gospel

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

The Gospel and the Beauty of God

Having focused on the themes of God, God’s place, and God’s people in the Old Testament we have laid a foundation for the remainder of this exploration. We will now bring these three themes into dialogue with the gospel. By threading these themes through the gospel we will seek to shed more light on the topic of beauty.

The birth of Jesus signaled an entirely new and distinct phase of God’s self-revelation in history. All the fullness of God dwelt bodily in the human man Jesus Christ. Jesus the true man reveals to us the human being. Jesus the true God reveals to us Yahweh. In Jesus, we see God and man with utmost clarity. To see Jesus is to see God. Jesus is the embodiment of the very nature of God and therefore manifests to us the very beauty of God. A few texts of Scripture illustrate this point.

John’s gospel tells us about the Word that was in the beginning with God and yet distinct from God (Jn 1:1-3). This Word became flesh and made his dwelling with humanity “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). He affirms that this revelation is unique and definitive. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Jesus has explained the Father. He has led the Father out into the light for all to see. Jesus is the living exposition of God. In Jesus we see the beauty of God.

Paul agrees with John that the glory of God is seen particularly in Jesus. He speaks of the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). The glory and beauty of God is firmly located in the person of Jesus Christ.

This beauty is made manifest in the person of Christ as he works our salvation. Paul can speak of the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) and the “gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11). It is in the gospel that we see the beauty of God most vividly. This is a shocking fact, one that we will spend ample time unpacking.

In the person and work of Jesus the beauty of God is not redefined. It is clarified, explained and illustrated. All the perfections of God discussed earlier find their greatest expression in the person and work of Jesus. From the virgin birth to the second coming we see in this man the very beauty of God. The fact that Jesus is the revelation of God to us has massive ramifications for our thinking on beauty.

Implications   

  • Since Jesus is the fullest revelation of God it follows that our thinking on beauty must ultimately be tied to him. In Jesus the beauty of God finds its greatest expression. A biblical view on beauty will therefore be a Christ-centered perspective. If we would think aright about beauty we must think deeply about the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Since the gospel is the place where the beauty and glory of God are concentrated it follows that our thinking on beauty must also be tied to the cross and resurrection. As one man put it so well, “beauty happened once and for all in a garden outside Jerusalem’s walls.”[1] A biblical view on beauty will therefore be cross-centered. If we would think aright about beauty we must not think merely of Christ, but of Christ crucified.[2]
  • Since the incarnation and the gospel are central to all thinking on beauty it is impossible to have a full or accurate understanding of beauty without bringing all of our thinking into this orbit. Any discussion on the beauty of God that fails to make it to Christ is tremendously flawed. Any discussion about the definition and standard of beauty that does not ultimately have Christ and his work at its center will inevitably miss the mark.
  • If Christ defines beauty then beauty must be understood primarily as self-sacrificial service and generosity for the sake of another.[3] The life of Jesus, which manifested the very nature of God, was one continual act of service to God and to sinful man (Mk 10:45, Rom 15:2-3, Phil 2:5-11).[4] The cross, the greatest manifestation of this service, is superb beauty. In it we behold a cruciform majesty. The pierced feet of Christ are beautiful because they are the feet of a servant who would tread the globe to serve and save the world. The pierced hands of Christ are beautiful because they are hands of healing and welcome. Christ crucified is magnificent because it is here we see God give his all for the least deserving. It is the cross that teaches us that beauty is a giving of the self away for the sake of another. It is a posture, an act, a movement—all rooted in love and service.[5]
  • The beauty of God is at heart a paradox. The gruesome cross is the canvas upon which God paints his greatest masterpiece. The place of ugliness is the place where beauty is truly found. The hideous cross is the context for the greatest splendor. The man beaten to a pulp, nailed to a tree, suffering, gasping, dying—this is where beauty is found. The bright darkness of the cross is where beauty shines most brilliantly.[6] How can this be? It is here that God is demonstrating the glory of his character to us. It is here that we see his love, grace, holiness, justice, wrath, wisdom, power, and faithfulness. It is here that we see his beauty and glory. The sum total of God’s perfection is his beauty and it is at the cross that we see the fullness of these perfections. If the cross stands at the center of the beauty of God it must also be at the center of our understanding of beauty. This paradox instructs us that beauty is always found in the most unlikely places.
  • God’s definition of beauty is an attack against the world’s definition of beauty. One intention of the cross is to destroy the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:19-20). The cross has a way of obliterating the values, philosophies, standards, and definitions of human beings. This is one reason why it is so offensive. I think the cross is an assault on man-made definitions and standards of beauty. The embodiment of beauty comes as an unattractive man from some backwoods town, who lives the life of homeless vagabond, dresses in common clothes, hangs out with the lowest of people, and is hung on a cursed tree. This is beauty. Beauty is the hand that blesses children, touches lepers, heals blind men, and washes undeserving feet. Beauty is a mouth that speaks forgiveness and grace to the prostitute, the tax collector, and the murderer. It is the mouth that eats with the sinner and sings praise to God in the face of death. Beauty is dusty and tired feet that refuse to stop until the good news is proclaimed to all. Beauty is a pierced side, nailed hands, impaled feet, bleeding brow, and gasping lungs. Jesus is beautiful. Look as he gives himself away—this is beauty! How different is this from the world’s thinking on beauty. The cross annihilates our skewed thinking on beauty and reestablishes its true definition.
  • The beauty of God seen in Christ is focused primarily on character not physical appearance. There is one comment in all of Scripture pertaining to the physical appearance of Jesus. Isaiah tells us that he had “no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). It is my opinion that the choice of this physical appearance was not random but intentional. God clearly prepared the body that Christ would take to himself in the incarnation (Heb 10:5). He could have taken on a physical appearance that was “beautiful” in the eyes of the world but he did not. He could have come as the most attractive, well-dressed, well-groomed, and most physically fit guy on the planet. The fact is, he did not. What is he showing us through this? It appears he would show us where genuine glory and beauty are located; not primarily in physical appearance but in the character and movement of self-giving.

 


[1] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, vii.

[2] John Navone, Toward a Theology of Beauty 20. Navone says, “His cross, no form of beauty for worldly eyes, reveals what God’s beauty and glory are really about…the crucified and risen Christ is the form and splendor of the Beautiful.”

[3] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, viii, 27-28. Forte says that beauty is the “self-emptying of the eternal Word.” He states that beauty in its “highest form” takes place at the “hour of the abandonment of the cross.” He later describes beauty as “crucified love.” Jeremy Begbie argues that we find God’s beauty in the economy of salvation.

[4] Stephen M. Garrett, “The Dazzling Darkness of God’s Triune Love: Introducing Evangelicals to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” Themelios 35:3 (2010), 421-22. Balthasar discerned a “dialectic between the deep and threatening darkness of the cloud and the blinding and consuming light of the fire.” This dialectic discernible in the Exodus event climaxes in the cross of Christ according to Balthasar. “The Christ-form integrates the darkness of the cross and descent into hell with the Trinitarian love of God such that ‘the form which gives expression to the meaning of a radically sinful existence which yet stands under the sign of the hope for redemption…takes the modalities of fallen existence upon itself so as to transvalue them by redemptive suffering.’” Balthasar rightly discerned that “Jesus Christ radiates the splendor of God’s glory because he is perfectly in tune with the Father’s will, obeying the Father even unto death and thereby fulfilling his mission to the world. This is the beauty of Christ’s holiness. There is, thus, a dazzling within the darkness of the glory of Christ, something that is alluring within the tragic, when the Father through the Spirit glorifies the Son in his death and decent into hell that reveals the triune love of God for us in Christ’s glorious resurrection.” Balthasar argues that the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ is the definitive revelation of an eternal glory—the uncreated glory of the Triune God. In other words, the service of Christ at the cross reveals that the eternal nature of God is that of a humble, self-sacrificial servant. From his perspective the cross was a public display of what has been going on for eternity within the Godhead. In the relationship of the divine community there has always been movements of service, love, and humility. The cross points to something that always existed within the very heart of God.

[5] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, 43. Dostoevsky in his book The Idiot posed the question through the young nihilist Ippolit, “Is it true prince, that you said once that ‘beauty’ would save the world?…What sort of beauty will save the world?” The beauty of the crucified God is the answer to this question. Beauty is not merely static but it moves, indeed it saves. John Navone states, “the self-giving power of beauty itself saves the world.” Toward a Theology of Beauty, 82. Jeremy Begbie touches on this idea of movement when he states that in the “story of Jesus…Trinitarian beauty has, so to speak, been performed for us.” The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 22.

[6] Ibid, 53.

The Beauty of God’s People

The Scriptures tell us that the created world is one of the most eloquent heralds of God’s beauty and glory (Ps 19:1, Rom 1:19-20). The reason creation is a testimony to the beauty of God is because it mirrors its Creator. This is especially true of humanity. If the heavens declare the glory of God then human beings shout it.

The creation account clearly climaxes in the formation of man and woman. They alone are fashioned in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28) and therefore invested with great value and purpose. If God is beautiful it follows that something created in his likeness would reflect that beauty. Human beings therefore mirror the beauty of God both individually and corporately.

There are a few texts that make this point explicit. God looks upon humanity and declares it “very good” (Gen 1:31). The Psalmist tells us that God created man “a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5, cf. Heb 2:6-8). Paul tells us that man is the “image and glory of God” (1 Cor 11:7). This text clearly ties the image of God in man to the reflection of God’s beauty and glory.

The image of God in man suffered severe damage from the fall into sin. Individually and relationally human beings no longer function the way intended and therefore do not properly reflect the beauty of God. It is the rupture of the garden disobedience that introduces ugliness to the planet. All distortion of beauty is rooted in Genesis 3. Our confusion and misunderstanding of beauty begins here.

Ironically, the heart of the first transgression was the rejection of God’s definition of what was good and desirable. Eve dismissed God’s word and established her own word as the final authority. God declared the tree “not good” or desirable. Eve determined the tree to be “good for food and a delight to the eyes” (Gen 3:6).[1]

In essence Eve said: “That definition you have about what is good and desirable is interesting, but I believe I am more capable of determining what is really desirable and good for me. Thanks for the recommendation. I will be just fine ruling the universe, determining right from wrong, and defining reality.”

The knowledge of good and evil was not intended for creatures. The vocation of the creature is to submit to and obey God’s knowledge and determination of what is good and evil. By partaking of this tree, humanity grasped for moral autonomy and self-legislation.[2] By reaching after forbidden fruit Adam and Eve were grasping for divinity.

They rejected their place as creatures and joined Satan in his heavenly coup. This one act of rebellion rippled through the whole of the human race. We have all been guilty of the vain pursuit of becoming deity. Since the fall we’ve been trying to determine for ourselves what’s right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Rather than reflecting our Creator, we attempt to annihilate him and usurp his throne.[3]

One cannot overstate the devastating consequences of our sin and rebellion. We are deeply fractured people. Though the residue of original beauty and glory is still with us the dark cloak of sin has greatly covered its luster. We stand in need of mending and restoration. Just as we were dependent upon God to create us in his image so we are dependent upon him to restore that image within us.

Implications   

  • The image of God is one of the most important doctrines and themes running through Scripture for thinking about the issue of beauty in mankind. It is like a roadmap on the journey toward beauty. It points us back to the Triune God as the source of beauty. It directs us to understand the original intention, design, and beauty of humanity. It shows us the true north of being human and thus reveals how far we’ve gone astray. It leads us forward to the Triune project for restoring the image in us and takes us all the way home to our final glorification. The image of God is a doctrinal workhorse for constructing a theology of beauty.
  • Beauty is extrinsic to human beings. That is, our beauty does not originate from within us, it is not intrinsic to us, but it comes to us from outside. Our beauty is located in the one true Beauty whom we reflect.[4] Our beauty is therefore secondary, it comes from and points back to the primary beauty, which belongs to God alone. To put it another way, our beauty is a borrowed beauty. It does not belong to us and we cannot take credit for it.
  • Beauty is a gift from God that cannot be earned or attained. God created humans and he created them in his image thus endowing them with beauty and glory. The ability, power, and determination to create something or someone beautiful belong to God alone. Determining and attaining beauty is beyond the capacity of a human being. We are simply recipients of God’s initiative in this regard.
  • The image of God in man is an all-encompassing human reality. Many theologians have attempted to locate the image of God in certain parts or actions of man.[5] I believe there is little warrant for trying to define the image of God by dividing up man into different parts or actions. The whole of man in his being, relationships, and activity is a reflection of God.[6] If this is the case, we must affirm that our body and physical makeup are included in the image of God.[7] Internal and external beauty are therefore linked to the image of God in man. The upshot of all this is that the image of God is not only concerned with the internal character and unseen beauty of an individual. It also has something to say to external appearance.
  • If the essence of beauty is found in the sum total of God’s perfections expressed in his eternal tri-unity and his action in the world, then ugliness finds its definition in that which is contrary to this beauty. Sin, which is a falling short of the glory and beauty of God, must therefore stand at the center of our thinking on ugliness. If God has the final word on beauty, he also has the final word on ugliness.
  • The narrative of the fall instructs us that rejecting God’s word and living our own way is characteristic of sin. Like Eve, we attempt to establish our own standard of right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly. Freedom in the area of beauty comes only through rejecting every standard of man for beauty and embracing God’s standard as the final word on the matter. This includes repentance for our failure to believe his word.

 


[1] Throughout the creation narrative it is very clear that God alone holds the prerogative to determine what is good and what is not. Seven times he declares the creation to be good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). One time he declares what is not good: a solitary existence for man (Gen 2:18). God makes it clear that it is not a good thing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because death will ensue (Gen 2:17). When you follow the narrative the audacity of Eve to state what is good is shocking. She is essentially assuming the authority of God to assess and determine reality. She is making an authoritative declaration that is outside of her capacity and role.

[2] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker House Academic, 2002), 23.

[3] Luther argued that at the root of all sin is the “Annihilatio Dei,” the attempt to annihilate God. Mark Seifrid, “Justified by Faith and Judged by Works: A Biblical Paradox and Its Significance,” SBJT 5:4 (Winter, 2001), 91.

[4] F. Duane Lindsey, “Essays Toward a Theology of Beauty,” 125. Augustine was one of the first theologians to use “Beauty” as a proper name for God. A smattering of theologians has followed his example throughout church history.

[5] Bruce Ware, “Male and Female Complementarity and the Image of God,” JBMW 7:1 (Spring 2002), 15-16. Ware traces the history of interpretation and discusses the various ways the image of God has been understood. He summarizes the various interpretations under three views. 1) Structural views- proponents of this position argue that the image of God is found in some aspect of our human nature that distinguishes us from animals. The image of God from this perspective was often located in the will, mind, intellect, or soul. 2) Relational views- proponents of this view argue that the image of God is seen in relationships. Arguing from a Trinitarian base this position believes that community is the key to understanding the image. 3) Functional views- proponents of this view argue that the image of God is located in the various functions and responsibilities of man. Since the discussion of the image of God is in the context of Adam ruling and subduing those holding this view argue that this is the primary significance of the image.

[6] Ibid, 16-17. Ware calls this position “functional holism.” It integrates the structural, functional, and relational viewpoints and argues that the entirety of human existence contributes to our understanding of the image of God.

[7] John Frame, “Men and Women in the Image of God” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, eds. John Piper & Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), 227. Frame says, “Our fundamental principle, that everything human images God, requires us to hold that the human body, also images God.” He goes further to defend how the body is integral to human existence and therefore necessary for understanding the image of God.

A Biblical Framework for Encouragement: Church

The presence of the church in the world is intended to be a tremendous source of encouragement. It is for encouragement that we gather and it is encouragement that we are called to bring to the world.

The book of Hebrews tells us that encouragement is an important means of safeguarding one another and developing perseverance in the faith.

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But encourage one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).

Daily encouragement is the remedy for the slippery slope of unbelief, hardness of heart and falling away from God. This slope is a reality for everyone one of us. I cannot count the number of times I have come to church on a Sunday morning with a rock for a heart. I have felt the slippery slope—the slide into unbelief and callousness. I have also felt the softening touch of God’s Spirit as brothers and sisters encourage me. We need each other. Encouragement is designed to smashScreen Shot 2016-08-01 at 6.03.45 PM the rock heart that can so easily overtake us.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul says to “encourage the fainthearted.” The word translated fainthearted means “little souled.” The idea is that our circumstances, pain, suffering and discouragements can deflate us, they can press in on us to such a degree that our capacity for hope dwindles.

Encouragement infuses hope into our hearts, it expands the walls of our soul again. It increases our capacity for hope once again. When we gather, when we encourage one another, when we communicate the gospel promises to each other again and again—this is what happens.

We need each other. This life of faith thing is a community endeavor.

 

The News We Must Laugh and Be Glad Over

You have likely gathered by now that I love Martin Luther. I can’t stay away from his work because he can’t stay away from the gospel. His pastoral approach orbits around the cross and resurrection of Christ. Here is a great quote on what “good news” means and how it must make us laugh with joy.

“For ‘gospel’ [Euangelium] is a Greek word and means in Greek a good message, good tidings, good news, a good report, which one sings and tells with gladness. For example, when David overcame the great Goliath, there came among the Jewish people the good report and encouraging news that their terrible enemy had been struck down and that they had been rescued and given joy and peace; and they sang and danced and were glad for it [I Sam. 18:6]. Thus this gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith. This report and encouraging tidings, or evangelical and divine news, is also called a New Testament. For it is a testament when a dying man bequeaths his property, after his death, to his legally defined heirs. And Christ, before his death, commanded and ordained that his gospel be preached after his death in all the world [Luke 24:44-47]. Thereby he gave to all who believe, as their possession, everything that he had. This included: his life, in which he swallowed up death; his righteousness, by which he blotted out sin; and his salvation, with which he overcame everlasting damnation. A poor man, dead in sin and consigned to hell, can hear nothing more comforting than this precious and tender message about Christ; from the bottom of his heart he must laugh and be glad over it, if he believes it true.” (Martin Luther, Prefaces to the New Testament, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960], pp. 358-59)

Around the Table with God

Jesus is God in the flesh. He reveals the heart, nature and intentions of God. When you read the gospel narratives through this lens everything changes. Read Mark 2:15-17 from this angle.

“Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with such scum?’ When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.'”

Who you eat with says a lot about you. Eating a meal is one of the most intimate gestures of human life. God chooses to eat with the broken, the outcast, the rejected, the lost and the sick. This is a God who lives in the fray. This is a God who is fearless in the face of pain and need.

The irony of the passage is in the two categories mentioned by Jesus. In reality, there is one category for humanity…the only difference is whether or not one embraces reality. In the words of Paul, “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). God is saying to us all: come and sit at my table. He is a hospitable God.

Indwelling in 2 Timothy: Gospel Faithfulness

2 Timothy 1:4 states the following, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”

Paul’s letter to Timothy is concerned with doctrinal fidelity and gospel centrality in the pastoral context. Paul practices what he preaches as he passes on what he has learned to faithful men (2 Tim 2:22).

Paul is making a disciple of Timothy. He opens his letter with a lofty exhortation grounded in the rich truth of indwelling. In essence he states, “Timothy you have been tasked with protecting the message of the God-man who has come, died, and rose for our salvation. The Holy Spirit dwells in you and this is how you will accomplish your task.”

The Spirit takes up residence in believers for many reasons. In this text, his permanent residence in Timothy is connected to faithful ministry.The Holy Spirit is devoted to safekeeping the message of Christ. This means he is strongly opposed to any false doctrine that would challenge the claims of Christ’s person and work.

His indwelling work aids the pastor by infusing the same passion and devotion to doctrinal faithfulness. The Spirit protects the “good deposit” in and through the leaders of the church.

One important implication of this truth is that the Spirit will labor within every believing individual to insure they hold fast to the central claims of Christianity.The Spirit is fully aware that salvation depends on sound doctrine. Trusting a very specific individual who has done a very particular work is a salvific necessity.

Yet again the doctrine of indwelling is pastoral in nature. This time, however, we learn how indwelling equips and empowers the pastor for his unique task and calling.