Pastor Al Do You Really Believe in a Magic Talking Snake?
I want to start this morning with a little bit of apologetics. Last week we talked about the Fall of Man as presented in Genesis 1-3 and there’s one part of that story that keeps coming up in the secular world as a way to discredit Christians – that being the “talking snake”.
As I studied last week and went through the various pictures of Adam and Eve for last week’s PowerPoint, I saw a lot of pictures that looked really ridiculous, and I kept asking myself if I really actually believe this story or not. And it’s an important story to believe in. If the story of the Fall of Man is fictional, it affects a lot of things in Christianity.
First, if it’s fiction, then what parts of the Bible should be believed? Second, a lot of other books in the Bible reference that story as true, so can they be believed. Third, Romans 5 says that Jesus is the second Adam that didn’t fail, but did it right, and through which we find our salvation. So how can Jesus be the second Adam who did it right if there was no first who did it wrong? To discredit the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 1-3 is to dismantle much of what the theology of salvation is built on. No talking serpent, no temptation, no Eve taking the fruit, no fall… etc.
So how do I answer the question? Do I actually believe in a magic talking snake that tempted the only people on the planet to eat a forbidden fruit? Do you? Why? Well, let me tell you how I process it.
Humility Before the Word of God
The first place I start is humility before the Word of God. I remember that I don’t know everything and just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong or impossible. If I told you not to worry that your OS defrags your solid state drive when you have Volume Shadow Copy turned on, would you believe me? Is it something you’ve ever worried about? Maybe you should, because automated defragging your SSD ups your writes. Worried now?
Just because you don’t understand what I’m talking about, doesn’t mean I’m wrong or trying to mislead you. And just because I don’t fully understand Genesis 1-3 doesn’t mean it’s wrong or trying to mislead me either. I decided a long time ago I was going to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. That doesn’t mean I turn my brain off when I read or study, but it does mean that when I study, I start with the thought, “The Bible isn’t trying to lie to me, manipulate me, or hurt me. God is the author of truth, this is His book, and He’s using the Bible to teach me, guide me, and help me understand Him, myself, and the world. So whatever I’m not understanding isn’t God’s fault.”
A Story for All People
I also remember that the story in Genesis 1-3 isn’t meant to be a modern biography or scientific textbook explaining the exact details of what went on. It’s a story meant to convey important truths to different people who would live in different places and eras. That doesn’t mean it’s misleading though. It means’ it was told in a way that everyone could understand.
When Genesis was written, the concept of Satan wasn’t as fleshed out as it is by the end of Revelation, so his character is introduced in a very important way. The whole story is told in such a way that anyone who reads it, from Moses to today, will see the most foundational messages upon which all the rest of the scriptures will be built – God is eternal and good, man was created eternal and good, temptation is real, sin is terrible, and man’s choices have big consequences.
To do this, the first three chapters of the Bible use poetry, prose, imagery, repetition, and intricate word play, and to tell the story of Creation and the Fall in a way everyone can understand. Just because it was written thousands of years ago to people who weren’t interested in modern science, doesn’t make it wrong.
The Multiple Forces Argument
The third thing that helps me believe Genesis 1-3 is to remember that Satan is real, powerful, a master of deception, and capable of supernatural things. Here’s something I’ve been working on in my brain for a while, which I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else, and it goes like this: There are four sorts of “forces” that act upon us in this world:
- Visible Personal Forces
- Visible Impersonal Forces
- Invisible Impersonal Forces
- and Invisible Personal Forces.
People have no problem with the first one, “Visible Personal Forces”, right? These are things we can see, and that make the choice to affect us. People are visible, personal forces.
People have no problem with the second one, “Visible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this would be a rockslides, forest fires, earthquakes, tornados. We can see them affecting us, but they don’t make the choice to do so. A fire doesn’t choose what it’s burning. It just does it.
People have no problem with the third one either, “Invisible Impersonal Forces”. Examples of this are things like magnetism, wind, or gravity. We can’t see them and they don’t choose to affect us. They just do. We can’t take a picture of gravity, but it’s real, right?
It’s the fourth one that people get hung up on, “Invisible Personal Forces”. This is a personal being that chooses to affect our lives, but we can’t see them. But why is this one different? If the rest are true, why not this one? This is God, Angels and Demons. If we can believe in an invisible impersonal force like gravity, why not an invisible personal demon?
There are hundreds of papers written on invisible, personal forces that affect us all the time. Governments and corporations use psychological warfare to intimidate, demoralize, or persuade people to do things. They don’t have to be standing in front of you to affect you either. They can use things like propaganda, stress, bribes, language, suggestions, media, repetition, and technology to do it for them. We have no problem believing in the power of peer pressure, mob-mentality, or group think, right? But that’s not visible force, is it? No one says, “As of this moment you should go flip cop cars and smash windows”, it just sort of happens. Other examples of invisible, personal forces are things like memories of people who have died, your own personality, hypnosis, or even emotional love and physical pain. People will debate the power of the butterfly effect and talk about good or bad luck or Murphy’s Law as though they are real, but have a problem with the existence of Demons.
All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to believe that there are such things as Invisible Personal Forces, like God, Angels or Demons – who are real, creative, and powerful – that affect our lives every day. And the being introduced in Genesis 3 as a tempting serpent is an example of that. Just because it’s difficult to understand or strange to our ears doesn’t make it untrue.
So, I think to myself, if God is the author of the Bible, the story of Genesis 1-3 is written to tell me the truth, and there really is such a being as Satan, then why would it be impossible for this story to be true? Why couldn’t Satan use a serpent to tempt Eve? I believe what Jesus says, and He says that Satan is a master deceiver (John 8:44), capable of looking like a false messiah and even do miracles so convincing that even people who claim to be Christians will be deceived by him (Matthew 24:24). 2 Corinthians 11:14 says he can even masquerade as an angel of light.
So, is it not possible that Satan used his powers of deception to either manipulate or take on the form of a serpent? Or, if that’s too much, if invisible personal forces are real, then that would mean a form of that is demonic possession, right? Why couldn’t Satan have possessed this animal’s body and used it?
Now I sound crazy, right? I sound like I’m reaching beyond the scope of reality. But hold on. If the Bible isn’t trying to fool me, and Satan is real and powerful, then why is it impossible? It doesn’t have to be the kind of snake we think of today, does it? Genesis 3:1 says that the “serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field” and Revelation 20:2 calls Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent”, so this clearly wasn’t the kind of snake we see today, but perhaps a very clever animal that is long extinct. In fact, in Genesis 3:14, when God is cursing the serpent, He changes the form of the serpent to one that stands to one that slithers. There are lots of scientists who think snakes used to have legs but lost them as they evolved. And I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to know that there are animals capable of some pretty incredible things, right?
We’ve all seen the amazing things trained dogs, dolphins, and chimpanzees can do, right? I saw an article that showed how humans have taught parrots, orangutans, elephants and seals to mimic the human voice. And you’ve probably heard about Koko the gorilla that was capable of understanding thousands of English words and signed back over a thousand.
So, I’m not saying I understand it all, but all I’m saying, is why not, in the history of the world, with all the species that have ever existed, couldn’t there have been a smart, serpent-like creature capable of mimicking human speech that Satan possessed and used? Just because I don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is it plausible? I believe it is. Or, if that’s too much, then maybe Satan simply used some sort of supernatural power to talk through it, the same way God did with Balaam’s Donkey.
Now, why spend so much time on this today? The reason is simply that there’s a big difference between saying we believe something and actually believing it, and that difference has consequences. There are often nagging questions in the back of our minds that cause us to doubt God’s Word, doubt our faith, doubt how serious we should take it, and wonder if all that we say we believe is actually true. It causes us to distrust God, distrust other Christians, and to live in fear. Our doubts are weapons that Satan can use to cause us to think and believe some destructive lies.
If he can use our doubts to cause us to question the existence of Adam and Eve, then why not Abraham and Jesus too? If Genesis is made up, then why not the Gospel of Matthew? If there was no Fall of Man, no first sin that corrupts all mankind, then where is the curse and what did Jesus die for? Does that mean we’re all basically good people and everyone is going to heaven? If we’re all basically good, then what’s wrong with the world? And if we’re all good, or a bunch of it is made up, then why tell anyone about Jesus at all?
Satan can use these doubts to take us apart in surprising ways. It’s the same tactic he used on Eve. “Did God actually say…?” was an attack on God’s Word and His character. If he can get us to doubt what God says, then we have permission to edit His Words, change them, or dismiss them. Then we’re in trouble. Then the foundations of our life and faith start to crumble. Then we start to doubt that God is real, that Satan is real, that invisible, personal spiritual forces are real, and it makes us an easier target.
Those niggling doubts, which so many of us suppress thinking there are no good answers, embarrassed to ask other people in case we sound crazy or stupid, undermine our faith and become a foothold in our lives for the devil and a stumbling block to those around us. That’s why we need to spend time praying, studying, talking, and sharing our doubts and questions about God. He’s not scared of us looking into it, and He’s not angry that there are things we don’t understand, so it shouldn’t prevent us from asking and searching. Sure, not every question will have the perfect answer, but I have yet to find an important question that hasn’t gotten a reasonable answer over the past couple thousand years. The real trouble comes when we refuse to find them.
Is Hell Real?
Consider the questions from the Heidelberg Catechism that we’ve been studying, especially those today. We’ve spent three weeks talking about the importance of realizing that we are sinners, right? Last week we said that sin isn’t God’s fault, but question 9 comes. It says
“But does not God do man an injustice by requiring in his law what man cannot do?”
Ursinus, in his brilliance, knew that the human heart is full of doubt and is desperate to escape blame. We hate being called sinners and want to do everything we can to push that guilt away. We want to pretend the Fall wasn’t real, that Satan isn’t real, that we’re basically good people, and anything we do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault – even God’s. But neither God nor Ursinus lets us off the hook.
The question is basically “Isn’t it unfair for God to ask us to obey a Law that He knows we can’t obey because of our sinful nature?” and the answer comes:
“No, for God so created man that he was able to do it. But man, at the instigation of the devil, in deliberate disobedience robbed himself and all his descendants of these gifts.”
As I said last week, God didn’t set Adam up for failure, but for success. He absolutely could have obeyed, but fell to temptation chose not to. And now all of us children of Adam are all living with the consequences of having a sinful nature.
Question 10 continues,
“Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?”
Herein lay another area of our doubts – that God would actually punish sin. Doesn’t God love us? Won’t he let us get away with it? Isn’t He a Good Father who lets His children off the hook because he loves them so much? A kind God wouldn’t really make anyone go to Hell, would He?
People work really hard to try to deny that sinners are punished in Hell, and even harder to try to convince themselves that they themselves aren’t sinners, but neither is true. “Will God allow such disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” The answer in the Catechism comes:
“Certainly not. He is terribly displeased with our original sin as well as our actual sins. Therefore he will punish them by a just judgment both now and eternally, as he has declared: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law (Gal 3:10).”
God promised punishment to Adam and Eve (Gen 2:17). He promised punishment to Moses and the Israelites (Ex 34:7). The Lord, through the prophets, promised to take vengeance on all His enemies (Nah 1:2), and we’ve already learned that sin made us an enemy of God (Eph 2:1-3). Jesus said that without Him, that many will be led to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14) and promised that there would be a final separation where some people would be sent into eternal flames and endless misery (Matt 13:30-42).
Hell, like talking about the snake, makes some people very uncomfortable. They want to hold onto their doubts. They want to deny it. They want to live in ignorance. They don’t want to ask questions lest they learn something they don’t like. They don’t want to think that some people that they love are in Hell, or that they might be as well.
But, just as changing the story of Eden changes everything, so does removing Hell. Look at question 11 of the Catechism:
“But is God not also merciful?”
It’s almost an outcry, isn’t it? But how can the concept of Hell line up with a loving God?
And the answer is this:
“God is indeed merciful, but he is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting, punishment of body and soul.”
Yes, God is love, and part of love is ensuring that justice is done. Consider yourself. If you were wronged – you went downtown, someone jumped you, beat you, stabbed you, and stole your belongings – it would be unloving, unjust, unkind for a judge to simply let the mugger get away with it. How much more should humanity be punished for committing such “disobedience and apostasy” against the perfection of God? He is absolute perfection, and humanity chose Satan, sin, disobedience, and betrayal – and we keep doing it over and over willfully and in ways we don’t even know. You must admit yourself to be a sinner.
But our doubts fight, don’t they? “I’m not that bad. God’s not really like that. I don’t want that to be true.” My plea for you is to allow the conviction of God to fall upon you and to allow Him to judge you guilty – because it’s only then that you’ll be willing to ask and accept forgiveness. If you doubt yourself to be a sinner you will doubt the cost of your salvation.
Let me close with this: When it comes to difficult, uncomfortable topics like Hell, do what I said before. First, stop thinking you know everything and show some humility before God and His Word of God. Second, realize the teaching about Hell isn’t there to harm you, but to tell you something that you need to know so you can make a better decision. And third, overcome your doubts by choosing to share them, study the truth, and then settle it in your mind.
Christmas is a big deal. So much so that many feel quite pressured to have a “perfect Christmas”? The tree decorated just right, the right food and desserts, the proper music playing in the background, the vacation plans laid out, the cards sent, matching bow and wrapping on the gifts, the best plates for the turkey… if we miss just one thing, we feel, Christmas could be ruined!
What struck me as I re-read the Christmas story was that there seems to be a lot of imperfections in the first Christmas! When you think about it, almost everything, to our human way of thinking, was out of place. On the face of it, the first Christmas is quite a mess!
Consider this: We live in a world where we can call or text someone and get a response within seconds. If someone tells you there going to do something, you can usually bet it’s going to happen at least within their lifetime!
But what how does God do it? He sends the message of salvation through Jesus Christ through prophecies – over thousands of years. He hints about it to Eve as she and Adam are cast out of the Garden (Gen 3:15). He tells Abraham that through his descendants all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Later, He shares a bit more with Moses and the people of Israel, telling them about the coming of a great prophet (Deut 18:15-22). Then, almost 700 years later, God gives a little more information to the prophet Jeremiah saying that the Saviour would be a descendant of King David (Jer 23:5). Around this same time He tells a different prophet, Isaiah, that He would be born of a virgin (Isa 7:14). And then tells still a different prophet, Micah, that he would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). Hundreds of prophecies spanning thousands of years.
That kind of timeline certainly doesn’t make sense to us. It’d be like having one of my daughters send out invitations to their 100th birthday. It’s strange. God took hundreds and hundreds of years to reveal His plan.
God’s timing for when Jesus would come doesn’t make sense. God takes thousands of years to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, but then chooses a pre-scientific time, before humanity has even figured out how to take a picture or send messages a long distance without using a horse! Why come 2000 years ago? Why not now? We have digital cameras and the internet!
Then, right before Jesus is to be born, God decides to send a forerunner to go ahead of him, a man named John the Baptist. John will be Jesus’ cousin and given the job to announce the coming of the Messiah to the world. And how does God bring John into the world? By appearing to an old man named Zachariah, who doesn’t believe him because his wife is very old and can’t have babies, and is then struck dumb for the rest of the pregnancy. (Luke 1:5-25) Is that really the best guy God could have picked to be the father of the last prophet before Jesus?
Let’s keep going. God sends the angel Gabriel to Nazareth – not Bethlehem where Jesus is supposed to be born, but to Nazareth – to talk to a young virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Here, God’s plan leads to all kinds of trouble! Mary is obviously confused about how this is going to happen, and has to tell Joseph. Then Joseph almost dumps Mary because he thinks she cheated on him. God actually has to intervene in a dream to keep Joseph from divorcing her! (Luke 1:26-38) Why would God do that? That seems like too much drama.
So far we have, by our human estimation, the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong people! But let’s keep going.
In order to get Mary to the right place, so Jesus can be born in Bethlehem like He’s supposed to, God has Caesar Augustus command a registry and taxation of the entire Roman world. 85 million people[i] are inconvenienced and have to pay extra taxes so God can get three people from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:1-5) That seems kind of poorly planned… or at least unnecessarily complicated.
And then, it seems, almost as soon as they get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labour (Luke 2:6-7) Is this how God ordained His Son, Immanuel, the Messiah, the Christ, to be born? If we had planned this birth, we would have the best medical technology available, all the best doctors and midwives to make sure everything goes well. Prince George got the royal obstetrician, who was assisted by three other doctors including the Queen’s personal physician. I’ve got nothing against Baby Prince George, but this is Jesus! We would have sent for the royal trumpets, golden diapers and a scarlet onesie. This is the most important birth in the history of the world!
Nope… Jesus is born in a barn. The God of the universe, the one who invented stars, oceans, gravity, love, and joy, was born in a barn. The Creator lowered Himself to become one of His own creatures. The One whom Angels worship came not as a grown man, but as a helpless baby. Human infants are, perhaps, the most helpless creature on earth.[ii] And there was no fanfare. Jesus came in obscurity, wrapped in strips of used cloth and laid in an animal’s feeding trough, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the smell of cattle.
God has, literally, been prophesying about this forever! This would be the beginning of the culmination of the salvation of the world, the putting right of all sin and death, the greatest life to be lived. And he’s laid in a manger.
The one thing that seems to go right is when God pulls back the curtain separating heaven and earth, and has a host of radiant, shining angels shout “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-20) What a show that must have been! A multitude of glorious angels praising God!
And who gets that peak into heaven, to see that sight that almost no one has ever seen? Who gets to hear the great, heavenly declaration of “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”? A small group of socially rejected shepherds with reputations for being dishonest and perpetually unclean according to the law. Outcasts and sinners – not to be trusted as messengers of any kind.
And to top it off, the only people of influence who had actually figured out the importance of the birth of Jesus were a group of gentile, pagan, astrologers who came from hundreds of miles away, were two years late, went to the wrong city first, and left without telling hardly anyone.
Oh, but the person they did tell was crazy, king Herod who was so jealous of a contender to the throne that he had all the boys aged two years and under slaughtered in an attempt to kill Jesus. The three gifts they gave to Jesus were almost immediately pawned so that Joseph could afford to flee to Egypt.
The entire story of Christmas seems to be an absolute mess! It’s not the “perfect Christmas” at all! The way God orchestrates Christmas, when we look at it from a human perspective, is quite a mystery.
We Love a Good Mystery
I actually like mysteries. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I love Sherlock Holmes. I just finished reading a compendium of all the stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him. I’m not the only one too – a lot of people enjoyed reading it. Everyone, it seems, except Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. He’s famously known for not wanting to write as many stories as he did. He killed Sherlock off once, and retired him a couple times after that.
He even tried to making his price so high that it would discourage the publishers from asking for any more – but they paid it and he became one of the best-paid authors of his time.
For me, one of the best things about reading Sherlock Holmes is the way that Sherlock solves the mystery in such a dramatic fashion. In most of the stories Sherlock admits that he solved the crime within the first few minutes of hearing about it, but just wanted to check out a few things to be sure. He keeps everyone in suspense – even, and maybe especially, Watson – so he can do a theatrical reveal, or even better, have the criminal reveal themselves.
But the story doesn’t end after the bad guy has been caught – and this is, I think, Conan Doyle’s genius – instead we turn the page and find Holmes and Watson sitting together as Sherlock explains every decision, every movement, and every clue to the smallest detail. I think that’s what I like best. The mystery was fun, but my favourite part is the explanation of the clues that I, and everyone else, missed along the way.
Another mystery novelist, PD James, once said,
“In turbulent times people turn to detective stories for reassurance as much as entertainment ‘because they do affirm the intelligibility of the universe, the moral norm, the sanctity of life. It seems to me that the more we live in a society in which we feel our problems — be they international problems of war and peace, racial problems, problems of drugs, problems of violence — to be literally beyond our ability to solve, the more reassuring it is to read a popular form of fiction which itself has a problem at the heart of it. One which the reader knows will be solved by the end of the book.’”[iii]
PD James was a Christian. She wrote mysteries because she believed in rational, ordered, moral universe. She used detective stories to “show human nature, human sinfulness, and the endurance of a moral code that wasn’t invented by humanity, but rather given to us.”[iv]
God is Mysterious and Rational
I couldn’t agree more – and I think that’s why people love a good mystery – because they remind us of God. We want to believe that the universe in which we live was intelligently designed, well organized, and that all the pieces fit together. We may not feel like it all the time, but knowing that no matter how bad things look, how unintelligible and messed up the clues that are before us, there is Someone that can look at them all, see them for what they are, and put them in order.
And I think that helps us understand the Christmas story. On the surface, it seems jumbled and messy – a pile of clues that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t riddle out. But as we look deeper into God’s word, past the surface events, and God begins to explain to us what He what He’s been doing all along – we begin to see the intricate story being woven – with a perfection of detail, with clockwork precision, that astonishes us.
A Christian understands this. In fact, it’s our baseline for understanding everything. Yes, God is mysterious, but He is also moral, ordered, and reasonable. He is not like the pagan god’s that simply do things out of spite or boredom. He never experiments. He never guesses. He never does something and wonders what will happen next. He is absolutely in control and fully aware of every cause and effect in the universe.
He’s not just a very smart person who can react quickly to what is going on– no, He is orchestrating every action in this world, from the smallest detail to the largest – from the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons of atoms, to the governments that rule the largest nations on the planet – God orchestrates them all in an orderly, constant, rational, moral and precise way.
Mysterious to Us
That being said, though God knows everything, we certainly don’t – do we? No, for us, there are many mysteries in this world. I read a great quote from Deitrich Bonhoeffer this week where he said that for people, “mystery remains a mystery. It withdraws from our grasp.”
What does that mean? It means that for humans, everything we think we know only reveals more things that we don’t. Why? Bonhoeffer continues,
“[Because] mystery… does not mean simply not knowing something. The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us. The mystery of other people is not reduced by getting to know more and more about them. Rather, in their closeness they become more and more mysterious.” [vii]
That’s how it works on our side of the universe, doesn’t it? God understands the big things and the small, the causes and the effects, and for Him it all makes sense. We, however, as the more study anything, the more mysteries open up to us! It is only those who have a surface knowledge of something that believe they have it all figured out. The ones who really study something, for years and years, and really delve deeply into understanding it – astronomy, biology, physics, psychology, cooking, art, or even their own family and friends – as they peel back the onion layers, they discover more wonders and delights and questions than they had when they started. The more they learn the more they realize they don’t know.
God created this world that way on purpose. He designed a place where powerfully intricate, mysteries abound. There are forces in this world like love and fear that can be spoken in a single word, and understood by almost anyone, and yet are beyond explanation even by the greatest scientists and poets.
That makes up part of the beauty, complexity and frustration of living in this world. And it is perfectly illustrated in the beauty, complexity, and frustration, of the Christmas story and the Gospel of Jesus.
An Inside Out Onion
The gospel of Jesus is simple enough for even a small child to understand, but works like an inside-out onion – the more layers you peel back from the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ, the bigger the onion is on the inside. Once you think you understand a layer, you peel back the next, and there are more intricacies, more meaning, more depth, more substance, and more mysteries than you ever could have imagined.[v]
Paul describes the mystery of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The religious Jews demanded that Jesus prove everything to them by signs and wonders, but even when He did they didn’t believe in Him. The intellectual Greeks wanted everything to be proven by facts, logic and coherent, human arguments. But the way that Jesus revealed Himself, the way He lived, God’s whole of salvation, was offensive to the religious people (who want to earn their way to heaven) and nonsensical to the intellectuals.
And their inability to grasp what God was doing – rather than trying meeting their expectations – was a “stumbling block” that kept them from being able to accept the truth.
This is why Christian theologians emphasize the need for God to open our hearts and minds before we can be saved. Because without His Spirit revealing Himself to us, the Gospel doesn’t make sense. We can’t think God’s thoughts unless God has opened our mind.
A few verses later in 1 Corinthians 2:7-16. Paul says:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
Do you see that? We must be given the Spirit of God to understand what is going on with God’s plan. The religious experts didn’t accept what God was doing because they wanted to earn their way to heaven through things like good deeds and religious ceremony, the great intellectuals didn’t like it either because there were too many unexplained mysteries. No, it is only the ones to whom the Spirit of God is revealed who get this.
That’s why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.[vi] That’s why we must turn to Him for understanding. That’s why we pray to God to reveal Himself to our lost friends and neighbours – because no matter what, they can’t understand it unless He opens their eyes. That’s why, when we are in crisis – suffering with pain, anxiety, or depression, we are told to cry out to God; because human answers are not good enough. We need to hear from the One who knows what’s going on behind the curtain, the Designer, who knows the beginning and the end, who holds it all together, in whom we can put our hope, faith and trust.
Things like love, fear, hate, joy, salvation, mercy, grace, peace – and the deep questions like “why am I here?”, “what is my purpose?”, “why does everything exist?”, “what is the meaning of my life?” are not discerned by human wisdom. Human wisdom falls utterly short to explain the things that really matter – and even when we get a taste of truth, we peal back the onion and it’s only bigger and more mysterious on the inside.
No, these things are only discerned by God – and so it is in Him that we must put our faith and trust.
So, as we celebrate the advent season, and tell the story of Christmas, let us embrace the paradox and the mystery of what is happening, and let it grow our faith and trust in God.
- Through prophecies God weaves the Gospel of Jesus into the very fabric of reality, over all millennia, from the first people to today.
- God moves the hand of Ceasar to show He is in coontrol of everything, even pagan rulers.
- Jesus shows us what it means to be meek by being born in humility.
- God opens the skies and has angels sing to outcasts and rebels because they needed the good news as much as anyone, and represent all of us outcasts and rebels who need Him too.
- God speaks to gentile foreigners, like us, in a way they can understand, inviting people who didn’t belong, who would never have gotten an invitation, to be a part of the greatest story ever told, and witness the salvation of the world.
And as we remember the mystery of Christmas, let us remember the mystery of why Jesus came – that great absurdity – the plan that we would never have come up with in a million years. God sent His one and only Son, the perfection of glory, to be humiliated and be declared guilty by a condemned world, and murdered by His own creation, exchanging His own body for ours, taking the wrath of God for us.
“God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon Himself our punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner.”[vii]
And He invites us to be forgiven, to believe in Him, to trust Him, and to be changed by Him.
[v] Borrowed illustration from “The Last Battle” by CS Lewis
[vi] Prov 1:7; 9:10
[vii] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, Pg 26)