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There and Then, Here and Now, Where and When? A Few Keys to Understanding Prophecy

Moses© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino

Articles, essays, chapters, books – even commentaries have been written about biblical prophecy. Amidst the plethora of “stuff” about prophecy, some basic characteristics of prophecy have become unknown to most Bible readers. Consequently, most of prophetic scripture is at best a puzzle, at worst an excuse for sensational speculation that discredits not only the speculator, but, sadly and unfairly, the Bible itself. When fictions like the Left Behind series sell 50 million and the few contemporary commentaries stay in print only a few short years, it is no wonder. Here are a few foundational keys to understanding biblical prophecy.

Two basic mis-assumptions plague most people’s unsuccessful attempts to understand prophecy. First, many people think prophecy is the same thing as fortune telling or divination. They think of the ancient Greek customs such as the Oracle of Delphi when they think of prophecy. The Oracle of Delphi was a young “chosen” woman who sat above a smoking fissure in the rock at the Delphi temple, chewed bay leaves, and experienced an ecstatic state that manifested in incomprehensible speech in response to an individual’s specific inquiry of the gods. Then a priest in the temple “interpreted” the message and gave it to the inquirer. The questions and answers were always specific to the individual and the time.[1] For example, an inquirer might ask whether the gods would bless a particular business deal, or whether a particular courtship would be successful. Many people who experience a false “gift of prophecy” misunderstand prophecy in this way. Instead, the bible gives us a picture of prophecy that is rationally received and delivered, is one hundred percent accurate, and involves God’s eternal righteousness, judgment, and mercy.

Oracle of Delphi

Second, many people think prophecy is only or at least primarily about future events regarding God’s interventions in human history. This misunderstanding fuels most of the sensationalistic fiction and non-fiction(?) literature glutting the shelves of most Christian bookstores. This misunderstanding lies behind many Christians’ fears that we are living in the “terminal generation,” the “last days,” that will see worldwide, cataclysmic events in which millions – even billions – of people will suffer and die immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming. Instead, the biblical examples give us a picture of prophecy that focuses on the eternal covenant between God and man, ratified and fulfilled in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf. While at first glance biblical prophecy may seem to cover thousands of events and principles, at its core biblical prophecy is simply concerned with God’s eternal salvation plan in his Son.

End of the World

After we lay aside these two common misunderstandings, we can look at what the Bible says about prophecy and understand much more than we once did. There are many books that we recommend on this subject, including Gary DeMar’s Last Days Madness, Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics, and William Biederwolf’s The Millennium Bible.

The biblical prophet is one who is called by God to give inspired teaching and preaching. He (or she) is primarily a forth-teller and only secondarily a fore-teller.[2] In fact, when one actually analyzes the prophetic passages and books of the Bible, it is evident that fore-telling is a minor part of the prophet’s burden from the Lord. When we understand this important distinction, much of the Bible becomes suddenly more easily understood. It makes sense, then, that Moses is called the greatest of prophets except for Jesus (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Acts 3:22; 7:37), even though we think of him primarily as the liberator and law giver of Israel. It makes sense that Jesus linked Moses with the prophets who spoke of him, God’s Son (Luke 16:29-31; 24:27, 44). We can understand the words of Philip, who told Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

TRANSFIGURATION

This emphasis on forth-telling is verified by analysis of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. There are five “Major Prophets,” books representing four authors (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations – also written by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel). They are called the major prophets not because they are the most important, but because they are the largest in size. There are twelve “Minor Prophets,” so named not for any lack in importance, but for their relatively smaller sizes.

When we analyze these 17 books, we find that the vast majority of the texts do not refer to the future at all. Instead, we find the same exact theme often repeated in each book: the story of redemption. This simple story includes that God created us perfect and provided us with everything we needed for perfect life in him. We rebelled against him and earned his righteous judgment and condemnation. Because of his infinite love for us, his mercy and grace, he did not leave us in our sin but provided reconciliation for us in his Son, so that by responding in faith to the power of his gospel, we can repent, be reconciled to God, and enjoy the presence and power of God in this life and for the future (John 3:16-21).

king-jesus

What do we notice about this timeless story of redemption? Comparatively little of it has to do with the future: it is primarily concerned with the past (God’s creation, our fall), the present (God’s judgment delayed by his mercy through Christ), and the immediate future (will we respond in faith believing or continue in unrepentant rebellion?). The far or final future (enjoying God’s presence and power into eternity) is merely the culmination of the first three “time” elements in the story. In fact, every prophet in most of his (or her – Miriam, Deborah, for example) prophecies includes these four time referents: past, present, immediate or near future, and far or final future. This is what we would expect.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 gives us the first test of a true prophet of God: even if what he says comes to pass, if he encourages us to worship a false God, or to worship God falsely, he is not to be believed. He is a false prophet.

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Deuteronomy 18:20-22 gives us the second test of a true prophet. (This immediately follows Moses’ declaration of a coming “prophet” who would be greater than him – 15-18 – we know him as Jesus Christ cf. Acts 3:22; 7:37.) In this test we are told that if what the prophet says is going to come to pass does not, then he is a false prophet. While Miss Cleo and her band of dollars-by-the-minute psychics repeatedly fail this test, in the Old Testament, to have even one prophecy not come to pass disqualified one from being a true prophet of God. If it were the case that a substantial part of a prophet’s message was concerned with the far or final future (events hundreds, even thousands of years after the lifetime of the prophet), how could the trustworthiness of a prophet be established? For this test to have any reliability, it must have been the case that an overwhelming portion of the prophet’s messages had to have been about times his hearers could test – the past, present, and near future.

When we analyze the Old Testament prophets, that is exactly what we find. Isaiah, for example, spends most of his time talking about the past. He talks about how Israel had a covenant with God but repeatedly broke that covenant, both while united and by Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) after the monarchy divided. He talks about many other nations that practiced idolatry and ignored the Lord God Almighty. He talks about how God had already brought judgment against these other nations. All the nations failed to repent and thus deserved God’s judgment.

Isaiah
Isaiah spends the second greatest amount of material talking about the present. He points out all the areas of sinfulness, rebellion, unrighteousness, idolatry, and social injustice in Israel and Judah. He points out all of the examples of God’s patience and mercy, withholding judgment even though it would be just because of Israel and Judah’s rebellion.

Isaiah talks at length about the near future: if Israel and Judah do not repent, God will bring well deserved punishment, judgment, and condemnation on the nations for their continued rebellion. If, however, Israel and Judah repent, God will withhold his judgment and restore the kingdoms to the power and blessings of God. In fact, Isaiah says, both Israel and Judah will refuse to repent. First God will allow Israel to be destroyed as a nation and its leaders taken into captivity because of its greater sinfulness and as a final example to Judah. This all happened during the course of Isaiah’s ministry. Everything Isaiah said about these time periods (past, present, and near future) was tested by his contemporaries (using Deut. 13 and 18), and Isaiah was proved to be a reliable prophet of God.

Once Isaiah had been proven a reliable prophet of God, his listeners were willing to suspend judgment on the comparatively little he says that would occur after the end of their own generation. Isaiah spends comparably less time speaking about the far future. In that time, Judah will fall to foreign destruction just as Israel had already. This judgment of God will last seventy years. Judah will finally repent and beg God for forgiveness. God will extend his mercy and grace to Judah through the pagan king, Cyrus, who will allow the Jews to return to their land, rebuild the temple, and restore their kingdom. This happened within less than two hundred years of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry.

Finally, Isaiah spent the least amount of time speaking about the final future – the time when the entire earth, all of humanity, will be affected eternally by God’s redemption plan in his Son, the Messiah: those who believe and repent will be resurrected to eternal life; those who continue to rebel will be resurrected to judgment and condemnation. This final future time began with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and will conclude with Christ’s Second Coming for final judgment and the reconciliation of all things (1 Cor. 15:51-58). The redeemed inherit eternal life, the unrepentant inherit eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46).

The next time you stumble across prophetic portions of Scripture, don’t despair or throw up your hands in confusion. It’s not as mysterious or cryptic as contemporary sensationalists make it. Remember that the prophet always talks mostly about the past, the present, and the near future. Certainly he talks the least (and sometimes not at all) about the far future (after his own generation) or final future (the completion of the redemptive story).

[1] See Colin Brown, gen.ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Volume 3). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, 75ff.
[2] Colin Brown, Dictionary Volume 3, 74-92.

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Help Gretchen Passantino and Answers In Action Save Home & Ministry Base

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We are in critical danger (July 8 sale date) of losing our home & home office & research library to foreclosure. We believe that God wants us to stay in this home/office, continuing to devote the stamina & energy he provides us to Christian ministry as I have for the past 40 years, 17 years in this home. We have exhausted all other options.
ImageWe need $20,000 within the next 2 weeks to save our home from forced foreclosure sale & reinstate mortgages & update property taxes. We need $20,000 over the year to meet our expenses until our Answers In Action has new non-profit status, my early retirement SS begins, & Pat’s hardship VA benefit kicks in. God has called us to ministry focus, me with 40 years of full-time Christian ministry in apologetics & discipleship, Pat with his trauma, combat, & critical medical crisis experience sharing the grace & sufficiency of Christ with others in crisis & trauma. Please pray about helping us to stay in our home & serve the Lord.

We are raising support through direct gifts & gifts through Go Fund Me. Go Fund Me is the easiest way to give on-line, or you can message me for other options (gretchen.passantino@answersinaction.org) or check my FaceBook page (Gretchen Passantino Coburn). Through June 30 ONLY, a generous benefactor has promised to MATCH ANY GIFT OF ANY AMOUNT DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR up to $10,000. Anything you give through June 30 will be doubled by this kind offer.
We are in this precarious position because of the devastating medical crisis my husband experienced 18 months ago, when literally in a heartbeat, he went from our major provider as a painting contractor to a survivor of sudden death cardiac arrest & accompanying anoxic brain injury, unable to work. December 18, 2012 the ER cardiologist was prepared to officially declare him dead, but God gave him new life.  At first I was told his probability of survival was 0.01%, he spent more than a week in a coma, had to learn to talk, swallow, lift his head, move, etc., & was hospitalized for nearly 6 weeks. The road to recovery has been long & difficult, but God’s blessings in the midst of it have been overwhelming. This picture is from Pat’s first anniversary of new life, when we returned to the hospital to thank those God used to heal him.
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The journey has contained many opportunities for serving God. Six months after Pat’s collapse & new life, he was proud to stand with others at the hospital, Hoag Memorial Presbyterian in Newport Beach, & testify for life when they announced they were no longer going to perform elective abortions.
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The Lord called me back to active apologetics ministry, & has brought me many opportunities to share & defend the gospel, including this class at our local St. James Anglican Church. This is my 40th year in full-time Christian ministry as a teacher, apologist, writer, & speaker.
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“Apologetics in the Book of Acts,” a summer in-depth Sunday evening class begins in our home/ministry base on July 6. With the wealth of apologetics explicit & implicit in the Book of Acts, students will be inspired to defend the faith on a daily basis. Our home is not just a home. It is our ministry base, given us by the Lord in 1997, before my first husband, Bob, died. It contains my specialized 8,000 volume research library & has been the location for countless Bible studies, graduate classes, prayer & church services, fellowship & meal sharing.
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Since Pat’s collapse & new life, God has very specifically called & equipped him to support veterans, especially combat veterans, with God’s grace & gospel. Pat is a 2 time combat Vietnam Marine veteran. This latest medical crisis opened up the consequences of his previous trauma stress & gave him the opportunity not only to grow & heal through the stress, but to be used by God to help other survivors of trauma.
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Pat & I call our home “Our Little Hobbit Hole.” It is a sanctuary of the Garden, a reminder & promise of God’s coming renewed kingdom. It not only shelters us from the ravages of the world, but is a refuge for countless others who find the peace, forgiveness, & assurance of the gospel here.
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Our Hobbit Door Pat built for a Middle Earth party a couple of years ago.
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The raised herb garden Pat built for me to spare my permanently injured back. The mural he painted is from The Lay of Luthien, a Middle Earth song about the love between an immortal elf maiden (Luthien) & a mortal man (Beren). She gave up her immortality for him, & he sacrificed his life for her. A metaphor of God’s Great Redemption Story in Christ.
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We call this our “Sam’s Kitchen Garden,” after Middle Earth’s Samwise Gamgee, the gardener of Hobbiton. His love of growing things & his hopeful tender care of the gardens symbolizes God’s creative intention for us humans, created in His image.
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Our fig tree bursts with 100s of sweet, ripe figs every August. It is a continual reminder that God prunes us, nourishes us, & empowers us to bring forth much fruit for the kingdom!
So you see, this is not just a roof over our heads, it is the geographical heart of our family & ministry. Please prayerfully consider praying for us, encouraging us, &/or gifting us either through Go Fund Me or directly (gretchen.passantino@answersinaction.org). And remember, through June 30 only an anonymous & generous benefactor has promised to match every gift of any size, dollar for dollar, up to $10,000. Anything you give will be doubled!
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Not My Will, but Yours Be Done: Did Jesus Want to Avoid the Cross?

by Bob and Gretchen Passantino, © Copyright 2003

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The night Jesus was arrested, before his trial and crucifixion, he prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, having asked three of his disciples to wait nearby, praying for him. Luke tells us, “He withdrew about a stone’s throw and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done'” (Luke 22:41-42). Matthew records Jesus as making his request of the Father twice: “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken away from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will'” (Matthew 26:39) and “He went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done'” (Matt. 26:42). Mark records his prayer in a positive way, “‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Did Jesus Shrink from His Commitment to Die for Our Sins?

Many people understand this to mean that Jesus, without sinning, was in some way reluctant to endure the cross but was willing to set aside his own desires and instead follow God’s will in this matter. This interpretation takes “cup” to mean “death on the cross” and “not my will, but yours” to mean that Christ desired not to go to the cross.

Sometimes this passage is used to illustrate how Christ was tempted in his suffering, as Hebrews 2:18 says, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted,” and as Hebrews 4:15 says, “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.”

It is commonly said that understanding Christ’s “weakness” in the Garden enables us to be confident that Christ identifies with us in our own “weakness” and is therefore compassionate and forgiving. Although we agree with the passages in Hebrews and agree that Christ is sympathetic, compassionate, forgiving, and sinless, we do not agree that this commonly held view is the actual meaning of Christ’s statements to the Father in the Garden. (1)

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Christ’s Prayer Was Answered Affirmatively by the Father in the Garden

Instead, we argue below that it was not death on the cross that Christ was longing to avoid, but death in the Garden before the cross; and that Christ’s will was not different than the Father’s will, but in harmony with the Fathers’ will. We argue below that Christ, in danger of expiring in the Garden, cried out to the Father for the necessary power either to remain alive through his Garden experience, or, if he expired in the Garden, to be revived by the Father so that he would be alive for his coming crucifixion. (2) Incarnationally (Col. 2:9), he had the intrinsic power to sustain himself or revive himself, but, as in all things, Christ lived by the Father’s power and not his own.

We would explain the Garden prayer in this way: Father, I cannot fulfill my destiny at the cross if I am not revived here in the Garden. As I have my entire life, I ask this to be accomplished by your power, not my own. And, in fact, God did answer Christ’s prayer, sustained him in the Garden by means of angels, and preserved him alive to face his crucifixion to save us from our sins.

Because this view is not well known, it might sound at first unreasonable and unscriptural. Let us examine it carefully and scripturally (3) and you will see the strength of this interpretation contextually, theologically, and biblically. (4)

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Christ Repeatedly Acknowledged and Affirmed God’s Plan for His Crucifixion

The idea that Christ would, at the last moment, waver in his commitment to the cross seems contrary to what we know about Christ’s steadfast commitment throughout his ministry to die on the cross for our sins. He clearly taught the principle of his atonement when he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15). Jesus echoes this thought again, saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Matthew notes Christ’s commitment to his coming death, burial, and resurrection and contrasts it to Peter’s desire that Christ not die:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “Never, Lord!” he said, “This shall not happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matt. 16:21-23). (Mark’s account – 8:31-33 – adds that Jesus “spoke plainly about this.”)

It does not seem reasonable that Jesus would rebuke Peter for the very sentiment he himself supposedly expresses in his Garden prayer.

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Jesus Was Confidently Committed to Dying for the Sins of the World

Not only did Jesus repeatedly acknowledge that his death would come to pass, he also repeatedly stated his confident commitment to dying on behalf of sinners. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees just before his last trip to Jerusalem, challenging them, “Go tell that fox [Herod], ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (Luke 13:32-33).

After Jesus’s resurrection he rebuked two of his disciples for failing to understand the necessity of his death, burial and resurrection, saying, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Even though Christ said this after his resurrection, there is no reason to believe that he came to this conviction after his struggle in the Garden. In fact, he clearly says that even the disciples should have always known the inevitability of the cross because of the prophets. If he held the disciples accountable for what the prophets said, how much more would he, the very One of whom they prophesied, (5) be held accountable?

In fact, the crucifixion of Christ is the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). The gospel without the cross is no gospel at all (1 Cor. 2:2). Jesus concluded his commission of the disciples with this confident focus: “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).

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A Second Look at the Garden Prayer

With this background of overwhelming scriptural evidence that Christ recognized and was committed to the necessity of his crucifixion to save us from our sins, let’s look at the Garden scene again. We will observe four important principles. First, there is indication that Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Second, there is no evidence from the passages that Jesus (our “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens” high priest – Heb. 7:26) ever wavered in his commitment to the cross – amply attested to by the passages we have already reviewed. Third, there is ample biblical evidence that Jesus’s will was not contrary to the Father’s will, but submitted to the Father’s will. Fourth, it is apparent that his prayer was answered affirmatively and he was strengthened in order to be able to leave the Garden and go to the cross.

Imminent Death

Jesus was in danger of dying in the Garden. Luke says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Matthew and Mark affirm, “he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26:37-38, cf. Mark 14:33-34).

Buswell notes that profuse perspiration is a medical sign of life-threatening shock, when the body is so traumatized that it cannot control basic life sustaining functions and instead “shuts down” preparatory to death. (6)

From outside the gospels we get a plain declaration of Christ’s experience in the Garden: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth,he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Heb. 5:7).

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Jesus Never Wavered but Always Followed His Father

There is no evidence in the Garden passages that Jesus wavered in his commitment to the cross (the very words that are used to adduce that are the ones we are contending mean something else altogether).

There is abundant evidence (as we saw above) from Jesus’s statements throughout his ministry that he knew of the inevitability of the cross and that he wholeheartedly committed himself to the cross.

Jesus’s Will Was In Accord With But Submitted To His Father’s Will

In addition, there is strong scriptural evidence that Jesus’s entire life was a life of exemplary dependence on the authority, will, power, and agency of the Father (i.e., “the one he has sent”- John 6:29). (7) The gospel of John speaks more explicitly and repeatedly to this theme than any other gospel. Jesus explained clearly:

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it (John 5:19-21).

Jesus continues, “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (30). It is important to note here that what pleases the Father is not contrary to what pleases Christ, but that Christ’s humble motivation for his judgment is not his own pleasure but the corresponding pleasure of the Father. Jesus continues his message, saying, “For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me” (36).

John identifies Jesus’s will as submitted to the corresponding will of the Father when he quotes Jesus: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:16-17). Look at the next verse: Jesus makes it explicit that to defer to God’s will is to be humble to, not to be contrary to, God’s will: “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who speaks for the honor of the one who sent h im is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him” (18).

(This interpretation of “not my will, but yours” also fits similar statements by Jesus in John 5:30 and 6:38. It is not a disharmony between the wills of the Father and Son that is in focus, but the priority of the Father’s will over the Son’s. In other words, Jesus is in exact agreement with the Father, but the submission of Jesus’s words and works to the authority of the Father is the model he lived for all of us. In theology we speak of the fact that we are saved by Christ’s active obedience and passive obedience and by not only what he did, but under what authority he did what he did.)

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John quotes Jesus referring to his like-mindedness with the Father concerning his coming crucifixion: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know who I am and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him” (8:28-29).

Although the picture is clearest in John, Jesus’s submission to the Father in all things is the undercurrent of his entire ministry even as described by the other gospel writers. His duty was not merely to die for us, but also to live for us – in the exemplary relationship to his Father that we are to follow as the adopted children of God. The whole tenor of his ministry is that of the dutiful Son coming in the name (power, authority) of his Father. Repeatedly he urged his followers to lives of humility and self-sacrifice – in imitation of Jesus and his relationship to his Father. “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

“All things have been committed to me by my Father,” we learn from Jesus as recorded in Matthew 11:27 (cf. Luke 10:22). Jesus reminds his disciples, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father” (Matt. 20:23). Jesus relates his role as a servant to the Father directly to his commandments for his disciples, saying, “But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me” (Luke22:27b-29).

It is overwhelmingly clear that Jesus was submitted to the Father in will, purpose, action, and speech. His will was not contrary to the Father’s will, but in submission to the Father’s authority (will).

Jesus’s Prayer Was Answered: He Survived the Garden to Go to the Cross

We have seen that in the Garden Jesus was in imminent danger of death; that he prayed for the Father to rescue him; that he was fully cognizant of and committed to the cross; and that his will was not contrary to the Father but in submission to him. The only piece of our Garden puzzle left to insert is evidence that his prayer was answered affirmatively.

Earlier we cited Hebrews 5:7 as evidence that Christ prayed to be delivered from death in the Garden. The conclusion to that verse is clear: “and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7). The common biblical idiom is that when one’s prayer is “heard” it is answered in the affirmative. (8)

This corresponds perfectly with the gospel account, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43). Matthew and Mark note that immediately after his recovery: “Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matt. 26:45, cf. Mark 14:41).

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Conclusion

Our examination has shown that Christ did not have a last-minute crisis of faith and fear of his coming crucifixion. He did not overcome his own, contrary will, in order to obey his Father’s will. He did not fear in the same way his disciple Peter had before, when Jesus rebuked him for trying to keep him from the cross.

In the most extreme conditions a human could suffer, conditions critical enough to kill anyone without immediate intervention, he proved once again that his life was a life of perfect submission to his Father. He depended on his Father for everything he taught, everything he did, and even for sustaining his life so that he could fulfill the mission determined by “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23), his death on the cross for our sins.

We can rejoice in the one who lived for us and died for us, who looked forward to his crucifixion with unwavering purpose and commitment, who said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. . . . Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:23-24, 27).

Appendix One:

Christ Repeatedly Acknowledged and Affirmed God’s Plan for His Crucifixion

Other Citations

Jesus embraces cross

Jesus repeatedly affirms the prophetic necessity of his coming death. In Matthew 17:22-23 Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life” (cf. Mark 10:31). Jesus also says, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Matt. 20:18-19 cf. Luke 18:31-33).

When Jesus is explaining about the coming kingdom of God, he instructs his disciples to imitate his self-sacrificing humility, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28 cf. Mark 10:45; Luke 9:22, 44). Jesus confidently announced immediately before his arrest, “As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matt. 26:2 cf. Mark 10:33-34). During this same time period John records Jesus’s words, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the world, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:30-32). John immediately explains Jesus’s statement: “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (v. 33). When Jesus announced that he would be betrayed he added, “The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed” (Luke 22:22). He assured his disciples, “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors;’ and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37).

Appendix Two:

Jesus Was Confidently Committed to Dying for the Sins of the World

Other Citations

Agnus Dei

Even after Jesus had been arrested, when Peter tried to defend him by cutting off the ear of one of the guards, Jesus pointed out that he could have remained free by the Father’s intervention, but that he did not pray to the Father to intervene because “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way? . . . But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:54, 56). John quotes Jesus at the same time saying, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

Appendix Three

Jesus’s Will Was In Accord With But Submitted To His Father’s Will

Other Citations

Father Sends Son

John also records Jesus’s description of himself as the “bread” from heaven – “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). He also says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (37-38). Again, Jesus will is not contrary to the will of the Father, but Christ is motivated by his humility to the Father’s will, in harmony with (but not motivated by) his own will. This is the same humility that Christ urges on his followers, completing his message on the bread of heaven by urging, “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me” (57).

John records Jesus’s words in the midst of the temple courts to the doubting leaders of his day: “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me” (7:28-29).

John understood that Jesus meant his hearers to understand that he will was in complete harmony with the Father’s will as he quotes, “. . . I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me. In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the one who sent me – the Father” (8:16b-17). It is clear from this that Jesus means his hearers to understand that his testimony is identical to that of the Father, continuing, “You do not know me or my father . . . . If you knew me, you would know my father also” (19b).

Other quotes from Jesus in John include, “I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence” (8:38); “I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me” (42b); “I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself” (49-50); “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (54); “we must do the work of him who sent me” (9:4); “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (10:29-30); “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may learn and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (10:37-38); “When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me” (12:44-45); “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me: The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10-11); “the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (14:31); “just as I have obeyed my Father’s command and remain in his love” (15:10); “everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you” (15:15).

In Jesus’s great prayer at the end of his ministry (John 17:1-26) we find the following affirmations of Christ’s submission to the Father: “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you grated him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. . . . Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work your gave me to do. . . . I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. . . . Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me. . . . They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. . . . All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. . . . just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. . . . They know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”


Footnotes

1. A related argument about Christ’s “humanity” is made from Christ’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). We discuss this in our article Did the Father Leave the Son on the Cross?

2. We seen an interesting type of this in the story of Abraham offering his son, Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham, even when God told him to prepare to sacrifice his son, continued to have complete confidence in God’s promise that he would have descendants (and one Descendant in particular) through Isaac who would bless the world. He did not know how God would accomplish this, whether by preserving Isaac (as actually happened – 22:11-14), or, if necessary, by rasing Isaac from the dead (as Hebrews 11:19 notes), but that he knew God would intervene is clear from his comment to his servants, “we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5).

3. We have attempted to include every significant passage related to this issue. We have chosen the most important citations for our main argument, and have listed the other related passages in appendices at the end of this article.

4. We are indebted to theologian James Oliver Buswell, Jr. for first bringing this interpretation to our attention many years ago [A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962 (vol. 1), 1963 (vol. 2) (bound together), II:62-65]. This article is our own argument, supplemented, re-arranged, adapted, and modified from Buswell’s approach.

5. 1 Peter 1:10-12 says, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

6. Buswell, II:62.

7. Paul describes this in his letter to the Philippians, where he urges the Christians to exercise the same humility toward each other as Christ did toward the Father: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing” (2:5-7a).

8. (Buswell, II:63.) The following two verses in Hebrews are somewhat difficult to exegete. The passage reads, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). If our application of verse 7 to the Garden is appropriate, we could argue the application of this passage to mean, although he was already the perfect Son of God, his patient reliance on the Father’s power to preserve him in the Garden (his obedience), displayed that relationship to all who then demonstrate the same kind of patient reliance on the Son to bring us eternal salvation.

Revelation, Inspiration, & Illumination: The Process that Gave Us the Word of God, the Bible

                       A Summary of Concepts[1]

                              © Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

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 Revelation:From God to man (man hears what God wants written)

Inspiration:          From man to paper (man writes that which God wants written)

Illumination:       From paper to heart (man receives that which God has written)

 Revelation:

We know that God spoke to man, but how did He speak? Hebrews 1:1 says that He spoke to the fathers and prophets in many portions and many ways:

  1. through angels (Gen. 18; Gen. 19; Dan. 9:21-27; Luke 2:8-14; etc.)
  2. through a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11, 12; Ps. 32:8)
  3. through nature (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-4; Rom. 10:18; Acts 14:15)
  4. through a loud voice (Gen. 3:9-19; Ex. 3:14)
  5. through dreams (Gen. 28:12; Matt. 1:20; Matt. 2:12)

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Inspiration:

What is involved in transferring the voice of God into the vocabulary of man? There are five different areas to be considered: (1) various theories of inspiration; (2) scripture texts on inspiration; (3) implications of inspiration; (4) importance of inspiration; (5) completion of inspiration.

The term inspiration is found only once in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16, 17: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The Greek word is theopneustos and literally means “God-breathed.”

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 Theories of Inspiration

The natural theory–the Bible writers were inspired only in the sense that a poet or writer is inspired naturally. In other words, that spark of divine inspiration that supposedly is in all men simply burned a little brighter in the hearts of the Bible writers.

However, 2 Peter 1:20 says, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

The mechanical theory–God coldly and woodenly dictated the Bible to his writers as an office manager would dictate an impersonal letter to his secretary.

The Bible is the story of divine love, and God is anything but mechanical or cold concerning inspiration. The Holy Spirit never transgressed beyond the limits of the writer’s vocabulary. We can see this because the highly educated Paul used a larger, more complicated vocabulary than the fisherman, Peter. The Church has never held what has been stigmatized as the mechanical theory of inspiration. The sacred writers were not machines. Their self-consciousness was not suspended; nor were their intellectual powers superseded. Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. It was men, not machines; not unconscious instruments, but living, thinking, willing minds, whom the Spirit used as His organs….[T]he sacred writers impressed their peculiarities on their several productions as plainly as though they were the subjects of no extraordinary influence.[2]

The content theory–Only the main thoughts of the Bible are inspired. This is the position of the liberal theologian who would cheerfully accept those portions of the Bible which deal with love and brotherhood, but quickly reject the passages dealing with sin, righteousness, and future judgment. But this is contrary to 2 Timothy 3:16 (quoted above). Charles F. Baker writes,

A certain bishop is purported to have said that he believed the Bible to have been inspired in spots. When asked for his authority for such a statement, he quoted Hebrews 1:1, stating that this meant that God spoke at various times in varying degrees. Thus, some spots were fully inspired, others were only partially inspired, and still others were not inspired at all. The bishop was embarrassed when a layman asked: “How do you know that Hebrews 1:1, the one scripture upon which you base your argument, is one of those fully inspired spots?

The spiritual rule only theory–The Bible may be regarded as our infallible rule of faith and practice in all matters of religious, ethical, and spiritual value, but not in other matters, such as some of the historical and scientific statements found in the Word of God.

Jesus said, however, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”(John 3:12).

The verbal-plenary theory–All (plenary) the very words (verbal) of the Bible are inspired by God. Matthew 4:4 says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” First Corinthians 2:13 says, “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” Jesus says in John 17:8, “For I have given them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.” Jesus says in John 6:63, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”

 Scripture Texts on Inspiration

2 Peter 1:20, 21; Hebrews 1:1; John 10:35; Matthew 5:18; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 3:2; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 15:3; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 4:15; and the verses already referred to above.

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Note: Some people say that when Paul was speaking on divorce in 1 Corinthians 7, he differentiated between what was scripture and what was his own opinion. What is actually the case is that Paul was directly quoting Jesus in the first part, but was “merely” prompted by the Holy Spirit in the second part.

 Implications of Inspiration

As one carefully considers the subject of inspiration, he is led to the following conclusions:

1. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not each that all the parts of the Bible are equally important, but only that they are equally inspired.

2. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not guarantee the inspiration of any modern or ancient translations of the Bible, but refers only to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (the autographs).

3. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not allow for any false teaching, but it does on occasion record the lie of someone (for example, Genesis 3:6). Therefore, we have an accurate record of the devil’s words. As one reads the Bible, he must carefully distinguish between what God records and what He sanctions. Thus, while lying, murder, adultery, and polygamy are found in the Word of God, they are never approved by the Word of God.

4. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not permit any historical, scientific, or prophetical error whatsoever. While it is admitted that the Bible is not a textbook on science, it is nevertheless held that every scientific statement in the scriptures is absolutely true.

5. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not prohibit personal research. The New Testament writer Luke begins his gospel with the following account:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me, as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out….(Luke 1:1-3 NASB).

6. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not deny the use of extra-biblical sources (see Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; Jude 1:14, 15).

7. Verbal-plenary inspiration did not overwhelm the personality of the human author. The Bible writers experienced no coma-like trance as do some mediums today during a seance, but, on the contrary, they always retained their physical, mental, and emotional powers. See Isaiah 6:1-11, Daniel 12)

8. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not exclude the usage of pictorial, symbolic, hyperbolic, or summary language. This is to say the Holy Spirit does not demand that we accept every word in the Bible in a wooden and legalistic way. For example, a case could not be made that God has feathers like a bird in Ps. 91:4. Here the thought is simply that the persecuted believer can flee to his heavenly Farther for protection and warmth.

9. Verbal-plenary inspiration does not mean uniformity in all details given in describing the same event. See Matt. 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, and John 19:19, about the superscription on the cross.

10. Verbal-plenary inspiration assures us that God included all the necessary things He wanted us to know and excluded everything else. 2 Tim. 3:15-17.

Importance of Inspiration

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Of the three tools involved in the making of our Bible, the tool of inspiration is the most important. This is true because:

1. One may have inspiration without revelation. For example, rather than supernaturally telling Luke what to write in his gospel, the Holy Spirit led him to carefully check out all of the records.

2. One may have inspiration without illumination. Peter tells us (1 Peter 1:11) that the Old Testament prophets did not always understand everything they wrote about.

 Completion of Inspiration

Is inspiration still going on today? Yes, inspiration is still going on today, but with the close of the apostolic age, God led the church fathers to canonize what we know today as the Old and New Testaments. We have all of the information we will ever need regarding God, our relationship to him, and our salvation straight from God to us.

If someone claims to have a revelation from God, we must check to be sure that it is in harmony with God’s word that has already been revealed.

 Illumination:

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We have already stated that without inspiration, no scripture would have ever been written. We may now claim that without illumination, no sinner would have ever been saved. Illumination, then, is that method used by the Holy Spirit to shed divine light upon all seeking men as they look into the Word of God. We need illumination because:

1. We are naturally blind because of sin. (1 Cor. 2:14, Matt. 16:16-17)

2. We are satanically blind. (2 Cor. 4:3-4)

3. We are carnally blind. (Heb. 5:12-14, 1 Cor. 3, 2 Peter 1)

There are two main results of personal illumination: that people are saved and then that the saved people are matured.

 Implications of Illumination

1. The Holy Spirit looks for a certain amount of sincerity before He illuminates any human heart. We are quick to point out that sincerity is not enough to save anyone, and so it is. However, it should be also noted that it is equally impossible for an insincere person to be saved. This first implication is brought out in John 4:24.

Furthermore, it should be stated that no Christian should ever look on illumination as automatic. This is to say, God has never promised to reveal precious and profound Biblical truths to any believer who will not search the Scriptures for himself. See John 20:31, Acts 17:11, 2 Tim 2:15, 1 Peter 2:2.

2. The Holy Spirit often seeks out the aid of a believer in performing his task of illuminating the hearts of others. See Acts 8:30, 31, 35, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:26, Acts 18:28.

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For Further Reading

 Bloesch, Donald G. Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

 Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming J. Revell Company, 1984 ed.

 Bruce, F. F. The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988.

 Carson, D. A. And John D. Woodbridge, eds. Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.

 Demarest, Bruce A. General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.

 Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible. Chicago: Moody Press, 1974.

 Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible (Revised and Expanded). Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.

 George, Timothy, et. al., eds. The Bible Doctrine of Inspiration. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1995.

 Trembath, Kern Robert. Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration: A Review and Proposal. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

 Turretin, Francis. The Doctrine of Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981.

      [1] This essay is a summary of the information contained in Norm. F. Geisler and William E. Nix’s General Introduction to the Bible. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986 ed.). It is meant to outline the arguments brought forth in that book and was used originally as a handout in a class taught by the Passantinos using Geisler and Nix’s book as the textbook. Another approach to the issue is in Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology Volume One: Introduction and Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2002).

     [2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1.

Recommended Commentaries on Ezekiel: The Short List

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapter 1-24 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Block, Daniel I. The Book of Ezekiel Chapters 25-48 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,1998.

If I could only have one commentary (2 volumes) on Ezekiel, Block’s 2 volumes would be my choice. Rich combination of historical, literary, theological, & doctrinal information & insights. Non-dispensational. Good focus on Ezekiel as preparatory for the coming Messiah, the Savior not only of Israel, but of the whole world. Don’t be intimidated by the huge page count. This is a resource you will use for reference & select reading, not to start at the beginning & spend the rest of your life slogging through (although I & a few other nuts do).

Hummel, Horace D. Ezekiel 1-20 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing Company, 2005.

Hummel, Horace D. Ezekiel 21-48 (Concordia Commentary). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing Company, 2007

Being Lutheran in my theology, I probably agree more with Hummel’s 2 volumes than I do any other commentary on Ezekiel. However, Hummel, being Lutheran, also tends to remain silent on some of our most vexing & obscure passages, preferring to heed the old Chinese proverb, “Better to keep your mouth shut & be thought a fool than to open it & remove all doubt.” But also, being Lutheran, Hummel does a superb job of delineating the law (which kills you) & the gospel (which raises you to new life), & of seeing Christ & his redeeming act at the center of every passage.

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Longman, Tremper, David E. Garland, eds., Michael Brown, Paul W. Ferris, and Ralph Alexander, contributors. Jeremiah – Ezekiel (Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2010.

This is an excellent non-denominational, non-dispensational approach to Ezekiel. Especially good on history & literature. Not quite deep enough to satisfy me like Block or Hummel.

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McGee, J. Vernon. Ezekiel (Through the Bible). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

This is the only dispensational book in my short list. Yes, he was a dispensationalist through & through, but his pastor’s heart & his calling to proclaim the gospel are at the core of everything, & if you ignore his relation of ancient to modern, you will be richly blessed, my friend. And it’s short enough & simple enough to be a very satisfying appetizer.

Stevenson, Kenneth and Michael Glerup, eds. Ezekiel, Daniel (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Academic Press, 2008.

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I had to include this in my short list because of its unique resources. Do you want to know how the ancient church & church fathers understood (or didn’t understand) Ezekiel? Here are all the references from the ancient church writers & preachers on Ezekiel. Lots of different views, lots of ancient historical & theological perspectives, not a lot of consensus or criticism, but that lets you judge for yourself.

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God Our Mother

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© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino

           “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15 NKJV). “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me” (Psalm 27:10).

          Dr. Laura Schlessinger is known for her advocacy of second-chance families. She argues that we have two opportunities to experience a good parent-child relationship. The first chance, the relationship into which we are born, we have little control over, and we may well experience a horrible parent-child relationship. The second chance, when we become parents, is our opportunity to have the best parent-child relationship through careful, value-laden choices that give our children the parent-child relationship we may never have had. As much as people have been encouraged and challenged by Dr. Laura’s take, I think there’s an important parent-child relationship she has missed: our relationship to God as our perfect parent.

We have a third – and, in fact, the only significant – parent-child relationship that will never disappoint or fall short of our expectations: Our experience of God as our loving Creator, Sustainer, Savior, and Glorifier. Everything we could conceive of that is good and fitting for a mother to be, that is what God is to each one of us. When I say “God is our mother,” I do not mean to support radical feminism, deconstruct God into a fantastical feminine deity, or change our language about God. Instead, God, who is infinite, eternal, and a-sexual, sometimes identifies himself as a mother to give us a particular kind of idea, a teaching picture or icon, by which we can understand better his creative power, his love, his forgiveness, and his faithfulness.

God, full of sorrow over the rebellious idolatry of Israel, expresses the anguish every mother has experienced as her child turns away from the safety mother has provided: “I taught Ephraim [Israel] to walk, taking them by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I drew them with gentle cords, with bands of love, and I was to them as those who take the yoke from their neck. I stooped and fed them” (Hosea 11:3-4). When for the first time we hold the tiny treasure of humanity in our arms at birth, when we focus all of our energy toward providing a safe haven of joy for that tiny life, we experience a tiny taste of the love and care God has for us. He creates us knowing that we will turn away from him, knowing that we will reject his love; and yet continuing to love us so much that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

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God yearns for us to return to his arms as a child runs to mother seeking safety, reassurance and love. He foresaw the return of the Jews in Isaiah’s day, “then you [the Jews] shall feed; on her sides shall you be carried, and be dandled on her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:12-13).

The love of God goes far beyond the greatest love the greatest mother could ever have. It is perfect, infinite, and eternal. At the height of Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment against the unbelieving Jews of his day, he lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

Moses talks of God’s parental care in similar terms: “For the Lord’s portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him” (Deuteronomy 32:9-12).

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When we understand that God is our perfect Mother, we can rest, secure in the knowledge that He will protect us from evil, give us the power to overcome sin, and keep us in His care and love eternally. The teaching picture of the female bird depicts this refuge best as the Psalmist prays, “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; hide me under the shadow of Your wings, from the wicked who oppress me, from my deadly enemies who surround me” (Psalm 17:8). Safety in the Lord is absolute: “Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me! For my soul trusts in You; and in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge, until these calamities have passed by” (Psalm 57:1). We can be confident that “He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His truth will be your shield and buckler” (Psalm 91:4).

God is our Mother in the very best sense of the term. God’s love for us precedes any human maternal love since God loved us before Eve became the “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Do you want to know how to be the best mother you can? Look to God for His example. Do you long to be loved and cared for by the mother you lost or maybe never had? Look to God – He is your Mother in perfection. Think of the love God has for us: knowing that we would turn from him, rebel against him, sin and break his commandments, he still created us and then provided the perfect sacrifice to restore us to Himself. Better than any human mother, he knows not only the grief of loss and the pain of sacrifice, but also the potential for joy in being a mother: “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21). God is joyful over you! Rejoice with Him!

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Atheism, Friendship, and Humility

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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 Recently a Christian asked me to help him answer some challenges from an atheist friend. The Christian had asked the atheist if he would be willing to discuss the existence of God & the problem of evil on-line. The friend responded that he was completely satisfied with his atheism and that atheism answered all of his questions, so on-line discussion was pointless.

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 First, I believe this atheist was betraying his friendship with the Christian. The two had been good friends for many years. A true friend would not have rejected a friend’s request to discuss a topic that was important to him, especially one that could govern the friend’s world view & life. A true friend, even if he were completely satisfied with his own beliefs, would be willing to discuss them for the benefit of his friend. In fact, the “Golden Rule” tests the character of anyone, believer or not. I suggested the Christian appeal to the atheist’s friendship, demonstrating his friendship by being willing to discuss such an important issue.

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Second, the atheist’s faith in atheism is remarkable in its simplistic assumptions. A reasonable, knowledgeable person will agree that there are many reasonable, intelligent, well educated people who disbelieve in atheism, who believe God exists, who posit arguments, evidence, and reasons for believing in God. This atheist appears to have a blind faith in atheism and in his own mental superiority. There are brilliant individuals such as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Ghandi, Max Planck, Stephen L. Carter (law), Michael K. Heller (physics), etc. who are certainly “smarter” than this atheist, & yet they believe in God. Brilliant Christians include William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, Phillip Johnson, Alister McGrath, Condolleeza Rice, etc. (Here’s a list of 50 brilliant people who believe in God.) Humility seems to be in greater evidence among Christians, many of whom are willing to be challenged in their faith, who seek the best evidence & arguments regardless where they lead, & who admit they are open to having their beliefs disproved. If this atheist can be humble enough and honest enough to admit he might be wrong, then he should be open to discussing the issue with his long-time Christian friend. To refuse to do so does not support the truthfulness of his atheism, but merely the pride and egoism of his emotional bondage to atheism.

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True friendship is willing to explore important ideas and beliefs for the mutual benefit among friends. True humility is willing to test one’s own beliefs, to follow the evidence and arguments wherever they lead. True faith is not blind or contrary to reality, but is founded on reason. An atheism that is self-centered, egotistical, and blind is not worth holding.

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The Bare Bones of Noah’s Story

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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My virtual mailbox has been crowded with questions about the movie NOAH that opened March 28 2014. I haven’t seen it. I’ve read a lot of reviews, some from people I respect in the arts, the Bible, and/or theology. It was the first place box office winner for its opening weekend, pulling in more than $44 million in US ticket sales. It remains to be seen whether it can maintain that level of popularity, but that’s not my focus here. This is all I’m going to say about the commercial success or failure of the movie.

Many others have commented on the cinematic license taken with the literary text. This doesn’t bother me, since movies almost always take significant liberty with an underlying written text. What works in words may not work at all in visuals and the opposite is usually true, too. I understand the movie misses the great story of redemption foreshadowed in the story, the sinfulness of humanity, salvation by faith, and God’s redemptive faithfulness to the world He has created, including the humans He has created in His image. I also understand there is quite a bit of environmental gospel in the story and that at some points humans are characterized as the enemies of God’s natural world. This is all I’m going to say about the biblical or non-biblical story line of the movie.

Tree Hugger

My focus here is on some of what is absent from the biblical story. I will address some of these significant absences from Genesis chapters 6-10 here.

God's Romance

First, the foundational assumption for biblical interpretation is to understand the main theological theme of the passage and use that to govern all interpretation. The main theme of Genesis 6-10 is not environmentalism, evolution, or human stubbornness. The main theme is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story: that sinful man, judged and condemned in Adam, is nevertheless loved and redeemed by God’s own work by His Spirit in His Representative (Son), and transformed into His fruitful Spouse. Noah is both Adam (the sinner) and Christ (the chosen One). The flood is God’s judgment. The Ark is God’s rescue (Christ on the Cross). Noah’s family and their progeny are the Church, the People of God. The dove and the olive branch are the signs of the renewed and redeemed creation. The sacrifice after the Flood is the Memorial of God’s sacrifice on our behalf. Absent are doctrinal side issues that distract us from this main redemptive theme.

I’m not “allegorizing” the “plain meaning” of the Bible. I believe in the complete accuracy of the Bible as God gave it and meant it to be understood. When the Bible is recording history, it is accurate history. When it is recording science, it is accurate science, etc. But underlying and overarching every kind of text (historical, scientific, poetic, epic, narrative, metaphorical, etc.) is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story in part or in whole, in type or anti-type, in anticipation or remembrance. Once we fix this theological bedrock in our interpretive framework, many of the questions we ask of a particular text are completely irrelevant and it is no wonder they are not addressed exhaustively (if at all) in the text.

Have you ever tried to relay an experience to someone and he or she keeps interrupting you to ask irrelevant questions? Maybe you want to talk about how somebody cut you off on the freeway and only God’s grace saved you from causing a fatal five car pileup. Does it really matter what color the offending car was? Or what was being advertised on the billboard next to the freeway? Or what was in your fast food meal that spilled all over the seat and dash when you slammed on your brakes?

Let’s look at the story of Noah from a similar perspective. If the main story is God’s Great Redemption Romance Story, does it matter if the entire geographical globe was flooded or could the “whole earth” mean the whole area occupied by humans? Our theological bedrock requires the second, but the first is irrelevant to the theology.

If the main story is redemptive, does it matter if Noah and his wife or his sons and their wives had other children who were or were not taken into the ark and saved from the Flood? Theology teaches us that all have sinned (even Noah, his wife, his sons, their wives, and any other of their descendants) and that all of us deserve judgment (flood). All of them deserved to be condemned in the Flood and none of them deserved to be saved from the Flood.

If the main story is redemptive, then any who were saved from the Flood were saved by God’s mercy and grace, by the redeeming sacrifice of His future coming, dying, and rising Son. Yes, it says Noah “found favor” with God, “walked faithfully,” and was “found righteous.” But remember our theology: we find favor in Christ, we walk faithfully in Christ, we are found righteous in Christ. Our salvation and rescue from judgment is not derived from our seeking God’s favor or creating our own faith or doing righteous acts: our salvation and rescue from judgment is derived from Christ’s perfect representative life, death, and resurrection. He is the one who is favored by God, who is faithful, who always acts righteously. Our favor, faith, and righteousness are products of our salvation, not generators of our salvation. Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives were saved in spite of the fact that they were just as disfavored, unfaithful, and unrighteous as everyone else (including any other family members who may have lived then). They were saved in spite of their sinfulness, not because of their sinlessness.

Absence

Second, a sound principle of biblical interpretation (indeed, all literary interpretation) is that one must not presume that absence of evidence presented is evidence of absence. Confusing? Here’s an example: If I were to say “I worked on an article today,” that simple statement wouldn’t be evidence of absence of any other activity I did today. In the same way, if one gospel says “one angel was at the tomb” on Christ’s resurrection day, that isn’t evidence against another gospel’s “two angels were at the tomb.” (In fact, if you have two angels, you always have at least one angel.)

Let’s apply this to the story of Noah. For example, I’ve been asked, if Noah were really 600+ years old, and his sons were also old, then how could it be that neither Noah and his wife nor his sons and their wives had any other children? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to think Noah had other sons, and unreasonable to think he had no daughters, including not a single daughter who was “righteous” as his three sons were? If you read the five relevant chapters of Genesis carefully, you will not find any text excluding Noah or his sons from having other children, either before the Flood or while they were on the ark. The point of the story is that God chose eight individuals from among the sinful class of all humanity to rescue from his Flood judgment. Any other descendants or siblings are irrelevant to the theological point of God’s selection of certain individuals for saving from the Flood. Remember, this is an event that points us to the Main Event. Whether “true believers” drowned in the Flood is irrelevant: the drowning of a “death-doomed body” (Romans 8:11) is a tiny calamity compared to that same person’s eternal life and final resurrection life in a resurrection body.

God's Work in Us

Third, absent from the Genesis story of Noah are works that qualified Noah or his family members to receive God’s rescue from the Flood. Noah built the Ark, preached God’s coming judgment, gathered the animals, and put his family inside after God chose him, not in order to be chosen by God. Noah’s obedience was a consequence of his salvation, not a means to attain his salvation.

Yes, Noah “found favor” with God (Genesis 6:8) and was saved from the Flood even though he was a sinner. Just as Mary “found favor” with God and was chosen to bear the Son of God even though she was part of sinful humanity. And just as Job “found favor” with God, who restored him to “full well-being” (Job 33:26). Job did not earn God’s favor, God blessed him with His favor as an application of his grace and mercy long before the historical time of His Son’s sacrifice. Look at the sequence in Psalm 84:9-11. In verse 9, the psalmist asks God to look “with favor” on His anointed One (the Messiah). In verse 11, the psalmist rejoices that God looks “with favor” on “those whose walk is blameless.” Who is blameless? Only One is actually blameless: Jesus the Messiah who took our sins on Himself on the cross and rose from the dead, the “firstborn” of all those saved (Luke 2:52). The psalmist and all others of faith (whether before, like Noah, or after, like Peter, Paul, and Christians throughout all ages) find “favor with God” by being “in Christ.” (See especially the term “in Christ” or “in Him” in Ephesians 1.)

Yes, Noah “walked faithfully” (Genesis 6:9), but this was accomplished by God’s work in His Son, not by anything Noah accomplished on his own. Remember, Jesus is the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Paul argues (Romans chapter 4) that Abraham was saved, not by works, but by faith, noting that he was “declared righteous” in Genesis 15:6, before he had done any works, that is, before he was circumcised (Genesis 17:24).

Summary

In summary, there are features significantly missing from the biblical account of Noah (Genesis 6-10) by the Holy Spirit’s design to keep our focus on the glorious story of redemption it depicts and prefigures. Absent are side issues like the precise geographical extent of the Flood or whether rainbows ever appeared before the Flood. Absent are designations of whether anyone else in Noah’s generation inherited eternal life either after drowning in the Flood or after being included but unmentioned in the Ark. The Ark event is an earthly example of a spiritual reality: the Flood stands for eternal judgment; drowning stands for eternal death; living in the Ark stands for salvation; landing on the mountains of Ararat , offering a sacrifice, and planting a vineyard stands for God’s renewed creation and fulfilled kingdom.

There are other significant absences in this event and in the rest of God’s Word. The absences are not meant to withhold God’s Gospel from us, but to focus us on His Gospel. The Word of God is given to us, not to satisfy our every idle curiosity, but to display God’s Great Redemption. Second Timothy chapter two declares that the Word of God is “the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Answering Those Who Believe They Have Committed the Unforgivable Sin

© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn

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In my more than forty years of Christian apologetics ministry, questions about the “unforgivable sin” continue to recur. Those who pose the questions are not indifferent to God. Nor do they hate God. Instead, they invariably grieve their loss and they despair of salvation. We have a classic Answers In Action article addressing the particular scripture passages that confuse readers. This article is much more focused on the principles behind such confusion and despair. It is derived from a response I composed to plea from someone who feared for his soul, but is generally applicable to anyone who believes he or she may have committed the unforgivable sin.

First, I commend those who continue to pursue relationship with God in spite of their fear, confusion, doubt, and despair. This is a characteristic of a human heart experiencing the saving power of the Holy Spirit, not a heart that has refused God’s grace and forgiveness and hardened itself to salvation. In other words, someone’s persistent concern and return are proof in themselves that he or she has not committed the unforgivable sin.

Two features are most common in those with this unresolved struggle: (1) They give undeserved and misunderstood weight to their continuing sinfulness, and (2) They elevate their subjective experience of each moment over the objective truth of the gospel, affirmed by the testimonies of God’s Word and God’s people (both through time and in personal relationship with other believers).

Many in this uncertainty point to their repeated and continuing sinfulness as evidence they have never been and never can be saved. This is contrary to the testimony of God in His Word. Until we die and are resurrected and brought completely into God’s fulfilled kingdom, every single one of us will continue to sin. Martin Luther has a well-known observation that can be summarized like this: If you have no desire to sin and are not sinning, check your heart & your breath to see if you are still alive. In the same way, if you are not grieving over your sin and longing for forgiveness through Jesus Christ (especially as distributed in the Lord’s Supper), check your heart and your breath to see if you are still alive. Repeated and continuing sin is not an evidence of the absence of salvation.

In other words, it is the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of sinfulness with which they are born and which continues to live in them until the resurrection; but it is also the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of regeneration, to have remorse and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Sadly, for those who despair, it seems easier to “believe in” his or her “sinful seed” than to “believe in” his or her “seed of life,”

This brings me to my second main point: As long as one gives more trust to his or her own subjective fear, and less trust to the testimony of the Spirit through His Word and His people (the community of believers local & universal), he or she will be “tossed about by every wind of doctrine.” Such a one has no objective anchor for the soul. The “bedrock of the sea” that will hold our “anchor” firm is God Himself (and His Word), who loves each one of us so much that even while we were loyal to sin, He gave His beloved and only Son to pay the price for us & bring us back to Him (John 3:16 and Rom. 5:1-5). He desires and commands an intimate, personal, and unique relationship with each of us through His Spirit. The “anchor” that keeps each of us connected to the bedrock (God) is God’s community of believers, not only universal but also local and intimate through relationship with believers in fellowship, worship, and knowledge of God’s Word.

The most common persistent sin struggle despairing people experience is pornography. This is to be expected, because pornography is a counterfeit of the personal intimacy God created as the only fulfillment of our relationship to Him and our relationship to others. Pornography substitutes exploitation for self-sacrificing love; physical stimulation for spiritual transformation; transitory climax for enduring devotion. Being filled by sex is not the problem: being empty of God-directed intimacy (with Him and with other believers) is the problem.

The “solution” to this struggle to believe one can be saved is like many biblical paradoxes: it is incredibly easy and simple; it is undeniably difficult and complex. The solution is complete and utter abandonment to God, an emptying of one’s self, a forsaking of one’s own will, a “reckless” throwing of oneself on God, trusting His mercy and grace so much that if He does not “catch” him or her, he or she will be utterly destroyed on the rocks of divine deceit. In one way, it is simple and easy: just give up everything. In another way it is profound and impossible: just give up everything. It is that conundrum that God accepts nothing from us but must have everything from us; that we must surrender to His Spirit but we can’t surrender on our own. Praise be to God that the resolution to this difficulty is that the equation is not equal – it is not “all us” and “all God.” God has “weighted” the equation such that our inability makes way for His ability, and He is eager and able to overcome our inadequacies, not by our act of coming to Him, but by our surrender to receive Him coming to us. Because we are still in this sinful world, in our sin-infected body, with our sin-tainted mind and spirit, we will continue to fall and will consequently surrender ourselves over and over. But the good news is that God is not fickle like we are: while we waver between sin and surrender, He is always there in mercy and grace, forgiving and restoring us. Again, the equation is not balanced: God has the upper hand in love and forgiveness, not us.

What I see missing from most of those who fear they’ve committed the unforgivable sin is that “anchor” of intimate relationship that secures them to the bedrock of the Lord. There is a reason that God established human marriage, a lifelong covenant between two people, as a picture of the relationship between God and us.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a defines that lifelong covenant as “love.” “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Is this the kind of relationship a fearful one has with God? With other believers? If not, then this is what he or she needs to seek eagerly: not by trying to stir up an emotion or prove oneself, but by practicing living according to its precepts.

Be patient with God: give Him time to display His plan; don’t dictate one’s own plan to Him.

Be kind to God: put the best construction on God’s action in one’s circumstances; don’t assume He is out to exclude someone who yearns for Him.

Do not envy God: act in trust that He is a loving Father; don’t demand the lonely autonomy of someone cut off from God’s guidance.

Do not choose one’s own way over God’s way: many might think going their own way is a sign of humility (they’re not good enough for God) but instead it is a sign of boasting (their sinful inclinations are more powerful than God’s forgiveness).

Focus one’s attention on God: fill the mind and life w/worship and love of God; don’t pretend one is repentant by being obsessed with his or her own sinfulness and fear, and yet neglecting the solution-giver, the Lord Himself.

Practice true humility: C. S. Lewis skillfully describes the difference between proud and humble, “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less;” in other words, focus on the Lord and His power and blessings in life, not on one’s own helplessness and fears.

Don’t dishonor the Lord by insisting that the greatness of one’s sinning is greater than the Lord’s greatness to forgive and regenerate: it is contrary to God’s Word to believe that He would reject someone and hold him or her accountable for his or her own sins when he or she is desperate for acceptance and forgiveness through Christ; rather, honor the Lord by honoring His sacrifice through His Son.

Don’t judge the Lord by one’s own subjective, fallible, inadequate judgment: God is the one who promised to forgive the sins of anyone who repents; no individual has the power to exempt oneself from His promise.

Affirm that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is greater than any individual’s anger: even if one thinks his or her devotion to pornography (or any other sin) is extraordinary, in fact it’s always possible (and usually easy) to find others whose sin abounds even more; in fact, God does not limit His forgiveness to those whose sinning is trivial but extends it to those whose sinning is gross. It is not quantity of sin that excludes one from salvation – the tiniest sin is enough and the greatest is not enough – the quality of Christ’s redemptive work covers all.

Stop clutching to both individual recurrent sin and one’s  misjudgment of God: He has promised to keep no record of one’s sins since they are covered by Christ; when someone continues bringing them up (either by remembrance or repetition), he or she is accusing God of being a liar.

Now look at the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 13: These are the positive features of the intimate, personal, loving relationship God has provided for each of us in Jesus Christ. Turn our back on all the negatives & follow God’s encouragement to rejoice in the truth that salvation is God’s work in Christ, not our work toward Christ; to accept His protection of our salvation, not our own good intentions; to trust the Lord’s love and compassion, not our own fickle emotions; to have confident hope in the finished work of the cross on our behalf, not in our own fallible  intuition; accept the perseverance of the Lord on our behalf, not our own wavering back and forth between obedience and sinning. Finally, practice confidence in the divine love that never fails rather than the unredeemed human love that is counterfeit.

If we practice intimate love relationship with the Lord, we will be drawn inexorably into intimate love relationship (not sexual) with God’s people, the church (both universal and local). We will begin to trust others, rely on their encouragement and support, welcome their assurances and corrections, experience mutual positive involvement in each others’ lives, and begin to identify ourselves with God’s people rather than with those who are aliens to the faith.

If we sincerely practice loving God and loving God’s people (that means making ourselves vulnerable to both God and a local fellowship of believers), the power of sin, fear, and doubt in our lives will begin to lessen. Doing so is not pursuing a subjective, fleeting, transitory emotional experience – I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs defining true divine love.

In conclusion, here are common specific questions fearful people often ask and summary answers to them. “What do I do now?” Move forward boldly and with utter abandon into God’s forgiving and loving arms. “Where do I go now?” To a local fellowship of believers who are truly in love with their Bridegroom, Christ, and therefore can model that love for you. (You know intuitively how to distinguish between those who are generally trustworthy and those who will attack your faith and “punish” you for your failures.) “What am I to believe about salvation?” That it is God’s plan, God’s work, God’s love, and God’s intention, not only for all the others, but also for you. “How do I stop back-sliding?” By learning through practice and association with God’s people to enjoy and occupy yourself with the things of the Lord who is your Lover rather than the things of the world that prostitutes itself. “Can I be free of slavery to pornography?” Yes! When you begin to make a habit of loving God in the 1 Cor 13 sense, you will find yourself falling more and more in love with God and His people and you will experience the true love that will so outshine the transitory counterfeit of pornography that you will look back on it and think, “How could I ever have substituted that pitiful deceit for God’s immense love?” “How can I test myself” must be answered in the negative: you cannot test yourself, a self-defeating subjectivity; but you can trust God’s test confirmed through His church, both the voices of history (like Lewis and Luther) and the voices of those you become intimately personal with in fellowship by God’s love. The true purpose of confession in the church is, in fact, to provide this confirmation of God’s forgiveness to those who are trapped in fear by their subjectivity. Martin Luther said, “Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven” (The Small Catechism).

Discovering God Through Stories

Fireside Fairytales

© Copyright 2003 by Gretchen Passantino1

I love stories. I become lost in other people’s worlds. I devour good fiction voraciously, returning to the same wonderful story again and again, marveling each time at the tantalizing power of human creativity. Truly wonderful characters become almost as real to me as people in the “real” world. A gripping suspense story starts my heart pounding, my palms sweating, and my nerves ready to jump at any sound. If I must put down a half-finished intriguing mystery, I find my thoughts straying from my work to the puzzle, looking at it from one angle and then another, bringing my mental tools to bear to solve the mystery when I should be meeting deadlines. Some of the most profound personal and spiritual insights I’ve ever experienced have grabbed me from the pages of a story. In exquisite story telling I see the creatorial image of God reflected in authors who create worlds of ideas never pondered before. As a spiritual novice and a moral ingénue I encountered and came to understand faithfulness, integrity, courage, humility, and self-discipline through good characters; and betrayal, deceit, cowardice, pride, and self-indulgence through evil ones. I can’t count how often God has sneaked up on me in a powerful story, and taught me lessons I wouldn’t have willingly learned had he been so obvious as to challenge my stubbornness directly through a Bible study. My actual conversion to Christ came through a fairly ordinary encounter with the straightforward gospel, but the Holy Spirit softened me beforehand through literature, and nurtures me long after through the same manner.

I’ve used outstanding stories to share some of my most important beliefs with non-Christians who would never listen to an overt preaching of the gospel, but who can be enticed by a good story into thinking for the first time about life after death, justice, morality, and redemption. Mainstream, popular contemporary fiction — if it’s good — is a valuable tool of pre-evangelism, seed-planting, “soft” apologetics.

One of the best pro-life books I’ve ever read is Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss.2 Remember the story from your childhood? Horton the elephant finds a speck of dust on which is a village of little persons, the Whos of Whoville. Horton realizes he must rescue the Whos “Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” The rest of the animals scoff and refuse to believe persons could be so small. But Horton can’t give up. He recognizes the moral responsibility he has, “I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they.” When the black-bottomed bird flies off with Whoville, Horton chases after him, crying, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!” In desperation, Horton urges all the little Whos to shout as loud as they can so the other animals can finally hear them and realize they exist. No one hears anything until finally the last little Who joins in with a “Yopp!”

Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover

Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.

And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean? . . .

They’ve proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”

Now, I don’t mean to imply that Dr. Seuss was a pro-life Christian, or that he intended this children’s story as a pro-life statement. Nevertheless, Horton Hears a Who reflects how truth can be recognized even by unbelievers, as Paul stated in Romans 2:15, “the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness. . . . ”

Christian author John Fischer describes the importance of using the story to communicate the absolute truth, in today’s society of relativism, where “absolute truth” is rejected in favor of what he calls “truth anarchy”:

What happens to the Christian apologetic in such a world? How do we explain what we know as absolute truth to a generation that cannot even think in terms of such a thing? . . . .

Story. Narrative, novel, film, music, art, but tell a story. As in the parables of Jesus, we intrigue the modern mind through story and entice them to start thinking differently. Through story, one can encounter a world where absolutes are true even if one does not believe such a world presently exists, and in the process, the soul can unconsciously hunger for what it knows to be the truth but is culturally and intellectually being denied.3

We don’t need to spell out the entire gospel message in block letters to provoke some serious soul-searching. A local Southern California mystery novelist and newspaper columnist, T. Jefferson Parker, recognizes the power of a good story, “I like a sense of danger and a sense that in the book that I’m writing, life and death are the issues as opposed to financial solvency or cocaine problems. I want large things to be at stake.”4 In one of his columns, he focused on the meaning of life in only a few words of contemplation. He recounted the true story of a local teenager who was convicted of killing his friend over a robbery dispute. The convicted murderer, Robert Chan, “wrote in letters to the court that he had read Albert Camus’ The Stranger some nine months before the murder and claimed that the book encouraged him to kill his victim because ‘everything [is] meaningless and nothing matters because we are all going to die.'” Parker notes that he read the same book some twenty years earlier when he was a teenager, but responded differently:

Rereading Chan’s words . . . I was struck by how close he was to the mark, and at the same time how far away. Because we are all going to die, he reasons, everything is meaningless and nothing matters.

But the truth is: Because we are all going to die, nothing is meaningless and everything matters.5

A carefully crafted, compelling protagonist in an outstanding story provides not only a creativity reflective of the one true Creator, but also a prototype of a person redeemed to the creatorial position for which God originally intended us. In an imaginary conversation between mystery writer Dorothy Sayer and the protagonist of her classic Peter Wimsey stories, these two themes are echoed,

“Perhaps you’re right in a way. Perhaps I did create in you the man I couldn’t find in this life. But it was not for some subliminal and sordid satisfaction. It was to show the world the type of man required for the satisfaction of a modern, unfettered, educated woman. The awful, unattainable goal to be achieved.”

“And yet, if I may be allowed one more immodest observation, you achieved it,” Wimsey said softly.

“In art, Peter.”

“It is no less of an achievement for that. It is no common soul that can shape the world to its own ideals, no matter that the world it masters is a fiction. And no common reward awaits the creators of this life. However modest their creations, each echoes the larger work.

‘The glory of Him who moves all things soe’er

Impenetrates the universe, and bright

The splendour burns, more here and lesser there.'”6

Mysteries and horror stories lend themselves particularly well to sowing the seeds that make us vulnerable to the gospel. In a way, the good mystery or horror parallels the story of redemption: Everything is right in the world until evil intrudes and spoils what it finds. After searching, recognizing clues, and chasing suspects, redemption comes as good triumphs over evil and the world of the story is restored by justice. Jewish mystery writer Majer Krich recognizes this parallel, “Judaism in general deals with good versus evil in the Biblical sense. . . . [M]ysteries deal with good versus evil. Period.”7 Horror author William Relling (Brujo) agrees, “The essence of horror stories’ ‘scary stuff’ lies in a struggle between good and evil. I believe that, in fiction, good has to win. Otherwise we’re in trouble.”8

The best contemporary fiction can promote godly morality with subtle persuasion rather than brash revivalist preaching. Jewish mystery writer Faye Kellerman’s stories feature an orthodox Jewish couple, Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, whose deep faith seems a natural part of the story. In Sanctuary, on the trail of diamond thief murderers, Rina visits the “Cave of the Pairs” in Hebron, the traditional site of the burial of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, Adam and Eve:

It smelled like a compost pile of rich, decaying vegetation, as if the shrine echoed God’s very words — for dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return. . . . These people weren’t fairy-tale characters or mythological creatures, they were real people. And like all real people, they had lived, and they had died.9

The Jewish sholdier guarding the site later explains how he knows Rina is not an Arab terrorist in disguise:

“I see with my own eyes that you’re a good woman. Because I followed you in the Ma’arat. I saw the tears in your eyes when you prayed, the expression on your face when you davened shemona esreh. I saw you mouth the words with clarity, with assurance, with purpose and meaning. Your posture, your sincerity. It shows through as if you have a window to your heart. You pray to a God of mercy, not to a God of revenge. Many pray here — Arab and Jew. I don’t think you’re a crazy fanatic. And I don’t think you are an Arab spy, either. Many try to pretend to be us to infiltrate. They speak our language, eat kosher food, drink our wine, and love our women. But they cannot love our God.10

Novelist Elizabeth George, without intruding sermonizing, but within the natural rhythm of the story, explains the forgiveness of God in the words of a parish priest consoling young Maggie Spence:

“If the Lord’s last words were, ‘Forgive them, Father,’ and if His Father did indeed forgive — which we may be assured he did — then why wouldn’t He forgive you as well? Whatever your sin may be, my dear, it cannot equal the evil of putting to death the Son of God, can it?”11

Verteran mystery writer Dick Francis doesn’t preach celibacy in Driving Force, but his protagonist understands its sad consequences: a young daughter, the unintended product of a physically enjoyable but uncommitted relationship, growing up with no knowledge of him as her father; and a recognition that sex is a poor substitute for being loved:

The older I grew, the more I saw consequences in advance and the more I cared . . . about not doing damage for the sake of a passing pleasure. I looked back over the years with horror, sometimes. After I’d lost Susan Palmerstone I’d drifted in and out of several relationships without understanding that I might have awoken much deeper feelings than I felt myself; and I’d dodged a thrown plate or two and laughed about it. How dreadfully long it had taken me to stop grazing.12

One of Francis’ most poignant stories is of a security consultant, whose loneliness is drawing him seemingly inexorably toward suicide. Gene Hawkins has no significant reason to live, and it takes all of his fortitude to resist ending his life: “The day-to-day social level had lost all meaning and underneath, where there should have been rock, had opened a void of shriveling loneliness.”13 The despair plagues him throughout his search for stolen race horses in company with an insurance agent who seems to possess all the meaningfulness, love, and family security Gene so desperately lacks. The temptation to end it all pierces the prose with an authenticity that speaks to the heart of anyone who has been close to self-inflicted death:

I shut my eyes, and the desolation went so deep that for an unmeasurable age, I felt dizzy with it, as if I were in some fearful pitch-black limbo, with no help, no hope, and no escape. Spinning slowly down an endless shaft in solitary despair. Lost.

The spinning stopped after a while. The internal darkness stayed.14

In the end, the contented insurance agent, Walt Prensela, saves Gene’s life by throwing himself in front of the suspect’s speeding car, and Gene rails at the unfairness:

It should have been me lying there, not Walt. I shook with sudden impotent fury that it wasn’t me, that Walt had taken what I’d wanted, stolen my death . . . . It would have mattered so little if it had been me. It wouldn’t have mattered at all.15

But finally Gene understands Walt’s sacrifice and turns away from suicide forever:

The gray day turned to gray dusk. I got up and switched on the light, and fetched two objects to put on the low table beside my chair.

The Luger, and the photograph of Walt with his wife and kids.

The trouble with being given a gift you don’t really want is that you feel so mean if you throw it way. Especially if it cost more than the giver could afford.

I won’t throw away Walt’s gift. . . . . I’ll survive.16

Not the gospel, in so many words, but a striking parallel to Jesus’ “greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

One of the most gripping suspense stories I’ve ever read is also one of the most spiritually and emotionally wrenching. T. Jefferson Parker’s Summer of Fear twists together two story lines to illustrate his theme of the triumph of good over random evil: a crime journalist, Russ Monroe, follows the unfolding story of a sociopathic serial killer slashing his way through a Southern California summer as the journalist anguishes over the invading, destructive brain cancer that threatens his wife, Isabella. It is also a story of exquisite soul-searching, a story where what ultimately matters is at stake.

Early in the story Russ recognizes the effect of the Fall on nature, “the way that nature can go so quickly from order to chaos. The popular notion is that nature’s world is ultimately ordered and systematic, that only man’s woeful intrusions can ruin that balance and harmony. This is not true. . . . the natural world isn’t neatly ordered, isn’t flawless, isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is just like our human one: angry and yearning for mayhem.17

Monroe’s ambivalent faith in the face of his wife’s suffering rings true to anyone who has anguished over the suffering of a loved one:

God, help me love her more. God, do something good for her or I’ll cut your heart out with a chain saw and feed it to Black Death. . . .

Have you ever known helplessness while someone you love is suffering? Have you ever cursed God for what He has done? Have you ever felt your heart throbbing with so much love and rage that they get mixed up and you can’t tell one from the other?18

He comes to a crisis where he truly experiences for the first time that he is not invincible, that he can’t make everything right, that he is, in fact, powerless:

If fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, what is the beginning of fear? I have an answer, for myself at least. The beginning of fear is to understand that you are without power. I took me half a lifetime — 40 years — to realize this. Oh, I can hear the protestant brayings of those who are “taking responsibility for their own lives,” or “are God,” but I’m not talking about the mundanities of happiness, success, self-fulfillment, weight loss, life without alcohol, or who is okay and who is not. I’m talking about powerlessness in the face of death, in the face of life, in the face of madness, love, disease, desire, in the face of all things beautiful and terrible that govern our every moment whether we know it or not. And I am talking about the fear of truly realizing that your best may not be good enough, that it may, in fact, be very little good at all. To understand this is to become fluent in the language of terror, to become intimate with the contours of the pit. It is the wisdom of the man before the firing squad. But fear — true fear — is not a reason for anyone to do something so simpleminded as to surrender. No. The acts of the powerless are among the lasting nobilities of the race. To advance with a stomach knotted in terror is more than courage. Fear is beauty.19

From this courage in the midst of powerlessness, Russ longs for a new beginning, “[Did] you ever wish something big, like God, would pick you up by the heels with a pair of tongs and just like dip you into something wet, and when you came out, you’d be clean and fresh again?”20

Finally, he comes to terms with the fear, the anguish, the terror, and God, praying before his wife’s brain surgery:

Dear Father in heaven, I am small, corrupt, hateful, meanspirited and too much a coward to sin importantly. I am a fool. Hear my prayer. I know how you value humility, so I confess to all this to assure you I know my place in your order of things. I deserve nothing. I expect nothing. I will ask for nothing. But you are absent here, you ceded this earth to us, and there are some things you should know. We suffer. We cry. We toil. Sickness comes to us. Death moves among us with arrogance. We die, trembling, bound for unspecified destinations. Christ died for our sins once; we die for them again. His agony is over, but ours continues. Our anguish is real. Do you remember how it feels? I know that your design is huge, so I have stopped trying to understand it. In your larger hands, we leave the larger motions. My concern is this life you have given us. I am too stupid to believe it is only a prelude. I am too weak to be happy that there may be a reward at the end of it. I am too literal to believe that the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. This is the heart of this matter. Do not think less of me for holding dear the life you’ve given. I lied when I said I would ask for nothing. This is what I want: I want you to treat Isabella with respect. I want you to give me the love that I want so badly to have for Isabella in these coming days. Give it to me so I can give it to her. I ask to be your representative. Do not leave us without love. Respectfully submitted to you in this hour of need, Amen.21

***

Start reading good fiction. You’ll discover spiritual lessons you never would have expected outside the pages of scripture.

Since I wrote the above, I have explored hundreds – probably thousands – of imaginary worlds with novelists, the best transforming me into a better me when I close the book, the worst propelling the never-finished story against my bedroom wall to lie forgotten and broken on the floor. I edited these words as I prepared to give a talk about a popular fiction book that claims to tell the truth about Jesus and the Bible, but which does not. Not only does the book denigrate our Lord, in its poor fiction it denigrates the beautiful power that flows inexorably through good fiction and into a tender heart that longs to be transformed – even a little bit at a time – into the heart of our Creator and Sustainer. Frankly, I didn’t want to spend another talk or interview focusing on the inadequate. I wanted to focus on what raises our hearts from our own inadequacies to Christ’s overflowing adequacy through the transformation of meaningful stories.

Let God work subtly in your heart through stories. Check the authors I’ve quoted above and below. Keep searching until you find God in the middle of a story. You will find a new way of – to paraphrase C. S. Lewis – “getting God inside you so He doesn’t merely improve you, but transforms you.”

Remember, I am not saying these authors are Christians, or that the books I’m recommending are Christian books with clear gospel messages. But they are authors who – however brokenly – are reflecting the Divine image; and whose books will leave you a better person – and better Christian – than you were before. One of my favorite characters, flaws and all, is Harry Bosch, created by author Michael Connelly. Bosch has devoted his life to homicide investigation. It’s not his career. It’s not his job. It’s not what he’s good at. It’s not what he likes. (Although it’s all those things, too.) He does it because it’s his mission – his calling, the only thing that fulfills him. And he lives by the creed that unless everyone matters, no one matters. Isn’t this an echo of Christ, who told of the shepherd who searched for the one lost lamb; and who said concerning his death, burial, and resurrection, “for this purpose I was born”? Look for books and authors whose mission is ensuring that everyone matters – that’s God’s message of redemptive love.

Other Recommended Authors:

Andrew Vachss – his mission is to protect children from evil. He says, “I don’t claim to do what I do because I love children. I do what I do because I hate people that prey on them.” In another place he says, “Sickness is a condition. Evil is a behavior. Evil is always a matter of choice. Evil is not thought; it is conduct. And that conduct is always volitional. And just as evil is always a choice, sickness is always the absence of choice. Sickness happens. Evil is inflicted.”

Michael Connelly – whether it’s his Harry Bosch series or his stand-alone stories, Connelly is always about redeeming the lost from evil into beauty and life. In Blood Work,22 the main character, an FBI profiler retired to receive and recover from a heart transplant, must solve the murder of Glory for her sister Graciella – it is Glory’s heart beating in McCaleb’s chest. Is there a better analogy of the atonement? In a short story Harry is interviewing an inmate on death row, pleading with him to give him the identity of his last victim, a young girl never identified and thus never buried by her family. The killer says nobody cares. Harry says he cares. The killer refuses to tell. Harry tells the killer, “You’re going to burn. You are going to burn in hell.” The killer responds, “Don’t you know, Detective? You have to believe in heaven to believe in hell.” The problem of evil and the problem of good, all laid out in a few short lines of dialog.

Elizabeth George – British mysteries crafted with complexity and richness of character but, in my book, most powerful because her characters change and grow through difficulty and pain. In Well-schooled in Murder one main character, Deborah, having miscarried several times as she and her husband try to build their family, struggles with guilt over the abortion she had years before: “As they gazed across the expanse of their bed, Deborah took the full measure of how completely her past was obliterating whatever future was possible with her husband.” If only a young woman with an “unplanned pregnancy” could see the future Deborah experiences here!

And then there’s Dick Francis’s Proof, of inestimable value for someone struggling through the loss of a beloved spouse; or his Decider, one of the best arguments for free will I’ve ever seen demonstrated in story form.

And for middle school children, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence, a series by an archaeologist filled with great first century Roman history, artifacts, customs, and life – and, more importantly, experiences with forgiveness and God.

Other authors I credit for some of my spiritual transformation include James Lee Burke, Donald Harstad (a great, subtle wit, too), William Bernhardt, Robert Crais, Deborah Crombie, Ian Rankin, Val MacDermid, Minette Walters, Bryce Courtenay (The Power of One), Peter Robinson, Archer Mayor, Bartholomew Gill, Ridley Pierson, and Michael McGarrity.

There are many more – enrich yourself with some and grow pleasurably in your leisure reading!

1 An earlier version of this appeared in Cornerstone magazine in 1995.

2 New York: Random House, 1954.

3 Bethany House Publishers UPDATE, “Author Spotlight,” February/March 1995, p. 2.

4 Dennis McLellan, “Turning to the First Person” in The Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1993.

5 Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1994.

6 Terence Faherty, “As My Wimsey Takes Me” in First Culprit: A Crime Writers’ Association Annual, Liza Cody and Michael Z. Lewin, eds. (New York: Worldwide, 1992), p. 46.

7 Robert Epstein, “The Mystery Woman Who Can Do It All,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1994.

8 Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1992.

9 Faye Kellerman. Sanctuary. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1994, p. 295.

10 Ibid., pp. 296-297.

11 Elizabeth George. Missing Joseph. New York: Bantam Books, 1993, p. 88.

12 Dick Francis. Driving Force. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992, pp. 210-211.

13 Dick Francis. Blood Sport. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1967, p. 2.

14 Ibid., pp. 267-268.

15 Ibid., p. 283.

16 Ibid., p. 309.

17 T. Jefferson Parker. Summer of Fear. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 1-2.

18 Ibid., pp. 41, 44.

19 Ibid., pp. 181-182.

20 Ibid., p. 225.

21 Ibid., p. 240.

22 The movie version with Clint Eastwood is nothing like the book in regard to its transforming values. Do not substitute the movie for the book. It would be like giving a Coke to a malnourished youngster when he needs the protein shake on your shelf.