Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nothing Is So Worthy of God as Man's Salvation

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  (Col 1:19-20)

God would have been unable to hold any intercourse with men, if He had not taken on Himself the emotions and affections of man, by means of which He could temper the strength of His majesty, which would no doubt have been incapable of endurance to the moderate capacity of man, by such a humiliation as was indeed degrading to Himself, but necessary for man, and such as on this very account became worthy of God, because nothing is so worthy of God as the salvation of man.… [Christ] means that the Father is invisible, in whose authority and in whose name was He God who appeared as the Son of God.  But with us Christ is received in the person of Christ, because even in this manner is He our God.  Whatever attributes therefore you require as worthy of God, must be found in the Father, who is invisible and unapproachable, and placid, and (so to speak) the God of the philosophers; whereas those qualities which you censure as unworthy must be supposed to be in the Son, who has been seen, and heard, and encountered, the Witness and Servant of the Father, uniting in Himself man and God, God in mighty deeds, in weak ones man, in order that He may give to man as much as He takes from God.

Tertullian, Against Marcion, 2.27

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Thorny Issue No More

Thorns are nasty things.  Varying in size from the small, pinprick type to “nails” multiple inches long able to induce lacerations, we wonder what their purpose is, except to be an annoyance.  And that surmising would not be off target.  The first mention of thorns tells us everything we need to know:
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”  (Ge 3:17-19)
There you have it.  Thorns were placed on earth to be the fruit of our labors.  Because Adam sinned, he suffered the travail and ignominy of his choice.  By taking matters into his own hands and going his own way, the return was ruined.  Weeds (thorns, thistles, etc.) germinate sooner than useful plants and will choke out seedlings if not addressed.

The ramifications of the Fall are not exclusively physical but have a spiritual component.  When the Word of God goes forth, it may be received well enough, but can be choked out by the cares of the world and deceitfulness of riches, producing nothing (Mt 13:7, 22).  Further, the elect will be affected if not guarding themselves concerning intimate association with the unrighteous and wicked:
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.  (Nu 33:55)

Thorns and snares are in the way of the crooked;
    whoever guards his soul will keep far from them.  (Pr 22:5)
As much as thorns need to be removed for good growth, we are incapable of eradicating them.  Sure, measures have been developed to address the problem, but they simply cannot prevent thorns from growing anew.  Cyclically, the battle is engaged as our renewed attempts to weed are met with continued inroads and infiltration.  We simply are unable to prevent the encroachment—and the same goes for our lawns, farms, and gardens.  What we need is an effective panacea to combat all forms of the problem.  There is a remedy, and ironically, thorns were initially part of the solution.

Because thorns were introduced as part of the condemnation for sin, the underlying problem needed to be dealt with: the sin problem had to be rectified.  In order to accomplish this, the Lord Jesus came into this world, took on a human nature, and bore the curse that was rightfully ours (Ga 3:13).  As part of the great work of redemption, He took the very thorns that were part of the curse as a derisive, mocking crown (Mt 27:29; Mr 15:17; Joh 19:2, 5).  He wore on His head the symbol of what He would bear on the cross for you and me.  The One who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Co 5:21).  The clearing work is done.  Our souls are clean by believing that He paid our sin for us.

You might notice that there are still vestiges of the curse about us.  Those thorns still catch us.  Clearing is still needed for good growth.  We go to the Lord daily for the nourishment of His word and promise.  He does that weeding on our behalf, because we continue to live in this world.  We confess our sin before God, expecting absolution from One who is faithful to forgive us.  We feed on our Lord Jesus regularly, being built up in our most holy faith.  We are led by the Holy Spirit according to the preached Word.  We await the final day when the thorns will finally be removed, not just spiritually but physically:
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lᴏʀᴅ,
    an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.  (Is 55:13)
I cannot imagine having a field clear of these pesky plants, but there is the promise.  Indeed, Isaiah records much that God has planned to restore what was ruined through Adam’s sin (Is 54:1-56:8). From the Israelite to the foreigner, God will join us to Himself in everlasting peace.  And what was the cost to do this?  Only the most precious gift that could be given, His Son, who was willing to go and take the blows for us (Is 52:13-53:12).  What is expected of us then?  sing (Is 54:1); cease fear (Is 54:4); rest in comfort (Is 54:11-17); be satisfied (Is 55:1-13); trust (Is 56:1-8).  There is nothing to do but receive the abundant grace of God.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Divining the Divine

How do I ascertain God’s leading on a matter?  What am I to do?  Christians ask this question of the Lord quite often hoping for clarity in the midst of ambiguity.  The needs are varied, and generally there are two or more possible plans of action.  Individuals concentrate on things like relationships, education, and employment.  Two individuals, a man and woman, combine to form a family, which is more inclined to consider housing, transportation, and offspring.  Gather these families and individuals together into local assemblies and the issues are buildings, gospel proclamation, discipleship, and mission work.

Some have a habit of doing nothing until forced by circumstances to make a choice and concluding the forced option is the most correct.  The opposite error concerns those who enact as many possible choices at once, assuming that the one that continues on is correct.  Both courses of action are fueled by a fear of making the wrong choice and be operating outside God’s will or his “best,” yet both are invalid as they are means of divination: the former method is passive in its approach, while the latter is active.  Both attempt to discern something that has never been promised in Scripture by means that are condemned.
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer  or a charmer or a medium or a wizard or a necromancer, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lᴏʀᴅ.  And because of these abominations the Lᴏʀᴅ your God is driving them out before you.  You shall be blameless before the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners.  But as for you, the Lᴏʀᴅ your God has not allowed you to do this. (De 18:10-14)
Of course, no Christian would think that he or she is practicing a form of sorcery by these actions.  After all, the Holy Spirit is allegedly guiding their decision or indecision.  This simply demonstrates an ignorance of the Holy Spirit’s work.  What does Jesus of the Spirit?
But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  (John 15:26)
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  (John 16:13)
Notice He never says that the Spirit will lead into the perfect will of the Father.  Rather the Spirit points to Christ and the truth found in Scripture.  With that in mind look at a passage from Paul’s second missionary journey.  He and Silas began the second missionary journey by revisiting churches in Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, during which Timothy was asked to join in the spread of the Gospel (Acts 16:1-5).  All was going well, then something changed:
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.  (Acts 16:6-10)
From Iconium, the group traveled to Pisidian Antioch from where Paul desired to head due west toward Ephesus, but he was forbidden by the Holy Spirit.  Then he attempted to go north toward Byzantium, but the “Spirit of Jesus” stopped that plan, leaving only one path, which lead to the port city of Troas from where he would sail to Europe.

From the description Paul had wanted to stay in familiar territory and evangelize Asia Minor, and the plan was solid: the gospel needed to go forth.  What God did instead was confine his choices to force the path toward Europe.  Was Paul somehow out of God’s will for not going to Troas first?  Certainly not.  There was no mandate from the Lord in that direction.  Paul was operating in Christian freedom based on what he had received from the Lord.
“But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  (Acts 9:6)

And he said to me, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”  (Acts 22:21)
All of this coming on the heels of Jesus’ general commission:
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)
Rather than ringing his hands over what he should do after being filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism (Acts 9:17), Paul went about
[proclaiming] Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”  [And he] increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.  (Acts 9:20, 22)
There was no hesitation for some mystical, spiritual leading: he went straight to work, operating within the confines of the revealed Word of God, not the unrevealed, and received commendation for the gospel as it went forth.
On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.  (Gal 2:7-9)
How did the Holy Spirit lead Paul and Silas away from their intended destinations to where the Lord intended?  We have no idea.  The ultimate test, then, of whether we are operating in the will of God is by reading His word.  What has He commanded?  What are the warnings or limitations placed on His elect?  Between these questions is a broad area in which you and I are free to operate and conduct ourselves.

We are not called to fret about tomorrow trying to read the tea leaves of God’s design and then worrying that you should have purchased Bigelow brand instead of Lipton to gain the secret knowledge.  Instead of concerning ourselves with the uncertainty of what has not been revealed, in Christ we can daily move with assurance in what has been revealed, knowing that His providential hand guides it all for our good.  Just keep doing the good works He has given you to do.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Earliest Christian Hymnbook

One could say, of course, that, indirectly, many of the psalms are about David, since so many of them are by David and in them he talks about himself. self. In this regard, we should notice the way in which the early church viewed the Psalter.  In his work On the Flesh of Christ, the church father Tertullian had this to say about the psalms of David: “He sings to us about Christ, and through him Christ sings about himself.”  Tertullian’s statement is firmly rooted in what the risen Jesus himself said (Luke 24:44).  Hengel points out that the most important titles given to Jesus in the New Testament “were already given or prefigured in the hymnbook of Israel.”*  He cites “Son (of God)” (Ps. 2:7), “firstborn” (Ps. 89:27), “Lord” (Ps. 110:1), and even “God” (Ps. 45:6), to which we may add “Messiah” or “Christ” (Ps. 2:2) and “Son of Man” (Ps. 8:4), although the primary Old Testament source for the Son of Man is Daniel 7:13-14.

In short, the New Testament does not contain a songbook, but that is because from a Christian perspective they already had one: the book of Psalms.  For the early Christians, the Psalms were about their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Any songs or hymns or psalms that the early Christians might have composed about Christ or to Christ merely supplemented the inspired hymnbook of Israel, now appropriated by the church as its own collection of hymns about Christ.  Then, as now, Jesus Christ was the center of the religious music of the church—yet in a way that never detracted from the glory of God or compromised biblical monotheism.

Robert Bowman; J. Ed Komoszewski,
Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ

*  Martin Hengel, Studies in Early Christology, 290.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Worshiping the Lamb on Equal Terms with God

If we go through the entire book of Revelation and examine all of its doxological material, we find an almost complete overlap in the honorific language directed to God and that directed to the Lamb (see table).  The overlap is not artificially perfect—“wealth” is directed to the Lamb and not to God, “thanksgiving” to God and not to the Lamb—but these differences seem inconsequential in light of the big picture.  Matthias Hoffmann, in his dissertation on the Lamb in the book of Revelation, rightly concludes, “Most of the predicates within the doxologies do not seem to distinguish God and the Lamb from each other, but rather express an equal status of both of them in general.”

By constructing such doxologies to God and Christ together, or even to Christ alone, the New Testament writers were exalting Jesus Christ to the very level of God.

Robert Bowman; J. Ed Komoszewski,
Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ

   God/One on the Throne The Lamb 1 Chr 29:11-12
Worthy (axios) 4:11 5:9, 12   
Blessing/Praise (eulogia) 5:13; 7:12 5:12,13   
Honor (timē) 4:9, 11; 5:13; 7:12 5:12, 13 1 Chr 29:12
Glory (doxa) 4:9, 11; 5:13; 7:12; 19:1b 1:6; 5:12, 13   
Dominion (kratos) 5:13 1:6; 5:13   
Power (dunamis) 4:11; 7:12; 19:1b 5:12 1 Chr 29:11
Might (ischus) 7:12 5:12 1 Chr 29:11-12
Wealth (ploutus)    5:12 1 Chr 29:12
Wisdom (sophia) 7:12 5:12   
Thanksgiving (eucharista) 4:9; 7:12 5:12   
Salvation (sōtēria) 7:10; 19:1b 7:10   

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Lifting the Veil

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.  But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.  (2 Cor 3:15-16)

The foretelling, of which we read in the Old Testament, has a veil on it, however; but when the veil is removed for the Bride, that is, for the Church that has turned to God, she suddenly sees Him leaping upon those mountains—that is, the books of the Law; and so on the hills of the prophetical writings. He is so plainly and so clearly manifested that He springs forth, rather than merely appears.  Turning the pages of the prophets one by one, for instance, she finds Christ springing forth from them and, now that the veil that covered them before is taken away, she perceives Him breaking out and emerging from individual passages in her reading, and bursting out of them in a manifestation that is now quite plain.

Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Shepherds, You Have One Job

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.  (2 Ti 1:13-14)

Here is the simple truth: either you are a sheep or you are not a Christian.  God sends pastors because whether the people are easily led or not, they are most certainly easily misled.  Apart from Christ and His death we are all easy prey for wolves—often because we admire the wolves and despise the weakness of God in the flesh on the cross.

The Lord sends shepherds to lead His flock to green pastures.  The flock is led by the Good Shepherd’s voice, not by the pastor’s voice.  If we have heard a thousand sermons about how sheep are stupid and stubborn animals, we should also know that the ranks of shepherds, in the real world, have never been filled with braniacs or men of valor.  In fact, young boys like David could easily shepherd his father’s flocks.  Here is the point: what our pastors are sent to do, a boy … could do.

But, in fairness, the same could be said of what it takes to be a marine.  We might remember that the word infantry comes from the Latin word for “children.”  Foot soldiers, infantrymen, were those who were too inexperienced to serve in the cavalry but were good in absorbing spear thrusts and cannonballs.  What does it take to be a good marine or infantryman?  Do what you are told.  Follow orders.  Be faithful.  Do not sleep on your watch.

And yet, we know that no matter how simple it might be in concept, marines and good infantrymen are few and far between.  So are good and faithful pastors.

Pastor David H. Petersen, Gottestiendst, 2013:3

Friday, February 6, 2015

Perhaps, or Perhaps Not

Inquire of the Lᴏʀᴅ for us, for Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon is making war against us.  Perhaps the Lᴏʀᴅ will deal with us according to all his wonderful deeds and will make him withdraw from us.  (Jer 21:2)

The armies of Babylon had captured Jerusalem, looted the temple treasury, deposed King Jehoiachin, and seated a different king, Zedekiah, upon the throne before returning to Babylon with the booty and important men (2 Ki 24:10-17).  Eventually, the armies returned to besiege Jerusalem, which prompted Zedekiah to ask the prophet Jeremiah to inquire of  YHWH if He might look with favor on the people and turn back the invaders.  YHWH had done this before and perhaps would do so again.

The request seems legitimate.  Time and again, the Lord had intervened for Israel and Judah, turning back enemies of overwhelming numbers for His name’s sake.  God does give a response according to His name, however it is quite jolting:
Thus you shall say to Zedekiah, “Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls.  And I will bring them together into the midst of this city.  I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath.  And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast.  They shall die of a great pestilence.  Afterward, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ, I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his servants and the people in this city who survive the pestilence, sword, and famine into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their lives.  He shall strike them down with the edge of the sword.  He shall not pity them or spare them or have compassion.”  (Jer 21:4-7)
In other words: “You are utterly without hope and will endure much at My hand because of your sin.”  Judah had been suffering from a spiritual malaise for decades, briefly repenting under a few good kings.  At this time in their existence, God had already said that He would remove them from the land because they refused His prophets’ calls for repentance.  When Zedekiah was installed to his position, he showed his true colors:
And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lᴏʀᴅ, according to all that Jehoiakim had done.… And Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon.  (2 Ki 24:19-20)
Rather than endure the thought of being subject to anyone but himself, Zedekiah rebelled against God and His servant of judgment, Nebuchadnezzar.  We can see that the king’s request was either a misguided attempt to curry divine favor or a last ditch effort to save his pride and throne.  In either case, the die had already been cast, and the residents of Jerusalem, from small to great, were to suffer greatly from the siege, then be deported and spend most of their years in a foreign land.  Divine intervention was not coming.

Two things of note come as part of Jeremiah’s prophetic message.  The first concerns God’s mercy in judgment.  In a previous post, I had mentioned how God had warned Egypt of the coming plague in order to allow them time to care for their servants and livestock.  In the same way, the Lord tells Jeremiah that the people are to surrender in order to save his life (Jer 21:8-10).  The consequences of sin and resulting discipline do not need to extend beyond what is intended.  If the people willing give up, they will save their lives, otherwise the result will most likely be death.

The second is a call to the house of David and the people:
Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.  And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.  For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people.  But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ, that this house shall become a desolation.  (Jer 22:3-5)
Though they may not have recognized it, by affirming the house and throne of David, God is telling the people that there yet remains a certain hope.  If David’s offspring will do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with his God (Micah 6:8), all of the elect will be the beneficiaries; but of he should fail, the line will be cut off.  David’s line had no ability to do as God asked—not perfectly.  The descendants would all fail.  That is, except for One.

Jesus, the root and offspring of David, is the only one qualified to properly sit and administer kingship on the thrones of both His human predecessor and divine Father.  And as a result of His taking the judgment for our sin upon Himself, we walk free in His righteousness.  We are able to obey His word.  Not that these are yet done perfectly through our effort, but by virtue of faith that is ours in Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, we are enabled and strengthened by the Holy Spirit to do what is pleasing and good before God.

One day Jesus will return and assume His rightful place.  We will have perfect justice: sin will be no more, and all things will be made new.  The King will be on His throne forever.  Hallelujah!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Have you ever found yourself in a place that called for a response but circumstances or propriety dictated that none be made?  You are caught in a situation wherein any move leaves you worse off.  Chess players refer to this as zugzwang: any legal move weakens your position; you want to take a pass.  These moments will happen in life.  Any retaliatory action will work against us, leaving the only possible response—walk away.

Admittedly, non-action is frustrating.  Men, more so than women, have a natural desire for action to fix the problem or make it better.  We do not want to let a matter alone.  King David wrote about such a time in his life when he was being wronged.  The unknown situation demanded a rebuke, yet propriety and piety dictated silence: raising his voice would most certainly lead to sin (Ps 39:1).  Stymied and frustrated, he bottled up everything until it could no longer be contained:
I was mute and silent;
    I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.
    My heart became hot within me.  (Ps 39:2-3a)
If you are anything like me, you have felt this fire boiling inside.  The internal pressure rises until you burst, causing damage to yourself and those around by our words giving evidence to what Jesus taught: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt 15:11), so that
we are defiled when we say whatever happens to be on our mind and we talk about things that we should not talk about, even though our lips are bound “with perception” and we should make for them “a measuring balance and a standard of measure.”  The spring of sins comes to us from such talking.*
David needed a safety valve to release which came in the form of prayer—not for vindication or retribution, but for the unexpected:
O Lᴏʀᴅ, make me know my end
    and what is the measure of my days;
    let me know how fleeting I am!
David prays for perspective, a view of this life compared to eternity.  He wants the Lord to help him understand what Paul would write to the church in Corinth:
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,…  (2 Co 4:17)
The circumstances we endure are painful for a season, but this life is but a passing moment in comparison to what awaits us in Jesus.  Yes, things become heated.  Yes, attempting to look past events drives us to anger, depression, or any number of other emotions.  But when we seek this affliction in God’s perspective for our individual lives, we are better able
to learn how much time [is] left …, and thus gain consolation in the troubles by projecting my thinking to life’s end, when I would have complete relief from the troubles.†
With the fleeting nature of this life in view, David turns his attention to the Lord for delivery from the blows of discipline being felt.  Either the entire difficulty had been brought on by David’s past sin, he was concerned that he might fall into the sin he wished to avoid.  Whatever the reason, he knows what is needed and seeks relief (Ps 39:7-11), ending with a plea that the Lord would hear and respond by turning His scrutinizing eye away, because the attention is painful.
Hear my prayer, O Lᴏʀᴅ,
    and give ear to my cry;
    hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
    a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
    before I depart and am no more!  (Ps 39:12-13)
All men are but sojourners in this life, and the king recognizes that he and his fathers are no more privileged in this regard.  Theodoret paraphrases David’s request:
I beseech you, Lord, hearken to my lament and tearful supplication: I do not dwell in the land but am a stranger, and like my forebears I shall accept death after living here a short time.  So grant me a brief respite so that I may live at least a few days without pain before departing this life.  Once I go I shall not return: I shall not return to this corrupt life.‡
When we find ourselves in a situation similar to David’s in which one or more stress factors are bearing upon us, we turn to the Lord and rely on Him for understanding and strength.  Afflictions in this life wear on everybody, but Christians have a promise of a final rest in Christ.  Our hope is certain.

*  Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Matthew
†  Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Psalm 39 
‡  Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Psalm 39