Symbols of Scripture

Our language is filled with symbolic references, so much so that we often do not recognize the symbols we use. So too with the Bible. The problem is that symbols are culturally and historically conditioned and when we are removed from the original biblical author’s milieu, we may misinterpret the symbol in tragic or comical ways.

Let me offer this definition for symbol:

An expression or object with deeper, yet standard and recognized meaning.

An example of this is the Bible’s use of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) to make “Sodom” or “Gomorrah” into symbols of ungodly, defiant sexual depravity and resultant wrathful punishment by God. This symbolic use happens in Deuteronomy, in the prophets, and in the New Testament. When Isaiah thunders:

Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
(Isa 1:10)

whom is he addressing? These cities had been destroyed, maybe 1,000 years before Isaiah’s time. In context, he is addressing the citizens and leaders of Jerusalem in the eighth century BC. He uses the symbolic power of these notorious cities to both brand and warn the Jerusalemites of his day.

Jude, writing 800 years after Isaiah, also uses the symbolic nature of Sodom and Gomorrah to make a doctrinal point, but his readers seem to need more information to interpret the symbol as he intends:

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 7)

Jude’s word for “example” (δεῖγμα) points to his teaching point: unbridled sexual sin will be punished by God, and we know this from Sodom and Gomorrah. He does not choose to use the Greek word for “symbol” (σύμβολον), but this word is found only in Hosea 4:12 (LXX) and two places in the apocryphal book of Wisdom in biblical literature, so we can hardly fault Jude for this. He is depending on his readers’ recognition of the “standard and recognized meaning” of Sodom and Gomorrah in the history of the people of God.

As one who teaches a course on the book of Revelation, I am growing more aware of the power of symbol in this book. This is not a quest to break some sort of code language used by the author to obscure his meaning. Symbol, like metaphor, brings power to the text. Craig Koester puts it this way:

Religious symbols like those in Revelation … communicate in a more complex way, often conveying several meanings at once. They engage readers in an ongoing process of reflection, rather than giving information that eliminates the need for future thought. The image of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:6) is one of the principal images in Revelation. The symbol is not difficult to decode, so that readers can easily recognize that the Lamb is Jesus, who was crucified. By depicting Christ as a Lamb, the book does not conceal his identity but discloses or “signifies” something about Christ. The image works by evoking a range of associations—sacrifice and atonement, Passover and liberation, purity and innocence—that enhance the readers’ understanding of Christ’s significance (in Revelation and the End of All Things, pp. 47-48).

We need not build a wall between an author’s use of metaphor and symbol, for there is a connection in the secondary meaning of each. But a good metaphor is fresh, a new “assertion of correspondence between two primarily dissimilar objects.” A good symbol is old, an expression that resonates from past learnings.

Mark S. Krause

The Symbols and Metaphors of Christianity

When I was in seminary, I was introduced to the writings of Sallie McFague, especially Speaking in Parables (1975) and Metaphorical Theology (1982). Although I did not agree with some of McFague’s theological conclusions, her method opened a new world for me in interpreting the Bible. I became aware of the metaphorical nature of much of our theological language and how difficult and wonderful this is to interpret.

During my doctoral studies, I plunged into the studies of metaphor in biblical texts at the deepest possible level. I was drawn to the writings of Paul Ricoeur, who defined metaphor like this:

The application of a familiar label to a new object which first resists and then surrenders to its application.

This is the key, I think. We take what we know (“familiar label”) and use it to understand what we don’t know (“new object”). Our best theological expressions take everyday, even commonplace descriptions and use them to help us understand God and our relationship to him. When our theology is littered with technical, specially coined wordage we may gain precision, but we lose the power of metaphor.

Let me give you an example. In 1 John, the author says both, “God is love” (4:8) and “God is light” (1:5). These are two very different things. Which is it, John! Light or Love?

Only when we recognize that both are metaphorical do we begin to understand what John is saying. He uses things from our experience (light and love) to point us to elements of the nature of God. We witness both the majesty of God and the power of metaphor. The stark “God is love” is far more intriguing and explanatory than “God is loving” or the even less powerful, “God is like a loving parent” (simile).

Anyway, I am proposing to write a series of blogs exploring Christian metaphor, symbol, and allegory, distinct but interrelated ways of thinking theologically. I invite you to join me on this expedition (and there I go, dropping another metaphor on you!)

Mark S. Krause
5.18.2020

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Forgiveness

Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candor in television, Marghanita Laski, a well-known British secular humanist and novelist, said, “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me.”  (John Stott in The Contemporary Christian.)

Forgiveness. It seems so desirable, yet sort of old-fashioned.

Isn’t it better to be “unforgiven?” Doesn’t this make us stronger?

In Walter Scott’s five fingers of salvation, the first three were “Faith,” “Repentance,” and “Baptism.”

The fourth finger for Scott was “Remission of Sins.” He was using a old English word from the KJV, “remission,” which means “release.” It was a term used in the business world to describe the release from debt or obligation. It is ironic that the word has now migrated to the medical world, and means “release” from an illness as in, “My cancer is in remission.”

A better translation for us today is “Forgiveness.”

What is Forgiveness?

Psalm 32 is sometimes called a “Penitential Psalm,” meaning a cry of repentance. This psalm was the favorite of St. Augustine, whose ideas of sin, repentance, and forgiveness have influenced the church since the fourth century:

 Psalm 32:1-2 A psalm of David,
Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

St. Augustine, who loved Psalm 32 so much, was always conscious of his status as one who had been forgiven by God. He was once asked why he loved the psalm so much and answered, “The beginning of knowledge is to know oneself to be a sinner.” We begin by acknowledging that before God, we are sinners. This is a move of faith (finger one). We respond to this knowledge by asking for God to forgive us. This is the move of repentance (finger two). When our hearts have repented, we are washed in the waters of baptism (finger three). Then we may truly experience God’s pardon, divine forgiveness.

David gives three ways of describing the blessing of divine forgiveness:

  1. Forgiven has the sense of released. It is like taking a bird out of a cage and tossing it into the air, allowing it to be free.
  2. Covered has the sense of being hidden. Both the sin and its effects are no longer on display. The cause for embarrassment is put away. God no longer sees us as sinners. We are freed from even the reminder of our sin.
  3. “Whose sin the Lord does not count against them.” This has the sense of a debt forgiven, a bill cancelled. It would be like your credit card company calling and saying that someone else had paid your bill.
  4. And the result is “no deceit,” NLT: a “life lived in complete honesty:” a new, clean slate, a fresh start, a record wiped clean.

Forgiveness in the Bible

Jeremiah 31 is one of the most startling prophecies concerning the New Testament, the era of the church. It speaks of this in terms of a “New Covenant,” a fresh start for God’s people.

Jeremiah 31:34 

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah foresaw that this would be a time when God’s people have knowledge of him in their hearts, each and every one of them. And here’s why: they will know they are forgiven people. The New Covenant is the Covenant of Forgiveness. The New People of God are the Forgiven Ones.

We, the church, the New Testament people of God, are transferred from the darkness of sin to the Kingdom of the Beloved Son, for we have been forgiven.

Walter Scott Revisited

On Walter Scott’s “Hand of Salvation,” all five things are essential. But none of them is more key than this one, the ring finger.  Unless I am forgiven, I am not saved! Faith alone will not save me. Repentance by itself will not save me. And certainly, Baptism as a merely ritual act has no saving power. I am saved when I am forgiven. I am free from the penalty of my sins only when God releases me from that penalty. I am free because he has set me free. That is the new covenant, the promise of forgiveness.

We can be freed from the bondage of sin, the sin that separates us from God. We can we washed clean, have a new start in our relationship with God. Forgiveness means we are no longer enslaved by sin! We are free. We have been released! We have been given a new life! We are saved!

A Step further: We can forgive others

In the world without Christ, there is a huge need to experience forgiveness, not just from God, but from each other. Remember Marghanita Laski: “I have nobody to forgive me.” Oh yes, you do! This is what the church is all about! Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer that if we ask God to forgive our sins, we must be willing to forgive others.

If you are unwilling to forgive others, you will never feel completely forgiven.

Do you have remembered injustices, times when your heart was hurt?

Have people wronged you and never apologized or even hinted they were sorry? They don’t have to apologize for you to forgive!

Forgiveness is “letting go.” Let go of those things that have haunted you, that have embittered you, that have disabled you emotionally, that have even paralyzed you. Accept God’s forgiveness, freely offered to you, and give it to others. Let the church be the “Fellowship of the Forgiven.”

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for being willing to forgive us, rebellious sinners who have disobeyed and ignored you. Help us to feel released from sin, forgiven from its horrors, and then forgive others. Fill our hearts with forgiveness. We pray in the name of the one who forgave sins while among us, Jesus the Savior, Amen.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Baptism

Large Question: When do we become a Christian?  If a Christian is one who is fully committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, when do we go from being non-committed to being committed?

For some, this is a problem of growing up in the Christian faith: We have no conversion experience to give a testimony about. We don’t remember ever not being Christian. We might be the most desperate asking, when do we become a Christian? How do we know for sure we are Christian?

Modern Solutions

  • Sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus into your heart. Problem: this is not what Peter says when asked, “What must we do?” Acts 2:37-38.
  • Gift of tongues: when received, you are a Christian. Problem: this is not a supported by the New Testament in any conclusive way. The New Testament gives evidence of Christians who did not speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30).
  • Some type of dramatic spiritual experience. Problem: the only real example in the New Testament is Paul.
  • Join a church. The problem seems to be the medieval belief that the bishop was the church and there no salvation outside the church, therefore the bishop/clergy controlled both who was a member of a church and who was saved.

Biblical Pattern

The New Testament pattern is Very Simple. It is BAPTISM

Baptism is the Church’s rite of commitment to Christ.
(Jack Dean Kingsbury)

There are lots of misunderstandings about baptism in the Christian world today. In the 2,000 years of church history, baptism has been distorted in many ways:

  • Misunderstanding #1: That proper baptism is something other than full immersion in water. In changing this, the primary significance of baptism is lost and the baptismal experience is diluted. The early church understood the importance of going under the water fully, the symbolic bathing of every part of the body. It also likened this to a burial, of being buried with Christ. The symbolism is rich and deep and is watered down when we sprinkle or pour water on the head.
  • Misunderstanding #2: That babies should be baptized as a remedy for their sin. This misses the most important finger in Walter Scott’s hand of salvation, the thumb: FAITH. Baptism is a response of faith. The New Testament knows nothing of proxy baptism based on the faith of the parents. The New Testament knows nothing of baptism as a magic bath that washes away the curse of original sin.
  • Misunderstanding #13 That baptism is a way of joining the church and has nothing to do with my relationship to the Lord. In this, baptism is like taking the pledge to become a Rotarian or undergoing hazing to be part of a football team. I never baptize anyone saying, “I baptize you so that you can now be a member of our church (as long as you tithe).” I say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins.”

And despite these distortions, let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Baptism is a watery act with deep symbolism. Baptism is closely related to the forgiveness of sins. And baptism does open the doors for becoming part of the body of Christ, a member of his church.

If baptism is such a great thing, why do people resist being baptized? Why are people unwilling to be baptized by immersion as adults, the pattern of the New Testament? Here are reasons I have encountered in ministry:

  1. No one has ever asked them. Are we embarrassed about our teaching on baptism?
  2. Pride (baptism is a humiliating act). The older you get, the more humiliating it seems!
  3. Concern about family members who have not been immersed. What about my Lutheran grandmother, my Catholic mother?
  4. They have come to a position the makes baptism theologically unnecessary. If I don’t understand completely why baptism is necessary, it must be unnecessary. My need to understand trumps the teaching of the Bible and the practices of the early church. If your theology tells you not to be baptized and the Bible tells you to be baptized, to whom should you listen?
  5. They realize what baptism symbolizes: a complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They reject this commitment. Which is, perhaps, the only valid reason: You don’t want to be a Christian.

There are many texts in the New Testament about baptism, but let me focus on one from Paul from the neglected book of Titus:

Titus 3:4-7 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Very important phrases:

  • Goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared: Christ came in the flesh, God in flesh, as a human.  Christ’s work on the cross was a work of unspeakable kindness and love.
  • He saved us: Christ came to “seek and to save.”  His atoning death on the cross yields salvation for us.
  • Not because of any works of righteousness we had done: We cannot possibly earn our salvation.  What we have earned is death
  • According to his mercy: Our salvation is always dependent upon the mercy and grace of God our Savior
  • He saved us through the water of rebirth: Our baptism shows us and all who witness it that we are forgiven people, saved, that we are part of the people of God
  • He saved us through the renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior: God’s Spirit gives us the spiritual strength to change our evil lives in ways we could never do through our own efforts.
  • Having been justified by his grace: We are counted whole and clean and righteous by the grace of God.
  • We become heirs: and this is what we inherit:  eternal life.

When do you become a Christian? When do you know you are a Christian? Paul neither lifts up baptism as the most important thing nor does he toss it aside as of little importance. In his description of the salvation journey for any believer, it is right in the middle.

Walter Scott reduced the necessary elements of salvation to five points, and used the hand to illustrate them, the five fingers. For Scott, Baptism was the middle. The first two fingers, Faith & Repentance, were largely our actions. We make a decision for faith. We develop a heart of repentance. The last two, Forgiveness & the Gift of the Holy Spirit, were God’s actions, things we receive through his grace. The middle finger was baptism, which included both our action and God’s action. Scott was convinced (and so am I) the Bible taught that baptism was the place where God meets us. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the voice of God came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, and I am very pleased.” He is present with us in baptism, and it is here that he pronounces, “You are my Child, and I am pleased, I am delighted that you have come to me.”

God has designed a way for you to show your commitment, and it is more than mental commitment. It is even more than heart commitment, emotional commitment. It is to make your faith known to others and to be buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. It is to be raised from that watery grave and walk in newness of life.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Repentance

“Repentance” is not popular today. One internet blogger called repentance, “the most unpopular message in the history of mankind.” Why is this? What is it about calling people to repent that rubs us the wrong way?

Biblical Idea of Repentance

In Walter Scott’s Five Finger system, the first finger was Faith. The second finger is Repentance

Scott based this on Acts 2:36-38:

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

We cannot repent without or before faith, for repentance is an act of faith, a move of trust. We are saying, “O God, I’m wrong and you are right.” It seems fitting to me that this is represented by the “pointer” finger, for repentance is pointing us in a new direction, we are pointed to God and not to ourselves. We are saying, “That’s the way I’m going to go. I’m going to follow Jesus and serve him, not myself.”

There are four things that happen in repentance.

1.    I experience deep sorrow or regret for my sin

Job 42:6 Therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

This is where our pride comes in. We must lay down our proud ways and submit to God and his ways. We must feel a pain for our sin. Repentance is not simply a logical exercise, it is a condition of the heart. This is what Joel is talking about when he says, “Tear your hearts, not your clothes.” Repentance is an emotional response.

2.    I turn away from my sin and turn to God

Ezekiel 14:6 “Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

This is a matter of allegiance, of loyalty, of orientation. It is not turning from one sin and replacing it with another. It is repenting on the broadest level: turning back to God, resolving to serve him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Repentance is an act of submission.

3.    I align my thinking with godliness

Luke 5:32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

The idea of metanoia (translated “repentance” here) is to “rethink,” to think a new way in regard to sin. This is Peter’s famous call in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized.” When we repent in this way, we admit our error. We admit that our acceptance and enjoyment of things that displease the Lord were wrong and destructive. We seek holiness and righteousness. We have new standards by which we measure our decisions in every area of our life.

This is the attitude that was expressed in the WWJD movement, based on the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. For some it might be helpful to ask, “What would Jesus do?” in a given situation, but more important and focused is to ask, “What would God have me do?” Repentance is an act of mental renewal.

4.    I claim a promise

Acts 3:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord … 

Two terms are given here, both representing repentance. First is metanoia again. We re-evaluate our lives with tears and sorrow. We give up our pride and our love for things that are ungodly.

The second idea (epistrepho) is very clear here. It has the sense of turning around, turning to God. We were walking away from God, and we turn around and walk toward him. This second word is equivalent to the Latin-based term, conversion. Conversion is not accepting a new religion. It is not joining a new church. It is an act of asking for forgiveness.  Repentance leads to the freedom of forgiveness.

Then and only then, Peter promises that we will be refreshed and renewed. How can we feel forgiven if we have not repented? If we are in denial about our guilt, about our sin, how can we feel forgiven? How can we be set free?

Repentance is not a one-time act. It is a life. We are called to be people of faith and repentance. It is like the old advice on how to quit smoking: “If at first you don’t succeed, quit and quit again.” We as believers are called to repent, repent, and repent again.

Repentance begins and ends with humility, a humility driven by our sense of unworthiness. It moves to a deep regret and sorrow for the ways we have offended God through our pride, our greed, our selfishness, and our lack of love. Repentance is complete when we resolve in our heart to change, to leave behind the sins that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is an act of faith, spiritual contrition, and confession. It is a cry for forgiveness.

To repent, you must first see yourself as God sees you—as the Bible describes you. We don’t like what we see: prideful, rebellious, selfish, defiant, moral ugliness. We can change when we repent. We can begin to clean up the filthy garments of our lives. And God will help us. He does not expect us to clean ourselves up so that we will be acceptable to him. He wants us to give him our hearts, to yield to him, and let him begin the transformation.

Prayer

Change our hearts, O God. Where we have loved sin, may we love you. Where we have loved ourselves, may we love others. Break our hearts and change our minds. More of Jesus, less of us. By your power, transform us into your image. We pray in the name of Jesus, AMEN.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first one on April 29 (Faith) and the second one on May 6 (Repentance). This week (May 13), Derek Beebe is preaching on the third finger (Baptism). You are welcome to come. For more info, follow this link.

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Faith

What does it mean to be a Christian? How do I become a Christian? Is this something that I do, following a predetermined pattern, or is this something beyond my efforts alone?

In the next five weeks, I would like to introduce five essentials for becoming and being a Christian. These are from a 19th century evangelist, Walter Scott, who brought many people on the American frontier to Christ. Scott did this by boiling the many elements of the Christian faith to five. I plan to use his system as he did, relating each of the five to the fingers of a human hand, therefore the “Five Fingers of Salvation.” The first of these is Faith.”

We have many secular faith issues in America today. 

  • Can we trust the news media or is it all “fake news”?
  • Should we trust the roadways if we are sharing them with “self-driving cars” and “driverless trucks”?
  • Who can we trust with our personal information online when we find out it is bought and sold like a commodity, or that credit bureaus or banks suffer “data breaches?”

What is faith, though? More importantly: is there anything commonly shared in faith? If the church is a community of faith, does that mean we all believe the same thing?

There is a word cluster in English that represents what we are talking about when we consider biblical faith: Faith, Believe, Belief, Trust, Confidence, perhaps Commitment. How do we apply these, however? How do we enact them in our lives?

Allow me to break this down a little. I think there are three ways Christians have traditionally understood faith:

1. Acceptance by evidence that certain things are true. We therefore believe these things are true. Example: my car is blue. If you were here with me, you could go to the parking lot and check this for yourself. This “evidentiary faith” is the basis for what Christians call “apologetics.”

Yet we seemed to have moved beyond this in many ways. Science, even the concept of objective truth, is under attack today. We have moved to what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” where we are willing to accept something because it “feels true.”

We have long recognized that evidence-based faith has its limits. There is a well-known story of the strident British atheist of the early 20th Century, Bertrand Russell, in which he was asked what he would say to God if he found himself standing before God after he died. Russell answered: “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.” Not enough evidence, God!  If faith is entirely logical and evidentiary, who decides what is a necessary pile of evidence in order to demand belief?

2. Confidence that the future will conform to what is promised. I can believe that certain expected things will happen before I experience them. Example: the sun will come up tomorrow. This faith in a promise does not always hold true, however (see video). “Try it, you’ll like it” offers a promise that may not come to pass. We should understand that the key to our confidence in the future rests on our confidence in the person who gives us the promise. This is this is the essence of biblical faith, of Christian faith. And it moves us to the third option.

3. Trust in a person. As Christians we are sometimes asked what we believe. We might list many things:

  • God created the heavens and the earth
  • The Bible is the Word of God and without errors
  • God is revealed to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

But there is another way of expressing this:

  • There is a God, a personal living God.
  • This personal God is willing to have a relationship with me.
  • God cares for me and loves me

I believe in God: I am trusting him with my future.

Belief that God exists may be the starting point and the controlling factor, to be sure. But Christian faith, saving faith, is to be found in our trust in a person.

  • We are not saved by believing there is one God.
  • We are not saved by being a member of a certain church.
  • We are not saved by believing the Bible.

Christian faith is personal, but not turned inwardly to say we believe in ourselves. Christian faith is faith in a personal God. Christian faith is trust in God’s Son for salvation and no one else.

We can understand this by looking at Psalm 78, a rehearsal of Israel’s failure to trust God during the Exodus from Egypt:

Because they had no faith in God,
and did not trust his saving power.

Psalm 78:22

They did not believe that God could save them. They did not trust in his saving power.

Everything in the Christian life depends on faith, on trusting Christ. Everything we do as Christians flows from our faith. Our Christian commitment is to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one we have trusted as our Savior, the person we believe will save us. This is a great commitment, a risky move. We are placing our future in someone else’s hands, but, as Kierkegaard said, “No risk, no faith.” When we believe in Jesus Christ, we are trusting him with our lives. We are saying, I believe you can save me, and I am going to follow you. You will be my Lord. I cannot save myself. Only you can save me.”

Luther said that,

“the only faith which makes a Christian is that which cast itself on God for life or death.” 

May we have that faith.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first on on April 29. You are welcome to come for the last four. For more info, follow this link.

Advent Week 4 and Christmas Morning: The King of Christmas, Genesis 49:10

Who is the King of Christmas? Many Americans would vote for Santa Claus. He embodies godlike qualities we might like to see in a king ruling over us. He knows who is naughty and who is nice (omniscience?). He creates billions of presents for all the children of the earth (omnipotence?). As a jolly old elf, he loves all people (omnibenevolence?). And he manages the physically impossible task of visiting every household on earth in a tight window of 24 hours or so (omnipresence?). His gifting seems to exemplify justice (concern for poor children), mercy (overlooking a few moral boo-boos), and humility (no self-praising tweets about his accomplishments).

Santa seems a much better King of Christmas than such pretenders such as Rudolf (abnormal nasal appearance), Frosty (undependable, melting presence), or Tiny Tim (too young). Problem: the Santa Claus we culturally celebrate is a fictional character, not a real person.

In Genesis, a picture of the future Messiah, the needed Savior of humankind, emerges for us. As the author of Hebrews might say, the messianic picture is in little bits and pieces, and we understand the hints of Genesis far better in hindsight than the ancients did in foresight.

One of these is the prediction that the future Messiah would be a king, a royal person. The narrative focus in Genesis is on various patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, etc. These were family chiefs, but were not kings. Yet at the end of Genesis, the glimmer of a king emerges. Genesis 49 presents the aged Jacob giving blessings to his twelve sons. He has words for each, an ironic act given that Jacob’s life was radically affected when he stole his brother Esau’s blessing from his father, Isaac.

Judah, the youngest of the four sons of Leah, receives his blessing in Genesis 49:8-12. This passage is loaded with images that become important in later texts. Judah is promised that his brothers would bow down to him, an act of acknowledging royalty. He is equated to a lion, the source of the powerful image of Revelation, the Lion of Judah. He is prophesied to wash his robes in wine, a foreshadowing of the saints of Revelation who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

The most intriguing text is Genesis 49:10:

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

This is not an easy text to translate, but Christmas morning is no time to unravel that scholarly debate. Notice two things. First, the language of “scepter” and “ruler’s staff,” the physical implements of kingship. Second, the promise of one who is coming who is the true and rightful king commanding the “obedience of the nations.”

I know I have biases and presuppositions as a Christian, but I cannot help but see this as a prediction of the Messiah. Would he be a warrior? Maybe. Would he be a judge? Maybe. Would he be a teacher? Maybe. But would he be a King? Definitely! And this royalty is tied to Judah, the ancestor of King David and of Joseph of Nazareth. The coming Messiah of Genesis would be the King of Kings of Revelation. Paul promises that eventually, every knee would bend and every head would bow in recognition of his royal reign over all peoples.

The 19th century New England newspaper editor, Josiah Holland wrote a poem for Christmas in 1872 entitled, “There’s a Song in the Air.” This is the fourth stanza:

We rejoice in the light, 
and we echo the song 
that comes down through the night 
from the heavenly throng. 
Ay! we shout to the lovely 
evangel they bring, 
and we greet in his cradle 
our Savior and King! 

Christmas is a time of motherhood, of gifts, of stables, of babies, of angels, and of mangers. Let us not forget the original location was David’s royal city, Bethlehem, and that that manger cradled the “Little Lord Jesus,” our “Savior and King!” He and he alone is the King of Christmas.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University