Category: Mark’s Blog

Like A Living Stone

Please excuse the pun of the Bob Dylan song for the title, and I was tempted beyond what I could stand. “Living stones,” now there is an oxymoron for you. Nothing could be more lifeless than a stone. The article on “stone” in the Dictionary Of Biblical Imagery states that “stone imagery primarily conveys the concept of lifelessness.” So what was Peter thinking (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) when he wrote, “ you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5)?

Peter refers to followers of Jesus as “living stones” because we are participating in the life of Jesus, who is the “living stone.” Jesus had used the image of a “rejected stone” of Himself during His earthly ministry (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17), and Peter had used the image of Jesus as the rejected stone when the Sanhedrin questioned John and Peter about who authorized the message they were proclaiming (Acts 4:11). The idea of being a “living stone” is already embedded in Peter’s response because he noted that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 4:10) and therefore there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Jesus is a “living stone” because He is the “rejected stone” of prophecy (Psalm 118:22; Isaiah 8:14; 28:16) but also the “living,” resurrected Lord. Since those who are genuinely following Jesus have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3) by “obedience to the truth” (1 Peter 1:22) “through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). Christians participate in the life of Jesus and are therefore “living stones.”

As “living stones,” we are being built together as the temple of God (the dwelling place of God). All Christians individually are the temple of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 5:32; 1 Corinthians 3:19). However, the more prominent idea of God’s temple (“house”) in the New Testament is the church, “assembly” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:20-22; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:4-10; 4:17). We are being “built together” (Ephesians 2:22) on the foundation of Jesus (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:7). Each Christian is a “living stone” that is being “fitted together” (Ephesians 2:21) as the walls of God’s spiritual “house.” Can we do better in being “built together”? Yes! Do not let there be a “hole in the wall” where your stone should be? Remember, if we are not being “fitted and joined together,” we are not part of the spiritual house of God.

DECEIVING AND BEING DECEIVED

The Spirit-inspired apostle Paul wrote, “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). People deceiving and being deceived is undoubtedly as accurate in our time as it was when Paul wrote it.

The Greek word that is translated as “deceive” in 2 Timothy 3:13 is planaoo (πλανάω). It occurs thirty-nine times in the New Testament. The synonymous compound form apoplanaoo (ἀποπλανάω) occurs twice in the New Testament. The occurrences of planaoo are pretty equally distributed among the various groups of New Testament writings, with the most frequent occurrences in the Gospel of Matthew and Revelation (eight times in each document).

The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker Greek Lexicon provides the following two meanings of planaoo. First, planaoo can mean “to cause to go astray from a specific way” (lead astray, cause to wander, mislead, deceive someone). Second, “to proceed without a proper sense of direction, go astray, be misled, wander aimlessly.”

God is concerned that His people do not deceive others (Proverbs 24:28) and to not be deceived (Jeremiah 29:8; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 15:33; Galatians 6:7; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; James 1:16). Included in the call to “not be deceived” is the idea of self-deception (Jeremiah 37:9; James 1:22, 26; 1 John 1:8).

The noun dolos (δόλος) occurs eleven times in the New Testament (Matthew 26:4; Mark 7:22; 14:1; John 1:47; Acts 13:10; Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Peter 2:1, 22; 3:10) and means deceit, cunning, treachery, falsify, or treachery. The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker Greek Lexicon defines dolos as “taking advantage through craft and underhanded methods, deceit, cunning, treachery.” The occurrence of dolos several of the New Testament “vice lists” indicates that it is a characteristic of those who live in “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness.”

The sages were well of the problem of deception and wrote about it. “The folly of fools is deceiving” (Proverbs 14:8). “Do not deceive with your lips” (Proverbs 24:28). “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I am only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18-19).

Ananias and Sapphira apparently did not take the biblical teaching against deception to heart and attempted to deceive God’s people with how sacrificially they gave. However, this did not go well for them, and they suffered the immediate judgment of God (Acts 5:1-11).

We live in a time of deception (false news, etc.). Let us make sure that we do not deceive ourselves or others. Let us be vigilant not to be deceived by others or ourselves.

Echo Chambers

Information can come from many different sources and perspectives. Unfortunately, echo chambers amplify and reinforce only one view by repeatedly communicating and repeating the same attitudes and opinions. As a result, echo chambers increase polarization and extremism.

An echo chamber is an environment where a person encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce one’s own existing beliefs or convictions. We all tend to listen to and read sources that we have come to trust. Yet, if all we do is obtain our understanding from these sources, we are probably in an echo chamber.

It was typical in the ancient Near East (including Israel and Judah) for the kings to have court “prophets” (numerous different technical terms are used for these prophet-like “advisers”). Nathan was a prophet in the court of David, and he remained such even when he chastised David for his actions concerning Bathsheba and her husband (2 Samuel 12:1–15). Isaiah seems to have had access to the temple and the palace and advised the king (for instance, Isaiah has access to king Ahaz at the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field – Isaiah 7:3-25).

Often these “court prophets” were “yes men” (telling the king what he wanted to hear). For example, King Ahab consulted his prophets about a proposed attack against the king of Syria at Ramath-gilead (1 Kings 22:1–12; 2 Chronicles 18:3-11). Prophets for hire, they assured him that the attack would be successful. However, King Jehoshaphat of Judah was suspicious of such unanimity and asked for another opinion. Ahaz noted another prophet, “Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil” (1 Kings 22:8). Thus, the court prophets functioned as an “echo chamber” for king Ahab, but Ahab needed to hear another perspective (God’s truth), and the prophet Micaiah was willing to speak God’s word to Ahab.

In the time of the prophet Jeremiah, most of the prophets served as an “echo chamber,” telling the king and people of Jerusalem what they wanted to hear. For example, Hananiah, the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon (Jeremiah 28:1), was one of the false prophets who prophesied a short-lived Babylonian exile (Jeremiah 28:2-4). Other prophets in Jerusalem prophesied peace and victory when there was no peace (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; 14:13; 23:15-16; 28:9). Amid this situation, Jeremiah was willing not to be part of the “echo chamber” and suffered for it.

The discussion questions that I wrote to go with the sermon on Mount Gilboa required me to research and consider multiple sources and points of view concerning the end of life decisions and burial practices to discuss essential issues intelligently. Just relying on my “default position” or selecting only sources that agreed with my “default position” (an “echo chamber”) is not credible or helpful.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Pantheon Books, 2012). Haidt attempts to explain why people see things and believe things the way that they do and why very rarely do you have people changing their minds on issues that are not peripheral.

Haidt’s thesis is that people do not typically have reasons and then move to their views. Instead, people tend to have intuitions and find reasons to support them unless something intervenes. A person has a specific intuition, and there are certain things that, without thinking about, this person responds to either with a lack of alarm or with a positive view or with a sense of withdrawal or a sense of disgust. Still, often the person does not understand why.

I think Haidt is correct. Haidt is not a Christian, but his thesis is in harmony with the teaching of Scripture. For instance, Paul teaches that God has given people up to their heart lusts, passions, and lies (Romans 1:24-26). Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). According to Proverbs: “the way of the fool is right in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15), “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25), “every way of a man is right in his own eyes (Proverbs 21:2) and “he who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26).

God’s authoritative word is clear. If we follow our “intuitions” and do not challenge our intuitions with information that challenges our intuitions, we are fools, and our lives will be going in the wrong direction. This is because finding the correct way to navigate life is not found “within” ourselves (“intuition”) but from the God who is “outside” and “above” us.

God’s powerful word can break through our “echo chambers” and set us free (John 8:31-32).

PAUL DIALOGUED WITH THEM

Today, most people think of sermons as extended religious monologues meant to encourage, inspire, and occasionally challenge us. The traditional way of doing “Sunday worship” leaves us with this impression. Luke’s presentation of the beginning and growth of the early church can also leave us with this impression because of the presence of extended monologues throughout Acts (see Acts 2:14-40; 3:12-26; 7:2-53; 10:34-48; 13:16-42; 17:22-34).

The Greek word dialegomai occurs thirteen times in the Greek New Testament. According to the Greek Lexicon by Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, the Greek word dialegomai means “to engage in speech interchange, converse, discuss, argue” and “to instruct about something” (BDAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 232). Eckhard Schnabel notes that dialegomai describes either a discussion of a topic or a series of subjects by one person (sermon, lecture) or a conversation about a topic or topics between two or more persons (dialogue, discussion) [Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2012]. Thus, we get our English word “dialogue” from dialegomai.

In Acts, Paul is regularly the subject of dialegomai. When Paul goes to the Jewish synagogue at Thessalonica, Luke records that “he reasoned (dialegomai) with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). When Paul was in Athens, “he reasoned (dialegomai) in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Again at Corinth, Paul “reasoned (dialegomai) in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). At Ephesus, Paul goes to the synagogue and “reasoned” (dialegomai) with the Jews (Acts 18:19; 19:8). The same term also applies to Paul’s teaching in other settings (Acts 19:9; 24:25), including church settings (20:7–9).

The extended monologue is a biblical way of presenting the word of God. However, it is not the only way (even in assembly settings). Paul not only taught by monologue, but he also dialogued with his hearers in several different settings.

The current Sunday morning practice of the Columbine congregation is in harmony with both aspects of the meaning of dialegomai. First, we meet together and have an extended lesson from the Bible, and then we meet together to discuss (dialogue) the application of that lesson for us. This way of doing things provides the opportunity to be transformed by God’s powerful and dynamic word.

WHEN WORDS MEAN WHAT THEY DON’T

Every once in a while, one discovers a verse that is simply impossible to translate. No matter what you do, you over-or under-translate, or worst, mistranslate. 2 John 12 is one of those verses.

“Though I have many things to write (γράφειν) to you, I do not want to use (οὐκ ἐβουλήθην) paper and ink (διὰ χάρτου καὶ μέλανος); instead, I hope to be with you and speak face to face, so that our joy may be complete.”

The meaning is obvious. There is much that “the elder” needed to communicate to “the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1). Most of what he wanted to express required to be accomplished in person (face to face). However, there were also some things he needed to communicate with paper and ink.

So far, so good, except that is not what he wrote. It is what he means, but it is not what he wrote.

He wrote that he did not “want to use paper and ink.” How else did he intend on writing? A stylus and stone? Carrier pigeon? The internet? He has other things to write, but he does not want to use writing utensils.

1 John 12 is an impossible verse to translate if you want to stay true to the meaning of the words used. And yet, it still does communicate.

How many of us have noticed this issue, or did we just read over the verse, understanding the meaning.

There is so much more to communication than mere words, a phenomenon not attached merely to this kind of verse. Our terms create pictures, and those images communicate and fill in the blanks (and sometimes straighten out the absurdities of the words we use).

I wonder how many times we have a message to communicate and the words we use are like 2 John 12?

MY RIGHTS (?)

Many people in this country (both liberals and conservatives) are currently in an uproar regarding “our rights” and not losing “our freedoms.” The way these statements are made leaves one with the impression that “our rights and freedoms” are one of (if not the top) priorities in life. In other words, it seems that “our rights and freedoms” has become an idol for some (many).

The apostle Paul addresses the subject of idolatry in at least four ways in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. The first two ways are not surprising, and we expect them. First, Paul affirms that “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6) and the exclusive nature of being God’s covenant people (Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:6-9; 1 Corinthians 10:16-22). A second way that Paul attempted to curb idolatry in the Corinthian church was to issue a command to “flee idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Third, Paul brings up examples from the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate that just because one enters into covenant with God does not mean that one is no longer subject to evil desires. Paul draws on the examples of “our fathers” who entered a covenant relationship with God, pursued idolatry, and incurred God’s displeasure (1 Corinthians 10:1-10). Paul understood the Hebrew Scriptures to be applicable and crucial for the disciple of Jesus to remain faithful (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).

The fourth way that Paul addressed idolatry is the most challenging (in this writers’ opinion). Paul was willing to sacrifice his “rights” and “freedoms” for the sake of the family of God. Paul uses himself as an example in chapter 9 in response to the Corinthians’ insistence on their own “rights” (exousia, 8:9). “Paul presents himself as one who did not use his rights. Indeed, he became a slave to all (9:19) and a model for the Corinthians (cf. 10:33-11:1). … As the selfless one who defines his identity by the cross, Paul offers the countercultural example that is necessary for the moral formation for which he prays (1:8).”[1]

Richard Hays wrote:

Paul’s self-description serves as a model for the conduct that he is urging upon the strong: like him, they should be willing to surrender their exousia for the sake of the weak in order to promote the gospel. This is not explicitly stated until the very conclusion of the larger argument (10:32–11:1), but it is clearly implied by the thematic links between chapters 8 and 9 (exousia in 8:9 and throughout chapter 9; the example of Paul in 8:13, taken together with 9:12 and 9:22). We may be sure that, whether they liked what Paul had to say or not, the Corinthians would have seen what he was driving at. … Paul says, in effect, “No, for the sake of the gospel you must exercise self-restraint. You must discipline yourself for the sake of the greater good of building up the community in love.”[2]

Community responsibility is a higher priority for Christians than one’s own “rights” and “freedoms.” One must use one’s “rights” and “freedoms” to “build up” and “not destroy” (1 Corinthians 8:7-13; 10:23). When one uses their own “rights” for “self-serving behavior,” it is the opposite of the exercise of love (which builds up).[3] In the context of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1, love is defined “in sacrificial terms, as the denial of one’s rights and the concern for the weaker sibling.”[4] This definition of love is clear by Paul’s illustration of the destructive results of individualistic behavior in 1 Corinthians 8:10-11.

In response to some of the Corinthian saints asserting their “rights” (exousia, 1 Corinthians 8:9), Paul insists that he has chosen not to use his “right” in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:4-6, 12, 18). By relinquishing his “rights,” Paul “exemplified the love that Jesus enacted at the cross. His conduct is the model for the Corinthians” (1 Corinthians 11:1).[5]

Paul exemplifies freedom that relinquishes “rights” for the sake of others (1 Corinthians 9:19). True Christian freedom is exercised in service, not demanding one’s rights. Unfortunately, the Corinthian saints who insisted on exercising their rights “have become paradoxically captive to the agenda of their own exousia: they are not free to act in the interest of their brothers and sisters. To put it bluntly, 1 Corinthians 9 suggests that if we find ourselves campaigning on the party platform of defending our own rights and privileges, we have lost sight of the gospel.”[6]

Paul’s example to the selfish saints at Corinth is patterned on the model of Christ. When Paul wrote to the saints at Philippi, he encouraged them to have the mindset that Jesus demonstrated when he wrote: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Paul followed Christ’s example of giving up one’s rights, which is why he could write, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

The mindsets and examples of Jesus and Paul are still applicable for the followers of Jesus today. So may Christ be “formed in” us.

Mark Johnson

[1] James W. Thompson, Apostle of Persuasion: Theology and Rhetoric in the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020), 89.

[2] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997), 148.

[3] James W. Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 163.

[4] Ibid., 164.

[5] Ibid., 165.

[6] Hays, 157-158.

DO NOT FEAR … IN ORDER TO FEAR

God revealed Himself to the Israelites and the Egyptians by sending the plagues on Egypt (Exodus 6:5; 7:5, 17; 8:9-10, 22; 9:13-14, 29; 10:1-2) and deliverance through the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:4, 18; 15:2-13). When Israel grumbled in the wilderness concerning the lack of food, God sent manna and quail so that they would learn who God is (Exodus 16:6, 12).

When Israel was camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, God instructed Moses to prepare the people to meet Him (Exodus 19:9-15). On the third day, Israel experienced an awe-inspiring theophany (manifestation) of God (Exodus 19:18-19; 20:18-19) “so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so” (Deuteronomy 4:10-12).

“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear (יָרֵא, yārēʾ), for God has come to test you, that the fear (יָרֵא, yārēʾ) of him may be before you, that you may not sin’” (Exodus 20:20). What did Moses say? Do not fear but fear? What is going on?

“The aspects of fear encompassed by יָרֵא  (yārēʾ) include terror, respect, and worship” (Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Zondervan, 1997, 528). Thus, the fear of the Lord is a continuum (terror ” dread ” trembling ” astonishment ” awe ” reverence ” devotion ” trust ” worship) we move along when we accurately perceive God and the world He has made.

Moses calls on Israel not to have a “tormenting fear” of God with the first “fear” in Exodus 20:20. “Terror” is a natural reaction to the powerful manifestation of God in fire and smoke on Sinai. The “terror” and “dread” side of the “fear continuum” can result from being confronted with mysterious supernatural phenomena (feeling threatened in one’s very existence), conscious guilt, or unwarranted alarm. Moses encourages the people not to be afraid because that reaction would demonstrate that they misunderstand what God is trying to do (“to prove or test them” – Exodus 20:20).

The “fear of the LORD” that Moses calls for with “that the fear of him may be before you” (Exodus 20:20) is “salutary fear.” Fear that promotes or is conducive to a beneficial relationship with LORD. It is the presence of an attitude that encourages and demonstrates complete trust and belief in God (Genesis 22:12). This type of “fear” will keep us from sinning and is at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures’ wisdom books (Proverbs 1:7; Ecclesiastes 12:13). Holy awe of God manifests itself in “obedience to God (or the LORD).”

God revealed Himself at Sinai to give Israel so vivid and unforgettable an experience of Himself, including His statement of His principles for life in relationship with Him (the Torah), that they will follow His way as the priority of life. The point of the Words (Exodus 20:1-19) and the theophany is to encourage Israel to walk in obedience to God (“fear of Him”) which will remove the dread of God’s presence. Obedience to God through the words (“instruction”) will result in not continuing in sin, which allows God’s presence to dwell among them. An awareness of the incredible power, glory, and majesty of God ought to make them think twice before choosing to sin against God. This awareness of the holy God and its appropriate response is what is meant by “the fear of God” in the Bible.

Boundaries

God accomplished creation by using boundaries, separating the land from the water, the light from the darkness, between kinds of creatures, and between humans being male and female (Genesis 1:1-31). Likewise, boundaries were set at Sinai (Exodus 19:12, 23), protecting people from death and distinguishing between God and humanity.

Virtually every person and entity has boundaries.

Identity is established by difference, by recognizing what we are and what we are not, and that is based on boundaries, whether geographical, social, religious, occupational, or other. I am me, not you. I am human, not God. Identifying others or oneself is a means of differentiation, and at the boundary between what we are and what we are not we know who we are (Klyne Snodgrass, Who God Says You Are: A Christian Understanding of Identity, Eerdmans, 2018, 176–177).

We live in a time when many vilify and think of boundaries as a form of oppression. In the zealous contemporary pursuit of rejecting boundaries, we run the danger of “falling into the abyss of non-order in which the struggle against exclusion implodes on itself because, in the absence of all boundaries, we are unable to name what is excluded or why it ought not to be excluded” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon, 2010).

According to Volf, “The absence of boundaries creates non-order, and non-order is not the end of exclusion but the end of life” (ibid.). The lack of boundaries results in a lack of purpose, clarity, and identity. No boundaries mean no distinctions. “Boundaries are part of the creative process of differentiation” (ibid.).

A recent student walkout and protest at a private educational institution in the Denver metropolitan area concerning the dismissal of two people on its faculty for their chosen lifestyles demonstrates this kind of cavalier attitude about not having boundaries. Although this academic entity has a “Statement of Beliefs” that all staff, faculty, and volunteers must adhere to, these students think those boundaries are oppressive and unloving.

The Bible itself has boundaries because some documents were included, and many documents were excluded. The Bible is filled with boundaries and discloses God as a God who makes boundaries. The revelation that God makes distinctions (Exod. 9:4; 11:7) and calls on His people to make distinctions (Lev. 11:47) inherently contains the idea of boundaries.

“A Christian understanding of boundaries involves both boundaries of inclusion and boundaries of exclusion. Some things must be embraced … and some things must be excluded” (Snodgrass, 181). Thus, Paul sharply demarcated the churches that he planted from other entities that have alternative narratives.

They are the insiders in contrast to “those outside” (hoi exō, 1 Cor. 5:12–13; 1 Thess. 4:12) or to “the rest” (hoi loipoi, 1 Thess. 4:13; 5:6). As the “children of light in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15; cf. 1 Thess. 5:5–8), they have their citizenship (politeuma) in heaven (Phil. 3:20). They are being saved (sōzomenoi, 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15) in contrast to those who are perishing (apollymenoi, 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15). They are “the believers” (1 Cor. 14:22; 1 Thess. 1:7; 2:10) in contrast to the “unbelievers” (1 Cor. 7:12; 10:27; 14:22–23). Like Diaspora Jews who live as minority communities with a sharply defined identity separating them from their environment, Paul’s communities learn to think of themselves in terms of the group identity that separates them from others (James Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics, Baker, 2011, 46).

Paul calls for a “radical separation” from one’s former non-Christian identity (1 Cor. 6:11) and strict maintenance of boundaries from the surrounding community (Ibid.).

PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS?

Have you noticed that the terminology of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” never occurs in the New Testament? That should give those who want to be biblical in our Christianity some pause before using this terminology.

Author Joel Miller researched the expressions “personal relationship” and “personal savior” (Joel Miller, “Why you need more than a personal relationship with Jesus,” http://web.archive.org/web/20141006220205/http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/twocities/personal-relationship-jesus). Miller discovered that the phrases, rather alarmingly, were largely unknown barely exist before the 1970s. At that point, they take off like pair of rockets.

These phrases have been popular during the adult lives of most of us, so we think they are normal. “Personal relationship” and “personal Savior” are the ways many communicate Christianity in our time. But does usage make the phrases correct?

Whenever we speak about faith being personal, the tendency is to convey the idea of what applies primarily (or even only) to me. “Personal” puts in the realm of “tastes” and “preferences,” but faith applies universally (Acts 17:30).

Miller correctly comments: “So faith in this sense is most certainly not personal. And neither is it impersonal. It’s a problematic adjective to apply because while it pertains to an individual, the faith is far larger than the individual.”

If we sense the need to use the phrase “personal relationship,” it is more in line with the Bible to speak of a “kingdom relationship.” Instead of referring to a “personal Savior,” we ought to speak of the universal King and Savior (Acts 2:36; 5:31; Philippians 3:20; 2 Timothy 1:10; Titus 1:4; 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1, 11; 2:20; 1 John 4:14).

Testing

Virtually no one likes taking tests. Yet, tests seem to be an inevitable part of life because tests reveal competency; this is true at all education levels and professional certifications. The Hebrew word for “test” (nissah) often refers to putting something (or someone) under scrutiny, usually to determine its value or usefulness, quality, or attribute. The piel form of nissah occurs more than 30 times in the Hebrew Bible.

Whatever is being tested is stretched to its limits. When people test God, they test His patience (Exodus 17) or His faithfulness (Numbers 14:22). When people test other people, they test something such as their wisdom (1 Kings 10:1). There is always some implied (though rarely specified) object to the verb beyond the direct personal object.

When God tests, He tests some value, quality, or attribute by stretching it to its limits. In most cases, He tests the faith and faithfulness of individuals or Israel by expecting them to obey under challenging circumstances. Sometimes “test” refers to God’s testing of a person (Abraham in Genesis 22:1 and Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 32:31), but more commonly, it speaks of God’s testing of the Israelites as a group (Exodus 15:25; Deuteronomy 6:16; Judges 3:1).

God often tests our faith for a positive purpose (Exodus 20:20; Deuteronomy 8:16); He tested the Israelites to determine whether they fully trusted in God alone (Deuteronomy 13:3). So, likewise, God tests to identify His people, discern who is serious about faith, and know in whose lives He will be fully God.

A test similar to Abraham’s would not be primarily concerned with investigating whether we love our children more than we love God. Likewise, it would not examine whether we will trust God with our children. Instead, the test seeks to discover the motivating factor in our relationship with God: Is it God Himself, or is it the benefits He provides and the hope He offers? The subject of the testing of Job is whether he fears God for who God is or the “goodies” God gives (Job 1:8-10).

Jesus challenged the rich young ruler on this same point in Luke 18:18–23. What the young man is asked to sell would have included his land and his goods. The land is the covenant benefit shared by all the people of Israel. Possessions represent the prosperity that was believed to come to those who earned the favor of God. By asking him to sell all of this, Jesus is asking this man to be willing to jettison all of those things in his life that he considers the perquisites of God’s favor. This is the type of test set before Abraham: Are you willing to follow God if there is nothing in it for you?

This testing is not a game for God. On the contrary, it lies at the heart of God’s call to keep covenant with Him. He creates us free, for His goal is love, and love must be chosen. It cannot be preprogrammed. From the very beginning (Genesis 3), God’s call to covenantal faithfulness has involved testing. God is seeking to determine whether the people He calls will lovingly choose him above all else.