Christian Living – Part 1 | The Spiritual Life of Pharisees

Let's begin with this question: What was the spiritual life of Pharisees?

Without going too deep into the details, we can say it was a relationship with God based upon obeying the commands or laws given by God. For Pharisees, these laws were either directly taken from Scripture or were interpretations of scriptural laws developed by teachers. To them, obeying these laws meant a person was righteous and in good with God.

However, what was their experience of this system? Paul very honestly tells us in Romans 7. The law, rather than leading him to righteousness taught him sin. That is, it taught him what sin is and showed him his guilt. Paul also learned that even though he loved the law and agreed with it he could not KEEP it. As he says, "I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" Romans 7:15.  "I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out" Romans 7:18.

Stop and think about this. Paul the Pharisee was highly educated in theology, very zealous for God, blameless in his outward behavior, and yet was unable to obey the law of God because he was driven to do things that he knew were wrong and hated. He was unable to restrain himself from certain sins (perhaps particularly the coveting condemned in the 10th command, Romans 7:7-8). He could maintain the appearance of obedience but not truly obey.

Paul is using his experience as an illustration of this important principle: for anyone to obey God, we need something beyond the law. Even religious people don't have the ability to obey God in themselves.

He describes it this way: "I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" Romans 7:22-23.

Let's look closer at this verse.

1) It helps me to substitute 'command' for 'law'. The word law can be a little abstract in my mind, whereas a command is very concrete. I delight in the command of God, Paul says. He truly had intellectual satisfaction in the rightness of God's command for him. Nevertheless, he realized there were actually TWO commands competing within him: the command from his mind (to do what God told him) and the command of sin. He could not mentally command himself because the command of sin was more powerful and he was captive to sin's demands.

2) The command of sin arises from our bodies. For some reason, people argue against this. Maybe they want to (correctly) reject the Neoplatonic concept that matter is evil and contact with matter corrupts our souls. Perhaps they want to argue that our bodies are good and not evil containers we long to shed or that our bodies are an important part of who were are and as such cannot be disconnected from our identity. Which are true. Or maybe they want to argue that sin dwells in our souls and/or our minds or our wills. I could see one using the case of the fallen angels to argue this point. However, here Paul is clear: "sin … dwells in my members". "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh" Romans 7:18. "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" Romans 7:24. "I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Romans 7:25.

Why drive this point? This is not important for simply arguing with others, but it does seem to be very important in order to understand Paul's principles for Christian living in Romans 6-8, which we will say more about in the following posts.

Categories: Theology

What’s Wrong with the Church?

The numbers don’t fit.

We know from our daily experience that we live in a nation that has forgotten God. We know that Christianity is an unpopular belief, one that is being barred from the public square and scrubbed from the awareness of almost everyone. Behaviors that a decade ago were still considered immoral are becoming quickly enshrined as civil rights. The change in beliefs has been so rapid and complete that the few Christians remaining are bewildered.

But the numbers don’t fit.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that 78.4% of Americans identify as Christians. The next largest group is the 16.1% of Americans who say they are unaffiliated with any religious group. All other religions make up 4.7% of the society.

Of course, we could dig deeper into the statistics. Evangelicals are only 26.3% of the population; but keep in mind that this is the largest group of any in the survey. The Protestant mainline churches come in at 18.1%, Roman Catholics at 23.9%. No other affiliation comes close.

Seeing this data, I am driven to ask two questions. The first is, “Are they nuts?” How can these numbers possibly be correct when our experience is so very different? The second question is this: “If these numbers are true, what is wrong with the Church in America?”

And that’s where I’m stuck. I meet Christians all the time, in every type of setting. I know many folk who are for goodness and propriety in society, who want to see the historic faith of Americans remain alive and active in the nation, and who are strongly opposed to the accelerating move toward an unchristian and immoral civic life. Why are they so powerless? How can the largest group in the nation have absolutely no influence on politics and civic discourse?

I have conceded three conclusions.

1) The number of Christians who are willing to stand up for their beliefs has probably fallen to a breaking point. The percentage numbers are Christians in name, or even in conviction, but are hollowed out by many who are unwilling to go to the mat for the faith.

2) Immorality and spiritual indifference are far more common in the Church than anyone wants to confess. Sin frolics unchecked in the Church and we require God’s judgment not His reward. We talk big but our prayer closets are empty. Our secrets are many, but they’re not the ones Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount.

3) Strength in numbers is not the true power of social transformation. After all, the nation became this way after being thoroughly Christianized.

I awoke to this last conclusion while preaching a sermon about something else. The text was Judges 7.1-9. This relates the time some neighboring tribes, the Midianites and their buddies, dominated the Israelites and would set up their tents in Israel and take all their crops and livestock. The passage records how the people cried out to the Lord from their fear and suffering and He answered. His first word was not too encouraging: He sent a prophet to scold them, “You have not obeyed My voice.” (6.10)

His next act was to call Gideon, an insignificant and fearful man, a “mighty man of valor” saying “the Lord is with you” (6.12). Gideon makes every effort to prove the Lord’s statement about him false, trying to work up some confidence in the part he was being asked to play in the deliverance of the nation.

Preparing for the message, a question formed in my mind: “What took the Israelites so long to throw the creeps out of their land?” Now, I know that the Bible tells us that the Midianites were “like locusts in number” and that “both they and their camels could not be counted” (6.5), but I was struck by the number of troops Gideon rallied from just four of the Israelite tribes: 32,000. That is larger than a modern division of 10,000 to 30,000 troops. If someone in Israel had gone around to the twelve tribes and raised them all to war, they might have fielded a corps of 90,000 men. So, why didn’t they ACT?

The frank answer is fear. Gideon is as typical in this as anyone. The angel of the Lord visited him while he was grinding a little grain into flour–hiding in a pit so he couldn’t be seen by their enemies. When Gideon later allowed those who were scared to leave his army two-thirds of them went home. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

However, there is a deeper reason than simple fear. The people “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian” (6.1). Israel’s failure was foremost a religious and moral failure and the Lord brought a political crisis on them in response. This crisis was intended to steer the people back to obedience to God. When the people confessed their need and cried out to the Lord He acted, bringing about deliverance through the tiny army of 300 men under Gideon.

Why didn’t they act? They were unable, being under the judgment of God. They were without the Lord, and unable to rise to courage.

On the other hand, God acted and a paltry three hundred could set the “plague of locusts” flying before them.

Realizing this set me thinking about the past. Scholars estimate that church attendance was lower in colonial America than even today. In His timing, the Lord sent pastors and evangelists such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and against resistance America was mightily transformed during the “First Great Awakening”.

In the 1500s, the great scholar Erasmus is said to have wondered how the monk Martin Luther started the Reformation, since Luther hadn’t said anything Erasmus himself had said before. In other words, people were seeking a cleansing of Church morals for years without effect. Without knowing what he was doing, Luther was the spark that set the western world on fire, and through him God brought spiritual and social transformation.

Jesus also delivered us this way. In the darkness of Rome and the corruption of Israel, God lifted up a servant from obscurity to deliver His people. Jesus was more than a Luther or Jonathan Edwards, sent to work the greatest deliverance. No mere man could do it. And yet, the pattern remains.

After that sermon on Judges, I was left thinking about these principles:

Failure comes because we invite it.

Regardless how dark the hour God can set all aright.

He acts by raising up a servant or servants to carry out His designs.

Through them He sparks revolution, reformation, revival.

No matter how far the culture has decayed, or Christians sunk, or the government turned, revival is possible.

So, 78.4% of Americans is too many (Judges 7.2). The required number is ONE.

What is left to us is to return and cry out to the Lord.

Whom will He send? I don’t know, but no one great and mighty.

Categories: Church Stuff, Theology

Jesus… the Baptist?

Did you know Jesus was also a “baptist”? That Jesus was also “Israel”? No?

This overview of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry starts with John in the wilderness.

John the Baptist’s Ministry

We learn from Lk 1.80 that John was living in the wilderness before he received his calling from God Lk 3.1-2. This was likely the wilderness of Judea, where he would do some of his baptizing later. This is where John began to preach & baptize in the “wilderness of Judea” and the “region around the Jordan” Mt 3.1, Lk 3.3.

John’s Message was at root very simple: 1) “Repent” (this is also seen in his “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins”) Mt 3.2, Lk 3.3. The people were to do this because 2) “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” Mt 3.2. The kingdom was at hand since the Messiah (in Greek the “Christ”) was already alive and hidden among the people of Israel. 3) “Among you stands one whom you do not know” Jn 1.26, 4) “He who is coming after me” Mt 3.11, Jn 1.27; 5) this “coming one will baptize with the Holy Spirit & with fire”. (So, He will also baptize! But not with water?)

John’s Purpose in the plan of God was two-fold.

First, he was to prepare the people for the arrival of the Messiah. This is one reason for John to preach repentance of sin, since the people had to sanctify themselves to be ready for God to visit them. This is reminiscent of

Ex 19.10-11 the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.

This preparatory activity was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40.3:

Matt 3.3 “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

John’s father already knew this when John was born, leading him to say when John was very young:

Luke 1.76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…

Certainly, this expectation of John, as well as his being filled with the Spirit from the womb, caused John to spend so much of his life in the wilderness even before the call of God came to him.

Jesus, speaking of John in this context, also refers to Malachi 3.1 and 4.5:

Matt 11.10 “This is he of whom it is written, ’Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’”

Matt 11.13-14 “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”

Malachi 4.5 ”Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”

John’s second purpose was to reveal the Messiah. As the Gospel of John informs us, this was to happen by a sign from God connected with baptism.

John 1.31-34 “I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

As John was baptizing the many who would come out to the wilderness to repent, one person would be unique, and He would be the long awaited Messiah.

Jesus’ Baptism

Apparently, Jesus came for baptism at the end of the day, at the end of the line.

Luke 3.21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized

When Jesus came to John, John didn’t want to baptize Him.

Matt 3.13-15 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

Why did John hesitate to baptize Jesus? This question is important for it helps us to understand John’s recognition of the Messiah. John did not want to baptize Jesus because he suspected Him to be the Messiah. Note the two things John says about the Messiah:

Matt 3.11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

We see first John’s humility & sense of unworthiness; as if the master is coming to the servant to serve him. Second, John realizes that he needs to be baptized w/Jesus’ superior baptism (with the Holy Spirit).

A third point we might make is that Jesus was sinless; since John’s baptism was one of repentance for sin He of all people would not require it. However, I suspect that this is part of Jesus’ revelation to the people through the baptism of John. As all were coming to a baptism of repentance, there was only one approved by God and in no need of repentance: Jesus. This is made clear when the voice from heaven declares the Father is pleased with Jesus.

Jesus’ Reply was to encourage John to baptize Him, in effect saying that both of them were to fulfill their own calling; John’s baptism of Jesus was necessary to reveal the Messiah to Israel and to complete the image of the Exodus in Jesus’ life so that Jesus would clearly identify with His people in His role as sin-bearer (more on this in a moment).

Did John recognize the Messiah before the baptism or afterward? Remember in the fourth Gospel, John the Baptist said:

John 1.32-33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

Why then would John prevent Jesus if he did not know that Jesus was the Messiah?

One the one hand, Jesus was John’s cousin, so they might have met previously. At least John would have heard the family discussions about Jesus. On the other hand, John did live apart from people (and his family) for some part of his life; it is possible he did not know that much about Jesus’ later development. Some speculate that God gave John a realization of the identity of Jesus just as he saw Jesus approaching to be baptized. Whether John entertained suspicions for a long time, or realized it as Jesus descended into the water at the end of that long day, the falling of Holy Spirit on Jesus was a confirmation without doubt of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. As John was to witness to the Messiah’s identity, he had to have a clear testimony from God.

Another question we might ask is why did John not become a disciple of Jesus?

Matt 11.11-14 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.

John was the concluding leading figure of the Old Testament era. Is this why, as great as John was, the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he? John’s ministry as a signpost was not over once the Messiah was revealed. Still, he saw himself decreasing in significance as the Messiah developed His ministry, accepting that there was a transitory nature to his work. It is impossible to say what might have happened if John had lived longer.

Jesus was also a Baptist! Jesus opened His ministry by baptizing.

John 3.22-24 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison).

But the Messiah’s significant baptism would not be with water:

Matt 3.11-12 [John said] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

From this statement, I think the baptism with Holy Spirit is equal to gathering the wheat into the barn, or the salvation of people, including them in the Kingdom, and the baptism with fire is judgment.

What do we learn from the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus?

Luke 3.22 the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son;with you I am well pleased.”

The statement of God seems to refers to Psalm 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1 and following.

Psalm 2.7-8 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”

Isaiah 42.1-7 “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…”

Both of these identify the Son and place Him in a Messianic understanding. Therefore, God’s pronouncement is a witness by God to the messianic identity of Jesus.

Jesus’ Temptation

Matt 4.1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Tightly connected to Jesus’ baptism is His departure into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. It seems to follow the baptism as a consequence of it. The Holy Spirit fell on Jesus and His first act is to impel Jesus toward this temptation. Note that the initiative here was on the side of God not Satan. God wanted Jesus to face this temptation. Why?

There are different prepositions used in the Gospels to describe the Spirit’s leading:

Matthew

[Up] into

eivj th.n e;rhmon 4.1 into the wilderness

Mark

Out into

eivj th.n e;rhmon 1.2 drove him out into the wilderness.

Luke

In

evn th/| evrh,mw| 4.1 was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (NASB: “led around by the Spirit in the wilderness”)

Matthew & Mark just point out that Jesus went from the location where he was baptized into the wilderness; Luke makes us aware that Jesus was being led about IN the wilderness. This reminds us of Israel at the time of the Exodus.

Deut 8.2 And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.

Jesus’ baptism corresponds to the Israelites’ passing through the Red Sea.

1 Cor 10.1-5 …our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea … Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Just as the Israelites were “baptized” in the sea then went up to be led through the wilderness (led by the pillar of smoke and fire) to be tested, we can draw this comparison:

Israel: Red Sea ► Wilderness ► Testing ► Disobedience

Jesus: Baptism ► Wilderness ► Testing ► Obedience

This connection is proven further by the fact that the quotes Jesus uses to condemn the words of the tempter are all drawn out of Deuteronomy in the context of the wilderness testing of the Israelites:

Matthew Deuteronomy
4.4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘ Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 8.3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
4.7 “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 6.16 You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.
4.10 “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘ You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'” 6.13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.

Jesus, the Son of God. The beginning of Jesus’ work in this way identifies Him with Israel. There is more to this. We already pointed out the Father’s declaration of Jesus as Son. Israel is also called God’s son in connection with the Exodus:

Ex 4.22-23 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.'”

Deut 1.30-31 The LORD your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’

Hosea 11.1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

Possibly, just as God revealed with certainty to the people that Jesus was the Messiah, Satan also saw that this one named Jesus was going to be his adversary, for He was the Son of God. So, it is telling that Satan seeks to attack Jesus’ identity in his temptations of Jesus:

Matt 4.3-9 And the tempter came and said to him,

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus’ status and rule is recognized in the baptism; Satan’s attack is directly against Jesus’ proclaimed status.

By this paralleling of the nation of Israel in the Exodus, Jesus is taking up the representative role that Israel had before Him. He is given the challenge: Will You obey God? The Israelites, as the covenant people of God, failed to do it. Rather miserably. Adam, too, as representative of the human race was also given the same challenge to obey and failed (Hosea 6.6-7 may link Adam and Israel explicitly). Jesus, the second Adam (Romans 5.11-21; 1 Corinthians 15.21-22, 45-49) came to obey and in His obedience to bring life to men and women. Jesus is victorious! Where the others disobeyed and sinned, Jesus remained true and faithful!

Categories: Bible, Theology

Are Pictures of Jesus Idols?

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently.

The argument is made that all images of Jesus are prohibited by the 2nd Commandment in Exodus 20:2-6 :

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

In the argument, it is stated that this rule forbids all representations of God made by human artifice.  This includes symbolic representations such as a lamb used to represent “the Lamb of God”.

I have a few questions.

1) Exegetically, looking at the 2nd Commandment; what does the text say?

It is a complex of prohibitions revolving around worshiping something other than God. No other gods, don’t make images, and don’t worship them.  And this is all serious business, as there is a curse and blessing invoked.  However, the images which are forbidden to be made are not said to be images representing God, but things in heaven, in earth, or under the earth.

There are three possibilities for interpreting this text:

  • A prohibition of imaging all created things. This is the plainest reading of the text; that all images of created things are off-limits. The text does not refer directly to images of God Himself, but created things.  God later commands the people to make images of things in heaven – the cherubim – and things in the earth – flowers, fruits, and so on.  Therefore, we must return to the second commandment and say it does not forbid making images of created things, even images used within the worship setting.
  • A prohibition of imaging God through created things.  This is the understanding of the Reformed Confessions, understanding ‘no images’ to refer to any and all symbolic representations of God in the form of created things. I am willing to accept this time-honored interpretation; however, it doesn’t seem to be the point of the command. All three statements, taken together, refer instead to idolatry: “no other gods”, “no images of created things”, “you shall not serve images”.
  • A prohibition of creating images intended to be worshiped, particularly of other gods. This would say that no images of created things may be used as representatives for gods or God in worship.  After all, there were images of angels in the Holiest Place, but they were not intended as objects of worship, but rather images to recreate the setting of the heavenly throne, especially once the Glory of God took residence. The images in the tent of worship were there to further point toward the presence of God and to add beauty to the tent.

The clearer reading here for me is that images are not to be created to be worshiped.  For example, Leviticus 26:1:

You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God.

Or Deuteronomy 4:23, where Moses refers to making an image of anything forbidden:

Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you.

Further, Psalm 106:19-21 indicates that making an image is forgetting God, not imaging Him:

They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt…

This verse also calls to mind Romans 1:22-23:

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Here the people were not guilty of representing God with images but replacing God with images.

2) God made His own image to reflect Himself. It is man. As recorded in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The full impact of this became obvious later, as the second Adam, Jesus Christ, was the “image of the invisible God” Colossians 1:15.

3) Over and again, I have heard the declaration that images representing God are “misrepresentations” of God, hence sinful. I agree that all images, words, and thoughts fall short of describing the Majesty. However, when Jesus says God is like a king, isn’t He using an image (albeit mental) to represent God? Or a father? Or a landholder? All of these are, strictly speaking, misrepresentations in that God is really not those things in an earthly sense. In the same way, when John saw Jesus like a slain lamb, this is an image that misrepresents God in Christ. Or does it? It represents correctly an aspect of Jesus, though it does not comprehend Him.

I thought a quote from Watson posted once during a discussion of this issue was sort of funny, because it said that since Jesus was both God and man, an image showing only His humanity was a falsehood because it did not show His deity at the same time. If this is accurate, then the body of Jesus was also a falsehood, because only in the transfiguration was the deity of Christ manifested clearly upon it!

My question is this: at what point can anything we say or imagine about God be a complete comprehension of the Godhead? Logically, do we not have to cease all discussion of God since we cannot accurately portray His totality?  Of course, the proponents of this exclusion of all imagery still maintain that theology is possible and acceptable, and selectively apply this argument only to images.

Perhaps the reply would be that words and images are very different. Images are worth a thousand words, ie,: they convey more ancillary information than words. Words can be narrowed down to precision so that stray falsehoods do not creep into our concept of God due to the image; for example, I can say “the lamb” and neglect any other information about that creature whereas a picture must present the size, shape, color, and so forth of the lamb.  I can accept that. However, when David says “God is my shepherd” to a group of people that live with shepherds, it is impossible to disconnect words from mental images, and all that that entails.

4) The Westminster Larger Catechism says in Q 109, “The sins forbidden in the second commandment are … the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature…” This is very clear, and was clearly the reading of the 2nd Command by our fathers. Does not the Scripture err then, in leading us to picture Christ in our minds? For example, in the Revelation (in symbols) or in the Gospels in narrative? I can’t read John 4 without seeing Him sitting by the well in my mind. I recognize that whatever face my mind places upon Him is of course incorrect, even the clothes, the shape of the well, the type of trees, the smell of the dirt, the calls of the birds, the sound of the voice… yet, I cannot so abstract the narrative to see only words in my mind. Is this because I am an idol factory? Or is it because I am a person, and that is how people relate to narrative? Did Jesus also intend His hearers to imagine only words when He told them God was like a man who went on a journey?

5) Finally, I suppose; is there no distinction between the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and a picture of Christ entering Jerusalem, and an image of the victorious Lamb, and the common image used to explain the Trinity (an image representing God, be honest), and the word GOD on a page? If there is a distinction, what makes it?

Categories: Bible, Theology

‘Christmastime’ in Bethlehem with Ruth and Boaz

God’s will… God’s design sounds like a high and mighty thing. And it is. The wonder is that God often chooses to work out His highest plans through the humblest, most regular people.

Take for an example the Book of Ruth. In some ways it is the story of an Israelite at the lowest economic place in society; a woman whose husband and sons have died, with no income, with just a foreign daughter-in-law from across the border.

In other ways, it is the story of a decent, possibly lonely, man. A gentleman farmer with a simple life.

In other ways it is the story of a poor but hardworking and faithful immigrant widow, trying to serve her dead husband’s destitute mother with integrity.

This is to say that “Ruth” is the story of ordinary people trying to make it through life.

In still other ways, it is the story of a baby, little Obed, who brings restoration and comfort to the two widows and harmony and rightness into these three lives.

It is also the story, so briefly mentioned at the very end, of a king; for that baby who brought joy and hope to a family would be the grandfather of a great king of his people, David.

We see in this story the delight of the Creator of the universe to work out His ongoing creative work through humble people like Naomi, Boaz, Ruth, and baby Obed.

No one involved knew they were giving their people the future king! They were just living their lives and trying to do right in difficult times; trying to pay the bills and put food on the table.

They are just the kind of people God delights in.

“Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:1-2)

“But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”” (James 4:6)

And so, this humble family is given the grace of a king being their great-grandson. But, he wasn’t just a king. He also was a humble man, who no one bothered to call from the fields when the prophet Samuel visited the family looking for the next king. He was the humble man who wrote,

“Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.” (Psalm 25:8-10)

And,

“For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.” (Psalm 18:27)

Beyond all this, this humble little story about a humble little family who were blessed richly by the glorious God became Scripture, significant to the history of God’s people not merely because of their example but because of their greatest descendant: Obed means ‘one who serves’, and his descendent in turn would be called by God ‘my servant’.

“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.

As many were astonished at you – his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what they heard from us?   And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?  For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 52:13-53:6)

In the tale of Ruth, the ‘kinsman-redeemer’, Boaz, brings redemption in the person of a humble child, the real redeemer, the “one who serves”. Years earlier, God promised redemption in the person of a child to Abraham, saying, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). Millennia before that, God promised Eve redemption in the person of a child, saying to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). And here in Ruth (and more clearly in the first chapter of Matthew) we see that line of children traced to Obed, and hence to David, and beyond to David’s future descendant, Jesus; and in this child the salvation and hope of all of God’s humble people draws near!

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

The humble and righteous king was born into another humble and righteous family, obedient to God in the midst of difficult times–the son of Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph the carpenter. In Him, named Joshua, “God saves”, whom we call Jesus, would be the ultimate deliverance all of these looked for; He would be the fulfillment of their highest hopes.

And all of our hopes as well.

God fulfills His grand purposes for the universe through ordinary people who live mundane lives of humble, faithful obedience and righteousness.

Categories: Bible

The Panoply of the Messiah

Ephesians 6.10-19:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel…

Beginning with the Conclusion

This is the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church.

The letter is split in two halves. The first (chapters 1-3) reveals much about God’s purposes in Christ in the Church. These purposes are carried out in our calling by God: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” (Ephesians 1.3-4)

The second half (4-6) explains how we ought to live in “a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. (4.1) This manner will include unity (4.1-16) and a radical transformation from our previous thinking and lifestyles (4.17-24). This difference is exampled in 4.25-6.9. Another way to outline this passage is according to how we walk worthy in the church (4.1-16), in the world (4.17-5.21), and in the home (5.22-6.9).

Now, Paul moves on to explain how we walk worthy of our calling in the larger context of this age (6.10ff).

The Time We Live In

Our age has many human problems. Some are caused by things in nature, such as diseases or earthquakes. Some are caused by ourselves, conflicts that arise because of sin and the evil lusts of the flesh on a personal, social, and world scale. We are called to walk worthy of our calling within this environment.

There is another level of scale to this environment, however, a “metaphysic” level which includes things above or beyond the physical world. This is what we could call the “supernatural” world (though this is somewhat misleading if it leads us to consider that they aren’t real). It is the non-physical or generally unseen universe that exists contiguous with that with which we are familiar.

We cannot see ultraviolet light, except for the faintest tinge at the edge of the visible spectrum. This form of light is nevertheless as real as the red, yellow, and blue wavelengths which we can see. In the same way, the spiritual part of the universe is as real as the physical, but we cannot see it unless something happens to make it visible. As a further example, we cannot see God, even though He is more real than real. At times, however, He does reveal Himself in visible phenomena such as the pillar of fire and smoke, or the “angel of the Lord”, or the ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ.

The Spiritual Part of the Universe

This real, spiritual part of the universe has multiple features.

1) It has a geography. Perhaps this is the wrong terminology! Still, the spiritual part of the universe has places to which it’s residents can go. Heaven, “the heavenlies” (Ephesians 1.3, 20; 2.6; 3.10; 6.12 “the heavenly places” ESV), Sheol or the Grave, and Hell, are all notable locations.

2) It is populated. We learn from this text, and other places within the Scriptures, that it is residence for a species of highly intelligent, powerful creature. This creature is described in various forms in the Bible, but in general it appears to be a counterpart to man made to reside in the spiritual part of the universe. We call them “angels” (messengers) or demons depending upon their loyalties and moral commitments.

3) It has a history. The chronology is not entirely clear in Scripture, but we can see that there is an ongoing rebellion that began in this realm.

4) It is at war. The rebellion has become a conflict that has overflowed into our physical part of the universe. The Fall of Adam was instigated by the leader of the rebellion, Satan. He is still exercising influence in the human realm, called by Paul “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (2.2), “the devil” (6.11), and “the evil one” (6.16). He has attacked others in our history, such as Job, or Jesus.

5) The rebel forces have formed some sort of government in the occupied territory. We see this in the way they are described by Paul here and elsewhere. In 6.12 he gives us four titles.

a) The Archais, or Rulers.

b) The Exousias, or Powers, Jurisdictions.

These two titles appear multiple times in the New Testament, not always referring to evil, spiritual authorities; but in combination they always name spiritual governors. Some other examples are Ephesians 1.16-23; 3.10; Colossians 1.16; and Romans 8.38.

Here, two other titles are given:

c) The Kosmokratoras, or World Rulers administering this present darkness.

d) The Neumatika tis Ponirias, The Spirits of Evil in the Heavenlies.

These two seem to encompass both the contiguous physical domain as well as that part of the heavenly realm that is under their sway.

It is notable that this rebellious dominion under which the majority of mankind is enthralled is discussed following 5.18-6.9. There we are told that a result in man of the filling of the Holy Spirit is submission to proper, appointed authorities. The spirits of evil promote war against rightful authority and instigate an unrighteous self-rule and self-determinism. In the Kingdom of God, peace is found in submission to proper authority.

The Spiritual Rebellion

It is necessary to point out now that this spiritual rebellion is at war with us. God has removed us from their dominion. We were once partisans with “the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2.2-6). And yet, we are still dwelling in their territory and are under attack by them.

It is also important to note that our enemies, ultimately, are not people but spiritual powers in operation behind them. The attack can be direct at times, but it often mediated through people. These people are deceived and manipulated, and need salvation just as any of us. We were once a part of their ranks. Thanks be to God He has delivered us, and He may yet deliver even our greatest detractors or persecutors. Paul himself could testify to this.

A reason for this indirect plan of attack is that, as in every war, a large part of their strategy is to operate covertly, for then they have power to work against which we can do little. Paul, strips away this secrecy and opens to us the true nature of the universe and of our position in it. He calls us to be strong, not in our own wisdom, power, or strategies, but in the strength of God. They are creatures, just as we are, though of a different constitution. We must recognize that they are stronger than us and have the benefit of great age and greater, though far from perfect, clarity of knowledge. We have no human weapons that can fell them.

In God’s design, we were meant to show His glorious power through our weakness. As we face enemies we cannot defeat, His power and glory are seen.

The Panoply of God

Now we turn to the Armor of God. This armor is actually called the “panoply” of God; this is the term for the soldier’s complete kit of personal weaponry and armor. This is not a defensive set of tools; rather, it is the necessary equipment for surviving any type of tactical maneuver, whether defensive or offensive. This seems to be the point of Paul’s repeated refrain, “to stand”. We carry this equipment into battle so we can remain standing during the fight.

Jesus did not come to conduct a defensive action, but a bold tactical and strategic attack. He came to conquer His enemies and set free His people. We are to carry on that movement, and we are given the panoply of God in order to carry it out successfully against a strong and determined foe. To that end, we are given shielding, but also boots, a sword, and a “spiritual atomic bomb”. More on that later.

There is a clear emphasis on the completeness of the weaponry and the battle.

v11: panoply (from pas – full – oplon – armor or kit)

v12: we are given a summary list of our enemies

v13: “having done all”

v16: “in all circumstances”

“extinguish all the flaming darts”

v18: “praying at all times”

“with all prayer and supplication”

“keep alert with all perseverance”

“making supplication for all the saints”

We are to be able to stand after “the smoke has cleared”, having all the necessary equipment, having done everything necessary in every circumstance and overcoming every device of every enemy, and all of the saints emerging victorious together. Perhaps we can go a bit farther and say that we must be totally in the fight as well; totally committed, totally prepared, totally aware, totally protecting one another and fighting as a team.

The Equipment in the Panoply.

1) The Belt of Truth: This is not a belt such as we think of holding up our trousers. It is the undergarment of the armor, the most basic clothing, more like an apron to cover the loins and cover the nakedness of the soldier. Without truth, we go into battle unprepared and naked. We cannot even hope to win without the defense of the truth against the lies and feints of the enemy.

2) The Breastplate of Righteousness: This shields the heart and internal organs. A wound here is usually fatal, although the death may not be immediate. Without righteousness, either the ornate protection of the attributed righteousness of Jesus Christ or the flexible defense of personal righteousness, we are open to wounding and a slow death. Personal righteousness gives us a clear conscience; this enables us to fight on when the enemy assaults us with guilt. “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” (Proverbs 28.1). We are protected from false guilt, where we are waylaid with accusation of our unworthiness to stand. And we are protected from overwhelming guilt for sins past and present, that produce despair.

3) Having Feet Shod with the Preparation of the Gospel of Peace: Romans 10.15 reminds us that the very feet of the runner bringing good news from afar are lovely, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” Imagine if the runner was given the good news and ran out unshod to deliver the news! How far could he go before forced to stop and nurse his bleeding feet? We are booted with the readiness of the gospel of peace. By understanding the gospel, grasping the content of our message and being capable of presenting it, we can go forth at any time we are called upon to go. And ultimately, this is the great gift to those our enemies array against us! We can offer them the peace of the gospel–with their sworn enemies, God and His Christ, and with us in Him. For those our Lord takes as His own become our brothers and sisters.

4) The Shield of Faith: This shield is large (around 4’ x 2’) and gives the whole body protection, particularly against projectiles. It would be soaked in water before an engagement to squelch any flaming darts. The danger of these darts are twofold; of course the impact can damage the soldier, but contact with the flame becomes the greater harm, as it catches the leather and wood shield on fire and burns the soldier. Our shield protects us from the impact and also puts out the fire that can linger and destroy. These darts are cast by the evil one, and likely refer to temptations and the like. Faith is the shield. One thinks of Jesus in the wilderness, assaulted by Satan in fury. Jesus countered his attack with the Word of God, but not just the Word alone. Satan also bandied about the Word as a club; the difference is that Jesus was in faithful submission to the Word. He put His trust in God and in His words. It is not enough for us to grit our teeth and quote verses, but we also must trust in the God of those words.

5) The Helmet of Salvation: The head is the controlling region of our bodies–a blow to the head disorients and easily kills us. The salvation of the Lord shields us from an attack in this most vital area.

6) The Sword of the Spirit: This sword is a short weapon used in close battle. This continues the idea of “wrestling”, the fight being close enough to smell the breath of the enemy. This weapon is the Word of God. It has both defensive and offensive uses.

a) Defensive: In conjunction with Faith, it is a means of fending off temptation and doubt. It also cuts down falsehoods and deceptions.

b) Offensive: The Word is a powerful weapon to deal with the human minions of the enemy. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4.12). And not simply those, but it also is a mirror showing our own errors to us, so that we can repent and be conformed to Christ.

7) The final weapon in the panoply isn’t given a metaphorical name, but the last item is the javelin. It is a ranged weapon, cast from a distance before the two sides come to grip with each other. This is prayer. Earlier, I called it the “atomic bomb” of the Christian. It is the strongest of all the weapons, and can overcome all obstacles. But, the power of the prayer is not in the praying Christian but in the Lord prayed to. A modern metaphor is Laser Guided Munitions: with these, a person aims a laser at the intended target which guides in a guided bomb or missile sent from a location far away. We are simply “lighting up” things that need to be done when we pray, and the Lord either acts of doesn’t. But, if we neglect prayer, the impossible is never done. We are to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (6.18). This is a tactical, small-action movement, but it is also a grand-scale strategic effort. We can throw the spear at targets near and far.

Victory

Although already mentioned, it bears repeating again that that the purpose of the panoply is to remain standing as we go forth waging the battle our Lord has ordered. Several times Paul mentions that we are to “stand against” (11), “withstand”, “stand firm” (13), and to “stand therefore” (14). Our mission is to go forth into the world and call forth prisoners from dark dungeons of death; as we go, the enemy will fight; and we will be able to stand.

Resurrection Power

Earlier, Paul prayed for the Ephesians “that you may know … what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (1.19-22).

The phrase “the working of his great might” is exactly the same in the original language as Ephesians 6.10, where we are told to be strong in the Lord and in “the strength of his might”. This gives us further insight into the the strength we are to be strong in, for the first passage tells us this strength is what God worked in Christ in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It is first of all an ultimate power over our ultimate enemy, death. It is second of all an undeniable authority, by which the Father set Jesus on the throne of the universe over all opposition, right in the heavenlies–the place where the Archais and Exousias have their “government offices”. These same are now specifically far below the throne of Jesus Christ. All things, whether they are the evil powers or the good, are placed under Jesus’ feet, and this mighty authority is given to us, the Church, for our Lord.

What more could we ask for? Such an awesome Lord; and His authority turned toward us, that as we go forth on His campaigns He will march with us, even in us, and impart His great strength to us for standing in the fray.

The Panoply of the Messiah

And He gives to us more.

In Isaiah, we find similar articles listed as belonging to the Messiah:

Isaiah 11.5: Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

Isaiah 59.17: He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head

Isaiah 52.7: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

We also find all of the items illustrated in the life of Jesus; already mentioned was the use of the Word and faith in extinguishing the flaming dart of the evil one.

The panoply of God is not merely given by God, but is the Messiah’s own kit; given to us that we might stand as we carry out His requests. This seems almost a turn on the story of David and Saul: “Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off.” (1 Samuel 17.38-39) David could not go in the armor of Saul, and went forth in his own clothes, and in the power of God, to defeat the enemy Goliath. We might also see Jesus needing to go forth in His own armor to defeat His enemy. But we must put on the panoply of Christ if we hope for success!

Categories: Bible, Theology

Anthology

What do the poets say?

Not what the critics

Postulate and presume

Seated in the leather doom

Of their studies

Or shaky coffeehouse chairs

Putting thoughts in front of theirs

Bespoken.

Categories: (Bad) Poetry, personal

The Great Trespasser

There are so many boundaries in the world, places from where we are excluded. For example, the sea. We can stand in the surf, even swim in the shallows, but at some point our abilities end. Past this, we find danger and death. And yet, we are the great challengers of boundaries. We dream of ways to cross the boundaries and sail the seas, fly the air, leave the atmosphere. We accept the threat of death and forge ahead into the unknown.
I look out at the sea and wonder if God planned it all this way, that he set challenges before us and dares us to cross them. I wonder if this is something we have to do, to be who we are and were meant to be. I wonder if the boundary of our senses and ability to know is the greatest of all challenges: to forge out into the dwelling of God himself and find Him. Yes, there is danger in this. And yes, many doubt the existence of the new world, and ridicule those who venture on it’s discovery. But, perhaps, this is what the boundaries are all about.

Categories: personal, Theology

I stood in the surf.

Categories: Theology

Hush

“Hush!”
“But there it is again.
It’s the man in the attic, Mommy.”
“Hush, darling; there’s no man in the attic.”
“Don’t you hear him, Mommy?
He scribbles on the steps behind the door.”
“Here, I’ll lock the door…
See, no one can go this way.”
“Don’t worry, he can’t come out.
I think he’s stuck between the walls.
I think he wears big bracelets.
And he’s writing letters all the time.”
“Letters?”
“Yes. I saw some on the floor.
But they were all addressed to the same person
and they all said the same thing.
Maybe he was bad and has to write ‘I’ll be good’ over and over.”
“Who is he writing to?”
“I think it’s another ghost, Mommy.”
“Well, that would be appropriate.”
“Do you think he is in today or yesterday?”
“Hush, child. There’s no man in the attic.
Get in bed; it’s time to sleep, little dreamer.”

Categories: personal