Monday, March 30, 2015

Anointed for Glorification

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.  Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.  The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”  He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.  Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.  For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

“Now is my soul troubled.  And what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But for this purpose I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”  Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered.  Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”  Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.  Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  (John 12:1-8, 27-32)

When God created day and night, He created time.  But it was not long until the fall into sin.  The days of the darkness of man’s sin were long.  The days had to be fulfilled.  Time marched on until finally Jesus’ hour had come.  His hour was the time of His glorification.  It was a shameful death for a glorious King.  By this death, your shameful sins are covered.  Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and now draws you to Himself by His grace.  Now and for eternity, you are His.

O Lord, in your hour, you were glorified in death.  Help me to trust in your death for me as my salvation.  Amen.

Around the Word Devotions, Mar 30, 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Riding On to Die

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her.  Untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.”  This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,

    “Say to the daughter of Zion,
    ‘Behold, your king is coming to you,
        humble, and mounted on a donkey,
        on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them.  Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”  (Matt 21:1-9)


Now You have glory and the people in your hands, O Lord.  They sing hosannas and cling to your words.  They strew palm branches before You.  They welcome You as King—greater than Caesar—riding on a beast of peace.  This holy week is different.  This holy week leads to Your end.  “In lowly pomp, ride on to die.”  Flesh is fickle, slow to believe.  Many in the crowds will cry “Crucify Him, crucify Him” at week’s end.  You are our humble King, who goes to the cross to die in our place.  Baptized we too have died to sin, once for all.

Keep us, O Lord, in your death and resurrection, that we might be found faithful in the day of judgment.  Amen.

Around the Word Devotions, Mar 29, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015

Kings, Priests, and Promises

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lᴏʀᴅ is our righteousness.”

For thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever.

The word of the Lᴏʀᴅ came to Jeremiah: Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers.  As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the offspring of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me.  (Je 33:14-22)


At the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Babylon was besieging Jerusalem. Both as comfort in the face of fear and uncertainty, as well as promising a future, God reaffirms to His people the offices of king and priest.  He had made a covenant with David (2 Sa 7:12-16) guaranteeing that his throne would endure forever as confirmation of Jacob’s prophetic blessing.
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
    and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.  (Ge 49:10)
Those promises, made centuries apart, were still effective, though not yet realized.  Now, at the brink of national destruction, the people would be questioning whether or not the covenants were still valid.  An invading army would soon breach the walls and carry off the people to a strange land.  Where was the future?  In this scenario, the Lord reaffirms His word.  The promises of rule and priesthood are as certain as the covenant of day and night (Ge 8:22), possibly inferring that the offices were more certain than natural order.

The affirmation through Jeremiah of the Davidic rule is remarkable for at least three reasons:

Given to both Israel and Judah – Israel had been taken into Assyrian captivity approximately 125 years prior, yet here the covenant was restated with both halves in full share of what would come.  What was cut off will be restored.

Righteous Branch – A righteous one will reign, even one more righteous than “the man after God's own heart.”  David was a sinner, though accounted righteous for his faith.  The coming King will be greater in every way because of His intrinsic righteousness.  No sin will be found in Him.

A name – How many cities and nations do you know that can rightfully accept the name “The Lᴏʀᴅ our righteous”?  At that time, the Lord will dwell among His people, and He shall be their God.  The Righteous One will be among a righteous people that He pronounced clean and holy by virtue of Christ’s shed blood.

For these promises to come to pass, it seems that God Himself would need to undertake the mission.  But that’s the point.  The coming messiah, who will establish David’s throne forever, will be God in flesh.  He is the only one worthy and able to fulfill the task.

What about the priesthood?  Looking at the passage, we have an odd remix of the Mosaic code that deserves some investigation.

No atonement sacrifices – No Sin or Guilt offerings are mentioned, as well as the lack of the Day of Atonement.  The reason for these omissions should be self-evident: the time of restoration will be when sin and guilt are removed.  Jesus, doing what animal bloodshed could not do, has become the last atoning sacrifice by taking on Himself all sin and paying the price of redemption in full on our behalf.  Nothing is left to accomplish.

Lack of high priest – The high priest was required to perform specific duties, especially on the Day of Atonement, but he is missing.  Jesus became our high priest after the order of Melchizedek.  He continues forever in this role in the beauty of holiness, bearing us before the Father on His heart and shoulders, ever representing man to God and God to man.

Continual sacrifices – Burnt offerings, grain offerings, and miscellaneous sacrifices take place.  How is this possible?  If Jesus is the final sacrifice, how can any remain?  The answer seems to be in accepting these as typological rather than literal.  The offerings and sacrifices mentioned were sweet savor and other freewill offerings.  Rather than slain animals, they are our worship and obedience as the Lord Jesus rules over us.  This will be the overflow of gratitude, similar to that worship pictured in the book of Revelation, for whatever comes from the Father, having humble acceptance and full assurance that it is both good and perfect.

Continuing Levitical priesthood – There is a priesthood that remains.  As our Lord Jesus became a high priest after another, better order, so we are a holy, royal priesthood according to that order, replacing what could not be fulfilled by the Levitical priesthood.  The new priesthood is unending as we continually are ministering before God, having received Him as our inheritance.

As mentioned, there was a temptation by those in Jerusalem and Judah to lose hope and turn their backs on these certainties—basically giving up on God.  Any who did were rejected by the Lord.  These are precious promises.  Similarly, the writer of Hebrews also warns to not turn back from promises made certain by the Lord of glory and expressed in clear testimony.  God is faithful.  Let us run with endurance.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  (He 12:1-2)

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Psalms: Sing for Pleasure, Learn for Profit

What is more pleasing than a psalm?  David expresses it well: Praise the Lord, for a song of praise is good: let there be praise of our God with gladness and grace.  Yes, a psalm is a blessing on the lips of the people, a hymn in praise of God, the assembly’s homage, a general acclamation, a word that speaks for all, the voice of the Church, a confession of faith in song.  It is the voice of complete assent, the joy of freedom, a cry of happiness, the echo of gladness.  It soothes the temper, distracts from care, lightens the burden of sorrow.  It is a source of security at night, a lesson in wisdom by day.  It is a shield when we are afraid, a celebration of holiness, a vision of serenity, a promise of peace and harmony.  It is like a lyre, evoking harmony from a blend of notes.  Day begins to the music of a psalm.  Day closes to the echo of a psalm.

In a psalm, instruction vies with beauty.  We sing for pleasure.  We learn for our profit.  What experience is not covered by a reading of the psalms?  I come across the words: A song for the beloved, and I am aflame with desire for God’s love.  I go through God’s revelation in all its beauty, the intimations of resurrection, the gifts of his promise.  I learn to avoid sin.  I see my mistake in feeling ashamed of repentance for my sins.

What is a psalm but a musical instrument to give expression to all the virtues?  The psalmist of old used it, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to make earth re-echo the music of heaven.  He used the dead gut of strings to create harmony from a variety of notes, in order to send up to heaven the song of God’s praise.  In doing so he taught us that we must first die to sin, and then create in our lives on earth a harmony through virtuous deeds, if the grace of our devotion is to reach up to the Lord.

David thus taught us that we must sing an interior song of praise, like Saint Paul, who tells us: I shall pray in spirit, and also with understanding; I shall sing in spirit, and also with understanding.  We must fashion our lives and shape our actions in the light of the things that are above.  We must not allow pleasure to awaken bodily passions, which weigh our soul down instead of freeing it.  The holy prophet told us that his songs of praise were to celebrate the freeing of his soul, when he said: I shall sing to you, God, on the Lyre, holy one of Israel; my lips will rejoice when I have sung to you, and my soul also, which you have set free.

Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on Psalm 1

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Psalms: Precursor of the Gospel

Though all Scripture is fragrant with God’s grace, the Book of Psalms has a special attractiveness.  Moses wrote the history of Israel’s forefathers in prose, but after leading the people through the Red Sea—a wonder that remained in their memory—he broke into a song of triumph in praise of God when he saw King Pharaoh drowned along with his forces.  His genius soared to a higher level, to match an accomplishment beyond his own powers.  Miriam too raised her timbrel and sang encouragement for the rest of the women, saying: Let us sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; he has cast horse and rider into the sea.

In the Book of Psalms there is profit for all, with healing power for our salvation.  There is instruction from history, teaching from the law, prediction from prophecy, chastisement from denunciation, persuasion from moral preaching.  All who read it may find the cure for their own individual failings.  All with eyes to see can discover in it a complete gymnasium for the soul, a stadium for all the virtues, equipped for every kind of exercise; it is for each to choose the kind he judges best to help him gain the prize.

If you wish to read and imitate the deeds of the past, you will find the whole history of the Israelites in a single psalm: in one short reading you can amass a treasure for the memory.  If you want to study the power of the law, which is summed up in the bond of charity (Whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law), you may read in the psalms of the great love with which one man faced serious dangers singlehandedly in order to remove the shame of the whole people.  You will find the glory of charity more than a match for the parade of power.

What am I to say of the grace of prophecy?  We see that what others hinted at in riddles was promised openly and clearly to the psalmist alone: the Lord Jesus was to be born of his seed, according to the word of the Lord, I will place upon your throne one who is the fruit of your flesh.

In the psalms, then, not only is Jesus born for us, he also undergoes his saving passion in his body, he lies in death, he rises again, he ascends into heaven, he sits at the right hand of the Father.  What no man would have dared to say was foretold by the psalmist alone, and afterward proclaimed by the Lord himself in the Gospel.

Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on Psalm 1

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Psalms: Useful for All of Life

[T]he Lord, the true Lord of all, Who cares for all His works, did not only lay down precepts but also gave Himself as model of how they should be carried out, for all who would to know and imitate.  And therefore, before He came among us, He sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms; in order that, just as He revealed Himself in flesh to be the perfect, heavenly Man, so in the Psalms also men of goodwill might see the pattern of life portrayed, and find therein the healing and correction of their own.

Briefly, then, if indeed any more is needed to drive home the point, the whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life.  And, just as one who draws near to an earthly king observes the formalities in regard to dress and bearing and the correct forms of words lest, transgressing in these matters, he be deemed a boor, so he who seeks to live the good life and learn about the Savior’s conduct in the body is by the reading of this holy book first put in mind of his own soul’s condition and then supplied with fit words for a suppliant’s use.… It is possible for us, therefore, to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions, words both of repentance and of thankfulness, so that we fall not into sin; for it is not for our actions only that we must give account before the Judge, but also for our every idle word.

Athanasius of Alexandria
To Marcellinus: On the Interpretation of the Psalms

Monday, March 23, 2015

Law and Gospel: Keep Proclaiming Them

I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O Lᴏʀᴅ.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation.  (Ps 40:9-10)


It is not God's will that any one should be damned, but that all men should be converted to Him and be saved eternally [2 Peter 3:9].
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord Gᴏᴅ, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?  (Ezekiel 33:11)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16)
Out of His immense goodness and mercy, God provides for the public preaching of His divine eternal Law and His wonderful plan concerning our redemption, namely, the holy, alone-saving Gospel of His eternal Son, our only Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.  By this preaching He gathers an eternal Church for Himself from the human race, and works in the hearts of men true repentance and knowledge of sins, and true faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  By this means, and in no other way, (i.e., through His holy Word, when men hear it preached or read it, and the holy Sacraments when they are used according to His Word), God desires to call men to eternal salvation, draw them to Himself, and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them.

Formula of Concord II.49-50

Friday, March 20, 2015

Lure of Perfection

In a recorded video conference session, a presenter warned against chasing after the mirage of an ideal.  It simply does not exist.  Why can’t things be the way Scripture lays out?  Why can’t we establish pristine liturgy and doctrinal perfection in Christ’s Church? or perfect relationships in our families?  Enter reality.  Life does not work that way.  Relationships are messy, because people are messy.  They (we) are sinners and fail one another, yet idealism is alive and well.  I once overheard a man opine that there were no good examples of fathers in the Bible.  At first that seemed legitimate, but as I considered the premise, it made no sense.  The fathers mentioned in the Bible are good examples.  They are as good as mankind gets.  How’s that for commentary?  If reality is so divergent from the ideal, how is it that we continue to seek the latter?  There are two primary reasons, both drawn from a myopic view of the Bible.

Miracle workers
Who wouldn’t want to perform a miracle or two?  Maybe we would never lead millions of people, so set Moses aside, but what about Elijah?  There is a man’s man.  He declared that there will be a drought until he said otherwise (1 Ki 17:1), provided unlimited oil and flour to a widow of Zarephath (1 Ki 17:13-14), raised that widow’s son from death (1 Ki 17:21-22), stood up to the prophets of Baal and called down fire from heaven (1 Ki 18:36-38), and lastly, told King Ahab that the drought would be over and to hurry home to beat the downpour (1 Ki 18:44-45).

Then there is Peter.  Maybe he was an apostle, but he was a regular guy—a fisherman by trade.  You could easily imagine him on an episode of Deadliest Catch.  What do we find Peter doing in the book of Acts?  He healed a lame man (Ac 3:7), healed Aeneas (Ac 9:33-35), restored Dorcas to life (Ac 9:40-41), and was present when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles (Ac 2:2-4; 8:14-17; 10:44-45).  That sounds like the normal Christian life—right?

Have you looked at the lives of these men?  When the queen threatened to take Elijah’s life, he tucked his tail, ran, and begged for God to take his life (1 Ki 19:2-4).  Not exactly the bastion of perseverance we might expect.  Surely, Peter fared better, being filled with the Holy Spirit?  Not so.  He was helping out in Antioch when the church in Jerusalem sent men to see how things were going.  Sure enough, the mighty apostle played the hypocrite and led others astray as well.  Paul got up in his face face and laid down some smack (Gal 2:11-14).

Branches of Christianity promote and cater to the idea of signs and wonders being normative for the “Spirit-filled” life, but what is the reality?  Should they be expected?  The miracles of the Bible are generally confined to three periods: Exodus and conquest of Canaan, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus’ birth through the death of the 12 apostles.  Compared to the millennia covered in Scripture, that is barely a blip on the RADAR screen.  We focus on a tiny bit of something miraculous and overlook the abundance of Divine faithfulness.

Heroes of faith
You probably know where this will be going: open your Bibles to Hebrews, chapter 11.  There we have a stellar examples of mighty faith to which we may attain as “Spirit-filled” believers in the same God as they.  Consider the first two, Abel and Enoch, who were rewarded for their faith by an early exit from this world.  Perhaps that is not the best example, since we really want long life and prosperity.  Noah built an ark, saving the human race, but wait, he was found drunk and naked by his son.  Maybe we should keep looking.

Here we go: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Surely, these patriarchs are definitely men of stellar character.  Alas, they were all liars and schemers, and played favorites among there offspring.  What about Moses?  God chose him to lead the people out of Egypt: a man of uncompromising resolve, no doubt.  He murdered an Egyptian, tried to wriggle out of the task God had given him to do, and near the end of his life, stole glory from God.

What about the judges listed: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jepthah?  We know the time period was bleak, even being described as a time when everyone “did what was right in his own eyes.”  A judge needs character, so it seems they should be model citizens.  Barak needed to have Deborah “hold his hand” in battle, even though the victory had been guaranteed, and the credit ended up going to another woman (Jud 4:6-9).  Gideon worked under the cover of night to tear down idols, then required multiple signs from God even though he had a definite call and promise, and lastly, after a great victory, built an ephod that led the people into idolatry (Jud 8:27).  Jephthah was a mercenary, the son of a prostitute, who before battle foolishly vowed to sacrifice what first came out of his house—his daughter (Jud 11:30-34).  Samson was a moral train wreck, womanizing and disregarding the Nazarite vow he was under.

Surely, we can be safe with Joseph, Samuel, and David.  Maybe Joseph, but there is the honored son’s cloak and bragging about the dreams where he rules over his parents and brothers.  What of Samuel?  He apparently lacked good parenting skills (1 Sa 8:1-3) much like his high priest guardian, Eli (1 Sa 2:29).  And lastly, there is the man after God’s own heart, King David, the adulterer and murderer.

We want our heroes to be perfect in every way, but none of them are.  We  see someone commended for great faith and automatically assume moral purity.  We have trouble reconciling that God can and does use sinful men to do His bidding.  I do not condone their failures and sins, but we must face the reality that they had faith.  The reason the names are listed is that they believed what God had told them or fulfilled a specific plan He had for their lives.  They just believed the promise, just did what they were told.  Seems like a formula for increased faith to me (see Lu 17:5-10).

Don Quixote is alive and well
In Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, there is a woman, Dulcinea, on whose behalf the self-appointed knight fights.  He describes her as the loveliest of all women, deserving complete adoration, yet in reality she is quite plain and nothing like the fantasy he preserves in his imagination.  The same is true of our ideal pictures of a spiritual Christian and pure church.  The pinnacle of perfection does not exist, nor has it ever.  Sin remains, and the world, flesh, and devil are actively at work.  By seeking ever-elusive perfection, we fight imaginary battles against foes of our own making.  (I tend this direction.  Maybe it’s a male thing.)  In thirsting to drink from the Fountain of Youth, we can miss the refreshment from returning and drinking at the Fountain of Life.

Do we cease from confronting error then?  No, the tasks of false teaching and practice need to be addressed.  But there are questions to be asked.  Is the teaching or practice actually false, or is the problem only in my mind?  Am I as defender being vigilant or quixotic?  Is the standard by which I adduce an answer to either even reliable?  In the final analysis, we must ever be returning to the revealed Word of our God as delivered in Scripture and the body of sound doctrine delivered to the saints.

Are we not to be examples of examples of Christ to the world and fellow believers?  Indeed, even as the apostle Paul tells us (Php 3:17; 1 Th 1:7; 1 Ti 1:16) and with eyes wide open, but realizing perfection will come when Jesus returns in power and glory.  Christianity is Christ.  He is the example to whom Paul pointed and of whom we are to hold, however imperfectly, not through our own strength but by virtue of the Holy Spirit working in us.  In these things, we all
beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.  But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.  We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.  (2 Co 3:18-4:2)
May we be honorable vessels for His use.  There is a real spiritual battle going on.  We could spend less time tilting at windmills and more contending for the faith.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Gospel Goes to All

Paul Receiving the Call to Macedonia
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)

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.  (Acts 16:9-10)


For already had the Lord, according to the preceding words (of the prophet), revealed His Holy One with His arm, that is to say, Christ by His mighty power, in the eyes of the nations, so that all the nations and the utmost parts of the earth have seen the salvation, which was from God.  By thus departing from Judaism itself, when they exchanged the obligations and burdens of the law for the liberty of the gospel, they were fulfilling the psalm, “Let us burst their bonds apart, and cast away their cords from us;” and this indeed (they did) after which “the Gentiles raged, and the peoples plot in vain;” after which “the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against His Anointed.”*… Now the Greek letter Tau and our own letter T is the very form of the cross, which He predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true catholic Jerusalem, in which, according to the twenty-[second] Psalm, the brethren of Christ or children of God would ascribe glory to God the Father, in the person of Christ Himself addressing His Father; “I will tell of Your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise You.”  For that which had to come to pass in our day in His name, and by His Spirit, He rightly foretold would be of Him.  And a little afterwards He says: “From You comes my praise in the great congregation.”†  In the sixty-[eighth] Psalm He says again: “Bless God in the congregation.”‡  So that with this agrees also the prophecy of Malachi: “I have no pleasure in you, says the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.  For from the rising of the sun to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to My name, and a pure offering”§—such as the ascription of glory, and blessing, and praise, and hymns.

Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.22


*  Psalm 2:2-3; Acts 4:25-30
†  Psalm 22:22, 25
‡  Psalm 68:26
§  Malachi 1:10-11

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Language for God in Patristic Tradition by Mark Sheridan – Book Review

When reading the Church Fathers, there are times when they are befuddling.  Why did they suddenly take this turn or that, which seemingly has nothing at all to do with the passage at hand?  Why did they go to such great lengths to explain themselves?  Many times we need a road map.  Mark Sheridan has provided just such a map, uncovering for the reader the mindset of the patristic writers in their wrestling and explanation of God’s self-revelation.  The author gleans primarily from Origen’s body of work to demonstrate how the Alexandrian father influenced exegesis for centuries afterward, even to today.

The author begins by examining the early writers as they wrestled with God's transcendence in communicating with mankind.  How could someone so completely “other” express himself in human terms?  Could a self-limiting language accurately convey the expanse of divine meaning?  What has been left unsaid that can only be extracted through the work of the Holy Spirit?  These questions are not those readily considered by the modern reader of Scripture, but to one such as John Chrysostom, this was paramount:
Chrysostom seems constantly to be concerned that his hearers will take the text too literally, and he frequently (several hundred times) introduces this distinction between God’s “considerateness” in formulating things in a human way and what is “a sense befitting God” (Sheridan, 41).
The literal meaning of a text was never in doubt, and we see the great care with which they mined the depths of Scripture in order to correctly expound the spiritual meaning and application.  Knowing their reverence for the Bible, we can understand how writers like Origen earned a reputation for overly spiritualizing in his commentaries and homilies.  We can readily admit that he overstepped the typology and figures the inspired writers used.

Alexandrian homileticians were not the only group to attempt to a spiritual extraction from their sacred text.  Philo, a Jew living at the time of Christ, was noteworthy in his use of allegory to explain the Hebrew Scriptures.  Also, a chapter is offered to the Greek and Latin philosophers who attempted the same rhetorical device to explain their concepts of divinity.  Perhaps this might be the weakest aspect of the book, since the intent is to explain biblical rather than pagan anthropomorphism, but it does lend an historical background to the patristic practice.

After this background information, Sheridan turns his attention to specific passages of the Hebrew Scriptures: first, by gathering patristic comments on Jesus’ and Paul’s use of Torah in teaching; second, by engaging three classic cases from the nation of Israel; and third, by reviewing the imprecatory portions of Psalms.  Each of these requires its own chapter to properly establish how the Fathers interacted with these in light of the New Testament.  These chapters of applying what has been presented in the prior chapters and developing the exegetical sense of the early church, especially as it relates to the Alexandrian school.  Lastly, we are offered a comparison of modern with patristic understanding of the problem texts mentioned in the previous chapters.

Overall, this book is worth the read and is not beyond most readers.  Preachers and teachers would do well to take up this work and learn how the Early Church addressed the Bible.  Plus there is bonus material.  As good as this book is, I found the appendix to be absolute gold.  Sheridan summarizes Christian hermeneutics during the first centuries of the church.  The three major points addressed are:
  1. Presuppositions about the Nature of the Text of the Scriptures
  2. Criteria for a Correct Interpretation
  3. Some Rules of Interpretation
This summary information from the Church Fathers is as applicable to today as it was 1700-1800 years ago and demonstrates that these early expositors were taking greatest care.  I dare say that if the modern Church took the same level of care in their attention to holy things, much exegetical nonsense would be avoided.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from IVP Academic.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”