Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Case for Christ Movie Solves Two Mysteries

Judging by Pure Flix’s The Case for Christ, Christian-made movies are really coming into their maturity.  Thanks to the AMC Theater chain and its independent movie track, otherwise unavailable Christian-generated pictures outside the South or the West, where they tend to be made, are often scarce in our burned-over New England towns on Boston’s northern shore.  But missing the film version of apologist Lee Strobel’s adventure in conversion would be missing a lot.   As one of our church elders put it well when he saw the upcoming previews:  “It looks like an action movie!”  And it is indeed an action movie, as well as a satisfying and worthwhile film that leaves one feeling both well-entertained and, at the same time, well nourished. 
A carefully written screenplay by Brian Bird and the subject of the movie, Lee Strobel, himself, and cutaway action sequencing directed by Jon Gunn grip the viewers, as the story centers on two simultaneous mysteries confronting a young, coiffured investigative reporter, replete with 1980s hairspray and an exploded, self-assured me-generation ego that happens to be backed up by a high intelligence and sense of commitment both sharp enough to miss the point amidst all his clever theorizing.   Assigned to write on a cop-shooting, he is harassed at the same time by his wife’s relentless moving into a faith in Jesus Christ he neither welcomes nor understands.   Deftly portraying the Strobels are seasoned actors Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen, who had previously worked together on the 2003 film version of Wuthering Heights.  Their chemistry and conflict is riveting and the parallel mysteries that confront our reporter are each complex, both of them demanding the full attention of protagonist and viewer.  We went in to a 6:30 p.m. showing and left at nearly 9:00 p.m., but I had no sense of the passage of time.   I was shocked that it was so late – the story is totally engrossing and all the acting is so well done, from the young child actress to the veteran Faye Dunaway, which is something one cannot say about every movie one views.  This suggests as well adept directing and excellent cinematography and production.
The title may put off secular viewers and that would be a shame, because the story is riveting and the crafting so well done.  But the title choice is certainly part of the integrity and the skill of the filmmakers – to put everything on the table in full view.  But, like every good mystery, things are rarely what they appear to be.  Debunking Jesus’s claims and solving the shooting both turn out to be enigmas fathoms deep.   My wife and I read a lot of mysteries and, as seminary professors, we have a good handle on the evidence for substantiating the claims of Jesus, but we were far from bored watching “Lee” fly and drive all over the place to check this evidence and slowly find himself overwhelmed.  At the same time, neither of us were successful in figuring out exactly what the crime case he was investigating was really all about.  Even when the evidence was staring at us, we still missed it.   And interrelating these two conundrums is what brought the movie together so well, though this was never spelled out, but left to the viewers to connect them, as any fine film will do.  As one character expressed the movie’s point: we don’t see the truth, because we don’t want to see it.  That’s a bit harsh and not always true, but it certainly was dead-on in the context of this film and left hanging to be considered by every skeptical viewer.
Lee Strobel has been indefatigable constructing and disseminating his defenses of the good news of Jesus.   This movie, in my estimation, is a worthy companion to his work.  It conveys the excitement of the adventure of big city reporting in both its this-worldly and other-worldly dimensions, reminding us that the two are linked in their effect on people’s destiny both temporal and eternal.   I’ll buy this movie when it’s available, because I’ll want to see it again and lend it to others.  I think it’s that good.
(please look for Bill’s own mystery/suspense novel, Name in the Papers, which won the Golden Halo Award for Outstanding Contribution to Literature from the Southern California Motion Picture Council)                   

Saturday, March 25, 2017

In Memory of Them: Mary of Bethany's Recollections before Passover from imagesgoogle

I knew he was going to die.  He’d told all of us enough times.  But none of them heard or wanted to hear.

That’s why I decided to do something dramatic – to show them all what he was saying.  What I chose to do was certainly appropriate.  Look at all the drama he employed when he acted out his parables!

It was six days before the Passover celebration.  Jesus was coming to our home.  It was a good time to do it.  So, I carefully worked out my plan.  I had some very costly ointment of pure nard from the far, far East, beyond Parthia, from the great mountains of India, about a pound of it given to me as a dowry by my parents before they died.  It was my greatest treasure.  I fished this out of my keepsakes and exempted myself from kitchen duties.  Martha was serving and our beloved brother Lazarus (whom Jesus raised from the dead to the joy and gratitude of all of us) was sitting with him and various friends at the table when I quietly stole in and crouched at Jesus’s feet.  He smiled at me, because I’d often done that so I could listen to his wise teaching – and here I was safe, because he wouldn’t let anyone remove me.

But, instead of simply listening carefully to him in silence, letting myself be enraptured by his thoughts, as any good student should do, I quietly slipped the perfume out of the little leather bag I was carrying and began to pour the entire pound of oil on Jesus’s feet.  Then, unbinding my hair, I began wiping his feet gently with my own hair.

Immediately, the strong fragrance of the nard flooded the house.  Everyone stopped talking and stared at me.

Jesus did not move.  He just looked at me with such tenderness and such sadness.

Then Judas Iscariot broke the moment by suddenly demanding loudly why I hadn’t sold that oil and given the money to him for the poor.  I knew very well the poor that he was talking about!  This same Judas had taken charge of the donations Jesus had insisted the disciples gather and share with the widows and the lepers and the blind and lame beggars, but I, for one, had been suspecting all along that Judas had been stealing it.  His look was so avaricious when he was railing at me that you’d think everyone would have noticed it, but some of the slower on the uptake disciples began to rally around him – when Jesus cut Judas off sharply.

“Leave her alone!  For the day of the preparation for my burial she has reserved this.”  And then he lectured them all, “The poor, miserable beggars you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

They were stunned and no one reprimanded me further.

Four days later, a woman none of us knew showed up at Simon the Leper’s house and, to everyone’s shock, anointed Jesus – also with costly nard, perhaps following my example, though this time she anointed his head, not his feet, as I had done.  

And, then, can you imagine?  The disciples repeated Judas’s complaint, rather than Jesus’s counsel.  So Jesus had to repeat his correction another time.  He told them once again, “Don’t molest this woman. She is preparing me for my burial for I am about to die.”

Nobody is going to forget her actions, or Jesus’s kind words of forgiveness, though Judas’s harsh words will blow away like the chaff they were.

People had been gossiping that I did it because I was grateful for Jesus raising my brother – or, some suggested, because I was in love with him and not in the way that I and all of us in my home were.  Then they wondered if this other woman had anointed Jesus because Simon hadn’t done it – just the way Simon the Pharisee hadn’t anointed Jesus and a prostitute had even dared to creep into his house to pour costly oil on Jesus’s feet, just as I had done.   

But I knew these were all signs from God.  Each of these women had felt an urging and responded just as I had done.  His head and his feet were now anointed, a symbol of the spices and unguents we would use to prepare him at death.

Jesus had revealed by now that he was not only the Prophet of Nazareth, as many now called him, but the fulfillment of prophecy and, also, as well, the priest who was interceding for us and who was about to perform for us the greatest sacrifice of all – giving his life as the ransom for many.   And, he was telling us he was indeed the true king of Israel, prophesied in our Scriptures, the one who would be our suffering redeemer.  All these truths he was revealing to us as he explained to us and everyone these strange actions we women felt compelled to do for him, for we were symbolizing what he had been telling us all along; to give us life, he had to die.

Aίda and Bill     
 (from John 12:1-8, compare with Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50).        

Thursday, March 23, 2017

How to Keep a Clean Conscience, a devotional based on Psalm 139 from imagesgoogle.

Guest blog by hospice chaplain Paul Bricker
 “O Lord, You have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

You understand my thought from afar.

You scrutinize my path and my lying down,

And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.

Even before there is a word on my tongue,

Behold, O Lord, You know it all.

You have enclosed me behind and before,

And laid Your hand upon me.” (139:1-5 NAS).

There are many passages in the Bible that deal with the subject:  “How to Keep a Clean Conscience”.  One of those passages deals with keeping a clean conscience in the midst of conflict.  Many believers when they enter into conflict tend to assume:  “I am in conflict….  That means I must have sinned….”   I have met abused women who have this sort of mindset.  Psalm 139 shows that just because one is in conflict does not necessarily mean that one has sinned.

Psalm 139 is one of the favorite psalms for the church throughout the millenniums.  It may be divided into six sections:   1. The Psalmist David marvels at God’s omniscience regarding himself (vv.1-6).  2. He marvels at God’s omnipresence with himself (vv. 7-12).  3.  The Psalmist marvels at how God created him (vv. 13-16).  4. The Psalmist marvels at the summary of God’s thorough knowledge of himself (vv. 17-18).  5.  On the basis of parts 1-4, the Psalmist prays and reveals the occasion of this Psalm (vv. 19-22). 6. On the basis of parts 1-5, David prays (vv. 23-24).

1.      The Psalmist marvels at God’s Omniscience regarding the Psalmist (vv. 1-6).

Here the Psalmist marvels in the tenderest manner at how God knows the Psalmist.  God knows when the Psalmist sits and rises.  God knows the Psalmist’s thoughts.  God knows the Psalmist’s path and lying down.  For me, as a person who has had speech problems throughout my life, the following insight especially touches me: God knows the word on the Psalmist’s tongue even before the Psalmist speaks.  Sometimes, I do not know the word that will come off my mouth.  I take comfort that God does know the next word that will come from my mouth.  The psalmist concludes this section:  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain it” (v. 6).

2.The Psalmist marvels at God’s Omnipresence with the Psalmist (vv. 7-12).

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;

If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,

If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,

And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,

And the light around me will be night” (vv. 7-11).

Here the Psalmist marvels in the most tender manner at how God is present to the Psalmist.  Where can we flee from the Holy Spirit?  Where can we flee from God’s presence?  When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark.  I took great comfort in v. 12:  Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day.  Darkness and light are alike to You.  Such a verse of God’s presence would calm my fears at night as a child.

3.The Psalmist marvels at how God created the Psalmist (vv. 13-16).

For You formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb (v. 13)….

My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;

Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them (vv. 15-16).

Here the Psalmist marvels in the tenderest manner at how God created the Psalmist.  God wondrously formed the Psalmist’s inward parts.  God wondrously weaved the Psalmist in the womb.  One can understand why the Psalmist would exclaim:  “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well” (v. 14).

4.The Psalmist marvels at the summary of God’s thorough knowledge of the Psalmist (vv.17-18).

Listen to how the Psalmist marvels about God’s knowledge of the Psalmist:  “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!  If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.  When I awake, I am still with You.

5. On the basis of parts 1-4, the Psalmist prays and reveals the occasion of this Psalm (vv. 19-22).

In a way one would think that this Psalm would have been completed at verse 18.  But it is not finished.  The Psalmist has expressed earlier in this Psalm some of the most tender thoughts found within the Bible.  In contrast, now, the Psalmist prays one of the most non-tender prayers in the Bible.  The Psalmist prays a violent prayer:  O that You would slay the wicked, O God; Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.  For they speak against You wickedly, And Your enemies take Your name in vain.  Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with the utmost hatred; They have become my enemies” (vv. 19-22).

Here we find the occasion of this Psalm.  The Psalmist David is in trouble.  He is in conflict.  He is being hunted down.  He prays specifically:  Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed” (v. 19).  The Psalmist is being hunted down by murderous people.

In light of this lethal hunt, David does some spiritual inventory.  He wants to know if the trouble he is in is because of something wrong in himself.  Is there a sin that David has done that has caused this murderous hunt of the Psalmist to proceed?  That is why the Psalmist David has called upon our Omniscient God, Our Omnipresent God, and Our Creator God to search the Psalmist out (parts 1-4).

After calling upon our Omniscient God, Our Omnipresent God, and Our Creator God to search the Psalmist out, David has come to a singular conclusion.  The problem is not in the Psalmist.  The Psalmist is not being hunted down because of the Psalmist’s sin.  The problem is 100% with the murderous thugs chasing him.  The Psalmist takes singular aim at the problem.  He prays a violent prayer against his enemies.

How should we understand such a passage?  Should we pray violent prayers against our human enemies?   We should bless our human enemies (Matt. 5:44).  However, we as Christians should know who our enemy is.  The Apostle Paul writes who our enemy is:  “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood [humans], but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

The war between the devil and Christians is true and real.  We can pray violent prayers against the devil.  We can pray:  “Depart from me, demons of bloodshed.”  We can pray:  “O that thou would slay the wicked demons, O God.”  We can pray:  “Do I not hate those demons who hate Thee, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those demons who rise up against Thee?  I hate those demons with the utmost hatred; these demons have become my enemies.”

In the past I have been asked:  “How can you tell the difference between the devil’s accusation and the Holy Spirit’s conviction”?  The answer is easy.  If one follows what the Psalmist does in this passage by calling on our Omniscient God, our Omnipresent God, and our Creator God and asks God to point out one’s sin, God will point it out.  If God points it out, then ask God to forgive you.  We have a great promise:  How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”  (Heb. 9:14).

If one has a vague sense of dread….  If one has a sense of “Oh me, oh my, how sad am I,” then one knows that it is the devil’s accusation.  Here one can pray violent prayers against the devil.

6.On the basis of parts 1-5 the Psalmist concludes in prayer.

Here the Psalmist David prays a prayer to God.  The Psalmist prays a prayer of spiritual inventory and hope.  He does this with a clear conscience:  Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious [the psalmist is anxious] thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way” (vv. 23-24).   There is no reason whatsoever to have a polluted conscience.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Does God Have Feelings?

(Psalm 104:1-6 c. 2011 Micah Eglinton-Woods)

All through the Bible we see God depicted as full of feelings. For example, God groans as a sufferer in Genesis 6:6 over human evil.[1] Conversely, in Proverbs 12:22, we see God delights in honest people.[2] It's the same all through the Bible: God is presented as full of emotions, although these don't change God's consistent character. So is God infinite? Of course! eternal? Yes! Immutable? Exactly! We see that God's character doesn't change throughout the Bible.[3] But are all these biblical instances simply anthropomorphisms[4], making God look more personal than God really is?

That's certainly what the great non-Christian philosopher and interpreter of Plato, Plotinus, seemed to think. Plotinus, who was born in A.D. 205, pictured God as a divine creating principle who "does not think, because there is no otherness; and it does not move; for it is before movement and before thought. For what will he be able to think? Himself?"[5] Plotinus' god does not delight in honest people as the Bible's God does in Proverbs 12:22. In fact, this god "does not desire us, so as to be around us, but we desire it, so that we are around it,"[6] god not being intensely involved in human history, as we see in the Bible, but, instead, being the still point around which the universe moves, where "when we do look to him, then we are at our goal and at rest and do not sing out of tune as we truly dance our god-inspired dance around him."[7] Sounds more like the unmoved mover of the old movie 2001, doesn't it?

It's an interesting question and it's been a controversial one throughout Christian history. The first great theologian after the time of the New Testament, Irenaeus, who died about three years before Plotinus was born (c. A.D. 202), and who, in A.D. 177-78, became the overseer of the early Christian gathering in the ancient city of Lyons, in what is France today, wrote to his people, "It was not an impassible Christ who descended on Jesus, but, since He was Jesus Christ, He Himself suffered for us; He who lay in the tomb also rose again; He who descended also ascended, the Son of God having been made man, as the very name indicates."[8] If we look up "impassible" in Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, we read: "incapable of suffering pain...harm. Incapable of emotion, impassive,"[9] making us wonder: Does God have feelings?[10]

What was this early teacher, Irenaeus, who had personally known disciples of the Apostle John himself, so concerned about? He wanted to make sure his people didn't become confused and think that God's Spirit had come down from heaven at Jesus' baptism, suddenly taken over a human named Jesus (zap!), hung around empowering him to do all his wonderful miracles and say all his marvelous insights, and then, during the crucifixion when things got tough, left the poor sap to die on the cross as God cleared out, which some were telling Irenaeus’ people that Jesus' dying words "My God, why have you forsaken me?" meant. The Spirit of God, they contended, had left the man Jesus to get mugged on the cross for human sins, rather than the Father God, in whose presence sin cannot exist, having to turn away from God the Son when Jesus took on all the sins of humanity, becoming sin for all of us in his substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf (2 Cor 5:21). Irenaeus was assuring his people that Jesus was fully God and human from his birth, right on through his death and resurrection. The great scandal of the cross is that God died for us, as the Apostle Paul in his letter assured Titus, the man whose skull is still on display today in Herakleion, Crete. So we Christians are awaiting "the blessed hope and appearance of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself on behalf of us, in order to redeem us from all sin and cleanse us" (Titus 2:13-14). It doesn't get more clearly stated than that. There was no trickery going on here.

On the other hand, some 1500 years later, the Christian creed called The Second Helvetic [meaning Swiss] Confession, while explaining, "We worship not two but one Christ the Lord. We repeat: one true God and man," added these words: "THE DIVINE NATURE OF CHRIST IS NOT PASSIBLE, AND THE HUMAN NATURE IS NOT EVERYWHERE.[11] So what does that mean? (And who cares and why did they care?) What the Swiss reformers who wrote this great document were concerned about was the exact problem that Irenaeus was addressing, that no one be confused that Jesus Christ was somehow the uncomfortable partnership of a man and a Spirit of God, who could come and go at will. Jesus was no freak of nature. He was a fully human and fully divine person with a real human mother in whom the Holy Spirit of God placed the divine seed, which was the means, or the conduit, for one Person of the Great Triune Godhead, the Trinity, to enter our world and be born just as we are. Jesus was truly the child of God and the child of humanity, completely adequate to represent humanity as the substitutionary sacrifice for human sin to put us back in good standing with God, as well as overcome evil and begin the rescue of this off-the-track world of ours.

So, which is it? Is God passible or impassible? Is Irenaeus or the Swiss Reformers right? They’re both right. How is that possible? God has real emotions. The Father loves us deeply (John 3:16). The Son cared for us to the extent of entering our world and dying for us (Eph 5:2). The Spirit can be grieved by what we do (Eph 4:30). But the eternal God cannot be damaged, wounded, or killed. To die for us God had to be born human, taking on human flesh and frailty and become like us while remaining God (John 1:14).

So, should we conclude that God is indeed both impassible and passible? I think so. God is impassible in that God is invulnerable – in other words, what Superman would like to be without the Kryptonite (not to mention without ever being born, aging, or dying; being located in one spot; not knowing everything; not being all powerful; not being able to create the universe out of nothing, etc., etc., etc.). It's what The Second Helvetic Confession means, when it assures us there is nothing that can hurt God. But, at the same time, God has genuine feelings for us, what Irenaeus means when he assures us God is passible, that God loves us, feels compassion for us, and enters into our sufferings when God takes on human flesh and becomes Jesus Christ, the one who suffered and died for our sins to put us back right with God. In many cases, this controversy is over which meaning of the word "impassible" is being emphasized. God is indeed invulnerable (impassible), but God's feelings for us are real (passible).

I found several important lessons in exploring this question. First, words are flexible. The same word can mean different things to different people, so it's always important to check things out. Second, when there is a disagreement, there is often a deeper meaning going on that will illuminate us if we take the time to explore it. And, third, I am once again impressed with how much the God who created us loves us. God didn't have to make us in the first place and certainly didn't have to salvage us when humanity rebelled against God. But so great is God's love for us, that God came and lived among us and suffered what we suffer and even died to put us back right with this moral universe and with God's self. It's a wonderful thought to consider as we move toward Easter.

Those who are interested in my further thoughts about the Trinity may punch up “An Evangelical Statement on the Trinity” (, which I composed in consultation with a number of other evangelical scholars from a variety of denominations and the fields of theology, biblical studies, church history, classical studies, and other areas.


[1] Nhm, Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, C.A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 625, col. 1, meaning #2. All translations of the Hebrew and Greek Bible texts are by the present author.
[2] Rtson, Karl Feyerabend, Langenscheidt Pocket Hebrew Dictionary to the Old Testament (Berlin, Germany: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 325, col. 2.
[3] For example, Ps 102:26-27 [cited in Heb 1:12]; 1 Sam 15:29; Mal 3:16; James 1:17; Heb 13:8, etc.
[4] Anthropomorphism is ascribing human form or attributes to a being not human, especially to a deity (Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (New York: Random House, 2001), p.88.
[5] Plotinus, "Ennead VI," in Plotinus, vol. 7, Loeb Classical Library, trans. A. H. Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1988), VI.9.6:43-44 (p. 327).
[6] Ibid., VI.9.8:36-37 (p. 333).
[7] Ibid., VI.9.8:43-45 (p. 335).
[8] Irenaeus, Against the Heresies (Book 3), trans. Dominic J. Unger, OFM Cap (New York: Newman, 2012), 18:3 (p. 89).
[9] "Impassible," Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, p. 959.
[10] While Webster's empirical meanings ("to perceive or examine by touch," "to be emotionally affected by") would apply to the incarnate Jesus Christ, God-Among-Us in human form, some of “feeling's” other meanings, "to feel sympathy for or compassion toward," "to be...conscious of," "to have a general or thorough conviction," would more accurately describe all Persons of the Trinity (Ibid., p. 706).
[11] "The Second Helvetic Confession," in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly), 11:5.067, 5.069 (pp. 69-70).