Friday, December 28, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the First Sunday after Christmas

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:25–32)
We must seek an explanation worthy of God’s purpose as to why, as is written in the Gospel, “Simeon, a holy man and one pleasing to God, awaiting the consolation of Israel, received an answer from the Holy Spirit that he would not perish in death before he saw the Lord’s Anointed.” What did he gain from seeing Christ? Did he have only this promised to him, that he would see him, and derive no profit from seeing him? Or is some gift worthy of God concealed here, a gift that the blessed Simeon both merited and received? “The woman touched the fringe of Jesus’ garment and was healed.” If she derived such an advantage from the very edge of his garment, what should we think of Simeon, who “received” the infant “into his arms”? He held him in his arms, and kept rejoicing and exulting. He saw that the little child he was carrying had come to release captives and to free Simeon himself from the bonds of the body. Simeon knew that no one could release a man from the prison of the body with hope of life to come, except the one whom he enfolded in his arms.

Hence, he also says to him, “Now you dismiss your servant, Lord, in peace.” For, as long as I did not hold Christ, as long as my arms did not enfold him, I was imprisoned, and unable to escape from my bonds.” But this is true not only of Simeon, but of the whole human race. Anyone who departs from this world, anyone who is released from prison and the house of those in chains, to go forth and reign, should take Jesus in his hands. He should enfold him with his arms, and fully grasp him in his bosom. Then he will be able to go in joy where he longs to go. Consider how great a saving act had taken place earlier, so that Simeon should deserve to hold the Son of God. First he had received an answer from the Holy Spirit, that “he would not see death unless he had first seen the Lord’s Anointed.”

Then he entered the temple—but not by chance, or naively. He “came to the temple in the Spirit of God.” “For, as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” Therefore the Holy Spirit led him into the temple. If you wish to hold Jesus, and to embrace him with your hands, and to be made worthy of leaving prison, you too must struggle with every effort to possess the guiding Spirit and come to God’s temple. See, you stand now in the temple of the Lord Jesus—that is, in his Church. This is the temple “built from living stones.” But you stand in the Lord’s temple when your life and your conduct are worthy of the title “church.”

If you come “to the temple in the Spirit,” you will find the child Jesus. You will lift him up in your arms and say, “Now you dismiss your servant, Lord, in peace, according to your word.” At the same time, notice that “peace” has been added to the dismissal and the sending forth. For he does not say, “I wish to be dismissed,” but to be dismissed with the addition of “in peace.” This same thing was promised to the blessed Abraham: “But you will go to your fathers in peace, after you have been cared for in a good old age.” Who is the one who dies “in peace” if not he who has “the peace of God, which surpasses every perception and guards the heart” of him who possesses it? Who is the one who departs “in peace” from this world if not he who understands that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”? Who if not he in whom nothing is hostile to God or opposed to him, but who by good works has acquired all peace and harmony in himself? Thus he is dismissed “in peace” to go on to the holy fathers, to whom Abraham also went forth.

Why do I speak about the fathers? He is to go to the very prince and Lord of the patriarchs, to Jesus, of whom it is said, “It is better to be released and to be with Christ.” He who dares to say, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me,” he possesses Jesus. Therefore, let us pray that we too might stand in the temple, hold the Son of God, and embrace him, and that we might be worthy of release and of going on to better things. Let us pray to Almighty God, and let us pray to Jesus himself, the little child. We long to speak to him and hold him in our arms, to whom is glory and power for ages of ages. Amen.

Origen, Homilies on the Gospel of Luke 15

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Whom Are You Seeking?

People want direction and meaning in life. As we grow, we generally imitate what is modeled by our families, but sometimes branching into other pathways and assessing alternate philosophies of life. Whichever way we choose, the impetus behind the search is to answer two basic questions: 1) Where am I going in life? and 2) How do I get there? Once a course is set, changes are made along the way as we refine our understanding in the light of new information and circumstances. This is especially true when our lives have been greatly affected in a spiritual way. Two such occasions are recounted in the Gospel of John: two scenarios in which people had been greatly affected by God’s intervention but were faced with unsettling circumstances and decisions. Searching for answers, they met an inquiring Jesus.

John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, had made a following for himself. Living in the countryside, he looked like a fanatic dressed in his camel hair garment, eating only locust and wild honey, yet he struck a cord with his call to repentance. The Jewish elite did not know what to make of him, asking outright if he was Elijah or another prophet: they wanted to know if he was safe. Indeed, he was not. As they approached in what was certainly a feigned act of piety to demonstrate their self-made righteousness, John called them a “brood of vipers.”

Two who had become John’s disciples, Andrew and another unnamed, at some point heard the Baptizer speak of another in a most remarkable way:
Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi” (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), “where are You staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour). (John 1:35–39)
These two disciples had already recognized their sinful selves before a holy God and were received by John through their confession with baptism; but now John is pointing all to One who, by virtue of the title proclaimed, had a divine mission that transcended John’s ministry. The difficulty was knowing how to engage Jesus, but He began by asking what they were looking for.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus had met and healed many people from various ailments. While many were sent back to their friends and family as a witness, others followed Jesus to assist in whatever might be needed. One of these followers was a woman of little notoriety. All we know of her is her name, hometown, and what Jesus had done for her—Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. Grateful for what had been done, Mary was one of a small group of women who agonized nearby as Jesus was nailed to a cross, died, and buried. Their world had been turned upside-down. To make matters worse, when the women went to the tomb for final burial wrappings, they found it opened with the the body missing. What else could it be but goons sent to desecrate the remains? Then Jesus comes to her.
But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” (John 20:11–15)
Searching and being found
What were they looking for? Did the two disciples or Mary even know? Was it a prophet who would turn hearts to God? Was it a teacher to show them the way more correctly? Was it a healer who would ease the suffering of a world groaning under the effects of the curse? Was it a martyr to serve as a rallying point? Was it a friend who loved without reservation? Somehow I doubt they had any idea. They were not sure what they were looking for. All they understood was the import of the moment: something had to be done, and they were seeking an answer. Wonderfully, the answer was more than they could ask or think. What they sought found them and chose them as His own. They found the teacher, healer, etc. and so much more: they found a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Patristic Wisdom for Christmas Day

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–5, 14)

The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father's Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation 9

Monday, December 24, 2018

Patristic Wisdom for Christmas Eve

The Dream of St. Joseph, Philippe de Champaigne
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus. (Mt 1:18–25)

The Evangelists help us to recognize both the divine and corporeal birth of the Lord, which they describe as a two-fold mystery and a kind of double path. Indeed, both the divine and the bodily birth of the Lord are indescribable, but that from the Father vastly exceeds every means of description and wonder. The bodily birth of Christ was in time; his divine birth was before time. The one in this age, the other before the ages. The one from a virgin mother, the other from God the Father. Angels and men stood as witnesses at the corporeal birth of the Lord, yet at his divine birth there was no witness except the Father and the Son, because nothing existed before the Father and the Son. But because the Word could not be seen as God in the glory of his own divinity, he assumed visible flesh to demonstrate his invisible divinity. He took from us what is ours in order to give generously what is his.

Notice here too the order of a mystery: The devil first spoke to Eve the virgin long ago, and then to a man, that he might administer to them the word of death. In the latter case, a holy angel first spoke to Mary and then to Joseph, that he might reveal to them the word of life. In the former case, a woman was chosen unto sin; in the latter case, she was chosen unto salvation. In the former case, the man fell through the woman; in the latter case, he rose through the virgin. The angel therefore said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid, Joseph, son of David, to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

And he added, “She shall bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” But this name of Lord which was given to Jesus from the virgin's womb is not new to him but old. For Jesus translated from Hebrew into Latin means “Savior.” This name is agreeable to God because he says through the prophet: “Just God and a Savior; there is none beside me.”* Lastly, when the Lord himself would speak through Isaiah about the bodily origin of his nativity, he says, “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.”† His name is certainly not strange, for Jesus was called according to the flesh (i.e., Savior, who was a Savior according to divinity). For Jesus, as we said, is rendered as “Savior.” This is what he said through the prophet: “From the body of my mother he named my name.”‡ And that he might more fully show us the sacrament of his incarnation, he went on to say, “He made my mouth like a sharp sword ... he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.” By the arrow he signified his divinity; by the quiver he assumed a body from the Virgin in which his divinity was covered with a garment of flesh.

Chromatius, Tractate on Matthew 2.1, 3-4.

* Isaiah 45:21
† Isaiah 49:1
‡ Isaiah 49:2

Friday, December 21, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Fourth Sunday in Advent

And you, O Bethlehem, House of Ephrathah, though you are fewest in number among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the One to be ruler of Israel. His goings forth were from the beginning, even from everlasting. Therefore He shall give them up until the appointed time for her to give birth, and then the remnant of their brothers will return to the sons of Israel. And He shall stand and see, and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, and they will dwell in the glory of the name of the Lord their God, for now they will be magnified unto the ends of the earth. And she will have peace. (Micah 5:2-5a)

Ephrem the Syrian

In this night of reconcilement let no man be wroth or gloomy! in this night that stills all, none that threatens or disturbs! This night belongs to the sweet One; bitter or harsh be in it none! In this night that is the meek One’s, high or haughty be in it none! In this day of pardoning let us not exact trespasses! In this day of gladnesses let us not spread sadnesses! In this day so sweet, let us not be harsh! In this day of peaceful rest, let us not be wrathful in it! In this day when God came to sinners, let not the righteous be in his mind uplifted over sinner! In this day in which there came the Lord of all unto the servants, let masters too condescend to their servants lovingly! In this day in which the Rich became poor for our sakes, let the rich man make the poor man share with him at his table. On this day to us came forth the Gift, although we asked it not! Let us therefore bestow alms on them that cry and beg of us. This is the day that opened for us a gate on high to our prayers. Let us open also gates to supplicants that have transgressed, and of us have asked [forgiveness.] Today the Lord of nature was against His nature changed; let it not to us be irksome to turn our evil wills. Fixed in nature is the body; great or less it cannot become: but the will has such dominion, it can grow to any measure. Today Godhead sealed itself upon Manhood, that so with the Godhead’s stamp Manhood might be adorned.

Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on the Nativity I

Friday, December 14, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Third Sunday in Advent

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Be glad and rejoice with your whole heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your iniquities and ransomed you from your enemies. The Lord, the King of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer see any evil. At that time the Lord shall say to Jerusalem, “O Zion, be of good courage; do not let your hands grow slack. The Lord your God is with you. The Mighty One shall save you. He shall bring gladness upon you and will renew you with His love. He will delight over you with joy as in a day of feasting.” (Zeph 3:14–17)

Live now in utter delight, O Jerusalem, living in complete happiness and satisfaction; for God has removed all your lawless deeds and of necessity has rescued you from the power of the foe, to whom you were subjected in paying the penalty of punishment. The Lord will now be in your midst, showing his kingship by his care for you, so that trouble will no longer be able to approach you.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Zephaniah 3.11–15

As far as the deeper meaning of the passage is concerned, it clearly commands Jerusalem to rejoice exceedingly, to be especially glad, to cheer up wholeheartedly as its trespasses are wiped out, evidently through Christ. The spiritual and holy Zion—that is, the church, the holy multitude of the believers—is justified in Christ and only in him. By him and through him we are also saved as we escape from the harm of the invisible enemies, for we have a Mediator who was incarnated in our form, the king of all, that is, the Word of God the Father. Thanks to him, we do not see evil anymore, for we have been delivered from the powers of evil. He [the Word] is the armor of good will, the peace, the wall, the one who bestows incorruption, the arbiter of the crowns, who shut down the war of the incorporeal Assyrians and made void the schemes of the demons.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Zephaniah 43

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Living Hope by Phil Wickham

These days, music produced by Christian artists in the Praise & Worship genre may have a catchy tune or ethos suitable for your personal playlist, but biblical content is as scarce as hen’s teeth; so, when a current artist produces something Christ-honoring, it needs to be called out.

“Living Hope” by Phil Wickham

How great the chasm that lay between us
How high the mountain I could not climb
In desperation, I turned to heaven
And spoke Your name into the night
Then through the darkness, Your loving-kindness
Tore through the shadows of my soul
The work is finished, the end is written
Jesus Christ, my living hope

Who could imagine so great a mercy?
What heart could fathom such boundless grace?
The God of ages stepped down from glory
To wear my sin and bear my shame
The cross has spoken, I am forgiven
The King of kings calls me His own
Beautiful Savior, I’m Yours forever
Jesus Christ, my living hope

Hallelujah, praise the One who set me free
Hallelujah, death has lost its grip on me
You have broken every chain
There’s salvation in Your name
Jesus Christ, my living hope
Hallelujah, praise the One who set me free
Hallelujah, death has lost its grip on me
You have broken every chain
There’s salvation in Your name
Jesus Christ, my living hope

Then came the morning that sealed the promise
Your buried body began to breathe
Out of the silence, the Roaring Lion
Declared the grave has no claim on me
Then came the morning that sealed the promise
Your buried body began to breathe
Out of the silence, the Roaring Lion
Declared the grave has no claim on me
Jesus, Yours is the victory, whoa!


Jesus Christ, my living hope
Oh God, You are my living hope

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Hearts Sprinkled; Bodies Washed

In recent years I have changed my position on baptism from something done to show what was spiritually accomplished at an earlier time to being the defining moment for identification with Christ. Why? Simply put, Scripture refers to baptism as the active agent (cf. Rom 6:1–4, Col 2:11–14, 1 Pet 3:21–22 Acts 2:28; 22:16). There are also passages like Titus 3:4–7 that do not reference baptism by name, but clearly bring out what is being done through washing. For years I had been taught to spiritualize this text because of the preconception that baptism is for making your faith public—which it does—but a good lexicon will tell you it refers to a ceremonial religious washing with H2O. A few months ago, my attention was drawn to another example of washing that I had previously read and spiritualized.
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19–22)
Access to God had previously been restricted to the priesthood, and only the High Priest could enter the Holiest, and only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:11–16). Since Jesus, in His high-priestly office, applied His precious blood on the heavenly mercy seat as the full final atonement, all believers, in their vocation as a priesthood, have gained access.

While the people were consecrated corporately as a chosen people through the sprinkling of blood and the Word of God (Exod 24:3–8), priests were consecrated individually (Exod 29:1–37) with their primary duty being the daily service (Exod 29:38–46). Part of the consecration rite involved the following actions:
Bodies washed
And Aaron and his sons you shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall wash them with water. (Exod 29:4)
Blood sprinkled
And you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar, and some of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and on his garments, on his sons and on the garments of his sons with him; and he and his garments shall be hallowed, and his sons and his sons’ garments with him. (Exod 29:21)
The parallels should be obvious: as the Levitical priests were washed with water and sprinkled with blood, in similar fashion, believers receive the same consecration for priestly service—though with a difference. The Mosaic covenant stipulated that Aaron and his sons were sprinkled with blood so that it spattered on their garments, whereas the author of Hebrews speaks of application on the heart, turning what had been a physical act to one that is spiritual. Since Christ was the last sacrifice, the blood would need to be Divinely applied. One might think that the washing is also solely spiritual in nature, however, the writer is careful to specify that their washing had been with actual water. Had he intended the communicate solely the spiritual, we might have expected “washing with the Holy Spirit” or some such wording. As written, we must conclude that water is used, and that the Holy Spirit is actively involved in the transaction in order to give the full sanctifying and consecrating effect as Cyril of Jerusalem instructs:
For since man is of twofold nature, soul and body, the purification also is twofold, the one incorporeal for the incorporeal part, and the other bodily for the body: the water cleanses the body, and the Spirit seals the soul; that we may draw near unto God, having our heart sprinkled by the Spirit, and our body washed with pure water. When going down, therefore, into the water, think not of the bare element, but look for salvation by the power of the Holy Ghost: for without both you cannot possibly be made perfect. (“On Baptism,” Catechetical Lectures III.4)
The author of Hebrews used this association to the priest in order to build the case that these believers stood in a unique position with a holy vocation that their past life in Judaism could never afford: the recipients had the holy privilege of open access to God’s presence, so they should not lose heart and return to Judaism but persevere in their adversity. To do so, he recounts what has been accomplished in them through working of each Person of the Godhead, demonstrating how each part of the work stands within redemptive history as it was promised to His people and fulfilled in Christ. To turn back now would be paramount to unbelief and God’s wrath, but the writer was confident that they would remember their baptisms and confidently continue in the faith they had received.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Second Sunday in Advent

“Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come into His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, whom you desire. Behold, He is coming,” says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can withstand His appearance? For He enters like a refiner’s fire and as soap in one’s wash. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver and gold. He will purify the sons of Levi and pour them out as purified gold and silver, and they will bring an offering to the Lord in righteousness.” (Malachi 3:1–3 LXX)

“I for my part shall come,” He is saying, “whom you look to as punisher of sins. There will be present also the angel who ministers to the agreements I have often made with you. When you seek him, you will find him punishing the transgression of your agreements with me.” While the prophet said this as a consequence of what preceded, it is not surprising that the same verse was cited at the coming of blessed John the Baptist, the statement being fulfilled in actual fact by the coming of blessed John as predetermined forerunner and minister, and by the emergence of Christ the Lord, who came at the same time as he and was testified to by him and in whom the salvation of all people was destined to be achieved.

Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Malachi 3.1

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Greatest Commandment

Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?” Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. “And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28–31)

“So, all I need to do is love God and neighbor? Just as long is it doesn’t cost me anything.”
— Prototypical Response

When looking at Jesus’ response, I cannot help but be reminded that the scribe, being associated with the Pharisees as a scholar of the Mosaic Law, would have known every commandment, statute, etc. that God had instituted for His people, as well as a complete body of knowledge codifying how a Jew would carry out each requirement. The doing of the Law within the framework of the added codes became the standard by which one could objectively demonstrate their level of devotion. The only problem is that the devotion was to themselves and their own self-righteousness.

Love is antithetical to self: it is sacrifice. And loving with all we are means sacrificing all. Who can do this? As we look to Jesus, we see the epitome of love for God and man. Notice how He speaks to His Father:
I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do.… I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. (John 17:4, 6)
And also to His disciples:
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. (John 15:12–13)
The next day, our Lord Jesus followed up His words of love for God and man with action as He willingly gave His life on the tree. This is how love manifests itself—while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). It is this love that we are to demonstrate.
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (1 Jn 3:16–18)
Some may balk thinking that laying down one’s life is too difficult: how could a person do that without reservation? Yet that is exactly what God does in us because of Christ. Are we able to love God and neighbor the way He desires? Yes and no. In our own power, we are completely unable to love beyond what may be natural affections to those closest to us. However, it is because He first loved us that we are able to love Him and one another fully. Trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross, that ultimate sacrifice for us, we are enabled and empowered to love as God has loved us as we look to the final day.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us. (1 Jn 4:17–19)

Friday, November 30, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the First Sunday in Advent

Now may our God and Father Himself, and our Lord Jesus Christ, direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all, just as we do to you, so that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. (1 Thess 3:11–13)

[Paul] shows that love produces advantage to themselves, not to those who are loved. I wish, he says, that this love may abound, that there may be no blemish. ... Let us mourn and weep for those who have injured us. Let us not be angry with them. For truly they are worthy of tears, for the punishment and condemnation to which they make themselves liable. I know, how you now weep, how you rejoice, both admiring Paul, and amazed at Joseph, and pronouncing them blessed. But if any one has an enemy, let him now take him into recollection, let him bring him to his mind, that whilst his heart is yet warm with the remembrance of the Saints, he may be enabled to dissolve the stubbornness of wrath, and to soften what is harsh and callous. I know, that after your departure hence, after that I have ceased speaking, if anything of warmth and fervor should remain, it will not be so great, as it now is whilst you are hearing me. If therefore any one, if any one has become cold, let him dissolve the frost. For the remembrance of injuries is truly frost and ice. But let us invoke the Sun of Righteousness, let us entreat Him to send His beams upon us, and there will no longer be thick ice, but water to drink.

If the fire of the Sun of Righteousness has touched our souls, it will leave nothing frozen, nothing hard, nothing burning, nothing unfruitful. It will bring out all things ripe, all things sweet, all things abounding with much pleasure. If we love one another, that beam also will come. Allow me, I beseech you, to say these things with earnestness. Cause me to hear, that by these words we have produced some effect; that someone has gone and thrown both his arms about his enemy, has embraced him, has twined himself around him, has warmly kissed him, has wept. And though the other be a wild beast, a stone, or whatever he be, he will be made gentle by such affectionate kindness. For on what account is he your enemy? Has he insulted you? yet he has not injured you at all. But do you for the sake of money allow your brother to be at enmity with you? Do not so, I beseech you. Let us do away all. It is our season. Let us use it to good purpose. Let us cut asunder the cords of our sins. Before we go away to judgment, let us not ourselves judge one another. “Let not the sun” (it is said) “go down upon your wrath” (Eph 4:26). Let no one put it off. These procrastinations produce delays. If you have deferred it today, you blush the more, and if you add tomorrow, the shame is greater, and if a third day, yet worse. Let us not then put ourselves to shame, but let us forgive, that we may be forgiven. And if we be forgiven, we shall obtain all blessings, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians 3.13

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Which Way Are We Oriented?

Ask the average churchgoer who is being most honored each Sunday morning, and I dare say, one will get a response very close to this opening line of a Joshua Hedger blog post:
It’s a worship service at church, so of course it celebrates Jesus… right? Or does it?
That is the question, but what is the answer?

I have been in enough American Evangelical services to tell you they follow the same basic format: singing with varying accompaniment and a 45-minute sermon. The only differences are in general attire and stage presence. Yes, I used the word stage purposefully. Forty years ago, whomever led singing did so with the intent of ensuring the congregants and accompanist were open to the same hymn, singing in the same tune, key, and rhythm. Now, the worship leader is a performer engaging the attendees with rhetoric, song, and occasional theatrics intended to stir the soul. The congregants feed off of the energy and respond inciting more passion from the leader building a rush akin to merry-go-round riders pumping each other more and more for the excitement of the ride.

Some will object to this characterization, pointing out that the soul should be stirred when in the Lord’s presence with His people. I agree, however, contemporary church-growth and worship methodology places experience above truth as the goal for meeting. Why else would someone sing “Missouri River” songs? You know the kind: a mile wide (full of biblical-sounding phrases) and an inch deep (effusive emoting with no content). If I want to sing about someone to be close to and have arms put around me, I’ll play Michael Bublé love songs rather than Hillsong or Bethel Music.

Preachers handle the Word of God with varying success. I applaud those who are able to consistently deliver Law and Gospel in a way that delivers Jesus as the only satisfaction for my sin. However, there are others who develop a well-organized talk laced with engaging object lessons but continually end up delivering a self-help plan or a Jesus who just wants to make you feel better. In between the extremes are preachers who are able to accurately explain the Scriptures yet leave the listener with no sense of how Christ is present or what He is doing. Instead of Christ crucified, the message is style, effective delivery, and application drawing attention to the preacher rather than the Savior.

Who is actually celebrated in the above congregations? With the entire program geared to elicit a response, we must conclude that it must be the celebrants themselves. Yes, God and Jesus are mentioned using Scripture, but every aspect has been an outgrowth of the same theology of worship: I, in my own way, will tell God how I feel about Him, and those around me are welcome to join. But is that a legitimate theology of worship? Charles Finney thought so as he promoted outward measures to elicit responses in order to stir the hearts of sinners as they sat on the anxious bench. While novel at the time, 180 years later this basic form has become a Sunday morning staple. But the question remains: is it correct?

Which way are we to be oriented?

The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship defines worship as “the general idea of offering to God adoration and service; the concept can be extended to include offering prayers to God including petition and intercession, and it can also refer to obedient listening to God speaking.” This definition is accurate in that it is derived from the lexical definition of the Greek (to prostrate or kiss the hand toward) and neatly fits the worship described in the beginning paragraphs of this post, but comes short of a full understanding.

The center of our attention and celebration determines our orientation, and ultimately, our practice. During a podcast interview (The Gottesdiendst Crowd, Episode 1), Pastor Burnell Eckardt offered a poignant observation of Old Testament worship:
The priests, the Levites—those who worshiped—entered the worship of God, they entered the temple, they entered the Holy Place with a clear understanding that God was in charge, that they were not, that this was the worship of God, that they were facing Him.
The Lord gave Moses detailed instructions in Exodus and Leviticus for proper worship. An examination shows that the first purpose for gathering was not to give God something (i.e. praise and adoration) but to receive something—atonement. Whether the daily sacrifice or the Day of Atonement, before anything else occurred, blood was shed for my sin. Only then would a proper response begin. Additionally, as the people then heard God’s Word, they responded as they recounted His faithfulness. Note the sequence: receive, then respond. Our Sunday mornings should have a similar dialogical form: receive Christ through absolution, through the reading of His Word, through baptism, through the Lord’s Supper, then responding accordingly and appropriately to each.

How do we get properly oriented?

The solution to the dilemma is singular yet two-fold: orient both our personal and corporate lives in the liturgy of the Church. Placing ourselves willingly under a form designed to celebrate God above all impedes the desire we might have to take liberties and turn attention to ourselves. Luke Childs has described it this way:
A regular day and time of worship forces one out of oneself and into something greater – yes I have needs, but the needs of others are often greater and are always infinitely more important. The rhythms of daily prayer, where we begin by confessing our sins, meditate on the Scriptures, and end with prayer for all the needs of the world and church, keep me constantly a part of the great cloud of witnesses in Christ. A liturgical style of worship, meaning a set pattern of written prayers and readings to guide us, remind me that I am not the centre of the universe – God is. The prayers written by some of the most saintly Christian men to have ever existed fill me with hope in the darkest of times. The Scriptures we read on a given day are Scriptures I might never have chosen to reach for given that freedom, often encouraging, but often challenging to the core.
We reorient ourselves by willing being molded to a standard and plan outside ourselves. Instead of celebrating ourselves (whether intentional or not), and celebrate our Lord who alone is worthy.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Last Sunday of the Year

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender, and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is. It is like a man going to a far country, who left his house and gave authority to his servants, and to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to watch. Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch! (Mark 13:28-37)

Let no one, however, suspect that, in speaking as we do, we belong to those who are indeed called Christians, but who set aside the doctrine of the resurrection as it is taught in Scripture. For these persons cannot, so far as their principles apply, at all establish that the stalk or tree which springs up comes from the grain of wheat, or anything else (which was cast into the ground); whereas we, who believe that that which is “sown” is not “quickened” unless it die, and that there is sown not that body that shall be (for God gives it a body as it pleases Him, raising it in incorruption after it is sown in corruption; and after it is sown in dishonor, raising it in glory; and after it is sown in weakness, raising it in power; and after it is sown a natural body, raising it a spiritual),—we preserve both the doctrine of the Church of Christ and the grandeur of the divine promise, proving also the possibility of its accomplishment not by mere assertion, but by arguments; knowing that although heaven and earth, and the things that are in them, may pass away, yet His words regarding each individual thing, being, as parts of a whole, or species of a genus, the utterances of Him who was God the Word, who was in the beginning with God, shall by no means pass away. For we desire to listen to Him who said: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.”

Origen, Against Celsus 5.22

Oh, what judicial sentences for gods to pronounce, as men’s recompense after death! They are more mendacious than any human judgments; they are contemptible as punishments, disgusting as rewards; such as the worst of men could never fear, nor the best desire; such indeed, as criminals will aspire to, rather than saints,—the former, that they may escape more speedily the world’s stern sentence,—the latter that they may more tardily incur it. How well, (forsooth), O you simplistic moralists do you teach us, and how usefully do you advise us, that after death rewards and punishments fall with lighter weight! whereas, if any judgment awaits souls at all, it ought rather to be supposed that it will be heavier at the conclusion of life than in the conduct thereof, since nothing is more complete than that which comes at the very last—nothing, moreover, is more complete than that which is especially divine. Accordingly, God’s judgment will be more full and complete, because it will be pronounced at the very last, in an eternal irrevocable sentence, both of punishment and of consolation, (on men whose) souls are not to transmigrate into beasts, but are to return into their own proper bodies. And all this once for all, and on “that day, too, of which the Father only knows;” in order that by her trembling expectation faith may make full trial of her anxious sincerity, keeping her gaze ever fixed on that day, in her perpetual ignorance of it, daily fearing that for which she yet daily hopes.

Tertullian, On the Soul 33

Friday, November 16, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Preserve me, O God, because I hope in You.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord,
You have no need of my good things.”
To the saints on His earth,
In them He magnified all His will.
Their diseases were multiplied;
They hastened after these things;
I will not join in their assemblies of blood,
Nor will I remember their names with my lips.
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup;
You are He who who restores my inheritance to me.
Portions fell to me among the best,
And my inheritance is the very finest.
I will bless the Lord who caused me to understand;
Moreover, until night my reins also instruct me.
I saw the Lord always before me;
Because He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken.
Therefore my heart was glad,
And my tongue rejoiced exceedingly;
My flesh also shall dwell in hope.
For You will not abandon my soul to Hades
Nor allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
You made known to me the ways of life;
You will fill me with gladness in Your presence;
At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:1–11)

Who has ever given Him anything, since “from Him, and through Him and in Him” are all things? The fount of life is that highest Good that bestows the substance of life on all, because it has life abiding in itself. It receives from no one as though it were needy; it lavishes goods on all and borrows from others nothing for itself, for it has no need of us. It says, too, in the person of humankind: “You do not need my goods.” What is more lovely than to approach Him and cling to Him? What pleasure can be greater? What else can he desire who sees and tastes freely of this fount of living water? what realms? what powers? what riches? when He sees how pitiable are the conditions of kings, how changeable the status of their power, how short the span of this life, in how great bondage even sovereigns must live, since they live at the will of others and not their own.

Ambrose, Letter 29

Since He had said approaching His Passion, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death,” it was right for Him to use these words to recall the Resurrection, teaching that in place of that discouragement He will be in unceasing joy, having become immune to suffering, to change, to death, even in His human nature. As God, you see, this was always the case, and of course even in His human nature once formed in the womb it was easy to provide Him with this. But He allowed the nature He had assumed to travel through the sufferings so as by these means to loose the sway of sin, put a stop to the tyranny of the Devil, undo the power of death, and proved all people with the basis of a new life. So as man He assumes both incorruption and immortality.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Psalms 16.8

Friday, November 9, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41–44)

We have been entrusted with the administration and use of temporal wealth for the common good, not with the everlasting ownership of private property. If you accept the fact that ownership on earth is only for a time, you can earn eternal possessions in heaven. Call to mind the widow who forgot herself in her concern for the poor and, thinking only of the life to come, gave away all her means of subsistence, as the Judge Himself bears witness. Others, He says, have given of their superfluous wealth; but she, possessed of only two small coins and more needy perhaps than many of the poor—though in spiritual riches she surpassed all the wealthy—she thought only of the world to come, and had such a longing for heavenly treasure that she gave away, all at once, whatever she had that was derived from the earth and destined to return there. Let us then invest with the Lord what He has given us, for we have nothing that does not come from Him: we are dependent upon Him for our very existence.

Paulinus of Nola, Letters 34

Friday, November 2, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to All Saints' Sunday


Sing to the Lord a new song,
His praise in the assembly of His holy ones.
Let Israel be glad in Him who made him,
And let the children of Zion greatly rejoice in their King.
Let them praise His name with dance;
With tambourine and harp let them sing to Him;
For the Lord is pleased with His people,
And He shall exalt the gentle with salvation.

The holy ones shall boast in glory,
And they shall greatly rejoice on their beds;
The high praise of God shall be in their mouth
And a two-edged sword in their hand,
To deal retribution to the nations,
Reproving among the peoples,
To shackle their kings with chains
And their nobles with fetters of iron,
To fulfill among them the written judgment:
This glory have all His holy ones. (Psalm 149:1-9)

What greater strength is there than to bestow such great power on His saints that by His gift they gain victories over their enemies? But when he says: The saints shall rejoice in glory: they shall be joyful in their beds, they now attain the happy status which embraces the joys of the saints and the power of those who believe in Christ. But let us now observe how the saints’ rejoicing is described. Glory denotes repeated praise consisting of good deeds; the just rejoice in it in their beds, that is, in the depths of their hearts. As Paul puts it: For our glory is this: the testimony of our conscience; for they rejoice in the region accessible only to the knowledge of Him who deigned to bestow it. They rejoice particularly since they weigh the fact that they have a Lord whose goodness finds expression in bestowing pardon on the guilty, grace on sinners, enduring glory on the undeserving. By contrast the foolish person in this world departs from himself, rejoices in people’s gossip, and imagines that he deserves the praise with which lying words exalt him. So the saints have a doctrine of glorying, and put limits to their joy, ascribing to Him all the blessings which He bestows. If there is no limit put on happiness, there is no joy, but destruction.

We must observe how beautiful, how useful these differing expressions are. Earlier he said that the saints rejoice in their beds; now he says that the Lord’s rejoicings are set in their throats, the sense being that they never cease to praise whether in thought or in tongue Him from whom they obtain eternal gifts. He also moves on to explain the power that they wield, with the words: And two-edged swords in their hands. The two-edged sword is the word of the Lord Savior, of which Christ Himself says in the gospel: I have come not to send peace to the earth, but a sword. It is two-edged because it contains the two Testaments. First it separated Jews from Gentiles; subsequently it segregated and cut off only the Christians from the enticements of the whole world. There is one sword, but two ways of cutting which He grants to the chosen peoples at various selected moments of time. So the prophet says that these swords are in their hands, in other words, in the power of the saints; as Scripture has it: The word of the Lord came to the hand of Haggai the prophet. So the blessed ones will assume this power and pass judgment in company with the Lord; as Scripture says: You shall sit on twelve seats, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. For note what follows: To execute vengeance upon the nations, chastisements among the people. This truly takes place when they shall judge in company with the Lord.

Cassiodorus, Commentary on the Psalms 149.5–7

Friday, October 26, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Reformation Sunday

Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—saying with a loud voice, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.” (Re 14:6–7)

He refers to the messenger who runs throughout the church, which is spread far and wide and is to be extended even more. He uses the singular for the plural, or in the one [messenger] he is suggesting the unity of the single church; yet, at the same time, he is alluding to the preachers of eternal life. It rightly says that he preaches an eternal gospel, by which the preacher is taught to look forward to eternal salvation. And so the one who preaches is indicated by that which is preached. Therefore the psalm says, “He who makes the winds his messengers and burning fire his ministers.”

Although from the beginning of the Christian faith we have learned that the kingdom of heaven is said to be approaching, here, however, he proclaims that the hour of His judgment will come very soon and is virtually here already. And therefore he maintains that preaching of this kind must necessarily be made known to all people, as also the Lord said, “This gospel will be preached throughout the world, and then the end will come.” And to show that that moment of time takes place, when the adversity of the last persecution will draw near, he has rather added that the temporal power of the beast should best be regarded as insignificant and that the Lord rather be feared, whom every one of his creatures, whom he mentions, acknowledges to be eternal.

Primasius of Hadrumetum, Commentary on the Apocalypse 14.6–7

Friday, October 19, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” … Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mk 10:22, 28–31)

Therefore on hearing those words, the blessed Peter, the elect, the chosen one,the first of the disciples, for whom alone and Himself the Savior paid tribute, quickly seized and comprehended the saying. And what does he say? “See, we have left all and followed You.” Now if by all he means his own property, he boasts of leaving four oboli perhaps in all, and forgets to show the kingdom of heaven to be their recompense. But if, casting away what we were now speaking of, the old mental possessions and soul diseases, they follow in the Master’s footsteps, this now joins them to those who are to be enrolled in the heavens. For it is thus that one truly follows the Savior, by aiming at sinlessness and at His perfection, and adorning and composing the soul before it as a mirror, and arranging everything in all respects similarly.

But let neither this trouble you, nor the still harder saying delivered in another place in the words, “Whoever hates not father, and mother, and children, and his own life besides, cannot be My disciple.” For the God of peace, who also exhorts to love enemies, does not introduce hatred and dissolution from those that are dearest. But if we are to love our enemies, it is in accordance with right reason that, ascending from them, we should love also those nearest in kindred; or if we are to hate our blood-relations, deduction teaches us that much more are we to spurn from us our enemies: so that the reasonings would be shown to cancel one another. But they do not cancel each other, nor are they near doing so. For from the same feeling and disposition, and on the ground of the same rule, one loving his enemy may hate his father, inasmuch as he neither takes vengeance on an enemy, nor reverences a father more than Christ. For by the one word he destroys hatred and injury, and by the other excessive deference towards one’s relations, if it is detrimental to salvation. If then one’s father, or son, or brother, be godless, and become a hindrance to faith and an impediment to the higher life, let him not be friends or agree with him, but on account of the spiritual enmity, let him dissolve the fleshly relationship.

Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? 21–22

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Seven Marks of a True Church

Bryan Wolfmueller has edited and made available a work by Martin Luther entitled On the Councils and the Churches. One of the treasures in this book is Luther’s list of seven marks for a true church.
  1. This Christian, holy people is to be known by this, that it has God’s Word, though in quite unequal measure, as St. Paul says. Some have it altogether pure, others not entirely pure.… This is the main point. It is the high, chief, holy possession from which the Christian people take the name “holy,” for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; nay, it is the very holiness of God.
  2. God’s people, or the Christian holy people, is known by the holy Sacrament of Baptism, when it is rightly taught and believed and used according to Christ’s ordinance.
  3. God’s people, or a Christian, holy Church is known by the holy Sacrament of the Altar, when it is rightly administered according to Christ’s institution and is believed and received.
  4. The people of God, or holy Christians, are known by the keys, which they publicly use. Christ decrees, in Matthew 18:15 that if a Christian sins, he shall be rebuked, and if he does not amend his ways, he shall be bound and cast out; but if he amends, he shall be set free. This is the power of the keys.
  5. The Church is known outwardly by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices which they occupy. For we must have bishops, pastors, or preachers, to give, administer and use, publicly and privately, the four things, or precious possessions, that have been mentioned, for the sake of and in the name of the Church, or rather because of their institution by Christ…. The whole group cannot do these things, but must commit them, or allow them to be committed, to someone.
  6. The holy, Christian people is known by prayer and public thanksgiving and praise to God. Where you see and hear that the Lord’s Prayer is prayed and the use of it is taught; where Psalms, or spiritual songs, are sung, in accordance with the Word of God and the right faith; when the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Catechism are openly used; — there be sure that a holy Christian people is; for prayer, too, is one of the precious holy possessions, whereby everything is made holy, as St. Paul says.
  7. The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross. It must endure all hardship and persecution, all kinds of temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says) from devil, world, and flesh; it must be inwardly sad, timid, terrified; outwardly poor, despised, sick, weak; thus it becomes like its head, Christ.
Every church has some or many of these marks to one degree or another, but where one finds these in there entirety and used correctly should be the norm.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’” And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.” Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mk 10:17-22)

Let us see, then, how the questioner styled Him, besides calling Him good. He said, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do?” adding to the title of good that of master. If Christ then did not chide because He was called good, it must have been because He was called good Master. Further the manner of His reproof shows that it was the disbelief of the questioner, rather than the name of master, or of good, which He resented. A youth, who provides himself upon the observance of the law, but did not know the end of the law, which is Christ, who thought himself justified by works, without perceiving that Christ came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to those who believe that the law cannot save through the faith of justification, questioned the Lord of the law, the Only-begotten God, as though He were a teacher of the common precepts and the writings of the law. But the Lord, abhorring this declaration of irreverent unbelief, which addresses Him as a teacher of the law, answered, “Why do you call Me good?” and to show how we may know, and call Him good, He added, “None is good, save one, God,” not repudiating the name of good, if it be given to Him as God.

Then, as a proof that He resents the name good master, on the ground of the unbelief, which addresses Him as a man, He replies to the vain-glorious youth, and his boast that he had fulfilled the law, “One thing you lack; go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” There is no shrinking from the title of good in the promise of heavenly treasures, no reluctance to be regarded as master in the offer to lead the way to perfect blessedness. But there is reproof of the unbelief which draws a worldly opinion of Him from the teaching, that goodness belongs to God alone. To signify that He is both good and God, He exercises the functions of goodness, opening the heavenly treasures, and offering Himself as guide to them. All the homage offered to Him as man He repudiates, but He does not disown that which He paid to God; for at the moment when He confesses that the one God is good, His words and actions are those of the power and the goodness and the nature of the one God.

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 9.16–17

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Whatever Works

Recently, I became aware of a piece written by Anthony Esolen in July on the decay of the Roman Catholic mass as it succumbs to pragmatism. Note his melancholy derived from questionable expressions of worship.
Here I am three and four times cursed.

I have read and taught poetry all my adult life. This is one curse. I know English grammar. That is a second curse. My family and I are versed in the long tradition of Christian hymnody; we collect hymnals from all traditions, and we have sung one or two thousand of them, sometimes in languages other than English. This is a third and most terrible curse. And we know our Scripture. Cursed a fourth time, cursed and damned to writhe in eternal pain. Well, not eternal. The pain is transient but real—pain mingled with frustration and disappointment, that well-meaning people should give their talents and energies to stuff that is so worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless. For sometimes it is flat-out heresy.
While I am not Roman Catholic, I do feel his pain. Reverence is too often exchanged for pragmatism, depth for delicacies. Better to be taking the sage advice of Pastor Larry Peters:
We need to pay attention to Scripture. Saying back to God what He has said to us is the most sure and certain thing we can say and do in worship. I think I read that somewhere. We need to pay attention to history. Every age and generation is not given a blank slate to create worship but they are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. We need to pay attention to creed and confession. What we do on Sunday morning must be more than consistent with what we say we believe—it must be an accurate reflection of what we say we believe—prayed dogma! We need to pay attention to what is new not as determinative but as a contribution to a catholic past and a catholic future. Not everything new is evil but we must carefully discern what is good, right, true, beautiful, faithful, and worthy from our own age and generation. We need to pay attention to language. Words flow in and out of our vocabularies and they change in meaning but this must be held in tension with the vocabulary of Scripture and tradition and words that mean what God says they mean. We need to pay attention to excellence.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Remembering Who Serves Whom

What happens on Sunday morning in a church gathering? What do we expect? Certainly, we come to hear a message from the preacher, but what else goes on? We call this meeting time a service, but who is being served and why? Among other things we give financial gifts, offer up Godward worship for His person and praise for His deeds, plus hear a well-crafted delivery from the pastor. As a result, we have arrived at the conclusion that the service is where we serve or give to God, but Scripture seems to reverse this: God serves or gives to us.

The clearest instructions of corporate worship in Scripture are those delivered to Moses. While the people of Israel were camped at Mount Sinai, God gave multiple instructions concerning the construction of the sanctuary and furnishings, followed by the high priestly garments and consecration rite. After giving these instructions, the Lord described what would be their most common communal task—the daily sacrifice.
Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two unblemished lambs of the first year, day by day continually. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening. With the one lamb shall be one-tenth of a measure of fine flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of pressed oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine as a drink offering. The other lamb you shall offer in the evening, as at the morning offering, and according to the drink offering of the morning lamb. You shall offer it as a sacrifice of sweet aroma to the Lord. This shall be a continual sacrifice throughout your generations at the doors of the tabernacle of testimony before the Lord, where I will be known to you to speak to you. There I shall give directions to the children of Israel, and I shall be sanctified in My glory. So I will sanctify the tabernacle of testimony and the altar. I will also consecrate both Aaron and his sons to minister to Me as priests. I will be called upon among the children of Israel and will be their God. So they shall know I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt to be called upon among them and to be their God. (Ex 29:38–46)
At first glance, we notice a good deal of preparation and completion of the twice-daily burnt and drink offerings. One may come away with the idea that the purpose was for the people to perform some ritual in order to garner God’s favor and presence. On closer examination, we see that only the priest was in active service. All others present were beneficiaries of the provided atoning sacrifice. Through the continual act of one, God met with His people at the altar, sanctified the entire company, and dwelt in their midst. The application for the church should be obvious: Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, is the final burnt offering. He is the continuous sacrifice through which we now receive His divine presence, communion, and sanctification. How does this truth affect our corporate gatherings as believers? When gathering for worship, we are to remember that we have nothing to do to provoke or entice the Lord to deign us with His presence. He makes Himself present, He dwells with us, He makes us holy to stand before Him. All this is gained by virtue of what Christ has completed on the cross: it is ours by faith. Do we give to God? Of course, but it is not to initiate communion with Him. Rather we express our trust and dependence in the outpouring of adoration for His loving, faithful work and promise to the children of men.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them. (Mk 10:13-16)

But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted—and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace—how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another.

And therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council, that by us no one ought to be hindered from baptism and from the grace of God, who is merciful and kind and loving to all. Which, since it is to be observed and maintained in respect of all, we think is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreat.

Cyprian, Letter to Fidus 58.5–6

Monday, October 1, 2018

Dirtier Than Dirt

I am currently reading Liturgical Worship by Jordan Cooper, and after finishing only four chapters, my opinion of this work is quite favorable. Consider an observation in the chapter “Confession and Absolution” drawn from Uzzah attempting to steady the ark of the Testimony (2 Samuel 6:6–8).
While the ark began to fall off the cart, Uzzah had two options: either he could let the ark fall onto the dirt, or he could stretch out his hand and catch it. As most of us probably would, Uzzah assumed that his hand was cleaner than the dirt. This assumption was wrong. The dirt, in and of itself, is not unholy. The ground, though affected by sin, is not itself sinful. The earth has not acted against God’s holy will in rebellion against him. The same cannot be said of humanity. Unlike the land, Uzzah was a rebellious creature; he was infected with sin and uncleanness. Spiritually, apart from Christ, we are all, like Uzzah, unclean.
Dirtier than dirt? That hurts, but the assessment is entirely correct. When you and I came into this world, we were born in sin. David made this plain when he said:
For behold, I was conceived in transgressions,
And in sins my mother bore me. (Ps 51:7)
David was not bringing condemnation on his mother but acknowledging that from before birth to now, sin had been his constant companion. The man after God’s own heart came into this world a sinner; Uzzah was no different; neither are we. We cannot assume to lay hold of holy things without consequence. One must be made holy in order to come before a holy God and handle holy things.

Here, we might reply, “But Uzzah did this innocently. Doesn't that mean something?” No, it does not. The ark was only to be moved by those set apart for this work of ministry in a prescribed manner (Nu 4:4–6). Only they were allowed this privilege. David had inappropriately placed the ark on a cart, putting everyone at risk. When we presume to alter or improve on what the Lord has revealed through His Word, even with the best of intentions, we turn the holy and precious into the common and cheap.

We believers are all too prone to cheapen devotion and worship, thinking that our cultural surroundings, modern understanding, or personal preferences should hold more sway. Let’s not fool ourselves. Only He can cause us to stand holy before Him through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). May we conduct ourselves accordingly in pure worship and devotion, handling holy things in a holy manner as we assemble before Him.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where

Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where

Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire—where

Their worm does not die
And the fire is not quenched.
For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another. (Mark 9:42–50)

If today one is cast out of the assembly of this church because of some enormity, in how much grief and tribulation will his soul be? If it causes unbearable pain to be thrown out of this church, where the one who is rejected can eat and drink and speak with others and has the hope of being called back, how much more pain will there be if, because of his sins, one is separated from that church which is in heaven, and eternally separated from the assembly of the angels and the company of all the saints? For such a person it will not be enough punishment for him to be cast away, but in addition he will be shut out into the night, to be consumed by an eternal fire. One whose impenitent behavior has warranted his being finally shut out of that heavenly Jerusalem will not only be deprived of divine fellowship, but will also suffer the flames of hell, “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” where there will be the wailing of lamentation without any remedy, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not extinguished; where death would be sought as an end to torment, and not found.

Caesarius of Arles, Sermons 227.4

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Jesus, Our Sabbath Rest

There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (He 4:9–10)

Pastor Mark Preus is a hymnist of high caliber. Recently, he posted the following on Jesus as our sabbath rest. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Lord Jesus, Be My Sabbath Rest

1. Lord Jesus, be my Sabbath rest
For body and for spirit;
The soul to whom You speak is blessed,
And will Your peace inherit;
Have mercy, Christ, and come, draw near
To open now my heart to hear.

2. Your Sabbath Day is still profaned
When we love work and leisure
And think our faith could be sustained
While we serve care and pleasure,
Avoiding preaching of Your Word
For worldly work and its reward.

3. But for this sin Jerusalem
Was brought to sad destruction;
Though many years You called to them,
They shunned Your Word’s protection,
And scorned their loving Shepherd’s rod,
And lied when they called You their God.

4. Lord, it is this idolatry
That I find in me living;
Ignoring You and loving me
No rest to me is giving –
When sin is what I labor for,
I only serve sin even more.

5. It’s not in keeping outward rules
That I could end this labor;
I cannot find in me the tools
To love You and my neighbor,
Since there is rest in love, I know,
But only You this love can show.

6. The Sabbath knows You as its Lord,
Since You obeyed the Father,
When all our work on you was poured,
Since You became our Brother
To offer pure and sinless hands
To do the work the Law demands.

7. What is this pouring from Your side
Into my weary spirit?
What are these words that You once cried?
My heart so longs to hear it!
“It’s finished! All your work is done –
Now claim the rest My death has won.”

8. The water quenches all my thirst,
Your blood now teaches Abel
To sing to all in Adam cursed,
“Come, sit at Jesus’ table
To find forgiveness for your sin,
And rest from all regret within.”

9. Lord Jesus Christ, our Sabbath rest,
Still speak, our faith sustaining,
Till all your saints will have possessed
The rest that is remaining,
When as we rise we hear Your voice,
“All things are ready! Come, rejoice!”