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Excerpts from e-mail interchange with a Jehovah's Witness
- Jehovah's Witness question: What do you understand about this scripture? "The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" -- 1 Corinthians 11:3
- My answer: This scripture appears in a letter which Paul writes to a church in tumult. The larger passage in which this verse appears is about order and authority. One key question is: What does Paul mean by the word "head" in this scripture?
This passage demonstrates an important point: If we misunderstand one biblical concept, we will likely misunderstand others. For instance, if the "headship" idea in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is taken to mean that God is superior to Jesus, then we may well conclude that this verse is also saying that the Bible teaches that men are superior to women. That's, of course, not a Biblical concept. While there are distinct differences between men and women, in God's eyes they are equal.
Therefore, if "head" in the first part of this verse about men and women is not setting up superior/inferior categories, then neither is the last part of the verse.
So, what does the last part of this verse mean then? Well, God the Father sent to God the Son on a divine mission to redeem humankind. Leaving heaven's glory, God the Son laid aside His divine prerogatives to became a servant. During His earthly ministry, God the Son voluntarily submitted to the headship of God the Father. He became subservient to Him. Was Christ equal with the Father in terms of his divine nature? Yes. However, in His role of Redeemer, God the Son recognized the headship of the Father.
The point being made in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not that the Son is inferior to the Father. Rather, the point is that the Son willingly submits Himself to the Father's authority. The difference between the three persons of the Godhead is a functional one, not an essential one. Even 1 Corinthians 15 makes it clear that Paul did not see the Son as essentially inferior to the Father. Instead, God the Son will subject Himself voluntarily to the God the Father's authority. 1 Corinthians teaches that God the Son has a different function or role from that of the Father. It does not teach that the Son is an inferior essence or being. Indeed, the Son is of the same essence as the Father.
- Jehovah's Witness question: Didn't Jesus say in John 3:13: "No man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man"? Doesn't that clearly mean that no other person has gone to heaven?
- My answer: Do you know what John 3:13 really means? To know the answer to that, you need to realize that the first 21 verses of John 3 are all one unit. These 21 verses recount Jesus' conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus about the necessity of his being born again if he wanted to participate in the Kingdom of God. None of the verses in this passage should be lifted out and isolated. Their richness of meaning can only be sen within the context of the entire passage.
Look at the first part of verse 14. There Jesus refers to Moses. Why is Moses brought into this conversation? Well, many ancient Jews believed that Moses had ascended to heaven in order to get the law. He didn't, of course, but that's what they believed. So, here Jesus picks up on this belief about Moses to show that He was a far greater authority than Moses.
The fact that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish Council or Sanhedrin is an important point in trying to catch all that Jesus is saying here. Modern readers may not see much of a link between what Jesus said about Moses and his previous words about being born again and His own heavenly ascent/descent. They may be tempted to think that Jesus is moving on to an entirely new topic. He's not. Jesus is still explaining to Nicodemus about what he meant by the necessity of being born again.
Nicodemus was undoubtedly familiar with the Jewish story (not found in the Bible) about Moses' ascent into heaven at Mount Sinai. That Jewish story or legend even looked on that as a kind of second birth for Moses, a birth from above in contrast to the first from earth. As a result, Jesus' use of the image of a "new birth" would not have been something startlingly new to Nicodemus. Among the sources from which we know this legend concerning Moses is the Jewish author Philo.
Philo was born approximately twenty years before Jesus and died about 40 A.D. Because Philo's life overlapped that of Jesus, his writings can give us great insight into what Jewish scholars were thinking and saying during the lifetime of Jesus. It's in Philo's writings that this story about Moses is explained.
There was also an ancient work not in the Bible called "The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah." This work tells of Isaiah's supposed ascent into heaven where the prophet sees God and joins in the heavenly worship before being given a revelation of what is to take place.
Seen against the background of these stories about Moses and Isaiah, John 3:13 stands as a clear rebuttal of the idea that saintly people are going up to heaven to get messages from God. The major point of this entire passage is, of course, how it is possible for us to be born again.
Jesus is trying to say to Nicodemus and to other Jews that Moses is not the one they should be listening to. Rather, Jesus is saying that they should be listening to Him for He is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal the divine will.
To twist this around to say and say that it's making the point that there's nobody else in heaven except for the Father and the Son and some angels is to badly warp what Jesus was saying here.
In fact, take a look at Deuteronomy 30:12 and Proverbs 30:4. Isn't Jesus simply restating those Scriptures?
- Jehovah's Witness question: Why don't you look up the origin of the word "trinity"? Did you know that it is a pagan teaching?
- My answer: The word "trinity" was coined by a Christian named Tertullian. Tertullian was born in North Africa about 60 years after the death of the last Apostle, John.
As Tertullian reached adulthood, Latin was just starting to be used widely in the Roman Empire (Greek had been the reigning language of the Mediterranean basin ever since Alexander the Great). As a lawyer, Tertullian was an educated man who knew Greek as well as Latin. After he was converted about age 35, he became a leading Christian writer. To articulate his faith in Latin - the language that had arisen in the valleys of central Italy -- Tertullian coined several new words. Among them were the phrases "Old Testament" and "New Testament" to describe the two parts of the Bible we now use.
When he started using "trinity" it wasn't to preach a brand-new doctrine. In fact, Tertullian lived in a time of great persecution of the church. It was Tertullian who first said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." When Tertullian came up with the word "trinity," it was to help believers encapsulate in one word what the church had been preaching all along.
As early as 110 A.D., Ignatius of Antioch was using such phrases as "God the Father" and "Jesus Christ Our God." In one of his letters, Ignatius wrote, "Be confirmed in the decrees of the Lord and of the Apostles, in order that in everything you do, you may prosper in body and in soul, in faith and in love, in Son and in Father and in Spirit." Doesn't that sound Trinitarian?
Justin the Martyr, who lived from about 100 to 165 A.D., wrote: "It is inescapable that this [man] is the Christ of God...that He pre-existed as the Son of the Creator of all things, being God, and that He was born a man by the Virgin."
About the year 177 A.D. Melito of Sardes wrote: "Being God and likewise perfect man, He (Christ) gave positive indications of His two natures: Of His deity, by the miracles during the three years following after His Baptism; of His humanity, in the thirty years which came before His Baptism, during which, by reason of His condition according to the flesh, He concealed the signs of His deity, although He was the true God existing before the ages."
About 180 A.D. Athenagoras of Athens wrote:
"The Son of God is the Word of the Father, in thought and in actuality. By Him and through Him all things were made, the Father and the Son being one. Since the Son is IN the Father and the Father is IN the Son by the unity and power of the Spirit, the Mind and Word of the Father is the Son of God. And if, in your exceedingly great wisdom, it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by 'the Son', I will tell you briefly: He is the First-begotten of the Father, not as having been produced -- for from the beginning God had the Word in Himself... Who, then, would not be astonished to hear those called atheists, who speak of God the Father and of God the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and who proclaim their power in union and their distinction in order."
Clement of Alexandria who lived from about 150 to 216 A.D. wrote: ""The Word, then, the Christ, is the cause both of our ancient beginning -- for He was in God -- and of our well-being. And now this same Word has appeared as man. He alone is both God and man."
Origen, who was born about 185 A.D., became a key church leader in the early 200s. One of his major works is titled On First Principles. In that written work, Origen uses the word "trinity" in addition to speaking about what happens to the souls of people after death. [ More on "trinity"]
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