Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out (Book Review)

Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out is a book I wish someone had handed me early in my walk with Jesus. I came to Christ as an adult after over a decade of skepticism of all things religious, and it became clear to me early on in my walk with Christ that part of following him was sharing my faith with others. The thing with evangelism is that though all Christians are called to share their faith, not every Christian has the calling of an evangelist. Forget standing on a street corner and proclaiming the good news of Christ, most of us aren’t even comfortable having a spiritual conversation with a coworker at lunch. So, if you’re a natural evangelist, the church thanks you because the church needs you! But, as I said, Christ calls all of his people—not just pastors and missionaries—to be disciple-makers and witnesses of his goodness and salvation—no exceptions. D. Scott Hildreth and Steven A. McKinion have written a book for the rest of us, who “freak out” when we think about sharing our faith. 

What they lay out can best be described as “lifestyle evangelism,” and it’s so common-sense-based, you almost ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of this?” Yet, I think so many of us have been thinking of evangelism in such a narrow way we’ve convinced ourselves we can’t do it. We think that if every conversation doesn’t end with us calling the person to repentance and faith (with complementary Bible verses), we’re not doing evangelism right.

To start, one way to open the door to sharing your faith is to live as Christ calls us to live, which includes caring for people and letting those relationships bloom and lead to conversations—conversations which will allow you to share your faith naturally. Instead of worrying about how to answer every objection, instead focus on simply explaining the big story of the Bible and making sure the person understands it. I even once said to someone, “Listen, I know you don’t believe in it, but I just want to make sure you understand what the Bible teaches and what I believe.” Your goal isn’t to win a debate, but to tell the story of the Bible. Again, this happens best in dialogues—not monologues—in relationships. 

The authors remind us that conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit; we don’t convert anyone, but we’re called to be faithful. Our role is to “(1) retell the story of the gospel clearly, accurately, and convincingly; (2) try to eliminate any roadblocks or stumbling blocks from their minds that may keep them from understanding what Christ did for them; and (3) bring questions to their minds that show their need for a savior.” (I highly recommend the book Tactics by Greg Koukl, which compliments this book beautifully. If I were to teach an evangelism class, these would be the two main books I would use.)

Hildreth and McKinion’s book could easily be re-named, Don’t Be Scared: It’s Only Evangelism. I’ve been in ministry full-time a few years now, and I’m still not a natural evangelist. It takes effort and intentionality for me. There are certainly times when the Holy Spirit is already working on someone and that person is ready to receive the gospel as soon as they hear it proclaimed. But my experience has been that the most fruitful gospel encounters have taken place in the context of conversations between friends. Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out is a welcomed guide for those of us who don’t want to come across as salesmen making a pitch, but instead as lovers of Christ sharing Christ in love.

Sharing Jesus Without Freaking Out by D. Scott Hildreth and Steven A. McKinion

*B&H Publishing provided me with a free copy of this book for review.

Navigating the Political Quagmire as a Christian

Recently, I had someone leave my small church plant—not because of heresy nor unrepentant sin—but because of politics. The person didn’t like the political opinions of some of the people in our church, so he put his political identity above his identity as our brother in Christ and disfellowshipped with us.

In the U.S., we have bought into a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is to believe there are only two possible options even though a broad range of possibilities are available. The overall faulty thinking is that you’re either conservative (and, thus, a Republican) or liberal (and, thus, a Democrat). 

Beyond the obvious issue with trying to lump everyone in existence into two exclusive tribes—as well as the issue of who gets to define specific views as either “liberal” or “conservative”—it’s clear that Christians need to defy the false political dichotomy of U.S. politics because it’s (1) damaging clear biblical thinking, (2) damaging church unity, and (3) damaging the witness of the church. And if it’s doing all that, it’s dishonoring the name of Jesus, our king, which is unacceptable.

Christianity is a third option. Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God. This means Christ-followers find their identity as citizens of God’s Kingdom first and foremost—before any identity as either Democrat, Republican, or even American. Christians need to defy this false dichotomy of our day because we aren’t to fall into the same patterns and habits of the world around us. Christianity is a third way.

After all, the apostle Paul tells us, 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Romans 12:2)

Paul also shows us that following Christ often means not being accepted according to the standards of humankind:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

In an earlier blog, I’ve already given some thoughts about this false political dichotomy everyone—including the church—is getting bamboozled into believing, but here are some additional thoughts about navigating this political minefield that we live in today:

  1. If you’re taking punches from both sides, you’re probably doing something right. 

If you find ardent liberals try to brand you as a conservative and ardent conservatives try to brand you as a liberal, this might show you’re actually trying to follow God’s Word, rather than the world’s wisdom.

  1. Criticize where due. Praise where due.

When loyalty is to Christ and his Word and not to a political identity, it gives you freedom to criticize and praise where appropriate. After all, a Christian should be concerned with God’s truth, not promoting some tribal worldview defined by worldly guidelines. For instance, there were things Christians could appreciate about both President Obama and President Trump, but there were also certainly things about both presidents Christians should have been critical about.

  1. Freedom For Clear Thinking

When your mind isn’t cloudy with trying to jam everything into a category of “liberal” or “conservative,” you’re free to focus on the actual topic or issue at hand to figure out how to correctly think about it and, if need be, how to best solve it. When you’re not busy trying to defend the view of your tribe, it gives a lot of freedom to actually think. You also don’t get caught up in the bickering and finger-pointing about the bad behavior of either side, which is a snare that hampers meaningful discussion.

  1. Freedom to be Critical of my Own Party

OK, maybe you’re well-informed on the issues and the political stances of each party and you have decided to align yourself with one party over the other. Fine, but this still doesn’t mean you have to accept every stance of that party wholesale. If you’re part of that party, work to make your party more godly.

  1. Save It For the Dinner Table

There’s an old saying about not talking about politics or religion in polite company. I’m going to update it: Don’t talk about politics or religion over social media. All the bickering online isn’t getting you anywhere with your friends who hold different views, and these complicated topics are nearly impossible to address sufficiently in a social media format. Plus, I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but it’s much easier to come across as a jerk on social media—and many feel free to purposely act like jerks on social media. A good rule of thumb: If a person isn’t willing to find the time to sit down with you for a meal, then maybe it’s not a good use of your time to get into a political discussion with him or her.

  1. Seek out people who don’t fit into either tribe.

Having conversations with people who may be able to give a unique point of view will certainly help everyone open their minds to the possibilities beyond the narratives of either side. For example, I have a married couple as neighbors who both work in law enforcement and are African Americans. Having conversations with them about police brutality, racism, and gun control certainly provides me with plenty to think about. Also, I find talking to people who immigrated to the U.S. can give me a point of view that’s often outside of the box of typical American thinking. 

  1. There’s more moderates than you think.

Sadly, it was the same as when I taught high school as it is with politics: The people making the most noise get the most attention. But it has been my experience that when you have actual conversations (not arguments) with actual people (not the characters they play on social media), people are a lot more reasonable and, thus, a lot more moderate than you think. (And, so, the ignored, annoyed moderates of this country have to start making more noise!)

8. And a closing thought from God’s Word.

Finally, let me close with some wisdom from the Proverbs to remind us all to remain humble:

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)

Read related GFTM articles:

False Dichotomy, the Bane of Modern Debate

5 Common Logical Mistakes to Avoid

14 Quick Tips for Better Online Interactions

Dealing with “Apatheism” & Understanding the Joy of New Creation (Book Reviews)

Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care by Kyle Beshears (B & H Academic)

Kyle Beshears’ book tackles an extremely problematic question that is often overlooked in discussions on evangelism: How do you share your faith with those who simply don’t care about God? Even if you share your faith, how do you get the person to care enough to consider what you said?

When you get down to it, it’s actually easy to get into conversations with ardent atheists. Ardent atheists have strong beliefs and they want to talk—or at least debate—about those beliefs. In the same way, it’s easy to get into a spiritual conversation with a religious non-Christian because they care about spiritual things. But how do we engage the “apatheist”—someone who believes God is irrelevant? 

Beshears lays out the symptoms in a society that lead to apatheism: secular, comfortable, and distracted—all aspects of American culture. Further, radical individualism feeds it, where it’s believed we can create our own meaning to life. Additionally, mix in pluralism and the internet age of too many options. Not that exposure to other beliefs is bad within itself, but too many options leads to many experiencing a mental fatigue, so they don’t hold to any belief all that strongly or simply don’t wish to engage with anyone about them. Keep in mind, even a professed Christian can still be an apatheist. This is the “practical atheist” (or what I often call a “functional atheist”) in your pews whose Christian identity has no impact on their lives.

Since the “apatheist” is one who both “believes God is irrelevant and feels apathetic towards him,” Beshears proposes that we have to hit them first emotionally to wake them up. How do we do this? We go after their idols. We make them aware that anything other than God that they find their happiness in can be taken away; it will ultimately let them down. Then, once we jolt them enough to listen, we point them to Christ as the only lasting source of joy. Augustine wrote of God, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.”

Beshears points out another important point many would overlook: Before doing this effectively, we can’t be apatheists ourselves! We have to ask ourselves, Have I lost my joy in Christ? What must I do to recapture it? Does my life display the joy and hope I have in Christ? After all, we don’t just want them to know Christianity is true, but we want them to want it to be true. Anselm once stated that an emotional desire for Christianity to be true is a necessary step before someone could be intellectually convinced of the gospel.

At barely 100 pages, Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care is certainly worth the read. Whenever I read a book like this, I always end by wishing it had more practical advice and real-world examples, but Beshears has written a book with both those things that is a great help to anyone hoping to share their faith. Beshears has written a much-needed book that is a welcomed gift to the church. I hope this book will start a conversation and lead to more Christian thinkers tackling this topic.

*B & H provided me with a free copy for review.

The New Creation and the Storyline of Scripture by Frank Thielman (Crossway)

The New Creation and the Storyline of Scripture is the third book I’ve read (and reviewed) from the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series by Crossway. So far, I’ve enjoyed and benefited from the books tracing an important theme throughout the Bible. That would include this book, which follows the prominent biblical theme of new creation. Of the three Short Studies books I’ve read, this is the most basic; new creation is a biblical theme many Christians are aware of already. If you are already familiar with the big story of the Bible, it’s a theme that’s not hard to see. So, I would recommend this book to someone as an introduction to biblical theology, someone who doesn’t have a good grasp of the overall storyline of the Bible.

This is by no means a negative thing; tracing the theme is both essential to the Christian worldview and beautiful to see in Scripture. From the moment the new creation fell under the destruction of sin, God put his plan into effect to restore it, from the proclamation of the coming one who would crush Satan’s head, to the establishment of the nation of Israel, to the prophecies of the prophets, to the miracles of Jesus, to the born-again followers of Jesus becoming “new creations,” to the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth in the Book of Revelation. As I said, it’s a beautiful and essential thing for Christians to understand, showing us how we can have both hope and joy in the face of current turmoil and suffering.

*Crossway provided me with a free copy for review.

Is Jesus “a god”? Revisiting John 1:1 & the Jehovah’s Witness Translation

KNOCK, KNOCK. WHO’S THERE? J.W., WHO?

John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (ESV)

But not so fast! These astonishing statements at the beginning of John’s gospel are traditionally understood to tell us two key, unique aspects of orthodox Christian belief: Jesus is God, and God is at least two persons, bringing into view the Trinity. Yet, our friends at the local Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall say two thousand years of Christianity has gotten it all wrong. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible, the New World Translation, has John 1:1 as follows: 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” (New World Translation) 

Alright, which translation of John 1:1 is correct? The Greek word for “God” or “god” is theos. Ancient Greek didn’t use capitalization like we do today with English, so looking at the original Greek to see if “theos” is capitalized won’t help us. So, let’s focus on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation “the Word was a god” because there’s “a” big problem with this. Actually, a few of them. 

WHO’S TRANSLATING?

To start, I once made the mistake of boldly stating in a blog that no scholar of New Testament era Greek has ever translated John 1:1 in this way. (For the record, this article covers much of the same info, but adds to it as well.) I should’ve known better than to make such an absolute statement unless I had absolute knowledge that the statement I was making was absolutely correct. Pushback came swiftly, accompanied by a list of translations where John 1:1 reads “a god.” Lesson learned. I repent. But please allow me to humbly cross-examine these translations. After all, just because something is found on the internet doesn’t mean it’s good information. (I realize that may come as a shock to some of you. That was sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell.)

First, were all these translations made by scholars of New Testament (Koine) Greek? After all, I wasn’t claiming no other translations out there read “a god”; I specifically claimed none were made by New Testament Greek scholars. Does the translator have a PhD in Koine Greek? Hold a position at a reputable university? Publish Greek grammar articles in peer-reviewed journals? Also—and this is important—was the translation made by a committee of Greek scholars? I’m sure you understand how easily a single person making a translation can make errors or smuggle in personal preferences without the checks and balances of working within a group of professionals. (And we should ask these same exact questions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation! To start: Who, exactly, translated it?)

Let me point out, even if the translations that read “a god” come from qualified and credible sources, they’re still in the vast minority. I can say with complete confidence that “a god” is plainly rejected by the great multitude of legitimate scholars. 

NOT DEFINITE ABOUT THE DEFINITE ARTICLE

Secondly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify this translation by pointing out that the original Greek literally reads, “the Word was with the theos, and the Word was theos.” This is accurate. But their argument is that since the second use of theos doesn’t have “the” (the definite article, for you grammar nerds), then the first use of theos is speaking of the one and only God (“the God”) and Jesus, the Word, is something like God but lesser. He’s “a god.” 

This isn’t how Greek grammar works. For one, the definite article (“the”) is used differently in Greek than in English, so it’s often not even translated into English. As we see, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World version doesn’t translate the “the” either, but where on earth do they get the idea that the lack of “the” means adding an “a”?

Most of us aren’t Greek scholars to know one way or another, but this next reason why the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version fails is very telling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even follow their own unorthodox grammar rule! To be consistent, every time theos appears without the definite article (“the”) in the Greek, they should translate it as “a god” or, at least, as a lowercase “g” god. Yet, theos appears many, many times in the New Testament without “the” and their own translation doesn’t insert “a” or interpret theos as a lowercase “god” elsewhere. Their own New World Translation breaks their own odd grammar rule again and again. 

In fact, we don’t even have to leave John 1 to see this. None of the following include “the” with theos in the original Greek:

  • John 1:6: “There came a man who was sent as a representative of God.” (New World Translation)

Why isn’t this translated, “who was sent as a representative of a god”?

  • John 1:12-13: “he gave authority to become God’s children, because they were exercising faith in his name. And they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God.” (New World Translation)

Why isn’t this translated, “he gave authority to become a god’s children” and “they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from a god”?

  • John 1:18: “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him.” (New World Translation)

Why not, “No man has seen a god at any time” or “an only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side”? (I tackle the term “only-begotten” in another article.)

Many more examples exist throughout the New Testament, yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation doesn’t insert an “a” before God or demote God to a lowercase status. (Also see Matthew 3:9; 6:24; Luke 1:35, 78; 2:40; Romans 1:7, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 15:10; Philippians 2:11–13; Titus 1:1.)

Likewise, what do all of the following verses have in common? I’ll include bold to help out:

  1. “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. The book of the history of Jesus Christ…” (Matthew 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. “… just as these were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and attendants of the message…” (Luke 1:2) (New World Translation)

All four of these verses are missing “the” in the original Greek. As I said, the definite article (“the”) doesn’t work the same in Greek as it does in English. Again, it doesn’t appear the Jehovah’s Witnesses are holding too tightly to their own grammar rule! Why is “the” being inserted into the English instead of “a” in all of these verses? Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses follow standard Greek grammar rules everywhere, it seems, but in John 1:1? If the “translators” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible are going to make up a grammar rule to wiggle around a clear teaching about Jesus, they could at least follow their own made-up grammar rule consistently.

SOME FINAL ISSUES

Thirdly, John 1:1 isn’t the only passage in the New Testament to declare Jesus as God. I’ve never met a mean Jehovah’s Witness, so when they come to my door I often get my Bible and give them some friendly push-back. This led to me meeting up for coffee with a local Jehovah’s Witness elder to discuss Jesus. Of course, John 1:1 came up in our discussion. Despite me pointing out the above issues to him, we weren’t getting anywhere. So, I said, “Neither of us are Greek scholars, so let’s put John 1:1 aside for now and look at other verses.” The whole of the Christian belief that Jesus is God isn’t based on a single verse! 

Fourthly and finally, even if we accept “the Word was a god” as a legitimate alternative translation, this would make Jehovah’s Witnesses polytheists (as well as the apostle John)! The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation dodges the Trinity in John 1:1 but still declares two gods! Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, deny this. Their own official literature explains the wording in John 1:1 as “because of his high position among Jehovah’s creatures, the Word is referred to as ‘a god.’ Here the term ‘god’ means ‘mighty one.’” [1] Well, that seems rather arbitrary! The sharp distinction Jehovah’s Witnesses make between Jehovah as “Almighty God” and Jesus as “mighty god” isn’t biblical. See Isaiah 10:20–21 and Jeremiah 32:16–18, where “Jehovah” (Yahweh/The LORD) is called gibbor el (Hebrew), “mighty God.”

  John and almost every writer of the New Testament were first century Jews. This idea of Jesus being a lowercase “g” god would’ve been alien to them. To a first century Jew, you were either God or you weren’t. No third option existed. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses have accused traditional Christians of adopting pagan Roman ideas by believing Jesus is a divine person of the Trinity, yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ idea of Jesus being “a god” is certainly closer to Roman paganism than Judaism. For the monotheistic Jews, there were no partial gods and no near-gods. Jehovah’s Witnesses have invented a category to put Jesus in not found in the Bible. [2] By trying to avoid the plain grammar of John 1:1, they’ve dug themselves into a deep hole.

[1]  What Does the Bible Really Teach?, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, December 2014 printing.

[2] In the Bible, there are cases where “god” (theos, elohim) is a title applied to beings that aren’t the LORD (Yahweh/“Jehovah”), but they’re false gods or beings inferior to the one true God of Israel. Even by Jehovah’s Witness thinking, Jesus is a different type of “god” than these “gods.” 2 Corinthians 4:4; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 82:1, 6–7 (John 10:34–36). 

RELATED GFTM ARTICLES:

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints (Mormons) & the Titles of God: Almighty God, mighty god, Jehovah, Elohim

Understanding Divine Blessing: Does the Prosperity Gospel Get It Right? (w/ Book Review)

The biblical concept of “blessing”—as in being blessed and blessing others—is not a topic any church I’ve attended focused on, so when I had the opportunity to read and review Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne, I took it. This is the second book I’ve read from Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, where in relatively short, readable books a certain theme is explored throughout the Bible. As a former high school English teacher, I have a bit of a thing for themes, and I found both books helpful, accessible introductions to important subjects of biblical theology. Biblical theology is the practice of tracing a particular theme or idea throughout the entire biblical story and connecting the dots.

Divine blessing isn’t a topic I’ve explored before, but being familiar with the Bible I knew “blessing” is a word that comes up quite a bit. As both an apologist and pastor, this was a topic I needed to grasp because of the prevalence of the “prosperity gospel” and “health and wealth gospel.” Even if a Christian doesn’t subscribe to the false prosperity gospel, understanding biblical blessings is essential to addressing a sort of prosperity gospel thinking that intersects with the problem of evil and suffering. This is the thinking that expects God to always intervene in times of trouble. This is the person who asks when they hit a rough patch in life, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” with the underlying idea that God should never let anything bad happen to his people.

Let’s be honest, a lot of evidence exists both in and out of the Bible that doesn’t support the idea that if you’re a “good” Christian you get blessings and if you’re “bad” you’re cursed. If the apostle Paul can ask God three times to remove the “thorn” in his flesh and God refuses (2 Cor. 12:1–10), then that destroys the whole health and wealth gospel thesis right there. So, as Osborne asks, “What about when God’s covenant people live faithfully, trusting in his word, and still experience tragedy and sorrow?” Further, there appears to be “a theological rift” between the Old and New Testaments’ portrayals of divine blessing. The Old “seems focused on the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful,” while the New “portrays the most faithful as martyred and imprisoned.” 

In addressing all of these issues, Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God is a welcomed (and much-needed) help.

THE BASICS OF BIBLICAL BLESSING

In the rest of this blog, let me give you some insights into what the Bible says about divine blessing. To start, here are some basics:

  • “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological [future].”
  • Like when exploring any biblical concept, we need to differentiate between the Old Covenant (exclusive to ancient Israel) and the New Covenant (for Christ’s people) when talking about divine blessings.
  • Where blessings under the Old Covenant is exclusive to ancient Israel, not Christians, and “the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful” appears to be part of that covenant, the Bible also often portrays these blessings as stumbling blocks. 
  • Both the Old and New Covenants have a spiritual and physical aspect of blessing. “[D]ivine blessing was always intended to be material, spiritual, [but also] relational.” That it, based on a relationship with God, which is the ultimate blessing within itself.
  • All biblical blessing is “fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God,” which includes being in a right relationship with God and God dwelling with his people. “True blessing, no matter the form, always leads us near to God.” “Unlike what is commonly heard in prosperity [gospel] circles, you don’t go through God to get his blessings. Conversely, we might say you go through his blessings to get to God! God is the end to be pursued because his blessing is experienced only by living in his presence.” 
  • Divine blessing coincides with obedience to God’s will, which include his divine directives and commands. Living according to God’s wisdom brings consequential blessings, which is rooted also in a proper fear or respect of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). 
  • God always intended to bless his people and for his people to be a blessing to others.
  • God is under no obligation to bless or guarantee a certain fullness of life. We have privileges as Christians as God’s children, but these aren’t rights. As I like to say, we can’t sum up God’s ways in a mathematical formula. In other words, we can’t put God in a box.
  • In one sense, the delay of God’s wrath is a blessing!

BLESSING IN THE BIBLICAL STORY

God created to bless. We see three blessings found in the creation narrative. Before the fall, humankind was to “experience the fullness of life in God’s presence in the garden.” Humankind was to walk in the presence of God (quite literally before the fall). Humankind was also to be a blessing to creation by fulfilling God’s “creation/cultural mandate” to be fruitful and fill the earth and be stewards of creation. But the first man and woman screwed this all up. In the post-fall world, God put another plan into effect to bless the world:

Now the Lord said to Abram [Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

So, God chooses a person to bless, and through that person he will bless the whole world. Through Abraham, God will build a people—Israel—to be a blessing to the world. Of course, the biblical story shows the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth—is a descendant of Abraham. The “promise land” God will give Abraham’s people will serve as a light—a blessing—foreshadowing the new creation (“the new heaven and new earth”) ushered in by Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, which is specific to Israel, God makes a covenant of blessing and cursing. Material blessing is part of this, including health and fertility/procreation. Under the Old Covenant this is conditional, based on Israel’s upholding their side of the covenant; they must obey and be loyal to their God. But at the same time, God has made an unconditional commitment to bless his people regardless. In the fallen world, whether under the Old Covenant or New Covenant, this will only ever see partial fulfillment. Those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted and need to keep focused on the future new creation where God’s people will live with him.

Further, “in a fallen world, the way to divine blessing always involves suffering.” See Luke 9:23–26 and Romans 8:17, but this is seen in the Old Testament as well. For instance, “Jacob’s life challenges our simplistic categories of ‘do good things and be blessed’ or ‘you are blessed so nothing hurts.’ In Jacob’s limp we see God’s severe mercy going to great lengths to produce the transformation and blessing in our lives, but not always in the way we wanted.”

As we leave the Old Testament and enter the New Testament era under the New Covenant, “For all the promises [and, thus, blessings] of God find their Yes in him [in Christ]” (2 Cor 1:20). “[I]n the New Testament, blessing is always specifically in Christ” and Christ’s blessings can’t be disconnected from eternal life and the Kingdom of God. With this, the Holy Spirit is another blessing to Jesus’ people, who also empowers them to bless others. The indwelling Holy Spirit, along with Jesus’ resurrection (and even the church itself), are down-payments—assurances—of the coming fulfillment of divine blessing in the future new creation, ushered in by Christ. In the New Testament—under the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)—we experience the “partial fulfillment” (the “already/not yet” nature) of God’s blessing, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns. Even the Old Covenant’s physical blessings are a foreshadowing of the material blessing in the new creation, where there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21). Again, those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). 

So, Christ’s people already have “every spiritual blessing” in heaven at this very moment, yet full experience of God’s blessings won’t be obtained until the New Heaven and New Earth. As Osborne puts it: Cross, then Crown (for both Christ, and Christ’s people). But Christ’s people are also blessed because God will use all their suffering for our good (Rom 8:32). “If our notions of divine blessing require freedom from suffering or persecution, then our hope is grounded in the wrong thing, or maybe the wrong age.”

Osborne proposes a great test for the believer: “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction? No perceived ‘good gift’ will ever drive you away from the Lord.” 

(Crossway provided a free copy of this book for me to review.)

The Serpent, Dragon & Leviathan in Symbol & Scripture (w/ Book Review)

LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?

As Christians, we often have to defend our belief that the Bible should be taken literally. The writers of the Bible present much of the information as historical truth, and Christians need to accept certain claims of the Bible as fact to be true Christ-followers. For example, the apostle Paul wrote that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then our faith is false (1 Cor. 15:14–19). Often, orthodox Christians find themselves battling against the idea that the claims of the Bible are purely symbolic of spiritual truths. One must believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead to be a Christian.

Yet, we also have to accept that the Bible is a work of literature, and sometimes the writers of the Bible do, in fact, use symbolic language and metaphor. By identifying the genre of the book of the Bible, this becomes clearer. For instance, the Psalms are poetic songs. The Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic style of ancient writing called apocalyptic literature. So, both Psalms and Revelation use figurative language much more than other books of the Bible. Often, we have to ask about any given verse in them: Are we to take this literally or figuratively?

On the other hand, works like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, the four Gospels, and Acts are historical narratives, so we take them as factual history. Yet, even these historical narratives have non-literal elements. For instance, Jesus often teaches in parables. We all know parables are short fictional tales to teach a lesson. Jesus also uses metaphors when he teaches. He calls himself a door and bread and a shepherd, but even the most uninformed reader understands that he’s speaking metaphorically.

As a former high school English teacher, I enjoy learning about the often-overlooked literary elements of the Bible, including symbolic themes—elements that may not be so obvious to modern readers but repeat throughout God’s Word. The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer by Andrew David Naselli is part of a series called Short Studies in Biblical Theology. It’s a quick read exploring the symbolism in Scripture of the serpent and dragon. 

THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) AND THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) SLAYER

Naselli writes of the love of dragon-slaying stories throughout history, all of which he sums up with a pithy explanation: “Kill the dragon, get the girl.” He claims this is the theme of the Bible as well: Satan is the villainous serpent/dragon; the damsel in distress is God’s people; and the serpent slayer is Jesus. This may seem like a stretch, but once we consider the symbolism of the snake and dragon in Scripture—as well as the Church as the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7–9, 21:1–2; Eph. 5:25–32)—it might not be so far fetched.

Even someone with a cursory understanding of the Bible knows that Satan, as a serpent, tempted the first humans to rebel against God. Less known is that just after this, God declares the coming of the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Though Genesis 3 doesn’t anywhere call the serpent Satan, the writers of the New Testament certainly connected the two (Rev. 12:9, 20:2; Rom. 16:20). Michael S. Heiser, in his book The Unseen Realm, makes the case that the Hebrew word for serpent (nachash) in Genesis 3 is a play on words pointing towards a spiritual being. Regardless, the serpent was definitely “representative of someone or something” bigger, something “beyond this particular snake” [1].

Some of the same passages that equate Satan with the serpent also equate him with the dragon of the Book of Revelation:

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:8–9)

And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2)

Naselli explains that the snake and the dragon express the two sides—or two strategies—of Satan. The snake is the deceiver. The dragon is the destroyer. He writes, “Snakes deceive; dragons devour. Snakes tempt and lie; dragons attack and murder. Snakes backstab; dragons assault.”

THE LEVIATHAN AND SEA

Understanding the symbolic nature of the snake and dragon (which is just a huge, winged snake) opens up the possibility of the mysterious “flying fiery serpent” of Isaiah (30:6–7) being a poetic symbol. Similarly, the presence of the Behemoth and Leviathan in Chapters 40–41 of the Book of Job have been a topic of debate. Some Young Earth Creationists claim these are dinosaurs. Others have tried to explain them as commonly known animals. I have to admit that the description of the Behemoth certainly sounds like a sauropod dinosaur. Some have argued it’s a hippopotamus, but a hippopotamus doesn’t have “a tail stiff like a cedar” (Job 40:17). 

Yet, an argument for the Leviathan being symbolic is more easily made. First, the language describing the Leviathan in Job appears to be highly poetic. The fact that it’s described as breathing fire (Job 41:18–19) may be a clue that this is a mythical creature. This certainly seems to be a creature that’s more than a common crocodile, as some have proposed. Secondly, the Leviathan appears elsewhere in Scripture in poetic contexts (Ps. 74:14, 104:26; Isa. 27:1; Job 3:8). Finally, we need to consider that the sea—not just this sea monster—is a common symbol of evil, chaos, and death both in the Bible (Dan. 7:2–3) and in the cultures surrounding Israel. At the Second Coming of Jesus, when he renews all of creation and ends evil, we’re told,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)

I don’t think this means the New Heaven and New Earth won’t have any oceans! And I do think the ancient readers would’ve understood what the sea represents here. Both the sea and the Leviathan represent “evil, primordial, cosmic, chaotic forces.” 

THE SERPENT SLAYER

The writers of the Bible often practiced appropriation, borrowing symbols and language from neighboring cultures and adapting them to their biblical worldview as a polemic against the pagan religions. In a sense, they’re saying “You know that language you use about your god? Well, we’re going to apply it to our God, the only true God!” With the Leviathan specifically, the biblical writers are essentially saying, “You know that sea monster you all fear—the one your gods can’t even stop? Our God, the true God, can catch it like a minnow on a hook.”

Interestingly, in Job, God describes the Leviathan’s armor-like scales, a common characteristic of dragons. Naselli points out two times the Bible writers refer to evil humans as having scales. First, he language describing Goliath’s armor reflects this. The NASB tells us “he was clothed with scale-armor” (1 Sam. 17:5). (The NIV translation also reflects this scale language.) Secondly, notice how God describes the Pharaoh in this passage from Ezekiel:

“Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, 

the great dragon that lies 

in the midst of his streams, 

that says, ‘My Nile is my own; 

I made it for myself.’ 

I will put hooks in your jaws, 

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales; 

and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams, 

with all the fish of your streams 

that stick to your scales…

To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens 

I give you as food. (Ezekiel 29:3–5)

So, the symbol of the serpent, the dragon, and Leviathan become much clearer.

Take note, a serpent isn’t always a negative symbol in Scripture. After all, Jesus told his disciples to be as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). But, as we’ve seen, the serpent usually represents evil (Ps. 58:3–5, 140:3), and Christ is the one who will smash the serpent/dragon. In the New Heaven and New Earth, the serpent will no longer be a threat, not even to children (Isa. 11:6–9; 65:17–25). With this, as God’s people, the Church is to participate in the defeat of the serpent/dragon. Naselli’s writes, “God is the one who ultimately crushes serpent heads, and he ordains that his people participate in the head-crushing.” (Ps. 91:13; Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3–4.)

Though there are always sections that I wish were more fleshed-out in short books like Naselli’s, The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer is definitely worth the quick read if you want an introduction to these ideas.

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol.2, Genesis by John H. Sailhamer.

*Crossway Books provided me with a free copy to review this book.