What is the “Blasphemy Against the Spirit”?

crossing-crossroad-businessman-fashion-medium copyA friend recently asked a question about the “blasphemy against the Spirit” in the comments section of the “Key to Hebrews 6:4-6” post. I am posting my response here for those who may be interested. A lot of people wonder about this issue, and there are many misconceptions about it, so I hope this will clear at least some of the fog.

The Unpardonable Sin in the New Testament

The idea of an “unpardonable sin” can be traced to at least three passages in the New Testament. The first is found in the gospels and appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The full text in Matthew (12:22-36) reads as follows:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The second passage is in 1 John 5:16:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

The third passage is in Hebrews 6:4-6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 

I dealt with the third passage here, and so I will omit it from this post.

A Work of the Spirit

Firstly, we need to notice that the Matthew 12 passage presents the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a way that is different to anything found in the first twelve chapters. Here we read Jesus’ words: “…I drive out demons by the Spirit of God…”

Secondly, we need to notice that a quote from the prophet Isaiah precedes the passage. It starts with the words: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” (v17). The quote is from Isaiah 42:1-4 and paves the way for the reference to the work of the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Note that the passage in Isaiah points to several things that the Lord Jesus would do in his earthly ministry, but only to one thing that God the Father would do: “I will put my Spirit upon him.” It is God’s Spirit “upon” Jesus that would empower him to proclaim justice without having to quarrel, cry aloud or let his voice be heard in the streets. It is God’s Spirit who would enable Jesus to minister without breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smouldering wick, and to bring justice to victory and enable the Gentiles to hope in his name.

Why does Matthew quote the Isaiah passage? In verse 16 we read that Jesus had been healing people, and that he “ordered them not to make him known”. Matthew tells us that herein is a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Naturally, for the whole point of the prophecy was to reveal that the active agent throughout Jesus’ ministry would be the Spirit of God and not the forceful efforts of a human being or a mere  audible testimony. That is how he would “proclaim justice” without needing to quarrel or cry, or even having people “hear his voice in the streets”. And so his order to the people not to make him known is a fulfilment of the prophecy.

A remarkable parallel of the principle embodies in Isaiah’s quote is found in Zachariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

The “Anointed One” and the Kingdom

This brings us to the statement in verse 28: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” According to the Old Testament prophets, the coming of the kingdom and the appearance of the Lord’s “anointed one” were one and the same thing. According to the New Testament, the “anointing” is the Holy Spirit who comes upon a person or dwells in a person. And so Jesus is saying that the manifestation of the “anointing” is a sign that the kingdom is at hand.

It is also for this reason that Jesus’ famous reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue, and his subsequent statement that “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, began with the words “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” It is the Spirit-anointing that validates the ministry of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah.

Many people are in fact ignorant of the fact that the two most important words that we have in the Bible to refer to Jesus, namely “Messiah” and “Christ”, both mean exactly the same thing: The Anointed One. Messiah is a transliteration (a phonetic transcription of a word from one language into another with no regard for its actual meaning) from the Hebrew mashiach and Christ from the Greek khristós. The “Anointed One” was the future Jewish king from the Davidic line, anointed to usher in and rule in God’s kingdom.

More Than a Mere Exorcism

What we find in Matthew 12 is thus more than the testimony of a man, or a mere miraculous exorcism. We find a unique display of the Spirit’s power, with the express intention of revealing the appearance of the king and his kingdom, combined with the deposition of the “prince of this world”, the evil ruler who is identified as “the strong man”. We see here the dawn of the messianic age, the era of the Spirit’s power and conviction.

The fact that this was the intention behind the miracle can be inferred from the people’s response. They were “astonished” and asked” Could this be the son of David?” (verse 23). That was exactly the point. The “son of David” was the Messiah, the Christ, the one chosen and anointed as king of Israel, just like David was before him. Driving out demons “by the Spirit of God” was intended as a sign that the kingdom was upon the people, that the king of that kingdom was in the process of being revealed and that the messianic prophecies were being fulfilled.

This is exactly the effect that the miracle had on the people, except of course for those who refused to acknowledge and respond to the the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. They were not merely skeptical about a supposed miracle, but were in fact hardening themselves to a direct revelation from the Father, through the Spirit, that Jesus was Lord and Christ. 

The Spirit as God’s Agent of Conviction

To appreciate the above, we need to consider that the “anointing” was never intended to remain on Jesus alone, but to be distributed amongst his followers. Even though Jesus performed miracles in “the power of the Spirit”, this was intended as a mere introduction to something much greater, deeper and more lasting. God’s purpose was that all who would respond to the revelation of his Son, through the activity of his Spirit, would ultimately receive the fullness of the Spirit for themselves.

This “promise” is evident in Old Testament passages, such as Ezekiel 36:26-27:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 

It is also evident from many New Testament passages, such as the following ones in John’s gospel:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (14:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (16:13)

Years later, in his first epistle, John would look back on these promises and proclaim that they had been fulfilled:

But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (2:27)

It is clear from these passages that the way in which God deals with and speaks to human beings in this present age is through his Spirit.  Note Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 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? 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. (1 Corinthians 2:9-12)

It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of truth” who “convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

The End of Ignorance and the Era of Accountability

If God comes to us” through his Spirit” in this present age, then it follows clearly that the way in which to resist him is is to resist his Spirit. By resisting God’s Spirit we are, in fact, resisting the only available channel of legitimate divine communication with him, and thus all potential benefits proclaimed by and accessible through the Spirit.

Simply put, the sin against the Holy Spirit is unique because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is unique. It is a ministry of illumination, of enlightenment, and so it brings an accountability to humanity hitherto unknown to them.

Space does not permit an in depth discussion of God’s willingness to overlook human ignorance, but let us at least note that the Bible has much more to say about this than what people generally realise. The following verses provide a few examples:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30)

Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief. (1 Timoth 1:13)

And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47-48)

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. (Matthew 11:21-22)

If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:22)

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)

The receive the illumination of the Holy Spirit is to have the both the problem and excuse of ignorance removed. It is for this reason that Jesus calls the rejection of the Holy Spirit an act of blasphemy. It is a willing, knowing rejection of God. It is a sin in the light and against the light. As God’s “agent” convicting a person of sin and righteousness, the Holy Spirit is the channel through which a person is led to confession, repentance and forgiveness. To resist the Holy Spirit is to willingly and knowingly resist the offer of forgiveness, and so it is a sin which cannot be pardoned on the grounds of ignorance or unintentionality.

Speaking Against the Son of Man

Note that Jesus said “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven”. Why? 

The answer is remarkably simple: There is nothing in Jesus himself that reveals him to be the Messiah, and so to merely reject the historical Christ, without any revelation as to who he is, is on the same par as rejecting any self proclaimed prophet. It is an act of ignorance, the reason being that the ONLY way in which people could recognise Jesus as the Christ was through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit sent from the Father.

This is clear from a number of passages in the New Testament, but one stands out. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (See Matthew 16:13-16), their answer revealed that no one knew: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then he asked Peter, who replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Note Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Also note that this “revelation” from the Father was not an arbitrary incident, but one that would serve as the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church. The way in which Peter “recognised” Jesus models the way in which every future believer would recognise him – through a personal revelation from God the Father, through his Spirit. Indeed, no one can come to the Son unless the Father “draws” him or her (John 6:44).

Similarly, John the Baptist stated that Jesus was in the world, but that the world did not recognise him (John 1:10). He then went on to say to the Pharisees “among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26). Finally, he confessed: “I myself did not know him” (verses 31 and 33). So how did John then recognise Jesus? Note his reply in verses 33-34: “The one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” Again, God the Father, through a work of his Spirit, revealed Jesus to be the Christ.

The same principle is evident from Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Herein is the key to the sin “against” the Spirit. According to Romans 10, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. A person can only make this confession of salvation through the Holy Spirit, Paul says, and so it follows naturally that salvation can only be rejected by resisting the Spirit.

No Forgiveness in this Age or the Age to Come

The final predicament that we face in this passage comes from the statement that anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either “in this age or in the age to come.” This has led many to believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit, once committed, becomes a permanent condition in the life of the one who has committed it. Yet this is not what the text says. It says that the penalty of the sin has eternal consequences, which is a wholly different thing. It never says that the sin itself cannot be repented from.

To understand this, imagine a doctor saying to a desperately ill patient that he has to take his tablets daily in order to get better, and then giving him a chilling warning: “If you do not take your tablets, you can never recover. Not now, not next week, not next month or next year, never ever…!” Does this mean that the curse becomes a permanent and unalterable reality if the person becomes agitated with the side effects of the tablets and throws them in the trash? Of course not. He merely needs to come to his senses, go back to the doctor for another prescription and start taking his tablets in order for their healing effects to start.

In the same way, the sin against the Holy Spirit has eternal consequences as long as it is being committed, but that does not mean that one cannot repent and yield to the Holy Spirit and find the forgiveness that has been so elusive during the time of rebellion.

Two Unpardonable Sins?

We have seen that there is only one unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. This oftentimes raises the question: What then about the “unsaved” – those who have never come to Christ. If they are never forgiven because of their lost state, does that mean that there are two unpardonable sins?

By now you should be able to answer this question for yourself: The sin of being and remaining “unsaved” when one is enlightened by the Holy Spirit is in fact the sin against the Holy Spirit. People who reject Christ do so by rejecting the convicting power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, not by rejecting some bearded Palestinian prophet from the first century who looks no different than thousands of male Middle-Easterners. And so Christ was really warning the Pharisees in Matthew 12 that they were alienating themselves from a salvation offered to them by resisting a display of the Spirit’s power. The era of the “Anointed One” had arrived, and, with that, the promised kingdom and deposition of Satan. This was the salvation that they had been awaiting, but now they were excluding themselves from it. During the times of “ignorance” they had the benefits of an Old Testament system of Law and sacrifice, but now they were expected to promote from the types and shadows to their realities.

A Final Word: The “Sin Unto Death”

This also answers our last question: What about 1 John 5:16’s “sin that leads to death” that is so severe that one should not even pray for those who committed it? Here it is again:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

With all of the above in mind, the question answers itself: The “sin unto death” is the unpardonable sin, the sin for which there is no advocacy or mediation. Unlike the sins committed by a “brother” that one can pray for, a prayer that God will answer by giving “life” to the brother, this sin is committed apart from Christ and the atonement. A mediatory prayer is entirely useless, for such a person is not a “brother” who qualifies for the intercessory work of the advocate.

This interpretation is clearly inferred from everything we have covered above, but one can actually find it in the immediate context of the passage. Note the words leading up to verse 16:

“And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth… If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Note that God’s testimony concerning his Son takes place through the “Spirit who testifies”, and that the one who responds in faith to this testimony receives the Son and “has life” whilst the one who rejects it “does not have life”.

This explains why we can pray for a “brother” who sins, and ask God to give him life, for he already has life and has qualified himself to be an ongoing recipient of life. Such a person’s sins are not unpardonable, for he has an advocate who speaks on his behalf. Here John echoes his earlier words “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

However, the sins of the one who does not have Christ and who does not have life (because he/she has rejected the testimony of the Spirit) are sins that lead to one place only: Death. An intercessory prayer for forgiveness is no use, for their is no advocate who speaks on his/her behalf. Such a person must first yield to the testimony of the Spirit and receive the life of the Son before we can pray for him/her as a brother or sister.

Christianity Isn’t for You

images-12At the beginning of November 2013 blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post entitled “Marriage Isn’t for You”. The post went viral and attracted over 24 million views within four days after its publication. No one was more surprised than Smith. He described the experience as “staggering, inspiring, overwhelming, and more than a little intimidating.”

Smith’s clever choice of a heading certainly had something to do with it. I spotted the sentence amongst a myriad of Huff Post headlines, and immediately followed the link to the article, wondering what on earth this was all about.

But the post surprised me. Contrary to expectation, and quite opposite to first impressions, it argued that marriage was never intended for self-gratification, but for the sake of one’s partner. In Smith’s own words: “A true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’”

This, I would suggest, provides the real reason why the post caused such a media sensation. Not only had Smith inadvertently touched on one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, but also allowed his readers to hold the key that unlocks it.

A Profound Mystery…

Remember that rather strange sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – the one that reads: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”? Remember that Paul was writing about marriage, and how marriage is an earthly reflection of a heavenly relationship?

If you do, then you may know where I am heading with this. According to Paul, the relationship between marriage and faith is a hidden one. It is a “profound mystery”, meaning that humans in general are unaware of the correlation between the two, or, if they are aware of it, they generally do not understand it too well.

It is this very ignorance that Paul addresses in the passage that contains the sentence mentioned above (Ephesians 5:21-32). In the human relationship between a husband and wife, the husband depicts Christ and the wife depicts the church, Paul says. Understand the correlation, and you can unlock the mystery of marriage.


Beginning with the wife, Paul explains that the way for a wife to understand her role in marriage is to turn to her knowledge of Christ. There she will be confronted with a story of a lover and his beloved, and her experiential knowledge of what it means to be the beloved, that is, the one at the receiving end of the lover’s favour. She will be reminded that to be loved is a gracious and wonderful thing, a thing of acceptance and not initiation. She will be reminded that her calling is to yield, to surrender, to succumb, to be filled with the fullness of her lover’s life. Herein is ultimate satisfaction and safety, and the word that Paul chooses to embody this act of blissful concession is the word translated “submission” in most of our English Bibles.

It is this very holy and indescribable thing that the wife is to take from her walk with Christ, and bring into her marriage. This is not intended to be something mysterious or complicated. If a woman walks with God, it is as easy as taking the trusted old family recipe into a new kitchen and having exactly the same results as everyone has always had in the old one.


Having made this point, Paul turns his attention to the husbands. Their advice is exactly the same as their wives’, with one important distinction. What they are to bring into their marriage is not the role of the beloved, but of the lover.

This may sound daunting, but it is not supposed to be any more difficult than the preceding advice.

The man who walks with God understands that he was first loved before he could love in return. He understands that the love that saved him was the love of God, that is, a love that cannot be evoked, stirred up or earned by some ongoing performance on his part. It is something sovereign, eternal and unconditional, and it is so in all of its aspects.

To drive the point home, Paul uses the metaphor of the love that a “head” has for its very own “body”. It is a love that is birthed from an indescribable unity, and its very nature is to nurture, protect, nourish and cherish. “No one has ever hated his own body”, Paul says, and so the husband is informed in no uncertain terms what it means to be the “head” in this equation.

Mutual Submission

But there is something else that we need to notice. This act of loving “headship” on the husband’s part is not in contrast to the one of “submission” prescribed to the wife. In fact, the husband is also called to submit to the wife (see verse 21). What this means is that we are not talking about a role of submission versus one of non-submission, but of two roles of submission, albeit in two totally different ways.*

Of course the body is “submitted” to the head, but the head is in fact very much submitted to the body. Even though it initiates the animation of the body, its entire function can rightly be described as one of “service” to the body.

Is it any wonder that Christ, who is the head of the body, first introduced himself as its servant?

It is in submission that the two roles of husband and wife meet and are united. Diverse as these callings may be, they are introduced by a singular overriding and collective call: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

What the Copy Tells Us About the Original…

This is where our friend Seth Adam’s Smith’s insight comes in. Marriage is not for me or for you, Seth points out. It is for the other. He hit the nail on the head, if you would excuse the pun. “I am there for you”, the body says to its head. “I am there for you”, the head replies to the body.

But it goes even further than this. Whilst the insight may be a novel one for some (and undoubtedly fiercely disputed by others), it underlines something else, namely the nature of what it means to be a part of that other marriage, that is, the heavenly one.

If the nature of earthly marriage is derived from heavenly marriage, and if that nature is selflessness, submission and service, then what does it in fact tell us about heavenly marriage?

Put differently, if “marriage is not for me”, then how much more is “Christianity not for me”?

As It Is In Heaven…

I realise that I’m putting the cart before the horse here. We are supposed to get our understanding of marriage from our understanding of Christianity, not the other way round.

But sometimes one sees the cart before you see the horse, and this is what has happened with Seth’s post. Whilst it does a wonderful job of telling us how to behave in marriage, it does not provide the source of that wisdom. And so we shall do well to remind ourselves that marriage is selfless for one reason only: The model that it is based upon is thoroughly selfless, from beginning to end.

Let’s start with the head of this body, Christ: Christ loved his bride selflessly. What this means is that Christ’s attraction to his bride did not spring from his own needs or desires, stirred up by the prospect of having those needs met in a union with her. Rather, it sprang from the needs of the bride, and the prospect of him fulfilling that need in her. Christ’s love was a giving love, not a taking love.

To be drawn to a person to the extent that that person needs you, rather than the extent to which you need him or her, is a strange and foreign concept in the world we live in. It turns the direction of what we understand as “love” around. Yet this is the way in which Christ loved us.

The Bible is clear about the correlation between people hungering and thirsting after God, and God’s love for them. Passages in this regard are numerous. Our need for him is what draws him to us, as upside-down as that may sound. The blessedness of the poor in spirit and those who mourn and hunger and thirst after righteousness are contrasted with the woes of those who are full and need nothing. He came for the sick, not the healthy. He is close to the brokenhearted. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. He sides with the returning prodigal of Luke 15, the sinful tax collector of Luke 18 and the adulterous woman of John 8. To drive the point of his strange love home, each time he does so in the presence of those who are religiously smug and unaware of their need for him.

But the passage that sketches the contrast most strikingly comes from Luke 7. Here we find the principle repeated in a narrative of another sinful woman and another Pharisee, but we also find something else. Note the following words:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wwiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Yet again it is the needy one who attracts Christ to her, and who receives his mercy. But the story goes one step further than the ones mentioned above, and explains how this very fulfillment of her need is transformed into a miraculous and wonderful thing, namely her love for Christ.

What we learn from this passage is that the selfless love that Christ has for those who are desperately aware of their need for him, fills them in such a way that it evokes deep gratitude and a reciprocation of that very love. Indeed, they love God because he first loved them.

At first glance this reciprocated love may seem selfish, in the sense of “I am attracted to you because of what you can do for me.” But in fact it is not. The reason why Christ can love without the anticipation of some sort of “filling” is that he is already filled by the love of the Father. And so he loves freely and without condition or ulterior motive.

Once a human being becomes the recipient of this divine love, the same miracle occurs inside of her. She is filled with the fullness of God in such a way that she no longer needs anything else, and this divine contentment manifests itself in a love that bubbles forth from a position of fullness exactly as Christ loves from a position of utter fulfillment and joy in the fullness of the Father.

Note the words of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

This fullness enables us to be attracted to others based on their needs, not ours. This fullness enables us to love one another as Christ has loved us, demanding nothing from them and anticipating no reward for our love, but desiring only to share the richness of the fullness within us.

The Insight that Transformed Karl Barth

1101620420_400Few people are aware that much of the theological genius of the legendary Swiss theologian Karl Barth can be traced back to a book that dramatically altered his understanding in this regard. It expounded the two different types of love described above, namely the love of God as opposed to the love of fallen man. This monumental work was written by Anders Nygren and the title says it all: Agape and Eros.

In Barth’s classic work Evangelical Theology, he relies heavily on Nygren and says the following about these two types of love:

Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.

The conclusion of this whole matter is astoundingly simple. If Christ has filled me with all the fullness of God, then I no longer need Christianity to do so. Then Christianity need not feed or satisfy me in any way to retain its appeal. Then my Christianity is no longer for me, but for others. Then the fellowship of the brothers and sisters need not meet the requirements of my personal checklist to qualify for my inclusion. Then I become a giver of the life that is within, wherever I am and whatever I do.

And as I do so, the words of Christ constantly prove to be true: It is more blessed to give than to receive. This type of giving does not deplete my resources, but expands and increases them. This type of love does not drain me, but reinvigorates me. As I give, God replenishes, and what could possibly be more blessed than that?

* Not everyone agrees that Ephesians 5:21 teaches mutual submission. See, for instance, Wayne Grudem’s “The Myth of “Mutual Submission”. It should be noted that most scholars who share Grudem’s views do so because they believe that the idea of “mutual submission” promotes “egalitarianism” by seriously undermining the Biblical teaching of the unique authority and leadership role of the husband in marriage. However, if we understand the term “submission” as a general category of selflessness and service, and one that underlies all the distinct callings of the members of the body, including that of husband and wife, the dilemma is solved.

A Meditation: The Presence of God as the Suspension of Time and Space, namely Eternity

home-you-wall-clock-black-bird4600-large_edd75455035dbd0e1ca6b4544dfe1a7c(The Meditation section of this blog is intended for exactly that: Meditation. A cursive reading of these posts will frustrate most readers, so it may be a good idea to skip them if you are not in the mood to think too deeply!)

Here is something to chew on for all fellow philosophical souls out there. It offers, hopefully, more than the ivory-towered entertainment that theologians and philosophers tend to indulge in, oftentimes at the expense of a real engagement with people and their problems. The reading below (right at the end of this introduction) is intended to convey something that, when correctly understood, may quite literally change the course of a person’s life. And so it is (potentially) extremely practical and applicable for our walk with Christ.

Simply put, the meditation has to do with the nature of eternity that enters the life of the regenerate, not at the moment of their physical death, but at the moment of their spiritual death and regeneration. To live in eternity is to have time and space suspended in the way that most of us experience it. We oftentimes try and interpret the idea of “eternity” from our own finite perspective of time, and we end up with time “extended” (remember the illustration of the little bird sharpening its beak on the diamond mountain?) rather than time “suspended”.

Eternity is not a “lo-o-o-ng” time, but an eternal now, which is what the meditation aims to illustrate.

The point is that a real encounter with perfection suspends the need to dwell on the past (Solomon’s prohibited question in Ecc.7:10: “Why were the old days better than these?”) or the future (The refrain of discontent: “If only…”). Of course a dwelling on the past can be negative (regret or shame rather than nostalgia, i.e. the “if only…” sentiment in reverse gear – What Martyn Lloyd Jones dubbed “Vain Regrets” in his classic Spiritual Depression) and so can be an imagined future (fear in the place of lust: “What if…”).

But even negative manifestations of retrospection and visioneering are suspended in the presence of perfection. And so the problem of sin, which is the problem of discontent and its perceived antidote “desire” (See post here), dissipates in the atmosphere of perfection. The idea that something greater lurks in the future than in the present was, of course, introduced by the serpent. I elaborated on this in two posts here and here and will refrain from doing so in this post.

A final word: The normal Christian life is clearly designed by God to frustrate our projections of an idealised future inhabited by an idealised self, for this is the essence of what it means to fall into the power of the evil one, as the Eden tragedy reminds us. It is also, I believe, this idea that will contribute to Scripture’s “great apostasy” more than any thing else, and I suspect it has already begun. An “imagined self” lies at the heart of all idolatry. It deceived the first Eve, who typified the bride of Christ, and it will deceive the second Eve, the church herself. Satan’s strategy has not changed, and neither has our gullibility.

And so God has been busy since the fall to frustrate our most pronounced idolatrous tendency, namely the tendency to compensate for the curse by constructing curse-free images in our imagination – dreaming of perfect tomorrows to compensate for painful yesterdays and frustrating todays:

  • Note that God’s manna, the bread from heaven who is Christ, lasts for one day only.
  • Note that the exodus was designed to frustrate the very idolatrous excitement that made the people sing the song of Moses (Ex.15) whilst anticipating milk and honey instead of daily bread. Note that the way in which God “tested” them, to see “what was in their heart, whether they would serve him or not”, was by frustrating their future expectations.
  • Note that the lesson following the test (See Deut.8:3 and on) did not only have to do with substance (every word of God instead of bread alone), but with timing (a daily partaking in the place of an anticipated future).
  • Note that the stubborn refusal of the “imagined future” to come to realisation inspired the act of forcing it into existence through a golden calf.
  • Note the correlation between the golden calf event and Nebuchadnezzar’s “golden image” which he constructed in response to God’s revelation that his rule was but a temporary and ultimately futureless one.
  • Note Jesus’ reference in Matthew 6 to the gentiles “running after these things”, namely the concern about tomorrow and how to prepare for it.
  • Note Jesus’ response in Luke 12 to a man who was worried that he would not receive his anticipated inheritance from his brother. This response included a story in which Jesus contrasts the birds and flowers, who receives daily from the hand of God, with the rich man who spend his entire life storing up for a perfect future – one that was taken from him as it arrived.
  • Note the fact that the benefits of the most famous “Lord’s Prayer” lasts only for one day only, and that it has to be repeated every day – in the day for the day.
  • Note that the great revelation of what it means to be a disciple hinges on a single statement, namely to “take up your cross daily”.
  •  Note James’ condemnation of the rich who say “tomorrow we will…”
  • Note those verses in the middle of the saddest book in the Bible, Lamentations, that beam forth like a light out of darkness: “His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning…”
  • And note that the only legitimate “hope” in Scripture is the hope of the resurrection, and herein is our visionary instincts satisfied. “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future, and this becomes his salvation in the most difficult times of his existence”, wrote Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. He was right, and the observation made him famous. But of course he never pointed out that this peculiarity of man was intended to draw his gaze from the present age to the age to come, and not to some imagined future within the present age.

There is more, but I think the point has been made. With the above in mind, the promised reading:

The Presence of God as the Suspension of Time and Space, namely Eternity

The “here” of space and the “now” of time intersect in an eternal concept called “presence”, signifying both locality (you are “with” us, that is, you are “present” as opposed to “absent”) and interval or moment (you are so at the “present”, as opposed to the “past” or “future”). We therefore see that the presence of a person cannot be due to recollection or projection. Both the past and the future make existence impossible as it obliterates presence.

Thus, for the self to be alienated from the self, resulting in the tragic and inevitable annihilation of the self, what we term “death”, the self must be removed from the present into the past or the future. This removal we see expressed in the shift from the divine “I am” (Ex.3:14) to the demonic “I will” (Is.14:13-14). The latter we can refer to as the appearance of “becoming” in the place of “being”.

Existence stands opposed to imagination. Presence is immune to imagination, for the reality of presence overrides imagery, but the past and the future is bound to imagination. This means that the self of the past or the future is of necessity an image, and that it is dead. It has departed from the intersection of the present. “I will” is death, “I am” is life.

“I will” is the confession that removes one from the eternal moment of the present. This experience of death is felt in the sentiment of desire, and it is kept alive by the sentiment of anticipation. To desire is death. To anticipate is death. The image is always desired and anticipated, and it always destroys presence.

Needless to say, the death resulting from “I will” (The devil in Is.14) is transferred through the code “you will” (the serpent to Eve in Gen.3) and collectively expressed in the confession “we will” or “let us” (the builders of the tower of Babel in Gen.11). The seed of death is transmitted in this manner.

For the destruction of the unity between two selves, i.e. between two or more individuals, the same annihilation is called for, namely the exchange of “we are” (“I am” in the collective sense, the confession of identity found and celebrated) for “let us” (identity as a wish dream, the anticipation of “a name for ourselves”). Babel does not only provide the historical narrative of disunity, but also the cause thereof, namely the act of collective visioneering. Images relate no more than phantoms, this story teaches us.

The incarnation of Christ was the intersection of time and space, and it restored the possibility of fellowship as a reality and not a dream. Naturally, for when time and space collide, they do so in a third reality namely “presence” or “eternity”. Note that “presence” does not exist alongside time and space, but in the place thereof, as illustrated by the following graphic:

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 2.34.33 PM

Of course we can expand on it by filling in the blank spaces:

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 fixed

And here is the conclusion of the matter: To walk in an exceptional manner with Christ is to apprehend him in the moment, not to anticipate him sometime in the future of this age (The second coming excluded, as that is the beginning of the age to come). A projection of his presence to an imaginary idealised setting (next week’s church service, next month’s healing revival, my spirituality if I can only…, etc.) is to be left without that presence in the now, for how can we throw something towards the future and still cling to it?

To abide in Christ, and to fellowship with the body, can only happen in the now. Presence and present is inseparable. Herein is the antidote to the curse of good intentions never carried out. Herein is true contentment and the annihilation of desire. Herein is the experience of the fullness of God. Herein is the eternal Sabbath. Herein is the fulfilment of the law. Herein is the love of God.

Why I’m not Charlie

Charlie Hebdo WM

I am a cartoonist, and I am all for freedom of speech. I can even enjoy satire, as my stockpile of MAD magazines would testify. But first and foremost I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and this comes with a huge implication. My fascination with crazy cartoons and sharp humour is subject to a higher law: The law of love.

“Love” means different things to different people, so the Lord Jesus made it really easy for us not to get confused. He summed it up neatly by saying “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

It is pretty clear: Jesus’ definition of love excludes any form of nastiness or deliberate provocation. This, in my mind, would exclude the type of journalism that has led to this week’s tragic massacre, as well as the type of Hollywood movie that infuriated the North Koreans a few weeks ago.

“But what if I am provoked first?”, you may ask. “Do I not have a responsibility to respond in kind?”

Sorry, Jesus closed this door as well:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

As I am writing, cartoon responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre are flooding cyberspace. Every single one that I have seen vigorously defends the murdered cartoonists and the rights of satirists to do what these men had been doing for years. I get it. I truly get it. But I get the words of Jesus Christ and Solomon (quoted in the cartoon above) in a much greater way, which is why I have decided to draw a different kind of cartoon depicting a different kind of solidarity.

If you are not a Christian, feel free to ignore this. But if you are one, ask yourself two simple questions:

1. Am I praying for the men who are at the moment the most hated people on the planet? (They may be dead by the time you read this, but there are enough of them to keep you praying for the rest of your life.)
2. Do I love them in the very way that God the Father loves me?

Enough said.

“I will”, said the Turkey.


I am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.

The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:

I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.

Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 6.13.30 PM

All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12


Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.

The Carpenter

CarpenterI dedicate this to Winston Ruiters, a carpenter I met yesterday. We spoke about God, cave paintings, my African ancestors and some other things.

Whilst thinking of Winston early this morning, I was reminded of another carpenter.

This man loved God more than any other human ever had. Yet he chose a carpentry shop instead of a religious seminary to prepare himself for God’s work.

This man had greater abilities to build a religious empire than all the world’s televangelists put together, yet he never took up an offering.

This man had greater stature than the Pope, yet he hated organised religion.

This man could assemble a crowd in seconds, yet he avoided them.

This man had more wisdom and knowledge than one can find in all the world’s libraries, yet he had no title or credentials.

This man could actually do the miracles that faith healers can only dream of, yet he rebuked those who wanted him to hold a miracle crusade.

This man had the ability to bring God into politics, yet he took Him out of it.

This man managed to attract the attention of the rich and famous, yet he chose to befriend the poor.

This man had the ability to save his life, yet he gave it as a ransom for many.

So I ask you, how can any human being not love this man?

Herod’s Error

MandelaOn the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:21-23)

Nelson Mandela, the “father” of the country I live in, has died.

He died because he was a mere man. An extraordinary man, but a mere man.

As I watched the footage covering his life and death, I was reminded of the passage above. Have you noticed that the error of deifying a mortal was committed by the people and not by Herod? The passage never suggests that Herod thought of himself as a god. It was the people who committed the sin of idolatry.

Herod’s sin was not one of commission, but of omission. He failed to correct the people’s error.

The passage stands in stark contrast to a similar incident recorded in the book of Acts, but with a very different outcome:

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. (Acts 14:11-16)

ZumaUs humans have a long history of getting our gods and heroes mixed up. It’s a silly idea that was first suggested by a serpent, but we bought into it and allowed it to determine most of our religious development throughout the ages. Frazer’s The Golden Bough does an excellent job of documenting our follies in this regard, especially when it comes to those who rule over us. (See his Incarnate Human Gods to find out more about the elephant headed god Gunputty and Queen Victoria’s divinity. And please ignore his conclusions about Jesus Christ. Frazer is an excellent historian but a poor theologian.)
As Montaigne famously quipped: We do not know how to make a maggot, but we create gods by the dozens.

It is noteworthy that the passage from Acts never disputes Herod’s greatness. It was the origin of that greatness that was at stake. Similarly, Paul and Barnabas’ abilities were not downplayed. Rather, the passage directs the attention away from them and to God as the source of life and goodness.

This is the lesson, and we shall do well to take note of it in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s passing.

Was he a “great man”, according to human standards? Certainly. In fact, he was one of the greatest, and so shall he be remembered.

Did his greatness originate in himself? Certainly not, and we dare not remember him as though it did.

Perhaps you find it disturbing to imagine that Nelson Mandela was a mere mortal that was greatly gifted by God to do what he had done. Perhaps his accomplishments were slightly too “unspiritual” for you to draw such a conclusion. I mean, he did not even confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Why would God allow a man to be filled with power, wisdom and humility without bringing such a man to his knees and publicly declare Christ as Lord?

If you struggle with such questions (and many Christians do), then I wish to remind you of a passage from the Bible that deals with the “calling” of a man who did not worship God:

This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:1-7)

Cyrus II of Persia, like Herod, was known as “the great”. At the time of his reign he created the largest empire the world had ever seen, and his other accomplishments were numerous and legendary. His Biblical significance had to do with his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.

Put simply, Cyrus was raised up by God and made “great” to be an instrument for delivering God’s people from their captivity in Babylon. All his other feats were circumstantial to this one great purpose of his life.

Was it necessary for him to be a converted Jew in order to obey this calling? Not at all. God had a purpose with Cyrus and that purpose was fulfilled in and through Cyrus’ life. Cyrus was great because God made him great, and God made him great for God, not for Cyrus.

None of this should sound strange. In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome (note that this was Rome) he wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-4). He goes on to call the authorities “God’s servants” and “agents”.

If you are looking for a historic example of a deeply spiritual human government, please skip Rome. If ever a government embodied the spirit of the Antichrist, Rome was it. Yet they were there because God established them, and he did so for his own purposes.

So why on earth would God raise up a “great” man at the southern tip of Africa to guide a country through democratic elections and prohibit a bloody civil war? To tell you the honest truth, I don’t think anyone has a clue. Maybe one day we will know, but I do not believe that we do at the moment. My best guess is that it is either because of past prayers or future plans that God may have for this country. Or perhaps a bit of both. But I cannot say for certain, and I don’t believe anybody else can.

You may suggest that it was to deliver the oppressed masses, but I don’t think that was the only reason. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place”, Jesus said to Pilate.

God is not in the business of freedom fighting. He is not on the side of the ANC, or, for that matter, on the side of any government. He has established them for his own purposes, but that says no more about his affections for them than it does about his feelings for Rome during the time of their governance.

Of course God is on the side of the oppressed. But his delivery of them is much greater and more inclusive than what we have seen in South Africa. South Africa is not quite the Kingdom of God, and it will never be. Furthermore, many oppressed worldwide will remain oppressed until the coming of Christ. That does not mean that we should be apathetic about their lot, but simply that we should not confuse our humanitarian efforts with the sum total of God’s agenda.

Nelson Mandela was great because God made him great, and he did so for his own purposes. If anyone should get the glory, praise and honour for Mandela’s greatness, then it is God.

Let us not fall into the same error as the crowd in Herod’s day. Let us give praise where praise is due.

And let us not fall into Herod’s error and be quiet about the crowd’s error.