written and directed, and is incredibly exciting to watch. I think Noah is the perfect film to introduce people to the Bible.

* * * * * *

Please be aware that while I would recommend that people check this movie out, it’s not for kids. The tone is very dark, the sin that causes the Creator to send the flood is presented pretty graphically, and there are themes throughout that could be difficult for children to grasp. It pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating.

The Seven Pillars of Family Ministry. . .

I’ve been reading the book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation by Michelle Anthony, and in the book she describes what she refers to as the “seven pillars of family ministry.” I wanted to share them with you here because they serve as “Aha” moments in my ministry journey.

1. Family is Primary. The purpose of the church ministry is to walk alongside and equip families to disciple their children. If I’m taking seriously the charge that Paul gave in Ephesians 4:11-13, and I believe that the message to parents in Deuteronomy 6 is a call for them to be the primary disciplers of their children, this ministry should be equipping and training our parents with the same intentionality that we train and equip our teachers, mentors, and leaders.

2. Spiritual Formation is our Goal. Paul’s desire for the church in Galatia was that Christ be “formed in” them. What did he mean by this? His desire for this church wasn’t that they learn the facts of their faith—however important those facts may be. Rather, his goal was that they look more and more like Jesus. He wrote that “all the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

It’s tempting to substitute spiritual formation with communicating information. We can very easily fall into the trap of making our ministry about facts, head knowledge, and measurables. I’m guilty of this all the time. “If children and families learn information, we may be tempted to pat ourselves on the back. But maybe we shouldn’t. Children may memorize Bible verses. They may know how many stones David used to kill Goliath. It’s good, but it’s not enough.”

It’s also tempting to make ministry about moral training. We can fall into the trap of trying to teach kids what it looks like to be a good Christian. Good behavior looks so much like faith in action. What if instead, we focused on training families on allowing the Holy Spirit to transform their lives?

Jesus doesn’t want people who are well behaved. He wants people of faith (see Luke 17). That’s much more difficult, but it’s more lasting, and it’s what will end up storming the gates of hell.

3. The Holy Spirit is the Teacher. Francis Chan wrote in his book Forgotten God that “the Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be.” There’s nothing wrong with the term “Sunday School Teacher,” but something can be taken away with that title. I wonder if instead, we gave God the role of “teacher,” and took on the roles of leaders, mentors, and storytellers? After all, in John’s account of the Gospel, he wrote that the Spirit of God is our Counselor, our Comforter, and our Teacher.

Imagine with me for a moment: what if we had students and children who worshiped God “from the inside out” (I love that song, by the way; it’s one of my favorites) “compelled by the Spirit—not through behaving in expected or mandated ways, but through seeing worship as a lifestyle instead of as a moment or event”? What if they fully realized their Spirit-given abilities to herald and exhibit the Kingdom attributes of love, grace, justice, forgiveness? What if they were able to discern God’s voice speaking to them and learn to obey that voice, relying on the Spirit’s power alone for their strength?

4. Scripture is our Authority. Our culture denies the idea that there can be concrete truths. My lead pastor often points out that truth is necessarily exclusive. If something is true, it automatically denounces anything that contradicts it as false. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a natural and obvious thing. If the truth is that I’m traveling north, then by saying I’m traveling south when I’m doing the exact opposite means that my statement is false.

Without truth, people are lost. Truth acts as a compass—morally, experientially, emotionally. As Christians, our compass is Scripture, and it needs to permeate our being otherwise we’re lost. Our task isn’t simply to teach kids about God’s Word, but rather show them how to investigate it for themselves.

Michelle Anthony shares this story in her book:

“Several years ago I was leading a group of elementary students through the book of James. At the conclusion of our eight-week study together, I was compelled by this idea of wanting them to flex their faith muscles. I didn’t plan a new study right away. I wanted to take our next time together to explore what could be next. The kids arrived and sat down as usual to hear the next Bible study, but this time there was none.

“Instead I asked them, ‘Children, how can you put your faith into action? You’ve heard these things from God’s Word for the past eight weeks. You’ve learned that God wants us to not just be ‘hearers’ of His Word, but ‘doers’ also. So what are you going to do about what you’ve heard?’. . . .”

Dr. Anthony then describes the awkward silence and her desire to validate her teaching by offering suggestions that the kids could just say “yes” to. She continues her story.

I didn’t give in. At this point, my faith was hanging in the balance as much as theirs was. ‘What are you going to do now that you have heard the words of God and how He wants us to live?’ It felt like an eternity in waiting. I was uncomfortable. My leaders were uncomfortable. The kids were. . . well, bored.

“But then one courageous hand rose in the back. The young girl said, ‘We could help the homeless people.’ My heat leapt! ‘Yes, we could do that! What else could we do to put our faith into action?’ I asked. Soon more children began to chime in with ideas that ranged from eliminating global hunger to knitting sweaters for cold dogs.”

Where do you think this faith that manifested in action ideas and steps came from? It was rooted in the truth of God’s Word.

John Wesley posited that there are four ways that God reveals Himself to us. Experience: “One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see.” Reason: Wesley often stated that without Spirit-given reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Tradition: While he recognized the weaknesses inherent in tradition, he stated “Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour.” Scripture: “Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition.”

Scripture is of utmost importance to us and its truth is that which guides, yea distills all other evidences of God’s revelation to us. Our goal is to train children to see all of life through the lens of Scripture, knowing that while our interpretation may inform our approach, God always speaks first and foremost to us through His Word.

5. The Big God Story. This pillar is connected to the previous pillar in that to know the Big God Story we need to know Scripture.

Anthony writes:

“Because we’ve heard the story so many times, we might be tempted to gloss over the amazement that it’s all really true. God really did promise to send the Redeemer, He really kept the promise alive throughout history, He really sent His Son to die for us, and He really redeemed us from our sin because He really loves us that much! The Big God Story is amazing—and true! and sometimes it takes a new believer—a child—to remind us how shocking it truly is.”

It’s tempting to teach the Bible in isolated “stories” with little or no context to the whole. It goes back to the second pillar. Randy Frazee calls this “the Lower Story”—the biblical information found in the smaller stories, and we often teach “the Lower Story” at the expense of “the Upper Story”—the story of redemption, restoration, and relationship. This story is the one that transforms, rather than simply informing.

While the Bible isn’t all about Jesus, all of the Bible points to Jesus, and the narrative—much like a serialized TV show—beckons us to its climax—the arrival of the Messiah. When approached episodically, the Bible loses its fervor. But when we tell the Big God Story serially (the “to-be-continued” approach), children want to know what happens next and wait with baited breath to discover the all-important climax—Messiah has come!

The Big God Story, while all about God and His desire to be in a relationship with His image-bearing creation, draws us into its narrative. We are characters in this story, and it’s important to share that truth with children. They need to know that they are born because God wants them and made them to look like Him, and that life is all about knowing Him and loving Him because He loves them.

Sadly, culture (and the Church, to many degrees) teaches children that life is “all about me.” God exists to meet my needs and save me because the story centers on me. We need to help children understand that their part in the story is to know and love the Main Character.

Which leads me to Pillar Six.

6. God is Central. Worship is about growing closer to Him, experiencing His presence, getting to know Him. When we spend time remembering and celebrating what God has done through responding, worshiping, even just living, we are reminded that He is at the center of everything. Austin Fischer wrote that we are all “little black holes” trying to use our gravity to suck life into ourselves. Instead, we should revolve around the gravity of God; therein lies our sole satisfaction. As children discover this truth, their lives can be centered and they have a more compelling story to tell—and to be a part of.

7. Ministry Support. If you know me at all, you know that I love ice hockey. It’s an incredible sport that moves at frightening speeds, requiring an insane amount of coordination, not just on the part of the individual player, but on the part of the whole team. All five skaters need to be in sync and on the same page at every moment. The wingers need to instinctively know where the centerman is and vice-versa. The defensemen need to “feel” each other on the ice. The forwards and defensemen need to see each other, even without seeing each other.

Ministry should be the same. Parents and leaders should support each other. After all, they’re on the same team. They have the same goal: to train children to become aggressive followers of Jesus who are heralding His love for the world. Why shouldn’t we all work together?

Admittedly, I don’t know what that looks like practically, but I’ve got some ideas.

One of the beautiful things about ice hockey is that, unlike any other sport, after someone scores a goal, all five skaters huddle up and celebrate the goal together, acknowledging that every skater on the ice played an integral part in that goal.

Falling. . .

Ice-Skating-StopFor those of you who don’t know me, I love ice skating. It’s one of those things that helps me clear my mind, gets my blood pumping, and provides an escape from the tumult of life.

I don’t really remember a time when I couldn’t skate fairly proficiently; I learned to skate when I was really young, and continued skating all through middle school and high school. When I go skating, I like to watch people of varying proficiencies, and I notice something: not everyone has what it takes to become a competent ice skater. It’s not that I doubt people’s ability to grasp the necessary skills for skating, it’s that there’s one thing good ice skaters know almost instinctively that others don’t: everyone falls.

Two things manifest when someone learning to skate stumbles on this truth. The first is that they overcome their fear of falling. Fear of falling stems from a fear of being embarrassed and from a fear of the pain, but when you realize that everyone falls, you realize that no one’s laughing at you for falling and that most people aren’t severely injured when they fall.

The second is that they begin to give themselves grace for each fall. Each fall is an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. Whenever I’m teaching someone how to skate, I almost always tell them to not be afraid to fall. It will happen, and the sooner a skater learns that it’s okay to fall, the faster they’ll progress. And as they get better, they fall less and less.

Not too long ago I had the opportunity to meet Megan Fate Marshman and hear her speak at a conference. During one of her talks she had everyone in the room turn to their neighbor and say, “I’m so glad. . . you’re as messed up as I am.” We all fall. Some fall less than others, but seem unable to progress in life. I think that’s because they haven’t learned that falling is okay; everyone falls. Some seem to fall pretty often, but they’re learning, and eventually they’ll fall less often.

Some have seemingly stopped falling altogether and they’re helping pick others up when they fall. We’ll all get there someday, but I really believe that in order to get there, we have to get over our fear of falling and understand that everyone falls. That doesn’t mean we’re supposed to fall; falling is indeed painful, and if we don’t get to the point where we stop falling every time we try to move, we’ll end up a bruise-covered mess. But falling is a necessary part of learning.

I’ve found myself falling on the ice again. I’m working towards learning to play hockey, and in order to do that I need to pick up a few more skills on my skates. As I try to learn these new skills I’m again on my butt pretty often. But that’s part of learning.

I pray that we can all give ourselves some grace as we walk through life making mistakes and by extension give each other grace as well. That’s what community in Jesus should be about.

Born to die?. . .

C. J. Mahaney wrote the following statement a few years ago:

“During this time of year, it may be easy to forget that the bigger purpose behind Bethlehem was Calvary. But the purpose of the manger was realized in the horrors of the cross. The purpose of his birth was his death.”

While I understand his sentiment (as it’s often all too easy to forget that we celebrate the birth of a child whose fate was sealed from the moment he took his first breath—Jesus was certainly going to die a horrible, bloody death), I find it difficult now to accept that the Advent must needs be inexorably linked to the Atonement.

It’s absolutely true that all four Evangelists crafted their stories in such a way as to aim at Golgotha, but it’s equally as true that they didn’t write exclusively about the crucifixion. In other words, the Evangelists (well, Matthew and Luke, at least) wrote about Christ’s birth and his death as two unrelated events offset by several years of ministry (though I won’t be using the ministry and teaching years as support for my argumentation). Yes, Christ’s death was certainly foreshadowed at his birth, but it was not the bigger purpose behind it, as Pastor Mahaney avers.

Some might say that the manger was a stepping stone to the cross. I’m not comfortable with that statement. I’m much more comfortable saying that the manger paints a particular picture while the cross paints a distinct (yet deeply related) picture.

For support, I turn to Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi. In that letter, he writes these words:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul starts this entreatment with the phrase, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” He certainly ends his description of Christ’s condescension with a statement about his death, but that’s not the point of this passage. He’s likely not saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who died.”

In this passage we find Paul’s mention of Christ’s humility in regards to his entering human form having just as much emphasis as Christ’s humility in his death. Paul continues by saying that “God also highly exalted him.” But why did God exalt Christ? Was it because he died on the cross? I’d venture to say that’s not entirely true.

Someone once said something to the effect of, “The Father’s exaltation of Christ isn’t a ‘Purple Heart,’ that is, he’s not exalting him because he died. Rather, this is more of a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ for a mindset characterized by ‘other-centric’ humility.”

Think of it this way. The mindset that’s all too common in humanity is one that looks like this: imagine a Stanford graduate who’s looking for a job, and there’s an opening as a member of the Geek Squad at Best Buy. He doesn’t apply for the position because it’s beneath him.

I think at some level we all have this mindset. There is always something that we’re too good for. But that wasn’t the case with Christ. He “emptied himself,” and he became a slave. That’s the important thing to note here.

Leading up to this description of Christ’s mindset, Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Paul wants his followers to look at Christ’s example of humility as our model.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Which mind is that exactly?

It’s the mind that says, Though I am Creator, I am willing to become created for the sake of my creation. It’s the mind that says, I am the Son of God, but for the sake of mankind I will become a son of man. It’s the mind that says, I am immortal, but for the sake of mortals I will submit to mortality—even death itself.

When all is said and done, it’s the Atonement, not the Advent, that secures our salvation. But let us not forget that the love that moved the Son of God to enter our lives and spend his first night of life in an animal feeding trough is the same love that moved the Son of God to allow those he loved to brutally murder him.

The death of Jesus is not the greater purpose behind his birth. His love is the greater purpose behind his death, and his love is the greater purpose behind his birth.

That is what I hope we can remember as we celebrate the birth of our Lord.