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."