Friday, January 13, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

Jonah the Prophet – Byzantine icon
Now the word of the Lᴏʀᴅ came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  (Jnh 1:1–2)

In my view, then, the God who knows everything had the beneficial intention of demonstrating even to the ancients that people who were quite alienated and caught in the toils of deception would also be attracted in due course to the knowledge of the truth, even if quite desperate, stubborn, and completely in the grip of impenitence.  The word of God, you see, is quite capable even of succeeding in forming attitudes and persuading people to learn the things that make a person wise.… It was therefore not without purpose that the divinely inspired Jonah was sent to the Ninevites; rather it was for him to be a kind of harbinger of God’s inherent clemency, which is bestowed even on people led astray by ignorance.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Jonah

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Holy Spirit Speaks and Guides, But How?

Last year, our pastor undertook a profitable study of Acts that extended over several months.  During the study, I noticed recurring statements concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the work of the gospel.  Using Bible software, I was surprised to discover 54 explicit references to the Spirit’s person and work from the first chapter (Ac 1:5) to the last (Ac 28:25).  While the Holy Spirit is God and therefore immutable, how are we to relate this activity to our day?

Planned Obsolescence
With all the divine activity in the book of Acts, one can understand the emphasis some wings of Christendom place on active, phenomenological manifestations in our time.  Jesus empowered His disciples with the ability to perform miracles (Mt 10:8), even being surprised that they were unable to perform an exorcism later in their ministry (Mt 17:16, 19).  Before ascending, He promised they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Ac 1:8; cf. Mk 16:17–18).  In addition, evidence of continuing manifestations were recorded in Corinth (1Co 12:4–10; 14:26–33).

While these manifestations were still occurring, an examination of the New Testament chronology shows a decrease in their use.  While miracles accompanied the apostles from the Day of Pentecost through Paul’s third missionary journey (Ac 19:11–12), the remainder is largely bereft of such save for visitations to Paul by the Lord (Ac 23:11) and an angel (Ac 27:23–24), plus the snakebite on Malta (Ac 28:1–6).  From the flow of the narrative, miraculous signs and leadings were typical as the apostles went to new people groups, but after the gospel was declared and churches established, the manifestations reduced in number.

The process of being witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” is a natural growth much as we would see in any individual.  We can see this on a small scale in Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he outlined to that splintered group of believers how individual members worked together in a body (chap. 12) then later gave practical tips for their gatherings (chap. 14).  Between these two chapters, the apostle gives what is often called the “Love Chapter” (chap. 13).  While this section speaks much of love, the emphasis is too often reduced to romance and sentimentality.  Paul attempted to describe how the believers were to move from their divisions and pride to a mature, unified body, wherein the love of Christ was to be the outstanding characteristic of this maturation process.  Gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, which were vital to the establishing and early growth, was to give way to a mature love.

Paul uses two comparative examples to solidify the point.  The first, childhood vs. adulthood, is clear.  We adults understand the changes in maturity level, responsibility, and relationship that come with aging.  The second, obscured understanding vs. clear, is less certain because the phrase “face to face” evokes thoughts of our final meeting with Christ:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  (1Jo 3:2)
However, a correlation to John’s epistle would be incorrect.  In the Scriptures, a face to face meeting is one in which the participants interact in order to understand one another.  In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, then, Paul’s use is simply another rhetorical device to describe the movement from immaturity to maturity.

Are We Missing the Point?
If spiritual maturity is of greater significance than manifestations, are we misunderstanding the Holy Spirit’s ministry?  Have some believers so built up a doctrine centered on personal revelation and manifestation that they apply their theology to Acts rather than allow the text to speak itself?  There are many points of denominational disagreement based on their theological understanding of different biblical texts, and Bible scholars are not immune to placing their presuppositions in the biblical narrative.  More than once, I have read a commentary that explained the text with something like, “This is what the passage says, but that is not what it means,” followed by an explanation based on his or her doctrinal bias.

Christians of different backgrounds can agree on what is intended when speaking of the Holy Spirit anointing, baptism, filling, indwelling, empowering, etc., though understanding of the expected manifestations will differ.  The difficulty comes in understanding and applying the Spirit’s speaking and guiding (or leading).

Ac 1:16, 20
Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, … “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;” and “Let another take his office.”
Ac 28:25
And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet…”

Ac 8:29
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”
Ac 10:19
And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.”
Ac 11:12
And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.  These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
Ac 21:11
And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
The first two verses are set apart to demonstrate that the Spirit spoke in the Scriptures, but notice that in both cases the identified speaker is someone else: the first passage has David’s expressions to God, and the second appears to be a theophany of Jesus to Isaiah.  Neither is attributed to the Holy Spirit, yet He is speaking.  We can deduce that the Spirit uses the Word of God to speak, this seems to be borne out in the remaining passages.  Philip had first received instruction from an angel to be at the appropriate spot in the road.  Peter first received a vision from the Lord before the visitors came.  Agabus was an active prophet in Judea (Ac 11:28) who affirmed and clarified what Paul expected.  We can see, then, that the normal course of communication for the Holy Spirit is through revelation spoken by the prophets as confessed in the Nicene Creed.

Ac 16:6–10
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Ac 19:21
Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”
Ac 21:4
And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days.  And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
These three episodes in Paul’s clearly demonstrate the guiding work of the Holy Spirit, but there is no explicit method described.  Those advocating an active mystical or supernatural movement will say the believers received a prompting or “inner voice” to determine their courses of action: what Paul and the disciples said or did was in accord with divine counsel and working outside that would be considered sinful.

The first passage, with the verbiage having been forbidden … did not allow them … a vision appeared, is the most consistent with direct intervention by the Holy Spirit.  This would be consistent with the active involvement accorded to Him, however, there is no indication what the negative commands entailed nor to whom they were delivered.  Since only the effect is mentioned, there remains the possibility that Luke, not currently with the team, rejoining at Troas where Paul received the Macedonian call, was summarizing how the Spirit orchestrated the team’s journey through that region, instead emphasizing the subsequent gospel expansion westward.  Whichever case might be accurate, an active, direct leading from the Holy Spirit would not have been considered typical decades, much less centuries, later.

The second passage is debated, because translators are mixed as to whether πνευμα is speaking of the Holy Spirit or an individual’s spirit: both are acceptable.  Whichever translation is used, the force of the sentence is not changed.  Luke is describing Paul’s God-instilled determination fueled by three principle reasons: desiring for his brethren after the flesh to believe in their Messiah (Ro 10:1), longing to encourage and be encouraged by the Roman church (Ro 1:9–13), and planning for the furtherance of the gospel westward to Spain (Ro 15:24, 28).

In the final passage, a difficulty remains.  When the disciples advise through the Spirit, their counsel is in direct contradiction to Paul’s testimony that he was constrained by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem (Ac 20:22).  Are either the disciples or Paul sinning in their claims, or is the Holy Spirit contradicting Himself?  Left with only these two options, we would be forced to choose the former as true, however, the most logical conclusion is that neither party were making a decision based on a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit but were operating and making decisions consistent with what had been revealed through Scripture weighed against desire to minister and expectations of future difficulty based on past experiences.  Much like the decision wherein Paul and Barnabas parted ways over the inclusion of John Mark (Ac 15:36-41), there were strong differences of opinion over future ministry, but neither party sinned or erred.

Ac 13:1-2, 4
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” … So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
Ac 15:28–29
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.
Ac 20:22–23
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
Three occasions in Paul’s ministry the Holy Spirit was actively speaking and guiding to make His intentions known.  Notice in this triplet a shift in the Spirit’s operation as time progressed.  In Antioch, the prophets and teachers were involved in their spiritual service (λειτουργια, leitourgia) when the Holy Spirit made Himself known.  Ministering to or serving the Lord was the regular tabernacle and temple activity of the three divisions of Levites based on the direction God had revealed in the Scriptures.  The prophets and teachers in Antioch were going about the same type of activity in the regular meetings of the assembly.  This concerted work, plus, the reception of the same message, indicates that no individualism was involved: the Holy Spirit set apart two by speaking to all five.

After prayer and fasting in preparation for commissioning, Barnabas and Paul were sent out as directed.  One may wonder if there was a divine reasoning for traveling east instead of a different direction.  The most logical possibility is that the two men wanted to use the easily accessible transportation routes to spread the message quickly through the empire.  While good, safe roads are not technically a spiritual reason for furthering the gospel, not all aspects of a ministry are divinely dictated.  We were and are presented options that are not any more or less proper before God, but one may be more advantageous depending on circumstances.

At the council in Jerusalem, those assembled had determined to pass along to the new believers what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, supplying a short list of suggestions.  In trying to determine how the Spirit made known that these things were good, we need search no further than earlier in the council proceedings (Ac 15:12–21).  Looking back at James’ remarks, we see him referring to a prophecy in Amos 9:11–12, stating the Lord’s intent to include Gentiles in the restoration followed by practical instructions from the Mosaic Law so as not to offend the Jews.  Even though the Spirit did not give direct or mystical input in this discussion, the brethren understood that He was speaking through the Scriptures, and they could accord His hand and approval on their instructions to the new believers.

The final passage has already been partially examined in contrast to other disciples warning Paul against his planned trip to Jerusalem.  Paul, while encouraging and warning the elders of Ephesus during a stop in Miletus, makes known to them that his trip was in accord with his own desire and God’s intention.  The only question we have is in how the Holy Spirit testified of imprisonment and afflictions.  Did He communicate directly to Paul of the approaching difficulties?  Was Paul surmising based on past and current experiences?  Or did his conclusion comprise both?  All are possible, though we might legitimately favor the first.  Since the apostolic work was not yet complete, the reassuring presence and leading of the Spirit would be necessary for the ensuing travails: they were unique to Paul alone.

First, while the Holy Spirit was active in providing supernatural signs and gifts while the apostles were active in spreading the gospel of Christ, there is sufficient evidence that this was not to be a regular, continuing phenomenon within the local assembly.  While God is sovereign in all His dealings, there are clear indicators that the Holy Spirit would not be supplying gifts, leading, and communications in the way given as the message went from Judea into Samaria and Gentile areas (cf. Ac 1:8).  The Church was intended to mature so that some spiritual manifestations would no longer be needed, being replaced by a thoroughgoing love for one another as the ultimate sign (Jn 13:34–35).

Second, we can see that individual communication directly from the Holy Spirit was the exception, rather than the rule, with the Scriptures being the source of certainty.  Believers of the earliest church understood that God spoke through the fathers and prophets until His Son came as the final Word.  The delivery of the Word continued after the Ascension through the ministration of the apostles and prophets as led by the Spirit in accord with past revelation, demonstrating that the entire Godhead was at work in revelation from beginning to end.  Personal communication or prompting by the Spirit occurred infrequently to select individuals.  More often, the Spirit would make known the message to a group for mutual confirmation.

For centuries there has been a desire in the Church for a personal, one-on-one relationship with God.  This has caused His people to move from the sure footing of Scripture and instead look inward to current inclinations, perceptions, and emotions in an endeavor to instill fervency in His people.  While the intentions might be laudable, the practices have left fleeting and mixed results.  An alleged personal word or prompting from the Lord delivered apart from what Scripture clearly states must be considered suspect or invalid regardless of how pertinent the message may be to the ears.  We are not called to heed cleverly devised tales or our inner leading, but rely on God’s Word.  It is there that the Holy Spirit still speaks and guides as it is faithfully taught in the presence of witnesses.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Salvation Has Come

Psalm 98 (LXX)
Sing a new song to the Lord
    for He did wondrous things;
His right hand and His holy arm
    saved peoples for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
    He revealed His righteousness in the sight of the Gentiles.
He remembered his mercy to Jacob
    And His truth to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth saw the salvation of our God.

Shout aloud to God, all the earth;
    Sing and greatly rejoice, and sing psalms;
Sing to the Lord on a lyre,
    On a lyre and the voice of a psalm;
With trumpets of metal and the sound of a trumpet of horn,
    Shout aloud before the Lord our King.

Let the sea be shaken and its fullness,
    The world and those who dwell in it.
The rivers shall clap their hands together;
    The mountains shall greatly rejoice;
For He comes to judge the earth;
He shall judge the world in righteousness,
    And the peoples with uprightness.

This psalm is beautiful, telling of God’s mighty hand and powerful working to bring salvation, but one is left wondering of when it speaks.  Is this celebrating the Red Sea crossing? or perhaps Gideon’s victory over Midian? or maybe Sennacherib’s defeat before Hezekiah?  Perchance it may be a general song of victory to be sung whenever the Lord saves His people.  Whatever occasion initially prompted the psalm, it always looked forward to God gaining the victory on behalf of His people.

“Nativity” by Peter Paul Rubens
While feats of provision, strength, and warfare generally garner a joyous response, perhaps none was more grand.  Consider the responses early in Jesus’ life from the heavenly host (Lu 2:13–14), shepherds (Lu 2:17–20), the priest Simeon (Lu 2:28–32), the prophetess Anna (Lu 2:38), and wise men (Mt 2:10–11).  Jews, Gentiles, and the heavenly host joined in praise over the birth of this Child.  Though counter-intuitive, the promised salvation (Mt 1:21; Lu 2:11) initiated when the Son of God emptied Himself, took the form of a bond-servant, and came in the likeness of men (Phil 2:7) would far outweigh any military or political campaign.  This combat would end in utter defeat for sin, death, and the devil; and with every foe vanquished, He will reign with righteousness and His kingdom enjoying perfect peace and rest.

You have made known to us, O Lord, Your salvation, causing to spring up for us the plant of peace, and we shall no longer wander in error.  You have made known to us, O Lord, that You have not unto the end overlooked Your servants; neither have You, O beneficent One, forgotten entirely the works of Your hands.

For out of Your compassion for our low estate You have shed forth upon us abundantly that goodness of Yours which is inexhaustible, and with Your very nature cognate, having redeemed us by Your only begotten Son, who is unchangeably like to You, and of one substance with You; judging it unworthy of Your majesty and goodness to entrust to a servant the work of saving and benefiting Your servants, or to cause that those who had offended should be reconciled by a minister.  But by means of that light, which is of one substance with You, You have given light to those that sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, in order that in Your light they might see the light of knowledge; and it has seemed good to You, by means of our Lord and Creator, to fashion us again unto immortality; and You have graciously given unto us a return to Paradise by means of Him who separated us from the joys of Paradise; and by means of Him who has power to forgive sins You have blotted out the handwriting which was against us.

Lastly, by means of Him who is a partaker of Your throne and who cannot be separated from Your divine nature, You have given unto us the gift of reconciliation and access unto You with confidence in order that, by the Lord who recognizes the sovereign authority of none, by the true and omnipotent God, the subscribed sanction, as it were, of so many and such great blessings might constitute the justifying gifts of grace to be certain and indubitable rights to those who have obtained mercy.  And this very thing the prophet before had announced in the words: No ambassador, nor angel, but the Lord Himself saved them; because He loved them, and spared them, and He took them up, and exalted them.… Hence, for the future, a joyous festival is established for us of the race of Adam, because the first Creator of Adam of His own free-will has become the Second Adam.  And the brightness of the Lord our God has come down to sojourn with us, so that we see God face to face, and are saved.

Methodius, Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna 8

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christ Is Born, Glorify Him

“Annunciation to the Shepherds” by Berchem
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  (Lu 2:10-14)
Christ is born, glorify Him.  Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him.  Christ on earth; be exalted.  Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him Who is of heaven and then of earth.  Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.  Christ of a Virgin ... Who does not worship Him That is from the beginning? Who does not glorify Him That is the Last?  Again the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar.  The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, let it see the Great Light of full knowledge.  Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new.  The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front.  The shadows flee away, the Truth comes in upon them.  Melchizedek is concluded.  He that was without Mother becomes without Father (without Mother of His former state, without Father of His second).   The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled.  Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him.  O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, Whose Government is upon His shoulder (for with the Cross it is raised up), and His Name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father.

Gregory of Nazianzus, On the Theophany 1–2

Friday, December 23, 2016

Sanitizing False Doctrine

Back in November, Bob Hiller wrote a piece at The Jagged Word entitled “Airbrushing Beth Moore” in which he discusses the advertising ploy of creating a sanitized persona in order to sell products.  This is a common way to move product by creating a false notion that by following through with her (or any person’s) materials, the reader will soon resemble the false impression displayed on the product.  The idea of self-improvement strokes egos: I can do it because the author says I can.  Hiller rightfully questions this tactic by noting that everyone involved in the production of the material is a sinner.  The impression floated to entice the buyer—physically, psychologically, and spiritually—is nonexistent.  I agree with Hiller’s assessment, but another aspect to this needs to be mentioned.  False doctrine is being airbrushed.

On the local church level, when someone wishes to make a mark on a social issue or just target a niche market, he or she will investigate the need, formulate a message around that need, and construct a presentation.  In order to be effective, something new needs to be stated and properly packaged.  Novelty attracts.  Crowds form and embolden new, novel doctrine, and the cycle continues.  Publishers do similarly.  To promote and sell materials for authors, they allow (and even encourage) questionable doctrine in their publications.  Poor, bad, and destructive doctrine is disseminated in order to stimulate discussion of the ideas and author notoriety.  Colleges and seminaries are not immune as professors attempt to make a name for themselves.  While all this provocation sells more units to the public and puts people in the pews, it also can have a deleterious effect on Christ’s Church.  Ideas have consequences.  Whatever the initial intent for the novel teaching, the end cannot be measured in the level of appeal but in faithfulness to the Savior and what He taught us.

What are we seeing from current teachers and preachers?  Mysticism is especially popular.  Everybody is suddenly being spoken to directly by the Holy Spirit (or unholy spirit) to say and do spiritual things that are otherwise nonsensical or even unbiblical.  Parishioners are encouraged to seek God (or god) within themselves to better understand the truth.

The Bible is neglected or demeaned.  Paraphrased versions of the Bible are used more than a solid translation.  Music no longer teaches truth, but an experience.  Teachers are asking their listeners to think less in objective truths and more in subjective, relational patterns.  Doctrine is taught in broad, sweeping terms having various meanings depending on the hearer.

What is the effect?  Denominational bodies and local churches see the tide of popularity and begin to wonder if all this hoopla might be the answer to their problems.  Christian conferences assemble speakers that stir the emotions but teach nothing that lasts.  Instead of evaluating the doctrine and practice against the Word of God, these organization take a pragmatic approach hoping for something to stick.  It never does, so the cycle continues for the next thing.

There is an old, familiar saying that if something is new, it is probably wrong.  This is never more true than when applied to the holy things of God.  Let’s sanitize the right things.  Keep doctrine and practice true and pure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Unwanted Offer, Unwelcome Source

The country of Judah was in a dismal state.  Ahaz had taken the throne and was leading the nation into great wickedness, even offering his own son to be burned (2 Ki 16:2–4).  During his reign, Israel and Syria had joined forces and conspired to overthrow Jerusalem and place it under Syrian control.  As would be expected, Ahaz, with all Judah, feared the coming armies.  Before the attack could be mounted, Isaiah went to Ahaz with a message of hope and peace: nothing would come of this.  On top of this good news was a warning call: If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all (Isa 7:9).  The only certainty of a firm foundation was in national repentance.

To sweeten the deal, God gave Ahaz the opportunity to name any sign as surety that the promise would be fulfilled:
Ask a sign of the Lᴏʀᴅ your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.
The offer was remarkable.  Whatever Ahaz could conceive was his to ask.  His response?
I will not ask, and I will not put the Lᴏʀᴅ to the test.
This sounds rather pious, making Ahaz appear to suddenly humble himself before the Lord, however, such is not the case for two reasons.  First, Ahaz was apostate.  He had nothing but contempt for the God of Abraham and Moses, as evidenced by his worship practices.  An offer from YHWH would be admitting he had been entirely wrong—not a pleasant place to find oneself.  Second, Isaiah’s response exposed the king’s attitude:
Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
Isaiah levels his aim at the entire nation of Judah. It has been bad enough that people are wearied by the pretense of being faithful.  How do they think it possible to pull the same stunt on God Himself?  Also, notice the change in language: from “Lᴏʀᴅ your God” in the offer to “my God” in the rebuke.  The prophet communicated further that the True Ruler over Judah was giving a sign, whether or not Ahaz liked it.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
Besides the amazing birth, Isaiah makes known that, unlike the nation, this child will know the difference between good and evil and will choose appropriately in the face of impending disaster and see a beginning of normalcy from the destruction.  As for the united Syrian-Israeli invasion:
For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The Lᴏʀᴅ will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!
Within a short time the feared invasion would come and many be carried away (2 Chr 28:5–8).  Ahaz and Judah deserved everything that came, but it did not serve His purposes to deal with Israel.  Something far worse was promised—an Assyrian invasion.  God sent His prophet with an unwanted promise to an ungrateful king and people, yet within the act we see divine grace and mercy.  The Lord condemned Judah’s wickedness, but He also promised to restore after the impending invasion and gave fair warning of future events.  In doing so, Judah was given every opportunity to see the faithfulness of their Deliverer with a view to repent and wholly turn to Him.

Some centuries later, God repeated the process with a twist.  The people had largely neglected the Lord and His Word.  The rulers of the people cared more for their system of governance and piety than had been divinely delivered and expected.  He sent a prophet but one more than a prophet, a son but one more than a son.  He sent Himself.  The Word of God came to His people to declare a message of great tidings to all people.  Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom and called for repentance, warning of the destruction that would meet them.  He came to His own, and they did not receive Him.  Indeed, the leadership sought to destroy Him.  Within this atmosphere of hostility, He continued the mission on which He was sent for the benefit of mankind.  A greater danger is yet coming, the final judgment and eternal damnation.

The offer is still unwanted and the source unwelcome, yet we continue sharing the need for repentance from sin and the glorious gospel found in our Lord and Savior.  May we continue faithful to the task.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

The next time you want to tweak your worship service, consider some input from godly men of the Reformation.  Give greatest thought and care to ensure what you add or change does not actually distract or detract from the Gospel.

When there are useless, foolish displays, that are profitable neither for good order nor Christian discipline, nor evangelical propriety in the Church, these also are not genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference.

But as regards genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference, we believe, teach, and confess that such ceremonies, in and of themselves, are no worship of God, nor any part of it, but must be properly distinguished from such as are, as it is written: “In vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9).

Therefore we believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has, according to its circumstances, the good right, power, and authority (in matters truly adiaphora) to change, to diminish, and to increase them, without thoughtlessness and offense, in an orderly and appropriate way, whenever it is considered most profitable, most beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, and the edification of the Church.  Moreover, how we can yield and give way with a good conscience to the weak in faith in such external adiaphora, Paul teaches (Rom. 14) and proves it by his example (Acts 16:3; 21:26; 1 Cor. 9:19).

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration X.7–9

Friday, December 16, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.  (Heb 1:1-4)

Gerrit van Honthorst, “Adoration of the Shepherds”
Truly, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”  This at least the blessed Paul intimates here also, in the very beginning of his Epistle to the Hebrews.  For since as it was likely that afflicted, worn out by evils, and judging things from that perspective, [the recipients] would think themselves worse off than all other men,—he shows here that they had rather been made partakers of greater, even very exceeding, grace; arousing the hearer at the very opening of his discourse.… And the expression, “In times past,” and this, “In the end of the days,” shadows forth some other meaning:—that when a long time had intervened, when we were on the edge of punishment, when the Gifts had failed, when there was no expectation of deliverance, when we were expecting to have less than all—then we have had more.

John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews 1

Jan Brueghel the Younger, “Creation of Adam”
In this way the divine apostle in several terms brought out the reality of the begetting, the oneness in being, and the shared eternity of the Father and the Son.  Since the divinity transcends all understanding, and it is impossible to bring out in one single image the mystery of the true doctrine of God, the preachers of the truth are obliged to do so by many.… Blessed Paul called Him “Son” to show Him to be different from the Father in regard to personhood; he spoke of Him as “creator of the ages” to bring out in these ways His eternity and called Him also “brightness of glory” to indicate by this His shared eternity and the sameness of being, the brightness being of the nature of the fire.  He added that He is “stamp of His nature” to bring out both things at the same time, that He subsists of Himself and that He reveals in Himself the paternal characteristics.  He adds also something else: “upholding all things by the word of His power.”  He not only made everything but also directs and guides it.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Interpretation of Hebrews 1

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hope in Hopelessness

There are seasons of life when we feel hopeless.  Loss of health, home, income, or family can come in pounding waves or together in a tsunami leaving our lives in desolation.  When these times come a natural reaction is to lay blame on the doctor, teacher, employer, family member, friend, and especially God.  While there are circumstances working beyond our control that work against us, sometimes we are to blame and must bear the consequences of our own sin.  During those low points, we also seek for antidotes to relieve the stress and pain.  Any glimmer of hope will do.  Some even seek out God, who providentially guides it all, to ask
Why, O Lᴏʀᴅ, do you stand far away?
    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?  (Psa 10:1)

How long, O Lᴏʀᴅ?  Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?  (Psa 13:1)
Or to cry out
Do not cast me off in the time of old age;
    forsake me not when my strength is spent.  (Psa 71:9)
As difficult as this is on an individual level, what happens when calamity strikes a nation or people group?  And worse yet, what if they willingly brought it on themselves?  A review of history shows that the fall of a nation usually comes from within.  Policies and practices necessary to maintain good order are neglected or abandoned for the sake of pragmatism, preference, or expediency.

Judah and Israel were both in a state of spiritual decay when Isaiah exercised his prophetic ministry, delivering a torrent of divine condemnation beginning with Jerusalem.  His earliest assignment after receiving the call to preach was of a forthcoming Assyrian invasion resulting in the destruction of Israel, though Judah would be preserved.  To the reader after the fact, this would not appear to be a hopeless situation, but in the denouncement to King Ahaz, the Lord had already made clear that they were on an identical path as their northern brethren and the surrounding nations that would receive due judgment.  Though the present brought uncertain conditions, the future discipline of a holy God was fixed.  They were in a hopeless position as much as a frog in gradually heated water.

In the face of doom, a ray of hope shines however.  As a promise of the Lord’s covenant with King David, Isaiah foretells of a king who would reign seemingly forever (Isa 9:6-7)—the ultimate golden age—describing it in terms of utter justice, righteousness, and peace as no other has accomplished or could better (Isa 11:3-10).  This could only be because of who this person is and of what stuff he is derived.  The prophet gives that:
And the Spirit of the Lᴏʀᴅ shall rest upon him,
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lᴏʀᴅ.  (Isa 11:2)
Here we see a complete package in this seven-fold description of the Spirit, and only God is sufficient as the source and enabling.  In this prophetic section, then, we see the fullness of the Godhead in action as Eusebius of Caesarea wrote:
For in these things the whole fullness of deity of the only-begotten God is signified, concerning whom the Evangelists say: “from His fullness we have all received,” and the apostle: “For in Him all the fullness of deity was pleased to dwell bodily.” … In Him the Spirit of God dwelt, and it is concerning Him that that the apostle said: “Now the Lord is the Spirit.” … One is not to understand these many spirits as entities separate from one another.  Rather just as we understand the same word of God to be “light” and “life and resurrection” and a myriad of other things according to one’s reflection on Him, so also we should understand … all these titles as referring to the one and the same Word who proceeds from God and rested on Him who descended from the root of Jesse and from David according to the flesh.  (Commentary on Isaiah 11)
What then is our hope in times of hopelessness?  It is better to ask who—our Lord Jesus.  We do not yet see the consummation of Isaiah’s vision.  The world, the flesh, and the devil still are at work.  The outward man still is dying.  Sin still works in our members.  Yet in spite of this, Messiah reigns in justice and righteousness.  He hears our cause and will judge rightly.  He binds up the broken-hearted, brings peace, and gives rest.

Hold fast to the promise: Surely, I am coming quickly (Rev 22:20).  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.  (2 Thess 2:16-17)

See how by the method of prayer he stirs up their mind, giving them the unspeakable care of God for pledges and signs.  “Comfort your heart,” he says, “in every good work and word,” that is, through every good work and word.  For this is the comfort of Christians, to do something good and pleasing to God.  See how he brings down their spirit.  “Which gave us comfort,” he says, “and good hope through grace.”  At the same time he makes them also full of good hopes with respect to future things.  For if He has given so many things by grace, much more things future.  I indeed, he says, have spoken, but the whole is of God.  “Establish”; confirm you, that you be not shaken, nor turned aside.  For this is both His work and ours, so that it is in the way both of doctrines, and of actions.  For this is comfort, to be established.  For when anyone is not turned aside, he bears all things, whatever may happen to him, with much long-suffering; whereas if his mind be shaken, he will no longer perform any good or noble action, but like one whose hands are paralyzed, so also his soul is shaken, when it is not fully persuaded that it is advancing to some good end.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on 2 Thessalonians