Friday, August 31, 2018

The Quest for the King, Scene 10

                They sat there on the horse’s back, staring dumbly back into the howling tunnel of flame. Tears forged long trails through the dust and soot on their cheeks.
                “They’re still coming,” said Lady hollowly, but she was shaking her head as she said it.
                “They can’t really be dead, can they?” asked Sim.
                And Joe just sat there silently, weeping between his two younger siblings. They remained motionless there for a minute or two more, but their grief made it seem like a crush of hours.
                Already the flames were beginning to subside. With only the gases to burn for fuel, the wall of fire came and went like a tidal wave, tearing over the landscape with incredible height and power, but then dying down to leave only broken remnants of its devastation. Waves of heat and smoke still obscured the scene, and the twigs of the scrub-brush canyonlands still smoldered and flared into fiery blossoms of yellow and orange, but the great walls of flame that had surrounded the road were nearly gone now.
                “What do we do now?” asked Sim. “We wouldn’t have survived even this far without Mack and Kobi. Should we go back home?”
                “But no one’s there, remember?” Lady said sadly. “Uncle and Auntie were locked up in the Steward’s prison.”
                Joe sighed and rubbed a hand across his forehead. “You’re right, Lady. We have to keep going. Maybe there’s still a chance to find the Prince.”
                “But can we make it on our own?” asked Sim.
                Joe paused for a long moment. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
                He flicked the horse’s reins to the side and they began to turn away from the soot-blackened canyonlands. And then, out of the corner of his eye, Joe caught the flash of light off a piece of armor, somewhere back in the smoldering haze. At first he thought it was the Steward’s guards, renewing their pursuit now that the flames had died away. But he paused, just for a moment, and gave it a second glance. And there, emerging like shipwrecked sailors out of the waves after their ship had gone down, were two strong figures plodding along the high road through the burning lands.
                Lady and Sim followed his gaze; Lady let out a little gasp. The two men were still a long ways away, obscured by shimmering waves of smoke, but there was no mistaking who it was: the plodding, solid form of old Sir Mack following the quick, firm stride of Sir Kobi. They carried their armor in bundles thrown over their shoulders, raising their arms every now and then to wipe away the torrents of sweat spilling down their faces.
                Joe was so enthralled that he couldn’t wait for them to make it all the way out. With the flames receded, it was safe to ride back up onto the high road. But he didn’t even pause to make that calculation; he simply saw the friends he loved and moved to meet them. With a flick of the reins and a tap of his heels, he set the horse riding back into the sweltering canyonlands, back toward its master. All three children were beaming smiles when they reached the two knights, who looked extraordinarily dirty, but unharmed.
                “We thought you were dead!” Sim shouted in joyful astonishment.
                “Not yet,” Mack grinned, opening his arms to display his unsinged frame.
                “What happened?” asked Joe. “We barely made it out, and we were going as fast as we could. The heat in here should have been enough to cook you alive.”
                “I imagine that’s what the Steward’s guards thought, too,” Mack said, casting a wink over at Kobi, who was regarding the older knight with a gaze of such respect that it bordered on awe.
                “They didn’t count on the wisdom of Sir Mack,” said Kobi. “There’s truth in the legends you hear about this man.”
                “Not much, I fear,” Mack chuckled. “I just used an old trick I heard of once, from the guard units that used to patrol these roads before they built the royal north highway. I remembered them saying that the burning lands were dangerous, but that if you could survive the first minute, you would be all right, because the flames burn up their fuel so quickly. I knew we couldn’t run fast enough to get out in that amount of time, but there was something we could do.”
                Lady took a long look at his soiled frame, his dust-coated clothes, and then laughed. “You burrowed in the ground like a mole, Sir Mack!”
                “Smart girl,” Kobi grinned at her. “Yes, that’s exactly what he did. I’m glad he thought of it, because I didn’t know what to do.”
                “Well, I realized that the high road was fairly soft underfoot,” Mack explained, “being built up out of a mound of loose earth. So we dug down, faster than I ever thought we could, and scooped up as much sand on top of our bodies as we were able. I thought for sure our bones would be burnt down into coals, but we got down quickly enough, and the fire came and went so fast that it didn’t have time to heat the soil to any depth. So we just held our breath under our piles of sand, and waited for the fire to go away. Simple.”
                “Simple and brilliant,” said Sim, still beaming his astonishment.
                Joe looked down at the old knight and gave him a smile. It was a shy smile, now that his first wave of joy had passed over, and it was shy because he was afraid it might show just how frightened he had been to lose the protector he loved.
                “I’m glad you made it,” Joe said.
                Mack looked up and saw that the boy’s eyes were bright with tears.
“And I you,” he replied. “Good riding, all of you. You’re as true a set of knights as the King’s house has ever had.”

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Jacob Blesses the Younger Son

 The closing drama of the book of Genesis is the story of Jacob's blessing: in chapters 48-49, he offers prayers and prophecies over two of his grandsons and each of his twelve sons. These passages bring the long tale of Jacob's family to its denouement, a fitting end to a long and dramatic tale. Two of the episodes in these chapters are of particular interest to the Christian reader looking for foreshadowings of Jesus: the manner in which Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, his grandsons, and the prophecy he pronounces over his son Judah.

In the first instance, which concerns us in this week's post, the story takes an interesting turn. The aged Jacob, presented with Joseph's sons Manasseh and Ephraim for the first time, gives them a prayer of blessing before the end of his life. But instead of doing what is customary--placing his right hand on the older boy's head and his left on the younger's--Jacob crosses his arms and intentionally places his right hand on Ephraim's head, the younger. Joseph tries to correct his father and make him put his right hand on Manasseh's head. But Jacob resists, explaining that Ephraim receives the right-hand blessing because he will be greater than his brother and will become "a group of nations." This is an interesting prophecy, partly because it does not appear to have come true--not in a literal sense, anyway. Ephraim and Manasseh both go on to become members of the northern tribes of Israel; and while Ephraim certainly becomes very populous and prominent in the northern kingdom, both it and Manasseh end up suffering the same fate when Assyria conquers, deports, and assimilates them in the 8th century BC. Both number among the "lost tribes of Israel," and one simply could not make a historical argument that Ephraim becomes "a group of nations" while Manasseh does not, for the simple reason that both share exactly the same fate, and drop off the radar of traceable history. 

So what could be meant by Jacob's prophecy over Ephraim? Was he just reliving his own experience as the younger son who took the blessing intended for the firstborn? That may be part of it. But Christian tradition has always seen a very clear reason behind Jacob's act, though he himself could not have foreseen its fulfillment. In these two boys, as in the case of Jacob and Esau, the two sons represent the two covenants of God's people: the Old Covenant and the New. In fact, this story is repeated at least four times in the book of Genesis: Abel is favored over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Ephraim over Manasseh; another possible repetition is in Jacob's favoring of the younger wife, Rachel, over the older, Leah. The insistence and clarity of this repetitive pattern should point to the fact that there is some very important message at play here. If indeed this perpetual trope is a symbol of the coming of the New Covenant, then the pattern makes perfect sense (at least in the Christian interpretation). The younger son is favored over the older because the New Covenant fulfills and supersedes the Old; it represents God's full and final plan for humanity. This idea is foreshadowed over and over and over again throughout the book of Genesis. And the prophecy becomes true in a clear and startling sense: if Ephraim symbolically represents the New Covenant, then he does quite literally become "a group of nations"--the global, trans-national family of the church of Jesus Christ.

Before leaving this passage, we should also mark the fact that Jacob's prayer of blessing explicitly notes a pattern that we have seen throughout this book: that the mysterious character of "the Angel of the Lord" is in fact, in some way, God himself. In Gen. 48:15-16, Jacob directly identifies the Angel with the God of his fathers. This oddly plural identity for a monotheistic God is not odd if one is reading it in a Christian light: we have seen, over and over again in Genesis, how the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is made manifest, and how the presence of Christ in the story of his Word has been apparent from the very beginning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Photo of the Week

"All torturing questions find
Answer beneath those old grey olive trees...
Oh, there are things done in the world today
Would root up faith, but for Gethsemane."

- Amy Carmichael

Monday, August 27, 2018

Quote of the Week

"But my one unchanged obsession,
Wheresoe'er my feet have trod,
Is a keen, enormous, haunting,
Never-sated thirst for God."

- Gamaliel Bradford, from his poem "God"

(Painting: "Sunset at Sea," by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864) 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O God, rouse your Church, lest we sleep and miss men's need of you and your yearning love for men.
O God, cleanse your Church and forgive our lack of zeal for your Kingdom.
O God, set your Church ablaze with the fire of your Spirit, that we may spend and be spent for your Gospel, your will, and your glory, all our days;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord;

- George Appleton

Friday, August 24, 2018

No New "Quest for the King" Scene This Week

This has been a busy week, with little spare time for leisure writing. We're wrapping up the loose ends of a hectic summer schedule and getting ready for a big family transition when school starts again next week. Look for a new "Quest for the King" scene next Friday, and don't give up hope: there's more yet to be told about the ending of Scene 9.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Joseph's Story and Jesus' Passion

Genesis 37-48 brings us to one of the broadest continuous story arcs in the Old Testament: the tale of Joseph, son of Jacob. The story is well known by many, who have heard it from both Sunday School lessons and popular culture (it was even turned into a wildly successful stage musical): Joseph is a favored son out of Jacob's twelve, having been born to Jacob's favorite wife Rachel. As a token of his affection he lavishes attention and gifts on Joseph, including a beautiful "coat of many colors." The other brothers are jealous of this attention (as well as resentful of Joseph's naive boasting), and they sell him into slavery while framing their act as a tragic accident in which Joseph was killed. Joseph, having been sold into exile in Egypt, begins his life there as a slave before rising to a position of prominence; then he is charged with a crime he didn't commit and is sent to prison, after which he rises to extraordinary prominence once again, this time reigning as Pharaoh's right-hand man. The story ends when the other brothers come to Egypt to buy grain, and after Joseph pranks them a couple times (because they don't yet recognize him), he reveals himself, the family is reconciled, and Jacob's clan relocates to Egypt where they can be safe from the famine. It's a fabulous story in its own right. But the early church long ago noticed that it has an added depth for Christians, because Joseph's tale of misadventure and triumph appears to anticipate and illustrate, in a cyclical fashion, the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Consider this: in at least three different instances, Joseph's story moves from betrayal and unjust punishment to exaltation. The first such episode is when Joseph's brothers plot to get rid of him. They do this by betraying and selling him for a price (as Judas did to Jesus), by tearing and bloodying his clothes (as happened to Jesus' at the crucifixion), and then by casting him down into a pit and raising him up again (as happened to Jesus in his burial and resurrection). 

This leads to the second cycle that mirrors Jesus' death and resurrection. Having been betrayed and sold, Joseph tastes the bitter reality of slavery in exile (just as Christ tasted the bitter reality of the slavery and exile of sin on the cross). Just as Joseph must begin this stage of his life as a servant, so Christ "made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant" when he came for our salvation (Phil. 2:7). Nonetheless, within that household God exalted Joseph to the right hand of the master, just as God "raised Jesus...and exalted him to the right hand of God" (Acts 2:33). 

This dramatic story takes place yet one more time in the life of Joseph. Once again he is betrayed (this time by Potiphar's wife), and he is sentenced as a criminal for a crime of which he is not guilty (just as Jesus was also unjustly sentenced to punishment as a criminal). Joseph was sent down to the prison for three years or so (see Gen. 39:20-40:1, 41:1), paralleling Christ's three days in the tomb. Then, miraculously, Joseph was raised out of the prison and ascended to a position at the right hand of Pharaoh, from whence he dispensed justice and order over the whole nation. Remarkably, of course, this is exactly what happened to Jesus: raised out of the tomb and exalted "to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead."

These three parallel cycles of the life of Joseph all mirror the cycle of Jesus' passion. Joseph himself, then, and the entirety of his story, is a type, a foreshadowing of Jesus. As if to drive home the point, Genesis gives us some summary-statements about the life of Joseph that ought to send echoes of Jesus ringing through our minds. When his father Jacob finally sees Joseph alive again, after thinking him dead and gone, "his spirit revived" (Gen. 45:27), just as our spirits revive when we come to see the glorious truth of the risen Christ; later Jacob says, "Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are alive" (Gen. 46:30)--a sentiment that can be heartily echoed by every Christian in reference to Christ. But the clearest such Christocentric summary of Joseph's story comes in Genesis 50:20, when Joseph tells his brothers, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." This statement could just as easily have been said by the risen Christ, looking back at the pain of the cross, and every single word would still apply. What men meant for evil, God used for good, and the result is that many are saved.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Photo of the Week

God is love: His mercy brightens
All the path in which we rove;
Bliss He wakes, and woe He lightens:
God is wisdom, God is love.

- Verse 1 of the hymn "God Is Love," by John Bowring

Monday, August 20, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Don't blame God for evil. It would make more sense to blame the sun for darkness."

- William Law, from his book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

Eternal God, you live in impenetrable light. No one has ever seen you nor is able to see you, who are the everlasting source of eternal blessing. It is you, Lord of Creation, who protect us who have put our hope in you, being filled with your wondrous divine grace. For yours is the greatness, the majesty, the power, and the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever, to the ages of ages. Amen.

- from Praying with the Orthodox Tradition

Friday, August 17, 2018

Quest for the King, Scene 9

The night passed swiftly, as the group gave way to the utter exhaustion of their flight. Mack and Kobi were steadfast in their watchfulness, but there were no signs of pursuit, no echoes of the wildmen’s calls. The barren hills of Bor-Takan stood silent and empty behind them, and they slept without disturbance.
When dawn broke, clear and brilliant over the eastern horizon, they rose and rubbed their eyes. The wincing pangs of hunger clawed at their stomachs, but the three children made no complaint.
“Is it morning already?” Sim groaned with a yawn. “I feel like we just laid down.”
“Well, you don’t get the best sleep on ground like this,” Sir Mack chuckled. “In fact, I wasn’t sad to sit up and take my turn in the middle of the night, what with the rocks under my back and the—”
He paused mid-sentence, his eyes darting up toward the road from Bor-Takan. “Quiet now!” he hissed, motioning for them to get back off the trail and into the shade of the bracken.
It didn’t take long for the threat he had foreseen to emerge: the sound of hoofs on the hilltop road. They held their breath, watching intently until they saw the head and mane of a war-horse break the line of the ridge’s crest. But this horse had no rider.
Sir Kobi gave a laugh and jogged out onto the road. He clapped his hands and the horse stopped for a moment, perked up its ears, and whinnied. Then it dashed down toward Kobi, kicking up little plumes of dust with every strike of its hoofs.
Mack relaxed with a sigh and cast a smile toward the children. “It looks like your plan worked in every respect, Joe.”
Joe grinned. “I’m glad he made it back.”
“And that those wildmen didn’t catch him!” Lady added.
“And,” Sim said, his eyebrows arched to underscore the importance of what he was about to say, “all of our food was in his saddlebags! Breakfast time!”
With a chorus of laughter, the children spilled out onto the road and welcomed back Kobi’s horse, which had so nobly and ably provided them with the means of escape the night before. Digging into the leather saddlebags, Kobi produced a few loaves of waybread and passed them out. The children devoured the bread without stopping to say a word, delighting in the simple pleasure of having something to eat.
A few minutes later, having quieted their bellies and stretched out their aching limbs, they were back on the road again. Ahead of them the rocky hills changed into a rather different landscape: a flat sea of scrub-brush forest, cut through with low canyons and dry streambeds. And there, miles beyond, the green glow of the coastal plains and the faintest glimmer of the sea where the land met the blue horizon.
“The canyonlands,” Kobi mused aloud. “Or, as some call them, the burning lands.”
“Why do they call them that?” asked Lady.
“Maybe it’s really hot here,” Sim guessed.
“No,” said Kobi. “It can get hot, but that’s not how it got the name. There are deep caves in these regions, cracks in the earth that run below the canyons. Strange gases leak out from the rock deep below us and fill up the streambeds—invisible but dangerous. One is not permitted to leave the high road in this country, because that’s the only place where you’ll find breathable air. If you step down into the channels, you suffocate. They also warn everyone not to carry a torch or build a fire here. If anyone does, the whole landscape bursts into flame when the gases ignite.”
“Have you ever seen it happen?” asked Sir Mack, regarding the younger knight.
“Not I. It must have been a decade since I last heard news that the canyonlands were ablaze.”
“Aye, nearly a decade. I was there that day, and nearly perished.”
Joe cast an eye up and down the landscape. “It doesn’t look like anyone else is out here today, though. And it’s only a few miles across, right? As long as we don’t light a torch, we should be safe.”
“And since it’s not burning, that means the prince must have gotten through safely too,” added Sim.
Mack nodded. “We can be in the coastal plains by lunchtime, I think.”
The two knights took a few moments to carefully wrap several pieces of their armor, wanting to cut off even the rarest chance of an accidental spark being struck by their metal. Kobi took several long strips of cloth and wrapped up his horse’s hoofs, knowing that the metal horseshoes could pose that same danger if they scraped over certain types of rocks. With those tasks done, they set off.
The road in this region had been built up so that it traced its way atop a long, sinuous mound of earth. Below them, on either side, stretched the brushy canyonlands with all their low channels. They looked entirely unassuming—charming, even, with little purple wildflowers interspersed with the dry bushes, giving the barren streambeds a lovely flair. But despite how fair and inviting those weaving passages of blossoms looked, the children knew that to wander from the path, whether to the right or the left, was to court disaster.
They marched on in silence, with Kobi at the lead and Mack taking up the rear. The sun ascended slowly in its long trek up the dome of the sky, but with every passing minute the heat of the day became ever more intense. They were about halfway down the road when Mack suddenly gave a fierce hiss. It was an unmistakable signal, and no words were needed to convey the message: get low and be quiet. The travelers immediately dropped to their bellies, and Kobi pulled his obedient horse down to kneel. Then, without a sound, they turned their heads to see if they could catch a glimpse of what Mack had spied.
There, far behind them, at the margin where the hills of Bor-Takan gave way to the canyonlands, a small troop of soldiers stood clustered together. The colors and insignia of their uniforms were recognizable even from that great distance: these were more of the Steward’s guards, sent from the city to pursue them. Already they had faced one troop at the river, but now it seemed that another had caught up with them.
These soldiers were talking amongst themselves, gesturing at the barren landscape before them. Then one of them motioned to the pathway, and for a long moment they were all bent over, studying the patterns in the dusty track. The fact that the canyonlands road was built on a line of earthen mounds meant that the surface of the road was softer and sandier than the rocky stretches through the hills; their footprints would be clearly visible. And, sure enough, they could see the soldiers’ heads turn as they followed the tracks with their eyes—down from the edge of the canyons and out onto the high road.
One of them raised an arm and pointed directly to where they lay, flat against the ground but apparently still visible even at that distance. A shout went up, and one of the soldiers drew his sword in a flash of motion. But another guard held up a hand to restrain the first. They talked for a brief moment, arguing back and forth, and then the travelers saw the second guard pull an unlit torch from the leather bag strapped to his waist. Until that moment, there had been the chance that the guards would choose to chase them down the high road. But now it seemed they had settled on a far more dangerous plan.
“Up!” Mack shouted urgently, and the five travelers popped to their feet. “Here’s what we’re going to do: Kobi, grab the waterskins and start pouring. Children, up onto the horse. Go, go, quickly now!”
Mack was tearing off his armor with one hand while he hoisted the children up, one by one, with the other. Meanwhile Kobi had taken the waterskins from the horse was spraying them out over the horse’s back, over the children’s heads and clothes, and then over himself and Mack, until everyone in the company was well soaked through.
They cast another glance back at the guards just in time to see them pitch a lighted torch out into the dry streambeds. The flaming brand spun into space for a haunting moment, and then, as it began its downward arc, the air itself caught fire, and the torch fell to the earth like a comet, with a river of living flame pouring out behind it.
“Go!” shouted Mack. He slapped the horse’s hindquarters, and the brave animal charged forward with a fierce whinny.
The children hunched down as close as they could to the horse’s wet back. Lady was riding first, her arms clinging to the charger’s neck. Then came Joe in the middle, his hands holding the reins as he tried to squeeze his legs around the saddle tight enough that he wouldn’t fly off. Last was Sim, his arms locked around Joe in a crushing embrace. The horse snorted and heaved, its powerful muscles working like an unbreakable machine as it tore down the high road toward the plains.
Joe turned his head to glance back, and all he saw was a world aflame. The blaze from the torch was sweeping over the canyons like a series of waves, running down the streambeds in rivers of blue and orange and white as the gases ignited. The fire moved so fast that it could hardly be believed: it surged toward them like a tidal wave, and the roar of its movement was louder even than the pounding of hoofs beneath them. Joe couldn’t even make out the road behind him, so bright and fierce were the walls of flame on both sides. Mack and Kobi were nowhere to be seen.
All of the sudden a blast of rising temperature overtook them, as if they had opened the door to a furnace-room. The air grew blisteringly hot around them. Steam hissed out of their clothes and hair as the water Kobi had dumped on them was licked away by the torturous heat. Then the flames caught up with their flight, and to their right and left the wave of fire rolled over the canyons and the streambeds, eating up the invisible gases with an insatiable hunger. Walls of bright, blazing orange rose on both sides of them, so full and so high that they met far above their heads to create a tunnel of fire.
Now the air through which they rode started to sear their skin; the edges of their clothes began to smolder. But the horse ran on, stride after stride, never flagging for an instant. Lady whimpered with pain, her eyes screwed tightly shut and her head bowed low against the horse’s neck. Sim had his head pressed against Joe’s back, his arms still locked tight around his brother’s chest. But Joe looked ahead, his eyes held open in narrow slits, as he stared down the final stretch of road.
Light and heat rolled in undulating waves all around them, making his vision of the road dance and waver. But the road was still there; he could see it; and now, far ahead, he could see a pinprick of green light appear in the absolute center of the tunnel of flame. He clenched his teeth and prayed, holding on with all his might as that green light grew steadier and larger. The horse’s hoofs flew like wings over the last stretch of sandy road, while all around them the world burned. And then, suddenly, they burst out of the tunnel of fire like a rock shot out by an explosion. Out into the open air they flew, the horse lathering beneath them and steam rising like incense from their clothes.
Once they were passed the fiercest wave of heat and into fresh air at a low bluff where the canyonlands gave way to green plains, they turned and looked back. The whole landscape was on fire, with flames as high as the trees of the great forest licking up into the sky.
“Mack,” whispered Sim hoarsely. “Kobi.” His wide, dark eyes were suddenly bright with tears.
Lady looked back too, watching the opening of the tunnel of flame intently. But there was nothing there. No movement; no hope. The children had had the speed of the horse to help them out, and their own blistered skin was testament to the fact that they had barely made it out alive. Joe knew, as he looked back at the burning canyonlands, that there was no way Mack and Kobi could have made it through. They couldn’t have run fast enough.
They were gone.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Glimpses of Grace: Jacob Wrestles with Jesus

In Genesis 32, we come across yet another exceptionally odd story. In the middle of Jacob's fearful return to his homeland, we find the strange interjection of an episode that defies any normal expectations for such a narrative. Jacob was waiting on the banks of the river Jabbok, having just sent all of his family and possessions over onto the other side. It was nighttime, and he was terrified of what might happen in the coming hours--he was anticipating a reunion with his estranged brother Esau, whom he hadn't seen since stealing his birthright many years before, and at that time Esau had responded with such murderous threats that it forced Jacob to flee into exile.

But as he waits, someone meets him on the banks of the river. Only, it isn't Esau. Stranger still, we're not sure who it is at first. All that we're told is that while Jacob was alone, "a man wrestled with him till daybreak." Weird, right? It's a plot twist that comes unexpectedly and which, at least at first, makes little to no sense at all. We're filled with lots of questions that the Bible doesn't seem interested in answering, like "What on earth is going on here?!" Even in ancient Near Eastern cultures, having a night-long wrestling match with a total stranger that you met alone in the wilderness wasn't really a thing that people did. So what's this all about?

There are a few clues about this man that drive home the point that something very out-of-the-ordinary is taking place. First, although the man is strong enough to wrestle Jacob all night long, the story tells us that he recognizes that he cannot overpower Jacob. Nonetheless, he does have an otherworldly power to throw Jacob's hip out of socket with just a simple touch. But even a bad hip couldn't slow Jacob down: he apparently held on long enough that the man had to ask to be released, and the reason he gives is that "it is daybreak." What sort of sense can we read into that? Is this man on a strict schedule of only wrestling in the darkness, but never in daylight? Does he have an important meeting to get to at dawn, and needs to wrap things up with Jacob? Or is he a vampire, who cannot survive the touch of the sun's rays?

At this point the story indicates that Jacob knows there's something special about his opponent, because he refuses to let the man go unless the man blesses him first. This is a request only asked of someone greater than oneself, or someone with some form of recognizable spiritual authority (as in the case of Abraham and Melchizedek, cited in an earlier study in this series). The man consents and blesses Jacob, but only after a peculiar interchange in which he requests Jacob's name, then changes it to Israel (which apparently means "he struggles with God"), and then cryptically avoids telling Jacob his own name in return. (The renaming of Jacob as "Israel" will be repeated in Gen. 35, in a scene in which God once again seems to appear physically and then to ascend from Jacob's presence; yet another story whose startling physicality in regard to God prepares us for the even more startling reality of the Incarnation.)

By this point in the story, though, the inference is becoming clear: Jacob has just spent all night struggling with this guy, and then is given a name meaning "he struggles with God." As in all the other weird stories of strange supernatural figures popping up in Genesis, we see again the pattern of a character who started out as "a man" ultimately being revealed as God himself. This is confirmed at the end of the story, where Jacob gives exactly this reading to the man's identity: "I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

So the man is God. Okay, we've gotten that far. But what's with all the strange little details we noticed along the way?  First of all, the common repetition of this particular narrative sequence (a man shows up and is later revealed to be, in some sense, God himself) mirrors the actual historical revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is fully man and fully God, and the people that he met during his Gospel ministry encountered him first as simply "a man" before gradually becoming aware of his divinity, which was clearly revealed at the end by his resurrection and ascension. 

Although the wrestler in this story has access to divine powers, he nonetheless cannot prevail against Jacob--this is perhaps a hint toward the doctrine of Christ's kenosis: his "emptying" of the prerogatives of divine power in order to assume a nature like ours. 

His odd request that Jacob release him before daybreak calls to mind a similarly odd command that Jesus gives to Mary Magdalene at dawn on resurrection Sunday: "Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (Jn. 20:17). Perhaps in Jacob's story, as in the resurrection narrative, there is a hint of "there's still more to come." The wrestler was telling Jacob that this life of struggling with God through the darkness--a pattern that would characterize the entire experience of Old Testament Israel--was not the whole story. There was something else coming: daybreak, when the wrestling would cease and the blessing would be given. That hinted promise is fulfilled in the coming of Christ himself. 

A final piece of evidence comes from Jacob's act of naming the place of that occurrence. He calls it "Face-of-God" (Peniel), or, in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, "Form of God." This is the same kind of terminology that the New Testament uses to describe Christ. He is the image of God, the form, the visible representation of the unknowable God. Jacob's closing declaration about his night of wrestling also carries echoes of the Christian Gospel. It's usually rendered as "I saw God face to face, and my life was spared," but in the ancient Greek version, an equally strong rendering would be: "I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved." That, in a single line, is the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

(Painting: "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel," by Rembrandt, 1659)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Photo of the Week

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found;
Surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them.
You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble
And surround me with songs of deliverance.

- Psalm 32:6-7

Monday, August 13, 2018

Quote of the Week

(A little advice on how to listen to a bad sermon:)

God calleth preaching folly: do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot.
The worst speak something good; if all want 
God takes a text, and preacheth patience.

- George Herbert, 17th-cent. English poet and priest

(Painting: "The Sermon," by Eduard Lebiedzki, 19th cent.)

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O God, stay with me; let no word cross my lips that is not your word, no thoughts enter my mind that are not your thoughts, no deed ever be done or entertained by me that is not your deed.

- Malcolm Muggeridge

Friday, August 10, 2018

Better than Eden: Union with God as a Motivation for Evangelism

(Note: "The Quest for the King" will resume on Friday, August 17)

What was it that God made us for? What were we intended to be? Scripture tells us that we were made in the image of God (Gen. 1), created for his glory, to live in relationship with him and with our fellow humans. Included in the idea of the “image of God” is probably the way our rational, emotional, moral, relational, and creative powers reflect his character, as well as the fact that we were made to be his representatives and stewards toward the rest of creation. The relational aspect of this original intent should not be overlooked—one of the most clearly present themes in Gen. 2 is Adam’s need for companionship, as well as God’s relationship with both Adam and Eve. Our relationality, then, properly extends both to God and to others. (One other note must be added, though: because of what the New Testament tells us about our life in Christ, it is worth speculating that the situation in the Garden of Eden might not have been God’s ultimate intention for humanity. The early church fathers—especially the Eastern fathers, along with Irenaeus from the West—wholeheartedly believed that God’s purpose for humanity transcended even the beauty and communion of the Edenic state. In short, the belief is that God intended humanity for union with himself, a goal toward which even Adam and Eve, had they not fallen into sin, would still have had to ascend. Therefore, I think we might be selling ourselves short if we describe God’s original intention for humanity merely in terms of the first two chapters of Genesis.)

A second question then presents itself: “Why have we failed to fulfill this original intent for humanity?” The answer, of course, is sin. We in the Western Christian tradition tend to think of sin as a series of crimes against God. And sin certainly is that, but that’s not all it is—together with Satan and death (the anti-Trinity often highlighted by classical Christian thinkers), it forms an invasive, ineluctable force of evil that binds us against fulfilling God’s ultimate intention for us. In Rom. 5, the main source of the doctrine of “original sin,” Paul describes sin almost as a genetic disease—passed on from generation to generation, binding them all to condemnation. This original sin is ratified in each individual soul’s rebellion against the rule of God. Sin touches every area of life (“total depravity”), defacing (but not erasing) every aspect of the image of God in us. Because sin causes one to be inherently self-centered, we have lost our ability to live the kind of other-focused and God-centered life that we were made for. We have been sidetracked away from the road toward union with God.

And the solution, of course, is Christ himself. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, our forgiveness from sins has been won, and we have been reconciled to God. We still have traces of the disease of sin in our system, but we also have the antidote now, constantly doing its work to redeem us from the power of sin, Satan, and death. And Christ’s death did more than just atone for sins and pay the debt of God’s wrath; it also crushed the powers of evil and triumphed over them, giving us freedom from their usurped authority (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15). In Christ, we have the reversal of total depravity—now it is God’s holiness that touches every area of our lives. We have been given back the capacity to relate to God and to others in a selfless, loving way. But, as I mentioned above, this isn’t merely a return to the Edenic state—it goes much farther than that. Now we have the opportunity to “share in God’s holiness” (Heb. 12:10), to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and to be “transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). Now we have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and we are united to Christ in the church (the Body of Christ) and in the fact of the Incarnation—humanity is, now and forever, united to the very life of God, and individuals can enter that “new humanity” by believing and following Christ. That is more than merely a return to Eden; it is the goal for which God designed humanity from the beginning—to be so embraced and caught up by his love that we become enveloped in the life of God himself.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

What's the Deal with Hell? (Part 4 of 4)

Note: This piece is the final part of a theology paper discussing various views of the nature of hell in the orthodox and evangelical Christian traditions. This article offers some general conclusions on the evangelical theology of hell. The previous weeks' pieces assessed the universalist, annihilationist, and traditionalist positions. Next week the ongoing series on foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament will resume.

(Painting: "The Last Judgment," by Raphael Coxie, 1589)


Universalism is usually rejected as an element of Christian dogma (that is, as a doctrine foundational enough and well-established enough to be taught as "Gospel truth") because it does not appear to do justice to either the full scope of Scriptural teaching or the force of church tradition. (There are some exceptions to this, however: for instance, universalism is a much more mainstream idea within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and has been so ever since the patristic period.) Nonetheless, its logical and emotional arguments are compelling and profound. While it would be improper for the church to teach it as a doctrine (at least without giving the context of other interpretive options), honest Christians cannot help but hope that perhaps, in the mystery of God’s will, some of the bright optimism of universalism might in fact be true. This practice of holding out tentative hope is, I think, understandable and honorable (as even the staunch traditionalist J. I. Packer agrees). The error of universalism is not that it holds out hope, as all of us who have unbelieving friends and relatives probably do, but rather that it appears to “turn a dream into a doctrine.”[1] But one is still permitted to dream.

Annihilationism is taken to be more acceptable as a doctrine in most evangelical circles, since it deals so seriously and forthrightly with the full scope of biblical evidence. Clearly, one must accept the annihilationists’ argument that “destruction” is one of the major biblical themes in regard to hell. The further question, however, still remains: does reference to such destruction necessarily imply a cessation of existence, particularly in light of passages that are usually taken to imply otherwise? This is a debate that remains ongoing in biblical interpretation circles, and one which is worth following.

Those who accept an evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture usually tend to assign the upper hand to the traditionalist position, partly because of the respect it gives to the study of biblical arguments without flinching away from implications that might seem distasteful. However, traditionalists too often defend their position in an aggressive and dogmatic manner. While the question of hell is not inconsequential and thus ought to be debated and defended, traditionalists could learn something valuable about the emotional force of the question from universalists and annihilationists. Too often, traditionalists criticize the conditionalist positions as arising from sentimentality. Even if that were true (and most conditionalists would undoubtedly reply that it was the evidence, not sentimentality, that brought them to their position), that particular prejudice appears to assume rather blithely that one ought to be able to accept the everlasting torture of human beings as a fine and proper thing. The fact of the matter is that if one does not show some sentiment of horror and lament over the idea of hell, it betrays a lack of emotional understanding and calls into question that person’s experience of the love of God for all people. In the words of the Lausanne Covenant, “It is only with tears that hell is contemplated by those who reach out daily in love for sinners.”[2]

Of the variant positions within the traditionalist view, the idea of exclusion from the presence of God is clearly an element which ought to be central to our understanding of hell, as it echoes a clearly biblical refrain. And as a moderating position, the idea of gradations of punishment might do a decent job of upholding both the force of Scripture and a very real concern for justice and mercy. The idea does have some biblical foundation, and it parallels well with the commonly-accepted idea of gradations of reward in heaven. However, the evidence for this position is not conclusive, and so it must be held tentatively.

Finally, I see two main applications for ministry. First is the point just touched upon—hell is such a difficult question that it ought to be handled carefully and with great empathy. Despite all the teaching about hell in Scripture, there is a great deal that we simply don’t understand about it. The traditionalist position appears to have the strongest argument, but it often comes across as repulsive and extreme. It may be the case that our perspective here on earth is limited, and that in the age to come we will be able to see and understand hell in a way that dissolves all our objections. Until then, I think the advice of John Stott holds true: “We may, and I think we should, preserve a certain reverent and humble agnosticism about the precise nature of hell, as about the precise nature of heaven. Both are beyond our understanding.”[3]

Second, while we can retain some agnosticism about the exact nature of hell, we must be clear about the reality of hell. Jesus did not teach so extensively on the subject for nothing. Sinners must be told that there is a judgment coming and that eternal punishment will not be pleasant or tolerable in the least. While we ought not to abuse the doctrine by trying to scare sinners into repentance, we must hold fast to our responsibility to warn them. The Gospel is good news for those who believe, but there is also an element of warning that needs to be told. We must remember that the Gospel will always be an offense to sinful human sensibilities, but that does not mean that it ought not to be proclaimed.


[1] Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 86.

[2] Quoted in Oden, 450.

[3] John Stott, Authentic Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), 394-395.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Photo of the Week

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
My hope comes from Him.

- Psalm 62:5

Monday, August 06, 2018

Quote of the Week

"Prayer is an all-efficient panoply, a treasure undiminished, a mine which is never exhausted, a sky unobscured by clouds, a heaven unruffled by the storm. It is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings."

- John Chrysostom, early church father

(Painting: "Young Man at Prayer," by Hans Memling, c.1475)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Saturday Synaxis

O Father in heaven... [I beseech] Thee to drown my transgressions 
          in the sea of Thine own infinite love:
My failure to be true even to my own accepted standards;
My self-deception in the face of temptation;
My choosing of the worse when I know the better:
                    O Lord, forgive.
My failure to apply to myself the standards of conduct I demand of others:
My blindness to the sufferings of others and my slowness to be taught by my own:
My complacence towards wrongs that do not touch my own case 
          and my over-sensitiveness to those that do:
My slowness to see the good in my fellows and to see the evil in myself;
My hardness of heart towards my neighbors' faults 
          and my readiness to make allowance for my own;
My unwillingness to believe that Thou hast called me to a small work 
          and my brother to a great one:
                    O Lord, forgive.

- John Baillie, from his Diary of Private Prayer

Friday, August 03, 2018

Devotional Reminders for Meditation: The Truth about Us

(Note: "The Quest for the King" will resume on Friday, August 17)

Most of us struggle against lies about ourselves—lies that come from the world around us, from Satan, or from our own doubts. Once again, the best way to counteract this is to remind ourselves of who we really are, and to do that we need to soak ourselves in the truth of Scripture. The Bible is absolutely full of life-changing truths about who we are in Christ. Below are just a few pages of selections on this theme—read them through, meditate on them, and spend some time thanking God in prayer for what he has done for us.
  • John 1:12 - I am God's child.
    Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God
  • John 15:15 - As a disciple, I am a friend of Jesus Christ.
    I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
  • Romans 5:1 - I have been justified.
    Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:17 – I am united with the Lord, and I am one with Him in spirit.
    But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:27 – I am a member of Christ’s body.
    Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
  • Ephesians 1:3-8 – I have been chosen by God and adopted as His child.
    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
  • Colossians 1:13-14 – I have been redeemed and forgive of all my sins.
    For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
  • Colossians 2:9-10 – I am complete in Christ.
    For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.
  • Hebrews 4:14-16 – I have direct access to the throne of grace through Jesus Christ.
    Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
  • Romans 8:1 – I am free from condemnation.
    Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
  • Romans 8:28 – I am assured that God works for my good in all circumstances.
    And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
  • Romans 8:31-39 – I am free from any condemnation brought against me and I cannot be separated from the love of God.
    What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died more than that, who was raised to life is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughter." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  • 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 – I have been established, anointed and sealed by God.
    Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
  • Colossians 3:1-4 – I am hidden with Christ in God.
    Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
  • Philippians 1:6 – I am confident that God will complete the good work He started in me.
    being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
  • Philippians 3:20 – I am a citizen of heaven.
    But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
  • 1 John 5:18 – I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me.
    We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.
  • John 15:5 – I am a branch of Jesus Christ, the true vine, and a channel of His life.
    “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
  • John 15:16 – I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit.
    You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
  • 1 Corinthians 3:16 – I am God’s temple.
    Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?
  • 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 – I am a minister of reconciliation for God.
    Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
  • Ephesians 2:6 – I am seated with Jesus Christ in the heavenly realm.
    And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
  • Ephesians 2:10 – I am God’s workmanship.
    For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
  • Ephesians 3:12 – I may approach God with freedom and confidence.
    In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.