Amy Mantravadi Why Form an Opinion When You Could Borrow One? Wed, 19 Jul 2017 20:50:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Amy Mantravadi 32 32 54850829 What’s the Matter with Tim Keller? Tue, 18 Jul 2017 12:00:52 +0000 PLEASE NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Redeemer Presbyterian Church does ordain its male deacons. The deaconesses are not ordained. Tim Keller, bestselling author, church planter extraordinaire, in-demand speaker, apologist for and to Manhattan, and one of the most famous Christians in America. Tim Keller, sinner saved by grace, husband, […]

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Vimeo – Redeemer City to City

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Redeemer Presbyterian Church does ordain its male deacons. The deaconesses are not ordained.

Tim Keller, bestselling author, church planter extraordinaire, in-demand speaker, apologist for and to Manhattan, and one of the most famous Christians in America. Tim Keller, sinner saved by grace, husband, father, minister of the Word, and servant of Jesus Christ. Within this one person are contained so many things that provoke both positive and negative reactions within Christianity and beyond.

My first exposure to Tim Keller was within the evangelical community, where he is generally beloved. A former pastor of mine loved to reference Keller’s description of the heart as an idol factory (in Counterfeit Gods), an idea that actually originated with John Calvin but is nevertheless powerful. I read The Prodigal God and felt that it contained more good scriptural sense than most Christian volumes being released today. What I liked most about Keller was that despite his growing fame, he seemed to maintain an admirable humility. He did not raise his voice. He appealed to both the head and the heart. He had something to say to this 21st century world.

About six months ago, I was sucked into the Reformed vortex. That is to say, I was introduced to a number of Reformed Christians via the wonders of social media. Tim Keller was not a hero to them. They mocked him endlessly on Twitter for his meme-worthy quotes. In podcasts, they would sometimes speak about him without naming him, as if he were Voldemort and they feared his wrath. They were suspicious of his association with “The Gospel Industrial Complex”. They believed that he had a choke hold over his denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, and was leading it down a path to liberalism. Everywhere they looked, they found a flaw.

Could these two Tim Kellers be one and the same? Were his fans ignoring dangerous deviations from Scripture and church tradition? Were his critics unwilling to give him credit for doing anything right? I was troubled, and so I decided to investigate these things. In this series of two articles, I will examine the ten most common criticisms I have heard regarding Tim Keller. I will assess the facts as best I can to determine 1) if each accusation is true and 2) if it is really a problem. Therefore, the title of this article can be taken one of two ways. It can mean, “Is there really anything wrong with Tim Keller? Why would you think that?” It can also mean, “What on earth is Tim Keller doing? This is not good.” That is the duality of the situation, and I hope to analyze it properly.

For those who do not know, Tim Keller was for many years the lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He has recently stepped down from that position to focus on church planting in cities around the world, something that is near and dear to his heart. He heads Redeemer City to City, which trains church planters to reach major urban centers. Affiliated with this organization are the Rise Campaign and The New York Project, which perform similar functions within the greater NYC metropolitan area. He is also a council member at The Gospel Coalition, which he helped to found along with D.A. Carson.

I want to make a few things clear before I begin. First, I believe Tim Keller is a true Christian devoted to the gospel. Compared to some of the other prominent Christian leaders in the world today, I find his personal behavior and demeanor to be rather commendable. On the whole, most of what he has to say is very good. This is not meant to be a witch hunt.

Second, we need to be careful not to blame Tim Keller for everything that happens in the various institutions with which he is involved. While he does bear ultimate responsibility for overseeing any organization that he formally leads, we should not assume his complete awareness of every single thing that happens in that vast world, nor should we assume that he holds the same personal views as every other person in those organizations.

Third, I am not a member of Tim Keller’s denomination. I have never had any communication with him. I own a few of his books, I have heard several of his sermons, and I attended RPC on one occasion: Easter 2008. I was visiting a friend who had made Redeemer her temporary church home. Like me, she was not raised Presbyterian. I suspect this is the case for many people in that congregation, and as a side note, it might help to explain some of the ways in which Redeemer operates.

Fourth, the conclusions contained herein are mine and mine alone. You should take them with a grain of salt, or perhaps a shaker full. No person suggested that I should write this article, and I am the only one who read it prior to publication. I have provided links and citations wherever possible, and I would encourage you to conduct your own research and determine whether or not these things are true. They are important and sensitive issues. Every person deserves to be treated fairly.

Fifth, you may be thinking, “Who are you to stand as judge and jury over Tim Keller?” You are absolutely right. That is not my proper role. I decided to write on this topic after seeing the constant stream of criticism on social media from people who are in no better position to judge than myself. I wanted to speak into that situation with a thoughtful analysis. Tim Keller is chiefly accountable to the following sources from a biblical standpoint: the elders of his church, the PCA, his wife Kathy, and God. That is not to say that no one else is allowed to speak up if he does something out of line with Scripture. However, there are formal authority structures in the world, and I am not part of those formal structures.

Having made those five disclaimers, and with apologies for how lengthy this will be, let’s get started.

Criticism #1: Tim Keller is overly focused on cities.

The Brooklyn Bridge with Lower Manhattan in the background, circa 2016 (Author photo)

I mentioned in the introduction that Keller has stepped down as pastor of RPC to focus on urban church planting. Redeemer itself is the most sparkling success story in this regard, having grown from humble beginnings to encompass multiple locations and thousands of people. Through Redeemer City to City, Keller has applied the principles he used in Manhattan to help church planters around the world. But Tim Keller is not dedicating his time to church planting in general. His focus is now and always has been the city.

There is no question that we must take the gospel to cities. The United Nations estimated back in 2014 that 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas and projected that this number would reach 66% by 2020. In 1990, there were 10 cities on planet earth with 10 million people or more. That number reached 28 by the time of that UN article. Urbanization has been increasing practically since the dawn of time, but the Industrial Revolution has pushed it into overdrive. The last U.S. Census found that more than 80% of Americans live in cities. I saw no indication of what constitutes a city in that article, but it did state that there were 486 defined urban areas included in the calculation.

Based on those figures, you could say that when Keller talks about Americans living in cities, he is talking about the vast majority of the United States. However, my sense is that he is not focusing on just any urban areas, but rather the largest of the large: the ones that hold the primary power in terms of politics, finances, culture, etc. I don’t think anyone faults Tim Keller for wanting to share the gospel with city dwellers, but they do fault him for tweets like this:

When I first saw this quote a few days ago, I was rather confused. Did he mean that unbelievers know something of the gospel that Christians miss? Did he mean that the common grace of God has left His fingerprints on much of the universe? It wasn’t clear, but it sure sounded as if he was broadening the definition of the gospel to include things that aren’t really the gospel. The replies to this tweet were truly something to behold, with one popular one asking, “Have you gone completely off the rails?” Keller replied and insisted that this has been his position since 2013. I wondered if the quote would sound as odd to someone else who wasn’t aware of the context. Therefore, I decided to throw it at my husband. Here is how it went…

Me: “Sometimes you bring the gospel to the city, and sometimes the city brings the gospel to you.”

Jai: “Did you see who’s at the rock fest this weekend?”

Me: “Eh hem…Sometimes you bring the gospel to the city, and sometimes the city brings the gospel to you.”

Jai: (continues to stare at phone)

Me: “You know who said that?”

Jai: “Who?”

Me: “Tim Keller.”

Jai: “What?! I thought you were quoting a ‘Deep Thought’ by Jack Handey.”

Yes, my husband thought I was joking. It sounded equally odd to him. Yet it does not seem particularly odd when viewed in the context of some of the other things that Keller has said on this topic. The clearest articulation of Keller’s urban theology probably comes in a document titled “Why God Made Cities” that is available free of charge on the RCC website. Here are some quotes.

You can’t say all Christians are to live in cities any more than you can say all Christians are supposed to marry. But no matter where you live, you should be seeking to help restore and rebuild cities. That’s biblical. (pg. 13)

Most of our entertainment, our learning, our politics, and our business are forged in cities, as they have always been. Today you have only to look at the movies and fashion produced in Los Angeles or New York to see how influential cities are, particularly among the young, and particularly in a globalized world. But cities don’t just export cultural products; they export their idols and worldviews too. So no matter where you live, you are likely feeling one of the effects of city living… (pg. 17)

Most of the cities of the ancient world were built around the tallest building, and that tallest building was always the temple of the god the whole city worshiped. Cities were places you went to meet that god. And cities are still places that will not let you sit back and be indifferent, comfortable, and blind to temptation. Cities drive you to sell your soul to something. They always create spiritual turmoil. People are always spiritually searching in cities. (pg. 28)

Historical research shows that the early Christian missionaries in the Roman Empire did not go to the countryside. They did not go to the small towns. Paul was the best example of this. They went into the cities and only the cities to preach the gospel. Why? Because they knew that the small towns and the countryside are places where people are more conservative. They’re not as likely to adopt new religions. They’re not as open to new ideas…In those idyllic towns and suburbs, it can be easier to hide from the rawness of existence, from the wickedness of the heart, from the transience of life. (pg. 29)

Your attitude toward the city is one index of whether or not you know you’re a sinner saved by grace. If you know you’re a sinner saved by grace, you can no longer feel paternalistic toward people who don’t believe or live like you do. You won’t be so absorbed in your own comforts, in all of the things that keep you from loving the city. (pg. 35)

My good friend Bill Krispin used to say that the country is the place where there are more plants than people, and the city is the place where there are more people than plants. Since God loves people far more than he loves plants, he loves the city far more than he loves the country. (pg. 35)

If you win the countryside and you ignore the cities, you’ve lost the culture. But if you win the city and you ignore the countryside, you’ve won the culture. That’s the reason we need to preach the gospel and to live a Christian life in the city. So we’re supposed to love the city. We’re supposed to preach to the city. (pg. 36)

Loving and preaching the gospel without doing something about the fact that the schools are underperforming, that there’s so little affordable housing, that the streets are unsafe…If you don’t do something about it, you haven’t really done what God wants you to do. He calls Christians to stay in the city and to identify with the city. To be clear, I’m not saying God is calling every Christian to live inside the city. But everyone can help rebuild the city in some way. (pg. 38)

I could include a lot more quotes, and I would encourage you to go read the whole document for yourself. It will not take you very long.

Keller is able to provide many biblical passages that talk about how God is concerned with cities, weeps over them, sends prophets to them, etc. He concludes that the message of the Bible is essentially pro-city, even though cities have both positive and negative elements in a sinful world. God established the city and everything is working toward a heavenly city, which is merely a perfected form of the earthly city. In glory, we will all be urbanites. God is solidly on the side of the city, and that is where you meet God.

I do not deny that the Bible has much to say about the importance of cities. However, I could just as easily go through Scripture and pick out verses that would suggest that the wilderness is where you meet God. That is why so many Christians over the years, when seeking to commune with the Almighty, chose to live in relative seclusion. Since Keller is eager to point to Revelation as a defense of cities, I should also mention that this book presents the city of Babylon – probably a symbol of all great cities, ancient Rome, or some supercity yet to come – as a persecutor of the saints that is bent on material gain. (Revelation ch. 17-18) The kingdom of God and the city in which the saints will live are heavily contrasted with the sinful kingdoms and cities on earth.

To many Christians who do not live in large cities, Keller’s constant praise for urban areas can seem like typical New Yorker talk. (I can practically hear my mother: “They think they’re the center of creation!” She is drowned out by Hamilton’s Schuyler Sisters championing “the greatest city in the world”.) There is a major cultural divide in the United States and elsewhere between those who live in the biggest cities and those who do not.

This was brought home to me when I commented to my husband that older voters were much more likely to support Trump than younger voters. He countered that the biggest divide in the 2016 exit polls was not based on age but whether or not a person lived in a large urban area. Cities are without question more politically liberal, more diverse, and at least in the United States, less Christian. They can seem like the enemy of true Christianity. Keller is right that we must not abandon the cities, but has he overcorrected?

Is the accusation true? I would say yes, although we perhaps have to define what the question means. He has not told all Christians to move to cities, but he has declared that it is anti-biblical not to seek their welfare. He has also made a strong link between sharing the gospel and promoting social justice. While I do see concern for the practical needs of people around us and the establishment of justice in society as natural outworkings of a heart that is captive to the gospel, we must also be careful not to confuse the two, or we will end up with the Social Gospel.

I do not believe that Keller overemphasizes the city because he has chosen to dedicate his life to urban church plants. This is a perfectly noble cause, and God may well have given him that special calling. We should not assume that all people are called to that. We should not assume that those who do not campaign against housing shortages in Manhattan are unconcerned with the gospel, i.e. that Jesus Christ died to save sinners. We also should not assume, as Keller seems to suggest, that God loves cities more than the countryside. I do not believe that Scripture teaches any of these things. Now, I do not really think that Keller believes that God loves cities more. He has written about the importance of the rural church. However, this is a world in which perceptions are important, and the perception is that he is elevating cities.

Is is really a problem? Yes, it is a problem. The unfortunate result of all of this is that in seeking to remove a Christian prejudice against cities, we might be creating a prejudice against rural areas. Go back and look at some of those Keller quotes. City dwellers are ambitious producers of societal good. People in the countryside are conservative and closed minded. They are not as aware of human wickedness. They are stuck in some kind of idyllic utopia. The comforts of the country make it difficult to love people from different backgrounds. Yes, God loves the city more than he loves the country.

I have lived in urban, suburban, and rural contexts. I have seen all kinds of culture. None of them had a monopoly on spiritual truth, which is freely available to all. None of them were more precious to God than others. Yes, the people in the country don’t always love their neighbor as their self. Neither do the people in the cities. Should we focus less on people who live in cities of less than 5 million residents? Should we dismiss that portion of humanity as backward and incapable of grasping divine truths? Is there a secret knowledge that can only be found in the concrete jungle?

I am not sure if Tim Keller meant for his comments to be taken this way or if he has any sense how much they offend those who do not live in large urban areas. I do not begrudge him his focus on cities or his call for us to love them. I would begrudge him taking the gospel and turning it into something that plays geographical favorites. Is that what he really meant? Hopefully we will see more clarity in the future.

Criticism #2: Redeemer Presbyterian Church has female and/or unordained deacons.

Waiting in line to enter the main campus of Redeemer Presbyterian Church back in 2008. Yes, I was there.

Some people have claimed that RPC has deacons who are female and that none of their deacons are ordained. Is this the truth, and if so, is this policy in line with PCA rules? Let’s start by considering what Redeemer says on its website.

The Diaconate — a group of men (deacons) and women (deaconesses) who are nominated, trained, elected and appointed by Redeemer elders and members — exists to contribute to the building of a repentant and rejoicing community through loving, truth-telling relationships where practical, visible needs are being met while hearts are being changed through encounters with Jesus and one another. We express in practical ways Christ’s command to all believers to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Based on this description, the church has both deacons and deaconesses. They must be “nominated, trained, elected, and appointed by Redeemer elders and members”. There is no explicit mention of them being ordained, but I have been assured by a Redeemer staff member that the male deacons do receive ordination, while the females do not. Ordination is a very specific process within the PCA which goes beyond simply being elected or appointed. All PCA congregations are bound in these matters by the Book of Church Order. Here are a few sections of the BCO that are relevant to this discussion. The bold type on certain words is not in the original.

9-1. The office of deacon is set forth in the Scriptures as ordinary and perpetual in the Church. The office is one of sympathy and service, after the example of the Lord Jesus; it expresses also the communion of saints, especially in their helping one another in time of need.

9-3. To the office of deacon, which is spiritual in nature, shall be chosen men of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary lives, brotherly spirit, warm sympathies, and sound judgment.

9-7. It is often expedient that the Session of a church should select and appoint godly men and women of the congregation to assist the deacons in caring for the sick, the widows, the orphans, the prisoners, and others who may be in any distress or need. These assistants to the deacons are not officers of the church (BCO 7-2) and, as such, are not subjects for ordination (BCO 17).

17-1. Those who have been called to office in the Church are to be inducted by the ordination of a court.

17-3. As every ecclesiastical office, according to the Scriptures, is a special charge, no man shall be ordained unless it be to the performance of a definite work.

Does the diaconate at RPC meet the requirements outlined in the PCA BCO? Earlier this year, the PCA Study Committee on Women in Ministry released a report that addressed some of these issues. The advisory members of this committee were Leon Brown, William Castro, Dan Doriani, Lani Jones, and Roy Taylor. Voting members included Irwyn Ince (chairman), Jeffrey Choi, Ligon Duncan, Kathy Keller (wife of Tim Keller), Mary Beth McGreevy, Bruce O’Neil, and Harry Reeder. Here are some excerpts from the 2017 PCA Women in Ministry Report.

The majority of members agree with the definition below: ‘Ordination, biblically, historically, and with specificity in Reformed and Presbyterian evangelical churches, is the formal setting aside of a called, sent, and qualified man from the fellowship of an ecclesiastical assembly consisting of God’s covenant people to a specific office, with vows affirming the responsibilities, power, and authority necessary for the fulfillment of the specified, ecclesiastical office.’ (pg. 2436)

Some churches have chosen not to have a formal diaconate and instead have qualified lay men and women serve together performing the diaconal work in their churches. Though this practice is not specifically prohibited by the BCO, it seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the two offices of the church outlined in the BCO. (pg. 2451)

We must also ask whether or not the system currently in place at RPC is in line with Tim Keller’s own views. (Remember, I said at the outset that I would not assume such things unless they could be proven.) In this case, I think we can definitely conclude that his views are the same as RPC. The diaconate was developed in its current form while he was still the lead pastor. He certainly would have signed off on something of that magnitude. It is also noteworthy that Mrs. Kathy Keller was on the PCA committee that considered these issues. Was she part of the “majority of members” who agreed that only men should be ordained to offices of the church? I cannot possibly say. In any case, the WMR is not binding in the same way as the BCO.

Is the accusation true? Redeemer’s diaconate is composed of both men and women. The men are ordained, while the women are not.  Therefore, Redeemer has not violated the principle that ordained officers should be male, nor have they, in the words of the WMR, chosen “not to establish an ordained diaconate, even with qualified candidates, because the church wishes to be free to establish a body of unordained servants, both male and female”. (pg. 2460) They have actually established an ordained male diaconate and an unordained female diaconate. The debate then changes to whether or not the female deacons are more like the “deacon’s assistants” permitted in the BCO or the ordained male deacons.

Is it really a problem? The WMR consists mostly of a discussion of what the diaconate was meant to be, whether or not women were part of the original diaconate, etc. It is certainly helpful for confessional churches to revisit their confessions every so often and determine if they are indeed biblical. However, this is a separate question from whether or not Redeemer’s diaconate of both men and women is in line with the PCA BCO. That is the real issue at hand.

The study committee concluded that the absence of an ordained diaconate “seems poorly aligned with the spirit of the principle of the two church offices outlined in The Book of Church Order” (pg. 2460). I would actually go farther than that. It seems to me that it is not only against the spirit of the BCO, but actually against the letter. The BCO states that 1) deacons are officers of the church, 2) officers are to be men, and 3) officers are to be ordained. When you add those three things together, the principle is entirely clear. However, only the female portion of RPC’s diaconate is unordained. Therefore, the case is not quite as cut and dry.

I am not a member of the PCA, and based upon some differing scriptural interpretations and historic Church practices, I do not believe that having female deacons is necessarily anti-biblical or heretical. Certainly, there are some needs within the church that are particularly sensitive and may need to be addressed by a woman. The PCA BCO does allow for such a thing. My problem is not really with Redeemer’s diaconate model per se. The problem is that, in the eyes of some, it violates the rules to which the church agreed by becoming part of the PCA.

Well, what do I care if Redeemer is not following the rules of a denomination to which I do not belong, particularly if I am willing to bend a little on the issue of female deacons? I care because it could be seen as evidence that Redeemer Presbyterian and/or Tim Keller do not abide by the rules of their denomination, which is concerning inasmuch as it may mean that they are, at least from the point of view of the PCA, beyond accountability. If this is the case, it is not because RPC has gone against the dictates of the PCA, which has evidently informed them that their system is not in violation of the rules. The question is whether or not the PCA made the right decision.

People are sure to arrive at their own conclusions in regard to this matter. I initially believed that neither the male nor the female deacons were ordained, which would be a fairly clear violation of the BCO. However, the situation seems to be more complicated than I was initially told. I still think that female deacons, ordained or not, could be problematic if they are seen as officers of the church. This is another thorny debate, and one that will surely continue. Without a better understanding of PCA rules, I find my hands somewhat tied. I sense that RPC is not in line with the spirit of the BCO if women are actually church officers. If they are more like deacon’s assistants, which is to say they do not hold positions of authority, then that would be another matter.

Criticism #3: Redeemer Presbyterian Church does not follow the Regulative Principle of Worship.

Vimeo – Redeemer Video

A liturgical dance performance during an offertory at RPC has recently sent the Reformed Twittersphere into overdrive. Why this is happening now when the video was posted last year, I can only guess. Suffice it to say, most of the commenters are not big fans of ballet. I’ve seen the usual jokes about how men who dance must be gay. (Tell that to the guy who ended up with Natalie Portman…) However, the truly biting criticism has to do with the Regulative Principle of Worship.

If you are not from a Reformed background, you might be thinking, “What in the world is the Regulative Principle of Worship? I mean, I hate government regulation.” It’s a fair question. Derek Thomas has written, “Put simply, the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.” The RPW is often contrasted with the Normative Principle of Worship, which holds that those forms of worship that are not prohibited in the Bible are permissible.

From the beginning, the Reformed branch of Christianity has hung its hat on the RPW, whereas the NPW is more common in American evangelicalism. As a PCA congregation, RPC is bound by two different standards: the Westminster Confession of Faith and the PCA Book of Church Order. Let’s examine what both of them have to say, beginning with chapter 21 of the WCF.

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

That is the general principle behind the RPW: God is to be worshiped as dictated in Scripture. The problem, of course, is that not everyone agrees on what Scripture dictates. The WCF does provide some explicit instructions in this regard, such as the ban on any images depicting a member of the Trinity. (Yes, that includes Jesus.) Chapter 21 also provides some instruction as to what should be included in corporate worship.

The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preachings and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.

The standard elements of any Reformed worship service are the preaching of the Word, the administration of the two sacraments, the reading of Scripture, the singing of psalms and/or hymns, and the offertory. The WCF also notes that some special occasions may include oaths, vows, fastings, etc. On the whole, the WCF is not exceptionally detailed in this area. For example, it does not forbid the use of musical instruments or modern hymns, as some Reformed congregations have traditionally done. What does the PCA BCO have to say about the worship service?

47-6. The Lord Jesus Christ has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship but, in the interest of life and power in worship, has given His Church a large measure of liberty in this matter. It may not be forgotten, however, that there is true liberty only where the rules of God’s Word are observed and the Spirit of the Lord is, that all things must be done decently and in order, and that God’s people should serve Him with reverence and in the beauty of holiness. From its beginning to its end a service of public worship should be characterized by that simplicity which is an evidence of sincerity and by that beauty and dignity which are a manifestation of holiness.

47-9. The Bible teaches that the following are proper elements of worship service: reading of Holy Scripture, singing of psalms and hymns, the offering of prayer, the preaching of the Word, the presentation of offerings, confessing the faith and observing the Sacraments; and on special occasions taking oaths.

Returning to where we originally started, Redeemer drew some heat for having liturgical dance during an offertory. I do not know how common this is at RPC. It certainly did not happen in the service I attended. At the time of the performance, Tim Keller was still the lead pastor at RPC, so we can assume that he approved. If you doubt me, consider that in a blog post for the Center for Faith and Work, he praised the use of the performing and visual arts to benefit the body of Christ.

We cannot praise God without art. Within the Christian art community there is frustration for visual artists who observe the important place of the musical arts in worship. Music is easy to use in worship. It holds a prominent place in worship that the visual arts do not. I believe we have to find ways to use all the arts in worship.

This statement is perfectly in line with the inclusion of dancing in services at RPC. It is why online commenters have criticized not only RPC, but Keller himself. They feel he is ignoring the traditional interpretation of the RPW, which does not include dancing as an acceptable, biblical mode of worship. Again, the issue here is not really whether the Bible allows for dancing, but whether the PCA allows it.

Is the accusation true? I believe that Redeemer has more of a loophole in regards to the RPW than they have with the diaconate. I say this for two reasons. First, both the WCF and BCO list proper elements for a worship service, but they do not specifically state that dancing is improper. Second, the PCA’s own BCO states that the Lord “has prescribed no fixed forms for public worship” but has given the Church “a large measure of liberty in this matter” (47-6). That sounds more like the NPW than the RPW,  whether or not it was the authorial intent.

Although Redeemer is, as a member of the PCA, bound by the RPW, we must concede that there are differing interpretations of this principle. Redeemer is not bound by anyone’s interpretation, including the opinions of those who composed the WCF. It is bound by what is actually written in the confession and the BCO. Therefore, Redeemer’s practices may violate the most common understanding of the RPW within the Reformed community, but it is less clear that they violate the BCO, by which PCA member churches are bound.

Is it really a problem? I do not believe that liturgical dance goes against the letter of the law, although it seems to violate the spirit of the law. Historically, Reformed theologians have not listed dancing as an acceptable part of the RPW. That is a legacy that started with Calvin, who insisted that David’s dancing before the ark was not a model for us to follow.

I have not taken an oath to abide by the RPW. This is not because I am opposed to the idea of it, but because I am concerned about some of the ways that it is interpreted and applied. I am willing to give more leeway in regard to what a church can do in a worship service. However, I do not deny that Redeemer and Tim Keller are going against the spirit of the RPW as it has been historically understood. The PCA needs to make its stance clear and hold churches to that position.

Criticism #4: Tim Keller does not speak strongly enough against abortion.

A human embryo age 9-10 weeks. Flickr user lunar caustic

As part of RPC’s campaigns to help NYC, they have focused on a wide array of issues that might fall under the heading of social justice. I have not seen many people criticize either RPC or Tim Keller for wanting to feed the hungry and care for the sick. Rather, their critics object to the idea that this is central to the gospel. They also complain that Tim Keller does not sufficiently condemn abortion because he is too afraid of offending New Yorkers. Is that really the case?

A search of the domain reveals that this organization does dedicate itself to helping women with unexpected pregnancies or those who have already had an abortion. Some of these ministries are performed by Redeemer itself, and some appear to simply receive financial support, such as Avail. (It was a bit unclear to me from viewing this website how strenuously Avail advises against abortion, but please keep in mind that crisis pregnancy centers and abortion clinics alike tend to be purposefully ambiguous in their promotional materials.)

There are also scattered quotes by Tim Keller on RPC’s website mentioning that Christians should uphold the sanctity of life as part of a counter-cultural agenda. You will not find a detailed position paper laying out the biblical case against abortion. You will certainly find nothing that promotes what is commonly considered a pro-life political platform. In general, both RPC and Keller tend to avoid things that are overtly political. His opposition to the Trump refugee ban was a recent exception to this.

I think we get a good sense of Tim Keller’s personal view on this issue from what he said about the early Church in an article this year.

It was a community committed to the sanctity of life. It was not simply that Christians opposed abortion. Abortion was dangerous and relatively rare. A more common practice was called ‘infant exposure.’ Unwanted infants were literally thrown out onto garbage heaps either to die or to be taken by traders into slavery and prostitution. Christians saved the infants and took them in.

In another article in February, Keller wrote, “Like the early church, we should be committed to the sanctity of life, and to being a sexual counter-culture.” That is what he believes, and RPC has devoted resources to this issue. The question is, will conservative Christians (by which I mean both theological and political conservatives) be content to hear Keller mention abortion every so often when he mentions racism and poverty all the time? Surely, Christianity has something to say about all of these issues. Keller has not devoted a large portion of his time and energy to the issue of abortion, from what I can tell.

Photo by Frank Licorice

Is the accusation true? Redeemer Presbyterian certainly seems to focus less on combating abortion than some churches, although it must be stated that a visit to my own church’s website wouldn’t reveal any more talk of abortion than Redeemer’s. If the question is whether they have made any efforts to help unwed mothers and counsel them against abortion, then I think the answer is certainly yes. Neither Redeemer nor Keller himself seem to have specifically endorsed pro-life political candidates, but there is more to confronting abortion than that. The answer largely depends on what a person considers to be “enough”.

Is it really a problem? In my opinion, given the scourge of abortion in this country, it might be appropriate for Tim Keller to speak a bit more forcefully on this topic. However, I also believe that God calls different people to different things. There are so many problems in this world that if any one person attempted to devote 100% of their energy to each one, they would surely burst. God calls us to affirm biblical truth on all issues, but He does not necessarily call us to individually devote considerable energy to every issue. That is just not humanly possible.

There are also disagreements among genuinely pro-life Christians as to what is the best method for confronting the problem of abortion: legal battles, practical ministry to pregnant women, education, etc. I am not going to declare that one of these methods is right and the others are wrong. They are all needed on some level. It is possible that Keller feels that rather than placing our hope in Supreme Court nominees (who have proved to be disappointments in the past), we ought to attempt to change individual hearts…and honestly, the root of the problem is sin in individual hearts. Therefore, I do not believe that he is too far off base. I would suggest a few more statements in the public sphere.

Criticism #5: Tim Keller does not speak strongly enough against homosexuality.

When you watch this video of a discussion at the Veritas Forum, you will hear Tim Keller make multiple statements to the effect that homosexuality is not a sin or it will not send you to hell. That should cause us to be wary, but I think we should also be careful to consider his full comments. Keller admits that the Bible lists homosexuality as a sin. He states that it is not good for human flourishing. (Personally, I think this argument against homosexuality is destined to fail in today’s society, because people don’t see homosexuality as a “harmful” sin like they would stealing or murder. It is a sin, quite simply, because it goes against the will of God.) He also talks about the “sin behind the sin”, which is attempting to be your own savior and rejecting the saving work of Jesus Christ. That, Keller says, is what sends you to hell.

I do not disagree with this assessment, and I also understand that he was responding to a rather loaded question: “What do so many of the churches have against homosexuals, and what about your church’s approach to homosexuality? Is it a sin? Are they going to hell?” Nevertheless, I think Keller was a bit too reluctant to call a sin a sin, preferring to talk about how greed is a sin. I do agree with him that homosexuality is not a uniquely heinous sin, we should love all our neighbors, and the sins that are beneath our notice can be the most deadly of all. (Some point to Romans chapter 1 as proof that homosexuality is in its own category of badness, but there are many sins listed there as the result of a mind that has rejected God.)

The next stop on the “Is Tim Keller too nice to homosexuals?” railroad was at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 2013, which was the subject of an article in the Huffington Post. The line in the article that alarmed some people was this: “Keller clarified that ‘you can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.’” The chronological context here is that the Supreme Court had not yet handed down its decision legalizing same-sex marriage, but it was looking pretty inevitable in the near future. The context of the event was that Keller emphasizing the need for toleration of the standard Christian view that homosexuality is a sin, which he argued would not change as quickly as some imagined. Naturally, there were many who took offense, so Keller released a statement responding to the criticism.

A recent article on the Huffington Post reported on a discussion among journalists about how younger evangelicals view the issue of same-sex marriage. I was present, and I said that I have noted many younger evangelicals are taking an Anabaptist-like position; that is, that while they still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don’t think the government should put that belief into law for the nation. In explaining the Anabaptist tradition, I was quoted saying, ‘You can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal.’ I did say that—but it was purely a statement of fact. It is possible to hold that position, though it isn’t my position, nor was I promoting or endorsing the position. I was simply reporting on the growth of that view. I can see how some readers might be confused at these points in the article and think that I support the legalization of same-sex marriage. I do not. I hope that clarifies things for those of you who asked about this article.

Was Tim Keller too careless in his remarks to the EPPC? Perhaps. Did the quote in the Huffington Post take his remarks out of context? Probably so, since they did not even include his entire sentence. When viewed in tandem with his clarifying statement, should we still be concerned? I do not believe so, for Keller makes clear that he was only describing a view held by some evangelicals. (The Huffington Post article also states that he does not prefer the label “evangelical” for himself.)

Keller was also criticized when it was revealed that a Redeemer staff member, Casey Fulgenzi, was connected to various progressive causes, including support for an LGBTQ tolerant form of Christianity. You can practically taste the outrage in this article by the Christian News Network. The writer goes into every detail of Fulgenzi’s social media activity, shares a picture of Fulgenzi and Rob Bell, and even mentions that his wife is “a secular musician who he describes as a ‘bada**’”. It’s a classic case of guilt by association.

There’s no proof that Keller had extensive meetings with Fulgenzi, who has never attended RPC. It also seems unlikely based on his job description that Fulgenzi would have had much effect on church policies. I have no idea how many employees Tim Keller oversees on some level, but it is surely over 100. There is no reason to suppose that Keller’s views are the same as that of a minor employee. Would we assume that a Methodist church that hired a Catholic janitor was reverting back to Rome? I think not.

We must also consider a review that Tim Keller did of two books that promoted the idea that the Bible allows for same-sex relationships. In this article, Keller rejects such a notion and refutes some of the main points made by the two authors. He argues that the current push to embrace homosexuality has nothing to do with the Bible itself.

The reason that homosexual relationships make so much more sense to people today than in previous times is because they have absorbed late modern western culture’s narratives about the human life. Our society presses its members to believe ‘you have to be yourself,’ that sexual desires are crucial to personal identity, that any curbing of strong sexual desires leads to psychological damage, and that individuals should be free to live as they alone see fit.

He concludes in that review, “If we believe in the Bible’s authority, then shifts in public opinion should not matter. The Christian faith will always be offensive to every culture at some points.”

Tim Keller speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary earlier this year in a most controversial visit. You Tube Stephen O’Neill

Is the accusation true? Some people have gotten rather nitpicky, dissecting Keller’s every word on the issue of homosexuality and taking offense if he says something stronger against racism than he does against same-sex marriage. They obviously suspect him of capitulating to theological liberalism and are just waiting for it to show in his comments. On the whole, I see no great evidence that Keller is teaching something out of line with biblical truth.

His comments at the Veritas Forum are perhaps the most troubling, but I think we need to ask ourselves, “If I was in a room full of people who were hostile to Christianity, who believed that being homosexual was perfectly wonderful, and who expected me to be wishing damnation upon them, might I adopt a different tactic with my comments as well?” That was the situation Keller was in at Veritas. Does it completely excuse some of his sloppy language? No. Does it mean that he has abandoned orthodoxy? No.

Earlier this year, Princeton Theological Seminary planned to award the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life to Tim Keller. After receiving numerous complaints, the president of PTS, Craig Barnes, published a letter informing his community that they would not be awarding that prize after all. The reason? “Those who are concerned point to Reverend Keller’s leadership role in the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.”

Yes, while he was still allowed to give a lecture at the seminary, Keller had his prize rescinded in part because he does not accept the ordination of LGBTQ persons. This alone demonstrates that the world perceives Keller as being opposed to homosexuality. With that in mind, and given everything else I have noted, I believe Keller has taken a strong enough stand against this sin. Let us hope he continues to do so in a very hostile situation.

That is the end of part one of this discussion. Come back next week for part two.

The post What’s the Matter with Tim Keller? appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: A New Era Fri, 14 Jul 2017 12:00:10 +0000 This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page. Welcome back to this series of essays on baptism. I am currently focusing on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for hanging around. I know it’s […]

The post The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: A New Era appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


Inside the dome of the Pantheon in Rome (Author photo)

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

Welcome back to this series of essays on baptism. I am currently focusing on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for hanging around. I know it’s not as much fun as Wonder Woman.

In the last essay, we saw that the Old Testament prophets predicted two things: 1) a righteous ruler on whom the Spirit of God would rest, and 2) a general outpouring of the Spirit upon all God’s people. Both of these predictions went against the grain of the Old Testament experience. First, while plenty of rulers had God’s Spirit placed upon them, none of them exhibited the kind of righteousness and saving perfection predicted for the Messiah. Second, the idea that all of God’s people would receive the Spirit individually, regardless of status, was a development without precedent.

We must now take a look at how these two things came to pass, and how they reveal to us the meaning of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Signs of Things to Come

You may have heard the period between the writing of the last Old Testament book and the first New Testament book described as “400 years of silence”. I assure you, there was plenty going on during that time, and the Lord was actively at work fulfilling His promise to restore a remnant of Israel to the Promised Land. However, there was a definite drop-off in genuinely prophetic activity, as evidenced by the fact that there were no new books added to the Holy Scriptures. (Our Catholic friends may disagree with this, as they accept certain intertestamental works in their Canon, but it must be noted that the Jews themselves did not regard these writings in the same manner as the rest of Scripture.)

Where was the promised outpouring of the Spirit? God had sworn and He does not change His mind. To a person living in the last few years before the calendar changed from B.C. to A.D., this may well have been regarded as a broken promise, or at least one that was sorely delayed. Yet you may have been hard pressed to find people in Jerusalem who were truly concerned about this. The Gospel accounts do not record any instances where people complained about not receiving the Spirit. What they were very concerned about was the coming of the Messiah. Having been conquered by the Greeks and then by the Romans, they longed for the return of a political kingdom similar to that of David and Solomon. As it turned out, they had misunderstood the Scriptures.

In those last few years B.C., the so-called silence was broken. The Lord once again spoke directly into history through prophecy. The father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, was the first to receive a message from the angel Gabriel that the Messiah would soon arrive. Then came a most unusual event. A young woman named Mary was visited by this same angel. It was shocking enough when the angel appeared to a priest. That the angel should come to a female below society’s notice, who despite her godly life held no position of leadership within the Jewish community, was supremely odd. We have noted that only a few women ever received special prophetic revelation in the Old Testament. The fact that the angel came to Mary was a signal that something different was about to happen.

Fresco of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico, circa 1450

We all know the story. Gabriel commanded Mary not to be afraid, informed her that she had the favor of the Almighty, then told her that she would soon be with child. “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:34-35) Yes, you read that correctly. The Holy Spirit would come upon an ordinary woman and perform a miraculous action: she would become pregnant despite being a virgin.

We often focus on how the Holy Spirit would perform the miraculous action in Mary’s body rather than the simple fact that she herself would receive the Spirit. Certainly, the Virgin Birth was a unique event in history, and for that reason alone it is notable in the salvation narrative. However, we should also see this as the first fruits of the prophecy made by Joel: “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.” (2:29)

Mary was not alone in this regard. When she went to visit her relative Elizabeth and tell her the message that the angel had given, the Spirit made another appearance. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’” (Luke 1:41-42) With Mary, we saw the standard combination: she received the Holy Spirit and then there was a miraculous action that demonstrated this fact. The same thing happened with Elizabeth. She was filled with the Holy Spirit and then was able to prophesy that Mary was pregnant with a special child. (Note also the response of John the Baptist, whom we were told in Luke 1:15 would be filled with the Spirit in utero.)

Even before Christ was born, two women received the Spirit. I would be remiss if I did not mention another woman in whom the work of the Spirit was clearly evident around this time. When Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple to offer the sacrifice of two birds as prescribed in the Mosaic Law, they met a man named Simeon. He was “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25b). It had been revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Christ (v. 26). When he came into contact with the young Jesus, he took Him in his arms and proclaimed that he had seen the Lord’s salvation (v. 30). Within this context, we are also told the following.

And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:36-38

Anna too had the Holy Spirit. This is demonstrated by the fact that she is described as a prophetess and was able to proclaim that the Christ child would bring about redemption, even as Simeon did. That makes three women in a short span of time, none of whom were leaders of the nation. Something new was happening. The promises God had made were being fulfilled.

Rebirth through the Spirit

The Gospel of Luke gives us a beautiful picture of how the Spirit began to be poured out on people who would never have received it in the Old Testament. However, this was still not the day that the prophets had envisioned, when every child of God would be filled with the Spirit. That hour was yet to come. In the Gospel of John, Christ Himself spoke on several occasions about the Holy Spirit. As these sayings are sprinkled in among the broader story of His earthly ministry, the connections can get lost. I hope that examining them in this manner will help to make things clear.

Let us first consider the conversation that Christ had with Nicodemus. We often focus on this dialogue due to the mention of the phrase “born again” and the declaration that “God so loved the world…” However, there is a great depth of theology in Christ’s words that we must not miss, and it has to do with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

John 3:5-8

Detail from “Jesus and Nicodemus” by Crijn Hendricksz, circa 1616-1645

When Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, He was talking about being born of the Spirit. He makes a clear distinction between flesh and spirit that we can view in two different ways. First, Christ is saying that a soul that is dead in sin is entirely subject to fleshly lusts and incapable of performing righteous deeds, while a soul that has been made alive by the Spirit is capable of doing the things of God by His power, even if it is still subject to the temptations of the flesh. (see Ephesians 2:1-10) Second, Christ is stating that only those who are born again have the Spirit, and only those people will enter the kingdom of God.

What is meant by the statement that one must be “born of water and the Spirit”? There are two possible explanations. The first plays upon Christ’s talk of being born again. Natural birth would in this case be birth by water (think of a mother’s water breaking), while the birth of the Spirit would be spiritual rebirth. That is simple enough. The second possibility is more intriguing but also presents a potential theological difficulty: the birth by water is water baptism, which must be combined with the baptism of the Spirit. The reason that interpretation could be problematic is that it can be taken to mean that the physical act of being baptized contributes to salvation rather than what the baptism signifies or what happens spiritually before/after baptism. I plan to return to this question later, but for now let us note that there are two possible interpretations of Christ’s words.

We should also pay attention to the analogy that Jesus makes with the wind. I mentioned in an earlier essay that the Greek and Hebrew terms that we translate as “spirit” both have an association with breath or wind. When the Spirit descended on the believers at Pentecost, they heard the sound of a rushing wind (Acts 2:2). What is interesting is that Jesus makes the analogy between wind and those who have the Spirit, rather than connecting it to the Spirit Himself. This makes the phrase a bit more difficult to decipher. It could be a reference to the fact that while physical characteristics are inherently obvious to anyone with functioning eyes, a person’s spiritual condition can be difficult to discern, i.e. you may not know who has the Spirit. This is certainly possible, but viewed within the context of the passage I feel there must be something more intended here.

Consider some other things that Jesus said in this same conversation. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (v. 3b) “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (v. 11-12) “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (v. 20-21) The pattern is clear: those who have the Spirit understand and accept the things of God. Those who do not have the Spirit may understand things on a simple level (even as the demons do – James 2:19), but the deeper things of God will never be known to them, and they will never fully acknowledge Christ as Lord.

Living Water, Living Bread

Let us move on to Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. He asked her for a drink of water. She remarked that this was odd, as a Jewish man would not normally converse with a Samaritan woman. Jesus took the conversation in a completely different direction.

Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ She said to Him, ‘Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?’ Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.’

John 4:10-14

Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about eternal life. Now he returns to the same theme in his discussion with the Samaritan woman. He tells her that there is such a thing as “living water”, and that it is the source of eternal life. He also says that He is the one who can provide this living water, and he clarifies that unlike physical water, the effects of which wear off over time, living water will never leave a person thirsty. It is a gift with eternal implications. Fast forward a bit more in the book of John. In a discussion with a Jewish audience, Christ used another drink analogy and added a food analogy.

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst’…Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh’.…‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.’

John 6:35, 47-51, 63

Christ now speaks of “living bread”. He also makes a reference to what I think we can safely assume is the same living water mentioned in the previous conversation, which if drunk will ensure that a person never thirsts. I believe that the living bread and living water are really meant to point to the same thing: eternal life. The different terms are simply due to the different contexts. The conversation with the Samaritan woman took place at a well. This conversation took place after Christ had miraculously multiplied bread (6:1-14). It is safe to assume that the living bread and living water are identical.

“Peasants Breaking Bread”, detail from the 14th century Book of King Modus and Queen Ratio

What are the characteristics of this miraculous food and/or drink? 1) It is the source of eternal life. 2) It provides for the spiritual needs of the recipient. 3) It is identified with the flesh of Jesus Christ. 4) It has a heavenly source.

It’s safe to conclude here that the atonement of Christ is our source of eternal life. However, we must be careful not to miss two other aspects of this passage. First, Jesus makes a reference to the manna that the Israelites were given in the wilderness. That too had a divine origin and came down from heaven. However, it was only physical and external. Jesus contrasts this with the bread of life, which is an eternal, spiritual gift. There is something about this bread, Jesus says, that is better than anything your forefathers ate. It is superior in every way, for it is spiritual rather than physical.

Notice also that Jesus tells them, “It is the Spirit who gives life…” (v. 63) Didn’t he just say that it was His own flesh that was the source of life? Yes, and that was correct. However, Christ is making a Trinitarian point here. The Son comes down from heaven, and so does the Spirit. They are both fully God, equal Persons in the Trinity. They are both involved in the redemptive process. We hold according to the Nicene Creed that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. I will state now that the gifting of the Spirit is an inseparable part of union with Christ. The Spirit communicates to us the things of Christ. He joins us with Christ, and by extension gives us communion with the Father. The living water/bread is Christ, but we only have Christ through the Spirit. Consider what else Jesus said in the Gospel of John.

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.”’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

John 7:37-39

In case we had any doubts, the Apostle John make the interpretation clear for us. The Spirit is the living water. You cannot receive Christ without receiving the Spirit.

How Today’s State of Affairs is Different

Now, you may be wondering, if you cannot receive Christ without receiving the Spirit, and you cannot have eternal life without receiving Christ, then did anyone prior to Pentecost receive eternal life? Yes, of course they did. The Spirit was at work in their lives. All those who were called of God and placed their faith in the promises were made regenerate by the Spirit.

What I am going to argue is not that the people of Israel in the Old Testament did not receive the Spirit in any way, but that 1) they did not all receive the Spirit and 2) the work of the Spirit was primarily external rather than internal. This means that there were some gifts of God and some aspects of the Spirit’s work that the Old Testament saints did not experience. These were the things welcomed “from a distance” (Hebrews 11:13). They received all that was necessary for salvation. They did not receive everything that we enjoy. We have the full revelation of God’s Scripture, whereas they had only part. We can look back on the Atonement of Christ and understand what it involved, whereas they saw only types and shadows. We can experience the Spirit more internally, whereas they experienced Him mostly externally.

Jesus Himself pointed out differences between what had taken place in the past and what was soon to come. By no means did He ever suggest that salvation had not been available to the patriarchs of old or that they were saved by anything but grace through faith. However, He did indicate that the way believers related to God would be somewhat different in the future. Let’s return to His conversation with the Samaritan woman.

The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’

John 4:19-24

Perhaps I am going out on an exegetical limb, and may God forgive me if that is the case, but I think the word spirit should probably be capitalized in this passage. There are some places in Scripture where the Hebrew/Greek word for spirit means the Holy Spirit and others where it just means the human spirit or any spirit in general. The decision to capitalize or not is up to the translator. I believe that it is likely that when Jesus speaks of worshiping the Father “in spirit and truth”, He means worshiping by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Rome. “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27) Some people think this refers to some kind of secret “prayer language” or is otherwise related to the gift of speaking in tongues. I think not. Paul speaks of something that is beyond words: something that only the Spirit of God can do. Our prayers and our worship proceed by the Spirit, through the intercession of the Son, and finally to the Father. It has nothing to do with speaking in tongues. It has everything to do with being made regenerate by the Spirit, being united with Christ, and being indwelt by that same Spirit.

Detail from “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” by Guercino, circa 1640-41

Jesus seems to suggest that worship up to the time of His ministry was determined more by externals. There was a physical temple in Jerusalem that was the only correct location in which certain forms of worship could take place. The Samaritans had a special mountain on which they attempted to perform the same worship, and thus they went against the dictates of God’s Law. However, Jesus does not focus on condemning the Samaritans for their incorrect practice. He says a day is coming when something about worship will change for everyone. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.” (v. 23) Again, I believe that what is different is the more internal working of the Spirit. Not only the religious leaders, but all of God’s children would receive the Spirit directly and internally.

There is one more passage in John where Christ makes clear that things will change when He ascends to Heaven. During the Last Supper, He told the disciples that there was a gift that they could not have unless He left them.

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth…

John 16:7-8, 13a

This is a prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit had always been there, but there was in a sense in which He was yet to come. The men at that table had never had God’s Spirit placed within them permanently. They had experienced some of the acts of the Spirit externally. Certainly, if they were regenerate believers, the Spirit had worked in their lives. We know that they had also performed some miracles by the power of the Spirit as an extension of Christ’s authority (Luke 9:1). Yet there is no denying upon examining Scripture that the men who were to be called the Apostles did not behave in the same manner or show the same signs of being indwelt by the Spirit prior to Pentecost as they did after Pentecost. In His final hours before He was crucified, Christ’s primary concern was what would happen to His disciples after He left, and the most important thing that would happen is that they would be indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle John records something Jesus told His disciples after He had risen again from the dead. “So Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.’ And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:21-22) Again we see how concerned He was that His disciples should receive the Spirit. This was because He knew that there were certain things they could only do under the power of the Spirit. It was the thing that would allow them to have communion with God in a way that was never possible before, and even though He was standing next to them at the time, they would be more united to Him through the indwelling Spirit than they ever were during the years that He was physically on planet earth. Why should He breathe on them? You need only remember what we said the Spirit is: the very breath of God.

The Arrival of the Holy Spirit

I believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit first mentioned by John the Baptist is nothing more or less than the permanent indwelling of the Spirit of God in the regenerate believer. Some people may disagree with me, but I would say that Old Testament saints did not experience this baptism of the Holy Spirit in the same way that we do now. That is why John spoke of it as a new thing predicated upon Christ’s earthly ministry and atoning sacrifice. Was the Holy Spirit just as active in the Old Testament? Yes. Did He work in the hearts of believers? Yes. Did a select number of people have the Spirit placed upon them directly for a time? Yes. Even so, I maintain that there is something different about how the Spirit works following Pentecost. There are simply too many Scripture verses speaking about the newness of this phenomenon for me to believe that there is nothing new taking place. Remember the prophecy of Joel:

It will come about after this

That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;

And your sons and daughters will prophesy,

Your old men will dream dreams,

Your young men will see visions.

Even on the male and female servants

I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

Joel 2:28-29

This prophecy pointed forward to the day when all believers would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Apart from expanding the number of people who received the Spirit, I believe there was also a switch from a largely external working of the Spirit to a largely internal working of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the “Spirit of truth”. This is appropriate, as it is the Spirit who regenerates our hearts, allows us to see Christ for who He truly is, and empowers us to follow the commands of God. Here it is worth mentioning some words of God that were relayed by the prophet Zechariah.

I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.

Zechariah 12:10

Even as the Spirit allows us to understand the things of God in this day and age, it was the Spirit that allowed the Jews of Jesus’ day to recognize Him as the true Messiah. We have seen in previous essays how those who were among the righteous remnant and had been made regenerate by the Spirit were able to comprehend and accept the things of Christ, while those whose hearts were hard denied that He was the Anointed One of God. When the Apostle Peter rose to give that sermon on Pentecost, he repeated Joel’s prophecy and attributed the miraculous acts of speaking in tongues to the work of the Spirit. He then told the crowd that they had killed the one anointed by the Spirit: the Messiah, Jesus Christ. What happened next?

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’ And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’

Acts 2:37-40

Stained glass window at the Santa Maria di Fiore cathedral in Florence, Italy (Author photo)

Did you catch it? Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled that day, at least in part. When confronted with the truth of the gospel and the fact that they had put the Christ to death, this group of Jews was “pierced to the heart”. They recognized the gravity of their guilt. Zechariah had prophesied that the working of the “Spirit of grace and of supplication” would allow the people to “look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son…” That certainly sounds like what happened following Peter’s sermon. The Spirit was calling to these people and allowing them to see clearly for the first time. This all led to the crucial question: “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37b)

Peter tells them to repent and be baptized in the name of Christ, which amounted to accepting His status as the Anointed One, in addition to the fact that He was the Son of God. They would then receive forgiveness of sins, yes, but they would also receive the Holy Spirit. Peter ends his sermon with the very thing that started if off: the falling of the Spirit upon believers. He tells them that “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (v. 39).

I have noted elsewhere that I believe this is a statement that the people Peter was speaking to would not reap the covenant curses, but rather covenant blessings. However, this is also pointing back to Joel’s prophecy, the very thing Peter quoted at the start. The Spirit would be granted not only to a few select male leaders, but to believers of both genders, of various ages, of various socioeconomic classes, and of various nationalities. The Spirit and salvation would not be held back, Peter said, from either them or their children or even those who were not part of the Jewish community at all. The only qualification He makes to determine who will receive the Spirit is “as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself”. Therefore, this is a declaration that anyone who is called of God, who is made regenerate by the Spirit, and who places their faith in the saving work of Christ will receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit: the indwelling of the third Person of the Trinity.

In this essay, we have examined what Christ had to say about the indwelling of the Spirit and how it came to rest upon all those who believed. In my final article on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I hope to examine other mentions of this topic in the New Testament, particularly focusing on how this baptism is related to the water baptism of the New Covenant.

The post The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: A New Era appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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Is Wonder Woman a Good Example of Biblical Womanhood? Thu, 06 Jul 2017 12:00:04 +0000 It has come to my attention in recent weeks that some people are pointing to the latest incarnation of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman as a role model not only for females in general, but for Christian females in particular. Her selflessness and compassion are admirable Christian virtues, it is said. Her bravery in the face […]

The post Is Wonder Woman a Good Example of Biblical Womanhood? appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


It has come to my attention in recent weeks that some people are pointing to the latest incarnation of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman as a role model not only for females in general, but for Christian females in particular. Her selflessness and compassion are admirable Christian virtues, it is said. Her bravery in the face of evil is emblematic of true womanly strength. Her willingness to save humanity, even though it is completely undeserving, is much in line with the actions of Jesus Christ. Some have gone so far as to claim that the filmmakers clearly meant to make a Christological statement.

I read all of this and rolled my eyes internally, for it seemed a whole lot of hoopla over a comic book film that is only considered great in comparison to the long string of uninspired and vapid sequels put out by Hollywood in recent years, all of which seem to rake in exorbitant sums at the box office despite getting terrible reviews. I do not speak from ignorance. My husband is the kind of man who will line up for any film that takes place in the Marvel or DC universe, and though I manage to skip most of these outings, my love for him requires me to attend at least a couple times a year. My goal is to choose whichever film seems either most original or least objectionable, and this summer that movie was Wonder Woman.

Unlike some of my female compatriots, I did not drive to the cinema anticipating greatness. The character of Wonder Woman has always been, in my estimation, a mixed blessing. It is a bit hard to square the notion that she is a feminist icon with the fact that her costume is hardly different from many S&M getups, whip and all. One might also object to the fact that being a strong female is equated with physical violence, or that Wonder Woman has been subjected in some manifestations to being yet another one of Batman’s boy toys, or that her obvious hotness seems intended to attract male viewers rather than female ones. All I was expecting from this movie is that it would be mildly entertaining, and it managed to clear that low bar. It was nowhere near as bad as some of the superhero films I’ve been forced to endure, but neither would I rank it among the very best. (I believe that The Dark Knight is the gold standard, even if it suffers from a disappointing final act.)

After seeing this movie, my Twitter feed continued to light up with all sorts of laudatory statements about how fabulous it is. Some were speaking merely in terms of its entertainment quality, but there was also the inevitable slew of articles from those who constantly seek out Christ in pop culture. A few of these writers made some decent points, and I don’t begrudge them delving into the shallow end of the pool once in a while. However, there were just as many essays that verged on the utterly ridiculous. Part of me wanted to craft a response, but I said to myself, “No, Amy. If you write about Wonder Woman, you’ll just be perpetuating the very trend that you hate. You’ll be giving in to the temptation of click bait.” Yes, I knew that writing about Wonder Woman would probably attract far more readers than my carefully thought out examinations of various Scripture passages. That, in my mind, was further proof of the shallowness of evangelical culture and how female writers will never be afforded the same level of respect as men. Well, I was not about to succumb to temptation. I left Wonder Woman alone.

Then a wonderful Christian author, a female most averse to controversies of any kind, alerted me to some concerns that have been voiced. It seems that there are other people equally troubled by the fact that Wonder Woman is now considered the standard for biblical womanhood. This female I will not name, who is awesome with awesome sauce on top, had no time to respond to the problem, and in any case it is truly beneath her. Such a task is better suited to a nobody like myself. Therefore, I agreed to write about Wonder Woman, and in doing so I ensured that at least on this occasion, my husband would read my blog. Unfortunately, I will not manage to follow this author’s suggestion that I limit the number of words in my articles. Apologies in advance.

The Complicated History of Wonder Woman

The comic book character Wonder Woman (real name Diana) is largely the brain child of the late psychologist William Moulton Marston. Many aspects of his life were clouded in shadow until recent years, when Jill Lepore’s book The Secret History of Wonder Woman uncovered many details about what inspired him and how he developed his most famous character. It turns out that Marston was heavily influenced by the early feminist movement, and not always in a good way. He lived in a kind of ménage à trois with two different women, one of whom was the niece of Margaret Sanger. Who was Margaret Sanger? She was a leading advocate for birth control in the early 20th century, famously arrested along with her sister in 1916 for the illegal distribution of contraception. She helped found the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, the predecessor to the organization so hated by pro-lifers today. (It should be noted that Planned Parenthood did not perform abortions until after Sanger died.)

Dr. Marston was very much a believer in the concept of female empowerment, even if his personal behavior raises some questions as to what he actually thought that meant. He also had an interest in truth and morality, and is often credited with creating the lie detector test. Marston wanted there to be a comic book heroine who would embody these ideals, as Angelica Bastién explains.

When Marston created Wonder Woman, he was very clear about his intentions. ‘Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,’ he said. As Jill Lepore mentions in her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Marston argued that ‘the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.’

Marston would often make comments to the effect that women were not only equal to men, but actually superior to them in certain ways. He believed that a world full of nothing but females may well be a world without war. Jill Lepore describes the origin of such ideas.

Wonder Woman’s origin story comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction. In the nineteenth century, suffragists, following the work of anthropologists, believed that something like the Amazons of Greek myth had once existed, a matriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy. ‘The period of woman’s supremacy lasted through many centuries,’ Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1891. In the nineteen-tens, this idea became a staple of feminist thought. The word ‘feminism,’ hardly ever used in the United States before 1910, was everywhere by 1913. The suffrage movement had been founded on a set of ideas about women’s supposed moral superiority.

As much as I might admire these women for their effort to earn the vote, I cannot help but be reminded of a quote from the 1994 film adaptation of Little Women. “I find it poor logic to say that women should vote because they are good. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are men, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” That is the double standard placed upon women by this silly notion that we are inherently more pure or righteous. As Christians, we know that the value of any human being is that they are made in the image of God, whether male or female. Neither males nor females are morally superior, and if women are only valued if they act like angels, then they are not going to be valued at all. Female empowerment efforts that depend upon this false principle of moral superiority are not built on a firm foundation.

In any case, Marston set out to create a virtuous and strong female character, but his efforts were not without controversy. This is where we start to see the hypocrisy in his view of women and the way that people view his famous creation, as described in this essay by Dani Di Placido.

Elements of Marston’s character trickled down into his famous creation, notably in her peculiar choice of weapon, the Lasso of Truth…Marston was an enthusiastic fan of bondage, and female domination. The Lasso binds Wonder Woman’s opponent, forcing them to reveal their innermost secrets. It’s not hard to see the connection between the weapon and Marston’s role in creating the lie detector. And, you know, bondage. In fact, themes of domination and restraint ran heavily through the superheroine’s original adventures; Wonder Woman’s enemies often found themselves tied up, as did Wonder Woman herself. Her fellow Amazonians engaged in wrestling and bondage play. Wonder Woman’s greatest weakness was to be tied up by a man. If this were to happen, she would lose her superpowers and become helpless. For some reason. This bizarre Kryptonite was actually an attempt to subvert the stereotype of the damsel in distress, as Wonder Woman would always free herself from her bonds and prevail. It was also an opportunity for Marston to advertise his fetish, in the hope of removing the stigma from his sexual habits.

It is when you begin to take into account this complicated history that you start to doubt that Wonder Woman is really the right champion for either feminism or biblical womanhood. In “Wonder Woman’s Kinky Feminist Roots”, The Atlantic’s Katha Pollitt says of Marston, “His 1928 tome, Emotions of Normal People, defended ‘abnormal’ sexuality – homosexuality, fetishism, sadomasochism, and so on – as not only normal but fixed in the nervous system.” Indeed, while Wonder Woman has certainly served a number of positive purposes in history, there is no denying that the character has also been hijacked to support a less biblical agenda. Consider these comments by Greg Rucka, the writer of a recent series of Wonder Woman stories.

Now, are we saying Diana has been in love and had relationships with other women? As Nicola and I approach it, the answer is obviously yes. And it needs to be yes for a number of reasons. But perhaps foremost among them is, if no, then she leaves paradise only because of a potential romantic relationship with Steve [Trevor]. And that diminishes her character. It would hurt the character and take away her heroism. When we talk about agency of characters in 2016, Diana deciding to leave her home forever — which is what she believes she’s doing — if she does that because she’s fallen for a guy, I believe that diminishes her heroism. She doesn’t leave because of Steve. She leaves because she wants to see the world and somebody must go and do this thing. And she has resolved it must be her to make this sacrifice.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Wonder Woman is now officially bisexual in the comics. I suppose it didn’t take much of a leap, given that she comes from an island populated only by women. Interestingly, while Rucka may be hoping to advance the LGBTQ agenda in comic form, he makes what I believe is a correct assessment of one of the story’s flaws: despite being such a powerful female, Wonder Woman throws herself into the arms of the first man she ever meets. Yes, she leaves home to save the world, but as Rucka notes, “If she does that because she’s fallen for a guy, I believe that diminishes her heroism.” Well, maybe not her heroism, but at least her reputation as an independent female who doesn’t need a man. But all of these comments are directed at the comic books. Is the Princess Diana in the new movie Wonder Woman any better?

What People Have Been Writing

Wonder Woman’s complicated history in decades worth of comic books may cause some Christians to doubt whether she is really a proper role model for females. Yet the Christian writers who have sung her praises in recent weeks likely did so without being aware of some of what I have just mentioned. They were reacting merely to what they saw in the film. Therefore, we should consider whether the Wonder Woman of Wonder Woman is all that she’s cracked up to be. Just look at some of the titles of these articles.

When I saw these glowing statements of adoration and then read the attached articles, I almost wondered if they had seen the same movie that I did. Diana’s desire to save humanity from war is certainly admirable, but it also represents the plot of nearly every movie in this genre. The thing that separates Wonder Woman, according to more than one of these writers, is that she realizes that humanity does not deserve to be saved but still makes the decision to save them.

Hudgins tell us that “Diana knows a greater truth. Man may not deserve redemption, but they are redeemable. That belief—that man is redeemable, and at least some will not refuse that divine gift—is the greater truth that motivates Diana’s efforts.” Alicia Cohn had a more Calvinist take on the same aspect of the film. “Although Diana sees that corruption, she still believes that humanity deserves a chance to be saved. It’s an interesting concept that will resound with those of us who believe in the total depravity of man apart from God.” So is Wonder Woman Calvinist or Arminian? I’m so confused!

Near the end of the film, when Wonder Woman has come to realize that depravity in man and is trying to decide whether or not to save them when they obviously don’t deserve it, her love interest Steve says to her, “It’s not about deserve; it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.” That statement is straight out of liberal Christianity. Indeed, there is nothing particularly Christian about it all. It is the theology of the Beatles: “All you need is love!” Derek Rishmawy is a writer I respect, and his take on Wonder Woman is a bit more nuanced. He also found Steve’s final speech to be lacking.

Now, here the statement ‘it’s about what you believe’ is a little limp. Pressing deeper, reflecting on Steve’s character, his valiant sacrifice, and the other men she has become friends with, she recognizes there is more to humanity than the evil within. There is love and goodness as well. The image of Zeus, if you will. And so she decides that is worth fighting for, even if humanity doesn’t deserve her.

I said I like Derek Rishmawy, but I think he’s reaching a bit here. The image of Zeus? Here we’re hitting up against one of the problems with Wonder Woman and any other film in the Marvel or DC universe: the Christian God does not exist in these worlds. They are ruled by a plethora of gods, demigods, and superhumans. There is absolutely no such thing as the “image of Zeus” in Wonder Woman’s universe, not only because humans are one of many types of sentient beings, but also because Zeus is one of an infinite number of gods. There’s no knowing who is truly sovereign or where absolute truth lies. Rishmawy concludes that while Wonder Woman is obviously not a Christian movie, “there was a lot of theological good sense that makes me curious how it will be received by our friends and neighbors”. Well, I have no desire to throw him under the bus, but dude: it’s just a superhero film!

Hudgins argues that we need to take Wonder Woman seriously on a theological level.

Making meaning when we are moved by art is not simply laudable, it’s a necessary expression of our humanity. It is why we make art in the first place. It expresses the complexity of human existence. It evokes the complexity of human response. A turn to the religious considerations is only right.

I agree with him to a point. Certainly, I was moved to philosophical musings after seeing Twelve Years a Slave and Schindler’s List. I believe that film is indeed an art form, and while many films have no more quality than those modern paintings with a single black line on a white canvas, there are at least a few each year that reach for something higher. Nevertheless, I would not go so far as to place Wonder Woman in this category, or any other film that consists mostly of karate chops, computerized explosions, and perfectly sculpted bosoms. Hudgins, on the other hand, just can’t help himself. “I hope to see ‘The Gospel According to Wonder Woman’ on the shelves before Christmas,” he says. What exactly would that “gospel” entail? Read on…

This is gospel that I see. On the screen we have a skillfully wrought story about a powerful woman, a divine force in the world, and all of the other women who helped fashion her. But off-screen we behold the gospel, the story of God-Made-Flesh in the talents, skills and passions of the women who made the film. If there is a ‘Gospel According to Wonder Woman,’ it is found in the lives of the creators, the moviemakers and the women in the audiences who are driving the financial success of the film. Their humanity as well as those they work with is on full, glorious, truthful display. This is what we should celebrate.

The gospel according to Hudgins is that women are making movies, and we should celebrate that. I am not sure what else to conclude. We see Christ, he argues, in “the talents, skills and passions of the women who made the film”. Now, I’m as happy as the next person that a film with a female star and a female director did well at the box office. But seriously – this is the gospel? No, really…this? This is the gospel of Jesus Christ? This?! Methinks Ares has been whispering lies into this man’s ears.

Cohn’s piece in Christianity Today is light years better. She notes that “in Wonder Woman’s world, where she was ‘created’ by the Greek god Zeus, it is the demigods and heroes who fight on behalf of corrupt mankind. As theology, it’s alarming. Diana – who briefly flirts with the idea of aligning herself with Ares, the god of war – never comes to the realization that she has no divine right to set herself up as the righteous judge of humanity.” Cohn concludes, “As an aspirational figure, Wonder Woman falls short by far. But as a model of moral courage, she’s more interesting.” I’m quite willing to grant her that last point. Cohn also hits on something else that is very important when we start to think about Wonder Woman as a model for all women.

I could relate to Diana’s drive and ambition as a child, but the adult Diana is icy and stately—one of those women that seems too perfect to be friends with. In other words, she has a lot of guy friends, most of them super-powered. Although the movie nods toward female friendship with a character named Etta (Lucy Davis), Diana otherwise towers above—both physically and metaphorically—the other women in the story. She sets her own moral code and doesn’t need anyone—not Trevor, not even the women who raised her in the mythical world of Themyscira. She loves, apparently, but without any of the mess we mortals endure in our relationships. She even has impeccable taste in non-Amazonian clothes.

Diana/Wonder Woman is indeed otherworldly. She seems very far removed from what the average woman experiences, to the point that it is hard to connect with her except through some ambiguous notion of “girl power”. Even when we come across seemingly perfect women in our daily lives, mere mortals though they may be, our temptation as females is often not to be drawn to them, but to resent them. Why? Because they seem to have it all together and make a mockery of our efforts to get through the day. This is a wrongheaded response because no woman is actually perfect, and no one deserves to be disdained for another person’s failures unless they are holding it over that person’s head. Even so, I did not feel the type of emotional connection with Wonder Woman that I might have felt watching the story of a real woman with real flaws and real victories.

Cohn pointed out that Diana’s constant adherence to the classic American ideals of following your heart, trusting yourself, and being independent is not necessarily laudable. The character does indeed set herself up as the judge for humanity, when she is actually one out of hundreds or even thousands of divine and semi-divine creatures. For her part, Sanchez had a very different reaction to this aspect of Diana’s character and how she refuses to take “no” for an answer.

Here, her mission becomes her own and she is no longer bound by others’ limitations or expectations. She can be exactly who she was created to be. I am so guilty of letting others dictate who I will be, instead of listening to the one opinion that matters: God’s. To make matters worse, all the voices competing for my attention contradict each other.

Now, I can understand where this writer is coming from, because every woman knows what it is to labor under ridiculous demands and expectations. If anyone, either male or female, is telling us to violate the commands of God, we must certainly refuse. We should strive to live according to the will of God rather than that of man. However, it is not a very far leap from this principle to the “trust your instinct” mentality. After all, Wonder Woman was not really acting according to the will of God, unless you count the somewhat nebulous sense of destiny that surrounds her birth and development: the one that caused Rishmawy to say, “Diana saves men, because Diana was created to be a savior.”

Sanchez also writes about the biblical description of woman as an ezer, often translated as “helper” or “help meet”. She sees this concept at play in the movie.

I shocked myself when I started to bawl like a baby during a key battle scene in Wonder Woman…After years of studying the word ‘ezer’, I couldn’t help but get emotional at the sight of a woman actually embodying it on screen. Note that it wasn’t that Wonder Woman had some heartfelt speech before the battle; it was literally the act of her fighting that turned on the waterworks.

I hope I’m not guilty of taking this woman out of context, but she seems to say that it is the fact that Wonder Woman confronts her opponents physically that makes her a good example of the word ezer. I am well aware of how people have tended to hijack this biblical term to push their own agenda throughout history. Traditionally, a woman being a helper meant that she was less than a man. Now, it is seen as a mark of equality or godliness. But is beating people up or killing them really the best manifestation of this concept? Does female empowerment simply mean the ability to fight just like men? The ability to fight better than men?

I am sorry to say that this line of thinking reminds me very much of some of Mark Driscoll’s comments in days of yore, when he used to praise King David as a model of manhood because he was macho and killed other men. It was not a good metric for determining manhood, and it is an equally bad metric to use for women.

It was Sanchez who referred to Wonder Woman in the title of her article as possibly “the most accurate on-screen depiction of Biblical womanhood”. That’s a mighty big claim. Does it hold water?

Is This Really Biblical Womanhood?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t see any highly developed concepts of “manhood” and “womanhood” in Scripture. I see plenty of commands to men and women. I certainly see notions of what men and women should be like. However, I think that what I will again characterize as the highly developed constructions of biblical manhood and womanhood advocated by so many tend to focus too much on the differences between the genders rather than the fact that we are all meant to be like Christ.

Does that mean that there are no differences? Hardly. Gender is a biological reality, despite what some in the wider world might claim. The Bible does have some commands specifically aimed at one gender or the other, all of which must be respected and followed. However, many of the ideas put forward by conservative Christians about gender are in fact an overreaction to the secular culture. Because the world says there are no differences between men and women at all, we create too many.

Though I may question some aspects of this nebulous “womanhood” that is so dear to so many, I think I can say with confidence that the Wonder Woman portrayed on screen is not in line with any concept of femininity that is remotely scriptural. Is she a righteous pagan? Perhaps, but then again, is that really a thing?

Princess Diana reveres multiple gods and goddesses, so right off the bat we should be suspicious. Raised in an entirely female enclave, Diana is certainly independent and strong, but as soon as a lone male lands on their shores, she forms an emotional connection with him. I’m not just talking about something platonic. She walks in on him naked and takes in more than a few eyefuls. In this scene, she makes a comment that the audience is certainly led to believe refers to Steve Trevor’s private parts. It is then humorously revealed to be about something else. If the roles were reversed and a male superhero had walked in on and continued to stare at a naked woman, I’m sure people would be upset.

Diana agrees to follow Steve into the wider world to help stop World War I. Her motivations for this seem to be fairly pure, though it is hard to imagine that some affection for Steve isn’t playing a role. As they travel together by boat, Diana invites Steve to sleep next to her. He objects, saying that in his world it is not appropriate for men and women who are unmarried to sleep together, though he clearly hints that he has done so. Diana reveals that she has no concept of marriage, but she certainly knows a lot about physical pleasure. She once again tells Steve to lie next to her and then details how the Amazon women read all about the joys of the flesh and don’t need men to help them in this regard. This is a clear reference to either lesbianism or masturbation.

Steve is literally the first man that Diana has ever met. It takes her about two or three days to climb into bed with him. Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Gina Dalfonzo said, “There’s a suggestion of a bedroom scene, but nothing is shown except a kiss while both characters are fully dressed.” That’s technically true, but I don’t think the implication will be lost on anyone. Diana apparently has no concept of sexual fidelity. Her ideas about physical pleasure have no connection with marriage, as demonstrated by the fact that she had never even heard of it. (This seems a bit odd, given that some of the Greek gods were married.)

Now, you might be thinking, “Don’t a lot of movies have poor sexual ethics? Why are you picking on this one?” Three reasons: First, I have seen many superhero movies with males in the leading role, and while there were certainly plenty of hints of sexual activity, or even more than hints, this particular film seemed to me to be the most sexualized of any of them. Wonder Woman is often praised not only for her fighting abilities, but her hotness. She is an overtly sexual being. I believe that the movie was taken in this direction because the lead character was a woman and they wanted to appeal to the men in the audience. That is frankly pretty sexist.

Second, I criticize the sexual content because this is a movie clearly aimed at young girls. When my husband and I arrived for our show time, we saw a whole group of girls who were maybe 7-9 years old leaving, each of them wearing a Wonder Woman cape. This character is being presented to them as a model for behavior. What sort of behavior is she modeling?

Third, I am critical because so many Christian authors who might normally write against such moral laxity have been quick to embrace Wonder Woman as a Christ-like figure. By no means do I wish to demonize anyone who has ever made a mistake in their personal life. I am not so naïve as to think that anyone is fully immune from sexual temptation. Purity is more than just managing to keep your pants zipped until your wedding day. Even so, I do not think we can claim Wonder Woman is pure or godly even if she is graded on a kinder scale.

There is one sense in which I find myself identifying with Wonder Woman, for our treatment of her is no different from how we tend to treat women in general. We want her to be a symbol, an icon, a standard of perfection. To some, she is a shining beacon of female empowerment: the connection between the aspirations of first wave feminism, the frustrations of second wave feminism, and the continuing struggle of women today. Yet in the years following World War II, Wonder Woman served as a symbol of female submission and subordination as much as anything. More recently, she has been seized as an icon by the LGBTQ movement. With the arrival of this new movie, I have seen Wonder Woman heralded as the anecdote to everything that is wrong with the film industry, a shining example of biblical womanhood, and a stand-in for Jesus Christ Himself.

It’s no wonder that this poor woman should be forced to carry all these aspirations on her shoulders when women everywhere are expected to do it all and have it all. This is true in secular circles, where the ideal woman has a successful career in a high-paying field, nurtures her children with entirely organic meals while shuffling them between Mandarin lessons and soccer practice, volunteers for all sorts of philanthropic and political causes, gets in an hour-long workout every day, and manages to look extremely fashionable the whole time.

In evangelical Christian circles, the ideal is somewhat different. Careers can be viewed as either a selfish abandonment of motherly duties or a usurpation of the standard male role. Instead, women are expected to give birth to children, oversee some or all of their education, take them to any number of church and non-church activities, attend Women’s Bible study, volunteer at every church function, excel at all sorts of domestic activities, rise at 4 am to have their quiet time with God before the family wakes up, and most importantly of all, do everything in their power to increase their husband’s manhood and respect his biblically ordained authority. Much like the secular ideal, this is so impossible for the average woman to reach that she is bound to develop feelings of inadequacy, desperation, anger, resentment, etc.

Is Wonder Woman really any better? From her perfect body to her perfect hair to her supposedly flawless moral principles to her exceptional fighting abilities to her uncanny cleverness, she is by no means a normal woman. She is literally superhuman. She faces none of the constraints placed upon most females, and thus she is able to achieve what no woman can achieve. Is this the kind of person I want to be my standard of biblical womanhood? I think I would rather attempt to live up to the model of the Proverbs 31 woman. I can’t meet that standard either, but at least it is theoretically possible on a physical level.

Ever since The Passion of the Christ was such a hit with the conservative Christian demographic, Hollywood has made renewed efforts to appeal to this community. While there is no question that the better part of the film industry operates according to a moral code that is in no way compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ, and this group has at many times set itself up in opposition to traditional morality, Hollywood is at the end of the day all about making money. Christian money is just as good as any other type of money, which is why the same people who cringed at the perceived anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ marveled at how rich it made its director, Mel Gibson. New efforts were made to market movies to Christian audiences, and I can’t help but wonder if Hollywood has figured out that giving a wink and a nod to Christian principles will result in a bevy of Christian writers praising what is not so much a great work of art as a great companion to popcorn and soda.

Hudgins gushed after seeing Wonder Woman that “there’s no mistaking the Christology here. To make sure you’re getting the message, the cinematographer practically hits you over the head with it in shots such as Diana descending slowly to the ground in the attitude of the cross.” I heard people make the same argument about Gandalf’s death in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and one of the ending scenes of Remember the Titans. To my knowledge, none of these movies were made by Christians. The filmmakers were not suggesting that humanity is desperately sinful and needs the atonement of the Incarnate Son of God. They are hoping that you will notice their little camera trick and tell all your friends to see the movie.

Why must we look to a comic book film for a positive model of Christian womanhood? Why is this story resonating with so many Christian ladies? Could it be that we are so starved for strong female role models within our own subculture that we have to go seeking them in the broader culture? Could it be that our leaders are so inept at addressing what it really means to be female from a biblical perspective and so uncertain as to what they should do with the women in their midst that leadership on this issue is being ceded to the secular sphere?

The race to embrace Wonder Woman suggests to me that there is a real hunger for discussions about femininity that are not limited to the kind of things being put out by groups like, say, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, but are still in line with scriptural commands. That Wonder Woman is such an obviously non-Christian character but is nevertheless earning comparisons with Jesus Christ may be symptomatic of the fact that without a true picture of how Christian femininity can be displayed in all of its facets, we are bound to swing toward one perversion or the other.

History is full of stories of godly women who made great sacrifices, lived pure lives, loved tremendously, achieved the seemingly impossible, and left a legacy for future generations. These are the real models of biblical womanhood to whom we should be looking. Our concept of what it means to be a godly woman must be big enough to include women in all walks of life, of all personality types, and with all different kinds of talents and spiritual gifts. I do not think it should be big enough to include Wonder Woman. Sadly, the fact is that Wonder Woman does not empower us, but makes us believe that only by being the best looking, hardest hitting woman in town can we truly be a heroine. The real superstar is not Wonder Woman. It is the woman who prays, the woman trying to feed a 2-year-old, the woman showing kindness to strangers, the woman battling hard against illness, the woman who works as for the Lord, and most of all, the woman who strives to be like Christ.

At one point in the film, Wonder Woman objects to having to wear a corset and petticoat, demanding to know how a woman can fight in such a thing. The plain looking woman standing beside her cheerily says, “We fight with our principles!” This is meant to provoke laughter in the audience. Obviously real women go off and fight in wars, we are meant to believe. I am not saying that women cannot fight in wars, but I can’t help thinking that Wonder Woman would be a better model for girls if she did a little less fighting and had a few more principles. Most women will never be such impressive physical specimens, but they do indeed use their minds for great good. When will we see such women on the big screen? One can only hope that day will come soon, and that this deification of the bustier-ed one will end.

This article incorporates screenshots from the film Wonder Woman and an official poster image. These are deemed to be legal uses of copyrighted material according to fair use principles, as this article is a commentary upon the film in question.

If you like stories about real women doing really incredible things, you might enjoy my forthcoming series of novels based on the life of Empress Maud of England. Click on the link to “The Chronicle of Maud” at the top of this page.

Full disclosure: I have been known to employ Wonder Woman GIFs on Twitter for humorous purposes and most particularly to put my male compatriots in their proper place. This is not meant to be an endorsement of everything she stands for, and it is certainly not meant to suggest that I can fight like Wonder Woman.

The post Is Wonder Woman a Good Example of Biblical Womanhood? appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Prophecies Wed, 05 Jul 2017 12:00:29 +0000 This is the latest in a series of essays on baptism. You will find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page. In the previous essay, I began examining how the Spirit worked prior to Christ’s death and resurrection in order to help determine what is meant by the baptism of the […]

The post The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Prophecies appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


Michelangelo’s portrayals of (L-R) Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

This is the latest in a series of essays on baptism. You will find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

In the previous essay, I began examining how the Spirit worked prior to Christ’s death and resurrection in order to help determine what is meant by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We saw that the Spirit was always at work in the Old Testament, but that He was only “placed” on a specific set of people: those entrusted with spiritual leadership of the nation of Israel in one form or another. This Spirit could be given or taken away at any time, according to the will of the Lord. When the covenant relationship between God and His people broke down and the covenant curses were enacted, God promised to restore a righteous remnant to Himself. How would that occur? Let’s take a look.


The people of Israel did not all have the Spirit of God placed upon them individually, but they certainly benefited from the Spirit at work in their midst.[1] We have already seen how God sent them prophets and leaders empowered by the Spirit. Nehemiah also spoke of the Spirit leading the Israelites in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land.

You, in Your great compassion,

Did not forsake them in the wilderness;

The pillar of cloud did not leave them by day,

To guide them on their way,

Nor the pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way in which they were to go.

You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,

Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,

And You gave them water for their thirst.

Nehemiah 9:19-20

He also described what happened when the people turned their back on the Lord.

However, You bore with them for many years,

And admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets,

Yet they would not give ear.

Therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.

Nevertheless, in Your great compassion You did not make an end of them or forsake them,

For You are a gracious and compassionate God.

Nehemiah 9:30-31

Illustration of the Israelites gathering manna and receiving water from the rock in the wilderness, from the Bible boskovická, circa 1420

We see here how the Spirit of God served as a teacher for the people of Israel, leading them toward the truth even as the fiery pillar led them toward Canaan. But despite the fact that God “bore with them for many years”, the people were disobedient. He “admonished them by Your Spirit through Your prophets, / Yet they would not give ear”. The result was that they reaped the curses of the covenant and were sent into exile. Much as the divine favor was removed from Saul and other kings who disobeyed the Lord, it was removed from the entire community. Had the Lord completely abandoned Israel? No, not in the slightest! Nehemiah assures us that the Lord is “gracious and compassionate” and would not forsake them. However, something was going to have to change in order for there to be restoration.

Even as the prophets spoke of the breaking of the Mosaic Covenant and the divine wrath that must come, they also spoke of a coming age when the remnant would return to the land and things would be much different. The restoration of the nation was linked with two things in particular: the coming of a perfect ruler who would be filled with the Spirit, and a general outpouring of the Spirit upon all people. Let us first consider the Messianic figure. Isaiah prophesied,

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse,

And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him,

The spirit of wisdom and understanding,

The spirit of counsel and strength,

The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

And He will delight in the fear of the Lord,

And He will not judge by what His eyes see,

Nor make a decision by what His ears hear;

But with righteousness He will judge the poor,

And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth;

And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth,

And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked.

Isaiah 11:1-4

We see that this person will be a descendant of the royal Davidic line – a shoot from “the stem of Jesse”. His reign will be characterized by perfect justice, the work of the Spirit, the wolf dwelling with the lamb (11:5), all the nations being drawn to Him (11:10), and the earth being full of the knowledge of the Lord “as the waters cover the sea” (11:9). Compare that with Isaiah chapter 42.

Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;

My chosen one in whom My soul delights.

I have put My Spirit upon Him;

He will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry out or raise His voice,

Nor make His voice heard in the street.

A bruised reed He will not break

And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;

He will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not be disheartened or crushed

Until He has established justice in the earth;

And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.

Isaiah 42:1-4

Again we see that this servant will be filled with the Spirit and He will bring justice to all the nations. Even the coastlands, or the lands far away, “will wait expectantly for His law”. Here is one more good passage regarding this Messianic figure.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me

To bring good news to the afflicted;

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to captives

And freedom to prisoners;

To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord

And the day of vengeance of our God;

To comfort all who mourn,

To grant those who mourn in Zion,

Giving them a garland instead of ashes,

The oil of gladness instead of mourning,

The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.

So they will be called oaks of righteousness,

The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.

Isaiah 61:1-3

Crucifix decoration in the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome (Author photo)

Again I must draw your attention to the fact that this individual will have the Spirit of God placed upon him, he will act with justice and righteousness, and he will bring gladness to many people. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth and read this portion of Isaiah. He then sat down and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (v. 21) He was clearly associating Himself with the servant mentioned by Isaiah: the one who would be anointed with the Spirit.

Here it is useful to remember the account of Jesus’ baptism. “Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22) This event was meant not only to declare that Jesus was God’s Son, but also that He was the one on whom the Spirit rested. He was the promised Messiah.

The Hebrew word from which we derive the term Messiah is mashiyach. It literally means “anointed” or “anointed one”. The same word was used to refer to kings like Saul who were anointed (1 Samuel 24:6), to the entire nation of Israel (Habakkuk 3:13), and a coming princely figure (Daniel 9:25-26). The related verb, mashach, is used in that passage in Isaiah where it states, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / Because the LORD has anointed me…” (61:1a) Thus, the Jews of Jesus’s day would have understood that anointing set someone apart as God’s chosen one and that it involved the Spirit of God. They were expecting that the Messiah figure, whoever he might be, would have the Spirit placed upon him. That is why the declaration at Jesus’s baptism was so significant, and it also helps to explain this passage.

Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, ‘This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?’ But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.’ And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, ‘Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters. Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.’

Matthew 12:22-32

This portion of Scripture has puzzled more than a few people over the years. I can hear it now: “Is there really an unforgivable sin? What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Did I accidentally do it just now? If I mistake something the Spirit has done for something else, am I in trouble too? Am I going to Hell?!” Settle down, people – settle down. On the day of Pentecost, when the crowd thought that the apostles were drunk because they were speaking in tongues, they were nevertheless added to the number of the Church when they realized their mistake and repented. Such an error of judgment is not what was happening in this conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees.

The crowd saw that Jesus was healing miraculously, connected this with what they knew about the Messiah from the Old Testament, and concluded that He might just be the Son of David, i.e. the promised anointed one. The Pharisees charged that Jesus did not have the Spirit of God, but an evil spirit. What this really meant is that they were rejecting Jesus as their Messiah. They refused to accept that He was the one on whom the Spirit rested. Jesus told them “if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v. 28). He knew that they were rejecting both His kingdom and His rule. “He who is not with Me is against Me…” (v. 30) This was an ultimate rejection and hardness of heart on the part of the Pharisees. That is why Jesus concludes that they will not be forgiven: they were rejecting not only a human being, but the promised Messiah, and not only one person of the Trinity, but all three. They were refusing to acknowledge God’s sovereign will. Indeed, they were refusing to acknowledge God.


I noted that the Old Testament also speaks of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all of God’s people. In the book of Isaiah, there is one point where we seem to see the Servant – that is, Christ – speaking to the people. “Come near to Me, listen to this: / From the first I have not spoken in secret, / From the time it took place, I was there. / And now the Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit.” (48:16) We have seen the prophecies that Spirit would rest on the Messiah Himself and that He was also given to many people under the Mosaic Covenant. So what exactly is being described here, and how is it different? I would submit that the difference is both in the identity of the people receiving the Spirit and the fact that it will not be taken away.

The nation of Israel was placed under judgment for disobeying the Law. The prophets spoke of a time when they would return to obedience through true knowledge of the Lord and the granting of the Spirit. In this particular passage, we see the people longing for an outpouring of the Spirit even as Moses did so many years earlier.

Because the palace has been abandoned, the populated city forsaken.

Hill and watch-tower have become caves forever,

A delight for wild donkeys, a pasture for flocks;

Until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high,

And the wilderness becomes a fertile field,

And the fertile field is considered as a forest.

Then justice will dwell in the wilderness

And righteousness will abide in the fertile field.

Isaiah 32:14-16

The people, or the prophet speaking on behalf of the people, conclude here that their nation will be restored to righteousness and blessing when they receive the Spirit. That is their true source of hope. They are entirely correct, and the Lord promises that He will indeed grant the Spirit not only to the leaders of the nation or the prophets, but to everyone.

Thus says the Lord who made you

And formed you from the womb, who will help you,

‘Do not fear, O Jacob My servant;

And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen.

For I will pour out water on the thirsty land

And streams on the dry ground;

I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring

And My blessing on your descendants;

And they will spring up among the grass

Like poplars by streams of water.’

Isaiah 44:2-3

The Lord says that He has chosen Israel. He will pour forth water on their land. He will pour forth His Spirit on them and their descendants. Notice who is taking all the initiative here. Israel did not deserve anything good. They broke the covenant. God is making a sovereign choice to act: to pour forth His Spirit on those He chooses.

For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.

Ezekiel 36:24-28

“The Rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, circa 1847

Here God links the pouring forth of His Spirit with the return of the people to the Promised Land. He says that He Himself will make them clean, putting a new heart and a new spirit in them. The result is that they will be obedient to the Lord’s commands and walk in His ways. They will be His people. He will be their God.

‘As for Me, this is My covenant with them,’ the Lord: ‘My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,’ says the Lord, ‘from now and forever.’

Isaiah 59:21

Here once again we see it is the Lord who places His Spirit upon the people and His words in their mouths. Not only that, but He places this on their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. Most importantly of all, this is not some kind of temporal grant. It will be “from now and forever”. Forever is a mighty long time! Was God speaking metaphorically here? Actually, I’m inclined to think He really meant forever.

The prophet Joel spoke a great deal about a plague of locusts that would ravage the nation. He then went on to talk about a time of restoration when the things that had been destroyed would be restored. Finally, he mentioned something else.

It will come about after this

That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;

And your sons and daughters will prophesy,

Your old men will dream dreams,

Your young men will see visions.

Even on the male and female servants

I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

Joel 2:28-29

You may recognize this as the passage that the Apostle Peter quoted in his first sermon. It predicted an outpouring of the Spirit on a level that had never before been experienced. It would not be restricted to the nation of Israel; it would be “on all mankind”. It would not be restricted to men; both “sons and daughters” would receive it. It would not be restricted by age. It would not be restricted by social status or occupation. Joel also makes the classic Old Testament link between the reception of the Spirit and prophetic acts, whether that be words of prophecy, dreams, or visions. We are not told when exactly this will occur, but it clearly represents a state of affairs that did not exist at any point in the Old Testament. What is being described here is the indwelling of the Spirit on a wide scale. It will be the norm rather than the exception. Moses’s passionate desire for all the Lord’s people to have the Spirit placed upon them would come true.


Perhaps at this point you’re thinking to yourself, “Wait…did all the people of Israel really receive the Holy Spirit? Was life really a bundle of roses when they returned to the land?” No and no. It is clear enough that the utopian vision Isaiah gave of the wolf lying down with the lamb has not come to pass on planet earth. It is looking forward to something in the future. Neither did all the Jewish people receive the Holy Spirit. Remember back to our discussion of John’s baptism and the righteous remnant. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to both John and Jesus, they were declared to be unrepentant sinners. John said they were physical children of Abraham but not spiritual children. A confrontation Christ had over the same issue almost got Him killed prematurely.

So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father.’ They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. You are doing the deeds of your father.’ They said to Him, ‘We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.’ The Jews answered and said to Him, ‘Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?’ Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. But I do not seek My glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death’ The Jews said to Him, ‘Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, “If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.” Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do You make Yourself out to be?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, “He is our God”; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.’ So the Jews said to Him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.’ Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.

John 8:39-54

This discussion is interesting for several reasons. First, the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking once again appealed to their physical descent from Abraham as proof that they were not slaves, but free people chosen by God and presumably on the path to salvation. Jesus points out that though they are physically descended from Abraham, they are not performing his deeds. It seems clear that this would have included accepting the Word of God (v. 37). The Jews try to counter Jesus’s words by appealing to God as their Father. Perhaps they were thinking of verses such as Isaiah 64:8 – “But now, O LORD, You are our Father, / We are the clay, and You our potter; / And all of us are the work of Your hand.” – and concluded that to be a member of the Jewish nation and a part of the Mosaic Covenant automatically meant that God was your Father. In a general sense, this might have been true, but Jesus contradicts them. If God were your Father, he says, you would accept Me (v. 42). He concludes that they were actually children of the devil (v. 44).

Next, the Jews fall back into the same heinous error committed by the Pharisees: they claim that Jesus is working by the power of demons rather than the Spirit. When they press Jesus for how He can claim to have been seen by Abraham, He makes a bold claim: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (v. 58) The crowd understood exactly what He meant. He was claiming to be God. They attempted to stone Him, but He was able to depart unharmed. I conclude that these people who attacked Jesus were not Abraham’s spiritual children, nor did they have the Spirit, for they denied the work of the Spirit.

You may think it a bit premature for me to make a connection between Abraham’s spiritual children and the work of the Spirit, but consider what the Apostle Paul said. “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) Therefore, being confronted with the clear work of the Spirit of God and the Anointed One who was promised and then choosing to reject all of that and credit it to the devil does not seem like something that a person who has the Spirit would do. Those people to whom Jesus was speaking were part of the Jewish nation and members of those covenants, yet they were not true children of Abraham, nor did they have the Spirit. They were not among the righteous remnant, even if they were among the physical remnant that had returned to Palestine from Babylon.

Jesus also called them slaves, which the crowd found to be very offensive. “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone,” they objected (v. 33). As part of God’s chosen people of Israel, they believed themselves to be free. (Note the irony that even physically, they were under Roman occupation.) Jesus presents them with a very different conception of what it means to be a slave or free person. Everyone who sins is a slave to sin; therefore, everyone is a slave. No one can become free of their own accord or on the basis of their birth. “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (v. 35-36) In order to become a free person, you need the Son. In order to be a member of the family and live in the house, you need the Son. In order for God to truly be your Father, you need the Son. Here we must turn again to the writings of Paul.

“The Banishment of Hagar and Ishmael” by Adriaen van der Werff, circa 1696-97

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written,

‘Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear;

Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor;

For more numerous are the children of the desolate

Than of the one who has a husband.’

And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say?

‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son,

For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.’

So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.

Galatians 4:22-31

We have seen clear evidence that when Jesus began His ministry, the people He encountered believed that their physical descent from Abraham, participation in the covenant of circumcision, and inclusion in the Mosaic Covenant made them spiritually alive, children of God, and heirs to all the promises of the covenants. Here Paul teaches, along with Christ, that there are two forms of descent from Abraham. All Jews were physically descended from him (along with the descendants of Ishmael), but only some – the righteous remnant – were his spiritual descendants.

Please note that the book of Galatians was written not to Jews in general, but to a mixture of Jews and Gentiles who were professing to follow Jesus Christ. That is why Paul refers to them as descendants of the free woman and others as descendants of the bondwoman. Now, the descendants of the bondwoman were those who were attempting to gain their salvation through strict observance of the Mosaic Law and who felt that their mere inclusion in this covenant was good enough. The descendants of the free woman were those were looking to the Jerusalem above and the promises of God for their salvation.

But this is not only about the person’s state of mind: it is about their fundamental spiritual status. Paul talks about those born according to the flesh and those born according to the Spirit. The former persecute the latter. We can link this in with what Jesus said to those who denied the works of the Spirit. They were not born of the Spirit. They did not have the Spirit. Therefore, the fundamental distinction among the Jewish people was between those who were born of the Spirit and those were not, or those were children of the promise and those who were not.

One final note about how things worked in the Old Testament. Although the Spirit was certainly at work in the hearts of all who belonged to the righteous remnant or the children of the promise, there still seems to be a clear difference between those on whom the Spirit descended and those on whom He did not. Remember, the Old Testament almost always linked the descent of the Spirit on a person with the act of prophesy. It was not something that happened to the many, but rather the few.

We might say that the actions of the Spirit in that former era were very external. We see literal fire and clouds, hear new prophesies being spoken, and observe signs and wonders being performed when the Spirit is around. To put myself even more at risk of placing the horse before the cart, I am going to hint right now that after Pentecost, the work of the Spirit became much more internal. This is something to look for as we continue. I hope to see you back next time, when I take an in-depth look at some of the things Christ said about the coming of the Spirit and what actually happened when it started descending en masse. Thank you for persevering thus far. This is a complicated subject, and I want to do it justice.

All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright the Lockman Foundation.

[1] I believe that a person must be made regenerate by the Spirit in order to have saving faith. Therefore, I believe that any person who had saving faith in the Old Testament was regenerated by the Spirit, even as people are today. There is no difference in the method of salvation in either Testament: by grace, through faith, as a result of union with Christ and the double imputation. If you don’t know what that means, do a Google search. This is a long enough article already. I do still see a difference in how the Spirit worked then and how He works now, but not in terms of the saving effect.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – New Series of Essays on Baptism

#2 – The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism

#3 – Why was Jesus Baptized?

#4 – The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Beginnings

The post The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Prophecies appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Beginnings Mon, 03 Jul 2017 12:00:23 +0000 This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page. I began this series by discussing the baptism of John. We must now consider something that John himself said. He proclaimed that while he baptized with water […]

The post The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Beginnings appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


Depiction of Pentecost in Siena Cathedral by Duccio di Buoninsegna, circa 1308-11

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I began this series by discussing the baptism of John. We must now consider something that John himself said. He proclaimed that while he baptized with water for repentance, a greater one was coming who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11b)

What did John mean when he spoke those words? What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Who receives it? Is it a new thing or an old thing? Is it one and the same with water baptism? These are the types of questions I hope to answer in the next few essays, but it is going to be difficult. This is a complicated theological topic.

The first time we find an explicit mention of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is in that quote from John the Baptist. If we want to discover exactly what it means, we need to follow the trail of scriptural evidence. First, we should note that John associates this baptism with the work of Christ.

John testified saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1:32-34

Therefore, John prophesied that Jesus Christ was the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.   There are a few other things to note at this point: 1) John clearly felt that there was something about this baptism that was different from his own, 2) he seemed to believe it represented something new in redemptive history, and 3) he associated it with fire. Let’s move on to see the next place where this specific phrase appears. It is used by Christ in His final words to the disciples just before His Ascension.

Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’

Acts 1:4-8

Jesus gives us our best clue yet as to what is meant by the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He says it will occur at a point in time, “not many days from now”. He says that the disciples are the ones who will be baptized, or at least that they are among the ones who will be baptized. He tells what will happen after this baptism occurs: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…” He explains that the Holy Spirit was promised by the Father. There is also an implication that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is somehow related to the kingdom of God, as Jesus pivots from the disciples’ question about a physical kingdom to speaking about the work that will be performed through the Spirit. Now let’s fast forward to “not many days from now”.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.

Acts 2:1-6

There’s a lot to unpack here. We see first that “they were all together in one place”. Who is “they”? Based on the previous chapter, we know that it probably included the eleven remaining disciples (1:13), “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (1:14), a group of about 120 people (1:15), and the newly chosen apostle Matthias (1:26). Therefore, depending on how you count, this was a group of between 120-150 people, some male and some female, all of them believing in the Christ who rose from the dead. They were gathered together in a house, perhaps the one that contained the “upper room” (1:13).

We are told that “a noise like a violent rushing wind” filled the house. The language makes it sound rather unexpected and impossible to ignore. Next we hear that “tongues of fire” were moving around, resting upon each one of the believers. Finally, we are told that these disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance”. Therefore, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon these believers was accompanied by three noticeable signs: the sound of wind, the sight of fire, and the speaking of foreign languages. It is also important to note that this event was observable by the surrounding population. The language is a bit unclear as to what is meant by “when this sound occurred”. Obviously, they heard the languages, but did they hear the wind? In any case, we can conclude that the “other tongues” were identifiable languages understood by other people in town.

Unfortunately, the Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the feast and heard this speaking in tongues assumed that the disciples were drunk. They jumped to a natural explanation rather than a supernatural one. The Apostle Peter stood up at that moment and gave what might be called the first thoroughly Christian sermon.

“St Peter Preaching” by Masolino da Panicale, circa 1426-7

But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: ‘Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel:

“And it shall be in the last days,” God says,

“That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind;

And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

And your young men shall see visions,

And your old men shall dream dreams;

Even on My bondslaves, both men and women,

I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit

And they shall prophesy.

And I will grant wonders in the sky above

And signs on the earth below,

Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.

The sun will be turned into darkness

And the moon into blood,

Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.

And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’

Acts 2:14-21

One interesting aspect of this first section of Peter’s sermon is that he connects what has just happened with a specific prophecy in the Old Testament – one made by the prophet Joel. In order to truly understand the implications of what Peter is saying, and by extension what is meant by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back in time…back to the very beginning.


When is the Holy Spirit first mentioned in Scripture? Perhaps your mind has jumped to Genesis 1:2, which tells us that “the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”. That is the first time that the word spirit is used, yes. It is the first clue that God exists in Trinity. However, it must be said that the first time that the Holy Spirit shows up in Scripture is Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is the totality of God, and it includes the Holy Spirit.

Why am I going on about all of this? Because there are two incorrect opinions we can have about the Holy Spirit. For one, we can believe that nothing about how the Holy Spirit works has changed at all since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is a mistaken assumption. However, it is equally injurious to suppose that the Holy Spirit first appeared in human history on Pentecost. That is a profoundly unbiblical viewpoint as well. In fact, the Holy Spirit was just as active before the ministry of Christ as He was after the Christ’s Ascension: the action has not so much increased as changed. As we continue, I think you’ll see what I mean.

So what was the Holy Spirit doing in the Old Testament? We have already seen that He was a participant in the Triune act of Creation, but that was just the beginning. The Nicene Creed provides one classic summary of the Holy Spirit’s character.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life.

He proceeds from the Father and the Son,

and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.

He spoke through the prophets.

This statement, which is built upon Scripture, teaches us that the Holy Spirit is equal in deity with the Father and the Son, from whom He proceeds. He is to be worshiped and glorified along with the other Persons of the Godhead. He is rightly called “Lord”, being fully divine. We also see two aspects of the Holy Spirit’s operation: He gives life and He speaks through the prophets.

Hey, I’m a dove too. Why don’t people use me to represent the Spirit? (Photo by Jon Ascton)

Both of those actions appear in the Old Testament. In the Creation account, the Holy Spirit is first seen moving over the waters. The Hebrew word is for spirit is ruwach, which literally means wind or breath. It is the same word that is used in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. “Thus says the Lord God to these bones, ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life.’” (Ezekiel 37:5 – emphasis added) Remember also the description of man’s creation: how God breathed life into dust. (Genesis 2:7) The Hebrew word in that latter case is different, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit – the very breath of God – literally brings life to all of creation. The Greek word for the Spirit, pneuma, has the same implication of wind or breath. We will see how that becomes significant later.

Beyond this life giving operation, the Spirit was also active in the Old Testament through the prophets. Note how the Apostle Paul tells us, “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16a ESV – emphasis added) The Apostle Peter also said that “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21) There is a strong link in Scripture between the Holy Spirit and prophecy. Indeed, the inspiration of the Spirit is necessary for a prophecy to be authentic, and the ability to prophesy truthfully serves as proof that a person has the Spirit.

In the New Testament, we see the Holy Spirit being given to thousands of people. In the Old Testament, there is a much more select group that is said to have the Spirit placed upon them, filling them, etc. Here is what I believe to be a complete list of all the people who are specifically mentioned by name receiving the Spirit in the Old Testament.

  • Bezalel, a craftsman (Exodus 31:3)
  • Seventy elders of Israel, as Moses had already received it (Numbers 11:25)
  • Balaam, who prophesied (Numbers 24:2)
  • Joshua, leader of Israel (Numbers 27:18)
  • Othniel, judge of Israel (Judges 3:10)
  • Gideon, judge of Israel (Judges 6:34)
  • Jephthah, judge of Israel (Judges 11:29)
  • Samson, judge of Israel (Judges 14:6)
  • Saul, king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:10)
  • David, king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:13)
  • Messengers of Saul (1 Samuel 19:20)
  • Elijah the prophet – implied (1 Kings 18:12)
  • Micaiah the prophet – implied (1 Kings 22)
  • Amasai, a military captain (1 Chronicles 12:18)
  • Azariah the prophet (2 Chronicles 15:1)
  • Jahaziel the prophet (2 Chronicles 20:14)
  • Zechariah the prophet (2 Chronicles 24:20)
  • Ezekiel the prophet (Ezekiel 2:2)
  • Micah the prophet (Micah 3:8)

You will notice that all of these people have some things in common. 1) They are all Jewish. 2) They are all male. 3) They all served in some kind of leadership position. However, it is also important to note that there were people prior to Christ who did receive the Holy Spirit but are not mentioned on this list. For example, every true prophet or prophetess worked by the power of the Holy Spirit. I would first like to examine a few Old Testament passages that shed some light on who received the Spirit, why they were chosen, how long it lasted, and the signs of the Spirit’s presence. The first such instance came when Moses commissioned the seventy elders of Israel.

The Lord therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone.’… So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again. But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp. So a young man ran and told Moses and said, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!’

Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29

Statue of Moses by Michelangelo at the Basilica of St Peter in Vincoli in Rome (Author photo)

In this passage, we see that the Spirit of the Lord was “placed” upon the seventy elders of the people that they might assist in leadership. This is the same Spirit that was already “upon” Moses. Once the Spirit rests on the elders, they immediately speak words of prophecy. Interestingly, two of the elders were not there at the gathering, but nevertheless received the Spirit “in the camp” and began prophesying as well. This was reported to Moses as if it were a malicious activity – an undermining of authority. Moses disagrees with this assessment. “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asks, then concludes, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!”

Once again, let’s ask what conclusions can be drawn from this passage. First, it is the Lord who gives the Spirit, not a person. Moses may have helped to arrange this ceremony in which the Spirit was placed upon the elders, but he did not give it to them. God made the decision to grant the Spirit. It was announced to Moses. To further prove the point, there were two elders not in attendance who nevertheless received the Spirit. They began prophesying without any authorization from Moses, but he essentially says, “Why are you trying to stop them?” This means that God Himself is the sole source of this power. No human being has the power to give or take the Spirit from another human being. It depends entirely on God’s choice.

We must also note that this was a gift given to specific people at a specific point in time. Most of the people of Israel did not have the Spirit placed upon them directly, even if they benefitted from the work of the Spirit. That is why Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets…” It was the ability to prophesy that marked these elders as recipients of the Spirit. They were among the rare few. It would be wonderful, Moses argues, if all the people of God could receive the Spirit, but it was not the will of God at that time.


The next passage we need to examine is the account of Samuel’s anointing of the first king of Israel, Saul. After pouring the oil on Saul’s head and announcing that the Lord would make him “ruler over His inheritance” (1 Samuel 1:10), Samuel went on to give some odd instructions about what Saul should do next involving donkeys, goats, bread, wine, and a variety of musical instruments being played by prophets. After all of this, he tells Saul, “Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man.” (v. 6) Sure enough, that is exactly what happened.

Then it happened when he turned his back to leave Samuel, God changed his heart; and all those signs came about on that day. When they came to the hill there, behold, a group of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him mightily, so that he prophesied among them. It came about, when all who knew him previously saw that he prophesied now with the prophets, that the people said to one another, ‘What has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?’

1 Samuel 10:9-11

This was an important event in Saul’s life. Samuel had just anointed him and declared that he would be king of Israel. This is the reason that God gives Saul the Holy Spirit, which was already resting upon the prophets. When he comes up and prophesies along with those prophets, Saul is indeed a new man, and they recognize it. “Is Saul also among the prophets?” they ask. The ability to prophesy truthfully only comes from the Spirit. In this case, it was given to Saul because he was chosen by God to be king.

On that list of people who received the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, some were simply prophets, but others were judges or kings, and in one case it was given to a chief craftsman working on the Tabernacle. Not all of these leadership roles were exactly the same, but they were all leadership roles, and they all required the assistance of the Spirit. There is a certain degree of overlap between the duties. For example, the judge Deborah is described as a prophetess (Judges 4:4) and King David was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write Psalms. These are just two examples of how even apparently secular leaders were also spiritual leaders, yet we do not consider David a prophet in quite the same way as we do Isaiah. He had a different type of ministry from the Lord, but the same Spirit.

3rd century depiction of Samuel anointing David in Dura Europos, Syria

The granting of the Holy Spirit to kings tells us something else about how things worked in the Old Testament: the Spirit could be given, but it could also be taken away. This point is established later in the book of 1 Samuel, when Saul fell into disobedience and David was chosen to take his place. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward…Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him.” (1 Samuel 16:13a, 14)

In this case, the Spirit departed from Saul when his authority was removed. (See 1 Samuel chapter 15 for more context.) The giving or taking of the Spirit is an act of the divine will, even as God gets to choose who sits on the throne. It was because of disobedience that Saul’s authority was taken away and given to another, and as time went by, it became even clearer that God had abandoned Saul.

Now David fled and escaped and came to Samuel at Ramah, and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and stayed in Naioth. It was told Saul, saying, ‘Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.’ Then Saul sent messengers to take David, but when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing and presiding over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul; and they also prophesied. When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. So Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied. Then he himself went to Ramah and came as far as the large well that is in Secu; and he asked and said, ‘Where are Samuel and David?’ And someone said, ‘Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.’ He proceeded there to Naioth in Ramah; and the Spirit of God came upon him also, so that he went along prophesying continually until he came to Naioth in Ramah. He also stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Therefore they say, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’

1 Samuel 19:18-24

Here we have Saul attempting to capture David, for he knows that the Lord has chosen the younger man to take his place. David has no intention of killing the Lord’s anointed, even if his authority is fading. Therefore, he flees from the forces of Saul without actively attempting to overthrow him. We are told that Saul sent messengers to David, who was staying with the prophet Samuel at the time. Remember that Samuel was the one who anointed David in place of Saul, though the decision was the Lord’s. Saul sent the messengers in an attempt to capture David, but something very surprising happened. When the messengers arrived in the company of Samuel and the other prophets, they immediately began prophesying as well. Despite the fact that they were rather ordinary people and had entirely bad motives, they were filled with the Spirit of God, and everyone knew it when they heard them prophesy.

In his frustration, Saul sent more messengers, but the exact same thing happened. At this point, he was really in a fight against God, who was intent to prove that His will was the one that would win the day. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, Saul himself went up to Naioth and was filled with the Spirit once again. We are told that he actually laid down naked and prophesied all day long, the implication being that Saul had no control over his own actions. Then we see that phrase again: “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

Those final words are our clue as to what is going on here. The first time Saul received the Spirit and this question was asked, it was because the Lord had given him authority to reign as king. This time, when the Spirit was given again, it was actually to demonstrate that Saul’s reign would end. It is not man who gives the Spirit, but the Lord. The Spirit was not going to remain with Saul. It came on him only for a moment to emphasize the fact that he had no control over events.

We can therefore say quite confidently that the Spirit was taken away from people in the Old Testament. When David was confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan, he wrote Psalm 51 in which he pleaded, “Do not cast me away from Your presence / And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (v. 11) I do not believe that this was mere hyperbole. David truly believed that if the divine favor was removed from him, the Spirit would be as well. That was the way things worked in the Old Testament.

In this essay, I have begun to examine the workings of the Holy Spirit throughout history and dropped a few hints as to what the baptism of the Spirit might mean. In the next article, I will talk about what happened when Israel reaped the curses of covenant disobedience and what remedy God promised to make things right again. (Hint: It involves the Spirit!)

Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – New Series of Essays on Baptism

#2 – The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism

#3 – Why was Jesus Baptized?

The post The Baptism of the Holy Spirit: Beginnings appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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Luther and Erasmus Thu, 29 Jun 2017 22:09:24 +0000 While I continue my vacation in Canada, you might enjoy checking out an article I wrote for A Place for Truth, one of the websites of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. In it, I discuss the complicated relationship between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam as part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of […]

The post Luther and Erasmus appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


While I continue my vacation in Canada, you might enjoy checking out an article I wrote for A Place for Truth, one of the websites of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. In it, I discuss the complicated relationship between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam as part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. You will also find many other posts on the life and work of Martin Luther and an excellent series of essays by Simonetta Carr on great Christians throughout history. Stay tuned for another article on Luther by yours truly in the coming weeks…

The post Luther and Erasmus appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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Why was Jesus Baptized? Fri, 23 Jun 2017 12:00:57 +0000 This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. Links to the previous articles can be found at the bottom of this page. In the previous article, I spoke about the baptism of John and how it prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ. This form of baptism […]

The post Why was Jesus Baptized? appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


The Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John – photo by Wikipedia user Chmee2

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of baptism. Links to the previous articles can be found at the bottom of this page.

In the previous article, I spoke about the baptism of John and how it prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ. This form of baptism was all about confessing one’s sins and being made right with God. The question then becomes, why in the world did Jesus need to be baptized? If He had no sins to confess, then what was the point?

This is not just a question that has popped up after the fact. When Jesus showed up at the Jordan River in order to be baptized, John proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” (John 1:29b-30) This is a revealing statement, for in it John identifies Jesus not only as the one who will save the entire world from sin, but also as one who “existed before me”. John knew full well that he was born before Jesus, his cousin. Therefore, what he was really saying was that Jesus had come down from on high.

In light of this statement, we should not be surprised at how John responded to Jesus’s request to be baptized. “But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” (Matthew 3:14) John believed that Jesus was greater than him. More to the point, he believed that Jesus had no sins to confess: on the contrary, He was the one who would take away sins. Therefore, John seems to say, “There’s no need for you to be baptized. If anything, you ought to be baptizing me!”

The Active Obedience of Christ

We receive two clues regarding Jesus’s motivation. The first is the explicit answer that he gave to John’s question. “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15b) There may be two different things going on here. Jesus uses the word “us” rather than “I”, so maybe there’s a sense in which He is saying, “Do this, John, because God says so.” However, the deeper meaning has nothing to do with John’s actions or any efforts Jesus had to make to secure His own salvation (for He had no sin). It is about the active obedience of Christ.

For the uninitiated, theologians often talk about Christ’s deeds in terms of passive and active obedience. Both were necessary in order to fulfill the righteous demands of God. He passively obeyed by suffering all the covenant curses that were meant for us. (That would include those belonging to the Mosaic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, and the Covenant of Works, i.e. the commands given to Adam.) He actively obeyed by fulfilling all the requirements of those covenants and others, not only in terms of external actions but also His internal heart condition.

Why are both kinds of obedience important? Because when we are united with Christ, there is a double transfer that takes place. We often talk about how God removes our sins and places them upon Christ, who paid the penalty on the cross. Some of us speak less often about the other aspect of this transfer: that the righteousness of Christ is credited to us.

Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) Salvation is not only about what you don’t do – it is about what you do do. This is why you can find many Bible verses talking about how righteousness is necessary in order to earn God’s favor, not only in terms of avoiding sin, but in terms of actively performing the works of righteousness. None of us are capable of doing that on our own. When Jesus said it was necessary to exceed the righteousness of the religious leaders, He was describing a feat that no human being born in sin could manage. Only Jesus Himself could be perfectly righteous, so His righteousness needed to be credited to us.

Consider how the Apostle Paul talked about faith. Protestants might speak of faith as the one requirement placed upon us under the New Covenant, but even here we are impotent! Any faith we have is not a work of righteousness on our part, but the Spirit of God working through us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) I was made to memorize those verses as a child, but the focus was always on the fact that grace was a free gift. Little attention was given to the fact that faith too is a gift: it is not a good work. Therefore, no one can boast. So what does Paul say when he talks about the faith of Abraham, his great example of justification by faith?

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…

Romans 4:2-5

“Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan” József Molnár, circa 1850

This phrase – “credited as righteousness” – is very important. The righteousness was not actually Abraham’s, nor is our righteousness our own. It is the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to our account, even as His sacrifice allows the penalty of sin to be removed from our account. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Note again the double transfer: Christ takes on our sin and we take on His righteousness. “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)

Therefore, Christ was baptized as part of His active obedience. That is what He meant when He said baptism was necessary to “fulfill all righteousness”. It was not for Himself, but for us. Could there also be some respect in which it was setting an example of obedience for believers? Possibly, but I do not believe that is the primary meaning of His statement. In any case, I have already argued that John’s baptism was not the same as New Covenant baptism. My suspicion is that Jesus’s baptism was more about fulfilling the righteous requirements of the Mosaic Law than the New Covenant, of which He is the mediator. Perhaps someone else will correct me on that, but the baptism of John seems to me to be clearly linked with the Mosaic and/or Abrahamic Covenants, as outlined in the last essay.

The Identification of the Son of God

There is a second reason why I believe Jesus had to be baptized, and it is based on something that John said after the fact.

John testified saying, ‘I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, “He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1:32-34

Even before John was born, it was prophesied that he would pave the way for the coming of the Lord. (Luke 1:17) John was keenly aware of this, and he testified to the people that he was not the Christ, (John 1:20) but rather he was the one who came before the Christ. “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) As it so happened, this one of whom John spoke was his own relative, Jesus.

Did John know that Jesus was the Christ before He came to be baptized? On the basis of his later statements, I am inclined to say no. This was not something that was revealed to John from birth, hence the phrase “I did not recognize Him”. (John 1:31a) However, God had revealed to John that he would baptize a man on whom the Spirit would descend, and this was the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. (1:33) Perhaps John realized who Jesus really was when he saw Him coming and cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29b) The sequence of events is a bit hard to pin down: in the Apostle John’s narrative, John the Baptist moves directly from this statement into one that was clearly made after Jesus’s baptism.

“St. John the Baptist in the Desert” by Titian, circa 1542

So was the first statement before or after the baptism? I cannot say for sure. What I can say without a doubt is that John was convinced of Jesus’s identity by what happened just after the baptism. “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17) Here we see a revelation of the Trinity: the Spirit descending upon Christ as a dove and the Father announcing His love for the Son to the world. This message was not really for Jesus, but for the people who were listening. It was the confirmation of what had been prophesied to John, and thus he concluded, “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:34)

Interestingly, despite this supernatural revelation of Jesus’s true identity, John experienced a moment of doubt later in his ministry. Having made so many statements affirming that Jesus was the Son of God, he had a crisis of confidence when he was thrown in prison, knowing that his earthly life would soon be at an end. It seems that he wanted to make sure his work had not been in vain, so he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” (Luke 7:20b) Jesus did not rebuke these disciples, but instructed them to tell John “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them”. (7:22b) Now, these were things that the Old Testament prophets had associated with the Messiah, and Jesus was assuring John that He was the fulfillment of those prophecies.

John knew that his ministry was not the end of the road. It was looking forward to something even better. He was not the Christ, but he pointed to the Christ. His baptism did not forgive sins in and of itself, but the repentance and faith of those who were baptized would find its object in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it was only natural that John would want to know the identity of the person who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, the subject of my next essay. For now, let us simply say that Christ’s baptism served two primary purposes: to further His active obedience and to announce His identity to the world.

All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Previous articles in this series:

#1 – Introduction

#2 – The Baptism of John

The post Why was Jesus Baptized? appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

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The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism Wed, 21 Jun 2017 20:10:27 +0000 This is the first in a series of essays on the topic of baptism as outlined in scripture. Hello friends and thank you for taking the time to visit and read this first article addressing the subject of baptism. In my introductory letter, I hinted that there are at least three and possibly four different […]

The post The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


“Saint John the Baptist Preaching” by Mattia Preti, circa 1665

This is the first in a series of essays on the topic of baptism as outlined in scripture.

Hello friends and thank you for taking the time to visit and read this first article addressing the subject of baptism. In my introductory letter, I hinted that there are at least three and possibly four different forms of baptism described in scripture. Today, I would like to start by examining the first such form: the baptism of John. I will first give some background on who John was and the significance of the baptisms that he administered, then I will differentiate this form of baptism from those that occur under the New Covenant.

Who was John the Baptist?

John, commonly known as “John the Baptist”, is often described as the last prophet to come before Christ, yet he had a unique role in history that is not exactly like any of the other prophets we read about in scripture. In fact, there was an Old Testament prophecy about his ministry in Isaiah 40:3. “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” John is not mentioned by name in this passage and it is likely that the initial fulfillment came in Judah’s return from the Babylonian Exile, but the prediction is still cited in the New Testament as a reference to John the Baptist. (Matthew 3:2)

We learn from the Gospel of Luke that John was the son of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth, the latter being a relative of Mary the mother of Jesus. His miraculous birth was prophesied by the angel Gabriel who said, “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 2:16-17) When John was born, his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and made a prophecy about the boy.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;

To give to His people the knowledge of salvation

By the forgiveness of their sins,

Because of the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,

To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 2:76-79

In these prophecies, we see the type of ministry to which John was called. It was not totally unlike that of previous prophets, but it certainly had some unique aspects. His job would be to draw the hearts of the people back to the Lord in anticipation of the arrival of the long-awaited savior. Certainly, the Old Testament prophets had called on Israel and Judah to repent and spoken about the Messiah, but what set John apart was the immediacy of the Messiah’s coming. The people to whom John ministered would actually see the Christ within their own lifetimes, or at the very least they would hear about him. No other prophet’s ministry was so specifically described as a supporting role to the Messiah.

“St. John the Baptist” by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1513-16

There were other ways in which John the Baptist was set apart. Gabriel seemed to predict that John would by a lifelong Nazirite (see Numbers chapter 16) when he said “he will drink no wine or liquor”. (Luke 1:15a) In addition, while all of the true prophets received the Word of God through the Holy Spirit, Gabriel also prophesied that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb”. (Luke 1:15b) The very fact that the angel stated this shows that it was not a normal thing. The Holy Spirit is clearly seen coming on certain Old Testament saints, but not indwelling them in a permanent way as occurred after Pentecost. There may be some who wish to quibble about the prophet Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 1:5) but I am not aware of any other passage that so explicitly states that a person would be filled with the Spirit while still in the womb. This was presumably on account of the particular ministry that was assigned to John.

The next thing we read about John is that at some point in his adulthood or young adulthood, he went out into the Judean wilderness and began preaching to the people. His common refrain was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) Once again, we see the immediacy of what was occurring. The coming of the Messiah was no longer a distant promise, but was right around the corner. The hope of the ages was about to be fulfilled. Therefore, John called on the people to confess their sins and return to the Lord. He also called on them to be baptized.

Whom did John baptize?

The first thing that we must consider is who exactly John was baptizing. Matthew 3:5 tells us, “Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan…” This alone suggests to me that those who were baptized by John were Jews rather than Gentiles. However, there are two other references that point to the fact that John’s ministry was to his own people and not the world as a whole. In John 1:31, John says of Jesus Christ, “I did not recognize Him, but so that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing with water.” Furthermore, the Apostle Paul mentioned in one of his sermons that “John had proclaimed before His coming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel”. (Acts 13:24)

In addition to these verses that seem to suggest that John’s ministry was to Israel and that it was the Jews who came out to see him, we also have a kind of argument from absence: had Gentiles been present and baptized, it likely would have caused a scandal and been worthy of mention. No, there is no evidence that John baptized anyone who was not Jewish. The significance is that all those whom John baptized were already part of the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants – that is, they were bound by the covenant of circumcision and the Mosaic Law. The baptism they were receiving from John was therefore not part of their entrance into those covenants. Rather, it was just what he said: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

A mikveh (ritual purification bath) at the ancient Jewish site of Masada – photograph by Kat Sniffen

It is important to note that a concept of ritual purification with water certainly existed in Judaism long before John the Baptist. New converts would immerse themselves in a mikveh or ritual bath in a process known as tevilah. (A good resource on this practice as understood by Jews can be found here.) The Torah outlined bathing processes that must be used as part of ritual purification, as in Leviticus chapter 15. Mikvehs can still be seen at ancient Jewish sites like Masada. The idea that immersing one’s self in water was part of purification or even conversion was certainly a familiar one to those who heard John preach. However, rather than focusing on physical purification, John called on his listeners to cleanse their souls of sin. In this case, the cleansing with water was a metaphor for the cleansing within the heart.

John had one further requirement for those that received this baptism: they must be truly repentant. It was not enough for them to simply be a Jew in good standing. We see this very clearly when a group of Pharisees and Sadducees, likely hoping to piggy back on John’s popularity with the people, showed up and requested baptism. They did not get the welcome they were expecting.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

Matthew 3:7-10

It is not enough, John says, to be a child of Abraham physically. He illustrates this vividly by stating “from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham”. He tells them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” and warns that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”. Why is he using the metaphor of trees and fruit? There is a passage in the book of Isaiah where the Lord speaks of the people of Israel as a vineyard, and I think it is useful in understanding John’s words.

Let me sing now for my well-beloved

A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.

My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.

He dug it all around, removed its stones,

And planted it with the choicest vine.

And He built a tower in the middle of it

And also hewed out a wine vat in it;

Then He expected it to produce good grapes,

But it produced only worthless ones.

‘And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,

Judge between Me and My vineyard.

What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?

Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?

So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:

I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;

I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.

I will lay it waste;

It will not be pruned or hoed,

But briars and thorns will come up.

I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.’

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel

And the men of Judah His delightful plant.

Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;

For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Vineyard with a watchtower in modern day Israel – photo by Ian Scott

The meaning is this: the nation of Israel, the children of Abraham, the members of the Mosaic Covenant were like a vineyard. They failed to bear the fruit of righteousness. Not only that but, as we see so often in the Prophets, they were unrepentant. Therefore, the Lord says that He is going to destroy His vineyard. What this meant in terms of the history of Israel and Judah is that they fell under the covenant curse and were exiled from the land. They were cast out of God’s favor. However, the prophets also spoke of a righteous remnant of the people of Israel that would be preserved. As Isaiah also said, “The surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” (Isaiah 37:31-32)

There is one sense in which the remnant was simply the group of Jews who were able to physically return to the Promised Land. However, there is another sense in which the remnant was that portion of the people of Israel whom God chose for Himself to bear the fruit of repentance and walk after His ways. He says through Zephaniah,

But I will leave among you

A humble and lowly people,

And they will take refuge in the name of the Lord.

The remnant of Israel will do no wrong

And tell no lies,

Nor will a deceitful tongue

Be found in their mouths;

For they will feed and lie down

With no one to make them tremble.

Zephaniah 3:12-13

How can these people be so righteous? Not because they had any righteousness in themselves, but because they repented and placed their faith in the salvation that comes from God alone. These are the people John the Baptist spoke of as being the true descendants of Abraham: those who were his descendants not only by blood, but by faith.

For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.

Romans 9:6b-8

The Apostle Paul here indicates that there are children of Abraham according to the flesh and children of Abraham according to the promise. It is according to this latter sense that Paul also wrote, “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7) He furthermore made clear that it was according to God’s election that this remnant of Israel was preserved on the basis of grace working through faith. “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Romans 11:5-6) I could write much more about Paul’s teachings concerning the descendants of Abraham, but perhaps I have already deviated too far from the main point.

To sum up, John the Baptist refused to baptize the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him that day because they were not repentant. He proclaimed to the people, “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance…” (Matthew 3:11a) and he evidently refused to administer baptism to those who so obviously were not repentant in their hearts. However, he also went a step further and made the separation between the physical descendants of Abraham and the spiritual descendants. The former would be subject to divine judgment and reap the covenant curses. The latter were those whom John sought to baptize. I believe he was self-consciously identifying his ministry with the righteous remnant foretold by the Old Testament prophets.

How did he baptize them?

We have a few clues that point to the form that John’s baptism took. Matthew 3:6 says, “And they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.” We see also in the account of Jesus’ baptism that He “arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John”. (Matthew 3:13a) The Gospel of John mentions another conversation that John the Baptist had with a group of Pharisees and adds, “These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” (John 1:28) The Apostle John also notes at another point, “John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there…” (John 3:23a) From all of these verses, we can establish that John the Baptist performed his baptisms in the Jordan River.

Statue of John the Baptist at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome – author photo

Why is it important to note where the baptisms were taking place? Because it tells us something about the method that John used to baptize. The fact that he was performing baptisms in a river, combined with Matthew’s note that, “After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water,” (3:16a) seems to indicate that John’s baptism was by immersion. If he baptized by sprinkling, there would be no need to use a large body of water. If he baptized by pouring, then the phrase “came up immediately from the water” doesn’t make much sense. I cannot prove that in every case John baptized by immersion and not pouring, but it seems fairly clear that this was the general practice, at least as demonstrated in the baptism of Christ. It would have also been the most in line with Jewish ritual purification practices. However, before anyone accuses me of breaking my initial promise not to conclude how much water should be used in a baptism, I must note that John’s baptism was not one and the same with New Covenant baptism, as I will describe below.

One further clue is given to us. We are told that the people were baptized by John “as they confessed their sins”. (Matthew 3:6b) This is fully in line with the fact that John’s baptism was one of repentance. I suppose we can question if they were publicly confessing and/or professing, or merely stating that they had done so internally. In reality, their very act of submitting to baptism was a testimony that they were repenting. Yet, the fact that John refused baptism to that group of Pharisees and Sadducees suggests that he reserved the right to withhold it from those who were demonstrably unrepentant. As we will see in the next essay, John also questioned whether Jesus needed to be baptized at all, almost certainly on the basis that He had no need to repent. (Matthew 3:14)

What was the theological significance?

We have already touched on this quite a bit, but perhaps it is useful to restate. John’s baptism was connected with repentance of sins. It was meant to prepare the hearts of the people for the ministry of the Messiah. It was a mark of those who were Abraham’s children spiritually as well as physically. We see this even in the way that they responded to the words of Christ after the fact, as revealed in the following passage.

When the messengers of John had left, He began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in royal palaces! But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,

Who will prepare Your way before You.”

I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. ‘To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.” For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon!” The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’

Luke 7:24-35 (emphasis mine)

“John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)” by Carvaggio, circa 1602 – author photo

Jesus makes a direct link between how the people responded to John and how they responded to Him. Scripture tells us that those who had received John’s baptism accepted the words of Christ. Those who did not receive it could not accept Christ’s words. This is also why Jesus spoke of “the men of this generation” who could not recognize the Messiah, but then said, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” Now, those who were the children of wisdom were the righteous remnant called out from that generation, who had received the baptism of John and whose hearts were open to the gospel message. They were the ones who truly recognized and accepted their Messiah. This is not to say that only those who received baptism from John ended up believing in Christ, but rather that those who specifically rejected John the Baptist were in essence rejecting God Himself and refusing to repent of their sins.

How was this different from New Covenant baptism?

Here it is important to note that the baptisms performed by John were not one and same with those that have been performed since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. One reason for this is that they did not serve as an initiation into any covenant, for all who received it were already part of the preexisting Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. I also believe there is good reason to conclude that it was not an initiation right into the New Covenant: that is, receiving John’s baptism was not the same as being baptized into Christ or joining His Church. Furthermore, while the baptism of John was one of repentance, it lacked the link with baptism of the Holy Spirit that we will see becoming the norm under the New Covenant.

There is one passage in particular that demonstrates these points and proves that the baptism and teachings of John are insufficient for the Christian. The background for this story is that a virtuous Jew named Apollos, who would go on to become one of the primary leaders in the early days of the Church, began his ministry “being acquainted only with the baptism of John”. (Acts 18:25b) He was soon brought to see “the way of God more accurately”, (Acts 18:26b) and it appears that this lack of information was due to no improper motivation on his part, but nevertheless those who accepted Apollo’s early teachings knew only the baptism of John. They were then visited by the Apostle Paul.

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ And they said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.

Acts 19:1-6

Once again here, the problem was not that these people had actively rejected the gospel of Christ, but that they simply did not have all of the necessary information. I will revisit this passage in a later essay, but for now I will simply point out that Paul did not consider it sufficient that they had received John’s baptism. He told them they needed to be baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus”. The real proof of their deficiency was that they had not received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: indeed, they had never heard of the Holy Spirit! In order for them to receive the benefits of union with Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit, they needed to place their trust in the true Messiah. They needed to be baptized in His name and not John’s, for only in the name of Christ is there salvation. (Acts 4:12)

“St. John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness” by Anton Raphael Mengs, circa 18th century

John himself always placed a higher precedence upon the One who was to come and the baptism that He would bring. “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12) I will close by presenting one further passage in which John laid out the differences between himself and Christ.

Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.’ John answered and said, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Christ,” but, “I have been sent ahead of Him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.’

John 3:25-36

In the next essay, I will examine one particular and very unique baptism that John performed: that of Jesus Christ.

All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

The post The Baptism of John: Purpose, Participants, and Differences from New Covenant Baptism appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.

New Series of Essays on Baptism Tue, 20 Jun 2017 22:03:35 +0000 Friends, I am about to begin a series of blog posts on the topic of baptism as it appears in scripture. This is a subject that has provoked not a little controversy among Christians over the years. My purpose in addressing this topic is not to stoke more controversy, but perhaps to get back to […]

The post New Series of Essays on Baptism appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


I am about to begin a series of blog posts on the topic of baptism as it appears in scripture. This is a subject that has provoked not a little controversy among Christians over the years. My purpose in addressing this topic is not to stoke more controversy, but perhaps to get back to basics. So much has been written about baptism, and I am loath to waste words on something that not only was said already, but was probably said better than I could manage.

Therefore, it is my primary intention to focus on an exegesis of those biblical passages that deal with the subject of baptism. I do not intend to carry out an exhaustive examination of how the theology surrounding baptism has developed over the years or how traditions were handed down. Perhaps this will cause some to accuse me of Biblicism, which I assure you would not be a compliment coming from them. However, please rest assured that I mean no disrespect to the many eminent theologians over the centuries who have wrestled with these issues and whose interpretations of the text have no doubt influenced my own. I am not suggesting that we should ignore all of that when considering baptism. I simply cannot do everything, and in any case, my only academic training that is at all pertinent is in the field of biblical literature, not historic theology. I will thus attempt to do what it is I do best, or at least what I should do best.

My goal is rather simple: I will describe the various types of baptism mentioned in scripture, outline the theological significance of each of them, and then make such applications to Church practice as I believe are thoroughly warranted by the biblical text. I will attempt to avoid any definitive conclusions that are not explicit in the text, or which do not become clear upon examining all passages in concert with one another. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means I’m not going to tell you exactly how much water is meant to be used in a baptism. Sorry to disappoint.

Notice that I mentioned more than one type of baptism. This is one of my primary conclusions from studying scripture. There are at a minimum three types of baptism mentioned in the Bible, and it may actually be possible to establish a fourth. As we go along, I will define each of these types of baptism and make the case for why I believe it is clearly taught in scripture – with the exception of the fourth, where I feel unable to make a definitive judgment.

At this point, I should note that in the conversations between Christians of different denominational backgrounds, particularly those of the Reformed and Reformed-ish (or Particular) Baptists, this debate often begins with an examination of the various covenants in scripture and then reaches secondary conclusions about baptism. I fully acknowledge the connection between one’s views of covenant theology and baptism. However, my purpose here is perhaps to work in the opposite direction. I am not meaning to divorce baptism from these broader theological categories, but once again, my time and energy are limited, so I am narrowing my focus to that which I feel would be most beneficial at this time.

Here is an outline of the essays I plan to write:

  1. John’s Baptism, Part I – Purpose, participants, and differences from New Covenant baptism
  2. John’s Baptism, Part II – The unique example of Jesus Christ’s baptism
  3. Baptism with the Holy Spirit
  4. Baptism and Union with Christ
  5. Baptism under the New Covenant, Part I – Theological significance
  6. Baptism under the New Covenant, Part II – Scriptural examples
  7. Three Difficult Passages – 1 Corinthians 10, 1 Corinthians 15, and 1 Peter 3

Unfortunately, I have been suffering from an undiagnosed illness for most of four months. This has severely curtailed my writing. I do not know how long it will take me to finish all of these essays and post them, but I thank you for your patience as I continue to battle through pain. I sincerely hope that this examination of the biblical text will be beneficial for readers of all denominational backgrounds. My aim is to at one point or another cover pretty much every reference to baptism that occurs in the Bible, with the exception of those in the synoptic gospels that essentially repeat one another. This process has already been beneficial for my own thinking about this important sacrament (or ordinance, if you prefer), and I hope that others will be edified by it as well. Keep a look out for new essays being posted on Facebook and Twitter in the coming weeks.


Amy Mantravadi

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On Sin Thu, 15 Jun 2017 16:32:51 +0000 In order to understand the world, it is essential to understand sin. Without a proper appreciation of sin, all anthropology is destined to fail. Let me start out by establishing two very important truths. First, sin is not a theological buzzword. It is not something that exists merely in the realm of theory – an […]

The post On Sin appeared first on Amy Mantravadi.


A knight prepares to do battle with the seven deadly sins in the “Treatise on the Vices” by William Peraldus, circa 13th century

In order to understand the world, it is essential to understand sin. Without a proper appreciation of sin, all anthropology is destined to fail.

Let me start out by establishing two very important truths. First, sin is not a theological buzzword. It is not something that exists merely in the realm of theory – an abstract concept latched onto by those seeking to comprehend the world around them. It is not just some word that religious fundamentalists use to describe people unlike themselves, things that scare them, and actions they find distasteful. This is not the true meaning of sin, however much some individuals might attempt to co-opt the concept. Sin is the deadly enemy of the human race. It is killing us every day – claiming us for its own.

Second, sin is not just a single action or series of actions. From a human perspective, it can certainly seem so, and that is how we usually address the topic. You tell a lie, you sin. You steal something, you sin. You punch someone in the face, you sin. All of this is true, but if that is the only way we think about sin, then we are missing the point. We are underestimating the problem in a way that is bound to lead us into all kinds of difficulties. It is more useful to think about sin as a state of being, a worldview, or a modus operandi. Sin is not just what a person does: it is part of their essence. The Bible calls this the sinful nature.

I recently heard a very interesting idea: the most effective prison is one where the prisoner actually wants to stay. How could such a situation occur? When the prisoner comes to believe that black is white and night is day – that is, rather than being the source of their torment, the prison is in fact their source of protection and even liberation. Through a series of lies, they become convinced that leaving the prison is too risky and what they need is in the hands of those who hold them captive. It’s not so much that they lose the desire to be free, but rather that they are mistaken as to where true freedom can be found. Sin is completely this way.

“Cain Slaying Abel” by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1608-9

In the story of Cain and Abel, the Lord notices the older brother’s displeasure that Abel’s sacrifice was deemed more fitting. Within Cain’s soul, jealousy is aroused and quickly turns to hatred of his brother. The Lord senses this and warns him in no uncertain terms: “Sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7) Sadly, Cain does not possess the will to master sin. Instead, he reverts to his sinful nature and becomes a murderer, bringing about the final fulfillment of his hatred. Cain may have created a victim that day, but sin itself claimed another. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

Our attachment to sin as human beings is linked to our need for comfort. This word “comfort” can be defined as much more than a lack of physical pain. Happiness, pleasure, protection, and ease – both of body and soul – are included in the broader sense of the term. When Cain chose to give in to sin, he did so in large part because it felt comfortable. Its desire was for him, and his desire was for it. Sin offered him the chance to satisfy the longing of his soul and put to death that which had caused him shame.

The first question in the Heidelberg Catechism is rather famous: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The appropriate Christian answer is listed as follows. “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…” The text goes on to talk about the assurance that comes from this divine belonging. I bring this up to make the point that for the sinner, this answer provides no comfort at all. In fact, it is abhorrent.

Whereas the Christian finds the phrase “I am not my own” to be reassuring, the sinner sees it as a threat and denial of rights. They do not want to belong to God: they want to belong to themselves. Why should this be? Because the sinner does not see God in the same way that a redeemed person does. For the Christian, God is their savior. For the sinner, He is their judge. When they think of belonging to Him, they cannot do so without thinking of what they will be denied. Their greatest comfort in life and in death is knowing that “I am my own”, for they know instinctively that to belong to God is to come under the Law, and for them the Law is death.

Instead, they turn to the supposed comforts of sin. Apart from the Law, they believe themselves to be free, but they are only as free as the prisoner who chooses to stay in prison. They cannot understand that sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for them. This desire is not one that comes from love. It does not seek to build them up, but to destroy them. As the Apostle Peter warned, “Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

This inability to discern what is real freedom and comfort is one of many distortions that can occur thanks to the sinful nature. It is these distortions that prevent a person from being able to see the truth and step out in faith. One of the most important of these distortions lies at the intersection of guilt and trust. The evil one is able to pervert both of these things to the point where a person develops a view that is the exact opposite of the truth.

Consider the role of guilt in our lives. It can be a very good thing, convicting us of sin and calling us to repentance. Indeed, without a proper appreciation of one’s guilt, it is not possible to look to Jesus Christ as one’s savior. Yet guilt can also work to our detriment when it moves in one of two wrong directions. First, we can rationalize our sin to the point where we are able to explain away our guilt. Second, we can despair of our guilt to such an extent that we do not believe that God will forgive us under any circumstances. Whether we slip into denial or defeatism, we end up in the same situation: we do not seek out God for the relief of our guilt.

In addition to the issue of guilt, there is also the matter of trust. Here is the source of much of the fear we hold toward God the judge. In the beginning, humans trusted God implicitly. They knew Him to be the perfect Creator forever concerned with their highest good. Then something happened that changed this dynamic forever.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam and Eve’s sin and banishment from Eden, Sistine Chapel, circa 1509

When the serpent came to Eve in the Garden of Eden and sought to pull her into sin, his strategy was to cause a breakdown in that trust. For the first time, Eve was introduced to the possibility that God might not be completely good or truthful. When the woman informed the serpent that they were not to eat the fruit of one particular tree, for doing so would ensure death, her tempter seized the opportunity. “The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4-5)

That seed of doubt was all the serpent needed to lure both Eve and Adam into sin. Once they committed the act, they were immediately overwhelmed by two feelings: 1) guilt over what they had done, and 2) fear of what God would do to them. When the Lord came for his usual walk in the garden, they hid from Him and covered themselves with leaves. Their trust in the Creator had completely collapsed. They felt more comfort and control being alone than they did being with Him.

It is one of the real tragedies of sin that people do not trust the one remedy that can cure what ails them. It reminds me of the nation of Pakistan, where polio still affects many people. Since the advent of the polio vaccine, this disease has been eradicated in the so-called developed world, but many children in Pakistan do not receive the vaccine, which is believed by some to be part of a Western conspiracy. They do not trust the medicine that could save them from a lifetime plagued by paralysis and even death. It is easy to dismiss these people as ignorant and reactionary, but they are no different than the rest of us when we refuse to place our trust in God.

Several years ago, I was riding on a bus in London and saw an advertisement featuring a very familiar Bible verse. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) You might think that some Christian group had paid for a chance to evangelize commuters, but it was actually produced by an atheist organization. They included a couple lines of commentary explaining that the message of the Bible was that people should not think for themselves. The thing you should really trust, they suggested, was your own rational mind.

“Trust your heart.” “Trust your first instinct.” “Trust in yourself.” The modern world is full of such platitudes. This brings me to a suspicion I have long held: that people don’t so much become convinced that God doesn’t exist as they become convinced that He is not good, and thus they wish Him into non-existence. Why else would atheists spend so much time trying to convince us that God is bad, when His relative goodness or badness has nothing to do with His existence? “You shouldn’t want this God to exist, and you shouldn’t accept Him as an authority figure,” seems to be their key point.

But sin doesn’t just make us lose our trust in God. As we wade deeper and deeper into guilt, we also lose our trust in other people, afraid that not only divine justice, but also the justice of man will catch up with us. If you look at the biographies of some of the truly evil figures in history, you will discover that they were typically quite paranoid. The world’s worst dictators have a habit of seeing disloyalty behind every corner and destroying even those who are their strongest supporters. They lose all ability to trust, and this results in some very irrational behavior.

For the redeemed, the arms of the Lord are wings of protection in which they feel utterly at peace. For the sinner, there is only the arm of judgment spoken of by the prophets. They are not children wrapped in a familial embrace but “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, to quote Jonathan Edwards. The overwhelming guilt, the absence of trust: this is why the prisoner of the sinful nature takes no comfort in the phrase, “I am not my own”.

Instead, they pursue sin time and again, looking to the very thing that kills them for salvation. They are only free to the degree that a heroin addict is free, and sin is only as caring to them as a drug dealer is to their customer. And just as a heroin addict can only escape their situation by turning their life over to something other than drugs, enduring the painful sacrifice that comes from leaving that life behind, so a sinner is only saved by forsaking their sin and seeking the help of Jesus Christ.

Once a person comes to appreciate the reality of their situation and the greatness of God’s gift, trusting in Him is completely rational. In fact, it is the only rational way to escape the power of sin. The best person to trust is someone who is completely truthful and completely good. No human being can live up to that standard, but God can. Therefore, the inability to trust him comes from either doubting that He possesses those qualities or being unwilling to submit to His authority. Yet so many people will never even reach the point where they can make that choice rationally.

“Macbeth, Banquo and the witches on the heath” by Henry Fuseli

We must realize that a proper appreciation of one’s guilt before God is a gift. It is a gift that leads us to the truth, but without it we are lost. Those who do not look to God, but instead attempt to escape judgment, are likely to end up like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Having killed his king to take the throne, he finds himself moving further and further into evil in order to maintain his place, murdering ever more people in his bid for power. In Act 3, Scene 4, he laments to his wife, “I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” That is, he has tread so far into evil that it would be more difficult to pull himself out of it than it would be to simply continue down that wrong road.

Macbeth at least understood that he was guilty. Remember, many of us are able to convince ourselves that our iniquity is not so great. Macbeth is closer to the other extreme of accepting damnation as a fait accompli. Christ is able to turn back that tide of guilt, even for someone steeped in blood, for He has poured out His own blood on our behalf. Oh, how I wish that blood could cover every person on this earth! But the nature of sin is such that it will take down more than it loses, and those who do not have the Spirit of God working in their lives are doomed to dwell in that dark place forever, both in life and in death.

Therefore, we must every one of us forsake the supposed comforts of sin and cling to the true comfort that is only found in God. We must be crucified with Christ that we might live, and put to death the sins of the flesh that our souls might be revived. None of us have stepped in so far that the Spirit of God cannot pull us back. To repent is not only a command – it is the gift of God to men. In his mercy, he frees us from the prison of sin, and for the first time in our lives, we have the chance to live for righteousness. For as surely as sin is our deadly enemy, the Lord is our never ending friend, who took on flesh that He might die in the flesh, and thus make an end of the lusts of the flesh.

But here is another sad thing: that having been freed from sin initially and granted the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the believer nevertheless must live with a sinful nature. While salvation in the next life is certain, flourishing in this life is less so. Having begun under the power of the Spirit, too many believers attempt to proceed under their own power, perhaps misunderstanding the phrase, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” and failing to read the next line, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b-13) Our working depends upon His working. Having experienced what John Donne called the “grace to begin”,[1] why should we neglect that grace when we hope to continue?

Scripture commands believers to put to death the desires of the flesh – the sinful nature that continues to hang on for dear life. Very well, we say: I must change my behavior. I will be kinder. I will be better. No, no, you will not be better! The gospel must transform our very hearts and souls. It must lead us where our own strength is too weak to take us.

As John Owen wrote, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”[2] Therefore, we confirm what has been preached by so many great Christians; namely, that the greatest virtue a Christian can possess is self-forgetfulness, for the more we are focused on self, the less we are focused on God, and the more we attempt to fix ourselves, the less we can be fixed by our Creator.

Sin is still an enemy to the redeemed. Its threat is no longer fatal to our eternal destiny, but it is fatal to our Christian walk here on earth. Having failed in his main attempt, do not doubt that the devil will settle for second best: a life that bears little fruit, is brought down by sin, and leaves no lasting mark on the world. May the Lord put to death in us all that is not pleasing to Him and free us from these last hours of bondage. May we always walk in the light of His holiness. May sin meet its assured end.

[1] “Oh my black soul! Now thou art summoned”

[2] Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, italics added

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

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