Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Children and God's Covenant

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Genesis 17:7)
This covenant with Abraham (made and renewed in Genesis in chapters 12:1-3, 15:1-21, 17:1-14, and 22:15-18) is the same covenant made with us today. It is administered differently now after Christ, with different ceremonies and sacraments, and greater revelation and spiritual power, but the promises are the same, and the rest of Scripture expands upon their significance, namely: renewed fellowship with God, abundant offspring to be covenant heirs, inheritance of land, and worldwide blessing to the nations. The condition is the same, then and now: faith in Christ. These promises are fulfilled in Christ, who is the offspring of Abraham, who inherited the whole earth, and brings worldwide blessing to the nations. And so all those who believe in Christ can share in this covenant - not just the Jews. As Galatians 3:29 says, “if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” In Christ, the church receives the promises of renewed fellowship with God, abundant children as covenant heirs, inheritance of the world, bringing worldwide blessing to the nations through Christ.

In Genesis 17:7 we see God’s promise to take your children into His covenant (“to be God to you and to your offspring after you”). We find this promise repeated in the New Testament:

- Acts 2:38–39, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

- Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul then taught the household, the jailer believed, and he and his household was baptized and rejoiced together. The ESV correctly notes that the Greek text of verse 34 only says that the jailer believed. Doubtless the other adults in the household articulated faith as well, but the passage emphasizes that the jailer's faith brought salvation to the household as a unit. They were all included, just as with Abraham's household.

So, children are viewed in the New Testament the way they were in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the children of believers were treated as God’s people, recipients of God’s mighty acts of redemption like the Exodus, receiving circumcision, which Romans 4:11 describes as the old covenant sign of justification by faith; they were called to remain in the ways of the covenant, holding fast to God, to not treacherously break covenant. So in the New Testament era, the children of believers ought to be treated as God’s people, members of the church which was purchased by Christ’s blood, receiving baptism, the sign and seal of redemption, called to remain steadfast in faith and repentance, to not fall away into apostasy.

It is like the church is a train that is bound for glory. When you board the train, you normally bring your household (though Scripture recognizes situations where this does not happen). When children are born to you, they are born on the train. They must be told to remain on the train - some children, even some adult converts, foolishly jump off the train to their death or precariously dangle over the edge for a time - but their starting position is not neutral, nor are they put off the train to give them their own chance to board the train. They are born on the train. Baptism is simply recognizing that fact, giving them their train ticket.

So the children of the covenant ought to be baptized, included in the church, and treated like as a members of the covenant - not strangers or aliens. 1 Corinthians 7:14, for example, calls the children of a believing parent not “unclean,” but “holy,” or “holy ones,” a term usually translated as “saints.” Since they are covenantally holy, regarded as clean, they should be given the sign of cleansing and inclusion - baptism. When God brings your children into the visible church, He makes them Christians in name, to be regarded as Christians in fact unless they fail to embrace God’s grace and break covenant with their God. Like everyone else in the church, they ought to be encouraged to believe in Christ, to make use of the means of grace, to repent of their sins, and to walk in greater faithfulness with their God.

The baptism of my daughter (right to left): myself, my children, wife, siblings, parents, and wife's parents
This covenant promise also comes in connection with the covenant duty of parental discipleship. As God said of Abraham in the next chapter, "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). God fulfills His promise to be our children’s God through means - namely, faithful Christian parenting.

God’s covenant obligates parents to raise up their children with Christian education and discipline (see also Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4). The Bible teaches that Christian parents must raise their children with 1. instruction (Deut. 6:7), 2. authority/discipline (Gen. 19:18, Prov. 29:15, 17), 3. persuasion (as exemplified throughout the book of Proverbs), and 4. example (Prov. 23:26). You must engage the head (to know), hands (to do), heart (to love), eyes (to envision).

Genesis 18:19 also teaches that children must keep the way of the Lord. Children have great privileges and position - God has made His covenant of friendship with them, including them among His redeemed people - but these benefits will only continue if they continue in the faith of their parents, trusting in Christ and following Him as His disciples. This covenant sealed in their baptism gives blessings to those who keep the covenant in faith and repentance, but it brings God’s curse and wrath upon those who turn aside from their covenant obligations and do not grab hold of Jesus Christ.

So covenant discipleship and covenant keeping is key to the fulfillment of the covenant promises. One of these promises is blessing upon parental discipleship. But this in turn serves another Abrahamic promise, which is that God will bring worldwide blessing through Christ and His church. God promised godly offspring to His people so that they would be a blessing to the world. Christians do not bear and raise children just to have children, but to grow and spread the kingdom of God. Children are for dominion, weapons in the spread of the kingdom (Ps. 127). Raise up children within the covenant in order to grow the church, to fill the earth with Christ’s image, so that they may further the domain of Christ over all creation.

This post is adapted from my latest sermon, "Children," which is available online at this link

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Jesus and Family Relationships

There is a strain of teaching in the gospels which notes how spiritual unity in Jesus is more important than family ties. Jesus said he came with a sword, "to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:35–38). When his own earthly family came to talk to Him, not understanding fully His mission, Jesus replied, "'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'" (Matthew 12:48–50).

With these comments, it can sound like the earthly family does not play much of a role in the New Testament. Sometimes these verses are used to critique an emphasis on restoring Christian families in line with God's word and treating the family as a basic institution. Now, these verses are important, but their target is not pastors who teach Christians to be good spouses and parents, respecting the household as a basic institution and equipping it to serve as God's instrument. Rather their target is situations where the claims of family and Christ are set against each other, for example, when a person is tempted to compromise in order to please a family member. When the church and the family are pulling in opposite directions, then our true home is in the church; when Jesus and the family are both seeking you ultimate loyalty, then you must follow Jesus. The same with yourself - when your desires and Jesus' words conflict, you must follow Jesus rather than yourself.

There is another strain of biblical teaching which emphasizes the importance of the household and family relationships. The household is generally incorporated into the covenant as a unit (Genesis 17:1-14, Acts 16:31-34), relationships with unbelieving family members are sanctified by believers, and the children of believers are holy (1 Cor. 7:14), parental instruction is a vital means of passing on the faith to children (Deut. 6:7, Eph. 6:4), and family duties are an important part of Christian growth and faithfulness (Col. 3:18-4:1, Eph. 5:22-6:9, 1 Peter 2:18-7).

It is true that Jesus prioritized His heavenly Father and spiritual family over His earthly family, but the extent to which He worked along with natural family relationships in His ministry is often overlooked. Remember that John the Baptist was a relative (their mothers were cousins of some sort, Luke 1:36). We find that when Jesus died, among the women who followed him was not only his mother, but also his mother's sister. Comparing the gospels, it is quite possible Mary's sister was Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of the apostles James and John (John 19:25, Matt. 27:56, Mark 15:40), which would make John and James the cousins of Jesus. We know for certain that Jesus included two pairs of brothers among his apostles (Matt. 4:18-22), and that the mother of James and John followed Christ (Matt. 27:56), and that Peter's mother-in-law served Jesus after He healed her (Mark 1:29-31).

Jesus Himself had sisters and four brothers, most likely younger siblings from Mary and Joseph, though some have speculated that they were step-siblings from a prior marriage of Joseph's. As the people of Nazareth said of Jesus, "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3). While His brothers at first did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5), Mary and His brothers were believing members of the initial church before Pentecost (Acts 1:14). James would become a significant leader in the Jerusalem church, even being referred to as one of the apostles (Gal. 1:19) and playing an important role in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13-22). Jesus' brothers James and Jude (short for Judas) both wrote the books of the Bible bearing their names. They recognized that Jesus was not merely a brother - they respectfully called themselves servants of Jesus - being well known enough that little further identification was needed: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1), "Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James" (Jude 1:1). Hegesippus, a 2nd century church history, recounted that Jesus' brother James was killed for his faith shortly before the fall of Jerusalem. He also recounted that Jesus' brother Jude had grandsons who were arrested under Emperor Domitian because they were of the royal line of David, but were released after explaining the true nature of Christ's kingdom (i.e. they would not try to take David's throne by force) and became leaders of the churches because of their testimony and because they were of the Lord's family.

These apostles and brothers that followed Jesus also followed Him with their wives. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that he was unmarried, but that this was an exception to the general practice: "Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [i.e. Peter]?" (1 Corinthians 9:5). These other apostles and Jesus' brothers had believing wives who traveled with them as they spread the gospel. Is that the picture you have in mind when you think of them fulfilling the Great Commission? There were stories in the early church, mentioned by Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150 – 215), that not only did Peter have children by his wife, but that "when the blessed Peter saw his own wife led out to die, he rejoiced because of her summons and her return home, and called to her very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, and saying, 'Remember the Lord.' Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their perfect disposition toward those dearest to them" (Clement of Alexandria, recorded by Eusebius, The Church History, 3.30).

In short, there is an important message for us in Scripture to prioritize Jesus above all, even above the most dear of earthly relationships. Some people are tempted to compromise the faith to keep their children or spouse. Some people receive hatred and alienation from their family members for following Christ. Yet, family and Christ are not always at odds. God often works through natural relationships of family and the household. While families can be divided by Christ, they can also be brought together as a powerful force for good within the church. Even Jesus' family became an important part of the early church, even though at one point it was divided by Jesus' claims and sought to interrupt His ministry. May we pray that God would show similar grace to unbelieving family members, and may we serve the Lord more and more by fulfilling our family duties. May we find hope from where Scripture says, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:31), and may our households respond by being baptized together (Acts 16:15, 34, 1 Cor. 1:16), believing together (Acts 18:8), and serving together (1 Cor. 16:15).

Friday, July 19, 2019

I Heard the Singing Warriors - A Poem

I Heard the Singing Warriors
By Peter Bringe

"Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands..." (Psalm 149:6)

"For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh 
but have divine power to destroy strongholds." (2 Corinthians 10:4)

I heard the singing warriors, 
As they came down the street.
They sang a song so grand and strong,
Amid the ruins wrought by wrong–
There they the foe did meet.

I saw the happy warriors,
‘Mid darkness, shade, and gloom.
With sword in hand, they sang an ode
To God for joy, and thus they rode
Heedless of death and tomb.

I heard the wounded warriors,
A note of tragic woe,
They bowed their heads and raised their eyes,
“Look to your earth, O God, arise!
Let men your power know.”

I saw the bloody warriors,
Limping, weak, and hurt,
Still singing loud, with hopeful hearts
They formed a ring to shield from darts
New sprouts amid the dirt.

I watched the hopeful warriors
And, though the ruins loomed,
Amid the clash of sword and steel
I heard the sound of home and field–
It seemed new flowers bloomed.

I heard the singing warriors,
And understood their mirth:
Their lives were not their own domain
They fought for God, His kingly reign,
And peace, new life, on earth.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Marriage in Genesis 2

In an earlier post, we saw from Genesis 1:26-28 that humanity - created male and female in the image of God - is given a mandate to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it, and that this task is especially given to married couples. Men and women share this task in common, but as we move to Genesis 2 we find that men and women approach this task differently. And here we will focus on how they relate to each other in marriage, although these natural differences have relevance in all of life.

A common view today is that man and woman are equal and that marriage is subordinate to their pursuit of their (individual) dreams in which each has the same role in the marriage. (Even as I write this at the local library I hear a mother reading to her daughter the "Feminist ABCs" where D is for dreams and E is for equality.) This makes sense in an individualistic worldview where each person is their own maker, creating their identity and purpose out of thin air. But all this changes when we view the world through the lens of Scripture.

In Genesis 2, we find that man and woman were created by God, and that they were created differently. God made Adam from the dust and His breath (Gen. 2:7), while God made Eve from Adam’s rib (2:22). They had unique purposes behind their creation: Adam was created to work the ground and keep it (2:5, 15), while Eve was created to help Adam with this task (2:18, 20). Neither one of them was independent of the other, but they depended on each other differently. The ultimate end for both of them was the creation mandate, but Adam found the task and therefore received a helper, while Eve found the man and therefore received the task.

The fact that Eve was formed from Adam gave them unity. When Eve was brought to Adam, he saw that she was from his flesh, and so they united in marriage as one flesh (Gen. 2:23-24). Woman was taken from man, and ever since they have desired to become one again, a desire which is designed for marriage. Companionship, friendship, love, romance, and physical union thus play an important and natural role in marriage. And this union of affections and bodies also promotes their original calling to multiply and subdue the earth: it naturally leads to childbirth and it unites them closer so that they might work together as one.

Some have claimed that God's primary intent in marriage is not to make you happy, but to make you holy. But I'm not sure that marriage made Adam any more holy - it did, though, make him quite a bit more happy (Gen. 2:23). In our fallen state, marriage is supposed to make you holy as well as happy, and neither of these exhaust the purposes of marriage (since it's not all about you). Because of sin, marriage sometimes does not achieve its purpose, but this does not alter its purpose and design.

This one-flesh unity shapes the rest of the marriage relationship. Marriage is designed so that husband and wife work as one and treat each other as part of his or her self. The husband does not treat his wife as an external force to be conquered, but as his body to be directed and cared for. The wife does not see her husband as a conquering invader to be resisted, but as her head to be supported and obeyed. John Calvin commented on this chapter that “something was taken from Adam, in order that he might embrace, with greater benevolence, a part of himself. ” He says, “In this manner Adam was taught to recognize himself in his wife, as in a mirror; and Eve, in her turn, to submit herself willingly to her husband, as being taken out of him.”

We see from Genesis 2 that neither man or woman is independent - they both need each other - but they depend on each other differently. Adam helps as a head by directing and caring for Eve in love as His flesh and helper. Eve helps as a body by respectfully following and extending Adam’s leadership. As Calvin comments, “women, being instructed in their duty of helping their husbands, should study to keep this divinely appointed order. It is also the part of men to consider what they owe in return to the other half of their kind, for the obligation of both sexes is mutual, and on this condition is the woman assigned as a help to the man, that he may fill the place of her head and leader.”

Much more could be said on the topic, but from this chapter we can draw the following applications (in line with Scripture's own commentary on this passage in places like 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Proverbs 31:10-31, and Ephesians 5:22-33):

Both Husbands and Wives: love and desire the other as one’s self. Seek your spouse's good and be close to your spouse in soul and body. Both should seek to help the other and promote God’s glory and fulfill His mandate together. Your marriage serves more than your respective needs - it is so much bigger than you.

Husbands: view your wife as your body. You provide and protect your body, so protect and provide for your wife. You direct your body for purposeful ends, so give her direction and instructions for purposeful ends. You train your body, so teach your wife as an intelligent human and co-heir of grace. You treasure your body, paying attention to what it communicates about its pains and needs, so value your wife and be understanding towards her. You honor your body before others since your body is you, so do not degrade or disgrace your wife before others.

Wives: view your husband as your body, particularly as your head. Even as your body works in unity with the head by following its direction, so help your husband by working according to his direction as one. As the body furthers and implements what the head intends, so take initiative to further your husband's mission by being faithful over your charge. Represent and reflect your husband, working as a faithful steward over his house.

For more on this topic, see my recent sermon "Marriage and Sexuality."  

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Joel Beeke on Family Worship

In this 7-minute video from the 2013 G3 Conference, Dr. Joel Beeke talks about the importance and practice of daily family worship. The booklet on the topic which he mentions for further study can be found at this link
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

America the Beautiful?

America the Beautiful  
There are many things we love about our country. As “America the Beautiful” recounts, we treasure its majestic mountains and fruited plains as well as the history of its people and their heroic sacrifices and achievements. We treasure our God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, loudly proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Our country truly has been blessed in many ways - compared to much of the world and much of history, our country is incredibly prosperous, powerful, and full of opportunity.

America the Perfect?
Yet, one thing that set apart our country from the beginning was our recognition that we were not perfect. The second verse of “America the Beautiful” includes these words,
“America, America,
God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law.”
Some of us may find it quite easy to point out flaws in our society and our institutions. But the issue is not simply out there in other people. This is an issue rooted in human nature. Each one of us is morally flawed.

Our founding fathers understood this principle and designed our system of government with this in mind. Because human nature is naturally given to selfishness and moral corruption, checks and balances are needed in government. As James Madison wrote:
“But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” (Federalist No. 51, Feb. 8, 1788) 
Or as Patrick Henry put it:
“Notwithstanding what gentlemen say of the probable virtue of our representatives, I dread the depravity of human nature. I wish to guard against it by proper checks, and trust nothing to accident or chance.” (Elliot's Debates, vol. 3, June 12, 1788)
Americans, the Guilty
This has implications for civil government which our founders understood. It also has implications for you as an individual. You are not an angel. You have not been just towards God and man. Have you always served, loved, and worshipped God above all? Have you always loved your neighbor as yourself? If you are like the rest of humanity, you have dishonored God and your neighbor with your desires (such as greed, lust, pride), words (such as profanity, lies, unkind words), and actions. God is not one to look the other way when it comes to these evil deeds. He is a just ruler and will not approve of the guilty.

Americans, the Free?
Therefore, you stand condemned under the justice of God. Yet, God chose to free a people from this condemnation by sending His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus satisfied the justice of God by His sacrificial death on the cross, and offers forgiveness and reconciliation with God through faith in Him. If you repent and believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you shall be set free from condemnation and from the tyranny of sin: “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus gained a pardon for His people and sends the Holy Spirit to transform their character so that, more and more, they begin to overcome the bondage of their old human nature, and begin to manifest love, righteousness, and self-control (Rom. 14:17, Gal. 5:22-23).

May God indeed shed His grace on America, mending its every flaw, and may He begin with you and me.