Thursday, March 26, 2020

"I Can Do All Things..."

"I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13)
Contrary to popular belief, this passage is not about your ability to do whatever you want, achieve success, and fulfill your dreams through Christ. Rather, the point is that God trains his people to be able to face all circumstances, which are often out of their control, with contentment through Christ. Here is the verse in context:
"I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:10–13)
Paul was writing to thank the saints at Philippi for the gift they had sent him. This joy was all the greater because it had been delayed. But he notes this delay was not their fault - they had sent a gift as soon as they were able. Then he clarifies: he is happy, but not because he was anxious and discontent in his prior position (later he will note that his joy primarily came from seeing their faithfulness and love). He takes this situation as an opportunity to comment on Christian contentment. Paul had learned that whatever the situation, he was to be content. Contentment equipped him to handle both abundance and need. He was able to face all circumstances through the strength given him by Christ.

This is a lesson which is especially important now as our life has been uniquely disrupted by the Covid-19 coronavirus. We have been "brought low." Our plans have been thwarted. Our economy has taken a hit. Some people are out of work, while others are nearly overwhelmed with work. It is easy in this situation to be anxious, frustrated, and discontent. And as many of us settle in at home, this discontentment can make it easier to loose patience with others around us.

So how do we gain this ability to face all circumstances by being content? Note two things. First, Paul had learned to be content. It was a skill that he had learned as he went through many circumstances. As James says in his epistle, the testing of our faith through trials produces steadfastness (James 1:2-4). Trials act like a plow, aiding the soil of faith to produce contentment as its crop. Second, Paul points to the source of his ability: "him who strengthens me." This contentment was a fruit of Christ's work within him. Christ works within his people by his word and Spirit, producing in us patience, hope, and endurance. Contentment is a product of grace.

If we go back one more verse, we see that Paul had said, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:9). When he describes what he has learned, he does this so that you might imitate him. Paul taught by example as well as by word. This way is not merely the way of Paul, but the way of Christ. Therefore, let us be good disciples and learn to "practice these things," seeking to be content in our current circumstance, with faith in the promises and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Using Arguments in Prayer

“God loves to be overcome with strength of argument. 
Thus, when we come to God in prayer for grace,
let us be argumentative.”
-Thomas Watson (1620-1686)

Prayer, as it is modeled in the Bible, includes arguments which give force to its requests. We should be argumentative with God, not by being quarrelsome, but by earnestly presenting our case before God, appealing to his character and promises. God calls us not only to list our requests, but also to give him reasons to grant our requests.

For example, when Jacob prayed to be delivered from his brother Esau in Genesis 32:9-12, he gave several arguments to support his request. First, he appealed to God proven faithfulness to his father and grandfather. Second, he appealed to God's word to him, how God had told him to return to his kindred that he might do him good (not harm). Third, he appealed to God's grace, noting that God had shown him undeserved steadfast love and blessing up to this point. Fourth, he appealed to God's promise to do him good and to multiply his offspring, which would not happen if he and his family were killed by Esau. Interestingly, this wrestling with God in prayer was followed by a literal wrestling match where Jacob refused to let go until he received a blessing (Gen. 32:22-32). In the end, God granted his request and gave him favor and peace with his brother.

This pattern can be seen in many of the prayers recorded in the Bible, as well as in many of the Psalms. In fact, a useful exercise in studying the Psalms of supplication is to follow the song's argument - what is being asked for and how does the singer seek to move God to act? For example, in Psalm 6, the singer asks that God would spare him and deliver his life, appealing first to God's compassion by presenting his own languishing condition, troubled and weak with grief (6:2-3, 6-7), second to God's steadfast love (6:4), and third to God's zeal for his glory by noting that God will be remembered and praised by those whom he saves (6:5).

Sometimes our case for our requests may be very strong, based on clear and specific promises of God. Other times our case is weak. We should realize that God might have better arguments, better reasons for not granting our requests. This was the case when Paul asked for the removal of his "thorn in the flesh," likely some type of physical weakness. Though Paul pleaded for its removal three times, God had good arguments for not removing it: it taught Paul humility, contentment, and a reliance on the grace and power of God (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

But even though we should be humble before God and submissive to his will, we should nevertheless present our best case for our requests. If we have no arguments, then why are we making the request? If God has no reason to grant it, then why make it? Giving arguments draws out your desires and fleshes out your requests. It also gives you a practical knowledge of God's attributes and promises. As you appeal to them, you apply them to your own situation and better see how they are relevant to you. This also helps you to see God's attributes and promises at work when your requests are fulfilled.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Comforting Doctrine of Providence

As John Calvin mentions in the quote above, God's providence is an immense comfort for the Christian. You can read Calvin's discussion of the practical use of the doctrine of providence (the source for this quote) here. But if you want a shorter explanation of the concept, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) explains God’s providence and its practical implications in this way:
Q. 27. What dost thou mean by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and everywhere present power of God; whereby, as it were by his hand, he upholds and governs heaven, earth, and all creatures; so that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea, and all things come, not by chance, but by his fatherly hand. 
Q. 28. What advantage is it to us to know that God has created, and by his providence does still uphold all things?
A. That we may be patient in adversity; thankful in prosperity; and that in all things, which may hereafter befall us, we place our firm trust in our faithful God and Father, that nothing shall separate us from his love; since all creatures are so in his hand, that without his will they cannot so much as move.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Psalm 42 - Genevan Psalter

As many churches have had their normal public worship interrupted due to the coronavirus, it seems that Psalm 42 is a fitting song for this evening. We can be thankful that modern technology allows for us to still participate together to some extent through livestream video (my church's worship service from this morning can be found here), but we can still wistfully remember "how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival" (Psalm 42:4). Here is Psalm 42 sung by the Jubilee Octet from the New Genevan Psalter (which uses a new translation and the original 1551 Genevan tunes and arrangements).

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Biblical Law and Quarantine

As our civil authorities call for restrictive measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I have seen some resistance to the idea that they have the authority to enact such measures. Some people have questioned the civil government's authority to enact quarantines and other policies that hinder contact between people to slow the spread of contagious disease. Biblically, though, there is a case to be made for the magistrate having such authority.  

We have a case law on the matter with respect to "leprosy" in Leviticus 13-14. Biblically, the term "leprosy" was not restricted to Hanson's disease, but referred to a variety of contagious diseases which showed up on a person's skin and even included infections in garments and houses. In those chapters, the priests were given careful instructions on how to examine and diagnose the symptoms, in some cases shutting up the person in isolation for a time to see how it progressed. If the leprosy was unhealed and contagious, and the person was determined to be unclean, he was required to live in isolation from the rest of the community while he remained unclean. This even applied to prominent figures who got leprosy, like Miriam (Num. 12) and King Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:19-21). 

Now this law operated on two levels, the natural and the ceremonial. This disease was a natural threat to the physical well-being of the Israelites. But it was also a threat to the ritual purity of the Israelites (Num. 5:1-3). For a leper to come back into the community and its corporate worship, not only was healing required, but also an elaborate purification ceremony which involved the shedding of blood (Lev. 14). The natural defilement was used in the ceremonial system of the Old Testament to symbolize spiritual defilement and to teach God's people the importance of holiness. This is why the priests were given this responsibility - they were guardians of the sanctuary, overseers of Israel's corporate purity, authoritatively distinguishing between the clean and unclean.

This law as a ceremonial law was abrogated by the coming of Christ. They were part of what the Bible calls "regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation" (Heb. 9:10). Physical defilement no longer makes on ritually unclean. It does not require a purification ceremony. What makes a person unclean? As Jesus said on another occasion, sin is what defiles a person (Mark 7:14-23). Those who confess their sins and turn to Christ are cleansed by his blood (Heb. 9:13-14, 1 John 1:7-9). 

Yet the natural basis for the leprosy law still exists. Diseases which are serious and contagious are still a threat to the community. The sixth commandment ("thou shalt not kill") still requires that we preserve our lives and the lives of our neighbors, and to the extent that this law applied the sixth commandment to society it remains relevant today. Testing, observation, and mandatory isolation to hinder the spread of the disease may still be needed for some diseases. Because this is no longer a matter of ritual impurity, this responsibility no longer belongs to priests, but to medical doctors and civil authorities (especially since disease is common to the whole society, not only the church). Certainly, this power should not be used lightly. This power must be exercised with knowledge and wisdom, applying the principle to a variety of circumstances. This power could be abused, which is why checks and balances in government are important. More could be said on the exercise of this power (some helpful legal and historical context can be found here), but that there is such a power given to the civil authorities seems to have biblical warrant. 

For more on leprosy in the Bible, you can listen to my recent sermon on Jesus' cleansing of a leper at this link

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Special Times of Prayer and Fasting

“When great and notable calamities come upon or threaten the church, community, or nation, when judgment is deserved because of sin, when the people seek some special blessing from the Lord, or when a pastor is to be ordained or installed, it is fitting that the people of God engage in times of solemn prayer and fasting.” (OPC Directory for Public Worship)
A biblical practice which used to be a common practice in early America but which has been neglected in the present day is special times of fasting and prayer, sometimes known as "days of humiliation." Fortunately, our president still has called for a day of prayer, and our country has a regular day of prayer, but the note of repentance and fasting is notably absent from these modern proclamations. God calls people to respond to calamity by humbling themselves with fasting and prayer, either privately or together depending on the calamity. We see this especially in Joel 1-2. As disaster came upon the people, God called them to "Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD" (Joel 1:14, see also Joel 2:12–17).

We find this practice exemplified in Scripture. When Nineveh heard Jonah's declaration of impending judgment, its king proclaimed a public fast as they confessed their evil ways and sought His mercy (Jonah 3:5-10). The Jews held a fast for three days for Queen Esther before she went to the king to save them, in view of the threat to her life (Es. 4:16). Ezra proclaimed a public fast when the Jews returned to Israel and danger was impending, that they might humble themselves and seek from him a safe journey (Ezra 8:21-23). The church in Antioch was “worshipping the Lord and fasting” when the Spirit indicated that Barnabas and Paul ought to be set apart for ministry, which they did with more fasting and prayer (Acts 13:2-3).

Private fasting is exemplified by Nehemiah and Daniel, who fasted and prayed when they were distressed with the condition of God’s people and prayed to God, confessing sin and seeking mercy (Neh. 1:4, Dan. 9:3, 10:2-3). Anna regularly worshipped with fasting and prayer (Luke 2:37). Jesus assumes his disciples would fast privately (Matt. 6:18). Paul recognizes that a couple might agree to abstain from sexual relations for a special time of prayer and fasting (1 Cor. 7:5).

Fasting is not an end in itself, but serves other purposes. Drawing from John Calvin's teaching on fasting (here), I would note three main purposes for religious fasting: (1) it keeps you from over-indulging by keeping your senses from being dulled, (2) it prepares you for prayer and meditation, clearing your mind and taking away distraction, and (3) it expresses your sorrow for your sins and for the afflictions you or your family, church, or community experiences. The last two reasons are the relevant ones in times of public fasts.

A religious fast involves abstaining from food, more or less strictly according to the length of the fast and what one can handle. Sometimes a fast might only be from rich foods, like meat and wine, as when Daniel fasted for three weeks (Dan. 10:2-3). It also involves abstaining from other luxuries and entertainments which might be otherwise lawful, as well as other activities that may distract from the engagement to prayer, to the extent that one is able to do so. A public fast involves a shared commitment to private prayer, but usually involves public worship as well (Joel 1:14), with reading, preaching, prayer, and singing. (Our church will observe a day of fasting and prayer this Wednesday, March 18th, but we will observe the day from our homes because this will minimize contact with respect to the virus and because we only have access to our meeting facility on Sundays.)

In addition to days of fasting and prayer, the church can also call for days of thanksgiving, in response to particular blessings or deliverances. We are more familiar with this concept due to our annual day of Thanksgiving in November. An example of this type of day is found at the end of Esther (Es. 9:22). Psalm 107 speaks of giving thanks for particular deliverances, private and corporate.

The Westminster Confession of Faith describes these days as part of the occasional parts of worship: "religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon several occasions; which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner" (WCF 21.5). It also mentions them as times when we are called to worship by providence in addition to the regular day of worship (the Lord's Day) appointed in the word: “God is to be worshipped … more solemnly in the public assemblies, which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected or forsaken, when God, by his Word or providence, calleth thereunto” (WCF 21.6).

For more information on days of fasting and prayer, you can read the chapter on the subject in our denomination's Directory for Public Worship here, as well as the chapter on the subject in the original 1645 Westminster Directory for Public Worship here (scroll down to "Concerning Solemn Publick Fastings" near the bottom).
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
       and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13)

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Augustine on Burying the Dead

In the book, The City of God, Augustine gave a lengthly defense of the faith in the aftermath of the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths. At one point, in discussing the sack of Rome and the fact that some Christians were killed and left unburied, Augustine made the following comments on the burial of the dead.
"But even their own philosophers have despised a careful burial; and often whole armies have fought and fallen for their earthly country without caring to inquire whether they would be left exposed on the field of battle, or become the food of wild beasts. Of this noble disregard of sepulture poetry has well said: 'He who has no tomb has the sky for his vault.' How much less ought they to insult over the unburied bodies of Christians, to whom it has been promised that the flesh itself shall be restored, and the body formed anew, all the members of it being gathered not only from the earth, but from the most secret recesses of any other of the elements in which the dead bodies of men have lain hid! 
"Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing! For the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man's very nature. 
"And therefore to the righteous of ancient times the last offices were piously rendered, and sepulchres provided for them, and obsequies celebrated; and they themselves, while yet alive, gave commandment to their sons about the burial, and, on occasion, even about the removal of their bodies to some favorite place. And Tobit, according to the angel's testimony, is commended, and is said to have pleased God by burying the dead (Tobit 12:12). Our Lord Himself, too, though He was to rise again the third day, applauds, and commends to our applause, the good work of the religious woman who poured precious ointment over His limbs, and did it against His burial (Matthew 26:10-13). And the Gospel speaks with commendation of those who were careful to take down His body from the cross, and wrap it lovingly in costly burial cloths, and see to its burial (John 19:38). These instances certainly do not prove that corpses have any feeling; but they show that God's providence extends even to the bodies of the dead, and that such pious offices are pleasing to Him, as cherishing faith in the resurrection. And we may also draw from them this wholesome lesson, that if God does not forget even any kind office which loving care pays to the unconscious dead, much more does He reward the charity we exercise towards the living. Other things, indeed, which the holy patriarchs said of the burial and removal of their bodies, they meant to be taken in a prophetic sense; but of these we need not here speak at large, what we have already said being sufficient. 
"But if the want of those things which are necessary for the support of the living, as food and clothing, though painful and trying, does not break down the fortitude and virtuous endurance of good men, nor eradicate piety from their souls, but rather renders it more fruitful, how much less can the absence of the funeral, and of the other customary attentions paid to the dead, render those wretched who are already reposing in the hidden abodes of the blessed! Consequently, though in the sack of Rome and of other towns the dead bodies of the Christians were deprived of these last offices, this is neither the fault of the living, for they could not render them; nor an infliction to the dead, for they cannot feel the loss." (Augustine, The City of God, 1.12-13)

Monday, March 9, 2020

Augustine on the Desire for Empire

As he commented on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and critiqued the values of pagan Rome, Augustine made the following observation on the desire for imperial expansion.
"Let them ask, then, whether it is quite fitting for good men to rejoice in extended empire. For the iniquity of those with whom just wars are carried on favors the growth of a kingdom, which would certainly have been small if the peace and justice of neighbors had not by any wrong provoked the carrying on of war against them; and human affairs being thus more happy, all kingdoms would have been small, rejoicing in neighborly concord; and thus there would have been very many kingdoms of nations in the world, as there are very many houses of citizens in a city. Therefore, to carry on war and extend a kingdom over wholly subdued nations seems to bad men to be felicity, to good men necessity. But because it would be worse that the injurious should rule over those who are more righteous, therefore even that is not unsuitably called felicity. But beyond doubt it is greater felicity to have a good neighbor at peace, than to conquer a bad one by making war. Your wishes are bad, when you desire that one whom you hate or fear should be in such a condition that you can conquer him." (Augustine, The City of God, 4.15)
In other words, Augustine argues that when done justly (in response to the iniquity and aggression of your neighbors), imperial expansion might be necessary and better than the alternatives. But the desire of the good man is not imperial expansion, even when done justly. The good man desires peaceful harmony and contentment among the nations.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Baptism and God's Covenant

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the covenant that God makes with his people (see here). Another aspect of this covenant is that it is confirmed by sacraments. The sacraments are like God’s handshake, a concrete act which seals the deal.

Even in the covenant of works, God gave Adam and Eve the tree of life to represent the promise of life. In the old administration of the covenant of grace, God immediately established sacrifices as a sign and seal of his promise of redemption. In particular, God established the Passover, a sacrificial meal, when he delivered his people from Egypt. Jesus established the Lord’s Supper as the sacramental meal of the new covenant. This is one type of sacrament, in which covenant members renew the covenant, doing it repeatedly throughout their life.

The other kind of sacrament brings people into the covenant community, confirming their entrance and distinguishing them from the outside. Noah’s ark can be thought of in this way, as a type of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). In that case, God distinguished his people from others by eliminating all others. But it is with Abraham, as he was called out to serve God among idolatrous nations, that God gave a clear and regular sign of membership in the covenant: circumcision.

Circumcision was the sign of the covenant before Christ came (Gen. 17:10-12). It was a sign which served as a seal of the righteousness which was possessed by faith (Rom. 4:11). It represented conversion, cleansing, and repentance (Deut. 10:16, 30:6). It marked a person as an heir of the Abrahamic promise of blessing through the promised seed, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:8, 16). It was given to believers and their household, even to eight-day old infants (Gen. 17:12, Exod. 12:48) - being given only to male believers and male children due to the nature of the sign being used.

Baptism is the sign of the covenant now that Christ has come. Just as Jesus replaced the Passover (and other sacrificial meals) with the bloodless and more clear sign of the Lord’s Supper, so he replaced circumcision with bloodless Trinitarian baptism - distinguishing the new administration from the old (Matt. 28:18-20). In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul teaches that Christians have the substance of circumcision - death to the old nature and new life through union with Christ - and that the external sign of this internal work is now baptism.

And so who ought to be baptized? Since God makes his covenant with believers and their children, welcoming believers and their children into his church, so believers and their children ought to be baptized (see my earlier post on this point). Since in the Old Testament the sign of entrance into the covenant was given to believers and their children, so in the New Testament baptism ought to be given to believers and their children.

Just as circumcision was a sign of benefits which were received by faith and was nevertheless applied to the infants of believers before they could express their faith, so baptism is a sign of benefits which are received by faith and is nevertheless applied to the infants of believers before they can express their faith.

What does baptism mean for the infants of believers? It means the same thing as it does to adult believers. They bear the name of God, they have been called out of the world, they are disciples of Christ, his benefits are theirs, and they are his, provided they keep the covenant through faith in him. It means they are visible saints, having the identity of Christians rather than pagans, to be treated as such, with hope and charity, as brothers and sisters.

Baptism is not a guarantee of salvation if it is without true faith, as you can see with the circumcised and “baptized” Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-14) and Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24). And so parents ought to be diligent in bringing up their children in the ways of the Lord, in the knowledge that God uses the instrumentality of parents to raise up another generation to serve him (Gen. 18:19, Eph. 6:4). And all the church, of whatever age, ought to be exhorted to repent and believe in Christ, living in accord with their baptism and embracing its promise.