Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven

In Matthew 13:31–33, Jesus tells two parables about the growth of the kingdom of heaven on earth during this age. 

The parable of the mustard seed:

"He put another parable before them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'" (13:31-32)

The mustard seed was proverbially small, and yet it grew to tower over all the vegetables, growing to be about 10 feet tall. Jesus describes it as a tree, recalling Old Testament imagery. In Daniel 4:10-12, 20-22 King Nebuchadnezzar and his imperial dominion is described as a great tree in which the birds find shelter. In Ezekiel 17:22-24 God promises to plant the offspring of David as a twig that will become a great tree in which the birds find shelter. Thus Jesus describes the extensive growth of the kingdom of heaven over the earth. The nations will take refuge in it.

The parable of the leaven:

"He told them another parable. 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.'" (13:33)

The hidden leaven grows to transform every part of the dough. Three measures is a lot of flour, around 60lbs of flour, enough to feed about 150 people, so that Jesus emphasizes the vast and pervasive transformation resulting from what appears to be a little thing. In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus warned of the "leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees," referring to their teaching. So in this parable, he refers to the transforming and contagious impact of his teachings. He describes the intensive growth of the kingdom in the earth, impacting every part. 

From these two parables we learn three things about the kingdom of heaven:

1. The kingdom of heaven begins small and often works in hidden ways. Its weapons are not of the flesh or of the world, but have divine power to destroy strongholds (2 Cor. 10:4). It looks foolish and weak until it puts the wise and powerful to shame. Many of its victories are not public or the kinds of things that make the news. It becomes evident in time, but it continues to work even when its work is not so evident. 

2. The kingdom of heaven grows during this age. It does not come to earth fully formed - not as a tree, but as a seed. It does not win with one decisive battle, but a long campaign in which it progressively gains ground. Its growth might be imperceptible - try watching dough rise or a plant grow - but it is progressive and ongoing. The progress can be seen in the light of history.

3. There is a twofold benefit to this kingdom: it is a shelter and a transforming power. It is a tree where the birds make their nest and it is leaven which transforms the dough. First, it is a shelter where there is reconciliation with God rather than condemnation, favor rather than wrath. In this kingdom there is justification and adoption, and thus peace and joy, through Jesus Christ (Col. 1:12-14). Second, it is a power which sanctifies, turning people from sin unto righteousness. Jesus reigns in our hearts by his grace, producing sanctification, societal reform, and a new way of life. His kingdom is the opposite of sin’s corrupting effect. As a little sin can spread its corrupting influence in people and communities (1 Cor. 5:6), so the reign of Christ spreads is reforming influence in people and communities. 

For more on these two parables and six practical implications of these lessons, listen to my recent sermon: The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Public Reading of Scripture

Recently in our church, the elders decided that I would read both the Old Testament and New Testament readings in worship. This brings our practice more into conformity with the OPC Directory for Public Worship. While it allows ruling elders and men training for the ministry to read Scripture in worship as the session deems fitting, it also says that the public reading of Scripture is ordinarily to be done by the minister of the Word. 

“Because the hearing of God's Word is a means of grace, the public reading of the Holy Scriptures is an essential element of public worship. He who performs this serves as God's representative voice. Thus, it ordinarily should be performed by a minister of the Word.” (DPW II.A.2.a)

The public reading of Scripture is an essential part of Christian worship and of a minister’s duty. Just as reading the Scripture was a part of weekly Old Testament worship in the synagogue (Acts 13:27, Acts 15:21), so Paul exhorted Timothy concerning New Testament worship, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). In fact, it is evidence of the fact that the apostles viewed their teachings as on par with the Old Testament when they directed the churches to read their writings in the assembly (1 Thess. 5:27, Col. 4:16). When John wrote the book of Revelation, he wrote it to the seven churches via their “angels,” that is, their preachers (the word can be translated “messengers”; Rev. 2:1, 2:8, etc.), who would “read aloud the words of this prophecy” so that the people of the churches would “hear” it (Rev. 1:3). 

Our OPC Directory for Public Worship builds upon the earlier Directory for Public Worship written by the Westminster Assembly in 1645, which said, 

“Reading of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one mean sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers. Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto … Beside publick reading of the holy scriptures, every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read,) and to have a Bible.” 

The Westminster Assembly also included this distinction between public and private Bible reading in our Larger Catechism (1646), which in answer to question 156 says,

“Although all are not to be permitted to read the word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families…” 

The Westminster Assembly defended this position in its Form of Presbyterial Church Government (1646). There it said of pastors that 

“ belongs to his office … To read the Scriptures publickly; for the proof of which, 1. That the priests and Levites in the Jewish church were trusted with the publick reading of the word is proved (Deut. 31:9-11, Neh. 8:1-3, Neh. 8:13). 2. That the ministers of the gospel have as ample a charge and commission to dispense the word, as well as other ordinances, as the priests and Levites had under the law, proved, where our Saviour entitleth the officers of the New Testament, whom he will send forth, by the same names of the teachers of the Old (Is. 66:21, Matt. 23:34). Which propositions prove, that therefore (the duty being of a moral nature) it followeth by just consequence, that the publick reading of the scriptures belongeth to the pastor’s office.” 

With respect to the Old Testament practice, I might add that later on it seems that public reading and teaching was also done by rabbis under the supervision of the elders, which is why Jesus and Paul were able to read and teach in the synagogue despite not being Levites. Yet I do not think it affects the assembly's argument much, since the public reading was still restricted to approved men who find their New Testament equivalent in the ordained pastors and teachers of the church. I think their argument from the Old Testament is sound, but I also realize that many Christians today might find the argument from New Testament that I mentioned above (1 Tim. 4:13, Rev. 1-3) more convincing. 

You will notice that the Westminster Assembly, unlike the OPC directory, does not make an exception for ruling elders to lead public worship. Presbyterians have differed over the years on where exactly to draw the line between ruling elders and teaching elders. We they have generally agreed that while all elders ought to be able to teach and defend the faith, among the elders of the church there are some elders "who labor in the word and doctrine" (1 Tim. 5:17 NKJV) and that these "teaching elders" or "ministers of the word" are at least primarily responsible for the public reading and preaching of Scripture. 

Why is all this important? Not only as a history lesson, but because Scripture is central to the relationship between God and his people. It is the covenantal document that binds us to him. It seems ironic that many liberal mainline churches and Roman Catholic churches have more Scripture reading in their service than many Bible-believing evangelical and fundamentalist churches. The Bible itself and our Presbyterian heritage would urge us to cherish the public reading of Scripture as an essential part of worship in its own right (in addition to preaching, prayer, etc.). May the messengers of the churches read the word, as well as preach the word, with authority and clarity. May we all listen attentively and receive it with understanding, reverence, and faith. 

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near." (Revelation 1:3) 

Examples of Biblical Meditation

“The hearing of the Word may affect us, but the meditating upon it transforms us.” 
-Thomas Watson

About two months ago, I taught a Sunday school lesson on Christian meditation (you can listen to it at this link). I began by addressing problems related to meditation (e.g. not meditating, meditating on sinful or unhelpful things, meditation driven by false religion). I also noted the various uses of the term: there is a place for counting sheep to help you sleep, but this is not a form of spirituality nor is it what the Bible has in mind when it speaks of meditation. 

God exhorts his people to meditate on his word (Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:2, 119:23, 78), on what he has done (Psalm 143:5, 145:5), and on the glorious splendor of his majesty (Psalm 145:5). In Psalm 143:5, this practice is described with three parallel terms: remember, meditate, ponder. Bringing these passages together, Thomas Watson described biblical meditation in this way: “It is a holy exercise of the mind whereby we bring the truths of God to remembrance, and do seriously ponder upon them and apply them to ourselves” (Heaven Taken by Storm, p. 23).

Not only does Scripture tell us to meditate and on what to meditate, but it also gives us examples of what meditation looks like. Consider these three Psalms:

Psalm 19This psalm is described as a meditation in the final verse (19:14). There are three things on which the psalm meditates. The first is God's revelation of himself through his creation. For the first six verses, the Psalm looks up to the sky and considers how it displays the wisdom and majesty of God to all the earth. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (19:1). The second thing on which the psalm reflects is the word of God. For five verses, it reflects on the attributes of God's word, attributes which reflect its divine author. It observes that Scripture is perfect, life-giving, trustworthy, morally upright, pure, enlightening, true, giving joy and wisdom even to the simple. Therefore it is of great benefit to those who read it and observe it. It turns them from danger unto salvation. The word is more precious than fine gold; it is sweeter than honey. The third thing on which the psalm meditates is the self. It turns from examining the creation and God's word to self-examination. "Who can discern his errors?" (19:12) Our sins and need for mercy are particularly noticeable after reflecting on God's works and word. And so the meditation ends with a prayer for forgiveness and sanctification. "Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!" (19:12-13) 

Psalm 77. This psalm recounts a meditation which moves from discouragement to hope. The psalmist begins his meditation during a restless night in a troubled state of mind: "when I meditate, my spirit faints" (77:3). Then in verse 6, he revolves to meditate in his heart and make diligent search with his spirit, considering questions like "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?" (77:7–8a). Then in verse 10 he appeals to the character of God revealed by his past deeds and resolves to bring these deeds to remembrance. "I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds" (77:12). In the rest of the psalm, he recounts God's works of deliverance, how he led his people like a flock through the sea by the hand of Moses and Aaron. This meditation is both an encouragement to the psalmist and an appeal to God to act in accordance with his past deeds. 

Psalm 104. This psalm, like Psalm 19, is described as a meditation at the end of the psalm, "May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD" (104:34). The psalm is an extended meditation on God’s works in nature. It meditates on his work of creation and his ongoing work of providence. After observing and describing these works, it notes how they display his wisdom (104:24), generosity (104:27-28), sovereignty (104:29-30, 32), and glory (104:31). The result is that these observations move the psalmist to joy (104:34), worship (104:33), and a zeal for God and his reign (104:35). 

In all of these examples, God's word, works, and character are brought to mind and pondered. Implications are drawn out and observations are made. And all three of these examples are practical. The meditations leads to conviction, comfort, joy, and reverence. 

This kind of thoughtful meditation might not be natural to you. The mind likes to wander and there are many things that call out for our attention. It takes self-discipline to focus our mind. It takes some resolve to set aside time to think. But the effort is worth it. Meditation is good for us. It allows the word of God to settle more deeply into our minds and hearts. To benefit from food, not only do you need to chew it and swallow it. You also need to digest it. And as cows digest their food by chewing the cud, so we have need to recall what we have heard and read and to chew on it more to receive its nourishment. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Goal of Christian Discipleship

"The aim of our charge is love that issues from 
a pure heart and a good conscience 
and a sincere faith." 
(1 Timothy 1:5)

In this verse, the apostle Paul succinctly summarizes the goal of Christian instruction. It is easy to get sidetracked. It is easy to drift from the mission. We should regularly come back to the goal. What are we seeking? Our goal is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 

In 1 Timothy 1:3-7, instruction that aims for this goal is contrasted with unprofitable instruction. Not only is Timothy told to charge people to not teach any "different doctrine" - that is, false doctrine - but also to not devote themselves to "myths and endless genealogies." Why? Because they "promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith." There is some debate about what myths and endless genealogies were in view when Paul wrote this letter, but we do not need to know the exact identity. The point is that there are some extra-biblical teachings which are dangerous not because they are heretical, but because they are distracting. They promote speculation rather than godliness. When we loose sight of our aim, we are in danger of wandering away into vain discussion. We must be careful to not devote ourselves to such things. Beware of teachers who focus on speculations, theories, rumors, and indifferent things. Look for edifying instruction. 

This point is useful in two ways. First, this aim described in 1 Timothy 1:5 should be the goal of Christian instruction. This should be the goal of pastors. It should be the goal of parents as they train their children. It should be the goal of all Christians as they seek to edify their brothers and speak the truth in love. Do you speak and share things which promote this aim? Second, this should be the instruction that we seek. We should look to fill our minds with teaching that promotes this aim. Examine what you listen to and what you read - how much of it is edifying? How much of it fulfills this aim? 

Biblical doctrine is not the only edifying thing to study - we must also study this world to fulfill our callings in it - but it is the most edifying thing to study and it is infallibly edifying. Biblical doctrine accords with godliness (2 Tim. 6:3, Titus 1:1). It is through biblical doctrine that we are saved (Rom. 1:16, 2 Tim. 3:15), and it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). It is designed to achieve this end. 

"Our charge" in 1 Timothy 1:5 refers to the gospel which Paul and Timothy and other teachers of the church have been charged to preach and defend. Indeed, the whole church is to be a "pillar and buttress of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:16), the revealed truth of Scripture. The aim of this ministry is "love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith." We have been given a mission and we have been given the proper tool which is designed for this mission, which is the word of God.

Consider what is involved in this goal. "Love" includes both love for God and for neighbor, and as such it fulfills the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:29-31). It is an inner affection and devotion which results in action. It expresses itself in mercy, kindness, faithfulness, and righteousness. This godly love is defined in part by its source. A "pure heart" is one that is devoted to God, having been cleansed by Christ and released from bondage to sin (for more on a pure heart see this post on the corresponding beatitude and this post on 1 Peter 1:22). A "good conscience" is in contrast to a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2) and a defiled conscience (Titus 1:15). It is a clear conscience with respect to the sincerity of one's profession of the faith and service of God (1 Tim. 3:9, 2 Tim. 1:3). A "sincere faith" is a genuine and unfeigned trust in God and his word (Rom. 4). By this faith, a person beholds, receives, and rests upon the mercy of God in Christ. This true faith results in action (Heb. 11) and works through love (Gal. 5:6). Paul spoke of "sincere faith" again when he wrote to Timothy the second time: "I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well" (2 Tim. 1:5). May it dwell in the hearts of many, being planted and nourished by sound doctrine, bringing forth love as its fruit. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Shamgar the Son of Anath

"After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel." (Judges 3:31)

Shamgar’s story is told in one verse, and yet it is an encouraging story for God’s people. One of the few things noted about him is that he saved Israel not with iron blade and chariot wheel, but with the humble oxgoad - a stick with a sharp end which was used to prod cattle. The other passage that makes reference to him, Judges 5:6-8, notes that in his days the highways were abandoned. They were lawless days and people lived in fear. It also seems their enemies had kept them from accessing shields and spears (Judges 5:8, 1 Sam. 13:19). Even though Shamgar lived in dark times when the people of God were weak and outgunned, yet with faith and zeal he took up his oxgoad and fought to deliver his people. 

We learn from his story to not be discouraged in such times, for God is able to restore his church by what looks foolish and weak in the eyes of the world. May God raise up many with the boldness of Shamgar to contend against the world, the flesh, and the devil, forces which seek to keep the peoples in darkness and destroy the church of Christ. They have certain advantages, but God has given us the means to destroy strongholds and overcome the world: the word of God and prayer (Eph. 6:10-20), faith in Christ (1 John 5:4-5), and the fruit of the Spirit (2 Cor. 6:6-7, 10:4-5). He can work great victories through cattle herders like Shamgar and fishermen like Peter, for they are but instruments of his mighty power. May God use our faith and obedience for the good of his people and the triumph of his advancing kingdom. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Chrysostom on Bringing Heaven to Earth

As I have been preaching through the gospel of Matthew, I have been reading several commentaries such as those by John Calvin (1509-1564), David Dickson (1583-1663), and R.T. France (1938-2012). For a perspective from the early church, I have also been reading the sermons of John Chrysostom (347-407). Chrysostom gained his name (which means "golden-mouthed") from his reputation as a good preacher who was eloquent, engaging, and bold. His preaching was also respected by the Reformers for his exegetical and practical approach as he worked verse by verse though books of the Bible. You can read many of his sermons here (his sermons on the Gospel of Matthew are here). Here I want to share the ending of his sermon on Matthew 12:38-45 where he exhorts his congregation on the perennial issue of Christ and culture, of being "in the world but not of the world," of being godly in the midst of our earthly callings.

"Let us show forth then a new kind of life. Let us make earth, heaven; let us hereby show the Greeks, of how great blessings they are deprived. For when they behold in us good conversation [behavior], they will look upon the very face of the kingdom of Heaven...

"Let us take heed therefore to ourselves, that we may gain them also. I say nothing burdensome. I say not, do not marry. I say not, forsake cities, and withdraw thyself from public affairs; but being engaged in them, show virtue. Yea, and such as are busy in the midst of cities, I would fain have more approved than such as have occupied the mountains [as monks]. Wherefore? Because great is the profit thence arising. 'For no man lighteth a candle, and setteth it under the bushel' (Matt. 5:15). Therefore I would that all the candles were set upon the candlestick, that the light might wax great.

"Let us kindle then His fire; let us cause them that are sitting in darkness to be delivered from their error. And tell me not, 'I have a wife, and children belonging to me, and am master of a household, and cannot duly practise all this.' For though thou hadst none of these, yet if thou be careless, all is lost; though thou art encompassed with all these, yet if thou be earnest, thou shalt attain unto virtue ... For so Daniel was young, and Joseph a slave, and Aquila wrought at a craft, and the woman who sold purple was over a workshop, and another was the keeper of a prison, and another a centurion, as Cornelius; and another in ill health, as Timothy; and another a runaway, as Onesimus; but nothing proved an hindrance to any of these, but all were approved, both men and women, both young and old, both slaves and free, both soldiers and people.

"Let us not then make vain pretexts, but let us provide a thoroughly good mind, and whatsoever we may be, we shall surely attain to virtue, and arrive at the good things to come; by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom be unto the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, glory, might, honor, now and ever, and world without end. Amen." 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Sermon Podcast for Covenant Family Church

If you are interested, not only can you find my sermons online, but you can also subscribe to them as a podcast. Go to Covenant Family Church's page on Sermon Audio (here) and click on the podcast button for ways to subscribe. The podcast button is circled in the screenshot below.

Each Sunday the sermon and the Sunday school lesson will appear on the feed. The current sermon series is on the Gospel of Matthew. In Sunday school the current series is composed of questions from the congregation (e.g. what is Christian meditation? What are some misconceptions about the end times? What are some reasons for singing traditional hymns and Psalms?) 

Of course, you are also welcome to join us in person on Sunday mornings at 968 Meyer Road, Wentzville 63385. Our Sunday school lesson goes from 10:00-10:30am and our worship service begins at 11am. If you have any questions, you can contact me here.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Enduring to the End

“But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

In this verse, Jesus exhorts his disciples to be faithful to him to the end, enduring any hatred or reproach which should come their way on his account. There are many ways in which the fallen world, the evil one, and our own sinful desires tempt us to forsake Christ. But we are called to persevere in the faith. Perseverance is a gift of God given to his elect - all who are chosen by God and who come to true faith in Christ will endure to the end (Rom. 8:28-30, Phil. 1:6, John 10:28-29). Nevertheless, it is also something which we do, using the means he has given. One mark of true faith is that it is a faith that endures. 

We are called to press onward to the finish line. We run to obtain the prize (1 Cor. 9:24, Phil. 3:12-14). A runner doesn’t get credit for running the race unless he crosses the finish line. As Hebrews 12:1-3 says, we must run the race with endurance, laying aside the sin which weighs us down, looking to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, who also endured and was exalted. 

Do not think you have sacrificed enough, as if you are owed a reprieve. Do not think weariness will excuse compromise or apostasy.  Endure to the end, unto death, so that your profession and suffering is not in vain. Those who confess Christ will be acknowledge by Christ, but those who deny Christ will be denied by him (Matt. 10:32-33). Perseverance in the faith is a condition of salvation (Col. 1:21-23). “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). 

I hope you see that perseverance is important. How then do we persevere? We persevere by God's grace, but here are means that God uses:
  • We persevere by faith in Christ, trusting him more than anything else, drawing strength from our union with him (Col. 1:23, 2:7, 19). 
  • We grow in this union and strengthen our faith by participation in the visible church and a diligent use of God's ordinances, especially the word of God, the sacraments, and prayer (Acts 2:42, Heb. 10:23-25). 
  • We strengthen this faith by exercising this faith, like one exercises his muscles, by putting it into practice, especially in trials. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). Smaller trials prepare you for larger ones. 
  • We strengthen this faith by growing in spiritual maturity, for like a plant we either grow or die. This involves a life of repentance where we continue to turn from our sins and to develop godly virtues. “For if these qualities [faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, love, etc.] are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ … Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” (2 Peter 1:8–10)
  • We also strengthen this faith by looking to the end: the one who endures to the end will be saved. There is an end. Trials and suffering will not last forever, and the result is glorious and eternal. Full deliverance from sin, suffering, and danger will be granted to those who endure. They will not be harmed by the second death. They will inherit honor and reward and blessing and unbroken fellowship with God. Why did Moses consider "the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt"? Because "he was looking to the reward" (Heb. 11:24-26). 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

God's Promise and the Future

Last Sunday, I addressed some common misconceptions about the end times during our Sunday school lesson. You can listen to the lesson here. In addition to dealing with the rapture, the great tribulation, and the "terminal generation," I also asserted that the idea that the future will be one of increasing wickedness and decline until Christ comes is mistaken. Bad times are not unique to the end times. Sin, error, suffering, disasters, and apostasy have been around ever since Adam's fall. Rather, while "in this world you will have tribulation" (John 16:33), yet the future is one of increasing victory and blessing. Jesus is conquering the world, a conquest which culminates at his return. 

There are many passages in Scripture which portray this hopeful view of the future, such as Genesis 12:1-3, Psalms 2, 72, 110, Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-10, Daniel 2:31-45, 7:13-14, Matthew 13:24-33, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, and 1 John 2:8, 17. One which I noticed more recently is Genesis 22:17-18. This was God's reassertion of his promise to Abraham after Abraham had demonstrated his faith by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God's command:
"I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:17–18)
This remains God’s promise to his people, particularly to Jesus Christ and those who believe in him. In Galatians 3, Paul describes how this promise was made to Jesus, the offspring of Abraham, and by extension to all who are in Christ (Gal. 3:7-9, 16, 29). Consider what this means for us: 

"I will surely bless you..." God promises to bless Christ’s church, to revoke the curse which was laid upon humanity in Adam and to grant them his grace and favor through faith in Christ. 

"...I will surely multiply your offspring..." God promises to greatly increase the church's numbers so that it becomes an innumerable host.

"...your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies..." God promises to give Christ and his church victory over his enemies. A person might grant that the church will grow, but might qualify this by saying fallen humanity will grow quicker - yet here the church is promised not mere parallel growth but victorious growth, not mere preservation but advance. Not only shall the gates of hell not prevail against the church, but Christ and the church shall prevail against the gates of hell. Christ conquers through his grace and judgment and uses the spiritual weapons of his church to promote his kingdom among his enemies. 

" your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed..." God promises to use his church to successfully bring the blessing of Christ to all nations. Not only shall the gospel be preached to all nations, but in time it shall be a blessing to all the nations. In time, all the nations shall receive Christ by faith and receive the blessings of Christ's reign.

Even though these promises have been continually unfolding since they were spoken to Abraham, yet they can be difficult to believe when we see the sin, error, and apostasy which surround us. Our personal experience might not seem to match up with the picture painted by these promises. But if you find these promises hard to believe in our day, imagine how hard it was for Abraham. And yet he believed. Even before Isaac was born and when his body was "as good as dead" (Rom. 4:19), he believed his offspring would be like the stars and the sand and that all the nations would be blessed through him. 
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (Romans 4:18-21)
Like our father Abraham, let us believe God and his promises, knowing that our perspectives are limited and God's power is not. And also like Abraham, let us put our faith into practice by obeying God's voice. Have confidence in the reigning Christ, in the directions he has given us, and in the means he has appointed to establish and extend his kingdom. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Augustine and Covenant Theology

Recently I was looking back over The City of God by Augustine and came across what has become a classic description of the unity of old and new covenants as administrations of God’s redemptive grace. In his discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham, Augustine writes, 
“For what else does circumcision signify than a nature renewed on the putting off of the old? And what else does the eighth day mean than Christ, who rose again when the week was completed, that is, after the Sabbath? The very names of the parents are changed: all things proclaim newness, and the new covenant is shadowed forth in the old. For what does the term old covenant imply but the concealing of the new? And what does the term new covenant imply but the revealing of the old?” (The City of God, 16.26)
In describing why infants received a symbol of renewal, Augustine goes on to distinguish these covenants from the covenant of works made with mankind through Adam: 
“But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know. For the first covenant, which was made with the first man, is just this: ‘In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die.’” (The City of God, 16.27) 
While the covenantal nature of God's dealings with man received a great deal of attention following the Reformation, especially by Reformed and Presbyterian theologians, here we see the same basic understanding articulated by Augustine in the early 5th century. Outside the covenant of grace, we are all condemned by our violation of the first covenant and are doomed to death. But God has made his covenant of grace with those who believe in Christ and their offspring, administering it now in its new covenant form with greater clarity and efficacy. 

I have written more about the Reformed doctrine of the covenant in this blog post. You can also see all my blog posts on the topic here

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Trust and Community

"Do not plan evil against your neighbor,
who dwells trustingly beside you."
(Proverbs 3:29)

Proverbs 3:29 points out that plotting evil against a neighbor is not only wrong because it breaks God's law, but also because it severs the bonds of community and betrays the trust your neighbor has placed in you. Community is built on trust. For people to dwell together, they must trust those around them to some degree. Perhaps they do so reluctantly and minimally, only because such trust is a necessary part of living in a community. Perhaps they do so willingly - perhaps they even move to a community because they trust the people there. A certain degree of trust is necessary for people to merely have homes close to each other, and the more they interact together as a community, the more trust is required. When people do not trust each other, they become increasingly distant and the community breaks down. 

Our society suffers from a lack of trust. Suspicion of other people is very high and plays a role in many issues such as race relations, law enforcement, zoning laws, schools, politics, and COVID-related issues. I believe this lack of trust has also created fertile ground for conspiracy theories - once you are already convinced that a group is deceptive and malicious, it is easier to believe speculative theories about their nefarious deeds and plans. These theories then further erode trust in other people and make it easier to believe increasing far-fetched claims. 

To be suspicious is not necessarily wrong. Sometimes suspicion is justified and sometimes it is not. Sometimes a little suspicion is justified and sometimes a lot of suspicion is called for. To be totally without suspicion is to be naive, simple, and unprotected. But even if at times suspicion is a necessary evil, it is yet an evil - it makes life difficult for those who are suspected and hinders the community from working together as a society. And it is an evil which is wreaking havoc on our communities.

Unfortunately, trust is not built very well by merely telling people to stop being suspicious of everyone. Blanket condemnation of suspicion tends to provoke more suspicion, since it seems to call for blind trust. To restore the bonds of community, we need to be about the work of building trust. We should be working to show ourselves to be honest and dependable people who seek the well-being of our neighbor and the common good. And of course, we must be working to actually be honest and dependable people who seek the well-being of our neighbor and the common good, otherwise we only further the suspicion of hypocrisy which we are seeking to heal. Not only must we not plan evil against our trusting neighbors, but we must devise plans for their good, seeking the welfare of the community where we live and praying on its behalf (Jer. 29:7).  

Likewise, to restore the bonds of community, we must also hold our suspicions to a minimum, treating them as a necessary evil at best. Be slow to believe accusations against other people and groups of people, as well as negative characterizations of them. Do not spread "conspiracy theories," by which I mean speculative theories which are harmful to the reputations of others. Beware of judging others hastily. Instead, treat others the way you would wish to be treated. While exercising discernment, treat those who are superior in age, skill, and authority with a basic attitude of humility rather than hostile suspicion. Give honor to whom honor is due. Love your enemies by keeping your suspicion to an appropriate level rather than demonizing your enemies and putting everyone into two camps: completely trustworthy or not trustworthy at all. These are all biblical principles and they are essential for the functioning of any community. 

Building trust is important in the family, church, and commonwealth if these organizations are to function well. May we build trust in the body of Christ by pursuing and demonstrating our unity in love and in the truth. May we also built trust within our cities, counties, and neighborhoods by being trustworthy and charitable neighbors who demonstrate a shared commitment to the common good. We will still need to guard ourselves against harm in this fallen world, but in doing so may we not cut ourselves off in cynical isolation.