Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. ~2 Timothy 2:15

About Me

I am a young man who is following God's call into pastoral ministry. I have been so blessed with the privileges which the Lord has granted me. I am blessed to serve the Mt. Joy congregation in Mt. Pleasant, PA. I am constantly humbled and amazed at what the Lord is doing in my life.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Does God Change His Mind?

Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the LORD." But Samuel said to Saul, "I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel." As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore. So Samuel said to him, "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you. Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind."
~1 Samuel 15:24-29

One of the perplexing puzzles the ardent Bible student may come across in his or her study concerns the issue of whether or not God changes His mind pertaining to His plans and purposes. Scripture is clear that God does not change in His character or with His plans and purposes (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), yet there are some places where it almost appears that He does alter His plan in specific situations (Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:12-14; 1 Samuel 15:11,35; Jeremiah 18:8; Jonah 3; Joel 2:14; Amos 7:3,6). In fact, within the same chapter and context of 1 Samuel 15 we find God as expressing "regret"or "grief" over making Saul king (vv 11, 35) and then a statement that God never changes His mind (v 29). A teaching known as "Open Theism" uses such passages to validate their claim that God does not know the future for certain and often makes mistakes and has to resort to plan B when plan A fails. Does such passages indicate a contradiction or imply that God's plans are not perfect so that He has to change them? In the style and manner of Paul, I answer "absolutely not" and "may it never be!" A closer study into these issues reveals that God does not change His mind pertaining to His overall plan and purpose anywhere throughout Scripture but consistently brings about what He has planned without those plans ever being foiled.

Much of the debate concerning these passages revolves around the meaning and usage of the Hebrew word, nachem. In almost all of its occurrences in relation to God, the term is in the Niphal stem.1 In this stem, it can carry several meanings such as: 1) “be sorry, moved to pity, have compassion;” 2) “be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent;” 3) “comfort oneself, be comforted;” and 4) “comfort oneself, ease oneself.”2 Generally, the word indicates emotion. This means that several of the usages of the term does not necessarily have to be translated as change one's mind but would better be understood to convey grief or sorrow. As with many Hebrew and Greek words, context is the ultimate deciding factor as to which meaning to apply to the word. For instance, Genesis 6:6 should be translated as The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth instead of The LORD changed His mind that He had made man on the earth because the word is used right alongside a Hebrew verb that means hurt, pain, grief. It is not implausible for God to ordain a certain event as part of His sovereign plan that would cause Him grief when it occurs.3 While God is transcendent of time and able to view all past, present, and future events simultaneously, He is also able to make distinctions between them. This enables Him to experience certain emotions at the moment an event occurs within time though being aware of the event eternally outside time.4 This is the case with Joseph. God ordained the events of his brothers' treachery in permitting them to sell him to the Ishamaelites but used their evil sin to place Joseph in the second highest position in Egypt to save his family and prevent God's chosen people from dying out. For a God who hates sin (Habakkuk 1:13), any sin would cause Him grief, yet these sins he permitted as part of His plan to save His people (Genesis 45:7-8; 50:20).5 A look at the wider context of 1 Samuel 15 shows that Saul's failure as king was not unknown to God but apart of His overall plan to teach a lesson to the Israelites.

After Saul’s two acts of disobedience (1 Samuel 13:8-13; 15:9), God expresses His grief in
making Saul king (15:11). This in no way indicates God being ignorant of Saul’s disobedience when He first chose the man for this position. In fact, God never planned for Saul’s dynasty to endure. In his prophecy to Judah, Jacob predicted that The scepter shall not depart from him Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet (Genesis 49:10). Saul came from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1-2) when God planned that one from the tribe of Judah would have an everlasting kingdom. If God intended for Saul’s dynasty to continue, unaware of his future disobedience, then He would have contradicted His previous promise. The overarching narrative indicates that God had a specific purpose for Saul in his short-lived dynasty.

The people had asked for a king so that they could be like all the nations (8:5). This displeased the LORD but He granted their request and gave them the king they asked for; one just like all the other nations had. In fact, Saul's name in Hebrew comes from the Hebrew root that means to ask, inquire. The author describes Saul as resembling what one would expect from a king (as all the other nations had) outwardly (9:2) and then shows how such a king fails miserably. After the people’s king’s first act of disobedience, God states that He has already chosen His king; the one after His own heart (13:14). The verbs for seek and appoint in Hebrew both convey the perfect tense, which indicate that these are both completed actions. At this point where God has rejected Saul as king, He has already found the replacement and does not have to go looking for one. This one does not look like a king the other nations have (16:7-11) and is from the linage of Judah as God had prophesied. In fact, David appeared so unkinglike that his own father did not even call him out of the field to be considered by Samuel. Though Saul’s kingdom would have been everlasting had he been faithful (13:13), God used the means of His disobedience to fulfill His ultimate plan of having a descendant of Judah to reign over His people. Thus, this was not an act of God responding emotionally to something that He had not been aware would occur or signifying that He made a mistake. His grief resulted from Saul’s failure as king which He intended to use to chastise His people. The statement Samuel makes in response to Saul's pleading for another chance after he had already been told that God has taken the kingdom away from him further indicates that God does not change his mind pertaining to His plans and purposes.

After rejecting Saul's request to pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the LORD (v 25), Saul grabs the edge of Samuel's robe and the prophet uses the tearing of it to inform the king that God has likewise tore the kingdom aware from him and given it to someone else. He then states that when God makes a decision, it is final. God does not lie or change His mind. The parallel of nachem being with the verb to lie indicates it should be taken as change of mind in this context. Though given in reference to Saul's rejection as king, the prophet attributed a timeless principle of God's character. Not only does this verse state the impossibility of God changing His mind, but also of Him lying. Just as the statement that God cannot lie is not limited to this case, the same must be true of Him changing His mind since the two are parallel. If one argues that God sometimes changes His mind and other times does not, then that would also mean that God sometimes lies, a claim with no support found anywhere in Scripture.6 Even in the places where nachem conveys the idea of change of mind, it simply means a change of direction but never a change in His overall plan He will carry out. God may change His direction but never is the new direction outside of His ultimate underlying plan. Several of these references must be read in the context of the old covenant with blessings given for obedience and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 11:26-28). God thus brings judgment on the disobedient but blessing upon the obedient or repentant. In his call to the nation of Israel to repent, Jeremiah describes God to them as a potter who crafts Israel as His clay the way that He desires (Jeremiah 18:5-6). He states that in one instance God might speak words of destruction to a nation but would take back the destruction described pending on the condition of their repentance (vv 7-8). Likewise, He would bring judgment upon a nation that sought to do evil when He had said that He would build them up previously (vv 9-10). Therefore, in several cases where God is described as changing His mind or relenting concerning coming judgment in response to man’s repentance, He technically is not changing His mind but enacting this principle that He established. He is dealing with man as He has predetermined. Such is the reason why Jonah did not desire to warn the Ninevites of their coming judgment (Jonah 4:2). He knew what would happen if they repented and he wanted them to experience judgment instead of mercy.

This truth that God does not change in His character and in His perfect purpose and plan is comforting. While people on this earth may and will let you down, we have a Heavenly Father who is true to His every word and with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17). We can confidently go to Him for guidance of our next step because He is in full control and has planned out the very steps He has for us to take (Psalm 139:16). He is a God who never makes mistakes and Whom we can trust to always do what's right (Genesis 18:25), even when we may not understand all that He does (Isaiah 55:8-9). We can celebrate our salvation as God's perfect plan of sending His Son to die on the cross in our place was accomplished just as He intended without any variation of His plan. To God be the glory that He does not change but does as He sees fit for our good and His glory!

In Christ,
Soli Deo Gloria!!!

1-Genesis 6:6,7; Exodus 32:14; 1 Samuel 15:11,29; Jeremiah 18:8,10; Joel 2:13,14; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:9,10. The one exception can be found in Numbers 23:19 where the Hithpael form of the verb is used.

2-F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007) 637.

3-John Piper, “Why the Glory of God is at Stake in the ‘Foreknowledge’ Debate” Modern Reformation 5 (September/October 1999) 43.

4-Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998) 301.

5-By far the greatest example of this can be seen with God permitting the sin of the murder of His perfect Son as part of His perfect plan of redeeming sinners (Acts 2:23). Basically, God used sin to conquer sin.

6-Bruce A. Ware, God's Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000) 88.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Meaning of Christmas

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which translated means, "God with us." And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
~Matthew 1:18-25

A common and important question that is often asked around this time of year is "what is the meaning of Christmas?" After taking the time to step away from all of the hustle and bustle the holiday season brings, have you ever pondered the significance of the day? Just why is it so important? What is special about it? Depending on the person, it appears that Christmas has carried several different meanings.

Much of the rituals and things we associate with Christmas actually have a pagan origin. For the ancient Romans, this time of December meant a celebration of their harvest god, Saturn. This "Festival of Saturnalia," as they called it, was accompanied by the exchanging of gifts and decorating homes with greenery.

For many, the "most wonderful time of the year" has become the "most stressful" as Christmas means baking enough food to feed the army of family that are only seen once or twice a year and finding the perfect gift for everyone. It signifies long lines and crowded stores. It means emptying one's wallet or purse and purging the credit card into more debt that will take half of the upcoming year to pay off. It means tales of a man named Santa Claus or St. Nicholas who travels in a sleigh with eight special reindeer (nine if you count Rudolph) from the North Pole and delivers gifts down people's chimneys. It's a marathon of either a story of a young boy who defends his house from crooks after being left home alone, a boy whose one sole desire and wish is a Red Ryder BB gun who winds up shooting his eye out, a Scrooge who gains the spirit of Christmas, or a man who learns that he has a wonderful life after all. It's bright, twinkling lights, evergreen trees, and far too many decorations. It's songs about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer and chestnuts roasting over an open fire.

The Real Meaning of Christmas

But for the Christian, Christmas has an even deeper meaning. It is the time that has been set aside to celebrate Jesus' birth. No one really knows for sure His exact birth date. In fact, He possibly was born in the Spring since the shepherds are described as being outside watching their flocks. Though this has been debated as certain scholars argue for cases of shepherds being in the fields also in the wintertime. All that Scripture tells us concerning the date is that it occurred around the time under Caesar Augustus' reign when Quirinius served as governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2). While this may be helpful in determining the year, the specific month and date remain a mystery. However, the precise date itself is of little importance compared to the significance of the event.

No Ordinary Man

Matthew opens up his gospel showing us how extraordinary this event was. This is not the birth of any ordinary man. He identifies Jesus as christos, the Greek parallel to the Hebrew mashiack, meaning anointed one. Through the lineage of his legal father Joseph, Jesus was the son of David, the son of Abraham. This is significant as this indicates that He is the divine king promised to David that would rule eternally (2 Samuel 7:16) as well as meeting the requirement that a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, / And a branch from his roots will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1). By beginning the record of Jesus' genealogy at Abraham, Matthew demonstrates how Jesus was connected to God's covenant to the Patriarch. He came out of the great nation God promised He would make of Abraham and through Him, provided the means for the salvation for both Jew and Gentile so that all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8). Thus, Jesus was not an ordinary man but the long awaited Messiah that the Old Testament prophets have foretold would come. At Christmas, we are celebrating the Messiah.

No Ordinary Birth

Matthew highlights Jesus' miraculous birth as well. At the end of the genealogy, the apostle points out that Jesus was the son of Mary but not Joseph. The whom in Greek is feminine and singular, indicating that he is referring to Mary specifically and solely (v 16). A common rule in Greek grammar is that the pronoun will always match the antecedent it replaces in gender and number. Had Matthew intended to describe Jesus as being the son of both Mary and Joseph, the pronoun would have been plural in number and possibly male in gender. If Joseph served as the reference, it would be male and singular. However, Matthew wants to be clear that Jesus is the product of Mary through the Holy Spirit. He emphasizes this further by mentioning that Mary was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit before they [Joseph and herself] came together (v 18, emphasis added). In order to stop Joseph from breaking off the betrothal as he was planning, an angel of the Lord informs him that no foul play had been involved from Mary but the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit (v 19-20). Those who insist on denying Jesus' virgin birth have torn out the entire first chapter of Matthew's gospel! Matthew connects this virgin birth to the prophecy Isaiah gave to King Ahaz that described this distinct miraculous event. (For a further exposition of this prophecy, see last year's post entitled: The Hope of Immanuel) This was no ordinary child but the Immanuel promised from long ago. He was "God with us." He was the "Son of God." He was fully God and fully man. He was God incarnate. God becoming flesh. John elegantly words this so well in his gospel account of Jesus' birth: And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). At Christmas, we are celebrating God coming to earth in the form of man.

No Ordinary Purpose

Actually, Christmas is not about Jesus' birth at all. It really is a celebration of our salvation. This extraordinary man Who had an extraordinary birth had an extraordinary mission. As part of the instructions given to Joseph in his dream, the angel tells him to name the child Jesus. In the Hebrew culture, names meant something. You would not just name your son Jim and your daughter Jill because of fondness for the way the names sounded. Names in Hebrew carried great significance. The names of Jacob's sons and daughters came from the feelings of his wives in their ongoing war with each other (Genesis 30). Upon the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, Phinehas's wife names her new born child, Ichabod (No glory), to signify God's glory leaving Israel (1 Samuel 4:21). Elijah's name literally means My God is Yahweh, which is a fitting name for the one whose ministry can be characterized by his steadfast stand for Yahweh, the one true God, in the midst of all the idolatry prevalent at the time (recall his challenge to the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18:20-40). In Hebrew, Jesus' name is yehshua, meaning Yahweh is salvation or Yahweh saves. The angel explains the significance for such a name. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins (v 21). Jesus' purpose is to save His people from their sins. His people refers to the Jews in this context but due to their rejection of Christ, God providentially opened up salvation to all mankind (Romans 11:11). All men are born by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) and have sinned (Romans 3:23; 5:12) and thus under God's wrath (Romans 1:18). We are due to experience spiritual death, which is eternal separation from the grace of God (Romans 6:23). Man was in terrible need of saving and could in no way save Himself. Thus, God provided a substitute through His Son. As Paul puts it, 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). Jesus took man's sins upon Himself and suffered God's wrath as punishment for them. Those who then place their trust in Christ, God views as righteous as if they had lived Christ's righteous life since He had viewed Him as if He had committed their sins. So Jesus was actually born to die. There is a reason that all four gospels spend more time recounting the last week of Jesus' life leading up to the cross than they do any other part of His life. This was His purpose. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). The reason that God became flesh, Immanuel, was so that He could then die in the sinners place to save those who are moved to come to Him through faith.

The meaning of Christmas is not simply a little manger scene on a certain starry night but so much more. This is just a small event in the grand plan of God's redemption. The meaning of Christmas is God's salvation given through His coming to earth in the form of man and dying to give man life. John Piper made a good point in a recent sermon that Christmas is "mainly preparation for Good Friday." I pray that through all the different meanings of this holiday that fight to distract us, that we would not lose sight of this important truth. May this Christmas be a celebration of God's salvation. May we who once were spiritually blind and now can see and who once were spiritually dead and now have been given life glorify God for His work not only on this one day out of the year but the 364 remaining! For those who are yet blind to this profound and significant meaning of this holiday, may God open your eyes to see the truth and cherish Christ for Who He is and what He has done!

In Christ,
Soli Deo Gloria!!!