Friday, May 27, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness.  Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ.  But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.  (1 Thess 2:5-7)

To those, therefore, that have made progress in the Word, He has proclaimed this utterance, bidding them dismiss anxious care of the things of this world, and exhorting them to adhere to the Father alone, in imitation of children.… Then it is right to notice, with respect to the appellation of “little one” is not used in the sense of lacking intelligence.  The notion of childishness has that pejorative meaning, but the term “little one” really means “one newly become gentle,” just as the word gentle means being mild-mannered.  So, a “little one” means one just recently become gentle and meek in disposition.  This the blessed Paul most clearly pointed out when he said, “When we might have been burdensome as the apostles of Christ, we were gentle among you, as a nurse cherishes her children.”  The little one is therefore gentle, and therefore more tender, delicate, and simple, guileless, and destitute of hypocrisy, straightforward and upright in mind, which is the basis of simplicity and truth.

Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 1.5

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.  For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?  Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy. (1 Thess 2:17-20)

For we ought to walk by the standard of the saints and the fathers, and imitate them, and to be sure that if we depart from them we put ourselves also out of their fellowship.  Whom then do they wish you to imitate?  The one who hesitated, and while wishing to follow, delayed it and took counsel because of his family, or blessed Paul, who, the moment the stewardship was entrusted to him, “straightway conferred not with flesh and blood?”  For although he said, “I am not worthy to be called an Apostle,” yet, knowing what he had received, and being not ignorant of the giver, he wrote, “For woe is me if I preach not the gospel.”  But, as it was “woe to me” if he did not preach, so, in teaching and preaching the gospel, he had his converts as his joy and crown.  This explains why the saint was zealous to preach as far as Illyricum, and not to shrink from proceeding to Rome, or even going as far as the Spains, in order that the more he labored, he might receive so much the greater reward for his labor.  He boasted then that he had fought the good fight, and was confident that he should receive the great crown.

Athanasius, Letters to Dracontius 49.4

Sunday, May 22, 2016

God in Three Persons

Trinity Sunday marks a time in the church year when specific attention is turned to God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As part of this, many church groups will recite the Athanasian Creed, which was written to help explain the difference, yet sameness, of each Person in the Godhead.  Its length and repetitive language can dissuade the reader, and one wonders if something else could not have been constructed with fewer words.  Shorter creedal statements about God have been made, but somehow they are incomplete: they simply do not convey the same depth of understanding and clarity.  After all, how does one condense and describe the omnipresent and indescribable in fewer than the 44 lines linked above?  We should praise the author(s) of that ancient document for accuracy and thoroughness—and brevity.

Consider for a moment the opening three verses of the Bible:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.  And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  (Gen 1:1-3)
How would one describe God from these verses?  You might mention that there was an all-powerful being, God, who existed before the heavens and earth, that He or She created everything, that the original state of things was somewhat chaotic needing form and structure, and God spoke things into existence.  Then you go a bit deeper: What is the Spirit of God?  Is this someone different than the God mentioned in verse one or an extension of the same?  These last two questions are actually more interesting than the first.  God is presented as the creator of all things, but His Spirit seems to be working somewhat independently yet in concert with God.

If the above is not sufficiently confusing, we must add another level of mystery—the God’s speech.  We assume that the Creator is the one speaking, rather than the Spirit hovering over the waters, but how does He communicate and able to enact great and mighty works through that communication?  What mode is used to transport the words?  What or Whom initiates the declarative act?  Scripture sheds light on this in an unexpected place:
The Lord created me in the beginning of His ways for His works;
He established me in the beginning before time,
Before He made the earth, and before He made the abysses,
Before the going forth of the fountains of the waters,
Before the mountains were created;
And He begot me before all hills.
The Lord made the fields and the uninhabited places
And the inhabited heights under heaven.
When He prepared heaven, I was present with Him,
And when He set apart His throne upon the winds.
When He made strong the things above the clouds,
And made sure the fountains under heaven,
And made strong the fountains of the earth,
I was working beside Him;
I was He in whom He rejoiced;
Daily and continually I was gladdened by His face.
When He completed the world, He rejoiced,
And He rejoiced in the sons of men.  (Prov 8:22-31 LXX*)
Here we have a recounting of creation from a different perspective—a heavenly one.  In this passage, Wisdom is personified and actively involved in creation.  Though personified elsewhere in Proverbs as an attribute to be pursued, the interworking here suggests a relationship more as one of Creator and Co-creator working together toward a result.  God is shown establishing Wisdom over His works and making all things through Wisdom.  And it is not that Wisdom is created, as we would imagine it, but rather established over all in the beginning before time having been begotten by the Lord.

Wisdom exists outside creation, and therefore cannot be considered part of the creation sequence, but rather is over it as a Workman.  The words indicate the relation of Wisdom to the Creator as as offspring, (i.e., the Son of the Father), begotten before and outside all time and ages.  Wisdom, being the Son of the Father, was present with the Father when He made the world, therefore, the Son exists with the Father outside creation.  And since the Father is not a creature, neither is His Son.

Were there, then, multiple Gods who created the world?  No.  The Son also created the world, for He was working beside the Father.  The Father is the Creator, and the Son is the Creator.  How so?  Because the working is one working.  They are distinct Persons, but the work of creation is one work.  Is the Son the same as the Spirit who hovered over the waters, as mentioned above.  Again, no.  The creation work of Wisdom, the Son, was more “hands on” during construction, while the Spirit’s work was primarily enlivening—preparing and giving life.  Three distinct Persons created the world, therefore the Holy Trinity, our one God, made the world with one working, and when completed, They rejoiced in one another.

Some will wonder why this concerns us, offering up a retort like: “So what if that group doesn't teach the Trinity.  They believe in Jesus, and that should be good enough.”  Except that is not good enough.  Look at the beginning and end of the Athanasian Creed:
  •   1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
  •   2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
  • 44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
The doctrine of the Trinity is important, because without a correct understanding, we believe and worship another god, not the God of the Bible.  There are many groups who mention Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in their doctrinal documents, but deny the God who is both one in essence yet three in persons: among these are Oneness Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah Witnesses.  These groups are not Christian.  Though they give ascent to God and to three entities somehow working together, they deny either the full deity or the unique personage of each member.  Without a proper understanding of God, His Person, and His redeeming work, what is believed cannot save, because the individual divine work needed to complete our redemption cannot be accomplished.  Therefore, if we choose to trust in such a god and inadequate work, we are left in our sins.

Only by believing, teaching, and confessing the almighty, Triune God as revealed in Scripture do we have a true basis for our assurance of salvation, hope of a resurrection, and promise of an eternal destiny with our Lord.

*  I used the Septuagint because it seemed to have a better reading for the active work of Wisdom.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Sunday

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thess 1:2-3)

It is necessary not only to give evidence of faith in peace and tranquility, but also to cling to it amid storm and tempest.  Likewise love also does not experience untroubled enjoyment but as well effort.  One has to put up with the brethren’s failings, whether envy, rage, conceit, or the weakness of ingratitude.  For this reason he linked labor with love, and associated persistence with hope.  Christ the Lord gave us hope in the resurrection of the dead, immortal life, and the kingdom of heaven.  The person in receipt of this hope must persist and bear nobly the troubles that befall.  He is saying, “The God of all has an eye to everything.”

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on First Thessalonians

What labor is it to love?  Merely to love is no labor at all, but to love genuinely is great labor.  For tell me, when a thousand things are stirred up that would draw us from love, and we hold out against them all, is it not labor?  For what did not these men suffer, that they might not revolt from their love?  Did not they that warred against the preaching go to Paul’s host, and not having found him, drag Jason before the rulers of the city? (Acts 17:5-6)  Tell me, is this a slight labor, when the seed had not yet taken root, to endure so great a storm, so many trials?  And they demanded security of him.  And having given security, he says, Jason sent away Paul.  Tell me, is this a small thing?  Did not Jason expose himself to danger for him?  And this he calls a labor of love, because they were bound to him in this manner.

And observe: first he mentions their good actions, then his own, that he may not seem to boast, nor yet to love them by anticipation.  “And patience,” he says.  For that persecution was not confined to one time, but was continual, and they warred not only with Paul, the teacher, but with his disciples also.  For if they were affected in this manner towards those who worked miracles, those venerable men, what do you think were their feelings towards those who dwelt among them, their fellow-citizens, who had all of a sudden revolted from them?  For this reason he also testifies of them, saying, “For you became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea.”

“And of hope,” he says, “in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.”  For all these things proceed from faith and hope, so that what happened to them showed not their fortitude only, but that they believed with full assurance in the rewards laid up for them.  For on this account God permitted that persecutions should arise immediately, that no one might say, that the preaching was established lightly or by flattery, and that their fervor might be shown, and that it was not human persuasion, but the power of God, that persuaded the souls of the believers, so that they were prepared even for ten thousand deaths, which would not have been the case, if the preaching had not immediately been deeply established and remained unshaken.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Thessalonians I

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Lesson in Missing the Point

I have never been an admirer of Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest.  My wife and I tried using it for devotions several years ago, which lasted about one week.  We could not understand the point of many readings.  Since that time, I have noted when someone makes reference to it, and the target posts are mixed in their usefulness.

Just recently in my Facebook feed I noticed a link to one of Chamber’s meditations, so I followed it and discovered the devotion was based on this part of Scripture:
Look at the birds of the air….  Consider the lilies of the field… (Matt 6:26, 28)
Immediately, we should see a problem.  While the segments are valid sentences, the context is missing.  Even Chambers’ opening sentence, while quoting more of the text, fails to give any context whatsoever:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin”— they simply are!
The devotion goes downhill quickly from here.  In an apparent attempt to wax spiritual (perhaps we should say mystical?), Chambers proceeds along a tangential line unrelated to what Jesus was teaching.  He posits that we have a ministry and service that would be beneficial if we would go about our lives in Christ without trying to be consistent and useful (i.e., get out of our own way by “concentrating on our Father in heaven”).  His central statement is telling:
In essence, Jesus was saying, “Do not worry about being of use to others; simply believe on Me.”
The main point to this section of Matthew 6 is not worry about usefulness, but worry about worldly goods.  Jesus first tells the crowd in verses 19-24 to not hoard money or be greedy in an effort to give yourself a more secure future.  Then He follows in verses 25-34 with instruction to not be overly concerned about having too little, because the elect are ever in the Father’s care.  Are there spiritual aspects of Jesus’ teaching?  Certainly.  Just as we try to store up treasures on earth for the future, we try to store up teachers and teaching, which can lead to pride and great error.  Conversely, we should not be concerned about a dearth of instruction, because He can and will provide for our spiritual nourishment.

Rather than expounding on the passage in a meaningful way, Chambers demonstrated what can happen we someone tries to over-spiritualize, twist, or misapply Scripture for a preconceived intent.  He is not alone in this.  Since the early days of the Church, so-called Bible teachers and pastors have ridden their hobby-horses rather than deliver sound doctrine.  The people of God must be discerning, but this requires faithful men to teach them rightly.  Pray the Lord raise up such shepherds who will faithfully feed and care for the sheep.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Day of Pentecost: What Are We to Learn?

Anthony van Dyk, Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.  (Acts 2:1-4)

The dramatic entrance of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost caused quite a stir: sound like rushing wind, tongues as of fire, people speaking in other languages.  This was an exciting time, so much so that church bodies for centuries afterward continued to consider these manifestations to be normative for the Christian life: if it was good for the believers at Pentecost, it is good for us now.  Is this really the main takeaway of the great event, or are we missing something?  Should we dwell on the signs, or is there more to the story?

When reviewing the events at Pentecost, we concentrate on the aforementioned manifestations while ignoring or misunderstanding a key part of Luke’s account:
And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”  (Acts 2:12-13)
What induced these reactions?  Was it the ability to speak different languages or the preparatory actions signaling the Spirit’s arrival or a combination?  Some might posit that the multiple supernatural phenomena, and while this is plausible, if we read carefully, it does not give a sufficient explanation.  Rather we must look at the listeners’ testimony just preceding: “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”  What was communicated in the tongues-speaking that caused the former group to pause and question, while the latter responded with derision?

Pentecost (or Feast of Weeks) was a day set apart for a holy convocation dedicated to worship (Lev 23:15-21), part of which involved a public reading of God’s word:
Some of the important sections are read in full, as follows: the days of Creation (Gen. i. 1-ii. 3); the Exodus and the song at the Red Sea (Ex. xiv. 1-xv. 27); the giving of the Decalogue on Mount Sinai (ib. xviii. 1-xx. 26, xxiv. 1-18, xxxiv. 27-35; Deut. v. 1-vi. 9); the historical review and part of "Shema'" (ib. x. 12-xi. 25).  The same method is used with the excerpts from the Prophets: the important ch. i. of Ezekiel (the "Merkabah") is read in full.  The Minor Prophets are considered as one book: the excerpts are from Hos. i.1-3, Hab. ii. 20-iii. 19, and Mal. iii. 22-24 (A. V. iv. 4-6).  Ruth is read in full; and of the Psalms, Ps. i., xix., lxviii., cxix., cl.

The reader will note that many of these passages deal with His mighty works.  If this was a common occurrence, we can deduce that the two groups of listeners reacted so strongly as a result of new input: the long-honored and remembered mighty events under the old covenant now found their culmination in a crucified and risen Messiah.  This conclusion finds corroboration in a similar encounter by Paul on the Areopagus.  There, the apostle spoke of Jesus’ office as judge at the final resurrection.  The response from the Greeks was familiar:
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.  But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”  (Acts 17:32)
We see, then, that both Jews and Gentiles responded similarly.  Spectacular signs did not convict and divide the audiences, but the work of Christ having been proclaimed as discovered when Peter proclaimed: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).  Then too was Paul’s wont: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).  When Christ is proclaimed as the One crucified, buried, and risen for our sin, a choice is forced upon the listeners.

Returning to the issue of the Spirit-given manifestations, what use did they serve, and are they pertinent for today?  Certainly, signs have had their place in gathering attention to the person and work of the Lord Jesus: they could attest to the truth but not deliver it.  The same may be said for today.  Exceptional manifestations and spiritual gifts do not deliver the saving work of Christ, therefore, while spiritual gifts are useful for the body life of believers, they are not to remove the focus of Christ in gathering together.  The same can be said of the meeting content and practice.  While free, in some aspects, to worship as they will, care needs to be taken to do only those things that edify the body and glorify the Lord.  Paul made this clear when he told the church in Corinth: “But all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40).

Looking, then, at the spectrum of church practice, at one end we find those holding to some form of historic liturgy which repeatedly brings Scripture to the congregant throughout the time of gathering, however, performed in ritual in rote fashion with little care whether or not The Holy Spirit will lead the attempt, thus making mockery of what our Lord has so richly provided, even as Malachi demonstrated in his prophecy against Judah.  At the other end we find what appears to be an attempt to allow a freedom for the Spirit to act, but instead finding church attenders motivated (manipulated?) by spiritual overseers seeking to assist the working of the Word and Spirit by introducing or allowing features appealing to the audience but communicating nothing of sin and the need for salvation.

In both cases we find a lack of regard for the assembly of believers, demonstrating that Western Christians have lost sight of the reason the Holy Spirit was given—to whom and to what He attests.  This should not be, since we have clear instruction, both before and after the crucifixion and resurrection, of the Holy Spirit’s work.

In the Upper Room discourse, Jesus told His disciples:
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.  (John 14:26)

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)

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  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.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  (John 16:12-15)
After His resurrection, Jesus came and said:
Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.  (John 20:22-23)
Then before His ascension He left instruction:
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)
To summarize, the Spirit’s mission is to help the disciple (as one called aside; also translated counselor, comforter, advocate), witness of Jesus, communicate Jesus’ teaching, and glorify Him.  While these activities are certainly found in our individual lives from day to day, they will all be particularly found in the worship meeting wherein Christ is to be exalted in all facets.  We must understand that the purpose of worship is neither a free-for-all of expression nor entertainment for the audience, but rather the intentional immersion of the believer in God’s Word through purposeful repetition—via consistency in practice, sound hymnody, and adherence to the whole counsel of God—with the intent that the Holy Spirit will bring these things to remembrance at time of need.

What, then, is to be the great lesson of Pentecost?  It is not the miraculous signs, however exciting and flashy they might be, but the effective message of the gospel that went forth and continues to go forth through the consistent disciple-making process of baptizing and teaching all that Jesus commanded us.  Rather than seek for measures that allure, let us boldly tell of a crucified and risen Savior.  The first disciples were considered drunk for speaking such a foolish thing.  Let us be so foolish to follow suit.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Planning Ahead

I like to plan ahead with my posts and have been frustrated that my schedule has reduced my involvement to offerings of patristic quotes; however, one benefit from this has been a loyal following interested in their continuation.  So, if I have sufficient lead time, I will post from the Church Fathers some commentary related to what our local body will be receiving on Sunday.  I have yet to come up with a series title—maybe “Friday with the Fathers”—but plan to begin next week.

Lest the reader think that my interest here is waning, I have collected, through this busy time, over two dozen separate notes with subject matter from a broad range, a few of which are:
  • •  Wholistic Nature of Punishment
  • •  Structure of the Beatitudes
  • •  Extent of the Atonement
  • •  Life in the Spirit
  • •  Extremes of Legalism and Radical Grace
  • •  Baptism & Lord’s Supper
  • •  How Was Christianity Spread in the Early Church?
And this does not include new and continuing series, such as book reviews, lessons from Arnobius of Sicca,* and a look at the penitential psalms—just to name a few.  The difficulty has been carving out time to think through a topic rationally and intelligently.  Part of this process is prioritizing the subject matter, which can be a chore in itself, however, the combination of research, writing, and formatting are time-consuming when done properly.  To be sure, an emotional or playful piece can be cranked out in little time, but I prefer to offer substance.

That is enough for now.  Allow me to leave one tidbit from Origen’s Commentary on John 1:
Now what the Gospels say is to be regarded in the light of promises of good things; and we must say that the good things the Apostles announce in this Gospel are simply Jesus.  One good thing which they are said to announce is the resurrection; but the resurrection is in a manner Jesus, for Jesus says: “I am the resurrection.”  Jesus preaches to the poor those things which are laid up for the saints, calling them to the divine promises.  And the holy Scriptures bear witness to the Gospel announcements made by the Apostles and to that made by our Savior.  David says of the Apostles, perhaps also of the evangelists: “The Lord shall give the word to those that preach with great power; the King of the powers of the beloved;” teaching at the same time that it is not skilfully composed discourse, nor the mode of delivery, nor well practiced eloquence that produces conviction, but the communication of divine power.  Hence also Paul says: “I will know not the word that is puffed up, but the power; for the kingdom of God is not in word but in power.”  And in another passage: “And my word and my preaching were not persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power.”  To this power Simon and Cleophas bear witness when they say: “Was not our heart burning within us by the way, as he opened to us the Scriptures?”  And the Apostles, since the quantity of the power is great which God supplies to the speakers, had great power, according to the word of David: “The Lord will give the word to the preachers with great power.”  Isaiah too says: “How beautiful are the feet of them that proclaim good tidings;” he sees how beautiful and how opportune was the announcement of the Apostles who walked in Him who said, “I am the way,” and praises the feet of those who walk in the intellectual way of Christ Jesus, and through that door go in to God.  They announce good tidings, those whose feet are beautiful, namely, Jesus.

*  This has proved to be an interesting and valuable resource.  The apologist rails against much in pagan worship, but as one reads the description of practices, the similarities between ancient pagan and modern Western Christian worship is disturbing.