Friday, August 28, 2009

Christ Is Worthy of Our Worship

[W]ith how great distinctions is He to be honored by us, who, by instilling His truth into our hearts, has freed us from great errors; who, when we were straying everywhere, as if blind and without a guide, withdrew us from precipitous and devious paths, and set our feet on more smooth places; who has pointed out what is especially profitable and salutary for the human race; who has shown us what God is, who He is, how great and how good; who has permitted and taught us to conceive and to understand, as far as our limited capacity can, His profound and inexpressible depths; who, in His great kindness, has caused it to be known by what founder, by what Creator, this world was established and made; who has explained the nature of its origin and essential substance, never before imagined in the conceptions of any; whence generative warmth is added to the rays of the sun; why the moon, always uninjured in her motions, is believed to alternate her light and her obscurity from intelligent causes; what is the origin of animals, what rules regulate seeds; who designed man himself, who fashioned him, or from what kind of material did He compact the very build of bodies; what the perceptions are; what the soul, and whether it flew to us of its own accord, or whether it was generated and brought into existence with our bodies themselves; whether it sojourns with us, partaking of death, or whether it is gifted with an endless immortality; what condition awaits us when we shall have separated from our bodies relaxed in death; whether we shall retain our perceptions, or have no recollection of our former sensations or of past memories; who has restrained? our arrogance, and has caused our necks, uplifted with pride, to acknowledge the measure of their weakness; who has shown that we are creatures imperfectly formed, that we trust in vain expectations, that we understand nothing thoroughly, that we know nothing, and that we do not see those things which are placed before our eyes; who has guided us from false superstitions to the true religion,—a blessing which exceeds and transcends all His other gifts; who has raised our thoughts to heaven from brutish statues formed of the vilest clay, and has caused us to hold converse in thanksgiving and prayer with the Lord of the universe.

Arnobius of Sicca, The Case Against the Pagans, Book I, cap. 38

Monday, August 24, 2009

Biblical Teaching Methods

The pastoral epistles hold a wealth of information concerning practical theology. One of the nuggets to be mined is the proper way to teach with Paul giving several examples in the three letters of who, what, and how to teach. Two in 1 Timothy stood out recently because of their contrast.
Command and teach these things. (4:11)
Teach and urge these things. (6:2)
There are some immediate comments that can be made. For instance, these are imperatives Timothy is expected to obey. Next, the commands are in different order signifying different emphases. Thirdly, there are multiple items to be taught. Lastly, there is a modifier which helps us understand how the teaching is to be done. Now let us put these back into their respective context.

Paul begins chapter four by warning that some will depart from the faith and teach bad doctrine. Notice the characteristics listed:
  • Devoted to "deceitful spirits and teaching of demons" (4:1)
  • Seared consciences (4:2)
  • Teaching equated with "irreverent, silly myths" (4:7)
The examples of bad doctrine are noteworthy as they are still being touted today as laudable Christian virtue--celibacy and abstinence from certain foods (4:3). These are not usually on any modern list of doctrine to condemn, yet here they are. But I digress. Rather Timothy is to be "trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine you have followed" (4:6) and to train himself in godliness (4:7) indicating a proper mixture of sound instruction and proper application. This two-part warning and adhering is what Timothy is to command, and in the commanding to teach, so it may be done correctly.

The other teaching imperative comes at the end of a section dealing with Christians and their relationships in the church. Firstly, there is instruction on how to treat fellow people of differing genders and age; then follows a long section dealing with the proper recompense of older believers--both widows and elders. Paul goes on to instruct how to deal with an elder in persistent sin. Lastly, he deals with those believers who are slaves. Each of these three major categories of humanity (older women, older men, and slaves) are legitimately outside of Timothy's sphere of authority. As a younger man, he would be expected to give due honor to his elders, and there would certainly be no external claim of authority over another person's slave. Because of this, the instruction to Timothy is altered: first he teaches, then he urges. The word urge is interesting in that it is the same word used of the Holy Spirit and translated "helper" (παράκλητος). It is the idea of one who comes along side. Here the influence is not one of direct authority but of gentle prodding, so that the teaching might be carried forth.

It is good to remember that each teaching moments carries with it certain responsibilities for proper technique. To correct bad doctrine, speak with authority and explain why. When dealing with people, speak the truth and gently guide into proper application.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Getting in God's Face

This past Sunday where I fellowship, the message was taken from Hebrews 9:11-28. One comment that struck me came from verse 24.
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
This describes a wonderful truth of how our Savior presented himself before the true Holy of Holies in heaven with the blood of his atoning sacrifice. As precious as that truth is, the thought that caught my attention came from the prepositional phrase "in the presence of God." The Greek (τῷ προσώπῳ τοῦ θεοῦ) can be literally translated "in God's face." The common vernacular "in your face" has the idea being "defiantly confrontational; also an exclamation of contempt."[1] You know the scene: there is a scuffle in a sporting event followed by the opposing players that are trying to intimidate one another by close proximity, voicelessly daring the other to start something. That was how I was envisioning God the Son and God the Father nose-to-nose. Of course, this is all wrong. The closeness was from a proper familial relationship coupled with a finished work.

Jesus is not the only person who was allowed a measure of closeness with the living God. I am thinking primarily of when "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exodus 33:11) though in a veiled way. And secondarily, when Moses intercedes for the people of Israel and relates of the Egyptians
They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. (Numbers 14:14)
In both cases the thought is a mouth-to-mouth encounter. Only the closest ties allow this intimacy of fellowship. The Lord Jesus was being welcomed into closest communion to perform his priestly work. Moses entered in because of friendship (see above). YHWH says of Moses that "He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD." (Numbers 12:7-8)

Can Christians enjoy this same cleseness with the Father today? Yes and no. Currently, we do not behold the presence of God in bodily form. We do so symbolically in the bread and cup when we remember the Lord Jesus. And we do so spiritually since we are indwelt by God, the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9; 1 Corintians 3:16; 6:19). Lastly, the Lord Jesus has said that all who obediently follow are friends (John 15:13-15). What an unimaginable privilege to be walking together with the Lord Most High. Get in God's face. That is where you belong.

[1] Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Effective Prayer

As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word. (1 Kings 17:1)

This verse has been a puzzle for most who have read 1 Kings. Abruptly, Elijah comes out of Gilead[1] onto the scene and announces to King Ahab of Israel that there will not be rain until the prophet shall announce it. That is some serious chutzpah. How does he get away with it? Input from preachers and commentators in my past have stated that Elijah was probably associated with a school of prophets, and YHWH picked him out to deliver the message. The answer is reasonable, since both factors are within the realm of possibility for the time. The problem is that neither is stated in the narrative. We begin with points that can be deduced.

First, Elijah had a good understanding of Torah. Drought was one judgment that could be brought on the people for idolatry.
Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you. (Deuteronomy 11:16-17)
The northern kingdom had been following false gods since the days of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, however King Ahab was described as worse than all before him (1 Kings 16:30-33). Drought would have been the proper punish.

Second, the drought had already started. Both Luke 4:25 and James 5:17 state the drought at this time lasted three years and six months. Compare this with 1 Kings 18:1 which states that in the third year Elijah was to go up again, and rain was promised. The drought had been going for a minimum of six months at the first appearance before Ahab.[2]

The question still remains: what caused Elijah to shamelessly make his initial pronouncement? Maybe the answer is simply that he was a man of faith. He acted based on the certain promises of the God coupled with an understanding of the time. Men of faith do this. Several examples come to mind--David, David's chief mighty men, Daniel and his three friends, and the apostles. The difficulty comes in making some kind of application of this faith-living. History is replete with those who would falsely lead people astray by promising that a certain type of lifestyle would allow the power of God to move so that the extraordinary would occur in the believer's life. What is the dividing line between faith and presumption?

The answer has already been given. The Bible tells us what the Lord's desire is and explains in great detail those things that are in accordance with his will. We must pray accordingly. James 4:3 explains that we "ask and do not receive, because [we] ask wrongly," i.e., we pray for what we want. We would be more effective by praying for what the Lord Almighty wants. Elijah was no different than we. He prayed fervently, believing the word of God, and the Lord withheld the rain. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16b)

[1] Central part of the territory east of the Jordan extending from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south. After the Israelite conquest it was divided between the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh (Deut. 3:12–13). See Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (3rd ed.; New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1996, c1990).

[2] See Warren W. Wiersbe, Wiersbe's Expository Outlines on the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), 1 Ki 17:1.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Can We Talk?

Have you noticed the number of theologians who go on in endless drivel about entering into dialogue or having a conversation whenever a topic is difficult? Conversations are good for asking questions and verbalizing opinions, but the interaction is kept shallow and non-commital. In matters concerning ultimate truths, how can this be a good thing? Apparently, theology is being judged for technical merit and creativity much as gymnastics or ice skating. If one can use large artificially-manufactured words in a paragraph that does not circumvent the rules of English grammar and does not negate the legitimacy of an opposing viewpoint, then he or she is more spiritual and by inference has the correct position. Or so it seems in practice.

Real spiritual discussion is not so civil. When Jude wrote in his epistle to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints," I cannot believe he envisioned a genteel group sitting in a parlor sipping on favorite beverages telling one another, "Please share your place in the journey, so we may understand where to meet you." But if that might have happened, the final words would have been driven home by a battle axe being driven into the woodwork just in front of the opposing party's noses.

Let's understand one thing here: passivity is not next to godliness. There is nothing unchristian about confrontation. We like to Wrestle with ideas. We need to do it more. I confess that getting a theological headlock on someone is a rush. When in control, I feel good. But the flip side is good, too. I respect someone who can put me in my place using a reasonable argument.

And speaking of arguments, do not argue for the sake of arguing. We are defending eternal truths. Be direct then make a stand.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Of Making Many Books

Yesterday, I received what promises to be the first in a fairly large number of academic book catalogs that fill my mailbox each autumn. This annual deluge coincides with the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and Society of Biblical Literature, both in which I have membership. I look forward to these catalogs, because they are filled with titles of recently or soon-to-be released titles. It gives me a chance to see the what academia considers important for the church to address. The professional discounts several of these publishers offer are also welcome.

Flipping through the catalog, I see titles that stir my interest. For instance, there is a commentary on Ecclesiastes, on of my favorite biblical books. Because of an interest in the early church, I am drawn to a title on apocalyptic thought in that era. And then there are subjects I have yet to investigate and look intriguing--philosophical hermeneutics, post-modernism, war v. non-violence to name some. One title that jumped out is written by a former Mennonite turned Catholic who posits that Protestantism fosters individualism, and this mentality needs to be unlearned and replaced by a new catholicity.

While descriptions of these new offerings are enjoyable, for every book that appears to be substantive, there are three or four others in the same topical category that appear to be written in order to sell the cover art. For instance, one description relates how the author relates the "virtues required to read the Old Testament well." Hunh? Or then there is the author who advocates Christians living a secret faith. Maybe these two have something real to offer, but the catalog entry leaves much to be desired. And do not get me started on the number of book series being developed and released. But I digress.

After all that one might wonder how many new books I purchase in a year. Very few actually. The level of scholarship in the 21st century is abysmal. There are few contemporary authors that I would recommend. And I still hold these words as some of the best:
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Ecclesiastes 12:11-12
Someone might consider me inconsistent after my introductory remarks. No, it is simply keeping things in proper perspective: better to follow the rule of faith than the speculations of so-called teachers. Secondarily, there is simply not enough money for purchases. I simply do not want to throw money after poorly-written books so try to find reviews pro and con before buying one. For instance, I just read a post at Son of the Fathers concerning a book that looks worth my while. (Now if I can somehow get a free copy.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Blessing of Esau

While thinking on the subject of blessing for the previous post, I considered others that had been given in Scripture and turned to Genesis 27 for the blessing given to Esau. Why that one? Because it does not fit neatly into one's perception of a blessing.

First, we should get a definition for the word blessing. The following is the opening paragraph from Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Theology:
God's intention and desire to bless humanity is a central focus of his covenant relationships. For this reason, the concept of blessing pervades the biblical record. Two distinct ideas are present. First, a blessing was a public declaration of a favored status with God. Second, the blessing endowed power for prosperity and success. In all cases, the blessing served as a guide and motivation to pursue a course of life within the blessing. [1]
Now we turn to the blessing itself in verses 39-40:
39 "Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be,
    and away from the dew of heaven on high.
40 By your sword you shall live,
    and you shall serve your brother;
but when you grow restless
    you shall break his yoke from your neck."
This is a blessing? Admittedly, there is confusion how to translate verse 39. Compare with the NKJV:
39 "Behold, your dwelling shall be
    of the fatness of the earth,
And of the dew of heaven from above.
40 By your sword you shall live,
And you shall serve your brother;
And it shall come to pass,
    when you become reckless,
That you shall break his yoke
    from your neck."
This looks more like a real blessing, seemingly saying just the opposite of the ESV above. How do we reconcile the two? David Richter tells us that
Literally the morphemes run "from the fat of the land shall be your encampments and from the dew of the heavens thereon"... [and the grammar] can operate as a partitive ("some of the fat places of the land") or it can express a direction ("away from the fat places of the land"). Which it is depends on the context. [2]
This is no solution but offers a clue to resolution. By comparing this blessing with Jacob's earlier in the chapter, the reader should be able to understand what Esau does and does not receive. Here is the blessing Jacob received.
"See, the smell of my son
    is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!
28 May God give you of the dew of heaven
    and of the fatness of the earth
    and plenty of grain and wine.
29 Let peoples serve you,
    and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
    and may your mother's sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
    and blessed be everyone who blesses you!"

Notice the key elements: God's supply (v. 28), Dominion (v. 29), and the continuation of God's promised blessing to Abraham when called from Ur (Genesis 12:3). The first element gives the clue concerning Esau's blessing--Jacob would receive from YWHW himself, whereas Esau would be forced to make his own way. Coupled with this was the servitude Esau (and later Edom) would be forced to undergo until the nation would finally be able to put off the yoke.

So, did Esau really receive a blessing? Yes, because the promise allowed him to continue and prosper though not in a way that brought him into fellowship with the living God. That decision Esau had already made long before he scorned the birthright and sold it for pottage.

The question to ask at this point is: which blessing am I operating under? Who is my supply? Am I readying for a future reign? Am I under God's special care and promise?

[1] Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Blessing'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". Found at 1997.
[2] Richter, David. "Midrash and Mashal: Difficulty in the Blessing of Esau." Found at

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bless You!

Solomon had finished building the temple and bring in the ark of the covenant. YWHW manifested his presence by a cloud filling the place,
so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. (1 Kings 8:11)
At a time like this, some well-spoken words from a leader are in order. Israel was feeling good about itself as a nation. God was obviously dwelling among his people. So the the king
turned around and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel..." (verses 14-15a).
Solomon blessed the people by blessing God? That is unexpected, but on closer examination it makes sense. Solomon goes on to praise God for his faithfulness to David in allowing the temple to be built, to which these people are witnesses (verse 20). By entering into the fulfilled promise, the people are abundantly blessed. They can see that the sovereign Lord of all keeps his word. There is certainty for a future hope.

The king does not stop there but continues his exaltation by turning toward the altar and prays, building on the theme of YHWH's faithfulness to his word in connection with the temple.
    Repentance for sin (31-40)
          National resulting in defeat
          National resulting in natural disaster
    Visiting foreigners (41-43)
    Protection in war (44-45)
    National sin (46-53)

These sections have a repeating pattern:
  1. Event needing YHWH's righteous attention
  2. Prayer toward the temple (and by extension to the One who dwells there)
  3. Request for faithful action in regards to the people's request
Lastly, Solomon once again blesses the people by blessing God for his faithfulness, but there is a difference. Here he asks God to remain faithful so that the people will desire to follow with a whole heart. He has just mentioned in his prayer that people will at some time sin so as to be cast out, but his utmost desire is that they will never get to that point. If God is faithful, why should not the people be? To end, Solomon desires that his prayer be before God's holy presence and that YHWH's deeds for his people will come back from all peoples in honor to him as the one true God.

When is that last time you blessed someone by blessing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for the greatness of what has been done for believers? Pick a subject: redemption, atonement, justification, sanctification, election, etc. the choices are almost limitless. Bless someone today.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Prayer with Conviction

O greatest, O Supreme Creator of things invisible! O Thou who art Thyself unseen, and who art incomprehensible! Thou art worthy, Thou art verily worthy—if only mortal tongue may speak of Thee—that all breathing and intelligent nature should never cease to feel and to return thanks; that it should throughout the whole of life fall on bended knee, and offer supplication with never-ceasing prayers. For Thou art the first cause; in Thee created things exist, and Thou art the space in which rest the foundations of all things, whatever they be. Thou art illimitable, unbegotten, immortal, enduring forever, God Thyself alone, whom no bodily shape may represent, no outline delineate; of virtues inexpressible, of greatness indefinable; unrestricted as to locality, movement, and condition, concerning whom nothing can be clearly expressed by the significance of man’s words. That Thou mayest be understood, we must be silent; and that erring conjecture may track Thee through the shady cloud, no word must be uttered. Grant pardon, O King Supreme, to those who persecute Thy servants; and in virtue of Thy benign nature, forgive those who fly from the worship of Thy name and the observance of Thy religion. It is not to be wondered at if Thou art unknown; it is a cause of greater astonishment if Thou art clearly comprehended.

Arnobius of Sicca, The Case Against the Pagans, Book I, cap. 31