Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Chrysostom on Wine

I recently came across the following passage from John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407) in his 57th homily on the Gospel of Matthew on the topic of wine, drunkenness, and the use of God's creation. 

"For instance, I hear many say, when these excesses happen, 'Would there were no wine.' O folly! O madness! When other men sin, dost thou find fault with God’s gifts? And what great madness is this? What? did the wine, O man, produce this evil? Not the wine, but the intemperance of such as take an evil delight in it. Say then, 'Would there were no drunkenness, no luxury;' but if thou say, 'Would there were no wine,' thou wilt say, going on by degrees, 'Would there were no steel, because of the murderers; no night, because of the thieves; no light, because of the informers; no women, because of adulteries;' and, in a word, thou wilt destroy all.

"But do not so; for this is of a satanical mind [1 Tim. 4:1-5]; do not find fault with the wine, but with the drunkenness; and when thou hast found this self-same man sober, sketch out all his unseemliness, and say unto him, Wine was given, that we might be cheerful, not that we might behave ourselves unseemly; that we might laugh, not that we might be a laughingstock; that we might be healthful, not that we might be diseased; that we might correct the weakness of our body, not cast down the might of our soul.

"God honored thee with the gift, why disgrace thyself with the excess thereof? Hear what Paul saith, 'Use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and thine often infirmities' [1 Tim. 5:23]. But if that saint, even when oppressed with disease, and enduring successive sicknesses, partook not of wine, until his Teacher suffered him; what excuse shall we have, who are drunken in health? To him indeed He said, 'Use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake;' but to each of you who are drunken, He will say, 'Use little wine, for thy fornications, thy frequent filthy talking, for the other wicked desires to which drunkenness is wont to give birth.' But if ye are not willing, for these reasons, to abstain; at least on account of the despondencies which come of it, and the vexations, do ye abstain. For wine was given for gladness, 'Yea, wine,' so it is said, 'maketh glad the heart of man' [Ps. 104:15]; but ye mar even this excellence in it. For what kind of gladness is it to be beside one’s self, and to have innumerable vexations, and to see all things whirling round, and to be oppressed with giddiness, and like those that have a fever, to require some who may drench their heads with oil?"

Chrysostom's arguments here are very similar to the arguments made later by John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (see here). Calvin wrote, "Let this be our principle, that we err not in the use of the gifts of Providence when we refer them to the end for which their author made and destined them, since he created them for our good, and not for our destruction." (3.10.2).

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Lessons on the Incarnation of Christ from Hebrews 2:5-18


1. Jesus was not ashamed to call his people "brothers." His brothers are the church (Heb. 2:12). He does not call all people brothers, but those whom he was given to save (2:13-14), those who are being sanctified through faith in him (2:11). He helps, not angels, but the offspring of Abraham (2:16). Though man had fallen from honor to bondage (2:8), yet Jesus did not shrink back from calling them brothers to restore them to glory. 

2. Therefore, while remaining God, he took on flesh and blood, that is, mortal human nature. He became like you in every respect, except that he was without sin (2:17, 4:15). He took on human nature, body and soul: human biology, human desires, human will, human affections, human thinking - all without sin and all freely subject to his divine will. He did not come as superman, a man of steel, but a man in our humble and mortal condition, capable of suffering. He hungered and he got tired. As a youth he studied and grew in wisdom. He wept and sighed and sweat in anguish as he approached death. He experienced the fear of death and yet pressed on for the joy that was set before him, entrusting his spirit into his Father’s hands. It was not enough to merely take on a visible appearance to talk with humans, as angels have done, but it was essential to become one of us, in order to die our death and raise us to new life and immortality, to raise up our nature in his person.

He made this flesh and blood his own. This union of two distinct natures in one person is such a union that we can say that Mary bore God in her womb, and that the church was obtained by God’s own blood (Acts 20:28), because the one who was born and who died according to his human nature was God.

3. In this way Jesus humbled himself, making himself lower than the angels (2:9), in the form of a servant. And this, even though he was much greater than the angels, as Hebrews 1 points out.

4. He took on flesh and blood to become a merciful high priest for his people (2:17). He is able to sympathize with your weakness, having been tested by trials himself. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward. As a priest he offered an atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people and continues now to intercede for us. And this sacrifice was himself:

5. He took on flesh and blood so that he might suffer death on our behalf (2:17). He came to die as a propitiation for his people’s sins. He bore your sins and satisfied divine justice by dying your death. This death is how he destroyed the devil (2:14). This death is how he destroyed the devil’s work and took away his power and released his captives. He used the devil’s weapon against him. The devil’s greatest weapon was death and condemnation - and Jesus willingly received that blow, exhausting its power, disarming the devil, and rising again. He disarmed the demonic powers and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in the cross.

Jesus offers this salvation to all who share in flesh and blood. Receive and rest upon him: own him as yours, and he will own you as his and wash away your sins. Do not linger in bondage and fear. He is bringing many sons to glory. This is why he was born in Bethlehem. This is why we rejoice when we remember his birth.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Lord's Supper

A Scottish Sacrament, by Henry John Dobson
"The Lord's Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace." (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 96)

The Lord's Supper was instituted by the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, to be observed by his church until he comes again. I have written before on its place in the church's worship here and here, and against the idea of "livestream communion" here, but here I would like to expand more on the significance of the Lord's Supper.

One of the first things to note is that this supper is not a propitiatory sacrifice that we offer to God. Christ's sacrifice on the cross is not again offered for our sins. "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Heb. 10:14). But in the Lord's Supper his death is showed forth and proclaimed (1 Cor. 11:26). Christ crucified is portrayed and presented to believers in the gospel and in the sacrament, the bread and wine being symbols of his body and blood. We partake of the Lord's Supper in remembrance of the Lord Jesus and his once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross. And we do not merely remember that he died, but that he died for us. For this supper is a sign and seal of his promise to believers, his promise that this body and blood was given for them and the remission of their sins (Matt. 26:28). This sacrament is a seal of the covenant of grace in the way that people shake hands to confirm a deal. The physical act confirms the words spoken. Jesus holds out his hand and tells us to shake on it. 

As we respond to this sign and seal with faith, it works as a means of grace by which Christ feeds us with himself. In this supper, he invites us to take and eat of his body and blood. The apostle Paul calls this bread and wine a communion (or "participation") in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). It is akin, he says, to the sacrificial meals of the Old Testament, in which those who ate of the sacrifice were participants in the sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:18). The sacrifice on the cross happened long ago, but we continue to feed on it and draw strength from it today. As 1 Corinthians 5:7 says, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The lamb was slain long ago. Yet 1 Corinthians 5:8 goes on to exhort believers: “Therefore let us keep the feast.” We continue to feed on the Lamb that was slain, participating in the benefits of his death. And in our case the Lamb is risen and alive and we abide in him (John 6:56), like branches in a vine (John 15:1-7). This sacrament is one means by which he gives himself to us, bringing us life from heaven.

While we do feed on Christ in this supper, we do not do so with our teeth and stomach. Jesus did not say that the bread and wine become his body and blood, or that his body and blood is inclosed in the bread and wine. His body remains a human body even when glorified. It remains visible and limited to one place. So his flesh is not found in the bread in all churches around the world - his body is in heaven. Nevertheless, Christ's words of institution do indicate that his body and blood is truly offered to believers in this supper and is truly received by them through faith. Those who outwardly partake of the visible elements in a worthy manner do inwardly by faith receive and feed upon Christ’s body and blood, receiving life and strength from him. This is done by the Spirit, who makes us living members of Christ’s body, participants in all the benefits of his death, branches which partake of the life of the vine (1 Cor. 12:12-13, John 6:63). 

Now a covenant not only has promises. It also has obligations. Those who have been redeemed by Christ's blood are bought with a price, to no longer live for themselves, but for him who loved them and gave himself for them. This supper engages us to gratefully serve our Lord. It also engages us to love each other as fellow members of his body. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17). 

In this supper, Jesus holds out his hand to us. By it he testifies to his death, his promise, and our blessings and obligations as his people. But in this supper we also reach out and take his hand. We take and eat. By receiving the bread and wine, we claim Christ's redemptive death on our behalf, expressing our faith in him. We testify and renew our thankfulness, our engagement to God, and our mutual love and fellowship each with other, as members of the same body. It is important to approach the Supper with this intent. To do otherwise is to partake in an unworthy manner, bringing judgment upon oneself (1 Cor. 11:27-31). We must not treat holy things with contempt. We must not cross our fingers behind our back while shaking hands with God. Instead, we should examine ourselves and consider the meaning of the supper as we approach it. Examine your knowledge of Christ, faith in Him, repentance, and love. And not only do we have a responsibility to partake in a worthy manner, but the church also has a duty to guard the holy things (1 Cor. 5, Matt. 7:6, 16:19, 18:15-18). Thus, the Lord's Supper is given to those who have been baptized, have publicly professed faith in Christ, and are members in good standing of a faithful Christian church. 

At the same time, this does not mean we must wait until we feel worthy of Jesus. He came to save sinners and promises remission of sins to those who believe in him. This sacrament is meant to increase our assurance, faith, and spiritual vitality. This supper reminds us that Jesus is our strength, that apart from him we can do nothing, that it is through him that we have peace with God. So come to Jesus and find rest, refreshing, and nourishment for your weak and weary soul. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Augustine on Promoting Peace on Earth

In his book, The City of God (AD 426), Augustine makes the following comments about how the city of God, driven by love for God and others, promotes "well-ordered concord" in society. In particular, he notes that this is especially worked out in the life of the household. 

"But as this divine Master inculcates two precepts — the love of God and the love of our neighbor — and as in these precepts a man finds three things he has to love —God, himself, and his neighbor — and that he who loves God loves himself thereby, it follows that he must endeavor to get his neighbor to love God, since he is ordered to love his neighbor as himself. He ought to make this endeavor in behalf of his wife, his children, his household, all within his reach, even as he would wish his neighbor to do the same for him if he needed it; and consequently he will be at peace, or in well-ordered concord, with all men, as far as in him lies. And this is the order of this concord, that a man, in the first place, injure no one, and, in the second, do good to every one he can reach. 

"Primarily, therefore, his own household are his care, for the law of nature and of society gives him readier access to them and greater opportunity of serving them. And hence the apostle says, "Now, if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel" (1 Timothy 5:8). This is the origin of domestic peace, or the well-ordered concord of those in the family who rule and those who obey. For they who care for the rest rule — the husband the wife, the parents the children, the masters the servants; and they who are cared for obey — the women their husbands, the children their parents, the servants their masters. But in the family of the just man who lives by faith and is as yet a pilgrim journeying on to the celestial city, even those who rule serve those whom they seem to command; for they rule not from a love of power, but from a sense of the duty they owe to others — not because they are proud of authority, but because they love mercy." (Augustine, The City of God, 19.14, available online here.)

 

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Keys of the Kingdom

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)

In the last post, I looked at Jesus' promise in verse 18 to build his church (see here). Here I want to focus on his words in verse 19 where he goes on to give the "keys of the kingdom." 

This verse does not teach the idea that Peter is sitting at the gates of heaven. First, this confuses the kingdom of heaven with heaven (we pray his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven). Second, the exercise of these keys is for the earth, corresponding to what God does in heaven. Jesus is the one who receives his people at death and welcomes them into the consummated kingdom of heaven at the last judgment. Third, as we saw last time, the rest of the apostles share the same office as Peter. Peter is being treated as the model apostle and their spokesmen. The binding and loosing power of the keys is ascribed to all the apostles in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:21-23.

So what are the "keys of the kingdom"? Keys are symbols of delegated authority and management. The steward of a household would be entrusted with the keys. So the keys of the kingdom refer to authority and stewardship over the church, the household of God. Jesus gives the keys - he is the head of the church - but he entrusts them to men. Jesus appoints a government for his church. 

Is this unique to the apostles? No, while the apostles have a unique role as we saw in the last post, we also find that they ordained men to carry on this delegated authority over the church. Matthew 18:15-20 makes it clear that their exercise is an ongoing part of church life. The church and its officers continue to be entrusted with the keys. Elders are described as mangers of God’s household in 1 Timothy 3. They are stewards, entrusted with the keys to the house. Elders work as overseers of the church, although they are bound to govern and order the church according to apostolic doctrine and pattens in Scripture. The apostles were unique as those who set up the structure of the NT church. But elders are overseers of the church, shepherds of the flock, leaders who keep watch over your souls (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:1-4, Heb. 13:17). 

As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate” (30.1). Thus, no other authority should usurp this authority. No father, magistrate, city council, or individual may assume to himself the exercise of church authority. For example, they should not administer the sacraments or interfere with or take over the church discipline. The civil magistrate has some authority over what happens in the four walls of a church building - if you murder someone there he will still call you to account - but he has no authority in sacred things. In fact, he is responsible to protect the church and maintain its liberty to do its sacred work. 

Another point to make with the symbol of keys is what they do. What do keys do? They open and close. In this case they open and close the kingdom of heaven. This is done through the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline, all in accord with Scripture. That brings us to what this verse says about the exercise of church authority: binding and loosing. 

Church officers exercise the keys by binding and loosing people’s sins, by retaining and remitting sins  (Jn. 20:21-23, Matt. 18:18). In this way they close the kingdom to some and to open it to others. In other words, on the basis of God’s word, they declare God’s word, his condemnation of sinners on the basis of his law, and his forgiveness to repentant believers on the basis of Christ.

This binding and loosing is done in two basic ways: by the ministry of the word and the exercise of church discipline.

1. The ministry of the word includes the reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture, including the instruction and proclamation given by the pastor throughout the worship service and the personal instruction, counsel, and admonition which he and the elders give.

2. Church discipline, which is done by the council of elders (the session), includes receiving to the sacraments and membership, as well as correction and rebuke, suspension from the Supper, or excommunication from membership, as well as receiving again those who repent after being disciplined.

The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the exercise of the keys in this way,
“To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.” (30.2)

Jesus has promised to protect and build his church. He fulfills this promise in a couple ways, but an important one is by the means he has appointed in the church. He makes these ordinances effective. He has appointed the ministry of word and sacrament. He has taught us to pray. He has given diverse gifts to his church for its mutual edification. He has appointed a government in his church. Through these means, he gathers his elect into the kingdom, holds his church together amid opposition, and disciples its members in his ways. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Christ and His Church - Matthew 16:18

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18)

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on Matthew 16:13-20, which teaches us about the creed of the church, Christ's promise regarding the church, and the keys of the kingdom. You can listen to the sermon here. I had eagerly looked forward to preaching on this text because it is an encouraging and doctrinally rich passage. It also happens that my namesake and name play an important a role in it. After Peter had confessed the true identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus turned to speak of Peter's identity as his apostle. "Peter" (in the Greek, Petros) is the word for "rock" (petra) but in the masculine gender. But does this mean Peter is the foundation of the church? And if so, in what way? What does Christ's promise mean for us today?

1. "You are Peter, and on this rock" 

Despite claims to the contrary, Jesus did not here establish the papacy. What is said about "this rock" does not refer only to Peter, nor does it refer to his successors. 

First, Peter spoke on behalf of all, as he often did (Matt. 15:15, Acts 2, 5:29). Jesus had asked, “Who do you (plural) say…” Jesus then treats Peter as the model apostle on the basis of his confession of faith. The rest of the apostles shared the same office with Peter. And elsewhere in Scripture it is always the apostles (not just Peter) who are the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21). 

Second, the apostles had a unique foundational office, distinct from all ministers who followed them. Ministers today are responsible to build well upon the apostolic foundation (1 Cor. 3:10-11). The apostles witnessed to the resurrection and proclaimed Christ’s teachings by the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:21-22, John 14:25-26). Their message was recorded for future generations in the New Testament. To be apostolic is to be faithful to the message of Jesus through his apostles as it is recorded in Scripture. The church is built upon the word of God and especially its teachings about Jesus, who is central to the whole Bible. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone..." 

Jesus promised to build his church on Peter and the other apostles who like him confessed this faith. The apostles would teach the teachings of Jesus, and on these teachings the church would be built. An attribute of the true church is that it is apostolic, true to the teachings of the apostles recorded in Scripture. 

2. “I will build”

Jesus will build his church. He does not merely make it possible for the church to come into existence. He builds it. He makes its ordinances effective. He draws in the lost to salvation. He disciples and purifies his people. He uses instruments, but he is doing the work.

And Jesus will not fail to build it. It will be built. It will continue to grow. He will not let it fall apart.

So use his ordinances and participate in his church with confidence, knowing that he is at work among his people by his word and Spirit.

3. “My church”

The Greek word for church is ekklesia. Its basic meaning is "an assembly." As commonly noted, it is a compound word, from "called" and "from." Yet this idea of the "called out ones" is not primarily a doctrinal point about being called out of the world - it refers to those called out of their homes to the assembly. The word was used to refer to civil assemblies and political bodies (as in Acts 19:32, 39). And, importantly, it was used to refer to Old Testament Israel (the “congregation of Israel”), both as the whole people and its representative assemblies. 

And not only does Jesus refer to a church, but to "my church." Jesus is the head of the church. Its common identity is found in him. This church includes OT Israel, for its common identity was in the promise of Christ made to Abraham, but Jesus came to renew and restructure his church for the new covenant age. Our source of unity must be in Jesus Christ, and through him, in the Father and the Spirit, not in any side issue or cultural fad or demographic.

Christ has one church. Though we unite in local churches, yet his church is one. Whether considered as the elect, or as his church visible in time, it is one church, his church. The visible church consists of all who confess Christ and their children. This is why we seek to be involved in the regional, national, and international church, working together for Christian education, missions, and relief, and holding councils for coordination, controversies, and appeals.

4. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it”

There are two Greek words commonly translated "hell." In this passage, the word is hades (the place of the dead, the state of death) not gehenna (the place of final judgment). The "gates" refer to the power of hades, whether you think of the gates of a city as its center of political power in the ancient world, or imagine it as the mouth of death which swallows everyone and lets no one come back (the dominion of death, Rom. 6:9). The power of death and destruction is proverbially strong. 

In other words, hostile powers of death and destruction shall not overpower the church of Christ. Do you see these forces which seek to tear the church apart? Temptation, scandal, hypocrisy, heresies, divisions, strife, apostasy, lukewarmness, compromise, hostility, ridicule, persecution, and slander. The fallen world, the evil one, and our indwelling sin wage war against Christ's church, seeking its destruction. But the church shall not crumble. It shall stand. It shall continue to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints unto the end of the age. 

Jesus triumphed over the gates of hades when he rose from the dead. As Scripture says, his soul was not abandoned to hades, and death lost its dominion over him on the third day (Acts 2:27-32, Rom. 6:9). He burst through the gates of death and triumphed over the grave. 

And so his church, risen with him, is free of the dominion of sin, death, and the evil one. There will be conflict, but these forces will not prevail against it. They will not overpower it, because Jesus is building it and he is more powerful than death itself. He has overcome the world and the evil one.

In fact, he sends his disciples to go on the offensive, to go to all the nations and make them his disciples, delivering people from the dominion of sin and death. We are storming the gates of hell to set its captives free.

Therefore, do not despair when you behold the forces of destruction. But boldly advance into the fray, and do not despair. Our King fight for us and makes his ordinances powerful to overcome all odds. The church shall triumph over these forces, as it has in ages past, all to the glory of Christ our king. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Hugh Latimer on the "Goodly Art" of Shooting Practice

One of the important English Reformers during the time of Henry VIII and Edward VI was Hugh Latimer. He would be burned at the stake for heresy during the reign of Queen Mary in 1555 as one of the "Oxford Martyrs." He was a remarkable preacher, and a number of his sermons can be read online at this link. I wanted to share one interesting point I came across while I was skimming through his sermons this Reformation Day. This sermon was the sixth that he preached before King Edward VI. After rebuking the sexual immorality and wasteful gaming of his day, he turned to exhort the people to a "wholesome kind of exercise," that of shooting practice. 

"For the love of God let remedy be had, let us wrestle and strive against sin. Men of England, in times past, when they would exercise themselves, (for we must needs have some recreation, our bodies cannot endure without some exercise,) they were wont to go abroad in the fields a shooting; but now it is turned into glossing, gulling, and whoring within the house. The art of shooting hath been in times past much esteemed in this realm: it is a gift of God that he hath given us to excel all other nations withal: it hath been God's instrument, whereby he hath given us many victories against our enemies: but now we have taken up whoring in towns, instead of shooting in the fields. A wondrous thing, that so excellent a gift of God should be so little esteemed! I desire you, my lords, even as ye love the honour and glory of God, and intend to remove his indignation, let there be sent forth some proclamation, some sharp proclamation to the justices of peace, for they do not their duty: justices now be no justices. There be many good acts made for this matter already. Charge them upon their allegiance, that this singular benefit of God may be practised, and that it be not turned into bowling, glossing, and whoring within the towns; for they be negligent in executing these laws of shooting. In my time my poor father was as diligent to, teach me to shoot, as to learn me any other thing; and so I think other men did their children, he taught me how to draw, how to lay my body in my bow, and not to draw with strength of arms, as other nations do, but with strength of the body: I had my bows bought me, according to my age and strength; as I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger, for men shall never shoot well, except they be brought up in it: it is a goodly art, a wholesome kind of exercise, and much commended in physic.

"Marcilius Phicinus, in his book De triplici vita, (it is a great while since I read him now,) but I remember he commendeth this kind of exercise, and saith, that it wrestleth against many kinds of diseases. In the reverence of God let it be continued; let a proclamation go forth; charging the justices of peace, that they see such acts and statutes kept as were made for this purpose." 

The Reformers, and after them the Puritans, were not against recreation and play, but only against recreation which was immoral, immoderate, or unwise. In fact, they wrote in the Westminster Larger Catechism that one of the duties of the sixth commandment is "a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations" (WLC, Q. 135). While they warned of the dangers of sin, they also affirmed the goodness of creation and taught that the alternative to sin was not to be found in monastic asceticism but in a grateful enjoyment of lawful and refreshing pleasures given us by God (1 Tim. 4:1-8). A good historical study of how this teaching was worked out in practice can be found in Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England by Bruce C. Daniels. These principles are very useful in our day, with its unprecedented opportunity for entertainment. We face the dangers of immoral entertainment, wasteful and unwise entertainment, and excessive consumption and addiction. One part of the Christian response is a wise and grateful use of lawful recreations which are refreshing and wholesome. 

While Latimer referred to archery, the Puritans continued to affirm shooting practice as a wholesome recreation once guns became more prevalent. In fact, it is one of the recreations we know was practiced at the first Thanksgiving. As Edward Winslow recorded in Mourt's Relation, "at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms..." While we no longer have laws requiring shooting practice, it remains a useful and wholesome exercise to be commended today. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Simple Church History Timeline

I have been teaching an ancient history course at a local homeschool co-op. In doing so, I have found that beginning with the worldwide flood of Noah's day, church history can be nicely summarized in five hundred year increments. Of course, church history begins with Adam and Eve, but the five hundred year increments do not work as nicely for the pre-flood period. I should also note that the two dates for the flood and for Abraham depend on how you calculate the length of time Israel spent in Egypt.

2500 BC - Great Flood (c. 2518 or 2348 BC)

2000 BC - Abraham (born c. 2166 or 1996 BC)

1500 BC - Exodus (c. 1446 BC)

1000 BC - King David (became king c. 1010 BC)

500 BC - Temple rebuilt (516 BC)

AD 1 - Jesus (born c. 4 BC)

AD 500 - Fall of Rome, conversion of the "barbarians" begins (last Roman emperor deposed in AD 476) 

AD 1000 - Vikings come to Christ, effectively completing the conversion of Europe.

AD 1500 - Protestant Reformation (Luther published his "95 Theses" in 1517)

AD 2000 - Christianity is worldwide 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Thoughts on "Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden"

Earlier this month, a group describing themselves as "Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden" issued a short statement explaining their support for Joe Biden for president, asserting that "Joe Biden’s policies are more consistent with the biblically shaped ethic of life than those of Donald Trump." That is a bold claim and I think it warrants some criticism.

I think the biggest error in the statement is when it compares the failure of the government to provide more healthcare and childcare with the civil government’s protection and support for murderers (in the case of abortion). Healthcare and childcare are natural responsibilities of the family - even the church needs to be careful to not supplant the family in caring for the needy (1 Timothy 5:3-6). But the civil government's foundational mandate is to punish the one who sheds innocent blood (Gen. 9:6). 

(Besides healthcare and childcare, the other Democratic policy it mentioned is raising the minimum wage, but President Trump has expressed openness to raising the federal minimum wage, although he prefers to gives the states the freedom to make their own decisions on the matter.)

Ironically, while opposing “one issue” political thinking, the statement still boils everything down to being “pro-life.” It neglects the importance of private property and religious liberty, the protection of which are also important duties of civil government. And both are being threatened by present trends in the Democratic party. It also neglects the issue of what role the civil government has in promoting a "biblical shaped ethic of life." The civil government is but one tool in the toolbox in the work of preserving the life of ourselves and our neighbors. 

I agree that a “biblically balanced” agenda is important. If you want to know what I think that looks like, check out this post: The Duty of Civil Government. Both political parties in our country fall short in some ways. Yet I am far from being convinced that Joe Biden’s policies reflect this biblical agenda more than Donald Trump’s. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Liberty of the Church

It is important for the well being of a nation for its civil government to protect and bless the church of Jesus Christ. The church of Christ is a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:2-3, Matt. 5:13-16, Acts 13:47), and Jesus takes the treatment of his church personally (Acts 9:4, Matt. 25:40, Zech. 2:8). 

In Genesis 12:2-3, God told Abraham, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." Some people use this today to argue that the civil government should support the modern state of Israel. There might be political reasons to support Israel, but this passage does not apply to it. It applies to Jesus Christ and his church. 

In Galatians 3 we learn that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham and heir of these promises, the one who brings blessing to the nations (Gal. 3:14-16). Blessed are the nations and rulers who submit to the Lord Jesus. We also learn that those who are in Christ are the offspring of Abraham and heirs of these promises (Gal. 3:29). Abraham is the father of those, Jew or Gentile, who walk in the footsteps of his faith (Rom. 4:11-12). Christ's church can claim the promises made to Abraham. The church of Christ, Jew and Gentile, is a continuation of Israel (Rom. 11). 

Isaiah contains prophecies of the restoration of God's people, particularly with the coming of the Messiah. This restoration and expansion includes an inclusion of the Gentiles and the support of the nations' civil rulers. These prophecies began to be fulfilled when the rulers of Persia supported the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. But combined as they are with the coming of the Messiah, they continue to speak to the present new covenant age. 

God tells his people that "Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers" (Is. 49:23). He promises the church that "Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you" (Is. 60:10). God tells his people, "You shall suck the milk of nations; you shall nurse at the breast of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob" (Is. 60:16). Not only is this a prediction, but this is also his will and desire, for God also gives a warning concerning those who do not support his church, "For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste" (Is. 60:12). 

Our Presbyterian doctrinal standards reflect this point. It its exposition of the Lord's Prayer, our larger catechism teaches us to pray that the church be "countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate." The confession of faith also address this in its chapter "Of the Civil Magistrate." In short, it says that while civil magistrates may not take over the church's functions, yet it is their duty to protect the church as "nursing fathers" (a reference to Isaiah 49:23 and 60:16), such that "ecclesiastical persons" (church officers) are free to discharge "every part of their sacred functions." Here's the full statement:

"Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance." (23.3). 

Fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies have been seen throughout much of church history. Historically our country has sought to protect the freedom of religion and to be supportive of the church through policies like tax-exemption and sabbath laws. But over the last century there has been a growing hostility to any special favor and protection to Christianity, the church, and the practice of religion. Many Christians themselves have grown skeptical or lukewarm about the church and organized religion. In some cases, this zeal for Christ's church has been replaced with a religious zeal for the modern state of Israel. Sometimes America itself replaces the church as the object of religious zeal and hope. Often the church is neglected due to a conception of the faith centered on the individual and subjective experience, the church serving as an optional boost to a person's spirituality. We should not expect society to value the church and take religion seriously if Christians treat it lightly. I hope that the trials of this year may awaken American Christians to the importance of the visible church and its ministry, community, and public worship. May God grant us good rulers who value the church and promote its freedom, and may he direct us to use this freedom well. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

How Not to Receive God's Word

"St. John the Baptist preaching before Herod Antipas" by Pieter de Grebber

A week ago, I preached on Matthew 13:53-14:12, which tells of the rejection of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth and the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod at the request of Herodias. You can listen to the full sermon here. Something I pointed out in this text are the hinderances which led astray the people of Nazareth and Herod and Herodias. May we beware these hinderances so that we might receive the word of God with benefit. 

1. Familiarity. As the saying goes, “familiarly breeds contempt.” The people of Nazareth were familiar with Jesus and his family and this led to their contempt for his messianic claims. Your familiarity with Jesus can lead to apathy if you are not careful. And your familiarity with those who preach Jesus and share his word can also be a hinderance. You know his disciples and his preachers are normal people, flawed, weak, inconsistent at times; who are they to correct you and show you the way to life? 

2. Offense at Jesus. The people of Nazareth took offense at Jesus and his claims. Jesus is a stumbling block for some. He is not the man or message they wanted. Some are offended at his mercy. Some at his judgment. Some at his humble condition. Some at his message (repentance, atonement, grace, self-denial). Blessed are those who are not offended by him (Matt. 11:6). As Calvin said, “We are not liberty to imagine to ourselves a Christ that corresponds to our fancy, but ought simply to embrace him as he is offered by the Father.”

3. Unbelief. Jesus did not do many miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief. They saw, but did not truly see. You need faith to receive benefit from Jesus. If you think of salvation like water, then faith is like a bottle - without faith you cannot receive salvation. Without faith, all the grace remains out there, of no benefit to you. And Jesus takes away what is not received. He does not "cast pearls before swine" (Matt. 7:6). 

4. Resentment at rebuke. Herod and Herodias grew hostile when they were corrected by John. Do not let your pride and lust get in the way of faith and repentance. Hunger and thirst for righteousness, so much that you are willing to be corrected and to deny your desires. The kingdom of heaven is for the humble. Be willing to listen to reproof. 

5. Pleasures. Herod was ensnared at a birthday feast by a dance. Beware lest pleasures and entertainments leave you unguarded. Always be vigilant against sin, even in your mirth. Beware lest entertainments lead you astray into pride, lust, and folly. Do not be a slave of your passions like Herod, easily manipulated, led from one sin to another. Be discerning with the movies you watch, the songs you listen to, and the events you go to. Entertainments are often good in principle, but can be corrupted by design or by your use of them. 

6. Rash oaths and the praise of man. Herod carried out the execution of John because of the oath he had made and because of the crowds. Oaths cannot make sin a duty. But when an oath requires sin, in that case they are vain oaths (and it is wrong to use oaths in that way) and they serve as a temptation to sin (because of social pressure). So beware of the commitments you make. And beware the love of man’s praise. Do not be driven by the crowd lest they steer you to do evil. 

So be wary of these hinderances and receive the word of God with faith, that you might be fruitful disciples of Christ and heirs of the kingdom. Even though the men of Nazareth and Herod and Herodias fell prey to these hinderances, yet others steered clear of them and received the word. While many in Nazareth rejected Jesus, yet Jesus’ mother and brothers would believe in him and formed part of the early church in Acts 1:14. And while Herod opposed John, yet we find that his steward’s wife Joanna became a disciple and helped support Jesus financially (Luke 8:3) and that Herod’s life-long friend Manaen became either a prophet or teacher in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1). The word bore fruit, even though it was rejected by some. Praise be to God who opens the eyes of the blind that we might turn and be saved. May we all be good soil for the word of God, turning at its reproofs, trusting its promises and claims, and obeying its commands as disciples of Jesus Christ. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

William Tyndale on the Need for Reformation


On this day (October 6) in 1536, William Tyndale, Bible translator and Protestant reformer, was burned at the stake for heresy. His desire and goal can be seen in the following salutation and prayer from the preface to his book, "An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue" (1531). 

“The grace of our Lord, the light of his Spirit to see and judge, true repentance towards God’s law, a fast faith in the merciful promises that are in our Saviour Christ, fervent love toward thy neighbour after the ensample of Christ and his saints, be with thee, O reader, and with all that love the truth, and long for the redemption of God’s elect. Amen.” 

And the beginning of the book, he described the need for reform in the church in this way, 

"This word church hath divers significations. First it signifieth a place or house; whither christian people were wont in the old time to resort at times convenient, for to hear the word of doctrine, the law of God, and the faith of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and how and what to pray, and whence to ask power and strength to live godly. For the officer, thereto appointed, preached the pure word of God church only, and prayed in a tongue that all men understood: and the people hearkened unto his prayers, and said thereto Amen; and prayed with him in their hearts, and of him learned to pray at home and everywhere, and to instruct every man his household.

"Where now we hear but voices without significations, and buzzings, howlings, and cryings, as it were the hallooing of foxes, or baitings of bears; and wonder at disguisings and toys, whereof we know no meaning. By reason whereof we be fallen into such ignorance, that we know of the mercy and promises, which are in Christ, nothing at all. And of the law of God we think as do the Turks, and as did the old heathen people; how that it is a thing which every man may do of his own power, and in doing thereof becometh good, and waxeth righteous, and deserveth heaven; yea, and are yet more mad than that: for we imagine the same of fantasies, and vain ceremonies of our own making; neither needful unto the taming of our own flesh, neither profitable unto our neighbour, neither honour unto God. And of prayer we think, that no man can pray but at church; and that it a nothing else but to say Pater noster unto a post: wherewith yet, and with other observances of our own imagining, we believe we deserve to be sped of all that our blind hearts desire."

 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

John Calvin on Birthdays

 
This Sunday I plan to preach on Matthew 13:53-14:12, which tells of Jesus rejection at his hometown and John the Baptist's execution at the hands of Herod. In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin (1509-1564) addresses the practice of celebrating one's birthday, since Herod was persuaded to execute John at Herod's birthday party. Obviously, this particular birthday party was the occasion of a great sin, so Calvin points out the temptations that accompany celebrations, but he also points out that birthday celebrations themselves are lawful and can be a beneficial observance if rightly used.
"The ancient custom of observing a birthday every year as an occasion of joy cannot in itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and, lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.

"But nothing is so pure that the world shall not taint it with its own vices. A birthday, which ought to have been held sacred, is profaned by the greater part of men with disgraceful abuses; and there is scarcely a single entertainment at all costly that is free from wicked debauchery. First, men drink more freely; next, the door is opened to filthy and immodest conversation; and, lastly, no moderation is observed. This was the reason why the patriarch Job was in the habit of offering sacrifices, while his sons were feasting alternately in each other’s houses (Job 1:5). It was because he thought that, when the guests invite one another to mirth, they are far from maintaining due moderation, and sin in a variety of ways." (source)
His reference to Job points us to what is probably another biblical reference to birthday celebrations (the phrase in Job 1:4, "his day," is also used in Job 3:1 where it clearly refers to the day of one's birth). As Calvin describes birthdays, so Job 1:4-5 portrays birthdays both as a good thing, a sign of God's blessing upon Job's family, as well as a possible occasion of sin. 
"His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and consecrate them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, 'It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.' Thus Job did continually." (Job 1:4–5)
Indeed, as Calvin says, "nothing is so pure that the world shall not taint it with its own vices." Let us not make the day an occasion of selfishness or a time when we lower our guard against sin, but rather may each of us make a good use of this observance when it comes. May we gratefully mark the life God has given us and "number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12), rejoicing in the mercy he has shown. 

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 

“...it 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. 

"...in 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