Beloved: A Love Letter From God

Reading the book of 2 Peter--a letter from God, through Peter, to Christians everywhere--one word should pop out.  Beloved.  Agapetos or agapetoi in the Greek are the words that are often translated into the English word, beloved.  In 2 Peter 1:17, Peter uses this word quoting the Father's words at Jesus' transfiguration.  At 2 Peter 3:15, Peter uses beloved to describe our brother Paul.  In the other four uses, it is a term of endearment toward the reader.  But is it Peter who loves reader?  Maybe.  Peter did have a great love for Christians; however, it is God who calls Christians everywhere 'beloved.'

Some may dispute that 2 Peter is a letter to Christians everywhere specifically from God, especially when 2 Peter 1:1 says, "Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ" (ESV).  But in this very letter Peter says,"For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21, ESV).  If 2 Peter is Scripture, than it is prophecy and therefore not written by the will of Peter, but by God as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit."  This is a letter from God and it is written to Christians everywhere.

The use of 'beloved' in 2 Peter 3:14 is especially encouraging.  God (through Peter, carried by the Holy Spirit) says, "Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace" (ESV).  When we look at this verse in light of what the rest of the Bible says, we know it is impossible to be without spot or blemish apart from Christ, the only one who is without spots or blemishes (1 Peter 1:17-21).  We trade our sin for Jesus' righteousness.  We trade our lies and likes of the false prophets for the Truth of the gospel of Jesus.  He takes our sins, dies for them, and gives us a perfection we will one day share with Jesus in his glory.  And the same is true for peace.  Apart from the knowledge that our Lord is coming back and believers will live in eternity with God, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be at true peace.  We trade our waring soul for one that is at peace with Christ.

When we see that we are beloved, we really ought to see that we not only traded our spots and blemishes and our worry, doubt, and rage for salvation, we are now seen with love by the Father.

In the four Gospels, the word beloved is used in some interesting ways.  In Matthew 3 and Luke 3 the word appears at Christ's baptism.  Here there is an audible voice that says "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased."  At the transfiguration recorded in Matthew 17 and Mark 9 an audible voice again introduces Jesus, saying, "This is my beloved son, listen to him."  Matthew quotes Isaiah in Matthew 12 showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the coming messiah and beloved son.  And even Jesus uses this word about himself when he uses a parable in Mark 12 and Luke 12 about a vineyard owner who has bad tenants.  Eventually this owner sends his beloved son.

God's people, that is, those who have repented and accepted Jesus as Lord become children of God, being loved as Jesus is loved.  Romans 9:25-26 is a quotation of Hosea 2:23 and Isaiah 10:22-23.  It reads, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved.'' And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they will be called 'sons of the living God'" (ESV).  In Christ, we become children of God, sharing in Christ's inheritance and we gain entry into the "kingdom of his beloved son" (see Colossians 1:11-14).  By no means did we earn this love because as it is said in Romans 5:8: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (ESV).     

If you are a Christian, repentant and calling on Jesus as Savior and Lord, then 2 Peter is a letter to you, from God.  As you read this letter, do not see it as anything other than a message from a loving father to a son or daughter.  Beloved, God loves you! 


* Photo by user Pimthida is registered under a creative commons license and is used with permission.

Isaiah 7:14 and the Immanuel Sign

As one reads Isaiah 7:14 in isolation of the New Testament, questions may surface about the identity of the boy named Immanuel, but it would seem less significant than the circumstances surrounding this passage. King Ahaz has not placed his trust in the Lord. Isaiah indicates that Ahaz was instructed to ask God for a sign, likely regarding the future of his kingdom in the face of heated politics and a looming invasion. But Ahaz, indignant, will not ask for a sign, but God says he will provide one anyway, maybe now a different sign in light of Ahaz’s rejection. The sign is that a young woman will give birth and name her child Immanuel, which means God is with us. This, on its face does not seem too unusual considering that surrounding this passage Isaiah has already been instructed to give two other symbolic names to his children. Before the boy Immanuel knows the difference between good and evil, Ahaz’s frightful enemies will be no more. That's it. That's the sign.

Only there's something more in this Isaiah text. The boy’s mother (who is left unidentified) is either young, young and unmarried, soon to be married, and likely a virgin. Or maybe she is a combination of these possibilities. If this is where the story ended, the vast amount of word studies, articles, and books on this passage would seem rather unusual, but this is not where it ends. Centuries later, Matthew writes of Jesus and Mary, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoke by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’” (Matt 1:22-23, ESV). Matthew is quoting the Isaiah text. Matthew claims Immanuel in the Isaiah passage is pointing to Jesus.  Jesus is the sign and Jesus is the fulfillment.

But if Jesus is the sign and fulfillment of the Isaiah text, how did Ahaz understand the sign that was given to him? How did readers of Isaiah before the Matthew Gospel understand the sign? How did they understand the identity of Immanuel? Who is he?

This presents a number of problems. Is Matthew wrong?  If he is, how are his readers to believe the rest of his Gospel? If Matthew is right, how are readers to view the Isaiah text? Is there a possibility that there was a duel meaning in this text—that is, could there have been two events that fulfill this sign prophecy? If there is indeed a near and a far view of this passage, were both mothers virgins and was there two boys to fulfill the product of a virgin conception prophecy?

Before we go any further, I should say that I believe that Matthew is correct; therefore, any understanding of the Isaiah passage must include Matthew’s statement. Matthew’s text means that Jesus fulfills the sign prophecy given to Ahaz and the Isaiah text was indeed talking about Jesus, at a minimum. But could the Isaiah text have a duel meaning? Some would argue that a text can only have a single meaning, but Matthew seems to find a duel meaning in other passages too. Hebert Wolf, in his article, “A Solution to The Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22” calls these duel meanings “secondary interpretations” (Wolf, 456). Matthew uses Hosea 11:1, which spoke of the Exodus from Egypt, as a prophecy of Jesus coming back from his flight to Egypt.   Jeremiah 31:15, where Rachael is weeping for Ramah, is tied to Herod’s mass killing of the young boys in an effort to kill the Messiah. “In an analogous manner,” writes Wolf, “Matthew selected Isa 7:14 to describe the birth of Jesus. The language was perfectly suited to Matthew's purpose; and where he went beyond the normal interpretation, he clearly explained the circumstances” (Wolf 456).

Given that at a minimum, the sign was indeed a prophecy of Jesus, how was Ahaz to understand it? And how is a modern reader to see the Isaiah passage? John Oswalt’s approach seems to shed some light on this matter. “I believe,” states Oswalt, “that the sign originally given had a single meaning but a double significance” (Oswalt, 140). This approach does much to resolve what appears to be conflict. “Its meaning is that God is with us and we need not fear what other human beings may do to us” (Oswalt, 140). To Ahaz, Oswalt argues, the statement would provide significance regarding Assyria. He need not worry because God is with Judah. In this case, a specific child may have been indicated and the significance seen in the physical reality of the sign through the birth of a child named Immanuel. Oswalt even argues, “The fact that ‘almah has the definite article suggests that Isaiah is identifying a particular woman” (Oswalt, 140). The second significance is found in the birth of Jesus. The meaning is the same: God is with us. Even considering that Mary named the boy Jesus, the meaning in Isaiah remains the same. Some may suggest that this sign is too simple because God originally directed Ahaz to ask for a deep and high sign, that is, one that is amazing and miraculous; however, the reality that God is with his creation should been seen with this kind of miraculous wonder. Indeed, God entering flesh is so amazing that for many, they cannot even accept it. Given the larger context of Immanuel in Isaiah, Oswalt’s argument seems valid.

There is still a problem however. Two virgins? The word in Isaiah identifying the woman is the Hebrew word ‘almah. This particular word is a difficult word because it neither definitively points a woman who has never had sexual relations or a young woman. It seems both could be correct. Richard Niessen writes 15 pages and 72 footnotes on the word only to conclude, “The evidence supports both the traditional translation of ‘virgin’ and the modern translation of ‘young woman,’ but each must be qualified. The English term ‘virgin’ does not suggest age limitations while the English phrase ‘young woman’ does not suggest virginity. The word [‘almah] demands both, and so a more accurate translation would be ‘young virgin’” (Niessen, 1470).

It does not become less complicated when we see that the LXX translated the word as parthenos, a word that points more toward a young unmarried woman and mainly by implication is one who has not had sexual intercourse.

At any rate,  it appears that Isaiah is referring to a young, unmarried, virgin who will at some point in the future have a son. There is little in this statement that would demand that she is still a virgin, unmarried, or even young at the time of Immanuel’s birth. Matthew on the other hand, uses the term in the context that Mary had not ever been with a man at any point before the birth of Christ (see Matt 1:25). There is nothing in Isaiah that would dictate that the near and far view of this prophecy are physically the same. The meaning remains.

For the present-day student of the Bible however, we have the far view in our sights and it is much more significant for us today. Seeing Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the Isaiah passage speaks a much more meaningful message to us at this point in time than does a sign to Ahaz that God was with Judah. We should spend more of our time looking to Jesus when we read this text.

Niessen, Richard. “The virginity of the `almah in Isaiah 7:14.” Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980): 133-50.
Oswalt, John. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary: from Biblical Text- to Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003.
Wolf, Herbert M., “Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91 (1972): 449-56.

* Photo by Flickr user, Lawrence OP, and is used by permission. 

SBC On Alcohol Use Sounds Tipsy

I realize a number of Christian denominations prohibit the consumption of any alcohol; and that’s fine. If Christians freely choose to abstain from alcohol, I applaud them.  But what about a complete abstinence as a doctrinal position?  I’ve been doing some reading in order to get a solid understanding of the justification behind the abstinence of alcohol as a theological or denominational position. I want to understand the arguments of those who make the claims that any consumption of alcohol is a sin, that drinkers can’t or won't go to heaven, or that anybody consuming any alcohol should be removed from any leadership or ministry position.

In my reading, I came across a rather interesting article posted on the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty blog titled, “On Alcohol Consumption,” by Richard Land and Barrett Duke, dated July 25, 2006. (I accessed this web page on August 10, 2010).  As I was reading the article, I started to wonder if the authors were sharing a bottle of wine as they penned the article. Regardless their position, there seems to be some contradictions, extra-biblical or secular arguments, and odd understandings of the biblical narrative. As soon as I make known my potential biased notions, I'll address some of these examples.
My bias upfront: First and foremost, I must say that whether Christians consume alcohol or not should not be a matter worth splitting churches over.  Anybody who thinks otherwise should read Romans 14:13-23.  Second, I realize the Southern Baptist Convention places very few denominational positions upon their members, leaving these things up to the local congregation. However, I am learning that there is a very strong culture with the SBC, which is nearly authoritative.  Next, I attend a great local church that is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (although neither of the senior pastors are actually SBC).  Also, I'm a graduate student at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, which is a SBC school with many (if not all) SBC professors.  I should also say that I enjoy the craft of beer brewing in my home, although two kids, a full-time job, and full-time seminary leave no time for this hobby at the moment.  I should also point out that after I returned from the war, I abused alcohol, which brought about many other problems in my life.  Now, when I do brew beer, I give most of it away.  I do occasionally consume alcohol (generally "Utah" beer or wine), typically during a meal in social settings, and always with a strict limit of "one and done."  I believe alcohol is no more evil or sinful than money.  It is the abuse of, or idolatrous attitude toward it that brings about sinful problems.  I remain open to changing my view on a alcohol based on a sound argument from the Bible. (If you feel compelled to make that argument, you can contact me here.)
Now that my bias and personal position are out of the way (to the extent that bias can be removed), I'll move to a discussion of the SBC article.  Rather than providing an overview, I ask that you read the article for the bigger picture. It's located here:

After moving through an introduction and a historical overview of the South Baptist resolutions over the years, Land and Duke write,
"When one considers the high cost of alcohol abuse to individuals, families, and society, it is surprising that some Southern Baptists insist on their right to drink. Alcohol problems cost American society more than $184 billion per year in health care, criminal justice, social services, property damage, and loss of productivity expenses. Alcohol is a factor in as many as 105,000 deaths annually in the United States and a primary contributor to a wide array of health problems and human suffering. These include various cancers, liver disease, alcoholism, brain disorders, motor vehicle crashes, violence, crime, spousal and child abuse, drownings, and suicides. Even those who are able to control their drinking should recognize that they are engaged in a behavior that is destroying millions of lives, and choose to abstain rather than encourage by their behavior someone to drink who will not be able to control his drinking."
This argument, although compelling, does not address the question at hand: What does the Bible say about drinking?  In addition, this particular argument is more than acceptable for individuals to adopt as a reason to avoid alcohol altogether; but when a denomination or church incorporates a no-drinking policy based on this argument, they still tend to create a perception that they are taking a position based on a biblical stand rather than a secular argument.  And if the Bible does not condone drinking, their stand runs of the risk of becoming a legalistic "Bible plus." In addition, an argument could be made that a lifestyle of fast food consumption and no physical activity costs American just as much of not more in health related problems.  Therefore (the argument could go), a denomination could declare members of their organization are prohibited from consuming fast food and they must exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, four days a week.  But still, this would be an argument from a secular position. (And I'm not sure the SBC Messengers would ever adopt a policy like this one, no matter how fat an unhealthy America gets.)

The article continues with a lengthy secular argument.  At one point they write, "[. . .] and virtually all users of other drugs start with alcohol, that’s why it’s called the “gateway” drug." This is a risky argument because it verges on a spurious relationship and it's a bit slippery.  First, there's a good chance that many of these drug users that started with alcohol drank soda before that.  So based on this argument, soda could be the cause of heavy drug use.  In addition, this type of argument does not take into account all the people that consume alcohol and never engage in other types of drug use.  In fact, some only drink beer or wine and never even shift to stronger forms of alcohol.

Things start to seem contradictory as the argument shifts to the Bible.  Statements made  to make one point only later become a contradiction for another point.  (I've taken out the material in between for clarity; however, please read the article in its entirety to see what I've left out.)  Take for example this line of reasoning,
"Because alcohol is such a dangerous substance [. . .] However, it appears that the negative aspect is principally related to the debilitating effects on people, not on the alcoholic beverage in itself. Alcohol as a substance is not evil. For example, Psalm 104:14-15 speaks of wine, “which makes man’s heart glad,” as one of God’s provisions for man."
Alcohol is a dangerous substance but not an evil one.  The problem is the debilitating effects of a glad heart, which is a provision for man from God.  Okay?  How about this next example? Pay special attention to the sweet or new wine "is grape juice" argument,  
"Even sweet wine, which is thought by many to be mere grape juice, can debilitate (see Hos. 4:11) [. . .] When used in its non-metaphorical sense, it appears to run the full gamut of meanings, from grape juice, usually qualified by the adjective “new,” to the fully fermented alcoholic beverage. [. . .] In Acts 2:13 the observers supposed that the apostles were full of “sweet wine” because of their behavior when the Holy Spirit had filled them."
It's not every day you see completely irregular or unexplainable behavior like that in Acts 2 and attribute it to mere grape juice.  And I'm not sure how or why non-alcoholic grape juice takes away understanding like Hosea 4:11 claims.  Could it be that maybe that new or sweet wine was not exactly grape juice?

How about the "it's not the same alcohol" argument?
"While the use by some biblical characters of alcoholic beverages is undeniable, it is important to note that the beverages these men and women consumed were not the kinds of alcoholic beverages people consume today. The alcohol content of beverages referred to in the Bible was considerably lower than many of today’s alcoholic beverages." 
The alcoholic content of wine is determined by the amount of natural sugars in the juice that are consumed by yeast.  The byproduct of this consumption is alcohol and gas.  Wine is still naturally produced this way; so is beer. So for this argument to hold true, either grapes contained less sugars or the yeast was prevented from consuming all of the sugar (a complicated process that involves a reduction of temperature, typically with refrigeration, or complex fine filtering of the yeast).  The problem is that this argument is attempting to compare alcohol like vodka (80-120 proof) with wine (20-40 proof).  In that case, the argument works.  But how does this argument stand up if the biblical characters were drinking wine (even at 20 proof) and someone today is drinking beer at 7 to 16 proof)?  It would seem than, based on this argument, that beer today is okay? But again, is this what the Bible is teaching or does this come from a secular style argument?

But what if all the conditions then were the same as today, say for example, missionaries in a third-world country, making their own wine in similar physical conditions as the first century Near East? Then is drinking okay?  In regard to sanitation, the authors write,  
"Additionally, we must keep in mind that sanitary conditions were not what they are today. Alcohol provided an ideal way to maintain the potability of beverages. Without it, people would have suffered even more from common parasites and other health threatening ailments resulting from ingesting contaminated water (see 1 Tim. 5:23)." 
And how about Jesus?  Lots of people will point out that it appears that on occasion Jesus drank wine.  To this the authors argue,
"Jesus wasn’t engaged in drinking alcoholic beverages because He felt it was His right to do so, He was doing this to make a point—that the unbelieving just looked for excuses not to believe."
Ah, what? How about providing some Scripture references to support this statement? They continue,
"Considering the Bible’s very negative attitude toward drunkenness and Jesus’ dedication to God, it is inconceivable to us that Jesus ever drank alcohol recreationally or that He was ever drunk."
Okay?  But how are they defining "recreationally"?  If Christians were to sit down to dinner with Jesus today and they rule out getting drunk or drinking as a recreation, can they have a sanitary, basic glass of wine with their dinner and conversation, or would Jesus call this behavior a sin?  (What if Jesus made the wine?)  Again, what does the Bible say about drinking alcohol in a social setting without any intent to get drunk.  This, I think, is the question most people want answered.

The article continues to plead with the reader not to drink any alcohol in any way.  More arguments are offered.  It's about Christian witness, they say, but what then of drinking one beer alone while watching spots on TV; or what about a single glass of wine with a group of believers during dinner?  There is the argument that alcohol abuse can cause sin so it should be avoided all together; but again, this argument could also be applied to having a little money.  They make many secular arguments, but this still does not answer what the Bible says.

The article also eats some space arguing against drunkenness.  I think there is much less ambiguity in this area.  I don't find that Christians disagree as much here.  Therefore, the question most Christians want answers for is the question of what the Bible says about one glass of wine with dinner, or a glass of champagne at a wedding, or a beer with hot wings over a theological discussion with a friend.  What does the Bible say about this use of alcohol? 

Where the struggle comes is when we think the answer must be an either/or proposition.  Think about it.  Is it possible that the answer requires context?  Is drinking okay within proper limits and settings?  Is this something that lives in a gray area?  I believe it does (not unlike a number of other things the Bible teaches), which is why strong teaching on what the Bible does say is a must, while also avoiding the temptation to create a legalistic approach to alcohol.     

*Photo by Sonja Pieper and is registered under a Creative Commons license.