Friday, December 28, 2018

Am I a Solider of the Cross?

The Christian religion ought never to be accused of being boring. And yet, some well-meaning Christians, in an effort to give comfort to those who struggle and doubt, make the Christian religion easy and passive: God loves you and saves you, the end. Now, I strongly affirm that we are saved by God's grace alone and that we are justified in God's sight through faith alone in Christ alone. And Jesus is a gracious shepherd, saving and bearing up through who struggle. Jesus did say, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). Yet, Jesus also warned His followers to count the cost, saying "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:24–25).

When you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are enlisting on one side of a conflict that has raged for millennia. You are entering into a covenant with God, a pledge of mutual loyalty. As one hymn put it, "Jesus paid it all / All to Him I owe." Jesus' gracious salvation, covering all our sins, does not end in passivity. Rather, it establishes a relationship that demands our all. Jesus had many enemies on earth, and He continues to have many enemies today. While evil exists in this creation, unrelenting war will be waged, and Jesus' followers will not be spared. The fallen world, our own sinful nature, and the evil one himself, conspire against us. And yet, they are on the defensive. Jesus is advancing against them, and He calls His followers to advance with Him into the fray, fighting with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). The Christian religion is not one where we sit back and soak it all in. It is an active thing, a passionate thing, a way of life that tests our loyalty and love. We may fall in battle, but by God's grace we get up to carry on the fight. The only end is death and glory.

"Am I A Solider of the Cross," a hymn by Isaac Watts, is a fitting rebuke to those who preach and practice an easy and passive Christianity. Below is a video of it being sung by my friend Andy, using the folk tune used for it in The Sacred Harp. The hymn tune "Marlow" (1718) and Doris Johnson's version using an Irish folk tune are also good settings of this hymn. The images in the video are of monuments to the Scottish Covenanters who were martyred in the 17th century, a sample of the many Christians who have faced opposition and even literal death due to their loyalty to Christ. This battle has been carried on by generations of Christians past - and like them, our loyalty will be tested in many ways. May we remain steadfast, finding grace and help from our King and Defender.

"Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 
Fight the good fight of the faith." 
1 Timothy 6:11–12

Am I a Solider of the Cross 
Isaac Watts, 1724

Am I a soldier of the cross,
a foll'wer of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause
or blush to speak His Name?

Must I be carried to the skies
on flow'ry beds of ease,
while others fought to win the prize
and sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace
to help me on to God?

Sure I must fight, if I would reign;
increase my courage, Lord;
I'll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by Thy Word.

Thy saints in all this glorious war
shall conquer, though they die;
they see the triumph from afar
by faith's discerning eye.

When that illustrious day shall rise,
and all Thine armies shine
in robes of vict'ry through the skies,
the glory shall be Thine.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Child that Provokes a Response

Often at Christmas, Luke 2:1-20 is read, recounting the birth of Jesus and the angelic message to the shepherds. But consider now the account that follows in Luke 2:21-38.
        "And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, 'Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord') and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.' Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
'Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
  that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.'
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, 'Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.'
        And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem."
Christmas time is often a time of waiting and fulfillment. Some await opening the presents under the Christmas tree. When I was younger, my siblings and I would organize the presents so that each one of us had a stack under the tree. We were able to open them on Christmas Eve, but we had to wait the whole day until the evening. I think this increased the anticipation more than if we had opened the presents first thing on Christmas Day. For many of us, we might await seeing relatives, traveling to them or getting the home ready for them to visit us. Or perhaps you look forward to some other annual tradition.

The Prophetess Anna, by Rembrandt 
In Luke 2:22-38, we meet two people who had been waiting for a long time. They had been waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. All Israel had been waiting a long time for this promised Savior and King. By this time, the Jews had a heightened sense of their sins. They knew that the prophets had given them many wonderful prophecies of prominence and prosperity, but in the present they were oppressed and corrupted. In response, some of the Jews had fallen into legalism and others had compromised with the Gentiles. Yet some were faithful and devout who waited for the consolation of Israel, the future time when the Messiah would come as a sign of God’s favor and redemption. Two of these Israelites are mentioned in our passage, Simeon and Anna. Anna was an eighty-four year old widow and prophetess. Simeon was probably also old, approaching death, and yet had received a special promise that he would see the Lord’s Christ before he died. Both of them had lived lives during eventful years. They had seen kings rise and fall. They had seen the Romans take over Israel. They had seen Herod’s tyrannical reign as a Roman vassal and Herod’s massive construction projects, including his work to rebuild the temple. Throughout all these events, though, Simeon had remained righteous and devout and Anna had not departed from worshipping in the temple with fasting and prayer, night and day. They were like watchmen waiting for the morning to dawn, standing by their post in expectation. They trusted the promises by faith in the midst of the unsettling events of their age.

Then one day, a poor couple comes in with a 40-day-old infant to offering the purification offering of two young pigeons. We know they were somewhat poor, because the normal offering was a lamb and a pigeon, but those who were poor were allowed by the Levitical law to offer two pigeons instead. There was nothing remarkable about this couple and their infant. There were many couples coming to do this. But the Spirit revealed to Simeon and Anna that this infant was the Lord’s Christ, the salvation of God. And just like Zechariah and Mary and Gabriel and the angels, they break out into prophetic song and proclamation that gives us insight into the nature of this Savior.

A major theme that stands out in Simeon’s song is how Jesus the Savior is the Light. The Kingdom of Satan is the kingdom of darkness. Darkness stands for sin, for ignorance, for deception. People can hide in the darkness, and many get lost in the darkness. The Gentiles lived in this darkness of sin and deception, and Israel had lost its bright glory. But those who had dwelt in darkness now had seen a great light. God had come to earth as an infant, and by His life, teachings, death, and resurrection He would reveal God’s saving truth to the nations and fulfill the hopes of the faithful of Israel.

We learn from Simeon’s words that “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…” (v. 34). His coming was a great blessing to some and a judgement upon others. Some were faithfully waiting for the light and would be glorified by its coming. Others were hiding in the darkness, not wanting their sin to be revealed. They were exposed by the coming of Christ. The birth of Jesus had brought a crisis to mankind – all would either need to bow the knee like the shepherds and wise men, or they would fight against Him like King Herod. Neutrality was not an option. Jesus did not allow people to merely think of him as a nice man or a sweet baby. No, either He was God on earth - the prophet, priest, and king - or He was a dangerous imposter. As C.S. Lewis later argued, either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. By forcing mankind to make this choice, Jesus revealed the thoughts of many. He exposed the hypocrisy and self-confidence of the Pharisees and shed light on the faithfulness of those like Simeon and Anna. Those who had longed for the Messiah with true faith in God’s promises were raised up and glorified at the coming of their Lord.

This infant now sits at the right hand of God in heaven with mature glory and authority, and He continues to be for the fall and rising of many. He remains a sign that is opposed by many. He continues to reveal the thoughts of many. His gospel calls for a response of faith, repentance, and total allegiance. He is coming again, and those who faithfully trust His promises will be glorified at His coming.

When Mary and Joseph heard these words about Jesus, it is said that they “marveled at what was said about him.” They marveled so much that they remembered the words Simeon spoke, they treasured them. Mary could be the one who told them to Luke. They received the truth about Jesus with awe and wonder. May this be our response as well! May we marvel at the words about Jesus so that we treasure them and remember their comfort and their challenge.
“Their example, then, serves to remind us that we will never be good students of Christ, until we too feel wonder and awe whenever God’s word is preached to us…If we attend to God’s word, if it so delights and moves us to awe that we make every attempt to understand it, if its teaching, finally, is the means of our salvation, let us draw others to the same light.” (Calvin, Songs of the Nativity, 179)
So let us marvel like Mary and Joseph, but let us also then give thanks and speak of Jesus like Anna did. Let us praise God and tell others, encouraging fellow believers and drawing in unbelievers to the light.

In Acts 13:47 we find something curious that is related to this passage. Simeon’s proclamation that Jesus was a light to the Gentiles repeated a prophecy of Isaiah 49 that the servant of the Lord would be a light for the Gentiles. But in Acts, Paul and Barnabas defend their ministry to the Gentiles by repeating the same prophecy, saying, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Jesus is the Light, and all who follow Him reflect His light. If you have received Christ as Lord and Savior, then He has made you a light to the Gentiles. No, you and I are not God’s salvation like Jesus is. But we carry the words about Jesus with us, bringing the words of blessing and challenge to all. By our lives of Christlikeness and our words of witness we proclaim the salvation of Christ. It is through us that He continues to bring people to a crisis of decision, revealing their thoughts, raising up those who receive Him and stumbling those who reject His salvation.

So let us examine our own response to the babe in the manger who is now the King on the throne. Does He have our allegiance and our trust? If He is our Savior and Lord, then we may be at peace like Simeon. Redemption and comfort has come to earth. And having received this peace, let us reflect this Light of revelation and glory into our dark and distressed world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Athanasius was a stalwart defender of the orthodox doctrine of Christ in the 4th century. His book, On the Incarnation, is a classic of Christian literature (you can read it online here). In it, Athanasius explains why Christ came and what He did and refutes the objections of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. He describes God's work of creation and man's fall into sin and rebellion. Mankind became liable to the law of death and corruption by its rejection of God the Creator. But the very God who created mankind, the Word who was with God and was God (John 1:1-3), determined to save it.
"He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which [the law of death] was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection."
A little later in the book, Athanasius uses an analogy to explain this event:
"This great work was, indeed, supremely worthy of the goodness of God. A king who has founded a city, so far from neglecting it when through the carelessness of the inhabitants it is attacked by robbers, avenges it and saves it from destruction, having regard rather to his own honor than to the people’s neglect. Much more, then, the Word of the All-good Father was not unmindful of the human race that He had called to be; but rather, by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred, and corrected their neglect by His own teaching. Thus by His own power He restored the whole nature of man."
Throughout the book, Athanasius is confident in the wisdom, goodness, and power of the Savior. Even though he speaks of saving the human race, he does not believe that everyone is saved. This is why he seeks to convince unbelievers. Union with Christ is necessary to receive the benefits of His redemptive work. But Athanasius is optimistic about the advance of the gospel. Mankind is being saved through Christ, even if many individuals reject Him and perish. The world is progressively receiving the benefits of Christ's incarnation as the Creator is gaining back His creation, a process that culminates in the second coming. At the end of the book, as Athanasius concludes his arguments against the objections of the Gentiles, he ends on a note of victory as he exalts in the triumph of Christ, the true King, over all usurpers.
"Since the Savior came to dwell among us, not only does idolatry no longer increase, but it is getting less and gradually ceasing to be. Similarly, not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer make any progress, but that which used to be is disappearing. And demons, so far from continuing to impose on people by their deceits and oracle-givings and sorceries, are routed by the sign of the cross if they so much as try. On the other hand, while idolatry and everything else that opposes the faith of Christ is daily dwindling and weakening and falling, see, the Savior’s teaching is increasing everywhere! Worship, then, the Savior 'Who is above all' and mighty, even God the Word, and condemn those who are being defeated and made to disappear by Him. When the sun has come, darkness prevails no longer; any of it that may be left anywhere is driven away. So also, now that the Divine epiphany of the Word of God has taken place, the darkness of idols prevails no more, and all parts of the world in every direction are enlightened by His teaching."

Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" - A Song Not Worth Defending

Apparently the current chapter of the "War on Christmas" is the feminist objection to the song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Overall, it seems that conservatives have joined others in embracing the cause of defending the song, jumping at the opportunity to offend liberals. Now, I am not a feminist, but I will argue that Christians, at least, should not waste their time defending this song. Here are a few thoughts I have had on this whole controversy:

1. The main reason I do not think this song is worth defending is that even if the song does not promote rape (the current controversy), the song at least promotes fornication and a loose attitude to sexual sin. It's just not a good song by Christian standards, and if conservatives claim to hold Christian values (and they do claim that), then it is not a good song by conservative standards either.

2. This is not a freedom of speech issue. The government is not telling radio stations to play or not play the song. People can object to the song as immoral and radio stations can respond to the objections of their listeners and stop playing the song. It might be good if they took a lot of other songs off the radio as well, but that is really a different point.

3. It is ironic that in this issue, most feminists have taken the role of puritans and many conservatives have taken the role of defending sexual autonomy. If one needed proof that conservatives can fall prey to the temptation of defining themselves merely by what was popular several decades ago, this would be a good example. Christians ought to promote a consistent view of the world, rather than merely defending whatever liberals attack.

4. There is a reason that the mutual consent of the characters in the song is debatable, with some arguing that there is no mutual consent in the song, while others arguing that there is mutual consent in a playfully flirtatious manner. Consent can be rather complicated unless you wait until you hear something like, “I __, take you __, to be my lawfully wedded husband...” before having sexual relations. This is not to say that there is not a difference between consensual fornication and rape (see Deuteronomy 22:23-27), but it is to say that God’s law gives us clarity in a world made topsy-turvy by sin.

5. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is not the only Christmas song you won’t hear on the radio. At least in my experience with our local radio station that plays Christmas music, I almost never hear a religious song or a song written before 1900. There is a huge treasure trove of wonderful Christmas and seasonal music that is overlooked today. If you want to defend a Christmas song, there are much better choices than "Baby, It’s Cold Outside," such as carols like "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" or "Joy to the World." Or look to the more obscure, but also rich, carols like The Truth Sent From AboveSavior of the Nations, ComeRemember, O Thou Man, and Tomorrow is my Dancing Day.

And so I'll leave with Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Fantasia on Christmas Carols," a melody of three traditional English carols: 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Living as Citizens of Heaven

In my most recent sermon, I came to Philippians 1:27-30, which begins with the exhortation: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ..."

There is only one Greek word underlying the English translation “let your manner of life be,” which is πολιτεύεσθε. You see in the first part of the word “πολι” ("poli") its connection to the Greek word for city (πόλις), where we get the word “politics.” A more literal translation of πολιτεύεσθε would be “behave as citizens.” One would say in those days, “behave as citizens worthy of Rome.” Each nation has its manner of life which is in some way distinctive. And there is a duty to live in a way that gives honor to your country, rather than disgracing it by your actions. Paul uses this idea to exhort the Philippians saints to act in a way that befits their identity with the gospel and their allegiance to Jesus whom the gospel proclaims to be the Lord. Paul picks up this idea again in Philippians 3:20, where he says “our citizenship is in heaven.”

This analogy was especially appropriate for a letter to Christians in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony in what is now northern Greece (Acts 16:12). It contained a much larger proportion of Roman citizens than other cities. It was a place for Roman soldiers to retire. When Paul was in Philippi, the people identified as loyal Romans (Acts 16:21), and Paul privately called attention to his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37), which embarrassed the Philippian authorities who had beaten him publicly without a orderly trial.

The Philippians knew what it meant for citizens to go to a foreign land as an colony, bringing their customs with them. They knew what it meant to live distinctly among the native people. They knew what it meant to have a lord who would protect and rule them from the capitol city. Paul uses this concept to communicate what it is to live as a Christian.

The point is not that “this world is not my home/I'm just a-passing through.” Rather it is about your identity, your king, and your way of life. Romans who lived at Philippi did not plan on returning to Rome. Rather, they were bringing Rome and its ways to Philippi. So as citizens of heaven, we take our pattern of living from heaven, our "capitol city" is heaven, we obey and trust in our King who is in heaven, we pray that His kingdom come and will be obeyed on earth just as it is in heaven. In the end, Jesus comes back to earth from heaven and raises up our bodies from the grave (Phil. 3:20), and the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to the new earth and God dwells with us here (Rev. 21:1-3). The church in this present age is a colony of heaven on earth.

Now the kingdom of heaven does not advance like Rome did. It does not conquer by the power of the sword, but by the power of the Spirit and Scripture. Its power does not come from man, but from heaven (John 18:33-38).

The kingdom of heaven also overlaps with the various cultures of this world. You do not loose your national identity when you become a Christian. And these two identities are not unrelated: your American identity now becomes reformed and qualified by your identity as a citizen of the gospel, just as your Christian identity can be expressed in uniquely American ways (for example, in American language).

But what Philippians 1:27 emphasizes is that our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven produces a unique manner of life, something that is shared by all the saints across the world, and that this manner of life is defined by the gospel. This manner of life is driven by different priorities, different motives, and a different basis. In some ways it will run contrary to the priorities and practices of the people around us. But this manner of life will be based on faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, on the example of Jesus Christ, and on the authority of Lord Jesus who gives us His commands in Scripture. In the next chapter (Phil. 2:1-11), Paul will expand on this point by exhorting the Philippian saints to reflect the love and humility of Jesus which was manifested so clearly in the gospel account. May the church seek closer conformity to its Lord and Savior so that it may live up to its distinct identity as "the light of the world...a city set on a hill" (Matt. 5:14-16), a colony of heaven built upon the gospel of Christ.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Prayer for Healing in James 5

This time of year tends to make us more vulnerable to sickness. Colds, fevers, flus, and worse take their toll on people and communities. Of course, sickness and disease afflict us all year round and can range from being mildly irritating to being fatal. God's word is not silent on such matters. It recognizes sickness and disease as one of the unnatural effects of the curse on humanity, rooted in our rebellion in Adam. It grieved Jesus to see sickness and death afflicting mankind. He taught that it is a way people serve Him and show themselves to His disciples when they serve His brothers and sisters who are sick (Matt. 25:31-46). The Apostle John highlights the value of physical health when he says "Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2). The Apostle Paul even gives brief health advice to sickly Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23. Yet one of the key passages that addresses how Christians ought to address sickness is James 5:13-18. Here is the passage:
"[13] Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. [14] Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. [15] And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. [16] Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [17] Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. [18] Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit." (James 5:13–18)
This can be a somewhat debated passage, which has perhaps led to its neglect. More could be said about this passage, but I want to make a few observations to help us apply it.

1. This is a serious and debilitating illness, though it does not need to be life-threatening.

What kind of sickness is in view? Ought one to call for the elders for every runny nose? The Greek word used here for "sick" is often used of serious illnesses that hinder a person. “The verb asthenein means to be weak, as in some limb (Ps. 108:29) or organ (Plato, Lysis 209E; Ps. 87:9)” (Johnson, 330). The word is used in John 5:3, and in that text, “blind, lame, and paralyzed” are given as examples of being "sick." This is not the occasional cold that will run its course in a few days. It would seem to be a rather debilitating illness from the fact that the sick person has to call for the elders to come to him, rather than going to them himself, and from the fact that the elders pray “over” him, the sick person being in bed. On the other hand, the word used does not require that this be a life-threatening illness. Rather, it is a debilitating illness, and probably one that is not short-term.

An additional aspect to be considered is the extent to which this illness is impacting the sick person spiritually. Sickness can be a rather isolating and depressing time. We will see in my fifth point that the physical and spiritual can be connected in various ways. If the physical sickness is not serious, but it results from or causes spiritual distress, this too would be a good reason to call for the elders.

2. The sick person is here responsible to initiate the process.

The commands in this passage can be veiled by the translation "let him…" This is probably better translated "he should" (Blomberg, 241). Praying and singing are not merely allowed in verse 13. They are what you should normally do in those circumstances. As a sickness gets more serious and debilitating, the sick person should call and the elders should pray. The elders are not prohibited from initiating the process, but the sick person is the one responsible to make the call in this passage.

3. The oil is symbolic, not medicinal (and is also not the main thing).

Perhaps the biggest question many people have with this passage regards the “anointing with oil.” Is this oil used medicinally or symbolically? And if it is being used symbolically, what is the intent of the ritual?

In surveying biblical references to anointing with oil, Luke 10:34 does refer to a medical use of oil. Mark 6:13 refers to anointing with oil in coordination with miraculous healing, though in an unspecified way. Oil is also used to consecrate or purify persons and things in Scripture (Gen. 28:18, 31:13, Ex. 28:41, 40:9-15, Lev. 8:10-13), including healed lepers (Lev. 14:1-32). While oil was used medicinally, the usual use for oil in the Bible is ritualistic in nature. “Thus, this evidence leads us to think that the elders were to anoint the sick person’s body to consecrate and purify it as an act of devoting it to God for God’s work of healing” (McKnight, 439). There is difficulty with the medical view. First, oil is not a cure-all – it only fits certain illnesses. In fact, in biblical and extra-biblical usage, oil was usually used for wounds or refreshment, rather than sickness (Varner, 540; Vlachos, 185). Second, it is not doctors who are to administer it (nor, incidentally, miracle workers with the gift of healing), but the elders of the church. Third, the verb used in Luke 10:34 is not “anointing” but “put on.” While oil is used medically, “anointing” is never used in the Bible to describe what is clearly medical healing.

The oil is also not the main focus. The main responsibility of the elders is to pray, and prayer receives most of the attention in this passage. Not only prayer, but faith in God which is expressed by prayer is central.

4. Healing is the expected outcome, but it is not immediate or certain in this life.

Verse 15 seems to have an impossible optimism about the healing effect of this prayer. We might find in our experience that not everyone who is prayed for in this manner is healed. There are at least three explanations that have been used: (1) the prayers must not have had faith, (2) being "saved" and "raised up" refers to spiritual salvation and future resurrection, or (3) this passage contains a general promise of effectiveness, but does not guarantee perfect health and never-ending life in this age.

Now the absence of faith or repentance can hinder prayers, but Scripture also emphasizes the effectiveness of even a little faith (Luke 17:6). This first explanation does not explain the times when elders offer prayer with faith and yet the sick person is not healed. And there will be such times, for we all die. Death is the last enemy, and it will not be permanently defeated until the resurrection. Assuming a lack of faith is not warranted, nor is it good pastoral practice. God's explanation in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 to Paul concerning his "thorn in the flesh" is applicable here. And yet, the second option, a purely spiritual explanation of the healing, is also unsatisfactory, since verse fifteen indicates that forgiveness is only potentially part of the situation ("if he has committed sins") and is something additional to the "saving" of the sick man.

It is best to receive the promise of verse 15 as a promise of general effectiveness, but with the caveat that we do not receive all that is promised in this life. This is not the only place in Scripture where God promises blessings in the context of this present life and yet leaves much to be fulfilled in the life to come (e.g. Heb. 11, Ps. 73). Verse 15 does not say when the healing will take place. Perhaps it will take time. Perhaps it will not happen until the resurrection. There will be a tension between promise and fulfillment until all is fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth. Christ healed on earth, and He can continue to heal miraculously today, yet death is the final foe only to be fully defeated on the last day (1 Cor. 15:26, Rev. 21:4).

But the main emphasis in this passage is that we are justified in our hope that God will hear the prayers of the elders and heal the sick person, even if this does not happen on the spot. This can happen through the work of doctors and medicine, which are not to be neglected by Christians, but God can work without them as well.

5. Sickness can be connected with sin; true confession is good for the body and soul.

The conditional clause in verse 15 ("And if he has committed sins...") not only introduces the fact that there may be sins that need to be addressed, but also alludes to the fact that unresolved sins can lead to illness. Verse 16 teaches us to confess our sins and pray for one another so that we may be healed. There is a great deal of biblical support for this idea: Deuteronomy 28:1-68, Ezekiel 18:1-29, Proverbs 3:25-28, 11:19, 13:13-23, and 1 Corinthians 11:29-30. Johnson (p. 333) also notes that this connection was commonly made in extra-biblical sources such as Ben Sira 1:12-13, 3:26-27, and rabbinic tradition. He also notes that there are biblical passages that nuance the connection: Job, Ecclesiastes, and John 9:1-3. Sin is not always the cause of sickness, and to assume that it is the cause can lay burdens on people when comfort is needed. And if sin is the cause, is it not necessarily a sign that the sick person's sin is notably worse than those who do not suffer (Luke 13:1-5). But the connection is possible, and physical curses like sickness should cause us to examine ourselves and to repent. And this confession, as well as the prayers, should be made with faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, believing that "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

In this case of the sick person who calls for the elders, this confession would be made to the elders, since they are the ones praying on his behalf. Verse 16 seems to draw a general principle from this occasion, a principle of confession and prayer that goes beyond the elders to "one another." The elders are not the only ones to whom you can go to confess and seek prayer from. But neither is this a call to confess indiscriminately (it should be a mature or "righteous" person, 5:16, the elders ideally matching this description), nor it is a requirement to confess all your sins to another person. Confession is primarily made to God (Ps. 32, 51).


This passage helps equip us for a common earthly predicament, that of sickness. “Christ’s worshippers are not exempted from sickness, no more than any other affliction” (Manton, 450). Commenting on these verses, Calvin remarks that “such is the perverseness of men, that they cannot rejoice without forgetting God, and that when afflicted they are disheartened and driven to despair” (354-355). It is easy for us to simply think of medical solutions without also turning to our relationship with God to address our sickness.

This passage also equips us to act as a Christian community. Johnson points out that “Sickness then creates the opportunity for social alienation…It is not an accident, I think, that James here for the first time uses the term ekklesia [church], for it is the identity of the community as community that sickness threatens” (343). Sickness can be very lonely and isolating. In this midst of this suffering, our ears and prayers, particularly those of the elders, are especially needed.

Our care for the sick is a witness to the compassion of Christ for the suffering that was seen during His life on earth. A community that sings praises, that cares for the weak, that prays for one another, that repents and seeks forgiveness, is a great contrast to a world that exemplifies pride, distance from the weak, and self-righteousness. May the world see Christ among us as we seek to obey His commands in this passage.



Blomberg, Craig L., Mariam J. Kamell. James. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.

Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005 [1551].

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Letter of James. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

Manton, Thomas. A Commentary on James. A Geneva Series Commentary. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988 [1693]. 

McKnight, Scot. The Letter of James. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011.

Varner, William. James. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014. 

Vlachos, Chris A. James. B&H Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Pub., 2013.

For more on the symbolism of oil in the ceremony for the healed leper in Leviticus 14, see the eighth paragraph in the entry "oil" in the Encyclopedia Judaica, available online here:

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Who Can Abide the Day of His Coming?

Handel's Messiah is a gospel masterpiece. It tells the biblical story of redemption in a way that is theological sound and musically rich. (Incidentally, a very good sermon series on the biblical texts used in the Messiah can be found here.) One of my favorite sections from it is in the video above. At first it quotes from Haggai 2:6-7, then it quotes Malachi 3:1b-3. Here is that passage with its surrounding context (in the more modern ESV translation):

"[17] You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, 'How have we wearied him?' By saying, 'Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.' Or by asking, 'Where is the God of justice?'
[1] 'Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. [2] But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. [3] He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. [4] Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
[5] Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.'"
(Malachi 2:17-3:5)

This passage prophesied the coming of John the Baptist, who is "my messenger" who will "prepare the way," and Jesus, who is the "God of justice," "the Lord whom you seek," and "the messenger of the covenant." Jesus notes this prophetic fulfillment in Matthew 11:1-10. 

In the day when Malachi prophesied, as in the day when Jesus came, there were those who thought they desired the coming of the Lord, but in fact were unprepared. Their complaints in Malachi 2:17 follow two chapters which rebuke the people for their half-hearted worship, their lack of the fear of God, the poor instruction coming from the priests, their compromise with idolatry, and their unfaithfulness to their spouses. The people try to justify themselves - "What use it is to do good? God seems to bless the wicked. Where is the God of justice?" It is God's fault, they imply.

But Malachi replies, "Oh, you think you want the God of justice? Well, He will come, but who among you will endure that day? He will restore His people, but He will sift out those who do not take Him seriously."

When Jesus came, His main calling was that of salvation and blessing. But His coming caught many people unprepared. Those who did not fear God were exposed by their rejection of His Son (John 3:17-21). There were some like Simeon who were eagerly and faithfully waiting for God's salvation, but as Simeon declared, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (Luke 2:34). For the shepherds and wise men, the birth of Jesus was a day of joy. But there others who might have professed to desire His coming, but rejected Him when He came - King Herod and the Pharisees. The coming of John the Baptist, and then Jesus Himself, separated the wheat from the chaff by their response to Jesus. As John the Baptist said,
"Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:9, 16b-17). 
Those who rejected Jesus and persisted in their lawless ways would be judged by Jesus first by His teachings, and then in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Matt. 23-24:35). Those who received Him with faith were blessed first by His teachings, and then in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (John 7:39).
"He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:11–13).

So as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, may we be careful to not repeat the mistake of Malachi's audience. As we rejoice in the coming of the Lord and delight in Him, may we remember who we are dealing with. He came to change things. For those who trust in Him, this means purification and forgiveness so that our service to God is pleasing to the Lord. Faith that is genuine will also result in the fear of God, good works, and repentance from sins such as those mentioned in Malachi 3:5. For those who use the name of the Lord but treat Him without obedience or faith, this means judgement. This is the kind of intervention that our fallen world needs. We need a Savior who changes us and changes our world, who fulfills the hopes of the believing and who witnesses against those who oppress and do evil. And may we remember that the Lord will come again to finish the work He began.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Directions for the Pursuit of Sexual Fidelity

"Deliver us from evil." So we pray, that we might escape temptation and avoid the destructive paths of evil. God graciously gives His people the desire and will to turn from evil, and He also instructs them how they might walk in the way that is good. As we have looked at how the book of Proverbs deals with sexual matters, we have considered two contrasting views of sexual intimacy (Sexual Autonomy vs. Sexual Fidelity) and their consequences (Motives to Sexual Fidelity). Now we turn to specific directions that Proverbs gives us so that we might be faithful to God’s intent for our bodies and reserve sexual intimacy to a context of covenant fidelity in marriage.

1. Embrace discipline, reproof, and wisdom. (Prov. 2:1-5, 16-19; 5:1-3, 12-13; 6:20-24; 7:1-5)

Sexual autonomy is folly. It is the result of neglecting wisdom. Autonomy says, "I can do it myself. I must shape my own destiny." But this pride leads to a fall. In chapters 2, 5, 6, and 7 of Proverbs, the young man is exhorted to pursue wisdom so that he will not fall into the crafty ways of the seductive woman (of course, this is also applicable for young women seeking to escape seductive men). If you want to arm yourself against sexual temptation, if you want to prepare for the conflict, then seek out wisdom. Seek maturity in general, as well as wisdom concerning this matter of sexual fidelity. Cherish discipline and correction so that you may stand in the day of battle. A solider goes through harsh discipline to prepare for the fight. Basic training is not pleasant. It is hard work. The solider gets challenged and corrected - but he learns what to do so that he will do it even under pressure. Likewise, study God’s word and be open to the correction and training of your parents and other wise mentors in your life. If instruction is not given to you, ask for it. It is for your own good. Do not end up like the young man who says “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I am at the brink of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.”

2. Fear the LORD (Prov. 3:7, 5:21, 8:13, 9:10).

Proverbs 5:21 - "For a man's ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths." 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 9:10). Treating God seriously, with reverence and awe, is fundamental to having a proper view of life. The Christian does not fear God in a way that causes him to hide from God or to wish Him gone. Rather, the Christian fears God in a way that causes him to gladly honor and serve God as one who intrinsically deserves this reverence. This fear of God makes us aware that He is the most significant factor in life. It reminds us that we are finite, vulnerable, and weak, while He is infinite in wisdom, righteousness, and strength. 

Proverbs 3:7 - "Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil."
Proverbs 8:13 - "The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil."

3. Control your desire; fight the battle where it begins, in the heart. (Prov. 6:25, 7:10)

Proverbs 6:25 - “Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes”

Do not lust after someone who is not yours. Do not linger wistfully on his or her beauty in your heart. Beware especially of immodest and seductive appearances and looks. Avoid being enslaved by what you see and hear. Do not be easily led, like a horse by a bridle, by the appearance or flirtations of a stranger. Guard your thoughts and mind. Cut off the sin before it blossoms. Be disciples of Christ who attack sin in the heart, rather than Pharisees who merely focus on external actions and regulations. Our desires are not natural - they cannot be trusted to lead us in the right way. Repent of sinful desires and turn from them as soon as you can. Why dwell on something that is forbidden? Why desire that which is folly? Why frustrate yourself with desires that cannot be fulfilled?

For those who are married, this is relatively straightforward - there is only one whose beauty you ought to desire. All others are off limits. For those who are not married and desire to be married, this can be more complicated - what is lust and what is legitimate attraction to a potential spouse? But still you must not desire what is immoral, and you must remember that you only get to choose one person - restrain your desire until you know who that person is, not by mere feelings, but by mutual commitment in engagement and marriage. While the Song of Songs portrays increasing sexual desire between two people as they approach marriage, it also warns against stirring up or awakening love before it is proper. Hold your sexual desire to what is fitting for the current stage of your relationship, remembering that the desire cannot be fulfilled until the covenant is ratified.

4. Keep your way far from temptation. (Prov. 5:8, 7:7-9)

Even though we fight the battle in the heart, this does not mean we don't also take some wise precautions to avoid temptation. Proverbs 7:7-9 notes that it is folly for the young man to go by the house of the loose woman as it is getting dark. As Proverbs 5:8 says, “Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house…”

This is especially true with people or things that intend to seduce you. You are not told to avoid all contact with the opposite sex or to go off and live in seclusion away from the world. But you are told to be wary of those who try to seduce you, to identify the temptation and avoid it. Avoid seductive people, seductive words, and seductive images.

With regard to the internet, this can require restrictions or accountability. With regard to relationships, some relationships may be safe, while others may require greater distance. Each person and family might have different boundaries and precautions. A wise person looks at his or her situation honestly and takes steps to avoid danger. Sometimes it may be difficult to evaluate your own situation, so receiving counsel may be wise.

5. Avoid being the temptation; encourage others in their pursuit of fidelity. (Prov. 7)

“The seventh commandment requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech, and behavior.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 71)

Men and women, in your words, clothing, and gestures, let propriety, dignity, and humility be your guides. Avoid the ways of the Proverbs 7 woman: she is dressed to capture, she flatters, she is impudent and shocking, she is discontent with her family and home (Prov. 7:10-20). (And saying she is "dressed like a prostitute" does not mean, as some people argue, that she simply wore a veil - it is dark in Proverbs 7 and a veil is not required to hide her identity, and she does not seem too concerned about being seen either.) On the contrary, communicate your sexual fidelity by your words, clothing, and actions - keep private things private; do not shamefully expose your nakedness as our culture delights in doing. Today people think they have no responsibility to others. They believe that both propriety and shame are oppressive social constructs, that there ought to be no boundaries - you must dress however you want. Restraint in sexuality or even modest clothing is not just unnecessary, it is thought to be oppressive! But Christians ought to be different. Remembering the point about responsibility in my first post in this series, we should love our neighbor and dress and act with propriety and modesty.

6. If possible, get married and nourish a close union with your spouse. (5:15-20, 18:22)

Proverbs 18:22 - "He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD."

There is both human responsibility and divine sovereignty in this process. You must do the finding, but your spouse is still given by the LORD. Seek this blessing and pray for it. For various cultural reasons, it is harder now that it has been in times past.

Then make love to your spouse. Get carried away in her/his love (5:15-20).

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?”

This is a duty, something you owe your spouse. It ought to be as the closing line in the 1938 Robin Hood, when Robin Hood was commanded to marry Maid Marian and says: “may I always obey your orders with equal pleasure!” Yet, this duty can be a struggle for the average married couple amid the busyness of life. It needs to be cultivated and made a priority. As Paul says, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:5). A dedication to regular sexual intimacy, even when it is inconvenient or undesired, strengthens the relationship, guards against temptations, and encourages you to resolve issues with your spouse quickly.

Remember that unmarried people do not have this recourse - use what you have been given and do not take it for granted. And then remember to pray for, appreciate, and encourage those who are single and seeking to walk a righteous path. We are in this together as one body seeking to love our Father.

7. Speak back a counter-narrative to temptation. (Prov. 5-7)

In Proverbs 5-7 there are two competing narratives. To fight temptation you must refute its insidious narrative.

The immoral tempter says: there are no bad consequences to sin. I have taken care of that. Fun and pleasure will follow this choice. It is adventurous. I have your best interest in mind, for I have eagerly sought you.

But the wise person responds: there are bad consequences to sin. The “fun” will pale in comparison with the lasting destruction it will cause. It is foolishness, not adventure. You have left God out of this equation. And you do not have my best interest in mind.

Because God loves you and has blessed you, listen to His warnings by avoiding sexual immorality and embracing sexual fidelity. God has forgiven you who have believed in Christ and repented of your sins. He has brought you close to Him as His children, and He speaks as a loving Father. Do not hurt yourself by spurning His counsel and rejecting His boundaries. Trust Him, and submit your mind, your thoughts, and your body to Him, your Creator and Redeemer.