Ben Witherington

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Why Were Ananias and Sapphira Judged?

Posted by on 28 Mar 2011 | Tagged as: A. W. Tozer, Apologetics, Ben Witherington, God's Wrath, John Stott

Judgment and Grace Simultaneously

Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Acts 5:9-11 (NIV)

Recently, I was asked an excellent question. In regard to Acts 5:1-11 and the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira: “Why did God judge Ananias and Sapphira so completely when the New Testament period is supposed to be an age of grace?” “Is not judgment an Old Testament characteristic of God?”

First, we need to avoid dividing the various and seemingly contradictorily attributes of God between the Old and New Testaments. The Marcion heresy of the early church taught that the Old Testament God was a god of judgment and wrath, but in the New Testament, Jesus is a god of grace and love. Today, we often fall into the same post-modern trap in our thinking. Some teachers contrast the mean and angry god of the Old Testament with Jesus meek and mild–the friend of all–in the New Testament. Anglican pastor, John Stott notes:

God is not at odds with himself, however much it may appear to us that he is. He is ‘the God of peace’, of inner tranquility not turmoil. True, we find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the images of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and of the Lover who must find a way to forgive them. Yet he is both, and at the same time.

John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 131.

The Holy Trinity is the same God in both testaments: a God of love, grace, mercy, judgment, and wrath. Read Jesus’ statements in Mark 13, Matt 23, and the Rev. 1. He is the God of justice, holiness, and righteousness in the New Testament as well as the Old. I am currently reading The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer. Tozer comments that God’s attributes are the same in both the Old and New Testaments.

We should banish from our minds forever the common but erroneous notion that justice and judgment characterize the God of Israel, while mercy and grace belong to the Lord of the Church. Actually there is in principle no difference between the Old Testament and the New.

In the New Testament Scriptures there is a fuller development of redemptive truth, but one God speaks in both dispensations, and what He speaks agrees with what He is. Wherever and whenever God appears to men, He acts like Himself. Whether in the Garden of Eden or the Garden of Gethsemane, God is merciful as well as just. He has always dealt in mercy with mankind and will always deal in justice when His mercy is despised.

Thus He did in antediluvian times; thus when Christ walked among men; thus He is doing today and will continue always to do for no other reason than that He is God.

A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), 97.

New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles,  comments about Acts 5, “Luke’s [the author of Acts] view is that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is the same God Jesus and the disciples served, and so one should expect continuity of character and action.”

Second, we often misinterpret John 1:17, “For the law was through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” We commonly think that the verse is pitting grace against law,” The Law is judgment and it was in the Old Testament, it was bad, and needs to be discarded, because in Jesus we now have grace.”

However, the Apostle John was not contrasting grace against law. John believes that the law is good: the Law (Torah) is the promises of God, and Jesus is the fulfillment of those promises. Grace and truth are covenant terms which designate God’s loyalty and faithfulness. John declares that in Jesus, the Lord is fulfilling his promises and covenant commitment found in the Law (Torah).

Third, Ananias and Sapphira’s sin was very grave. Giving was voluntary in the early Church. However, Ananias and Sapphira lied about giving all the proceeds for the sale of their property.They “kept back” (v.2) which in the Greek implies the utmost dishonesty and secrecy. Not only were they lying with conspiratorial intent, but that lying was Satanically inspired (v.3). Satan was using their flesh to corrupt and divide an early church which was just beginning its witness to the world. God’s judgment of their sin had be swift or the early church would lose its witness and unity.

Again, New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, states, “In Luke’s view this couple is guilty of secrecy, collusion, and attempting to lie to the Holy Spirit. What is at stake here is the koinonia of the community which the Spirit indwelt. One act of secrecy and selfishness violates the character of openness and honesty which characterized the earliest community of Jesus’ followers.”

Lesson to today’s church: The God of the New Testament is still concerned about the holiness of his people.

No Condemnation: The Story of William Herschel

Posted by on 17 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: Ben Witherington, Justification, The Cross

He Took Our Place

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Rom. 8:1 NASB

Justifying grace is God’s undeserved, loving commitment to rescue us from his wrath and judgment. In Christ, God delivers us from sin and transports us into his loving kingdom of forgiveness.  Justifying grace calls us to trust Jesus Christ as our Savior, the one who has taken all our sin and just judgment upon himself on the Cross.

Justification is his acceptance of us in the sight of God to be in right standing by the righteousness of Jesus Christ being accounted, credited, and positionally granted to us. To be credited as righteous is to be conferred the legal standing of Christ’s sinlessness making us free from the condemnation of sin, the fear of death, and the accusations of the devil. The imputed righteousness of Christ is a free gift; it cannot be earned. It can only be received from a grateful heart by faith alone.

The story is told of William Herschel. As a young boy he loved military music, and growing up in Hanover in Germany he joined a military band. When his nation went to war, he was one of those leading the military band. As a young man he was totally unprepared for the horrors of war, and the result was that before long he deserted his military unit and fled the battle scene during an intense period of fighting.

He fled to England, and began to pursue further training in both music and science. Thinking he was in the clear, he grew and prospered in his new country. In fact he made various scientific discoveries that made him famous, and he gained great renown for his musical abilities. However, after Herschel came to the British Isles, another Hanoverian also came to live there—George who in fact became the King of England. King George knew of Herschel’s past desertion of the army and summoned the great musician and scientist to appear before the royal court. Herschel went with fear and trembling, and when he arrived in the palace he was told to wait a considerable time in an ante-chamber to the throne room. Then finally, one of the King’s servants came to Herschel and handed him a document and told him to read it.

He opened it with fear, only to discover that it read ‘I George pardon you for your past offenses against our native land’. George had pronounced the verdict of no condemnation on William Herschel, and in fact the document went on to say that for his outstanding service to humankind as a musician and a scientist, he was now to become Sir William Herschel: he was to be knighted! He had gone from criminal to honored dignitary in an instance, quite apart from what he might have deserved according to German law (the penalty for desertion was death). Paul is saying that this is what God’s pronouncement of pardon does for all of us who accept it. It not only removes the source of alienation; it places us in a favored relationship with God.

Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia : A Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 195.

For Whom Did Christ Die?

Posted by on 19 Aug 2009 | Tagged as: Atonement, Ben Witherington, The Cross

He Died for All

For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all . . . .

1 Tim. 2:3-5 (NKJV)

An Arminian-Wesleyan View

Christ died for the sins of the world, and to ransom that world. 1 Tim. 2.4-5 puts the matter succinctly. God our savior “wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” One could compare this to John 3.17, God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world, or the repeated refrain in Hebrews that Christ died once for all time, for all persons, and so on. (See the discussion of these matters in my forthcoming volumes on NT Theology and Ethics entitled The Indelible Image).

But this is not just a matter of finding sufficient proof texts (of which there are many more), it is a matter of one’s theology of the divine character. God is love, holy love, to be sure, but nonetheless love, and as 1 Tim. 2.4 says, the desire of God’s heart is that all persons be saved. It is not just the elect whom God loves, but as John 3.16 says, the world, for whom Christ was sent to die. It follows from this that Christ’s atoning death is sufficient for the salvation of all persons, but only efficient for those who respond in faith to God’s gracious provision of redemption.

Even more foundational is the understanding of the meaning of saying that God is love. Among other things, this means God is committed to relating to those created in his image in love. Now real love must be freely given, and freely received. It cannot be predetermined, manipulated, coerced or else it becomes contrary to what the Bible says love is (see 1 Cor. 13). In the debate between whether the primary trait of God is God’s sovereignty or God’s love, it seems clear that God exercises his power in love, and for loving ends. Even his acts of judgment, short of final judgment, are not meant to be punitive but rather corrective and restorative. God in short, is unlike vindictive human beings, very unlike them. Thus Hosea relates that God says “All my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger … For I am God and not a human being.” God, the divine parent, is not less loving than the best of human parents, God is more loving. If Christ is the perfect incarnation of the character of God, then the answer to the question, for whom did Christ die, becomes theologically self-evident— for the world which God created and still loves.

Ben Witherington (Professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary)

HT: Michael Bird at the Euangelion Blog