Advent: It begins with hope

Advent begins with hope. Hope is one of those words that Christians use a lot, but we seldom take time to consider the idea. It is, after all, a tricky thing. Hope believes in better things even when everything points to the contrary, and it does so without succumbing to naïve optimism. We might hope for more money and be bankrupt. We might hope for perfect health but find ourselves sick.

True, biblical hope is not like worldly hope. It is grounded in two realities.

First, God promised that things will be better someday. Second, this world cannot satisfy our desires. Or to say it another way, because this world cannot ultimately make me happy, I look forward to another world in which my greatest desires are finally realized. That’s hope.

Hope means that things aren’t like they should be. We do not hope for what we have. We hope for something yet to be true. Hope keeps us longing (Rom 8:20–25).

In his classic work Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis reflects on the theological virtue of hope. He reminds us that the purpose of hope is to look for things that ultimately satisfy—things of heaven, not of earth. God did not make this world to make all our dreams come true, especially in its fallen state. Hope anticipates what will come in heaven and makes our hearts yearn for the beauty, peace, holiness, joy, and satisfaction that will be ours. Lewis writes,

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”

Christmas hope is about the in-breaking of heaven, but it’s just a foretaste. It reminds us that this world is important, which is why God sent his Son to redeem us, but it also points to fulfillment when the Son will come again to take us home.

So this Christmas, in a time when it feels like so much is unraveling, I encourage you to lift your eyes to heaven. Jesus came once and he will come again.

This is our hope.

Dr. Brian Arnold serves as the fourth President of Phoenix Seminary. In this role he combines a love for the local church with a passion for serious, academic theology. He is convinced that seminaries are servants of the church, uniquely positioned to train men and women for mature, biblically-grounded ministry in a rapidly changing world.

Before joining the faculty of Phoenix Seminary in 2015, Dr. Arnold served as the Pastor of Smithland First Baptist Church in Kentucky. Dr. Arnold earned his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2013 and has since authored two books, Justification in the Second Century (de Gruyter; Baylor University Press) and Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus), and a number of journal articles. He has been married to Lauren since 2007 and has two children, Jameson and Natalie.

Born from Israel to Redeem the World

The stage was set. The world was waiting for a Savior. And Jesus entered in quietly, almost unnoticed, in a little stable in a little town. Christianity was born through a Jewish Savior. But he didn’t come right away. He didn’t come after Adam sinned or after God chose Abraham. He didn’t come after David killed Goliath or after Israel went into exile in Babylon. God waited, and waited, and waited. Christmas was a long time coming.

In two previous posts, we have been looking at Galatians 4:4’s declaration that God sent his Son in the fullness of time. And we’ve been asking what made it the right time. We have looked at Greece and Rome and what they contributed to the fullness of time, but now we must look at the most significant group of all—the Jewish people. God delights in doing big things through small people, which is why he chose Israel. But what did the Jews contribute that made it the right time for Jesus to come? The womb and the word.

1. The Womb

Galatians 4:4 tells us that Jesus was “born of a woman, under the [Jewish] law.” Jesus was born to a Jewish girl, and Christianity was birthed from Judaism. God had made a covenant promise to Abraham. He promised to bless the nations through his seed—Jesus (Gen. 12:1–3, 7; Gal. 3:16). God then went on to make several more covenants with Israel: the covenant law given through Moses, a covenant with David that his son would sit on the throne forever (2 Sam. 7), and finally the promise of a new covenant, one in which God’s Spirit would dwell with his people and our hearts of stone would be replaced with hearts of flesh (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). This was the Jewish hope as they waited for the Messiah to come, and Christianity is the fulfillment of these promises.

2. The Word

You see, at various times throughout the centuries, God had spoken to his people. God spoke. Did you catch that? Those two words are life-changing, and too often taken for granted. God does not owe us revelation, but he wants to be known and worshipped. At the very beginning, he spoke, and then later he had his prophets write down his perfect words so that we can have them forever.

Notably, God spoke to Israel. Even when his chosen people turned a deaf ear, he continued to call them and tell them in advance that his salvation was coming. God wanted his children to know about Christmas. Here is how the Apostle Peter tells it:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10–12)

The time was right. The kindling was set for the Light of the World to be born. The Greeks, the Romans, and the Jews had set the stage and allowed Christianity to plant, grow, and bear fruit throughout the ancient world.

When we gather to celebrate Christmas later this week, let’s remember all that God was up to when he sent his Son at “the fullness of time...born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4–5).

Merry Christmas!

Dr. Brian Arnold serves as the fourth President of Phoenix Seminary. In this role, he combines a love for the local church with a passion for serious, academic theology. He is convinced that seminaries are servants of the church, uniquely positioned to train men and women for mature, biblically-grounded ministry in a rapidly changing world.

Before joining the faculty of Phoenix Seminary in 2015, Dr. Arnold served as the Pastor of Smithland First Baptist Church in Kentucky. Prior to pastoring, he worked as a paramedic for nearly a decade. Dr. Arnold earned his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2013 and has since authored two books, Justification in the Second Century (de Gruyter; Baylor University Press) and Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus), and a number of journal articles. He has been married to Lauren since 2007 and has two children, Jameson and Natalie.

Born into the Greco-Roman World

The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus was born at the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4). In the last post, we looked at why Jesus was born at the right time theologically—God, in his providence, allowed sin to increase so that we would see our need for a Savior. But, historically speaking, God was up to a lot more than that.

Luke tells us that Jesus’s birth came about during the time of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (Luke 2). The truth is that the Savior’s birth coincided with many things in that ancient period that allowed the gospel to take root. For centuries, the Greeks and Romans were establishing a culture that would facilitate the spread of Christianity—through the cities and roads, through common languages, through philosophy. God was preparing the world, through global powers in a time of relative peace, for his Son to be born.

1. Cities and Roads

It is not accidental that we have expressions like, “All roads lead to Rome.” The Greeks established the first major cities in the ancient world. Then, under the united Roman empire highways were built to connect them. Cities like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessalonica facilitated the flourishing of early Christianity. And roadways allowed missionaries like Paul to spread the message of the gospel between them. Eventually, Christianity established a critical mass, built a Christian culture, and eventually turned society. Early Christians knew that if you win the city for Jesus, you will change the culture. The same is true today. One of the best ways for Christianity to take root again is to focus on cities. Think of what God could do in New York, Los Angeles, and yes, Phoenix!

2. Common Languages

Greek was the dominant language for centuries. Like English today, you could travel through most of the ancient world with a knowledge of Greek. The apostles wrote the New Testament in koine (or common) Greek because it would have been the most accessible language across the culture of their readers. Later, Latin became the language of the Western church. Some of the most important early church fathers—like Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine—wrote in Latin. And Jerome’s Latin Bible—the Vulgate—eventually became the standard across the empire.

God wanted his Word known far and wide, and it took commonly spoken languages to make that possible. Jesus was born at the right time when a language like Greek was universal enough for the Gospel to spread. The Bible, in the languages of regular people, turned the world upside down.

3. Clarifying Philosophy

Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle forever rearranged our mental furniture. They changed how people think. And from its beginnings, the early church confessed that all truth is God’s truth. Early Christian apologists weren’t afraid to use language from Greek philosophy when it helped them to clarify doctrines such as how Jesus could be fully God and fully man. These Christians borrowed from Greek philosophy when needed, changed it where necessary, and abandoned it where it was unhelpful—all the while professing Christianity as the true and better philosophy.

Part of Jesus being born at the right time is that the Greeks and Romans gave the city and roads, the language, and the philosophy that would help Christianity spread fast and far. God was providentially working even amongst these pagan nations to make Christ’s birth happen in the fullness of time. But Jesus’s mission isn’t done. We must use the advantages of our contemporary cultures—the resources, technologies, and opportunities God has given us to make the name of Jesus famous across the globe. What part will you play in bringing the good news of Jesus to your city and to our world?

Dr. Brian Arnold serves as the fourth President of Phoenix Seminary. In this role, he combines a love for the local church with a passion for serious, academic theology. He is convinced that seminaries are servants of the church, uniquely positioned to train men and women for mature, biblically-grounded ministry in a rapidly changing world.

Before joining the faculty of Phoenix Seminary in 2015, Dr. Arnold served as the Pastor of Smithland First Baptist Church in Kentucky. Prior to pastoring, he worked as a paramedic for nearly a decade. Dr. Arnold earned his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2013 and has since authored two books, Justification in the Second Century (de Gruyter; Baylor University Press) and Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus), and a number of journal articles. He has been married to Lauren since 2007 and has two children, Jameson and Natalie.

Born in the Fullness of Time

Have you ever wondered why Jesus came when he did? Why didn’t the Father send Jesus just after Adam and Eve sinned? Or why not in 500 BC or 500 AD? Why send him around the year 4 BC?

In writing to the Galatians, Paul slips in an interesting argument for Christmas:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal. 4:4–5, emphasis added)

Paul claims that Jesus was born at the fullness of time. What did he mean by this? Part of the answer is that God was waiting for sin to fill up. Paul even argues that God gave the law to increase sin, so that grace could outpace sin (Rom 5:20–21). One early letter after the New Testament, the Epistle to Diognetus, answers the question of God’s patience with sin this way:

God permitted us in the former time to be carried away by undisciplined impulses...led astray by pleasures and lust, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy of life might now by the goodness of God be considered worthy, and, having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God’s power. (Ep. Diog. 9.1)

Had Jesus come right away, we never would have understood the sinfulness of sin. We would have thought that we could earn salvation on our own, or that we could will ourselves to overcome sin. God was patient and waited for sin to reach the brim.

But other things were happening in the world to make it the perfect time. The table was being set, as it were, for Jesus to come and for Christianity to spread. Over the next two weeks, I want to give you some historical reasons why Paul said Jesus came at the fullness of time. In the next post we'll look at Greek and Roman backgrounds, and then in the final post, we’ll look at Jewish backgrounds.

Together, we’ll marvel at why God sent Jesus at just the right time. I hope that your wonder in God is rekindled as we look at the world’s most important birth, as God sent his Son into the world to rescue us from sin.

Dr. Brian Arnold serves as the fourth President of Phoenix Seminary. In this role, he combines a love for the local church with a passion for serious, academic theology. He is convinced that seminaries are servants of the church, uniquely positioned to train men and women for mature, biblically-grounded ministry in a rapidly changing world.

Before joining the faculty of Phoenix Seminary in 2015, Dr. Arnold served as the Pastor of Smithland First Baptist Church in Kentucky. Prior to pastoring, he worked as a paramedic for nearly a decade. Dr. Arnold earned his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2013 and has since authored two books, Justification in the Second Century (de Gruyter; Baylor University Press) and Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus), and a number of journal articles. He has been married to Lauren since 2007 and has two children, Jameson and Natalie.

What Can Be Done About Death?

Over several weeks on the Shepherds and Scholars blog, we’ve been exploring death’s refrain in Genesis chapter 5. We’ve looked at what death is and what causes it. Now, we look at the most important question: What, if anything, can be done about it? What possible hope could there be from such a deep problem? Do we accept death stoically, or are we meant to fight, as Dylan Thomas says, by “raging against the dying of the light”?

Two Hints

We get two hints at how to answer this question in Genesis 5, one from the seventh person named and one from the tenth. These are the only two people in this genealogy for whom the “and he died” pattern we noted in earlier posts shifts.

First, there is the mysterious Enoch. Enoch does not die. The Holy Spirit tells us that “that all the days of Enoch were 365 years” but then the biblical text does not include the words “and he died” as we expect. Rather, Genesis tells us that “he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Hebrews 11:5 makes explicit what is implicit here when it tells us: “By faith, Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him.”

That’s the first hint. There has been one exception to death’s relentless reign. But he remains just a hint because, after all, he is an exception, and his life without death has no discernable effect on those who follow him. After him, death keeps marching on. So, while Enoch speaks to our need for someone to set the human race back on the right foot, he is not it.

Second, we learn of another whose name is Noah. He is so named because “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29). Don’t miss the echo of hope in that statement. Man was made from dust (Gen 2:7), and afterward is cursed by returning to dust in the death (Gen 3:19). As the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer famously says, “We, therefore, commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” We have come from dust and to dust, we will return.

And yet, with Noah’s name we learn that out of the cursed ground, out of that source of painful toil, comes one who will bring relief! Noah does this to a small degree by planting a vineyard in chapter 9. The fruit of the vine is a kind of relief. But we see in Noah a signpost to something so much more. The ultimate rest from death that we seek will not come from Noah. Despite his great righteousness, Noah turns out to be all too human—like his ancestors before him. Sure enough, at the close of chapter 9, we hear the dreaded refrain: “All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died” (Gen. 9.29).

So, we know we must look for someone else; Noah must point beyond himself to someone more. As one Old Testament scholar says:

The affirmation that relief comes from cursed ground reflects a way of thinking that easily runs toward crucifixion and resurrection in the New Testament. As help comes from the place of curse, so life comes from the reality of death (cf. Gal. 3:13–14).

“And Christ Died.”

With these two hints, we come finally and climactically to Christ. This one is, in fact, the second Adam, the one who reconstitutes our humanity in himself, the one in whose image we are “predestined to be conformed” (Rom 8.29). He is the one who swallows up death so that “through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2.15). As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 21–22).

In this way—and only in this way—the awful words of Genesis 5 become our salvation. When it is said of Christ, “and he died,” we are delivered. These words are good news for us because though he died, death could not hold him. Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, out of the very grave itself, comes Jesus, the second Adam, who relieves us from the painful toil of our hands. In Christ, we are delivered from the curse of fear and guilt and shame.

And so, the awful repetition of Genesis 5 is transformed when said of Jesus into the refrain of praise: “and he died!” Death, which was once our greatest enemy is now a transition, a mere translation from death to glorious life. We need not fear it. Not because we think it trivial, but because we know death itself is dead.

And so, Christians are those who can, remarkably, look death squarely in the face and hate it—for it is a curse—and yet not fear it—because Christ bore that curse for us.

A Warning and A Command

In light of this, the message for us today from Genesis 5 is one part warning and one part command.

The warning is that death is coming. And it is coming for each and every one of us. Death is inescapably personal. Your death is inescapably yours. The question is not whether you will die but whether you will go through it with Christ or without him. Will you face death alone or will you face it head-on, knowing that Christ has gone before and come out the other side alive? Either way, you must make that decision. It must be your faith—not mine, not your parents’, not your pastor’s. Just as death is inescapably yours, so is the faith in Christ that can save you from it.

That’s the warning. Now the joyous command: Trust Christ and live!

Like Enoch, you can walk with God in faith, placing yourself wholly and firmly in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Look away from yourself. Abandon self-confidence. Abandon what Adam and Eve wouldn’t: the desire to decide what is right and wrong. The desire to be your own god. Instead, trust Christ, who never disobeyed God, who never gave in to the temptation to be his own master but instead “being found in human form, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

The story of my life and yours will end in only one of two ways. As sure as night follows day, there will be the same end to your life as to Adam and Eve’s, Seth’s, Cain’s, Abel’s, Seth’s, Noah’s, and all the rest. I don’t know when and I don’t know how. But I know your gravestone will say just as theirs did, “… and he died,” “… and she died.”

The great question of the moment is whether you will face death alone or with Christ as your new head, your new Adam, and your only hope. Either his death becomes yours by faith or you will spurn him as Adam and Eve spurned God’s command. There is no third option.

So, let us trust Christ and be free. Let us trust Christ and find that this haunting chorus becomes a most blessed refrain.

And he died … and lives again!

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children and are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church.

Where Does Death Come From?

When we look for the cause of death in the Scriptures, we find something that may be surprising. Death is first announced by God’s own lips. God told Adam in Genesis 2 that he could surely eat of any tree but one, and that on the day he ate from the one forbidden tree, he would just as surely die. This means, counterintuitively, that death is God’s idea.

After all, Adam didn’t come up with the idea of death. What did Adam know of death? The Genesis account says that all of creation was good, in fact “very good,” when God finished it. If death is bad then there was no death in the garden. Death was not Adam’s idea. It wasn’t even the serpent’s idea. It was God’s.

Why? God established death as the punishment for sin. The answer from the Bible is that we die because of sin; we die because of rebellion against God.

Sin Causes Death

As punishment for sin, death is perfectly in keeping with the crime. To understand why this is the case, we must understand the nature of sin. God did not punish Adam and Eve for something trivial, like picking from the wrong fruit basket; death is not about our dietary choices! No, when Adam and Eve sinned, when they disobeyed God, they were, in essence, turning away from God and, worse, putting themselves in his place. 

And who was this God? He is the Lord and Giver of life. He is the one who “breathed into his [Adam’s] nostrils the breath of life” so that he “became a living creature” (Gen 2.7). This means that no life is really self-sustaining; God is its ultimate source. Adam and Eve didn’t create themselves any more than we gave birth to ourselves. This helps to explain the fittingness of death as the promised judgment for rejecting God. 

It’s only right that disobedience from God brings death. “The wages of sin is death,” as Paul says in Romans 5:8a. When you turn from the only source of life, the only thing there to meet you on the other side is death. No coroner can truly say that someone died of “natural” causes. The reality is that everyone dies from one ultimate cause: sin—rejecting the Giver of life. It is anything but natural.

Adam’s Sin Causes Death

But it’s not sin in general (or even our sins in particular) that are the ultimate cause of death. When we look at the line of death in Genesis 5, we can and must say something more. We not only die because we rebel against God; we die because our first parents rebelled against God, and we are all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. 

With Cain and Abel out of the picture, Genesis 5 begins to focus on Seth. Notice what the text says about Seth’s relationship to his father, Adam. 

You’ll remember from Genesis 1:26–27 that God imprinted on humanity his own image, the mark of his own character and likeness. We hear that repeated in Genesis 5:1–2. But then we learn something more. Look at 5:3: 

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.

Do you see the point? Not only is Seth made in the image and likeness of God by virtue of being human, he is also made in the likeness and image of Adam. But what kind of image is it? It is one that is terribly and devastatingly marred by sin. It is an image that is doomed by the sting of death. 

I suspect this explains the otherwise curious reversal of the terms “likeness” and “image” in verse 3 when compared with Genesis 1:26. And this dual bearing of both God’s image and Adam’s image also explains something otherwise very hard to accept. It explains why we can be held responsible for Adam’s sin.

Perhaps you have wondered about the Christian doctrine of original sin. This doctrine teaches that we are held responsible for Adam’s sin. But why? After all, I wasn’t there. You weren’t there either. What has Adam got to do with us? The answer from Genesis is everything. 

The reason is that he is our father, and we are his children. We are all—like it or not—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Not merely in the sense that we belong to the same species as them with arms and legs and brains and eyes and ears and all the rest. But we are Adam’s children in a legal and spiritual sense. As a result, what he did defines, marks, and affects us all.

Christians have long recognized both how offensive this belief is and, yet, just how essential and inescapable it is as well. The famed French theologian and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, recognized this when he wrote in his Pensées:

Certainly nothing shocks us more deeply than this doctrine. Nevertheless without this most incomprehensible of all mysteries we are incomprehensible to ourselves. Within this gnarled chasm lie the twists and turns of our condition. So, humanity is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is conceivable to humanity 

Pascal is saying that as difficult as original sin is to accept, it is the only thing that finally explains why we are the way we are. Without it, we become inexplicable. I think we realize this most when we have sinned in some way that shocks even ourselves. When we do something deeply out of character. In those moments, we must feel like David who said, after sinning with Bathsheba, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. … Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:3). We begin to realize that sin has been with us since the beginning.

It’s not that David was illegitimate or conceived out of wedlock, but he realizes that his sin runs deep in his veins. It was there even at his birth because it had been there from the beginning—from the garden. 

We are then, as humans, a great contradiction. As Daniel Migliore writes in Faith Seeking Understanding:

We human beings are a mystery to ourselves. We are rational and irrational, civilized and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel. “What a work of art,” says Shakespeare of humanity. “We are very dangerous,” says Arthur Miller in After the Fall. “We meet … not in some garden of wax fruit and painted leaves that lies East of Eden, but after the Fall, after many, many deaths.”

Death is universal, and it’s personal. It is also very bad. And now we know where it comes from. Death comes as the punishment for our sin. Even more devastating, it comes from the sin of our father Adam who cast us all into deep depravity and guilt.

This post is part two of three in a series on “Death’s Refrain.” You can read part one here.

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children and are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church.

What Is Death?

Do you remember how you learned the Alphabet? A, B, C, D… and so on, right? At some point, you probably had a nice picture book to help you out: “A” is for apple you dutifully learned. “B” is for ball. “C” is for cat.

The acrostic wasn’t always so cute. In seventeenth-century New England, A was not for apple. No, you’d learn “A” is for Adam along with the couplet, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Yes, “C” is for Cat, but the poem went, “The cat doth play, and after slay.” It’s darker, isn’t it?

By the time you get to “G,” you’re learning that “As runs the [hour] glass, man’s life doth pass.” “T” is not for toy or tricycle but for “Time,” which “cuts down all, both great and small.” By the time you get to X the point has been made: “Xerxes the great did die, and so must you and I.”

These dour little couplets are from the New England Primer, one of the most famous books printed in the American colonies—a book used to teach countless children to read.

Can you imagine if an elementary school tried to use these today? Parents would revolt and say these are too morose and morbid for children. But I wonder if they weren’t onto something back then when they began teaching children about the reality of death early on.

Today, we don’t much like to talk about death. We prefer to avoid, ignore, and deny it. But we can’t. In a three-part series of blog posts for Shepherds and Scholars, I want to look squarely at death and answer three key questions from Genesis 5: (1) What is it? (2) What causes it? and (3) What, if anything, can be done about it?

Let’s begin with the nature of death. Is death great and terrible, or is it simply part of life? It is perhaps even a positive good as it’s portrayed in The Lion King’s opening song, the “Circle of Life.” Are we all just “on the endless round,” “the path unwinding”? Is death simply part of the inevitability of it all?

First, death is universal.

The first thing to say about death is really the most obvious: it’s universal. Frankly, I don’t think you need the Bible to tell you this. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian to believe it. There is the old joke that only two things in life are guaranteed: death and taxes. Recently I came across a riff on this: Death and taxes are inevitable, but death doesn’t repeat itself.

Behind those jokes lies a serious point. Death is universal and inevitable. All of us will experience it at some point—no exceptions.

The Bible makes this clear. In Genesis 5, there’s quite a lot of death. In fact, the most notable phrase in the whole chapter is the one that gets repeated eight times: “and then he died.” As the New England Primer said, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” No exceptions.

This is one thing that makes our society’s deafening silence about death so astonishing. Think about how much energy and effort we put into thinking about other things that are far less certain. We expend enormous energy planning and thinking about our careers, our marriages, our children, our retirement, and our savings. And yet none of these have outcomes half as certain as death. Your marriage is not as certain as death. Nor is your job. Your children’s success or failure isn’t as certain. Death is. Death will come. And when it does, it outweighs every other circumstance of your life. Nothing will change your life as much as death and yet nothing is as certain as your death.

Second, death is personal.

Death isn’t only a universal experience. It is also inescapably personal. And this separates it from most other experiences in life. Unlike cheering for your favorite sports team, watching the election results, or getting a promotion, our death is something we must experience for ourselves—and all by ourselves.

No one makes this point better than the film-maker Woody Allen who once quipped, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.” Once again, the joke gets at something very serious, doesn’t it? Of course, Allen will have to be there for his own death. I can’t die for you, and you can’t die for me. You must die your own death; I must die mine.

Again, we see this in Genesis 5. Though God had promised death to Adam for eating the fruit (Gen. 2:17), death was not limited to him. Adam dies, yes. But then Seth dies. And he dies his death. Enosh dies. And he dies his death. Kenan dies and he dies his death. And on and on. When Enoch escapes death, he is the exception that proves the rule.

Finally, death is bad.

Death is both universal and personal. And since it’s universal, it’s tempting to think that it’s also normal, not a bug so much as a feature of this software we call life. Many people—not just The Lion King—have taken this view through the ages.

Some think that death is merely non-existence. You did not exist before you were born, they say, and you will simply return to non-existence when you die. From this, they conclude that death isn’t really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, no one dreads their non-existence before birth, so we need not dread our non-existence after life either.

The fatal flaw, if you’ll pardon the pun, is, of course, that all-important part in the middle: life. Experiencing life changes everything about death. After all, it’s one thing to say that non-existence doesn’t matter when you’ve never experienced life; it’s quite another to experience life and then have it taken away. Unless you think that life itself is bad, you must conclude that death is bad, since life and death are opposites. Anything else is literally suicidal logic.

We see this, too, in Genesis 5. A genealogy might seem like skim-worthy material made to skip by as fast as you can. But don’t. The genealogy found in this chapter is unique. What’s unique is the constant refrain that marks each person in the list: “When so-and-so had lived so many years, he fathered such-and-such. He lived after that so many years and had other sons and daughters. Thus, all the days of so-and-so were so many years, and he died.” Over and over, a man lived for so long and he died. And his son died. And his son also died. Moses wants us to feel the weight and finality of it. We’re supposed to affirm the wrongness of death.

I think most of us, if we let ourselves really think about it, know this truth. Alfred, Lord Tennyson once wrote, “No life that breathes with human breath, has truly ever long’d for death.” I think he’s right. If we know the goodness of life, we must affirm that death is bad.

Someone more recent who makes the same point is Peter Thiel. He is a billionaire who made his money investing in tech companies. Thiel founded PayPal and then sold it for a large sum. He was also one of the first to invest in Facebook. He’s considered something of a guru for spotting promising young tech companies.

A few years ago, Thiel did an interview in Silicon Valley and, surprisingly, the topic of conversation was death. Thiel—visionary that he is—has set his sights on trying to get us to live longer; in fact, he wants to literally beat death. Forbes magazine writer reflected on the interview this way:

“I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death,” [said Thiel.] The line drew laughter, but one got the feeling the joke was unintentional. For Thiel, life is a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. Therefore death is a problem, and as he says there are three main ways of approaching it. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”

I think Thiel is right. Death is universal, personal, and bad. When it comes to death, we have three options: you either accept it, deny it, or fight it. Modern Western society works hard to deny it. Others try to accept it as somehow natural to life. But we know deep down that neither option works. The only option, then, is to fight it like Thiel. The question is how we do that. To understand that, we must first understand where death came from in the first place—something Genesis has a lot to say about.

Look for parts two and three of this series on “Death’s Refrain” at the Shepherds and Scholars blog in the coming weeks.

Peter Gurry joined the Phoenix Seminary faculty in 2017 and teaches courses in Greek Language and New Testament literature. His research interests range across the history and formation of the Bible, Greek grammar, and the history of New Testament scholarship. He has presented his work at the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the British New Testament Conference. He and his wife have six children, two cats, and a tortoise. They are members at Whitton Avenue Bible Church. He has been known to enjoy cheap fast food, good typography, and Jack London stories.

A Conversation with Dr. J. Michael Thigpen about Human Flourishing and the Creation Mandate

How are we to flourish in the presence of sin? And what role, if any, does the creation mandate—the commands which flow from our creation in God’s image—play in our flourishing in the presence of sin? What does that mandate have to do with justice and the gospel? These are questions that Phoenix Seminary Provost J. Michael Thigpen addresses in his contribution to the new book, Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life, ed. Anthony R. Cross and Greg Forster (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2020). Dr. Thigpen has been kind enough to allow us to excerpt his answers to these questions and a few more here for the Shepherds and Scholars blog

How are we to flourish in the presence of sin? And what role, if any, does the mandate that flows from our creation in God's image play in our flourishing in the presence of sin?

Traditionally, the creation mandate has been mined for flourishing with regard to stewarding the world’s resources, and with regard to culture and the structures of civilization. When issues related to sin are dealt with in this traditional approach, the role of the mandate is to remind us that God’s world is still good and that we can direct our stewardship of natural resources and cultural structures towards God in worship. That the world will be redeemed and our relationship with creation will be restored as part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption is also typically included, but only from the larger narrative arc of scripture, not from the mandate itself.

These are fine approaches that are very valuable, and which serve as trustworthy guides to our interaction with God’s creation. Yet, it seems that this approach has potentially misunderstood one element of the creation mandate, the command to subdue the earth

So, what does it mean to subdue the earth? 

The textual and theological usage of subdue in the Old Testament suggests that rather than subduing the earth, through the use of its resources or agriculture, the intended meaning of this portion of the mandate is the subduing of the inhabitants of the earth. As we shall see this makes perfect sense in the pre-curse garden where the serpent comes to tempt Adam and Eve to rebel against God. The conflict intimated by the term subdue is needed even in the garden once sin is present. This is not a license for harshness or violence, but rather the just force needed to protect the earth and its inhabitants, and to exercise the representative reign for which humanity was created.

Both Mark Saucy and Greg Beale recognize that subdue in Genesis 1.28 represents a conflict with the serpent in Genesis 3. I would suggest, however, that there is much more to this command. Genesis 3 certainly presents a scenario in which Adam and Eve should have acted in line with their mandate to rule and subdue. They were to reign in the garden, as royal representatives. They should have ruled over and subdued the serpent. I think most biblical interpreters would agree with this, even if they still embrace a primarily agricultural or technological approach to subdue. It just fits the overall narrative too well not to see this as a missed opportunity to fulfill their mandate.

But is the serpent the only option? What about Adam and Eve themselves? What about their family?

If Cain will not subdue sin, sin will rule over him. Here in Genesis 4, it becomes even clearer his failure is not a failure to subdue some external part of creation. He has failed to subdue himself. Control of self is lost. Rulership is lost. The mandate is subverted.

Returning to Genesis 3, might not the first proper targets of subduing be Adam and Eve themselves? What if Eve had chosen to rule over sin, to subdue herself? What if Adam had subdued the serpent? What if he had intervened and subdued Eve instead of merely standing with her? What if Adam had subdued himself when offered the fruit? Yes, the serpent needed to be subdued, but so much more so did Adam and Eve. They failed to love God and to love each other by failing to rule over their own sin in the first place, and by failing to intervene lovingly with one another. We see this more clearly with Cain, but the parallels of Cain’s story press us to see it now in the garden.

How is the theme of subduing the earth further developed in Genesis? 

Moving along through the narrative we encounter the mandate language of Genesis 1.26–28 again in Genesis 9. The use of the language of blessing and the threefold imperative to be fruitful, multiply, and fill serves to “transport the reader back to the world of Gen 1" (Hamilton, Genesis 1–17, 313). This refrain from Genesis 1 serves as an inclusio marking off Genesis 9:1–7 as a distinct unit that focuses on restarting the mandate in the post-flood family (Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 192).

If we read the story carefully, however, we see that one key element is missing. Blessing is present. God speaking to humanity is present. The command to rule is present in the new food laws even though the term רדה is not found. But where is the command to subdue? Is it not found in the institution of the death penalty? Society is now charged with subduing the rogue one among them. The hostile element, the one who works against God’s creation of man in his image, is to be subdued.

If this reading is accepted, we now have the mandate to subdue the earth functioning fully from the individual to the society. As the stories of Adam, Eve, and Cain show, we must first and foremost subdue ourselves. If we do not, then sin will subdue and rule over us. We must subdue one another. Adam and Eve failed one another. Finally, in the post-flood re-initiation of the mandate, we must subdue on a societal level. Humanity united must subdue the evildoer in their midst.

If the reading I have suggested above is accepted, it would entail that flourishing and justice are part and parcel of the creation mandate. Humanity’s rule is designed to facilitate flourishing and to enact justice. Any attempt to separate the two will fail as it will not fully reflect humanity’s mandate, abandoning humanity’s creation in the image of God as the basis for both flourishing and justice.

How does understanding "subduing the earth" as enacting justice relate to our contemporary context? 

As I attempted to move from this reading of the creation mandate to our contemporary context, it seemed clear that there are several elements of the narrative we must attend to if we want to arrive at valid definitions of flourishing and justice that are truly reflective of God’s design and are operative in our post-Genesis 3 world.

From Genesis 1–2 we must maintain the priority of the image of God, and we must apply the dignity and honor of being created in the image both to ourselves and to others. It must apply to me and to you if we are both to flourish and if there is to be justice for both of us. It is our creation in God's image that most fundamentally binds us together as humans.

Following on from our creation in the image of God, we must recognize that flourishing and justice must both be communal and cooperative. Humanity is designed to function communally and cooperatively. This means that conceptions of flourishing or justice that are individualistic either in origin or implementation are not aligned with our creation mandate.

Flourishing and justice inherently involve economics. True human flourishing is more than economics and advancement. It includes a right relationship with God, healthy relationships with others, and a God-honoring relationship with the creation itself. Without each of these there may be glimpses of flourishing, an echo of the goodness seen in God’s intent for humanity, but not true flourishing. Yet, human flourishing is not less than economics.

Finally, I should note that I have specifically constructed this study to address humanity as a whole. As such I am not yet exploring the communal nature of the church and our connection to the broader community of humanity. This work should be done, but the first step in this study is to look at humanity in general since we seek flourishing and justice for all, not just those in the church. It is surely true that genuine flourishing at the deepest levels will not occur outside the kingdom, but the influence and impact of the kingdom surely do include a level of flourishing for those outside akin to Jeremiah’s seeking the welfare of the city (Jer. 29).

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen serves as provost and professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. Before coming to Phoenix, he served for more than a decade as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society. He also has extensive pastoral experience, having served churches in South Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky, and California. Michael is the author of Divine Motive in the Old Testament: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis, and the iVocab series of language aids for Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac. He is currently preparing a commentary on Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah. He and his wife Bonnie have two daughters, Abigail and Hannah.

Faculty Book Club: When Doctrine Divides

Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive is divine,” in his celebrated poem “Essay on Criticism.” Err is part and parcel of the human condition, and since we are prone to err, we are certain to divide.

When Doctrine DividesThat one liner is not all Pope said in his blistering critique on criticism. Burrowing down to the essence of criticism, Pope wrote:

Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

Ultimately, our pride is what swells our heads, biases our minds, blinds our eyes, and deafens our ears, and it is pride that can turn the wise into a fool and a friend into a foe.

In like manner, Rhyne Putman has taken up the challenge of discerning why we make errs of judgment, particularly of the doctrinal variety, in his recent book, When Doctrine Divides the People of God, a work that comes with the soaring endorsement from Bruce Ashford that this is “one of the most important books written since the turn of the twenty-first century.” Blurbs can tend towards exaggeration, and this is quite a plug, but I do think such lofty praise is not entirely unwarranted given the current state of affairs.

No one half awake can deny how pervasive division is. Division is so common it has become fashionable. Those who can offer the most withering critiques of anything or anyone accumulate large audiences, and they even tend to attract those who dislike their modus operandi, who themselves have built a reputation of tearing down those who tear down. And so the cycle continues.

Thus, a book like Putman’s is needed. The book is divided into two parts: (1) Why we disagree about doctrine, and (2) What we should do about doctrinal disagreement. That we disagree is obvious; why we disagree is less so. Division is not as big of a problem as determining why we divide and how we can disagree amicably.

Allow me to summarize these chapters briefly.

  1. We Read Imperfectly

How to interpret the Bible is a field of study called hermeneutics. Hermeneutics provides us with the rules of the game for reading the Bible. It accounts for things like genre, context, and structure. However, not everyone agrees with what those rules should be, and many different models have been proposed. I’m with Putman that we should approach the text with the so-called “grammatical-historical” hermeneutic, which prioritizes studying the very words of Scripture in their original context, recognizing that God (the divine author) used a person (the human author) to deliver a message that can be understood, and it is our job to discern what these authors meant.

  1. We Read Differently

Here Putman dives below the surface, discussing issues of exegesis (pulling out the meaning of the text) versus eisegesis (reading meaning into a text). The point is this—no two people read all texts alike. So while we try to agree upon how texts should be read, the reality is that “every step in the exegetical process presents possibilities for theological disagreement” (93). And from grammar, we move into the equally complex field of theology, which opens up further room for disagreement.

  1. We Reason Differently

From my vantage point, this chapter is the best contribution in the book. Putman argues that putting together theology should be like a detective putting together a crime scene. Instead of thinking about doctrinal formulation as deduction (assessing the validity of arguments) or induction (assessing the probability of arguments), we should see theology as abduction (how we form new hypotheses), recognizing and admitting there is an element of art to interpretation. This requires humility, which is sometimes missing in our theological disagreements.

  1. We Feel Differently

Utilizing the work of Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind), Putman suggests that we base a lot of our lives on our experiences, and this is not a bad thing! We do well to remember that our intuitions, based on a confluence of factors, precedes our strategic reasoning. This is why so many people can respond viscerally when you espouse a doctrinal view different than their own. A classic example, and one that Putman uses, is Calvinism and Arminianism. Those who see God’s election as unconditional (Calvinists) often elicit a powerful emotional response from those who see this doctrine as repulsive, believing that every person has the ability to choose salvation (Arminians), and vice versa. Many Calvinists are aghast at what they see as a shortening of God’s arm in salvation. Few things boil the theological waters like this doctrine.

  1. We Have Different Biases

One of the worst vices from which we all suffer, whether talking about doctrine or other controversial topics like politics, is confirmation bias. We tend to read people we already agree with, and when we read those with whom we think we will disagree, we can be overly critical and unopen to new ideas. This can have devastating effects on a person’s theology. It is not uncommon for me to teach something that is deeply held in Christian tradition only to be told that their pastor has never said it and they were simply unwilling to hear more. We do not like our preconceptions challenged, which can keep us barred from beautiful truths in God’s Word.

Thankfully, Putman does not stop here. He moves to how we should disagree. Again, I’ll summarize.

  1. When Should We Change Our Minds?

To begin with, we should keep in mind that some disagreements are illusory. We often talk past each other and so miscommunicate. Much of the issue deals with the realm of epistemology, which is how we know things. Are we dealing with the same question, the same data, is our background knowledge the same, do we possess similar cognitive abilities? These types of questions should give us pause when determining if a disagreement even exists, and if a disagreement exists, where the problem may lie in our own reasoning process. As in all things, this will require humility. Not everyone is equally expert. Too often, people with a Bible and Strong’s Concordance believe their understanding of a text to be equal to an expert’s understanding (and sometimes they are right!). (Let me recommend another book to you—The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols [Oxford]). Most times, though, there is not enough humble deference to those who might know more.

  1. When Should Doctrine Divide Us?

 Of greatest consequence in this chapter is the idea of theological triage, a tool that I teach often and that my students find very helpful. The concept is simple. Just like a paramedic on a mass casualty scene will have to determine which injuries are most severe, Christians need to determine which doctrines are more important than others. The biggest problem with theological debate is either the elevation of a minor doctrine to a major status, or the demotion of a major doctrine to a minor status. I like a fourfold approach (in keeping with the triage tags that I used when I was a paramedic):

It is important to note that often it is not the doctrine itself that puts a person’s view within one of these “tags.” It is the way he or she expresses the doctrine. If someone tells me that I must believe that speaking in tongues is the sign of regeneration, I have a very strong disagreement and now this moves into the red tag area.

Learning to triage our doctrine helps us realize which doctrines are worth fighting and dying for, and which doctrines are intramural debates amongst Christians. Beginning with categories is a helpful place to start.

  1. How Then Shall We Disagree?

We seem to have difficulty disagreeing without dividing. Whether it is Whitefield versus Wesley or Luther versus Zwingli, the church has too often known the consequences of theological disagreement. One wonders where the universal church would be today if some of the unnecessary divides did not happen. We will never know. However, how will we settle our approach to theological difference in our hearts? Will we move forward with a spirit of peace and patience, or will we tear asunder the church in our own day because we have to be right? Will we learn to triage our doctrinal differences so as not to make a penny’s worth of difference a million-dollar divide?

Having read Putman’s book, I am hopeful that we could learn a better way forward. But it will take many people in the body of Christ to recognize where these potential areas of disagreement lie and a collective willingness to pursue unity.

With all this said, we must not sacrifice truth on the altar of unity. Nor can we confuse a lack of conviction for humility. Learning when and how to divide doctrinally is not easy—it takes wisdom, discernment, maturity, and knowledge. The church needs trained pastors who know good doctrine, how doctrines fit together, and know when it is best to unite or divide over doctrine.

This is why I think theological education is so important and why I’m investing my life in it. It’s a lifelong pursuit of realizing Augustine’s maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Our day is no different than Pope’s in this regard. We will continue to divide over everything, including doctrine, until we are in heaven with Christ. To err might be human, but to (amicably) disagree with Pope, so too is forgiveness. And not only forgiveness for the times that we have wronged or been wronged, but a better understanding of why people see doctrine differently. One day we will see. One day we will know. But on this day, Putman has given us a thoughtful roadmap for how to disagree better.

Dr. Meade Completes 10-Year Research Project

The following is an interview with Dr. John Meade, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Co-Director of the seminary's Text & Canon Institute. Dr. Meade recently completed a major 10-year project on the text of Job and we are excited to celebrate this major achievement with him.

John Meade with his new edition of the Hexeplaric fragments of Job

PS: How did you take an interest in the Hexapla and how long did you work on this Edition?

JM: I first became exposed to the Hexapla in a seminary course on Hebrew exegesis of Proverbs. Peter Gentry required us to work on problems in the wording of the text of Proverbs, and we became acquainted with the sources for doing such work. In addition to the well-known sources of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Septuagint, Aramaic Targums, Latin Vulgate, and Syriac Peshitta, he also taught us about the fragmentary remains of Origen’s Hexapla. He also said that we don’t have very good critical editions of these remains but that the Hexapla Institute was committed to rectifying this situation. I was hooked!

When I became a PhD student, I was still unsure what my dissertation would be, but fairly soon, I settled on Job 22–42. That was in 2008, and I began work on the edition in 2009-2010. A Critical Edition of the Hexaplaric Fragments of Job 22–42 was finally published by Peeters in January of 2020.

PS: What is a Critical Edition of the Hexaplaric Fragments?

JM: Good question. Many people will be immediately confused by the words in the title of my book. Let’s start with the word “Hexaplaric.” The Greek word “Hexapla” (pronounced Hex.u.pla) means “six-fold” or “six-columned.” Around 235 AD, Origen of Alexandria (d. 254) compiled six Jewish editions of the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament into his six-parallel-columned edition: (1) the Hebrew text, (2) the transcribed Hebrew text in Greek letters, (3) Aquila (Greek), (4) Symmachus (Greek), (5) the Septuagint, and (6) Theodotion (Greek). The Hebrew text and the Greek Septuagint had been around for a very long time, but in the first and second centuries AD, Theodotion, Aquila, and Symmachus had also revised the earlier translations to conform more closely to the Hebrew text and also to reflect more contemporary ways of reading the Hebrew. The Hexapla would have been a monstrosity when Origen first compiled it, and I’ve said more about it here. It was probably never copied in its entirety, and that’s where the work of textual criticism becomes essential.

What was the original wording of the Hexapla? A “Critical Edition” is necessary to tell that story. A “Critical Edition” refers to the scientific nature of the text. My edition incorporates all extant evidence of manuscripts, church father citations, and ancient translations in order to establish the original wording of the remains of the Hexapla and also report the variants to that reading in a series of apparatuses. There were past editions which I’ve written about here.

PS: Do the hexaplaric readings of Job affect our English Bibles?

JM: In short, yes. The hexaplaric readings usually agree with the Hebrew text upon which our English translations are based. But in some cases, they differ and preserve an older text. I'll limit myself to two examples where the ESV has based its translation of Job on Hexaplaric versions, but you may not have known it.

PS: What are your next Projects?

JM: Well, I’m in the midst of working with Peter Gentry on a History of the Hexapla, that is, writing the story of its origins, use, and afterlife. The Text & Canon Institute will be hosting a related Colloquium on Origen as Philologist this November. I’m also working with Peter Gurry on a more popular book explaining how we got the Bible. So there’s plenty to do.

PS: Thanks for taking some time with us, Dr. Meade!

JM: My pleasure.

Interested in studying with Dr. Meade and our other faculty? Our ThM in Biblical Studies is an advanced post-graduate degree for in-depth study of the Bible. The Text & Canon Institute Fellowship is a one-year scholarship and mentoring program for qualified ThM students who intend to pursue doctoral studies in Old or New Testament textual criticism, canon studies, or ancillary disciplines.