Tag Archives: Scripture

Just as my mother did

In Psalm 86 David is crying out to his God for help. He is facing enemies who seek to destroy him and have no love or fear for God. David reasons that since he does love God he will cry out to him for help.

The psalm is a beautiful example of the struggles of the faithful heart in the midst of turbulent waters. One the one hand praising and worshiping a God who is unchangingly merciful and relentlessly compassionate, while on the other experiencing the day by day pressure of being pursued by those seeking our harm. One the one hand surrounded by peace & rest, on the other contempt & hatred. For anyone who has known opposition in their life this psalm is an oasis of hope in a inhospitably desert.

Right in the middle of meditating on this psalm I was struck by one phrase in verse 16. I had been reading the psalm for many days but never read this phrase as I read it now. David is crying out to God to remember his life of service to him and using this as a reason for God to save him. Then there comes this throw away phrase that struck my profoundly – just as my mother did.

David is here remembering how his mother served God, how she loved her children and her husband Jesse through her service. In his moment of heartache David’s mind goes back to his mother. Remember her Lord? Remember how she served you, as I now serve you? Remember that from generation to generation we are a faithful family? Would you intervene to rescue those that are seeking with their whole heart to follow your ways?

One of the things that hits me about this text is how it deepens the intimacy of the final plea to God. In the final few verses David cries out for God’s visible manifestation of his strength (v16). He asks God to be God in his circumstances because David is his servant, who serves him and seeks to glorify him in each moment of his life (v12). He thinks of the most visible expression of that servant attitude in his life and his mind instinctively goes to his mother, rather than his father. Then he immediately thinks of his enemies and their absolute absence of a humble servant heart. This extreme contrast compels him to cry out to God for the invisible pleasure of God upon his people to be made known to shame his opponents into submission.

David’s mother is not named in the bible, but according to the Talmud it was Nitzevet. We know very little about her, but she must have been some woman. Not only did she exemplify a life of service to God, but she raised seven boys. Sometimes in parenting our enthusiasm is overcome by apathy as more and more children arrive. The youngest one can sometimes be the most ignored and left to get on with things themselves. It is to her credit that her witness did not wane with age, but rather deepened and sweetened.

Until this little phrase hit me this week I had not appreciated how much of an influence David’s mother would have had on his ministry, leadership and reign. The example of this godly woman helped shape the man who “shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them” (Psalm 78v72). What an impact her life made, what a difference had she not been the faithful servant in her private home as a mother, wife and friend. She was a visible sign of God’s goodness to David which lasted his entire life and impacted the entire Israelite nation. Thank God for faithful, godly, servant hearted mothers!

The Master’s mind

At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.

We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better.   Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:

i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:

  • Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
  • Cremation practice and law in Britain.
  • The banana industry.
  • Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.

Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.

So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.

ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.

Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel.   To the natural man it is foolishness.

There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.

iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.

Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.

Advice to a new preacher

I have recently been speaking with a good friend who has the opportunity to preach his first sermon. I started to think about all the things that go through my mind when I approach a passage and the pulpit. I thought I would share them with you. So, John this is for you brother!

  1. Preaching simply means to herald – like the angels at Jesus’ birth we are to deliver a message. Its not our responsibility to come up with the message, but it is our responsibility to deliver it in a way our hearers can understand.
  2. Get their attention from the first minute. If you don’t get them then you have to work harder later on. Use your opening minutes to anchor your sermon in the contemporary world. A good introduction is often the hardest part of the whole preparation and I leave it until last. If possible tie the introduction and the conclusion together with the same illustration. But don’t force it, sometimes it works other times it won’t.
  3. Delve into the passage until its message has gripped you and its truth has overwhelmed you. Begin to jot down what you are learning from God. Most of it will not be that profound, but as you work on it, true insights will start to form – make these the focus for your illustrations and application.
  4. Always give a piece of yourself in each message. Preach as Spurgeon said “as a dying man to dying men”. Let the people see that it cost you something to bring a message to them from God.
  5. Strive to be logical in order to convince the mind, but not so much that it becomes a lecture. Strive to move their hearts but not so much that it feels like manipulation. Strive to bring them to a point of confrontation with their sin, but not in a way that sets you above your hearers.
  6. Exegesis, application and passion – like salt, pepper and chilies (!), each must be mixed in the right combination to make the perfect curry. Too much application and your sermon becomes too shallow and man-centred, too little and it becomes abstract and distant. Too much exegesis and you turn your hearers into pupils, too little and you turn yourself into a dictator. Too much passion and your hearers switch off from discomfort, too little and they don’t believe that you believe what you are saying.
  7. I often feel like preparing a sermon is like giving birth (I imagine!). Sometimes it feels like you are making little progress, but persistance and prayer almost always leads to a breakthrough and the effort bears fruit (even if you have to restructure your entire message with a week to go!).
  8. Always seek to hear God’s heart for your text, not your own voice. What does that mean? Well, don’t fit your neat application into a text that it doesn’t fit. Always exegete first (understand what the passage really says), then ask yourself what that means for today. Ask the questions the people in the street are really asking – what would the guy next to me at work think of this? Would he understand it?
  9. Beware of formulas and systems – don’t copy anyone, but learn from the more experienced. No one is so good that you can copy everything or so bad that you can learn nothing.
  10. Strive to live your life ready at each moment to step into the pulpit to stand before God and his people. The cleanliness of personal godliness will bring a secret strength to your message and an obvious anointing before your hearers.
  11. Start with you and the bible only – no commentaries or study guides. Delve into the text on your own before consuling other people’s thoughts, however esteemed they may be. Your bible and prayer are the two greatest weapons in forging a sermon of fire. Other people views can be helpful but they can also distract and divert the development of your thinking.
  12. Immediately after you have preached your heart out beware of the twin devils of pride and self-pity. Give each sermon as an offering, ask God that you might not be raised up by pride or cast down by failure. Your message is a fragrant offering, offered up and then gone forever. Do not seek to hold onto it.
  13. Before you begin spend a moment in silent prayer dedicating yourself to God asking him to make you a flame of fire in his hand.

For a preacher, speaking to people on God’s behalf is the most amazing thing you can ever do – to stand before them with a message from God will demand every ounce of your effort, gifting and character. It takes years to get to the point where we understand ourselves and our calling well enough that we begin to put the pieces together in the right order. But we never stop yearning and streatching for more power, more of the Spirit, more heart-piercing application. It is the hardest task I have ever done, and the most thrilling. If this passion begins to grow in you, then even though it be as small as a grain of sand it may be the beginning of a gifting to teach. Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, just start and you’ll find your own rhythm of preparation and delivery.

Look forward to hearing your message!

You asked: how can I know I am elect?

Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?

Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?

Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?

I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.

I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).

Dear reader,

Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.

As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.

It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.

It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.

I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:

1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.

2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).

3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.

4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).

5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).

6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.

Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.

Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.

Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.

But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.

I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn

PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:

Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt and Intolerant?

I also spoke in the evening of the 1st August at CBC. My evening message was an apologetic argument that unlike how many view Christianity today in the UK, it is actually a reasonable faith. The themes within this message have been brewing within me for many years and are a response to the increasing hostility that Christians experience in UK society and the corresponding crises in confidence that afflicts our churches.

The slides are available here and the sermon here.

I should point out that the sermons at CBC are simultaneously signed for the deaf – you will need to know this to explain the laughter when I question how the interpreter will handle the word “homology”.

Why is the Old Testament shut out of church?

I recently read this interesting article by Dale Ralph Davies and thought it fitted in well with where we are in the Institutes regarding the value and place of the Old Testament.  Thanks to Reformation21 for posting it on their website: http://www.reformation21.org/articles/why-is-the-old-testament-shut-out-of-church.php

“I don’t want to begin this lecture by spiritualizing a text but…the Old Testament is good bit like Jephthah the Gileadite in Judges 11:1-3.  His brothers so much as booted him out of their father’s household because of his illegitimate birth.  That’s the way it is with the Old Testament in much of the contemporary church.  The church seems to feel that it’s okay if the Old Testaments stays in the land of Tob with Jephthah, but let’s not even give it the status of step-testament in the household of faith.  In short, there are certain barriers that keep–and have kept–the Old Testament from being heard in the church and I want us to understand what some of them are; it should help us understand the problem.

I.  Scholarly Barrenness

I don’t care if many beg to differ, professional study and teaching of the Old Testament has largely killed the Old Testament for the church and wrecked it for hundreds of theological students.  I speak especially of the so-called higher critical position regarding the OT.  (Now don’t accuse me of being anti-intellectual; in fact, I think that any MDiv grad from an evangelical seminary should know the critical position(s) regarding especially the Pentateuch, should know–and be able to refute–the criteria scholars have used to carve up the canonical text.  A little time with Kenneth Kitchen or R. K. Harrison is time well-spent).  We have had about 150 years of this anti-supernaturalist scholarly study of the OT and it has produced results as cold as concrete and as appetizing as stewed okra.  Let me give examples.  

Here’s a commentary on Exodus 14:5–the first part of the verse speaks of ‘the king of Egypt,’ while the 2nd part refers to him as ‘Pharaoh’ and so ‘there can be no doubt’ that the verse is ‘composed of two different sources.’  Naturally, we find that very moving.  Or go to Exodus 34:6-7; this commentary says that Yahweh’s self-proclamation here (‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious…’) is ‘out of place’ and is ‘an addition which is made up of customary, stereotyped phrases.’  Here is the crucial, climactic, consoling self-revelation of Yahweh, brimming with theological profundity and devotional power–and Martin Noth never heard it.  The Fountain of living waters overflows and Noth spends eight lines of critical hogwash on him.  

Or here is a commentator on 1-2 Kings.  At 2 Kings 2:23 we read of Elisha going up to Bethel, where apparently the incident of the bears tearing up 42 lads occurs.  But this commentator says there is nothing in the narrative itself to suggest that this happened at Bethel except that introductory comment that Elisha had gone up to Bethel.  This amounts to saying that the text says this occurred in Bethel but we can’t be sure because the next two and a half verses don’t mention Bethel–no landmarks like the Bethel Moose Lodge, I suppose–so we really can’t be sure it happened in Bethel.  One could forgive such nonsense were it not for worse stuff.  The same commentator, writing on 1 Kings 8:27 (where Solomon prays, ‘But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!’), tells us this verse must be deleted as ‘secondary’ and that it looks like a ‘marginal comment which later found its way into the text.’  Leave aside the critical issue.  Even if he were right on that (and he’s not), how can he ignore, how can he pass by without any comment the massive, head-throbbing theology of that verse?  

On and on it can go.  You can find out, for example, that 1 Samuel 3 may not be a prophetic call but an ‘auditory message dream theophany,’ and then like Lucy in Peanuts you think:  Now that I know that, what do I do?

And so theologs tend to give up on the Old Testament.  If it involves such complex, intricate analysis by the high priests of whatever the reigning German-geschichte is, then surely it is ‘too complicated for me for bother with.’  Use a psalm or two for funerals and a quote from Amos for Social Justice Awareness Sunday, but otherwise forget the OT.  Mainstream critics may mock evangelical use of the OT, but they have not given us any help.  Unbelieving biblical interpretation cannot nurture life–it cannot even arouse interest.  It is worse than lethal–it is boring.  


II.  Evangelical Sloppiness

 We have our own boners, of course.  We may ring the changes and make the jump from Rahab’s scarlet cord (Josh. 2:18) to the cross; there’s a proper way of doing that in Joshua 2 but not by hanging from Rahab’s cord–it won’t bear the weight.  Someone may make Jael’s hammering Sisera in Judges 4 a picture of the mortification of sin.  One should never dispute with Spurgeon, I suppose, but one might be excused for thinking that the writer of Judges would be surprised to know that that was what he was suggesting.  That ‘take’, however, is preferable to the one that sees in Jael a true picture of the Christian evangelist, for she ‘went softly to him’ and we ought to be gentle in the work of evangelism.  (One may as well see in Sisera’s drinking Jael’s yogurt a foreshadowing of the Lord’s supper!)  Or, does the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter for baby Moses (Exod. 2:5-6) point to the need we should all feel to exercise empathy with people?  

This sort of thing does not come from the sterile biblical critics but from our own camp, the Bible-thumpers.  Naturally, we would distance ourselves from most of the samples just cited (though some might want to hold on to one or two of them!).  Still, evangelical-types have their own problems with tone-deafness to Scripture.  How easy it is for a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching interpreter to take up Genesis 39 and zero in on verses 7-12 and start pressing home ‘principles for overcoming temptation.’  Now it doesn’t matter whether Potiphar’s wife was an old bag or a real doll, this approach will likely miss the main point.  The whole narrative of Genesis 39 is framed with these notices that ‘Yahweh was with Joseph’ (vv. 2, 3, 21, 23).  These notes do not eliminate the temptation theme, but don’t they say that the presence of God is more primary than the temptation?  The testimony of the whole chapter is then that Joseph had Yahweh’s presence in his forsakenness (vv. 1-6), in his temptation (vv. 7-18), and in his probable disillusionment (vv. 19-23).  The accent falls not on principles we follow but on the presence of the God who keeps us.  It’s almost a case in point contrasting man-centered and God-directed hermeneutics.

I know we want to show how ‘applicable’ Scripture is to our people’s needs and some apparently fear that having a God-focused approach to Scripture will sabotage that.  On the contrary!  It’s when you keep seeing the splendor of God in Scripture that you will address the needs of your people.  Ah, but here I have left lecturing and gone to meddling.  

I simply want to note that not even the Bible-packers have done the OT right.  We often need to be cleansed of our hermeneutical leprosy.  Having a right view of inspiration does not guarantee a proper practice of interpretation.  I think Walt Kaiser said something like that.  So you know it’s true.  

III.  Superficial Assumptions

One morning when we were in Baltimore, my wife called me on the manse-to-study intercom.  I had left a note for her about the repair of our washing machine.  She told me that she could not ‘make out one word’ of that note.  Then she had to gall to proceed to read the note to me over the phone.  My anger began to ignite over the paradox:  she had just said she could not make out one word of my note and here she was reading it off perfectly easily to me!  Then she stumbled on a word–it was the one word she could not make out.  I had assumed when she had said she could not make out one word that she was making a snide remark about left-handed handwriting and that she meant ‘not any word’ instead of ‘just one word.’  I thought she was speaking extensively, whereas she was speaking literally.  It was one of those quick but mistaken assumptions.

I think assumptions like that are made about the Old Testament.  We may make such assumptions because pastors or teachers have passed on their attitudes about how dull or uninspiring many sections of the OT are.  Or we may get that attitude by our own superficial reading of it–there is nothing useful here, we say, or, the writer of Judges 1 must’ve been an unemployed geography teacher angry over the demise of his subject in the public school system and so taking out his vengeance on generations of Bible readers.  I can only say that this attitude keeps you from hearing the OT.  I can only say that I find the apparently dullest and deadest texts to be brimming with vitality and excitement.  I think our real problem is that we don’t want to sit before the Lord’s word and think.  

Take Genesis 25:12-18.  It begins, ‘These are the generations of Ishmael…’, and you say, ‘Ugh, this looks like a downer.’  No sparkling narratives in this section; after all, you’re never going name your kids Mibsam or Mishma.  Twelve sons of Ishmael and so on.  Then what?  Then ‘the generations of Isaac’ (v 19).  Here is the promise line.  Did I say line?  Well, not quite.  Isaac’s praying because Rebekah, like Sarah (see 11:30), is barren (v. 21).  Do you catch the contrast?  Here is the non-promise line, here is the kingdom of this age, Ishmael’s line, and it is going to town with furious fertility (vv 12-18), and here is the promise line, the kingdom people, who can’t even get out of the starting gate.  Isn’t this the way it often is?  The kingdom of God is there but in such mustard-seed form, in such hidden and obscure and fragile fashion, that it doesn’t seem to hold a candle to the virility and vitality of the kingdom of this age.  You still will not likely feel a wave of devotional warmth come over you, but you should see that the biblical writer was making a point when he placed the dull list of Ishmael’s fertility side-by-side with Isaac’s sterility.             

Or take Genesis 23.  Interesting but seemingly not very vital.  Sarah has just died and Abraham is under the gun to get a place to bury her.  He doesn’t want to borrow a grave from the locals but to obtain his own burial plot.  Any mortician with a marketing heart would tell you that you shouldn’t wait till then–arrangements should be pre-planned.  Otherwise you’re at the mercy of the Hittites and you know they will put the screws to you.  But there’s more here than the last rites for Sarah and Ephron’s deposit in First National of Kiriath-arba.  The story brackets itself as occurring in ‘the land of Canaan’ (vv. 2, 19), which might seem trivial except that it was the land Yahweh promised Abraham in 12:7 (‘to your seed I will give this land’).  And four times we read that what Abraham wanted was a ‘possession’ (one time the Hebrew word varies but this does not affect the idea; vv. 4, 9, 18, 20).  And that’s what he got.  Do you see what happened the moment that wry smile wrinkled crafty old Ephron’s face as he felt the 400 weight of Abraham’s silver?  Yahweh had begun to fulfill his promise of a home to Abraham and his seed.  True, it wasn’t much.  But more than he had asked for–Ephron insisted he buy not only the cave but the field it was in!  It was only a cemetery plot, but it was a part of Canaan that now belonged to Abraham.  Yahweh was being faithful to his promise of 12:7!  Sometimes that is the way Yahweh shows himself–as the God who is faithful in little.  And note when he does that–at the death of Sarah.  You can say what you want about a ‘redemptive-historical hermeneutic’ but don’t leave the flesh and blood out of it.  Verses 1-2 (Sarah’s death and Abraham’s mourning) show that covenant people meet common sorrows, and it is interesting that it is precisely in this time of grief and trouble that Yahweh gives Abraham this tiny token of his firm faithfulness.  

Sometimes it’s the commentators who are superficial.  Take the axe-head story in 2 Kings 6:1-7.  One writer says this story illustrates how trivial some of the OT miracles are; another dismisses the whole episode in less than six lines and says it has ‘no particular merit or significance’ apart from showing the power the man of God possesses.  But think a little and put this ‘rinky-dink’ episode in its context.  Before it is the ‘Naaman’ chapter, with all its high-powered political tension.  Well, ask the king of Israel:  the Syrian king sends this high-profile military man to Israel and is obviously trying to foment an ‘international incident.’  And then, post-axe, in 6:8ff. there are these military conflicts between Syria and Israel.  And in the middle of anguished diplomatic maneuverings and military conflicts the God of Israel cares about a dirt-prophet who has lost a borrowed axe-head.  That may be trivial and without merit or significance to some; others, however, will see flashes of glory in it.  They will say, “That’s just vintage Yahweh!  Having his eye on his most obscure servant amid all the stuff that steals headlines in the evening news!”  There is much more in this text but we can’t take the time this morning to–shall we say?–sharpen the axe.

IV.  Hermeneutical Intimidation

Another barrier to the use of the OT in the church is what I call hermeneutical intimidation.  I’m thinking of those OT passages that depict events so racy or so appalling that we wonder whether we dare sully the sermon space with such material.  Or there are texts where God seems to act with such harshness or abruptness that we fear we cannot ‘explain’ them adequately.  The laws of uncleanness in Leviticus 11-15 suddenly seem more preachable than Genesis 38 or Judges 19 or 1 Samuel 15.  Even explaining the ‘sin unto death’ in 1 John 5:16 seems like a piece of cake beside trying to handle a story of a concubine who has been gang-raped and whose corpse has been hacked up into 12 pieces and parcel posted throughout Israel.  Even safer is a nice exposition from Philippians 1.  Now Philippians needs to be preached (and I have done so) but why are we so wary of these wild and unruly OT texts?  I think we are intimidated by them, and wrongly so, for I hold that these terrible texts hold tremendous treasure.  

Take 2 Samuel 6, for instance.  David wants to bring the ark of Yahweh out of obscurity into the city of David.  The celebration begins by transporting the ark, Philistine-like, on a new cart.  Somewhere on the trek the oxen get clumsy and Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark.  Next thing we know, Uzzah is writhing on the ground, the music fades, the gasps begin.  The EMTs arrive but can do nothing.  And the text won’t allow you to say, ‘Well, Uzzah had always had trouble with angina,’ for verse 7 is clear:  ‘The anger of Yahweh burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there.’  Of course, questions pile up.  Well, Uzzah was in the wrong, but why didn’t Yahweh cut him some slack?  Why was he so abrupt?  So severe?  Now you can explain some items.  You can say that Yahweh had spelled out how the ark was to be moved and apparently no one thought Numbers 4 was that important.  You can probably say that this was not a final but a temporal judgment on Uzzah, i.e., it did not involve his salvation but was a temporal punishment for his error.  In one way, however, that is little help:  how can you say he ‘only’ lost his life?  When all is said and explained, the story leaves you with the impression that Yahweh is a scary God.  I think that’s the point the story wants you to get:  you don’t mess with a God who is both real and holy; you can be angry like David if you want (v 8), but you will do better to join his later response and tremble (v. 9).  Maybe there’s a message for the church here.  We’re always hearing that we should have more emotion and feeling in our worship.  Okay, so how about fear?  That’s emotional.  How about trembling?  How about some God-induced terror?

Then note what the narrative does.  The presence of the ark seems to bring blessing to Obed-edom, its interim caretaker (vv 11-12a), and someone had apparently read the Pentateuch, and so they bring up the ark with joy and celebration.  In the second half of the story, note the emphasis on joy, dancing, and shouting (vv. 12-16).  And there’s another tragedy; this time not Uzzah but Michal–she does not delight in God.  Second Samuel 6 may be a troubling text.  But do you see the theology of the chapter when you put both halves together?  To rightly respond to Yahweh you should both shudder and dance.  Our God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24) but he should also be our exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4).  This holy and happy God wants us to reject both irreverence and coldness.  Have you ever wondered what Psalm 2:11 means when it says to ‘rejoice with trembling’?  Don’t we see a narrative incarnation of it in 2 Samuel 6, that leprous text we may have wanted to ignore?  Where can you get a better balance of truth than that?

But let’s face it.  A lot of this ‘hermeneutical intimidation’ comes not from difficulty in understanding the OT text but rather from the way the text will grate on the sensibilities of contemporary culture.  The text is not unclear; it’s the sovereign God of Israel who aggravates the daylights out of proud post-moderns.  Take the first hunk of 2 Kings 1.  King Ahaziah takes a tumble out of an upper storey and is pretty mashed up apparently–enough to be concerned whether he will survive.  So he sends messengers to ask Baal-zebub god of Ekron if he will recover.  Yahweh sends Elijah to intercept his lackeys.  Elijah tells them:  ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire from Baal-zebub god of Ekron?  Now therefore, here’s what Yahweh says:  “The bed to which you have gone up–you will not come down from it, but you will surely die”‘ (vv. 3-4).  But folks are offended at such virile biblical theism.  It’s okay for Yahweh to put the first commandment on the books but no need for him to take it so all-fired seriously.  Here is a man in anguish at the most critical hour of his life and is seeking to ‘re-discover some spiritual roots’–and he’s sentenced to death for it.  Just because he prefers a ‘different meta-narrative’ he is doomed.  Why does Yahweh have to love truth that much?  Why is the heat of his holiness always turned up so high?  Why won’t he allow us to shape him in our image?  This not only offends crass pagans but tends to embarrass soft-around-the-edges evangelicals as well.  Sometimes our problem is that the text is all too clear.  

V.  Spiritual Deficiency

I thought I might end on a little piece of heresy–or at least some might think it so.   
Let me do this through the back door.

I remember preaching in one of our Mississippi churches one Sunday evening while I was serving at this fine institution.  After the service a faithful member of that congregation, a lady around 80 years of age who had almost lost her eyesight (but carefully listened) gave me her reaction to the Old Testament text that had been preached:  ‘Isn’t God dear?,’ she said.  She did not mean that in a schmaltzy or mushy sense.  She meant:  Isn’t God delightful?  Isn’t he marvelous?  Doesn’t he act in such ways toward us that stir up our love for him?  She may have been nearly blind but she saw something with keen clarity–if you keep your eyes on God himself you will be thrilled, or at least immensely satisfied.  

Maybe this is why the OT is shut out of the church.  We do not have the right approach.  I am not convinced that there is a ‘problem’ with the OT.  I do not think the ‘strangeness’ or ‘distance’ or the language of the OT is much of a problem; nor is our difficulty with the OT mainly a matter of techniques.  Rather we get off track in our interpretation of the OT because our eyes are fastened on the wrong ‘object.’   I do not mean that we cannot consider methods and genre and criticism and problems, but for crying out loud there is a living God waiting to reveal himself in the OT and we so easily take our eyes off of him!  If he is my exceeding joy (Ps. 43:4) then I should delight in seeing him in the OT.  If he is the fountain of living waters (Jer. 2:13), I should be thirsting and craving for him as I read its texts.  

So much depends on this.  Don’t tell me, ‘But Leviticus is so dull.’  I know the provisions for the sin offering in Leviticus 4-5 aren’t nearly as racy as Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38), but when, for example, you read that if the offender can’t afford a lamb, he can bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, and that if he can’t afford those, he can bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flour–Yahweh is telling you something about himself.  He is saying that he will never let anything get in the way of his finding an atonement for your sins.  For the present he’ll do it with two quarts of flour if he has to.  What kind of a God is that?  Who’s ever heard of such massive, world-moving, guilt-drowning grace?  

Well, we mustn’t get sucked into giving more examples here.  I simply wonder if a good bit of our ‘problem’ with the OT might be a heart problem.  Maybe our problem is a spiritual one–maybe we are not salivating for the triune God as we read our Bibles.  Maybe we’re focused on sermons rather than worship.  If once you have found God fascinating…that goes a long way towards curing the ‘problem’ of the OT. 

_____________________________________________________________________________
Incessantly interesting God, your character is our rest, your ways our relish;
you have left your fingerprints all over your word–you tempt us to come find you in it!  Oh, grant that we will faithfully yield to this temptation, and in and through these pages come to you, to ‘God our exceeding joy.’  Amen.

Ralph Davis is the Pastor at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburgh, MS, former professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and the author of several commentaries published by Christian Focus.”   

http://www.reformation21.org/articles/why-is-the-old-testament-shut-out-of-church.php

An argument for the credibility of scripture

Witness2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter VIII Section 1-13)

Having established in the previous chapters that the witness of the Spirit is essential to believing in the divine inspiration of the bible, Calvin does not leave the issue there. In Chapter 8 he turns to “proofs” that demonstrate the reasonableness of this belief. He uses a number of arguments to demonstrate the credibility of scripture, including its majesty, simplicity, antiquity, preservation by the Jews and testimony of the martyrs.  But it is his arguments regarding Moses that I had found most interesting.

Calvin points to four things in the life of Moses that enhance the credibility of his writing as being divinely inspired:

1. The honesty of Moses. When Moses was writing the account in Genesis of Jacob’s benediction to his sons, he writes that Jacob says to Simeon and Levi (whose tribe Moses belonged to) “Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly…I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel” (Genesis 49.6+7). If Moses was creating a work of fiction would he not make his ancestor the most blessed of all the children rather than the one cursed? Or consider “why does he not bestow the office of High Priest on his sons, instead of consigning them to the lowest place” when by his word he could command the entire nation?

2. The miracles of Moses. How many miraculous signs and wonders happened during Moses ministry and yet, despite all the grumbling of the Israelites and all the challenges to his authority, none of the Israelites ever disputed these events. The mighty acts testify that Moses was a prophet from God and was speaking on behalf of God.

3. The character of Moses. Again, throughout his ministry Moses’ leadership and authority was repeatedly challenged. The people challenging him were eye witnesses to the miraculous events and had a very strong oral tradition regarding the life of the Patriarchs and would have known if he had made the slightest exaggeration or embellishment in his writing to enhance his status.

4. The predictions of Moses. Turning again to the account of Jacob’s benediction, Moses relates that Judah will be given the ruler’s scepter (Genesis 49.10). There is no evidence for this prediction coming true during, or for 400 years after, the life of Moses. Indeed, the first king chosen is from the line of Benjamin. How could Moses have known that God would remove the kingship from Saul and grant it to David – of the tribe of Judah.

Response:

In the 500 years since Calvin penned these words the credibility of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and traditional views of the Old Testament has been viciously attacked by academics and liberal philosophy. Calvin’s arguments in this chapter need to be supplemented with a response from modern day theologians.

However, I believe he makes a good point when he  reminds us of the power of eyewitnesses in the scriptures, not only in the Gospels, but also in the Pentateuch. As the accounts of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings were committed to manuscripts there would be those alive who could testify to the truth or error of the writings. They would keep the author accountable to the truth of the events they related.

“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty”. 2 Peter 1.16

Father, thank you for the testimony of reliable, trustworthy men who were led by the Holy Spirit to commit your words and deeds to writing. Strengthen the confidence of your people today in the credibility of your word and guide your theologians to present the reasonableness of this belief to our generation. For your glory and honour, Amen.