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Sunday, January 08, 2017

Exam Return

I walked by a box in a college foyer last week on which was marked the words “Exam Return”.

A little earlier I had been listening to a meditation on the way the Lord Jesus communicated truth to his disciples. On a number of occasions the speaker recognized in the Lord’s technique what he called the “Teach-Test” method, and gave a few examples that seemed to bear out what he was saying.

Good enough so far.

Getting the Point

Then he cited Mark 4, suggesting that after a day of teaching (verses 1-34), the Lord “tested” the disciples with a storm to see if they had gotten his point.

Now, I’m not a fan of making a man an offender for a word, or even a sentence. We all slip in our theology from time to time, some of us more frequently than we would like. Other statements the speaker had made earlier demonstrated that he was a reasonably orthodox fellow, so I’m going to assume he merely erred in passing quickly to the point he was trying to make. But he got me thinking.

You see the problem, of course: the Lord never tested anyone to “see if they had gotten his point”. He always knew.

The Lord Jesus and Omniscience

John tells us, “he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man”. In case we take that to mean that the Lord was merely a particularly astute judge of character and/or human nature in general, John later quotes his Master declaring, “I am he who searches mind and heart”.

Those who knew Jesus best had no doubt about his ability to see into the heart. Peter could confidently say, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you”, despite the fact that he had just displayed evidence to the contrary by denying the Lord three times. Matthew says he knew the thoughts of the Pharisees. On another occasion, Luke notes that he “perceived” the thoughts of the Pharisees and scribes.

At other times we are told that the Lord knew things no man could possibly know. At the “Last Supper”, John reports that he knew “that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” and that “the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God”. Matthew records that he knew the first fish Peter would pull out of the sea at his command had a coin in its mouth. He knew Nathanael was under a fig tree before Philip called him. He knew how many men the woman at the well had married and who she was currently sleeping with.

Such things are not mere parlor tricks; to his disciples who observed him closely and knew him best, they were evidence of omniscience.

A Problem

Of course, in describing the Lord as omniscient, we run inevitably into this perplexing statement about his coming:
“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Part of the problem is that we are using a word that does not occur in scripture (omniscient) to describe something the Bible appears to teach. What often happens when we systematize our theology by coining extra-biblical names for Bible truths is that, rather than letting the word of God define the term that has been created to describe some aspect of it, we let our assumptions about the meaning of the theological term dictate how we view the scriptures on the subject.

The word “omniscient”, used about the Lord Jesus, is only helpful to the extent that it reflects precisely what the Holy Spirit says about him. And whatever else we may or may not say about the Lord, we can definitely affirm from the gospel accounts that if he willed to know a thing, he knew it.

But we must bear in mind that at all times on this earth, he voluntarily subjected his will to the Father.

A Mystery That Defies Easy Explanation

Is such submission even necessary when clearly Father and Son are in total agreement about everything? Surely not. And yet the Lord makes it explicit more than once that this is the way in which the Godhead operates, not just during the incarnation but in eternity. There is a mystery here the answer to which defies easy explanation, or perhaps any explanation we are currently capable of processing.

In any case, to my mind omniscience does not preclude willing not to know particular things in the interest of observing the roles that operate within the Godhead. We do not have three Gods; we have one God in three persons. I do not presume to know the details of how the Godhead functions and I think we can rightly expect that even the most well-read and attentive theologian and the most obedient saint are only slightly further ahead of any of us in that department. Compared to what there is to know about God, we all know next to nothing.

All to say, I would be deeply concerned if none of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit knew “that day or that hour”. I’m not in the least bothered that one or more choose not to for reasons they currently refrain from sharing with me personally.

There are enough other passages cited as objections to the omniscience of Christ that I will not deal with them here except to note that when I view such instances as both voluntary and administrative — rather than as essential in nature — the problem disappears.

The Doc Weighs In

Immanuel Can provides a relevant illustration:
“The key distinction, it seems to me, is between subordination as it pertains to role and to worth.

To illustrate, students who have graduated from my classes often write to me to tell me of their later achievements in life. But they still call me Doctor. So I remind them that their subordination to me was an arrangement pertaining to my being their teacher, and that now that they have graduated their days of subordination to me are over. They are now my equals in rank, and thus can refer to me not as their instructor but as a friend, by my first name.

Now, they were always my equals in value, for a young person is not less intrinsically valuable than an old one. Nor is a teacher worth more intrinsically than his or her students. Their worth is not the issue. It is only their role at the time that has ever made them subordinate.

Yet my former students always struggle with this distinction a bit at the start. To call me by my first name seems impertinent and strange to them. They have a challenge distinguishing role from worth. But soon they get past it and become comfortable with our role equality, which is how we stay friends afterward.

In the same way, people struggle with seeing Christ as subordinate to the Father, since they think his role might imply diminished personal worth. But it does not. The two are separate: one is merely functional and relative to role, and the other is ultimate and permanent.

Permanently, Christ is God. But in his specific role as a human and chief among his brethren, Christ is willingly subordinate to the Father, giving us a clear model that we must do likewise.”
Precisely.

Back to the Point

However we deal with the omniscience issue as it concerns the Lord Jesus and his knowledge of the time and date of his coming again, the apostles make very clear over and over again, like beating a drum, that he knew people down to the very core of their being. That much is indisputable.

The Lord did not “test” anyone to see how they would do. He told Peter he would fail and that he would be restored afterward. He knew exactly how each of his chosen would do, where they would succeed and where they would fail, and he tested his disciples in order that THEY would understand how much of his teaching they had actually grasped and where they continued to fall short.

Just like the disciples we too are tested in our Christian walk, not so that the Lord can see whether or not we have understood his teaching but because he wants US to know where (and whether) we stand.

The true “exam return” is yet to come. My own self-assessment as I pass through this life, whether times are good or bad, is extremely subjective. Paul says, with good reason, “I do not even judge myself”. But my conscience was not given to me in order that I could engage in a lifelong series of exercises in self-justification as I follow Christ. It was given to me so that when I fall short, I can check myself against the example set for me by the Lord Jesus.

And get right back up and follow in his footsteps.

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