Book Review

godcardMore Than His God Card: What Jesus wants you to know about Him as revealed in His miracles.

Author: Brian Onken
Publisher: Ambassador International

I’ve written lots of book reviews over the years at my blog, but those reviews were of books I wanted to read and review. This is probably my first ever review of a book that I was asked if I would be interested in reviewing. I said “sure,” and the folks were kind enough to send me a copy.

The person who contacted me from Ambassador International, the publisher of this book, has asked me in the past if I would be interested in others to review, but honestly, judging from the publicity material sent to me, each one of them sounded like it was written for women and would be sappy. (Not that solid, godly women only read sappy stuff, but I hope you get my drift). This book, More Than His God Card, piqued my interest, because the subject was a study on the miracles of Jesus.

The author, Brian Onken, is an instructor with a biblical equipping ministry called, The River located in South Carolina. His bio page says he has degrees from Talbot and Regent Universities and that he has pastored both small and large churches. He has also been a researcher and teacher with the Christian Research Institute (not sure if that is pre or post Hank), and he has worked with the Walk Thru the Bible ministry.

The thesis of the book is to show the reader how we can see Christ’s character put on display in the various miracles recorded throughout the four Gospel narratives. Rather than understanding that all of the miracles Christ performed were designed to manifest His deity, the miracles had other, special purposes in the ministry of Jesus.

The author considers the following miracle stories:

– The wedding feast from John 2
– The catch of fish from Luke 5
– The healing of the leper from Mark 1
– The raising of Jarius daughter and the healing of the bleeding woman from Mark 5
– The healing of the paralytic from Mark 2
– The healing of the man with the withered hand from Mark 3
– The stilling of the storm from Mark 4
– The healing of the deaf and dumb man from Mark 7
– Jesus walking on water from Matthew 14
– Jesus healing the demonized girl from Matthew 15
– The feeding of the multitude from Mark 6
– The resurrection of Lazarus from John 11
– Jesus appearing to Thomas in John 20

The overall study of the subject of Christ’s miracles was commendable, and in many instances encouraging, but I thought that the author was trying too hard to prove his thesis. He made desperate attempts with explaining away the miracles of Christ as Him showing forth His “God card.” In a way, it was like he was intentionally avoiding those clear passages that obviously display Christ’s deity.

Let me provide a couple of examples.

Consider his study of the healing of the paralytic from Mark 2. With this story, a group of friends bring a man who was paralyzed to Jesus so that He would heal Him. When the friends lower him through a hole in the roof in the middle of where Jesus was teaching, He tells the paralytic man that his sins were forgiven him. Shocked by such blasphemous words coming out of His mouth, the scribes grumbled among themselves that no one can forgive sins but God. Knowing what they were grumbling about, Jesus asks, “What is easier? To say ‘your sins or forgiven’ or take up your bed and walk? But to show you that the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins, I say take up your bed and walk,” and immediately, a man who was severely crippled with what amounted to a spinal cord injury, was completely healed.

With just a simple reading of the passage, especially the exchange between Jesus and the scribes, it’s pretty clear that He was pulling out His “God card.” The reason I have authority to forgive sins, Jesus says, is because I am God, and to show you that I am God, I will deliver this man from his paralysis and restore him to complete health, which He did. Onken, instead, seizes upon the description Jesus gives Himself, “the Son of Man,” and concludes,

Although we might hear that title as one with a divine ring to it, it is a title that would have been used to refer to the Messiah — God’s appointed and anointed deliverer. By itself, it would not have been heard as claiming, “I am God.” [93]

So in other words, Jesus wasn’t claiming He was God when He healed that man, but that He had merely been given authority as the Son of Man to do it.

But while it is true that the title “Son of Man” is a Messianic title, it is one that is linked to divinity and only one specific person can rightly claim that title for Himself, a man who is God.

Look at Daniel 7:13ff., where the prophet sees in a vision “one like a Son of Man” coming to the Ancient of Days and He is given an everlasting kingdom and will rule the nations with absolute sovereignty. Only God rules with absolute sovereignty and He does not share His glory with any other (Isaiah 42:8). Mark later retells how Jesus cited that vision from Daniel and applied it to Himself when He was on trial before the religious leaders, (Mark 14:62). The reaction by the high priest after hearing Jesus apply that passage to Himself was that He blasphemed, which means he recognized Jesus was calling Himself God.

Another example is when Jesus fed the multitude in Mark 6. After reviewing the passage about the miracle, Onken draws a rather simplistic observation that focuses upon the left over fish and bread and Jesus calling the disciples to come and rest with him. The take-away principle, he notes, is how we as Christians are called to do life with Jesus and trust Him that He will always provide what is necessary when we are challenged with overwhelming needs [187].

Okay, I suppose; but can we really say that is the point to the miracle? That Jesus wasn’t putting on display His “God card?” What is missed in Onken’s study is the follow up to this miracle that is found in John’s gospel in chapter 6, and in fact, he doesn’t even mention John’s account.

John recounts what happened the day following Christ’s feeding of the multitude. Those people Jesus fed chased Him around the Sea of Galilee so as to force Him to set up a divinely ran welfare state with Jesus as king. They had recognized immediately after the miraculous feeding that Jesus was divine because only God can create food out of thin air (John 6:14-15).

When they found Jesus, He rebuked them for fixating upon the miracle rather than who He was and His mission to give men eternal life. Jesus then identified Himself with the manna from heaven when God divinely provided food for Israel after they had been delivered from Egypt (Exodus 16) and used that OT event to picture the salvation God provides through Him. So while it is true that the feeding of the multitude shows how Jesus meets basic, daily needs and provides what is necessary when we are confronted with overwhelming need, the greater purpose of the miracle was bringing us to the dialog Jesus had with the crowd the following day in which the sign was designed to display the divine person and work of Jesus.

In addition to the strained attempts that explain away those clear miracles that were meant to display Christ’s deity, many of the devotional principles the reader is supposed to take away from the stories were a bit contrived. For example, the healing of the man with the withered hand from Mark 3 was meant to show us how Jesus will never embarrass us or put us at risk [110-111]. The stilling of the storm is (of course!) the confidence that Jesus will still the storms of our lives [124]. And Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus shows us God’s invitation to a life of adventure with Him [155-156].

I can say for myself that I thought the book was an “Okay” study of Christ’s miracles. I commend the author’s attempt to highlight the many facets of Christ’s miracles we may tend to glance over with a quick read of the Scriptures. However, I think his avoidance of the so called “God card” miracles is forced and ultimately causes his study to fall flat. But the book can definitely serve as supplemental devotional material for a preacher teaching through the Gospel narratives and who may need some fresh insights with practical application of those texts.

My final take on the book: I think his study would be remarkably improved if he would shift his focus away from trying to disprove the “God card” option with Christ’s miracles and instead show how those miracles subtly reveal Christ’s deity when Christ perfectly demonstrated  His divine attributes during His ministry. His miracles were His “God card,” but they manifested His deity by revealing how He is a perfectly loving, gracious, compassionate, sovereign, and saving God.

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6 thoughts on “Book Review

  1. Does it seem like too many arguments that start as “not just” become “not at all”?

  2. Pingback: Reviews | hipandthigh

  3. Thank you for your willingness to think well about the things I wrote. If nothing else, to have you wrestle with the text of Scripture is at the center of my hopes for the book.

    I understand your desire to make the case for Jesus’ divine claim in the miracles He performed. (As you are aware, I freely affirm His divinity in the book! No debate with me there.) However, in your re-reading of the miracles and your rebuttal to what I wrote, it seems you end up special pleading rather than simply reading.

    For example, when you walk through my treatment of the paralyzed man as recounted in Mark 2, you argue the “Son of Man” language must mean Jesus is claiming to be divine. Your one reference in support is the passage from Daniel 7 and the prophet’s vision of “one like a Son of Man.”

    Although I would agree that when Jesus draws on that imagery (beyond simply the title “Son of Man”) before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14 He is drawing on Daniel’s vision to make a divine claim. But does the language in Mark 2 and the situation He is addressing warrant that same insistence on a divine claim in the healing of the paralyzed man? I don’t believe so.

    While the title “Son of Man” does carry Messianic implications, it does not seem to be—in and of itself—a divine title. You referenced Daniel 7, but I am sure you are aware that the title “Son of Man” is used repeatedly in the book of Ezekiel as the title by which God refers to that prophet. And, God refers to Daniel himself as “Son of Man” in the book of Daniel.

    In the healing of the paralyzed man, Jesus’ self-identification as one “with authority to forgive sins” may not take us as far as you seem to think. Every day, as faithful Jews brought their sacrifices to the Temple, the priests would pronounce the forgiveness of sins—they had authority to do so. In 2 Samuel 12, after confronting David regarding his sin with Bathsheba, Nathan the prophet pronounced David forgiven—he apparently had authority from God to do so.

    Thus, I am not sure that there is enough in the account in Mark 2 to insist that Jesus must be making a claim to be God (although, as I mentioned, I am fully convinced that He is—I just don’t think He’s as concerned to make that case as we sometimes are).

    Do you not find it a bit astounding that if that was what Jesus was seeking to prove He was God—and if He was competent in offering such proof—that no one apparently drew the conclusion that He was God? (For example, no worship of Jesus in this moment as with Thomas later after the resurrection.) If Jesus was proving He was divine by what He did with the paralyzed man I find it puzzling that no one in the scene as presented by Mark came to that conclusion.

    When you turn to John’s follow up to the feeding miracle to make your case that, in that miracle, Jesus was proving to be God, you appear to misrepresent what John actually wrote. You say the people “recognized immediately after the miraculous feeding that Jesus was divine because only God can create food out of thin air” and you referenced John 6:14-15. But what John actually wrote was that the people confessed that Jesus “was the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Apparently they didn’t say “this One is God come in the flesh.”

    I wonder if there are parallels to this miracle with how God provided water for Israel through Moses in Exodus 17, or the provision of food through Elijah in 1 Kings 17, or the multiplication of the widow’s oil at Elisha’s directions in 2 Kings 4. Although it is true that God was wholly involved in these miracles, that food was miraculously provided does not, by itself, prove that the agent through who the miracle was done was divine.

    Again, you seem to want those who actually encountered Jesus in the miracle account to draw the conclusion you deem appropriate (that Jesus was proving He was divine), but the passages you turn to do not show those in the moment drawing that conclusion.

    When you give your attention to my application and reflection questions, I am sorry that you feel those suggestions were contrived. My intention was to suggest that there is more to Jesus and our relationship with Him than simply getting His identity right. Many Christians are ready to admit that Jesus is God come in the flesh, but seem to enjoy very little intimacy and dependence and rest in Him—and I wonder if that is because we overlook what He actually is revealing about Himself and what He is like through the miracles.

    When someone reads the miracles of Jesus as if they are, by and large, proofs that He is divine, there is little fresh to discover in them. They all have the same “punch line,” all saying the same thing. Once we affirm that truth (which I believe is better anchored in things Jesus said about Himself rather than in the miracles themselves), we can end up under-appreciating what we might learn about Jesus from how He interacted with, cared for, ministered to, and met the needs of those He encountered.

    May it please the Lord to make much of Himself as we continue to think well about how He reveals Himself in the pages of the Scripture!

    Grace,

    Brian

  4. Hey Brian,

    Thanks for the response to the review. I apologize for not offering an acknowledgement of it for a while. Just life and stuff. Plus I wanted to be somewhat thoughtful with my response. You, by the way, are the first author who has actually taken the time to write up a response to any review I have posted. Kudos for your ability to locate my obscure, out of the way, blog!

    Just let me begin by saying that I appreciated the overall thrust of your book. My concern, as I note in my review, is that I got the impression you were intentionally trying to avoid any clear instance where Christ’s miracles certainly affirmed His deity. While I understand how we need to recognize the grace and mercy within the ministry of Christ’s miracles, I believe the primary purpose of those miracles were to establish the divine Person of Christ to the people of Israel.

    Let me revisit some selections from your comments in light of that point.

    You write,

    While the title “Son of Man” does carry Messianic implications, it does not seem to be—in and of itself—a divine title. You referenced Daniel 7, but I am sure you are aware that the title “Son of Man” is used repeatedly in the book of Ezekiel as the title by which God refers to that prophet. And, God refers to Daniel himself as “Son of Man” in the book of Daniel.

    I would encourage you, if you haven’t already, to consider Robert Reymond’s study on the Son of Man title from his massive book, Jesus: Divine Messiah. It is true that there are other referents with the title, like as you point out, Ezekiel; but what needs to be considered is the context of the NT and how the Gospel writers recorded Jesus’s use of the title.

    As Reymond stated,

    “There can be no legitimate doubt that all four Evangelists when interpreted correctly, intend their readers to understand that Jesus is the Son of Man in the roles both of suffering servant who came to seek and to save the lost … and of coming Judge and eschatological King.”[188].

    That title in connection to those roles refers to a divine being who was specifically appointed by God. We know from fuller NT revelation that it was the 2nd person of the Trinity appointed by God the Father.

    But you go on,

    In the healing of the paralyzed man, Jesus’ self-identification as one “with authority to forgive sins” may not take us as far as you seem to think. Every day, as faithful Jews brought their sacrifices to the Temple, the priests would pronounce the forgiveness of sins—they had authority to do so. In 2 Samuel 12, after confronting David regarding his sin with Bathsheba, Nathan the prophet pronounced David forgiven—he apparently had authority from God to do so

    The difference, however, is that Jesus offered that forgiveness apart from the sacrifices of the temple (because He would be the fulfillment of those sacrifices), as the role of the Greatest High Priest as Hebrews will eventually attest, a role only God can fulfill. More importantly, He proved His authority by healing a paraplegic completely. I would hardly argue that there was no forgiveness of sins before Jesus. Like you point out, that was the whole point of the sacrificial system. The key difference is how that forgiveness is administered and applied. In this case, by the authority of Jesus, The greatest High Priest, who being God, had such authority.

    Going on you write,

    Do you not find it a bit astounding that if that was what Jesus was seeking to prove He was God—and if He was competent in offering such proof—that no one apparently drew the conclusion that He was God?

    Well, it seems rather clear to me that the religious leaders took Jesus as saying just that. How else do you explain their reaction when they mumbled among themselves that no one can forgive sins but God? They seem to be taking Christ as saying he had divine authority.

    Continuing along you write,

    I wonder if there are parallels to this miracle with how God provided water for Israel through Moses in Exodus 17, or the provision of food through Elijah in 1 Kings 17, or the multiplication of the widow’s oil at Elisha’s directions in 2 Kings 4. Although it is true that God was wholly involved in these miracles, that food was miraculously provided does not, by itself, prove that the agent through who the miracle was done was divine.

    While it is true that some of the people identified Jesus with the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18, they did have a special understanding of that coming individual that connected him to speaking from God with a specific, divine authority.

    But more to the point, you speculate if the parallels to that miracle is in Exodus 17 or 1 Kings 17, or even 2 Kings 4, but Jesus tells us the exact parallel: the provision of manna from heaven. In fact, Jesus says that it was His Father who gave Israel the manna miraculously out of heaven, Jesus identifying Himself as God’s son. Then He calls Himself the “true bread of heaven,” and even appropriates the divine title, I Am, to Himself. It sure does look pretty clear to me that He is using those miracles to show forth his God Card.

    You then conclude,

    Again, you seem to want those who actually encountered Jesus in the miracle account to draw the conclusion you deem appropriate (that Jesus was proving He was divine), but the passages you turn to do not show those in the moment drawing that conclusion.

    I would argue that they did draw that conclusion because their reaction to Jesus was not to believe upon Him. They left in disgust. John 6:66. The knew what He was claiming for Himself, they just refused to believe it.

    And then one last thought,

    When someone reads the miracles of Jesus as if they are, by and large, proofs that He is divine, there is little fresh to discover in them. They all have the same “punch line,” all saying the same thing. Once we affirm that truth (which I believe is better anchored in things Jesus said about Himself rather than in the miracles themselves), we can end up under-appreciating what we might learn about Jesus from how He interacted with, cared for, ministered to, and met the needs of those He encountered.

    Honestly, I thought the book would have been remarkably improved if you had connected those miracles to God’s divine attributes. I will highlight my last paragraph,

    My final take on the book: I think his study would be remarkably improved if he would shift his focus away from trying to disprove the “God card” option with Christ’s miracles and instead show how those miracles subtly reveal Christ’s deity when Christ perfectly demonstrated His divine attributes during His ministry. His miracles were His “God card,” but they manifested His deity by revealing how He is a perfectly loving, gracious, compassionate, sovereign, and saving God.

  5. This is the very kind of engagement that I had hoped my little volume would stir–attentiveness to the text of Scripture and a willingness to honestly read what the texts say. So, for that I thank you.

    In reply to your gracious response, let me offer just a few thoughts.

    First, if you have read the book, you know that I do not deny that Jesus is the Son of God (in the full trinitarian sense), that He is God come in the flesh, and that He entered the world as the unique, incarnate God-man. You and I have no disagreement there.

    Second, I would agree with you that the ultimate objective of the Gospel writers is to lead their readers to see that about Jesus. John, in fact, makes that explicit when he explains the reason he is writing in John 20:30-31.

    Third, I think part of the difference between the way we are reading the Gospel accounts of the miracles of Jesus is that you seem to want to read the conclusion (all that Jesus is) into the very earliest encounters that Jesus has with people as recorded for us by the Gospel writers. For example, when Jesus is referred to as “Son of Man” in the early days of His ministry, you seem to think that it must carry the fullness of all that we come to know that means. Seeing that it is only after years with Jesus that His closest followers come to understand–in some measure–who He is, it seems unlikely that everyone always grasped and read into those early moments all that we have come to know about Him.

    Fourth, it seems that you read more into the response of others to Jesus than I find warranted. For example, when you refer to the religious leaders’ question about Jesus’ forgiving sins, you understand their query (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”) as if they saw Jesus making an explicit claim to being God come in the flesh. Jesus’ response, as I read it, suggests something that, while leading to that idea (eventually), meets them at a place in their journey to understand Him that makes it possible for them to take a step in understanding. His assertion that as “Son of Man” (which, you must admit, is not an absolute and unique title and does not, in and of itself, make a direct claim to divinity) has “authority” (a word that suggests a right to act that has been conferred) may lead them toward a clearer understanding of His relationship to God but, at this point in the early days of His interaction with the religious leaders, does not press to the point you have in mind. You are aware, of course, that when they (finally, after years) see that He has made a divine claim (which, by the way, comes primarily through the words He speaks about His relationship with the Father and not, primarily, through the miracles themselves) they intend to have Him put to death. But they are far from that at this point–which suggests to me that they do not yet see Him claiming “to be God.”

    Fifth, you think the book would have been strengthened if the miracle accounts had been connected to His “divine attributes.” As I reflect on that, I wonder if part of the difference in how we are reading these miracles is that I see them connected to Jesus Himself, while you see them tied to His “divine attributes.” I see them as revealing something about Him (yes, He who is divine), but something about that guy that we get to know and have relationship with. Most Christians seem to not have much a problem with affirming Jesus’ divine nature; what we struggle with is understanding how we are to relate to Him and how He intends to interact with us. And that dimension of who He is seems to me to be a huge part of how and why He does what He does, as seen in the miracles. He does not tenderly take Simon’s mother-in-law’s hand and raise her up because He is God, but because He is that kind of person (yes, that kind of God). My intention in the book was to highlight what gets overlooked, not what most Christians readily affirm.

    One side note, when you affirm that Jesus’ miracles were, indeed, His “God card” I do wonder how you then make sense of Peter and John healing a lame man, or Philip’s ministry of signs and wonders, or Elijah’s calling down fire, or Peter raising Dorcas from the dead. I think, to be consistent, we must read miracles in some kind of consistent way–they do communicate something about the one who does the miracles. But just what do they communicate? And how do you understand the message of the miracles done by others in light of what you insist must be the case with the miracles of Jesus? He sent the twelve and the seventy out to do the very same things that He did (and affirmed that to be true for all who would come to believe; John 14:12)–what does that have to say for how we understand the message of the miracles?

    May it please the Father to continue to draw us to be impressed with the Son and find our lives entirely caught up with Him!

    Brian

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