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 with each 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.