The other side. . .

A lot has been on my mind lately.

Two recent events are weighing heavily on my heart, so I figured I’d share my thoughts on them.

The first hits close to home because, well, it’s geographically quite close to home.

I was born and raised in the shadow of New York City, and I still live within an hour of Manhattan Island. The city has come under the spotlight due to the Eric Garner incident on Staten Island and the ensuing city-wide protests. I won’t bother going into any of the details regarding the protests because, quite frankly, if you don’t already know, you’re probably not interested in what’s happening in the world these days.

The second hits close to home because it concerns my alma mater.

I went to school at a “Bible college” called Bob Jones University. (I’ve written a bit about my experience at that school here.) Since this particular event isn’t sweeping national news, I’ll go ahead and describe a little bit about what’s taking place there.

A few years ago, several churches came under fire following a 20/20 report exposing a child-abuse cover-up at an Independent Fundamental Baptist (or Independent Baptist Fundamentalist, the identifiers are interchangeable) church (Henceforth, IFB). You can watch that story here.

The pastor who orchestrated the cover-up, Chuck Phelps, was on the Board of Trustees at Bob Jones University at the time. A number of students and alumni, organized by then-current student Christopher Peterman, were bothered by the fact that the university maintained Phelps as a board member. Peterman put together the first ever silent protest on the campus of Bob Jones University, an unprecedented act at the time, especially considering the fact that all who participated in the protest were risking expulsion from the university.

This was the beginning of a series of events that uncovered a highly unusual sex abuse scandal spanning several decades with Bob Jones University at the center of it all. The university hired GRACE, a watchdog group that investigates instances of sexual abuse in Christian organizations, to look into reports of sexual abuse related to the school. GRACE published their investigation report last week. I won’t go into any more detail on this because the details aren’t relevant to what I’m trying to get at. If you’re interested in the story, you can read this article by the New York Times, this incredible piece by Al Jazeera, and this insightful and helpful (though understandably emotional and cynical) blog series from a former Bob Jones University student and school victim abuse survivor.

Here’s my point. These events have become what they are because of people’s unwillingness to see through the eyes of the oppressed. Why is there such a divide between whites and blacks in our country? Because few are willing to look at life from the perspective of those who are oppressed.

Put yourself in their shoes. What are their struggles? What makes them angry? Why do you think it makes them angry? Would that make you angry if you were on the receiving end?

Now, why has the sex abuse scandal at Bob Jones University become such an issue? Because no one was willing to look at the abuse from the perspective of the abused.

What are their struggles? What makes them scared? Why do you think they’re scared? Would that make you scared if you were in their position?

It’s Christmastime. The incredible story that we celebrate this time of year is about someone who left his place of privilege and comfort and put on the skin of the oppressed. It’s not just that he left heaven and became human. He left a cosmic throne and entered a blue-collar family.

Then he suffered incredible abuse and humiliation. And then he forgave his abusers. He didn’t ask them for forgiveness as one preacher advised an abuse victim to do. Why? Because victims don’t have to ask forgiveness of their offenders. There’s nothing to forgive. “Please forgive me for your terrible act that severely damaged me.” It just doesn’t make sense.

I have to admit, I can’t conclude this post the way I wanted to. I’ll leave it here because the more I think about my alma mater, the angrier I get, and my emotion is obscuring where I think this post should go.

But I’m not going to leave this unpublished either because I think there’s something here we can all take to heart. I wonder what would happen if we all looked at life from someone else’s perspective.

More on atonement. . .

I’ve recently found it a tad unusual that we Christians place the crucifixion of King Jesus at the center of our faith. Any cursory reading of the four Evangelists’ renditions of the gospel coupled with St. Paul’s writings on the matter should yield the conclusion that it’s the resurrection of King Jesus, not his death that should be central to our faith.

Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of centering my faith in Jesus on his death for almost my entire Christian life.

Recently, however, it’s become somewhat clear to me that God’s work in the world is reconciliatory, and that it manifests relationally rather than transactionally.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The foundation of a penal substitution theory of atonement is the idea that our offense to God creates a debt that we owe him. That debt demands payment, and thanks to King Jesus, we don’t have to pay that debt; rather, he pays it on our behalf. In other words, the debt we owe to God can be removed from our account and placed on King Jesus’ account. For example, let’s say I ran my car into someone else’s car. I don’t have the money to pay for the repairs, but a friend steps in to pay off my debt. In case you missed it, my benevolent friend plays the role of Jesus in this analogy.

Here’s the problem with that. Reconciliation has not actually taken place. The debt has been paid, yes, but God is not in the business of debt relief. He’s in the reconciliation business.

Let’s draw up another analogy. If I were to cheat on my wife (I’m unmarried, so this example falls a bit flat in reality, but I believe it works in theory), no one can come in and “pay my debt” to my wife. There’s no transaction that can repair and reconcile the broken relationship. There are only two things that can reconcile this relationship: my hypothetical wife’s forgiveness and my repentance. (Again, if you missed it, my hypothetical wife plays the role of God in this analogy.)

Throughout the Old Testament, God uses marriage metaphors to describe the broken relationship he has with Israel. He’s summoning his wife. He’s telling her that he forgives her and that their relationship can be restored if she would only repent.

But here’s where penal substitution theory does the most damage to a full understanding of the gospel. It minimizes King Jesus’ life and resurrection to little more than abstractions that exist in the story to support his death. His miracles and teachings are simply there to prove that he is the Son of God and thus someone worthy to pay our debt. His resurrection is simply there to show us how powerful he is.

But to the observer of King Jesus’ life, it was clear that he was doing something more than simply paying humanity’s debt. And that “more” isn’t just supplemental material. The point of King Jesus’ arrival on earth must not be missed or misplaced. It was to announce and usher in a new kingdom—a reversal, if you will, of the imperialism that had dominated Israel’s thinking for generations and was now dominating Israel herself through Roman rule.

Jesus was showing us that the kingdom of God was coming—rather, had already arrived—by way of his teachings and his miracles. At every turn, Jesus was upending the common power structure, both at a small scale in the way he treated children and at a larger scale in the way he treated law enforcement (the Pharisees).

His crucifixion, as crucial as it is to our faith, is not the bloody masterpiece that God had ordained would be the vehicle for our salvation (as proponents of penal substitution theory would have you believe). Rather, it was the necessary means to his ultimate inauguration as King. Trial by fire, perhaps. More fittingly, I believe, it was the stage for his final and most glorious act.

You see, to a Jewish mind, the resurrection is the culmination of Israel’s story. At the end of time, Jews—and indeed the whole world—would be raised to life again after death. No other belief system outside Judaism held to any idea that resembled resurrection. To be certain, some Greeks and Romans (and others, I would assume) held to some sort of afterlife, but resurrection was an ideology limited to Judaism, and then even a limited subset of Jews until the late-biblical to early-postbiblical periods. (Daniel, the latest of the biblical writers, was the first to exhibit a belief in resurrection. Earlier writings, such as the Psalms, denied such a doctrine.)

The resurrection of Jesus is a distinctly Jewish act. While it certainly had reverberations outside Judaism and into the Roman world, it had its greatest impact in Jewish theology. If the resurrection meant the end of all things, what then did it mean for only one man to be resurrected?

The answer lies within the existence of something called the Church. Resurrection is the beginning of our story—the Church’s story. Resurrection is the inauguration of the kingdom of God, a kingdom to which the Church bears witness. The King has taken his throne, and we, his ambassadors, have received our charge: reconcile this world to its King.

Resurrection serves as a message that God is no longer going to tolerate the savage, oppressive imperialism that our world thirsts for. Whereas penal substitutionary atonement theory places a violent act of retribution at the heart of the gospel, a resurrection-centered gospel, which St. Paul appears to adhere to, declares an end to violence and injustice and ushers in a kingdom where a loving, good, and just King sits on the throne.

As Scott J. Higgins, Director of Community Engagement at Baptist World Aid, puts it:

What if at the centre of the universe lay not an act of retribution but God’s declaration that he will break the cycle of violence and retribution by absorbing whatever evil we throw at him, forgiving and creating new life and a renewed world? Would it not change the way we frame faith, the way we speak of ourselves, the way we relate to God and engage with the world?

When ‘Penal Substitution’ rears its ugly head. . .

If you find yourself in a room full of theologians and/or pastors, you can probably gather a lot about their personalities and beliefs by asking one simple question: What Atonement Theory do you subscribe to?

Take this little gem for example:

For those of you who don’t know, John Piper is the controversial preacher, author, and founder of Desiring God Ministries. He’s known for making bold and scary claims about God and his wrath, and this tweet is no exception.

Piper subscribes to what is known as the Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement.

I should probably back up a bit because I bet half of you are wondering what an atonement theory even is.

For starters, let’s define atonement. Atonement is the sacrificial death of King Jesus on our behalf. When King Jesus died, he atoned for (made amends for) the sins of the world.

Now, atonement theory is essentially a stream of thought that attempts to answer a few questions simultaneously. First, why was the atonement necessary (beyond simply that mankind needed salvation from sin)? Second, what took place “behind the scenes,” as it were, when King Jesus died? Third, what is the nature of the transaction that took place at the time of King Jesus’ death? Fourth, how does his death reconcile humanity to God?

There is a wide range of atonement theories, and I don’t think any single one of them hits the mark completely, nor does any single theory miss the mark completely. I have very few misgivings about most theories, with the exception of one: Penal Substitution.

Piper subscribes to the Penal Substitution theory, and that subscription can be seen in statements like the above tweet.

Penal Substitution (or perhaps, more accurately, the popularized version of Penal Substitution accepted by the modern evangelical church, particularly the branches dominated by the “new calvinists”) presents the picture of a God who is angry with humanity, and in order satiate his anger, he must punish humanity. Instead of punishing humanity however, his Son steps in and takes on that punishment.

Is God so juvenile that he needs to be satiated? This theory gives off the image of God as an angry, drunken child abuser who’s so pissed off at his children that he has to beat them senseless.

And then the Piper quote.

God isn’t a child abuser. He’s a wife beater.

But this doesn’t line up with the God that I read about in the Bible. Humanity is not God’s enemy. Humanity is the very thing God is trying to rescue. He’s not angry with us; he’s angry with sin.

Sin is the universal invader, destroying the home that God built, tearing his children apart, and breaking apart his goodness.

God doesn’t have wrath against his wife. (If you didn’t catch the metaphor, his “wife” is the Church—the universal collection of believers.) He didn’t pour out any wrath on his Son Jesus either. Jesus came to pay the debt that we owe to our slaver. Sin owned us, and Jesus came to buy us back. But we owed sin our lives, and so Jesus came to pay with his life instead of ours.

Top Ten Posts. . .

Since my thirtieth birthday is coming up in three days, I thought I’d celebrate by compiling a top-ten list of the most visited posts from restoredtograce.com over the years.

Hope you enjoy some Monday morning memories!

1. Some thoughts on Noah. . . – April 4, 2014. I’m honestly a bit surprised this one was the most visited all time on the blog. It’s a newer post and hasn’t had the time to pick up the readership of some of my older posts. That said, I’m really glad this one is at the top.

2. To my future bride (whoever you may be). . . – June 25, 2009. This one is still going strong after almost five-and-a-half years, though it has been dethroned as number one by my Noah post.

3. Rob Bell vs. John Piper. . . – March 2, 2011. This one was a little interesting to go back to because it reveals a little bit of my past reformed leanings. I even wrote, “I would affirm the truths set forth by [Mark] Driscoll, [John] Piper, and [Justin] Taylor.” Oh how much I’ve changed in just three years.

4. Rob Bell’s Love Wins. . . – March 21, 2011. Here’s another one I would probably write very differently now. Thanks to my rather in-depth study of the New Testament guided by N. T. Wright’s writings, my tune on this topic has changed quite a bit. Still, it’s fun to see where I once stood theologically.

5. Fear in love. . . – September 1, 2009. Ouch. I think 2013 me could’ve learned a thing or two from 2009 me.

6. Shorts and flip flops at church. . . – June 28, 2008. I wrote this one about a year after returning to Christ and less than a year after leaving fundamentalism. Even back then I was stirring up controversy!

7. An odd story. . . – December 10, 2013. I’m simultaneously sad and encouraged that this one has been read as often as it has. It’s an unfortunate truth about my alma mater (and other Bible colleges and universities like it), but I believe these truths need to come to light. That’s why I’m grateful that G.R.A.C.E. is about to publish their report about the abuse that has been taking place at the school.

8. Non-Christian missionaries. . . – September 26, 2011. Missional methodology and praxis are things that have fascinated me over the years. I still struggle to reconcile my own church-going habits with my beliefs about how we’re supposed to approach and engage the non-church culture. I’m thankful for my friend Mike from Christian Associates who has mentored and taught me as I explore this facet of theology.

9. What does true love look like?. . . – March 17, 2009. This one was a bit startling to read. It’s encouraging to find posts from my pre-reformed days. My thoughts made so much more sense back then.

10. Always. . . – March 21, 2010. When I re-read this post, I felt like someone else had written it, and I was resonating with their heart. This is still one of my favorite posts. I pray that you can relate to this one too.

Stories. . .

I love stories.

I believe that stories are the most powerful ways to convey truths. To be honest though, I’m not very good at crafting stories. I enjoy writing, even creatively, but for some reason I haven’t been able to tap into that ever so elusive great story.

That’s not to say that I haven’t written any stories. During my undergraduate years I wrote numerous stories for my short-story writing, novel writing, and script writing classes.

Maybe I exhausted all my awesome story ideas in college. Or maybe I’m just a lazy writer.

But I digress.

I bring up stories because I’ve begun seeing Scripture as a story. Not as a divine rulebook by which Christians are supposed to structure their lives. Certainly not as a message that contains the cypher through which we can unlock the mysteries of the future.

It is a narrative. A story, if you will, of a God who is trying to break into human history and reveal to his creation just how much he loves us.

He speaks our languages, he steps into our worlds, and he endures our hardships. This is a God who yearns to know and be known by his creation. It’s a beautiful tale. It’s a wonderful, compelling, and powerful story.

But here’s where things start to get a bit messy. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

I know. Let that settle for a bit. I realize I just screwed with your mind a bit. I probably made you uncomfortable, maybe even angry.

I’ll say it again because I probably live under the delusion that repeating myself will make you believe me more. Very little of this story is historically accurate by our standards of accuracy.

It’s important that we understand this fact because it will help us alleviate a lot of the weird tensions that exist when we read the Bible. For example, there are confounding and inexplicable discrepancies—contradictions, even—among the four accounts of the Gospel.

That’s not even mentioning the frightening notion that God ordered the slaughter of an entire race of people (the Canaanites) for no other apparent reason than that they were occupying territory that he wanted to give to Israel.

This is perfect justification for Richard Dawkins’ scathing rebuke of God. This “God of love” needlessly commits genocide multiple times throughout the Old Testament.

Christians have quite a few ways of reconciling this atrocity. I’ll just list a few. (I have to thank Peter Enns and his book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It for most, if not all, of what’s in the next few paragraphs.)

One way Christians try to explain this is by appealing to God’s sovereignty. He’s God. We’re not. Stop questioning him.

But at the end of the day, is that really the kind of God you want to serve? Is that the kind of God you feel compelled to talk about? Is that good news to a dying world? Get under God’s good graces or he’ll be angry with you and send you to eternal damnation!

As Enns puts it, “This really isn’t a solution, anyway. It’s simply restating the problem: God orders his subjects to kill Canaanites. The question remains, “Why is God acting like Zeus or a fascist dictator?”

Enns continues, and so will we.

Another way Christians try to explain this is by comparing Canaanite slaughter to eternal damnation. Basically, why is killing Canaanites such a terrible thing when Jesus talks about throwing people into hell for all eternity?

Unfortunately, this doesn’t explain things either. As Enns and other scholars, writers, and theologians have pointed out, the modern Catholic and Evangelical idea of “hell” is rather outdated and has more in common with medieval notions of the afterlife than what Jesus was actually referring to.

Be that as it may, Jesus’ references to “hell” weren’t statements about “hell” at all. He was using the term Gehenna, which was a Greek word translated from the Hebrew phrase that means “Valley of Hinnom.”

The prophet Jeremiah (who’s my personal favorite prophet for some reason) talked about the Valley of Hinnom. Here’s what he had to say:

The people of Judah have done what displeases me, declares the Lord. They have corrupted the temple that bears my name by setting up their disgusting idols. They have built shrines at Topheth in the Ben-hinnom Valley to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, although I never commanded such a thing, nor did it ever cross my mind.

Did you catch that? The Valley of Hinnom was where the Israelites were sacrificing their children to foreign gods.

Later in that passage, Jeremiah pronounces judgment on those that committed child sacrifice. Their corpses would rot in the Valley of Hinnom.

Jesus knows his audience and uses this symbolism to describe what would happen to those who reject God’s Messiah. And that very thing happened less than a century after Jesus left this earth.

Anyway, we’re off topic now. In a nutshell, what Jesus was talking about when we think he’s talking about throwing people into hell is not at all what he’s really talking about.

Enns writes, “‘Hell’ doesn’t get God off the hook because it’s off topic.”

(There’s actually an incredibly beautiful story about Jesus’ interaction with the only “Canaanite” mentioned in the New Testament. It’s kind of relevant to this topic, but it will take us down a rabbit trail, so I’ll save it for another post.)

One final way (there are several more, but I’ll stop at three) that Christians try to justify Canaanite genocide (or any atrocity that’s attributed to God) is by saying something like, “We have to balance God’s darker side in Scripture with his merciful, gracious side.”

Umm. . . really? Would you say that about anyone else? Sure, your honor, that guy murdered people, but you have to balance that out with all the good he’s done. He donates to charity, cares for sick people, and recycles. In light of all that, can you really sentence him to a life in prison just for a few murders?

Here’s where things need to shift. (I promised in my previous post an avenue for reconciling “angry Old-Testament God” with “gracious New-Testament Jesus,” and I’m about to deliver, but I have a feeling you might not like it.)

Something we need to keep in mind when we read Scripture is that every word was written by someone who lived in a completely different world than we do and who spoke an entirely different language than we do.

And by language I don’t simply mean syntax, words, grammar, etc. I mean an entirely different way of communicating thoughts and ideas, prejudices and beliefs. The ancient Israelites did not recount events the way we do. They didn’t value the same things that we do.

In other words, it’s entirely likely (probable, in fact) that God never told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites.

The Israelites were an ancient tribal people who lived among other ancient peoples. All the nations surrounding them had epic origin tales, and Israel had to tell their story.

I won’t go into all the historical-archeological detail, but just understand this: while these events aren’t historically accurate by our standards of accuracy, they are still 100% true. The truth is in what these stories are trying to convey.

Here’s what I see when I read these stories. I see a God who allows his children to tell their stories. I see a God who allows his character to evolve through the pages of the Bible because his creation is evolving in its understanding of who he is.

And then Jesus steps onto the scene. God is no longer simply the centerpiece of Israel’s mythology and religion. He is no longer bound by ancient storytelling and oral traditions. No, God has stepped into the world and transcended mere language. God has become more than just part of Israel’s story. He has become a Man. And that Man has become our King.

Our good, wise, loving, self-sacrificing, and perfect. . . King.

What God is like. . .

I’ve occasionally been accused of making a big deal out of small things. For example, as was evident from my ebook, I made a fairly big deal out of the Calvinism-vs-non-Calvinism thing.

There’s a reason for my “soapboxing” though. It responds to the question, “What is God like?”

Is God angry, vengeful, and misogynistic? Is he genocidal and vindictive?

If we take descriptions of him seriously (particularly those that paint him as the kind of God that would randomly wipe out an entire race of people simply because they were occupying the territory that he wanted to give to his chosen race), do we come to the conclusion that he’s the kind of God that is so angry at his people, his Son has to appease that anger by sacrificing himself on humanity’s behalf?

How then can we say with confidence that “God is love”?

Is the God we trust to rescue us the same God who ordered the killing of the entire population of Canaan, including the women and children?

Can we trust God to rescue us if he is also in absolute control of everything, including those events that hurt us, destroy us, and even cause us to commit unspeakable atrocities?

I would submit that no, we don’t trust a God who ordered the slaughter of entire people groups. We don’t put our faith in a God who dictates and determines the evils that exist in the world.

I’ll wait for my next post to provide thoughts regarding how to reconcile what we see about God in the Christian Old Testament with the type of Man we see in Jesus. But for now, let’s just take a moment to look at what Jesus shows us about God.

We see a God who heals the sick.

We see a God who feeds the hungry.

We see a God who welcomes children.

We see a God who spends time with the broken and marginalized.

Jesus’ death wasn’t to appease the anger of his Father, it was to show us just how far God was willing to go in order to rescue his children from captivity.

Jesus’ outstretched arms call out to us as he breathes his last, “This is how much I love you.”

That’s the kind of God who rescues us.

That is what God is like.

New eBook. . .

My essay that was once titled “An Irenic Rebuttal of the TULIP Soteriological Schema
 or
 Why I’m Not a Calvinist” has been renamed and converted into an eBook!

coverIt’s now called Deconstructing TULIP: A Former Calvinist Examines Calvinism’s Soteriology, and you can download it by clicking here.

Enjoy!

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.”