Showing posts with label Hebrews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hebrews. Show all posts

Friday, May 31, 2013

Matthew 10: The End Was Near (Cosmic language & the old covenant age)

In this post, I would like to identify two important aspects of biblical literature which I have not yet touched upon in this series: 1) Scripture's non-literal cosmic language of judgment & deliverance, and 2) its related themes about the end of tabernacle/temple worship and the old creation/old covenant. These are important for understanding Jesus' prophecy to his twelve apostles in Matthew chapter ten: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes."

In order to appreciate this statement a bit more, let's start with the first aspect mentioned above. 

Throughout the Old Testament we find multiple references to Yahweh coming in judgment and/or deliverance for His people: Isaiah 19:1-4; 31:1-7; 64:1-4; Psalm 18:1-19; 144:1-8. Perhaps the most important example among these is Psalm 18, which speaks in very clear cosmic and apocalyptic language:

A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry. Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him. He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he came swiftly on the wings of the wind. He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him, thick clouds dark with water. Out of the brightness before him hailstones and coals of fire broke through his clouds. The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High uttered his voice, hailstones and coals of fire. And he sent out his arrows and scattered them; he flashed forth lightnings and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me.

Let's stop and think about this imagery for a few moments. David describes the Lord "coming" down to deliver him according to his prayer. He also describes the earth rocking and the mountains shaking at the anger of the Lord. Glowing coals shoot out of the Lord, and smoke rises out of his nostrils. The Lord even rides on a cherub (an angel) that flies, and he "comes" swiftly on the wings of the wind. Thunder, hailstones, and coals of fire shoot down through the thick, dark clouds which surround Him. The Lord shoots out arrows of lighting, and by the breath of His nostrils the sea parts so that the ocean floor is laid bare before everyone. And all of this, as David says at the beginning of this Psalm, is a description of the Lord rescuing him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of King Saul. Obviously, this apocalyptic language is not literal, nor was it ever intended to be interpreted as literal occurrences at the time of the Lord's deliverance. Such language is describing a mighty deliverance --a deliverance so mighty that extraordinary cosmic language suits it best-- but it is not a description of literal cosmic events. 

This is but one Old Testament example cosmic and apocalyptic language which describes the Lord's judgment upon His enemies and the deliverance of His children. This, I contend, is virtually identical to the cosmic and apocalyptic language mentioned in Matthew 24, Luke 21, Acts 2, I Peter 3, and Jude 17. 

Second, we find themes surrounding the end of tabernacle/temple worship and its relationship with the old creation/old covenant. These themes become very apparent through a comparison of multiple new covenant references about the “last days,” “last time,” and end of the Old Covenant "age": I Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:1-2; 9:1-10, 23-26; 10:19-25; Acts 2:14-21 (referencing Joel 2:27-32); II Tim. 3:1-5; I Peter 1:3-9, 20; 4:7-11; 5:4 (w/ reference to I Jn. 2:28-29); I John 2:18; Jude 17-23. Perhaps the most important examples among these are found throughout the book of Hebrews:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he framed the ages. (1:1-2)
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section,1 performing their ritual duties, but into the second2 only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is a parable for that time into the present).3 According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (9:1-10)
...Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. ...He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (9:23-26)
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain... let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith... Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who is promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (10:19-25)

In these passages, the author of Hebrews sees a certain "Day" drawing near, and the people of God are encouraged to stir up one another to love and good works, and to meet together regularly, and to hold fast the confession of their hope without wavering because that Day is drawing near. Before that the author speaks of Christ appearing at the "end of the ages." What ages? The ages which led up to the New Covenant and the inauguration of the Kingdom of heaven on earth. This "end of the ages" is also described as a "time of reformation" in which Jesus would pass through the first "tent" and into the real "Holy of Holies"; and these laws pertaining to the Old Covenant priesthood (with the high priest passing through the first "tent" into the "second" tent) are said to be "a parable of that time into the present.

In I Cor. 10:11, the apostle Paul uses similar language when he references God's judgments upon the disobedient people of Israel in the wilderness. And Paul says that "these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come." Clearly then, according to the apostle Paul, his own generation was living in the time when "the ages" would "end." But what "ages"? Well, in the mind of the author of Hebrews (and many people have argued that Paul was it's author), the answer was simple. The Mosaic tabernacle and it's laws taught the people of Israel that its own system of worship had to end and a better system had to be inaugurated at the end of that age. Ages would pass operating under the old covenant and it's tabernacle/temple system of worship, but a "time of reformation" was promised, according to the Mosaic Law's own "parable."

All of these references, I contend, are describing the end of the Old Covenant along with it's essential tabernacle/temple, sacrificial, and priestly structure. Furthermore, I contend, that the cosmic and apocalyptic language of Matthew 24, Luke 21, Acts 2, I Peter 3, and Jude 17 describe the end of the old creation as it is symbolized and foreshadowed in the destruction of the temple/tabernacle system and it's laws which are structured with cosmic symbolism.4

1.  i.e. the Holy Place was the first section, or "tent," of the Tabernacle
2. i.e. the Most Holy Place (or "Holy of Holies") was the second section, or "tent," of the Tabernacle. According to the Law of Moses, the High priest was the only priest allowed into the second "tent," and he had to walk through the first tent to get to the second "tent." The author of Hebrews argues that this symbolism engraved in ceremonial law was "symbolic of the time now present."
3.  The Greek text says ἥτις παραβολὴ εἰς τὸν καιρὸν τὸν ἐνεστηκότα, which, if woodenly translated  would say: "which is a parable into the time then-to-now-present." That is why I translated the passage as saying: "which is a parable for that time into the present." The ESV translates this parenthetical remark as "(which is symbolic for the present age)." The NASB translates it this way: "which is a symbol for the present time." The NIV translates it this way: "This is an illustration for the present time." And finally, the NLT translates it this way: "This is an illustration pointing to the present time." 
4.  See L. Michael Morales, The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis and Exodus [Leuven-Paris-Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2012]; G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004]; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996]; Peter J. Leithart, A House For My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament [Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000]; James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing A Biblical View of the World [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

John Owen: A Prophecy of Gospel Times Only

One of the last things I listed in one of my recent posts concerning Matthew chapter 10, I mentioned Hebrews 10:36-39 and II Peter 3:1-7 as apostolic references to the "coming of the Son of Man" in judgment upon Israel. Because those verses are often misunderstood by Christians today, I've taken the liberty to list a brief historical commentary from John Owen, the Prince of Puritans (or so he has been called), concerning those specific verses. For those who are unfamiliar with John Owen, he is recognized as one of the greatest biblical scholars among the English Puritans. 

But first, before we get to John Owen's comments, we need to get our bearings straight. So we'll start by reading the text of Hebrews 10:36-39:
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him."  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

Commenting on Hebrews 10:36-39 John Owen writes:

After [Jesus’] incarnation and ministry, he was now, with respect unto them, he that had come. …Yet after this [Jesus] was to come again. …He was to come for the punishment and destruction of his stubborn and inveterate adversaries. …Such as were declared enemies…

Of the first sort, were of the Jews, who slew him, who murdered him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and thereon continued their hatred against the gospel and all that made profession thereof. He was to come to “destroy those murderers, and to burn their city;” which fell out not long after writing of this epistle, and is properly intended in this place. See Matt. 24:3, 27, 30; 2 Pet. 3:4; Jude 14; Rev. 1:7; Mark 14:62; James 5:7,8.
For hereon ensued the deliverance of the church from the rage and persecution of the Jews, with the illustrious propagation of the gospel throughout the world.
…The Pagan Roman Empire was the second sort of his adversaries who were immediate enemies unto his gospel, and consequently to his person.1

Notice carefully that John Owen interpreted various references from Matthew 24, II Peter, Jude, Revelation, and James as though they all referred to the destruction of Jerusalem. This "coming" of the Son of Man was "for the punishment and destruction of his stubborn and inveterate adversaries." He then lists the 1st century Jews as the first of those adversaries! This was not an anti-semitic opinion of Owen. This was good exegesis of historical and biblical theology, straight out of the Scriptures -- the most Jewish bundle of literature to be found in the first century!
But notice also that John Owen specifically referred to II Peter 3:4. John Owen's comments on that apocalyptic portion of Scripture are very insightful. When commenting on 2 Peter 3:1-7 and it's description of a the old heaven and earth being destroyed and a new heavens and earth being created, John Owen appeals to Isaiah’s description of the Mosaic Covenant (Isa. 51):
The time when the work here mentioned, of planting the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth, was performed by God, was when he “divided the sea” (v. 15), and gave the Law (v. 16), and said to Zion, “Thou art my people”—that is, when he took the children of Israel out of Egypt, and formed them in the wilderness into a church and state. Then he planted the heavens, and laid the foundation of the earth – made the new world. …And hence it is, that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is in that language that seems to set forth the end of the world. So Isaiah 34:4; which is yet but the destruction of the state of Edom. …And in our Savior Christ’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew 24, he sets it out by expressions of the same importance. It is evidence then, that in the prophetical idiom and manner of speech, by “heavens” and “earth,” the civil and religious state and combination of men in the world, and the men of them, are often understood. …On this foundation I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state.2

Commenting just a few verses later, on 2 Peter 3:13, John Owen says:
“But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” What is that promise? Where may we find it? Why, we have it in the very words and letter, Isaiah 65:17. Now, when shall this be that God will create these “new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness”? Saith Peter, “It shall be after the coming of the Lord, after that judgment and destruction of ungodly men, who obey not the Gospel, that I foretell.” But now it is evidence, from this place of Isaiah, with chapter 66:21-22, that this is a prophecy of Gospel times only; and that the planting of these new heavens is nothing but the creation of Gospel ordinances to endure forever. The same thing is expressed in Hebrews 12:26-28.3

Commenting on Hebrews 12:26-29 [which quotes Haggai 2:6 and describes the “shaking” of “heaven and earth”], John Owen says:
It is the dealing of God with the Church, and the alterations which he would make in the state thereof, concerning which the apostle treats. It is therefore the heavens and earth of Mosaical worship, and the Judaical church-state, with the earth of their political state belonging thereunto, that are here intended. These were they that were shaken at the coming of Christ, and so shaken, as shortly after to be removed and taken away, for the introduction of the more heavenly worship… and immovable evangelical church-state. This was the greatest commotion and alteration that God ever made in the heavens and earth of the church, and which was to be made once only…  
This is the conclusion of the whole argumentative part of this epistle, that which was aimed at from the beginning. Having fully proved the excellency of the gospel, and state of the church therein, above that under the law, and confirmed it by an examination of all the concernments of the one and of the other, as we have seen; he now declares from the Scripture, according to his usual way of dealing with those Hebrews, that all the ancient institutions of worship, and the whole church-state of the old covenant, were now to be removed and taken away; and that to make way for a better state, more glorious, and that which should never be subject to change or alteration.4

1.  John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews, [Marshallton, DE: N.F.C.E., 1969 reprint] Vol. 4, pp. 583-584. Brackets mine.
2.  John Owen, Works, [London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965-68] Vol. 9, p. 134. Italics mine.
3.  Ibid. Bold and Italics mine.
4.  Ibid., Vol. 7, p. 366f

Monday, May 27, 2013

Instructions to the Twelve (B and B')

In the previous post on Matthew, I covered the first and last sections (A and A') of chapter ten together. And as you also may recall, Matthew chapter ten is structured according to the following chiasm:

A)  Instructions to the twelve apostles  (10:5-15)
   B)  Persecution and family division  (10:16-23)
      C)  Enemies of the Master’s household  (10:24-25)
         D1)  Consolation of the twelve: "Do not fear them..." (10:26-27)
            D2)  "Do not fear those who... but Fear Him who can..." (10:28-30)
         D3)  Consolation of the twelve: "Do not fear, therefore..." (10:31-33)
      C’)  Enemies of the Master’s household  (10:34-36)
   B’)  Persecution and family division  (10:37-39)
A’)  Reception of the twelve apostles  (10:40-42)

The next two parallel sections are B and B', and both of them describe persecution and family division (as noted above and below). In both sections (B & B'), Matthew records these words of Jesus to his twelve apostles:
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the Father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 

...Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 

Now, I realize that I've said this before in an earlier post, but for the sake of unmistakable emphasis I'm going to repeat myself. There is a very good reason why Jesus took his twelve apostles aside and told them that they would be delivered over to courts, flogged in their synagogues, and dragged before governors and kings to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. It is because the Son of Man was going to come upon that generation in judgment.

I also realize that I've said this before, but for the sake of protecting myself against prejudicial, egotistic, premillenial brethren who read this post and feel the need to scold me for teaching "unbiblical" views, I'm going to repeat myself. There is a very good reason why Jesus took his twelve apostles aside and told them that they didn't need to be anxious about how they were to speak or what they were to say, and that what they were to say was promised to be given by the Holy Spirit to them in that hour. It was because the Son of Man was going to come upon that generation in judgment. 

And last of all, I realize that I've said this before too, but for the sake of abundant clarity, I'm going to repeat myself one more time. There is a very good reason why they would be hated by all for the sake of Jesus' name, and why only those who would endure to the end would be saved, and why those who would not lose their life for Jesus' sake would not find life. It was because the Son of Man was going to come upon that generation in judgment. 

Of course, you didn't need me to emphasize this for you. Everything you needed to know was spoken just as clearly by Jesus. He said these very words (in section B above):
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

From the context itself, it's obvious that whenever the Son of Man was prophesied to "come" and visit, he would be coming upon all of the towns of Israel and before all twelve apostles could go through all of them. This exact language about the Son of Man coming in judgment is mentioned in multiple places throughout Matthew's gospel, which should lead us to believe that they're all talking about the exact same time-frame and events. For example, in Matthew 16:24-28, Jesus tell his disciples again that:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. ...For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Notice Jesus' own repeated emphasis upon the very close time-frame in which this "coming" of the Son of Man would take place. It's as though Jesus insisted on repeating himself over and over again for the sake of abundant clarity. (Sound familiar?) Jesus repeats this same message again; this time, it's in Matthew 23:32-39, where we find Jesus condemning the ungodly rulers of Israel within Herod's idolatrous temple, and lamenting over Jerusalem and it's temple's soon-coming destruction:
Fill up, then, the measure of your Fathers! You serpents! You brood of vipers! How are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth... Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate!

In the very next verses of Matthew' gospel, we find Jesus standing outside of the temple and prophesying against Jerusalem; and in this prophecy we find identical statements with the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew 10 (B & B'). Furthermore, Jesus' prophecy clarifies Matthew 10 by explicitly describing this "coming" of the Son of Man as the destruction of Jerusalem and it's idolatrous temple at "the end" of the Old Covenant "age." Matthew 24:1-21 says that:
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, "You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? And Jesus answered them, "See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end [of the age] is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of the birth pains. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And the gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas, for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! ... For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.

In Luke's gospel, we find the exact same recording of Jesus' prophecy against Israel, only stated in Luke's own words (and for a difference audience than Matthew, of course). Do yourself a big favor and pay very close attention to the identical prophecy of Jesus here in Luke 21:10-24, and compare it with the statements of Jesus above in Matthew 10:16-23 (section B & B' above). Luke writes:
Then [Jesus] said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are the days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Alas for women who are pregnant in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." 

By comparing the language of Matthew 10, Matthew 24, and Luke 21, it is obvious that Jesus was prophesying about a soon-coming judgment upon the land of Israel. "These are the days of vengeance," Jesus said, "to fulfill all that is written."  What?  Is Jesus saying that the Old Covenant scriptures and prophets spoke of the end of the Old Covenant age and a day in which the Lord would come in judgment upon that land and that temple (Herod's Temple)? Jesus certainly seems to have thought so. 

Also, notice carefully that in the place where Matthew records the words,  "When you see the Abomination of desolation standing in the midst of the Holy Place," Luke interprets that very same statement as meaning, "When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies..." That would be a very odd statement for Jesus to tell his disciples if he intended that as a prophecy for future generations thousands of years later on in history.

Continuing this same train of thought, but just a few verses later in Matthew's gospel, Jesus speaks with abundant clarity about when these judgments would take place. He says they would take place in his generationMatthew 24:23-34 reads
...If anyone says to you, "Look! Here is the Messiah!" or "There he is!" do not believe it. For false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, "Look! he is in the wilderness," do not go out. If they say, "Look! He is in the inner rooms," do not believe it. For as lightening comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. ...From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

Luke 21:25-33 records these exact same words of Jesus, immediately after the parallel reference above. Make no mistake about this. The prophecy of Luke 21 and Matthew 24 are describing the exact same events. 

And finally, in case you were skeptical about this very near time-references about Jesus "coming" in judgment, Matthew 26:60-65 should seal the deal. In these verses, Jesus stands before the High Priest of Israel and many of the Jewish Rulers of Jerusalem, and it is there that we find Matthew recording these details:
At last, two [witnesses] came forward and said, "This man [Jesus] said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.'" And the high priest stood up and said, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his robes and said, "He has uttered blasphemy!"

You may want to call me a heretic. You may even want to accuse me of engaging in some kind of theological jujitsu. But if you want to make a rational exegesis of the biblical text, what you cannot accuse me of being is crazy. I am not the one who repeatedly clarified that the Son of Man would come upon that first century generation of Israel in judgment. Jesus taught that message. If you've got a problem with that message, take it up with Jesus. And once you're done with Jesus (as if you could possibly win), you may also want to consider taking it up with his apostles too. They also taught what Jesus prophesied, namely this exact same soon "coming" of Christ in judgment upon Israel (II Thess. 2:1-7; I John 2:28-29; James 5:7-8; Rev. 1:1-7; Heb. 10:36-39; II Pet. 3:1-7).

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fallen from God's favor

Last night I had a conversation with some good friends about meriting God's favor. In the end we all agreed that the language of "meriting" God's favor, even if it's being used in the narrow sense of pleasing God, is not wise in our current christian climate because it gives the impression that salvation can be earned. However, for those who know me personally, it probably won't come as a surprise that I had some lingering concerns about our current christian climate, and in particular the concern that christians shouldn't talk or think as though doing things -- literally any things -- could either decrease or increase God's favor upon an individual, especially christian individuals. This whole conversation arose from a study in Galatians chapter five. 

In Galatians chapter five, Paul speaks adamantly toward those Gentile christians within the Galatian church who are considering to accept the rite of circumcision on the terms of the "Juidaizers" who "wanted to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7) by teaching that God only justifies sinners in virtue of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, through "works of the (Mosaic) Law." This first century controversy, in effect, convinced the Christian Gentiles of Galatia to voluntarily place themselves under the Old Covenant, thereby identifying themselves with the covenant-people of Israel, in order to receive a righteous standing before God; and that is patently false and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and justification through faith in him alone (Gal. 2:15-21; Eph. 2:1-10). Paul even describes this particular worldview of judaism with which he was personally familiar as though it were a pagan and idolatrous system of worship that enslaved the human heart instead of freeing it (Gal. 4:8-11, 21-31; 5:1). And yet, after all of this contention with insidious Judaizers and the proselytes to Judaism which they nurtured and developed in Galatia, Paul declares emphatically that those Gentiles who have become tangled within this controversy and honestly think they are being justified by the Mosaic Law and its stipulated works "have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4).

Now, in our current Christian climate, it is presumed that Paul did not truly believe that a Christian could fall away from God's grace, because that would imply a loss of salvation -- a salvation which was granted unconditionally. In other words, it is presumed that Paul was serious in the tone of his warning but not in the actual content of his warning. That is to say, Paul is speaking rhetorically for the effect of appearing threatening, but the propositional threat itself was not true. That, to me, seems more like an idle threat than good rhetoric. And under such urgent circumstances like the situation in Galatia, an idle threat would not only be foolish, it would also be useless. These Christian Gentiles cannot have possibly fallen away from something that they did not have. In this case, it's God's favor

The most logical inference of this allegedly "idle" threat is that previously these Gentiles had been viewed as having obtained God's favor. In other words, they had been viewed as Christians by the Apostle Paul, and other Christians within the church of Galatia believed they were Christians too. And one of the benefits of that Christian faith is they had received God's favor. Paul thought they had received God's favor. They thought they did too.  If they didn't think that, Paul's warning would be absolutely meaningless. And it is that position of favor from which Paul says they "have fallen away from" (aorist active indicative of ekpipto) God's favor or "grace."

The apostle Peter speaks this way also in one of his letters. He says, "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose (ekpipto) your own stability" (2 Pet. 3:17). The author of Hebrews is even more explicit in his language: 
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:28-29) 

It seems to me that the apostles of our Lord Jesus christ were not speaking hypothetically when they described the certainty of God's promised, decreasing favor upon those who had been sanctified by the blood of His covenant and had outraged the Spirit of grace (i.e. the Spirit of favor).  Similarly, Paul speaks to the Colossian Christians as though they too could fall away from some kind of relationship with Jesus Christ. In Colossians 1:21-23, he writes:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
In Paul's letter to the Gentile congregation in Rome, he writes concerning the covenant-body of Israel:
They [the covenant body of Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. (Rom. 11:20-21)

The very clear inference of these statements by Paul is that the Gentiles who once were alienated and hostile in their minds toward God have now been graciously brought into a relationship with God where they (perceivably) are no longer hostile to God in their minds and are no longer alienated from God. Yet, Paul still speaks as though they were able, in some sense, to become lax, unstable, and irresolute in their faith, shifting away from the hope of the gospel that they heard and (apparently) received with favor. A few verses later (Col. 1:28) Paul states that all men need to heed this "warning" of God's gospel: "Him [that is, Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ." The obvious implication of this "warning" is that these identifiable Christians could "shift from" the hope of the gospel, at which time God's warning would be appropriately given to them -- that warning being the promise of God's hostility toward them, the deliverance from which they did not deserve in the first place. And if the sovereign kindness of God placed the people of Israel into a covenant relationship with Him, and He eventually did not spare them, allowing them to "fall" because of their unbelief and pride, how much more is God's warning appropriate for Gentiles who receive God's kindness and yet are tempted to do the same?

It seems to me that in some sense, God's kindness can be diminished with those who are in covenant with Him. If this is true, one logical implication would be that God's kindness could also increase with those who are in covenant with Him. 

Now, I realize that in our current Christian climate, especially among "Baptistic" and "Calvinistic" circles of Christianity, it is likely that I will be accused of being Arminian, Palagian, semi-Palagian, and possibly even a total pagan for believing that Christians in covenant with God can do things which increase or decrease God's favor. That would mean, or so they might think, that Jesus does not cover all of their sins, or that Christ only covers their sins intermittently (covering them and uncovering them, and covering them back up again, etc.). But is that really true? Must we deny substitutionary atonement by affirming that God's favor upon His covenant people can increase or decrease depending on their faithfulness? It seems to me that no matter which Christian tradition we come from, both substitutionary atonement for Christians and the ability of Christians to fall away from God's favor are part of the clear language of God's Word; and first and foremost, as Christians, we ought to commit ourselves to the Word of God above all traditions. But does this mean that by accepting this peculiar biblical language about "falling away from grace" that other biblical doctrines are being compromised, even the doctrines of sovereign grace? Does this diminish God's sovereignty over all? Does this diminish the sinner's accountability to God one bit? Does this even imply that God is not worthy of our love, adoration, and respect? I don't believe so, and I'll tell you why. 

The language of God's Word also, and just as clearly, affirms that all men are completely dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1) and by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:2-3) and enemies of God by their very nature (Rom. 5:10) through their legal covenantal union with the first Adam who fell into sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3; Hosea 6:7; Rom. 5:12-19). Because of their union with the first Adam they are by nature slaves of sin (Rom. 6:20). God's Word is also very clear that no man who is dead in his sins is righteous in himself (Rom. 3:9-20), or can do things in himself which merit God's favor, thereby causing or stimulate God to make him righteous or even to give him an alien righteousness. All men have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and there is no one righteous, not so much as one (Rom. 3:10). Therefore the natural man, if he is to be righteous in God's sight at all, must be elected by God to partake of, and be covered by, His righteousness--the righteousness of the Righteous One (Rom. 3:19-26; 4:7; 5:1-21). 

Moreover, God does not base the foundation of His election on anything inherent within the individual sinner. God chooses to save sinners based on the gracious and kind intention of His own will (Eph. 1:4-8; Rom. 9:11). God's electing love, though sufficient for all and for all time, is for those whom God alone wills, and only for those whom He wills (John 6:37; 17:9). And because God has sovereignly, powerfully, and graciously saved a people for Himself, they have eternal security in Him (Rom. 8:1; John 10:27; I Cor. 10:13; Philip. 1:6).

And so, how does all of this fit together? How is the language of falling away from God's favor to be understood in light of God's favor originating and continuing from His completely sovereign grace?  

Are we to believe that God's favor is unlimited and static no matter what (that is to say, it doesn't move up or down or increase or decrease at all in time and history) for those who are in a covenant relationship with in Him? 

Are Christians, graciously placed within a covenant relationship with God, held to certain conditions which necessitate their faithful obedience, lest they fall away from God's favor?

I will gladly confess that it is a tremendous error to believe that spiritually dead men and enemies of God can do something to earn or "merit" God's favor in any sense. But is that true for those who are no longer spiritually dead and have been graciously placed within a covenant relationship with God? Is that true of people who are no longer considered God's enemies?  I get the funny feeling that Christians in our current climate get all flustered by this language because they equate a covenant relationship with God (something which contains blessings and curses and is objectively verifiable) as God's eternally electing, predestinating decree of salvation itself (something which man, in and of himself, could not possibly know because it's hidden within God's knowledge alone, Deut. 29:29). I also suspect that because such Christians don't want to attribute human perceptions of immorality to God (and His holy character), they don't like the thought of a God who would do such things as blessing them for obedience/faithfulness and cursing them for disobedience/faithlessness. They might think it's not "good" or "loving" or "gracious" for God to do that, especially if their righteous standing before God is because of the righteousness of another man who stands in their place (i.e. Jesus). 

But perhaps the most serious concern which stems from this apparent paradox is the thought that one could lose their regenerate or eternally elect status in God's sight if such things as covenant conditions (i.e. blessings and curses) were indeed true (and not just idle, hypothetical threats displayed for purely rhetorical purposes). The thought might be (i'm imagining) that no one can rest in any absolute assurance of salvation because God's covenant, through which he saves sinners, is conditional in some sense. And if it's conditional, after having already begun a work of regeneration, then one can lose his or her regeneration. Moreover, if it's conditional, God could not possibly predestine my eternal destiny, because it would change depending on something I do. 

Obviously, these apparent paradoxes are all serious concerns. And they all need to be addressed.

There is one thing Christians can be sure of, even when they are wrestling with this apparent paradox of "falling away from grace"; and that is the covenant faithfulness of God. God will always be faithful to the terms of His covenant with his people (Psa. 33:4; 36:5; 86:15; 89:1, 8; 115:1; Lam. 3:22-23; Rom. 3:3-4; I Cor. 1:9; 10:13; II Cor. 1:18; I John 1:9). But (and this is a big "but") if the terms of His covenant do include conditions, why would any professing "Christian" pretend as though His or her faithfulness will result in an eternal life in God's comfortable presence? In other words, why would a professing Christian presume that God's gracious covenant with them continues so that they could live sinfully? As the apostle Paul says, "Should we continue1in sin, that grace may abound?" (Rom. 6:1)?

In one of the following posts, I would like to offer a solution to this apparent paradox, but I can promise you that the solution won't be my own. In the following posts I would like to offer the solution presented by John Calvin, which was based upon his own study of God's Word. Now, I realize that our current climate of Christianity has many views, both pros and cons, concerning John Calvin the person and "Calvinism" as a theological think-tank, but I'm not going to offer a solution to this apparent paradox from our current "Calvinistic" climate. I'm going to offer John Calvin's own solution, which, as we'll see, is different from modern mainstream "Calvinistic" solutions. Stay tuned for those upcoming posts.

1.  The verb for "continue" in Rom. 6:1 is stated in the subjunctive mood, signifying possibility and potentiality. I prefer the HCSB translation which reads, "Should we continue...".  Other translations say "Are we to continue in sin?" (ESV), or "Shall we go on sinning..." (NIV). 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Psalm 22: You Lay Me in the Dust of Death

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are the words of my groaning to you so far from helping me? O my God, I cry out to you by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I have no rest.  
Yet you are holy,
 you who are enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted;
 they trusted, and you rescued them. To you they cried and were delivered; 
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.  
But I am a worm and not a man,
 a reproach of men and even despised by the people. All who see me laugh me to scorn; 
they hurled insults at me. They shake their heads, saying: “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; 
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”  
But you are the one who pushed me out of the womb, making me trust even from the time I was at my mother's breasts. Upon you I was cast from the womb,
 and from my mother's belly you have been my God. Do not be far off from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.  
Many bulls encompass me; 
strong bulls of Bashan surround me. They open wide their mouths at me, 
tearing and roaring like a lion. I am poured out like water,
 and all my bones are out of joint.
 My heart has become like wax,
 melting within me; my strength is dried up like broken pottery,
 and my tongue sticks to my jaws. 
You lay me in the dust of death.  
For dogs encompass me;
 a company of evildoers encircles me; 
like a lion they have pierced my hands and feet. They count all my bones, and 
they stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them,
 and for my clothing they cast lots.   
But you, O Lord, do not be far off from me!
 O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword,
 my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion, from the horns of the wild ox with which you have answered me.  
I will declare your name to my brethren. In the midst of the congregation I will praise you. You who fear Yahweh, praise him!
 All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; 
and stand in awe of him all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred 
the affliction of the afflicted,
 and he has not hidden his face from him,
 but has heard, when he cried to him.  
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
 my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
 those who seek him shall praise Yahweh,
 and may their hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to Yahweh, 
and all the families of the nations
 shall worship before you.  
For dominion belongs to Yahweh,
 and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous ones of the earth shall feast and worship, and all who go down to the dust shall bow before him, even the one whose life cannot be kept alive. Posterity shall serve him, future generations shall be told about Yahweh, and they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn that he has done it!

The opening words of Psalm 22 are probably the most familiar words of all the Psalms. After Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46), one can hardly view this Psalm as though it were merely David's expression of suffering. It must, in fact, represent the suffering of some one much greater than David, some Davidic King more ultimate than himself. These opening words also set the tone for the entire Psalm. This King feels a need to exclaim the horrors of separation and alienation from God. The picture painted for us is extremely real suffering and real trust through sufferingThis King "cries out" repeatedly, day after day, night after night, but finds no rest and no peace of mind.

This King knows who he's crying out to. He knows that Yahweh dwells in the midst of His covenant people, making him accessible to all who draw near. And yet, we are left wondering why, if Yahweh is indeed enthroned on the praises of Israel (praises from those Fathers who trusted in Him, were rescued by Him, and were not put to shame because of Him), God seems to be completely absent when the King of Israel cries out to Him. What is there for him to learn through such suffering? (Heb. 5:8)

This King knows he is in a lowly position among all the creatures of the earth. Far from being perfectly spotless and blameless, he is a filthy "worm" who bears the reproach of men. The people despise him; they laugh him to scorn and hurl insults at him, mocking him during his trial of extreme suffering (Matt. 27:39-44). The message of this King is known by his mockers too. They know he trusts and delights in Yahweh. They know he believes Yahweh is his deliverer too. And so they toy with his delights; they jest about his confidence in Yahweh. In their eyes, he is not the rightful King of Israel. Their heads shake in denial (Matt. 27:39).

Yet we see that this "worm" is not ashamed of his delight in Yahweh. He knows Yahweh was with him from conception and birth. The Spirit of Yahweh was at work within him even from his first memory outside the womb, even upon his mother's breast. "From my mother's belly You have been my God," this King declares. Therefore, when real trouble is near, and no one on earth is there to help deliver him, he is not ashamed to cry out toward heaven to this God whom he has always known: "Do not be far off from me! ...There is none to help!" He knows there is no one other to help him in this time of great trouble. In fact, as we approach the center of this Psalm, we learn that this great trouble -- whatever it is -- leads to death. For all practical purposes, this King already feels dead simply because God has forsaken him; simply because he cries and cries without any rest. Later on, this King will cry out these exact same words of help again, only he will cry out to God after being laid in the "dust of death." In other words, the next time he cries out to God for this same help, we get the feeling that God has never really been far off from him. Even though the Psalm begins with the feeling of God forsaking him, we learn that God was his "help" through all of that deadly suffering. And because God was his help through suffering, he can trust that God is his help after death as well.

Towards the center of this Psalm, we find a much more vivid picture of deadly suffering; we find a picture of one who is suffering as though he were in a den of beasts, trapped and tied down with no hope of escape except through death. This King feels like he is "encompassed" by "many bulls." And not just any bulls; these are notoriously strong ones from the land of Bashan. They surround him and taunt him, leaving no way of escape. They open their mouths wide, "tearing and roaring" like ferocious lions. Now we can imagine why this King has reason to feel troubled. This King is completely debilitated within this den of beasts. He is physically and emotionally drained with his bones dislocated like a man stretched upon a rack, while his heart and its resolve melts away like wax as he drifts closer to the reality of death. His strength is brittle like dried-up pottery that crumbles to pieces. He thirsts intensely, leaving his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth (John 19:28). The only one he has to cry out to is Yahweh himself. The only one who can deliver him is  Yahweh himself. 

Yet notice carefully that this King knows who has done all of this to him. This King knows that Yahweh has done this to him. He says "You lay me in the dust of death." Part of the reason why he knows Yahweh has done this to him is because he has cried out to Yahweh repeatedly, day after day, night after night, and Yahweh has responded by placing him in a den of beasts.

Dogs also encompass this King, and behind them is a surrounding "company of evildoers" who are going to make sure there is no escape for him. Like a lion, they have pierced his hands and feet (John 20:20-28; Zech. 12:10). Not only has be been bound, but he is being viscously attacked while the company of evildoers look upon him with malicious satisfaction at his sufferings. They even divide his garments and gamble over who gets the best pieces of his clothing (John 19:23-24). While this King lays in the dust of death like dry, crumbled potsherds, his enemies haggle over the value of his bloody garments.

Yet notice how great the faith of this King is! Even though there is no doubt of real trouble and no earthly deliverance from these evil beasts, he nevertheless cries out to the God of Heaven whom he knows can deliver from the dust. He cries out: "Do not be far off from me! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!" At this point, the King cries out for Yahweh to draw near because he knows Yahweh has never been too far off from him, even after entering the dust of death. He knows who his help truly is. He knows Yahweh is present to deliver his soul from the sword of his enemies, from the beasts which surround him -- the power of dogs, the mouth of lions, and horns of oxen "with which you have answered me." Why does this King believe that Yahweh can deliver him? Because he knows that Yahweh answered him; he knows that Yahweh wasn't totally silent concerning his cries. Yahweh was the one who placed him in a position from which to deliver him. Therefore, because Yahweh placed him in the dust, this King trusts that Yahweh can deliver him from the dust. 

This King knows that Yahweh "has not despised or abhorred 
the affliction of the afflicted,
 and he has not hidden his face from him." This King knows that Yahweh
 has heard his cries all along (Heb. 5:7). Therefore he will not cease to declare the praise which is due to Yahweh. In the midst of the congregation he will talk about Yahweh to his brethren and even sing Yahweh's praise (Heb. 2:12). And those who hear the word of this King, those who share this same faith, those who likewise trust and acknowledge the sovereignty of God in all affairs of life -- even His sovereignty through suffering -- they are exhorted to give Yahweh the praise which is due to his name. "All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; and stand in awe of him all you offspring of Israel!"

Notice carefully the expression of confidence this King shares and the source of his confidence: "From You comes my praise in the great congregation." This King is sure that he will praise Yahweh publicly among his brethren because Yahweh is the source of his praise. But not only will he praise Yahweh publicly, he will also pay his vows publicly by bringing his thank-offering to Yahweh (Lev. 7:16). In the House of Yahweh his afflicted brethren "shall eat" this thank-offering meal "and be satisfied." Also, notice that this thanksgiving meal within God's house becomes an opportunity for others to "seek Him" and to learn of Yahweh's goodness. His confidence is that "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to Yahweh, 
and all the families of the nations
 shall worship before you." Why is he confident that this will happen? Because He has known God from his mother's womb. He has known Yahweh, the covenant keeping God, from his mother's womb. He has known the God who placed him in a den to be torn apart by wild beasts while his enemies haggled over his garments. He has known the God who answered his cries by laying him in the dust of death. He also knows the God who answered his cries by drawing near to him, delivering him from death. In Deuteronomy 4:7, the people of Israel proclaim: "What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as Yahweh our God is to us?" And in this Psalm, the King knows the answer to that question. He knows there is no other god like Yahweh, which is why he has confidence that when Yahweh draws near to any nation, all the families of those nations shall worship Him. Yahweh is worthy of such worship.

Why is Yahweh worthy of such worship? Because "dominion belongs to Yahweh,
 and he rules over the nations." Because dominion belongs to Yahweh, there is hope for all future generations that are told about Yahweh and seek after Yahweh. "They shall come and proclaim" his dominion. They shall come and proclaim the gospel of "his righteousness to a people yet unborn." They shall come and proclaim the gospel of God's Kingdom on earth. Because Yahweh has laid this King in the dust of death and delivered him from it, redemption is actually accomplished. It is finished once-for-all through Yahweh's resurrection from death. And because it is finished -- redemption is accomplished -- there is prosperity, feasting, and worship for all his saints.