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.