Thursday, December 26, 2013

Eating the sin offering

Leviticus 6:24–26; Numbers 18:8–12; Ezekiel 9; Daniel 9; 1 Corinthians 5

There has been some conversation about eating the sin offering in the gathering here. I wanted to put a few of my thoughts on "paper", mainly for my own reference later.

The law of the sin offering (Leviticus 6:24–30) details that the priest is to eat the sin offering. That is, when an animal was brought to be sacrificed, it was mainly the animal's blood and fat that were offered. The flesh of the animal was the priest's. This is slightly over-simplified: there were various subtle differences in offerings, depending on what was offered and by whom. But in general, the law of the sin offering is that the priest is to eat the flesh of the sin offering (Leviticus 6:26).

We understand that the Levitical laws contain "typical" teaching for us. We understand this because Scripture very carefully points this out, especially in Hebrews. I understand that some Christians have taken this idea to the point where they hardly seem to think that the Pentatuech has any historical significance at all: they seem to think it is some sort of allegory. Of course that's wrong, but the New Testament does appeal to typical teaching in the Levitical law, and we don't want to miss what the Holy Spirit is trying to teach us.

Numbers 18:8–12 picks up this theme and teaches us that the priests are fed from the offerings that are brought to the Tabernacle. They don't have a part in the inheritance God gave Israel, so He gave them the offerings. And so the priests are told, "this shall be thine: the heave-offering of their gift, with all the wave-offerings of the children of Israel; I have given them unto thee, and to thy sons and to thy daughters with thee, by an everlasting statute" (Numbers 18:11).

Is there a typical teaching for us in the priests' eating the offerings? It would seem so, and 1 Corinthians 10 picks up this theme. "See Israel according to flesh: are not they who eat the sacrifices in communion with the altar?" (1 Corinthians 10:18). Here the Apostle's argument is that although an idol is really nothing (it's just a piece of metal or wood or stone), idolatry is very real. And eating what has been sacrificed to an idol brings us, in a way, into communion with the idolatry. The appeal is made to the Levitical law: doesn't eating the sin offering bring the priest into communion with the offering?

This statement sheds a great deal of light on what it means to eat a sin offering. Eating the sin offering wasn't only God's provision for the priests, to give them fresh meat. It was putting a responsibility on the priests and on their families, because they were in communion with the offering of those sacrifices.

If a man in Israel was to bring a goat to the priest as a sin offering, then when that priest was eating the flesh of that goat later that day, he was expressing a fellowship with the man's offering. Not merely the man's act of slaughtering a goat, but the man's need to slaughter the goat. The man's responsibility was to bring the offering to the priest, but the priest was not allowed simply to slaughter it and go about his day: he had to express communion with that offering probably after the man had stopped thinking about it.

If we think about Aaron, we notice that he grew into his priesthood. When Moses was up the mountain, receiving instruction from the Lord about Aaron's role as priest (Exodus 28), Aaron was down on the plain, leading the people in idolatry (Exodus 32:1–6). And when the Lord was angered about the idolatry, it was Moses and not Aaron who went to make atonement for them (Exodus 32:30–35). In fact, I'm not sure that Aaron really took up his role as priest until the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram, when he ran to stand between the people and the plague (Numbers 16:46–50).

(I realize there is a difference between Advocacy and Priesthood, and perhaps Moses up on the mountain in contrast with Aaron on the plain illustrates this... but the fact remains that Aaron's priesthood grows in Scripture.)

But through the Old Testament, we have the histories of others who took up the duty of the priest, even if they weren't called to it. I don't mean ceremonially, but morally. Morally, the duty of the priest is to take represent the people to God. We see this in Samuel (1 Samuel 12:23), and Daniel (Daniel 9), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 9:8), to name a few. The priest stands between sinful people and holy God.

So what does it look like to eat the sin offering morally, if not physically? Daniel 9 is an example. Daniel read Jeremiah and realized the Babylonian Captivity was about to end. So he got down on his knees and prayed. His prayer is listed in Daniel 9:3–19. The vast majority of the prayers (vv. 4–16) is confession of the sins of Israel. But here's the thing: Daniel hadn't actually committed a single one of those sins. In fact, Daniel wasn't even in Jerusalem, he was in Babylon and had been since before Zedekiah's reign.

This is what we mean when we talk about eating the sin offering. Daniel himself hadn't sinned, but he expressed fellowship with his people in their sin. He confessed the sins as his own, and he took God's side, as it were. That is, he didn't make excuses, he acknowledged God's righteousness in judging the sins of His people.

Ezekiel 9 gives us a little more light on the subject. Here the Lord is judging Jerusalem for their idolatry. But before He sends judgment on them, He commands what appears to be an angel to go through the city, marking out certain people as untouchable (v. 4). What was the test? What made someone escape the judgment? It was simple: "mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that are done." God wasn't looking for a Jerubbaal who'd pull down an idol altar. He wasn't looking for a Josiah who'd go out and slaughter the idolatrous priests. He was looking for someone whose heart was touched with the enormity of their iniquity. He was looking for someone whose reaction in the middle of all this corruption was a broken heart.

This brings us into 1 Corinthians 5. Notice what the Apostle says to the Corinthians: "*ye* are puffed up, and ye have not rather mourned, in order that he that has done this deed might be taken away out of the midst of you" (1 Corinthians 5:2). So the "normal Christian" response to blatant immorality is supposed to be mourning. And I have to admit, I don't see a lot of that. The reactions I've seen have been more along the lines of gossip, slander, finger-pointing, or even just a deliberate ignoring of the sin. But Scripture says that "normal" reaction is mourning.

What's really interesting is the statement, "that he that has done this deed might be taken away out of the midst of you". I'm not going to be dogmatic about this, but this suggests that the Lord might have stepped in and intervened, had He seen the Corinthians mourning. If that's true, then we might conclude that assembly discipline in disfellowshipping someone is an indicator of failure. Had they been mournful of the sin, they wouldn't have had to act.

Regardless, Ezekiel 9 and 1 Corinthians 5 carry this theme: that the reaction God is looking for is sorrow. We see this same theme in Exodus 32. And so we have to ask ourselves: when we observe sin in the assembly, is our reaction sorrow?

When Daniel recognized the sin in Israel, he reacted to it as though it was his own. There was a degree of humility that comes from mourning sin: it reminds us sharply that we aren't above the sin we have seen. Daniel couldn't very well repent of the sins of Israel before God and then say, "I wouldn't ever do that!". But we see that reaction quite frequently among Christians: "How could he have done such a thing?" When we find ourselves asking that question, we've forgotten the lessons of Romans 6–8.

It's one thing to despise sins we've committed, but eventually we have to learn to despise the indwelling sin that is their source. That's the lesson of Romans 7, isn't it? It's one thing to despise what we do, it's another to recognize that "in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good thing".

Galatians offers a warning to those who'd take the lead in the assembly: "if even a man be taken in some fault, ye who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering thyself lest *thou* also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1). What's the danger hidden in the godly desire to help out? There is the same flesh in me that is in every other child of God. When a believer is "taken in some fault", he or she is simply expressing the same sin that is in me too.

Galatians says the remedy is a "spirit of meekness". That's what Daniel had, that's what Ezekiel had. We don't see in either Daniel or Ezekiel a sense of superiority. We don't see them pointing to the idolaters without a sense of their own frailty. Ezekiel and Daniel are both deeply touched by what they've seen, and they're both dismayed to see it.

When a Christian falls into sin, there's frequently a sort of feeding frenzy among other Christians. We get the scent of blood, and we get into a self-righteous condemnation. The Lord Jesus said, "there's none good but God" (Mark 10:18). We'd do well to bear that in mind.

Now, this doesn't mean we can just ignore sin. At no point does Scripture ever teach, suggest, or imply that we should just ignore sin. Scripture is quite clear: "Let every one who names the name of [the] Lord withdraw from iniquity" (2 Timothy 2:19).

What it does mean is, the proper response to sin is meekness and sorrow. We've no call to act in malice, arrogance, and self-righteousness when sin in the assembly comes to light. The godly ones are always called to walk in humility. Yes, we are to separate from evil. Yes, we are called to walk in separation. Yes, the Scripture certainly prescribes a breaking of fellowship with the unrepentant. But when it comes to assembly matters, the how is at least as important as the what.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Reception, again

It seems like the issue of reception keeps coming up. So I thought I'd write down some notes about it. I've already laid out what I think about reception ("Thoughts on reception"), but I'm not sure I did a good job of referring to Scripture. So I'd like to establish in just a few paragraphs what Scripture has to say about reception. Yeah, like that's possible...

The first thing we need to establish is that not everyone is supposed to be at the Lord's Table. Scripture specifically says we're to exclude some: 1 Corinthians 5 discusses putting believers out of fellowship who deliberately and unrepentantly persist in sin. What does it say we should do in this case?

  • to have nothing to do with such a person (v. 11)
  • not to eat with such a person (v. 11)
  • to remove such a person from among ourselves (v. 13)
If we're supposed to remove the person, if we're not to mix with the person, if we're not to eat with the person, then that person sure isn't supposed to be at the Lord's Table. If we allow that person to the Table, then we've disobeyed these three commands.

This is only about removing someone from fellowship who is living in known sin. So no, these verse don't apply to someone who just walks in off the street. But it does establish the general principle that we aren't supposed to have everyone at the Table. There is at least one complete class of people we're specifically told to exclude. Not to exclude such people is sin.

So we've established the principle that the Lord's Table isn't for everyone.

The next question is, why shouldn't we allow this person to the Table? The question is answered easily in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8: "a little leaven leavens the whole lump". What does that mean? It means that sin spreads. It's possible for an entire gathering of the Lord's people to become defiled by the sin of one person.

This isn't an isolated statement in Scripture. The Scriptures mention it explicitly in other places:

  • 1 Timothy 5:22 commands not to "partake in others' sins"
  • 2 John 10 & 11 say that you "partake in [a false teacher's] wicked works" just by allowing him into the house, or greeting him
So we have a principle given three times in Scripture, that it's possible to become a participant in someone else's sins. How? 1 Corinthians 5 contemplates social interaction, and includes church activities. The assembly is supposed to "remove" that person. 1 Timothy 5 connects participating in someone else's sins just by "laying hands" on him. That is not, I take it, a physical touch, but a symbolic gesture, like a hand shake. 2 John says it's possible to become a participant in an evil teacher's "wicked works" by allowing him to come into your house, or even by greeting him. There's a reason I never let representatives of the Watchtower Society into my house when they knock on the door. No thanks, I'm not interested in getting in on their blasphemies.

But can we really apply a principle like that to the assembly? Isn't it talking about individual social interactions? That's not really a reasonable interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5. But if we want to argue about it, we have more of God's thoughts on fellowship in Revelation 2 & 3. In the message to the assembly in Pergamos, the Lord Jesus says He has two things against them:

  1. they have those who hold the doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14)
  2. they have those who hold the doctrines of the Nicolaitanes (Revelation 2:15)
Let's be perfectly clear here: the Lord makes exactly two accusations against the assembly in Pergamos, and they're both that the assembly has allowed people in who hold to false doctrines. And then He warns them to repent (Revelation 2:16). So the teaching of Revelation 2 is that there is judgment coming on this assembly because of their fellowship with certain people.

We could go on. We could discuss Jude. We could talk about Romans 16. But in the end, it's an indisputable fact that the Lord takes our associations very seriously. The Scripture explicitly warns against becoming a partaker in someone else's sins, and Christ judges the assembly specifically in terms of the people they allow in fellowship.

But there's more. The Lord's Supper is not an individual thing. What does the Scripture say? "[W]e, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:17). No, it doesn't mean we become one Body by eating the one loaf. The context makes that clear. What it means is that we announce our "One Body"-ness by eating that one loaf. Why do many Christians refer to the Lord's Supper as "Communion"? Because that's what 1 Corinthians 10 calls it. By eating the Lord's Supper together, we are demonstrating our communion.

Now we see why the Lord takes it so seriously to have an unrepentant fornicator in the assembly: the entire assembly is expressing unity with that man whenever they sit at the Lord's Supper together.

So let's talk about unbelievers for a moment. Do we believe they are part of the One Body? Of course not! It's only by baptism of the Holy Spirit we become part of the One Body (1 Corinthians 12:13). So then we're lying if we announce "One Body"-ness with an unbeliever, aren't we?

So we have the general principle that it's possible to become a partaker in someone else's sins. And we have some specific examples of how that works: things like inviting a false teacher into the house, or greeting him. And we have the explicit command that the assembly is to put unrepentant sinners out of fellowship: we're to have nothing to do with them, and we're specifically told not to eat with them. And we have the judgment of the Lord Jesus, that allowing people with false doctrine to be part of the assembly is a serious sin. So we can say with complete certainty that there are several reasons to exclude someone from the Lord's Supper. And in fact, Scripture makes it clear that if we don't exclude them, we come under the Lord's judgment (Revelation 2:14–16).

But what about 1 Corinthians 11? People have pointed out 1 Corinthians 11:28, "a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (NASB). People have taken that to mean that it's up to the individual to decide whether he ought to take part in the Lord's Supper. I suppose the verse might be taken that way, but I don't think it fits the context very well. Why would I say that? Because just six chapters earlier, the Scripture specifically commands we're not to eat with unrepentant sinners. Does the Lord's Supper count as eating? Of course it does! And 1 Corinthians 10 makes the point that in eating the Lord's Supper, we're expressing communion with each other. So 1 Corinthians 5 explicitly forbids eating with someone, can we then understand 1 Corinthians 11 to mean that it's up to them whether they partake of the Lord's Supper?

1 Corinthians 11 isn't saying that anyone who comes along is responsible to decide for themselves whether they ought to eat and drink: that would mean that the entire discussion in 1 Corinthians 5 is meaningless. It means that 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11 together read something like this, "Have nothing to do with that person, don't even eat with them. But really, leave it up to them to decide whether they eat with you..." When we put it that way, it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?

1 Corinthians 11 is addressing the people who are in the assembly. This is a known group of people, and we know that by v. 23. They were ones to whom Paul had already given the truth of the Lord's Supper. He knew them, they weren't strangers. And he says to them that they ought to be judging themselves, because it's by self-judgment that we escape God's judgment.

The concept of an "open table" doesn't stand up to Scripture. But there's another question: what is our test of fellowship? If not everyone's allowed to the Table, then who should be allowed?

I've pointed out before that the test of fellowship isn't loyalty to the group: the test is loyalty to Christ. I'm not by any means condoning a sectarian membership. But I am saying the uniform testimony of Scripture is that God holds the assembly responsible for who's eating the Lord's Supper. And Scripture plainly states that this relationship can be defiling to an assembly.

As a final note: I wrote several years ago about reception ("Thoughts on reception"), but I didn't know then that J. N. Darby wrote something very much along the same lines. It wasn't for quite some time I found it, but Darby's paper "Principles of Gathering" is excellent. It's on STEM Publishing, and it's worth a read.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Forgiveness and Deliverance

A friend asked me what I found helpful in terms of "practical ministry". I was desperately trying to remember the title of a paper by JND I'd read fairly recently, but I just couldn't remember it. So when I got home, I found the paper. It's in Collected Writings, Volume 29, and it's called "Forgiveness and Liberty". It's on the STEM Publishing site.

I must say, this paper might be the most complete and "perfect" presentation of Darby's understanding of sanctification that I've read. But in the end, it's Darby. So I thought I'd spend some time tonight to highlight some of the really great bits. It might be helpful to some.

I would, for a few moments, draw the attention of brethren in Christ to a point, as to which I think there has been a good deal of misapprehension in practice, and which, while the joy of known forgiveness seemed to make all plain for a time, has left souls subsequently in distress and difficulty, even when not doubting of their acceptance, though it has sometimes come to that. Forgiveness is not deliverance, and they have been a good deal confounded.
This is the opening of the paper, and it lays out a very real problem for many, many people. There is a difference between forgiveness and deliverance. God looks on me and refuses to see my sins: He has forgiven my sins. My sins cannot ever appear in God's sight, they are gone forever. But as blessed as this is, it's not enough.

"Not enough?" How is that not enough? Quite simply, a man or woman with the Holy Spirit in residence isn't going to be satisfied with a freedom from sin's guilt: we want freedom from sin's power. This is not now forgiveness, but deliverance. A sinner might be content simply to be forgiven, but a child of God will be discontent with anything less than deliverance from sin's power, as well as forgiveness for sin's guilt.

So it is quite normal for a believer to go gradually from overflowing joy at the assurance of forgiveness to deep depression over sin's presence and power.

It is a very common experience, when a person has found peace through the blood of Christ, that the pardoned and justified soul, filled with joy and gladness to find its sins gone, the conscience purged, the sense of divine goodness filling it, thinks that it has done with sin because it is at the time full of joy, and the Lord's goodness and favour; but this is not deliverance.
Deliverance has a double character; perfect freedom with God in love in my place before Him; and freedom from the power of sin in myself. We are in Christ for the former; Christ is in us for the latter.
This is really the question of Romans 5–7. Romans 5 starts with the remarkable statement that "we have peace with God" (Romans 5:1). But having peace with God isn't the end of the story, or Romans would end there. After guilt is dealt with, Romans turns to the question of indwelling sin: not what we have done, but what we are. So Romans 6 declares that we are free from sin (Romans 6:7), because we have died with Christ. And so sin is not our master: we've died and have thus been freed from that master. But Romans 7 takes it even further, even a man who has died to sin lives in a body where sin lives. And so we find there is "sin that dwells in me" (Romans 7:17). We can't get rid of it, and no amount of forgiveness can help us with it. The believer soon finds that however grateful he is that all his sins are forgiven him, he dreads the certainty that he'll sin again. How do we deal with that? Do we just give up? Do we learn to live with it? This is why we need deliverance.

Forgiveness of sins was found in Christ. There's nowhere else to look for a solution to sins' guilt. Deliverance, too, is found in Christ. There's nothing God has for us that's not in and through Christ.

I do not now say simply, He bore my sins, and cleared me for ever from them, but, I am in Christ before God, accepted in the Beloved, not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. I am not in the condition of a child of Adam, responsible before God, and thinking of my condition in His sight in connection with my conscious state; I have died to that as wholly and hopelessly evil, and know by the Holy Ghost that I am in a new standing altogether, in Christ, accepted in the Beloved. I am not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Christ has died to sin, and I have died in Him, and He is my life; I am alive to God in this new life in Christ before Him, and reckon myself so by the Holy Ghost.
I think it's safe to say there are many Christians who understand the truth of Christ's dying for us, but who haven't learned that we have died with Him. Forgiveness for sins is based entirely in the death of Christ for me. But the Christian life isn't the life of a forgiven sinner, it's the life of a crucified man. It's the life that flows from my history ending in Christ on the cross. I died with Him there.

If I understand that my life has ended at the Cross, then I shall live in a very different way. See, it's not just that what I have done is forgiven, it's now that God has done away with the "I" that did those terrible things. I haven't just got a clean slate, I've got a whole new life to live with it.

Thus for faith I am delivered from sin in the flesh, as having died in Christ, in that Christ has, who is my life. It is not resurrection with Him — that carries us further — but death in Him on the cross as to the old man and state, and He now at the right hand of God, my life. Such is the doctrine and effect. Christ, who died, my life, and I in Him, in the power of the Holy Ghost, and through that dead to sin altogether, He having thus died, and the sin in my flesh condemned there, but for faith I died to it, for I died in Him.
It is very difficult for us to accept what God declares to be true: not only that I have done wrong, but that I am wrong. It's not just that I have sinned, but that I am a sinner. And I didn't become a sinner by sinning, I sinned because I was a sinner. This is the plain teaching of Romans 5:19–21. But God hasn't been content to deal with the symptoms (my sins), He's also dealt with the root problem: the sinner. How do you deal with a sinner? There's only one way: the sinner has to be put to death. And so the Biblical solution to the problem of what I am is that I have died in Christ.

So what do I do now? Do I cease to exist? No, because it's not simply that I have died, it's the I have died in Christ. Christ is my life: and now that I've died, He lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Now I have a life that's entirely beyond sin, death, and the grave. It's a life of God's resurrected Man, the life of the Son of God. And it's not mine to earn or develop or achieve. It's mine by grace, it's mine because it was given to me freely.

But there's a catch, isn't there? It's one thing to understand what I've been given, but it's another actually to experience it.

The delivering work was done on the cross, so that our state, by faith in Christ, is dead to sin, and morally, as to the life this side the cross, in which He, sinless, had to be made it, wholly closed, and alive now wholly beyond it all, with nothing but God to live to; and this, not by our efforts, but by faith through grace; yet, as conviction of guilt goes before known forgiveness, so the experimental knowledge of self before deliverance. No effort clears the guilt; no effort effects the deliverance; but there is the knowledge of self, and that we cannot get free by improvement or victory, as there is the knowledge of the guilt which is pardoned; only here it is self-knowledge and present experience.
Here's the catch: we can't achieve deliverance, it's not ours to earn. But we learn our need of it through our efforts. How? Because the harder we try to be good, the more certain we become that we're not. It's not an issue of doubting our forgiveness, it's not a matter of questioning our acceptance before God. It's learning that no matter how hard we try, we can't live the Christian life. It's not that we don't want to. It's not that we don't have new life in Christ. It's that God's way is for us to find what we need in His Son, and our efforts at self-improvement all prove vain precisely so we can give up on self and rest in Him.

Here is something very, very important for us to learn: whenever we compare ourselves with what we ought to be, we find we're not. This is the essence of Law.

Of this the law is ever the instrument; if we have learnt forgiveness already, the form is modified, takes the shape of hoping we have not deceived ourselves, and the like; but it is always a comparison of our state, and what God requires, and that is law; very useful for the discovery of our state, but bondage. I repeat, as it is important, wherever we reason from our state to what God's acceptance of us may be, that is, in principle, law just as the prodigal son between his conversion and meeting his father. It calls itself holiness, will insist that without holiness no man shall see the Lord, which is necessarily and eternally true, but mixes it with God's acceptance of us, connecting this and our state, so that it is really righteousness, not holiness, that the mind is occupied with: for in holiness we hate evil because it is unholy, not because we are out of divine favour by it; but, whatever shape it takes, it is always really law, a question of evil that makes us unacceptable to God.

What is legalism? It is confusing holiness with righteousness. It's confusing our standing with our state.

Our righteousness is in Christ. God only ever deals with me on the basis of what Christ is, of what He has done, and of what He is doing. There is nothing for me but Christ. God's not interested in what I can and cannot do, but in what Christ has done. But because I am born of God, because I have the Holy Spirit, I can't help but notice that I don't measure up. And as soon as I try to fix myself, I have moved outside of that Christ has done for me. There's a tremendous danger in doing this: it's facing off with sin in the flesh, which God never intended me to do.

So what's the solution? The solution is when we give up trying to improve ourselves.

Here I learn that in me (it is not what I have done) dwells no good thing; the flesh is simply and always bad. Secondly; it is not myself, being born of God, for I hate it, it is not therefore I. This is often a great relief, though it be not deliverance; but thirdly, though it be not I, it is too strong for me: I am captive to it. All my efforts only prove this to me. As effort and conflict, I give it up as hopeless, and look for another to come in and deliver me. I have learned that I have no strength (not that I am guilty), and that is what I had to learn, the lesson God was teaching me; and when brought there I find it is all done.
The solution is that I cannot be better. I can't improve myself, I can only look for Christ to deliver me. I don't need self-improvement, I need a Deliverer.

It's so hard for us to accept what God calmly tells us in His word: we are to walk as we received. We received Christ by grace through faith, we did nothing to earn His favour, we accepted based on faith in what God says. In the same way, we cannot improve ourselves, we cannot make our walk what it ought to be, we must simply accept what God has said.

"As therefore ye have received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted and built up in him, and assured in the faith, even as ye have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving." (Colossians 2:6–7)

Thursday, November 14, 2013


We've been reading through 1 Corinthians in the reading meetings on Wednesday nights. I've been convicted by a lot of things we've discussed. One particular point has been the taking of sectarian titles (1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:1–9). I don't want to get all legalistic about this, but I have to admit it's been hitting my conscience pretty hard.

I've been noticing how easily these sorts of titles roll off my tongue: "I'm a dispensationalist", "I'm a calvinist", "I'm no calvinist", etc. They just come out without my thinking about them.

I know there is a certain pragmatism to using descriptive vocabulary. It's a lot easier to say someone is a "calvinist" than to try and explain that she holds to the TULIP. I recognize that, and I'm not at all convinced that Scripture is condemning a vocabulary to make discussion easier. On the other hand, our words affect our thoughts...

And really, the Scripture calls "schools of opinion" a "work of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19–21). That in and of itself ought to give us pause.

So I used to say, "I'm a dispensationalist" but now I'm really uncomfortable with that sort of terminology. I'll be a lot more careful about saying something like that going forward.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Galatians 5:11 talks about the "scandal of the Cross". What's the scandal of the Cross? It's that the Son of God died for sinful and wicked creatures. Why's that a scandal? Because it cuts to the heart of men and women: it proves to us that there's nothing we can do to earn God's approval. Men and women are so utterly and completely lost, nothing short of the death of God's Son could help them.

"[I]f righteousness [is] by law, then Christ has died for nothing" (Galatians 2:21). Man's inability to impress God is summed up in the Cross: if God wants to have communion with women and men, He has to act sovereignly. He has to act with no regard to their merit. If God wants to accept men and women, He has to introduce the death of Christ.

There is no basis for God to accept us, except that Christ died for us.

But the Cross doesn't only tell us we needed Christ to die so we could live. It also tells us that the life we had in ourselves has ended. "I am crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2:20). I was so bad, that I needed to be crucified. There was nothing in that life that God could work with, so He ended it in Christ, and gave me Christ for my life (Colossians 3:1–4).

The Cross is scandalous, because it teaches me that even now I can't impress God in the flesh.

This was the error of the Galatians: they wanted to make a "fair appearance in [the] flesh" (Galatians 6:12). They want to "boast in your flesh" (Galatians 6:13). What is the Apostle's opinion of this? "[F]ar be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 6:14).

So much of our Christian lives is spent in a vain attempt to make a fair appearance in the flesh. Why? Because we really hate the scandal of the Cross. Because we find it so hard to believe that "in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell" (Romans 7:18). Because we refuse to accept God's reckoning of ourselves.

The Scriptural answer is not to improve ourselves. The Scriptural answer is a complete change of focus. There's nothing wrong with boasting, but there's only one thing we can boast in. "[F]ar be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom [the] world is crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Christ only

I've been reading William Kelly's commentary on Hebrews. I thought this was worth sharing:

For Christ only is the source of life as well as forgiveness, the one strengthener of the weak and guide of the erring, the sole Saviour either of sinners or of saints.
William Kelly, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ruin (Part 4)

We've considered the idea of "the Church in Ruin". We haven't examined it fully, of course. We've mainly been looking to understand the basic idea. The whole idea of "the Church in Ruin" is based on two postulates:

  1. the Church was infiltrated by apostates early in its history: before the Apostles had died out
  2. this will continue until the Lord Jesus comes back to judge: the damage is irreparable
We've looked to Scripture to see what it has to say about this, and we've seen that the Lord Jesus predicted there would be "tares" mixed in with the wheat until the "completion of the age". We saw, too, that the Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders of apostates arising from among the leaders in Ephesus. We also considered some of the later epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Jude, and 1 John) and found they are consistent with the testimony of the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul: they contemplated apostasy as a present fact within the Church. What's more, they contemplate the apostasy as being irreversible: it will continue until the Lord Jesus comes to judge.

I have very deliberately only looked at Scripture to this point. I've been careful not to appeal to empirical evidence in the Church around us.

There's a lot more to write about. We've not even really addressed Revelation 2–3, which are very important chapters in understanding the dispensational responsibility of the Church. And we haven't talked at all about the post-captivity books in the Old Testament, which have some bearing on the issue. But right at the moment I want to address some more practical concerns.

I'm going to come right out and say this: many "brethren" groups have found in this doctrine an excuse for their own fleshly actions. The flesh is really, really good at taking the truth of God and turning it into an excuse. Liberty can become a cloak for malice (1 Peter 2:16). Grace can become an excuse to sin (Romans 6:15).

I believe the Church is in ruin. I don't believe that because of what I see around me: I believe that because I think that's what Scripture teaches. That doesn't mean I'm allowed to have a heart that's cold towards God's children. It doesn't mean I can arrogantly claim the Lord's presence and accuse others of sitting at the table of demons. It doesn't mean I can see myself as separate from the Ruin. Truth is a poor excuse for sin.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Ruin (Part 3)

Well, we've been looking at the ruin of the Church. We started out in Part 1 by establishing that God sees the assembly from two perspectives: from an eternal, "God is sovereign" perspective, He sees the assembly as perfect. But from a temporal, "Man is responsible" perspective, He sees that the assembly has failed in its responsibility on earth. In Part 2 we went on to demonstrate that apostasy began very early on in the assembly: by the time Jude was written, it was an accomplished fact. Finally, we demonstrated that the testimony of Jude is corroborated by the testimony of the Apostles and of the Lord Jesus.

In this section, we'll attempt to demonstrate that apostasy is a fixture in the assembly. Not (although I've said it before) that the assembly is "characterized" by apostasy, but that Scripture contemplates it is something that won't be "cured" until "the completion of the age". In other words, we want to demonstrate the Scripture teaches the apostasy is irreparable.

We've already looked at the parable of the darnel of the field (Matthew 13:24–30) and the interpretation the Lord Jesus gave for it (Matthew 13:36–43). So we can ask the question: did the Lord Jesus expect things to get better and better? No, He didn't. He predicted that there would be darnel (or tares) sown in the field "while men slept". So He predicted that there would be false professors mixed in with true believers. Further, He specifically predicted that they wouldn't be sorted out until "the completion of the age". In fact, in the parable the farmer specifically forbids the pulling up of the tares, because it's possible that genuine wheat would be pulled up in the process.

So we can ask the question, did the Lord Jesus expect things would get better and better until He comes back? The answer, of course, is "No". He predicted false professors would come in, and would stay mixed in with the true believers until the end of the age.

So what about the epistles? Don't they teach things are generally going to get better and better? Not really. We've already considered Jude's epistle, let's reconsider what it has to say about the "ungodly persons" (v. 4) who've infiltrated the assembly.

14 And Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied also as to these, saying, Behold, the Lord has come amidst his holy myriads, 15 to execute judgment against all; and to convict all the ungodly of them of all their works of ungodliness, which they have wrought ungodlily, and of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him. (Jude 14–15)
We noticed before that Jude's epistle doesn't warn apostasy is coming, rather it warns that it already has come. The ungodly persons in Jude 4 were already in the assembly. At the same time, Jude's epistle tells the end of those ungodly persons. It says the Lord will come and judge them. So as far as Jude is concerned, those ungodly persons are in the assembly, and they're there to stay until the Lord comes in judgment.

This is essentially what we expect based on the parable of the darnel of the field. The main point of that parable is that the Son of Man has no intention of differentiating between the wheat and the tares until the "completion of the age".

As an aside, I find Jude 14 is interesting with respect to the question of the "rapture". The "ungodly persons" will be judged when the Lord comes to execute judgment. On the other, the Lord is coming with His saints. That seems to me to fit in nicely with the whole idea that the Lord will come and get His saints, then come in judgment as a sort of a second stage. Is it a slam-dunk? Nope. But I think it fits.

But the point is that both Jude and Matthew predict an ongoing infiltration that will continue until the Lord comes back.

What about the other epistles? Not all the epistles discuss the issue of ruin, but those that do agree in at least the general outline. We might consider 1 Timothy 4:1, "the Spirit speaks expressly, that in latter times some shall apostatise from the faith, giving their mind to deceiving spirits and teachings of demons". 2 Timothy 3:1–9 says something similar, "in the last days difficult times shall be there; for men shall be lovers of self, lovers of money, etc." Both 1 and 2 Timothy explicitly teach that "the last days" are characterized by apostasy. That is to say, it's not going to get better and better. It's going to get worse and worse. But we have to look over to 1 John to fit the puzzle pieces together: "Little children, it is the last hour, and, according as ye have heard that antichrist comes, even now there have come many antichrists, whence we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18). So the "last hour" has already begun. It began in the time of the Apostles. And (this is significant), 1 John produces the presence of "many antichrists" as evidence that the "last hour" has already begun. In the next verse, it is clarified what these "many antichrists" are: they are apostates (1 John 2:19).

What do these epistles say about the resolution to this apostasy? Do they predict a repentance? No, they don't.

The first few verses of 2 Timothy 4 might shed some additional light on our contemplation:

1 I testify before God and Christ Jesus, who is about to judge living and dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom, 2 proclaim the word; be urgent in season and out of season, convict, rebuke, encourage, with all longsuffering and doctrine. 3 For the time shall be when they will not bear sound teaching; but according to their own lusts will heap up to themselves teachers, having an itching ear; 4 and they will turn away their ear from the truth, and will have turned aside to fables. (1 Timothy 4:1–4)
We notice there is a connection with the return of Christ "who is about to judge the living and the dead". The connection is apocalyptic: "and by his appearing and his kingdom". And what does the epistle say? That there is a time coming when "they" will not bear sound teaching. Once again, we see a picture of decline. The Scripture doesn't contemplate things getting better and better. The Lord Jesus asked, "when the Son of man comes, shall he indeed find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). It is important for us to understand this: the entire testimony of Scripture is moral decline between Christ's first and second advent.

So the testimony of the Lord Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the epistles is that apostasy has set in. It set in early: Jude considers it was an accomplished fact, 1 John says it [was] already "the last hour". And the Scripture presents this apostasy as continuing until the Lord Jesus comes back to judge "at the completion of the age".

We've now considered the basic idea of the "church in ruin". Scripture teaches that apostasy would set into the church early; and, having set in, it would be irreparable. We must bear in mind that this is only from one particular perspective. God's eternal purposes are not frustrated by man's failures. But the assembly has dispensational responsibility on the earth. We are here on Christ's behalf, and we've not been faithful. We'll discuss that in more detail in another installment.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ruin (Part 2)

Last time we established that the assembly ("Church") is presented from two perspectives in Scripture. In one perspective, it is God's building: God places living stones in it, building it up into a holy temple. But in the other perspective, God has fellow-workmen. They build with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble. God's work cannot be less than perfect, but man's work can.

We might say that this is yet another "God is sovereign"; "man is responsible" paradox. If we look at the assembly only as God's work, then we see His sovereign hand in it, and we understand that the assembly is turning out exactly as He wants. On the other hand, if we only see man's responsibility in the assembly, then we understand that the Lord Jesus walks in the midst of the candlesticks, judging our work. And of course both are true. Just like God is sovereign in saving sinners, but sinners are still responsible for their choices, God is at work in the assembly, but that doesn't mean we're not responsible for how we build on that One Foundation.

What I want to demonstrate this time, is that Scripture teaches that apostasy set into the assembly even before the Apostles died. Next time we're going to attempt to show that the apostasy in the assembly is irreparable: there might be isolated and localized reformations and revivals, but Scripture shows that, the apostasy having begun, it generally gets worse and worse until judgment.

The epistles warn that apostasy had already set into the assembly when the Apostles were still alive. We could demonstrate this from 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 John, and Revelation 2–3. It would take a lot of time to look into all those passages, so let's consider Jude:

4 For certain men have got in unnoticed, they who of old were marked out beforehand to this sentence, ungodly persons, turning the grace of our God into dissoluteness, and denying our only Master and Lord Jesus Christ. 5 But I would put you in remembrance, you who once knew all things, that the Lord, having saved a people out of the land of Egypt, in the second place destroyed those who had not believed. 6 And angels who had not kept their own original state, but had abandoned their own dwelling, he keeps in eternal chains under gloomy darkness, to the judgment of the great day; 7 as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities around them, committing greedily fornication, in like manner with them, and going after other flesh, lie there as an example, undergoing the judgment of eternal fire. (Jude 4–7)
14 And Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied also as to these, saying, Behold, the Lord has come amidst his holy myriads, 15 to execute judgment against all; and to convict all the ungodly of them of all their works of ungodliness, which they have wrought ungodlily, and of all the hard things which ungodly sinners have spoken against him (Jude 14–15)
There are two things we notice in Jude. First, there were "certain men" who'd already come into the assembly. They are apostates, and they're compared to three great apostasies in the Old Testament:
  1. the unbelieving Israelites who were destroyed in the wilderness
  2. the angels who fell, and are kept in "eternal chains" until judgment
  3. the men of Sodom and Gomorrha, who are under the judgement of "eternal fire"
It's important to note Jude doesn't warn about apostates "out there", it warns against apostates who are in the assembly.

Second, the apostates are the object of God's judgment. It's interesting to note that the three Old Testament apostasies in Jude 4–7 are mentioned in connection with judgment. But the case is made more explicitly in vv. 14–15, where we're told that these men are the subject of Enoch's prophecy: the prophecy that the Lord is coming "to execute judgment" against them.

What is very interesting in Jude is that there's no word of these apostates repenting. I don't doubt that God saves the ungodly sinner who believes, regardless of whatever sin or wickedness he has done; but Jude doesn't present these "ungodly persons" as needing to repent, it presents them as reserved for judgment.

We might notice, too, that Jude is silent about removing these people from the assembly. It doesn't present this as a problem that can be fixed. The "solution" in Jude is

20 But *ye*, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, awaiting the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life (Jude 20–21)
As far as Jude's concerned, the response of the faithful is to rest in God, "awaiting the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ".

We might look to the testimony of the Apostles as well. Let's consider Acts 20

28 Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God, which he has purchased with the blood of his own. 29 For *I* know this, that there will come in amongst you after my departure grievous wolves, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves shall rise up men speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Wherefore watch, remembering that for three years, night and day, I ceased not admonishing each one of you with tears. 32 And now I commit you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give to you an inheritance among all the sanctified. (Acts 20:28–32)
Here Paul is addressing the Ephesian elders at Miletus. And he warns them that "grievous wolves" will come in after he leaves (v. 29). But the interesting statement is in the next verse "from among your own selves shall rise up men speaking perverted things to draw away the disciples after them" (v. 30). So he warned them that apostasy would set in after he leaves, and that it would particularly come from among the overseers, in this case in Ephesus.

That might remind us of Diotrephes (3 John 9–10).

So the testimony of the Apostle Paul was the apostasy would arise "after [his] departure". But when we come to 3 John, we find that the apostasy has already begun, and there was a man who had gained some power over the assembly, so that he rejected Apostolic authority. But it wasn't only that he personally rejected Apostolic authority, he had "the brethren" put out of the assembly (v. 10).

We might consider Revelation 2–3 as well, but the testimony of Scripture is consistent on this point: apostasy had set into the assembly even in the time of the Apostles.

What did the Lord Jesus say about it? Did He predict the state of things would get better and better? Or did He predict that things would get worse and worse until He came to judge? Let's consider Matthew 13:

24 Another parable set he before them, saying, The kingdom of the heavens has become like a man sowing good seed in his field; 25 but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed darnel amongst the wheat, and went away. 26 But when the blade shot up and produced fruit, then appeared the darnel also. 27 And the bondmen of the householder came up and said to him, Sir, hast thou not sown good seed in thy field? whence then has it darnel? 28 And he said to them, A man that is an enemy has done this. And the bondmen said to him, Wilt thou then that we should go and gather it up? 29 But he said, No; lest in gathering the darnel ye should root up the wheat with it. 30 Suffer both to grow together unto the harvest, and in time of the harvest I will say to the harvestmen, Gather first the darnel, and bind it into bundles to burn it; but the wheat bring together into my granary. (Matthew 13:24–30)
This is a most interesting parable, and I've heard it "expounded" in all sorts of interesting ways. But the Lord Himself interpreted it to the disciples later in the chapter:
36 Then, having dismissed the crowds, he went into the house; and his disciples came to him, saying, Expound to us the parable of the darnel of the field. 37 But he answering said, He that sows the good seed is the Son of man, 38 and the field is the world; and the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom, but the darnel are the sons of the evil one; 39 and the enemy who has sowed it is the devil; and the harvest is the completion of the age, and the harvestmen are angels. 40 As then the darnel is gathered and is burned in the fire, thus it shall be in the completion of the age. 41 The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all offences, and those that practise lawlessness; 42 and they shall cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:36–43)
So the parable of the darnel of the field teaches us this: the Son of Man has sown good seed in the world. The devil as also sown seed, "while men slept". (Notice it wasn't the Son of Man who slept, it was "men" who slept.) When it became apparent that there is a mixture of darnel and wheat, the question was, should we pull up the darnel? No, the Son of Man says, wait until the harvest (the completion of the age).

What do we learn from the parable of the darnel of the field? We learn that there is an intermingling of true believers and false professors, and they are really, really hard to tell apart. But it's not the Lord's intention to sort it out until the "completion of the age," when He will cast the darnel into the "furnace of fire".

There is a significant difference between the parable of the darnel and the book of Jude. The Lord Jesus explicitly says that "the field is the world" in the parable of the darnel of the field. But Jude is written to warn of apostates who'd "crept in unawares". They weren't in the world, they were in the assembly.

So what have we demonstrated? Neither the Lord Jesus, nor the Apostles, nor the Epistles looked to see things get better and better. In every case, the expectation is that we see things get worse and worse, until judgment. I don't doubt the Lord is working, and there will be local revivals, renewals, and reformations. But the whole arc of the narrative of the New Testament is that apostasy will increase until the Lord Jesus comes to execute judgment.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ruin (Part 1)

I'm sitting at home sick, so I thought I'd update this blog. Recently someone asked me about "the Church in Ruin", and I found had trouble giving a concise answer. So I'm going to use this blog as a scratchpad to see if I can articulate this idea a bit.

The Ruin of the Church is the teaching that the Church has failed in its dispensational (governmental) responsibilities on the earth. As a result, it is irreparably "ruined" as far as dispensational responsibility is concerned. There is no repairing the damage, we are left merely waiting for judgment.

So I got it down to three sentences, but they're not very good sentences. And while that's not a terrible description, there's no way I'd expect anyone to agree without some reference to the Word of God. So let's look at the Scriptures and see what they say.

First we're going to look at the Old Testament, because there is a subtle, but important, principle brought out there. Three incidents stick out in my mind with respect Israel in the wilderness. The first is in Numbers 23:

18 Then he took up his parable and said, Rise up, Balak, and hear! hearken unto me, son of Zippor! 19 God is not a man, that he should lie; neither a son of man, that he should repent. Shall he say and not do? and shall he speak and not make it good? 20 Behold, I have received [mission] to bless; and he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it. 21 He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen wrong in Israel; Jehovah his God is with him, and the shout of a king is in his midst. 22 God brought him out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a buffalo. 23 For there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel. At this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! (Numbers 23:18–23)
The second is in Exodus 32:7–8:
7 Then Jehovah said to Moses, Away, go down! for thy people, which thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt, is acting corruptly. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them: they have made themselves a molten calf, and have bowed down to it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, This is thy god, Israel, who has brought thee up out of the land of Egypt!
The last is a single verse, Deuteronomy 23:14:
14 For Jehovah thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp, to deliver thee, and to give up thine enemies before thee; and thy camp shall be holy, that he see nothing unseemly with thee, and turn away from thee.

There are two different perspectives between the first passage and the second and third passages. In the first, the Lord says He doesn't see any iniquity in Israel. Which is a remarkable statement, given the entirety of the history of Israel's travel from Egypt to Canaan. There certainly was a great deal of iniquity in Israel! But the Lord looks down and sees not a bit of it.

In the second and third verses, the Lord definitely sees iniquity in Israel. In the passage in Exodus, He looks down from Sinai and tells Moses to leave Him, because of Israel's sin. The third passage is actually part of the commands about sanitation: they weren't to foul their camp, but they were to "turn aside" and keep the camp clean. But the remarkable statement is that the Lord would walk in the camp, and if He sees anything unseemly in it, He might turn away from them.

So which is it? Did God see iniquity in Jacob? Was that what the second and third passages say? Or perhaps He was just making empty threats when He looked down from Sinai, or when Moses commanded the people not to foul the camp? Well, both are true. God saw Israel from two different perspectives. When He looked down from Heaven and spoke to Balaam, He saw a perfect people. But when He walked through the camp, He saw their sin.

Now, perhaps we see something akin to Galatians 4 when we introduce Sinai vs. the "high places of Baal". Perhaps there is something there for us to learn about the Accuser. Perhaps we should point out that God saw their sins at Sinai, but there was an intercessor there to plead for them. And really, Moses stands as a type of our Advocate in this story. But we're not going to consider all the implications here. We're merely going to point out that there are two different perspectives from which God saw Israel.

When viewed from the perspective of God's eternal purposes, He saw no sin in Israel. But when He was walking in the camp, He saw everything that defiles.

Similarly, the Lord sees the Church in two different perspectives. There is the perspective of God's eternal purpose, but there is the perspective of man's responsibility. From the one perspective, Christ sees no sin in the Church. But from the other, He judges everything, and there is no hiding from His sight.

Those two perspectives are contrasted in 1 Peter 2 and 1 Corinthians 4.

4 To whom coming, a living stone, cast away indeed as worthless by men, but with God chosen, precious, 5 yourselves also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5)
9 For we are God's fellow-workmen; ye are God's husbandry, God's building. 10 According to the grace of God which has been given to me, as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation, but another builds upon it. But let each see how he builds upon it. 11 For other foundation can no man lay besides that which [is] laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any one build upon [this] foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, straw, 13 the work of each shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare [it], because it is revealed in fire; and the fire shall try the work of each what it is. 14 If the work of any one which he has built upon [the foundation] shall abide, he shall receive a reward. 15 If the work of any one shall be consumed, he shall suffer loss, but *he* shall be saved, but so as through [the] fire. (1 Corinthians 3:9–15)
In 1 Peter, God Himself does the building, and He works with only one building material: "living stones" (v. 5). But in 1 Corinthians 3, although it's still God's building, it is now men who are working on it. These men need to take care how they build, because they can make mistakes; God can't. And while God works exclusively with "living stones", men have more options: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, straw. Men build with six materials, God with only one.

Need I point out that the Lord Jesus, as both God and Man, builds the assembly as well? (Matthew 16:16–18). Need I mention that His work doesn't fail? Of course it doesn't!

But the point is that there are both perspectives in the New Testament, just like there were both in the Old Testament.

Now, Revelation 2–3 brings us to the end of one of those two perspectives. God's eternal, heavenly perspective doesn't come to a close. How God sees us now is how He'll see us through eternity. But there is a dispensational responsibility, which is connected to this earth. Here on this earth, we have a responsibility as the House of God. And 1 Peter 4 reminds us that the House of God is where judgment will begin (1 Peter 4:17). So Revelation 2–3 gives us a prophetic look into that judgment. And notice how it starts, the Lord Jesus is described as the One who "who walks in the midst of the seven golden lamps" (Revelation 2:1) the previous verse tells us exactly what those lamps are: they are the seven assemblies in Asia (Revelation 1:20).

So we're right back to Deuteronomy 23 in a sense: when the Lord looks down from Heaven, He sees His eternal purpose, but when He walks in the camp, He sees every defiling thing.

When we look at what the Scripture says about the Church, we need to bear these two perspectives in mind. God's eternal purpose for us is nothing but blessing. But while we're here waiting for His Son to come and get us (Philippians 3:20–21, 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10), there is responsibility connected with this earth.

There's a lot more to say, but I think I'll save it for next time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


The Lord does not need us to bless Him, but He is pleased to bless us: what He asks of us is to sit at Jesus' feet and receive the abundant grace He bestows on us.
J. N. Darby, "Notes on 1 Chronicles 13-17" (Collected Writings, Volume 30, p. 13).

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

God's King

I want to spend some time considering God’s King. The Scripture spends a good deal of time discussing Christ as King, and I can’t help but think that indicates it’s worthwhile to spend some time meditating on it.

The first mention Scripture makes of a kingdom is Nimrod's in Genesis 10:8–10. It says that Nimrod's kingdom began in Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in Shinar.

8 And Cush begot Nimrod: he began to be mighty on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before Jehovah; therefore it is said, As Nimrod, the mighty hunter before Jehovah! 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

The first person called "king" in Scripture is Amraphel the king of Shinar (Genesis 14:1). Whether we consider Nimrod the first king, or whether we consider Amraphel the first king, it's apparent that the Scriptural record of kingship begins in Shinar, or Babylon. This is significant, as it is from Babylon that the great Gentile kingdoms begin.

Jeremiah 27 contains the remarkable statement that God gave all the kingdoms of the earth to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (vv. 27:5–11). While there are many Gentile kings in Scripture that precede Nebuchadnezzar, this statement is remarkable insofar as it is the beginning of what we might call the Times of the Gentiles, when God Himself made the center of power on the earth to move from Jerusalem to the Gentiles.

Daniel 2 gives us a further view into this transfer: in it Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of his dream,

37 Thou, O king, art a king of kings, unto whom the God of the heavens hath given the kingdom, the power, and the strength, and the glory; 38 and wheresoever the children of men, the beasts of the field, and the fowl of the heavens dwell, he hath given them into thy hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all: thou art this head of gold.

So Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that God had given him power over the whole earth, and he confers a title on Nebuchadnezzar, "King of Kings". This title is echoed in Ezekiel 26:7, also with respect to Nebuchadnezzar. Then in Ezra 7, Artaxerxes addresses a letter to Ezra and refers to himself as "King of Kings." So "King of Kings" is really a title of the Gentile kings, and it's conferred by God Himself upon Nebuchadnezzar.

Israel was God's chosen people (and will take that title up again some day), and they had their own kings. There is a remarkable statement in 1 Chronicles 5:1–2, which says that Rueben was Israel's firstborn, but the birthright was given to Joseph because of Rueben's sin. But the prince, we are told, is reckoned from Judah. We recall that Joseph's younger son was Ephraim, and Jacob blessed him as the elder (Genesis 48:13–20). So we see the Israelites leaving Egypt under Moses (a Levite), but they enter the Land under Joshua (an Ephraimite): Ephraim had the leadership among the tribes. When they entered the Land, the Tabernacle was set up first in Gilgal, then Shiloh---both in Ephraim.

But Psalm 78 tells us in some detail how what we might call the Ephraimite order of things fell, so that God "forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh... he rejected the tent of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim, but chose the tribe of Judah" (vv. 60, 67–68). And so Judah took the lead among the tribes. And we've considered this in an earlier post ("The Tabernacle at Gibeon"): that the Ark of the Covenant was taken from the tabernacle in Shiloh under Eli's sons and captured by the Philistines, then returned to Israel at Kirjath-Jearim, in Judah; but the tabernacle, sans Ark ended up in Gibeon, in Benjamin.

The Israelite kings began with Saul, who was a Benjaminite. Saul's kingdom was taken away from him and given to David, from Judah. David's reign began the longest dynasty in the Old Testament record, continuing through his son Solomon and finally ending in Zedekiah.

But the prophets declare that God will once again set up a king in Jerusalem. Psalm 2 gives this probably the most clearly: the nations chafing under the reign of God's king, whom He will establish in Zion. And to this King God says, "ask of me and I will give thee the nations for an inheritance". That is, this King will be set up not only over Israel, but over the nations too.

The Scripture is consistent in its declaration that Jesus Christ is the Son of David. But David's line ended with Zedekiah's captivity in Babylon (2 Kings 25:1–7). Luke 3 gives us the solution to this apparent contradiction: Christ's lineage traces through David's son Nathan (rather than Solomon) to Mary. Joseph's line traces from David as well, but Joseph was descended from Jechoniah (Jehoiachin), and God had cursed Jehoiachin, saying no descendent of his would ever sit on the throne (Jeremiah 22:24--30). So Christ is indeed David's Son, but He is not of the royal line that traced through Solomon. That line has been explicitly ended by God, both in Jehoiachin and Zedekiah.

God has appointed Christ as King both as heir of the Gentile kings and as heir of David, the Jewish king. He is David's Son, and He will sit on David's throne, reigning from Zion (Psalm 2, Isaiah 9:7, Luke 1:32). But Revelation 19:16 introduces Him as the King of Kings, the title God gave to Nebuchadnezzar. So we might consider Christ to be both the heir of David and the heir of Nebuchadnezzar.

And really this is the whole point of the book of Daniel: the Most High rules in the kingdoms of men and gives them to whomsoever He wills. But Daniel tells us that there will come a day when the transitory nature of the kingdoms of men will end: both in chapter 2 and in chapter 7 he says that there will be another kingdom set up that will never end. I believe this kingdom is seen (prophetically) coming to fruition in the first few verses of Revelation 19, where heaven rejoices because God takes the kingdom. And what does John see? He sees the Word of God coming from Heaven, with the title "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" written on His robe and His thigh.

I really think this is the point of Christ's brief conversation with Nathanael in John 1:

49 Nathanael answered and said to him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art the King of Israel. 50 Jesus answered and said to him, Because I said to thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, believest thou? Thou shalt see greater things than these. 51 And he says to him, Verily, verily, I say to you, Henceforth ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man. John 1:49–51
Nathanael (correctly) understands Christ is the One described in Psalm 2: the Son of God who will reign in Israel. The Lord Jesus responds by asserting He's not only the Son of God who'll reign in Israel, He's the Son of Man who'll inherit the Gentile kingdoms as well. He is the heir both of David and Nebuchadnezzar: the Son of God as well as the Son of Man.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Responsibility and power

I was riding the bus to work a few years ago, when I read this remarkable quote:

"All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient." These words (the response of the people with one voice, when Moses had taken the book of the covenant and read in their audience, Exod. 24) were the complete confounding of two very distinct principles, which man has been continually mistaking and confounding since the fall of Adam - responsibility and power. Man is responsible to keep the law perfectly, but by the fall he has lost the power. This the natural heart cannot understand. One man denies his responsibility, and another assumes his power; grace, and this only, puts a man right on both points.
(J. N. Darby, "Wilderness Grace", Collected Writings, Vol. 12, p. 276). That was a bit of an "Aha!" moment for me.

Responsibility and power aren't the same thing. It's entirely possible a man (or woman) can be in a position of having a responsibility that he (or she) is incapable of fulfilling. To take an example from secular life, consider the definition of "bankrupt":

any insolvent debtor; a person unable to satisfy any just claims made upon him or her.
(bankrupt. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved September 24, 2013, from website: So it's possible to end up in a position in the secular world where you cannot "satisfy any just claims".

Even in secular life, responsibility doesn't imply power.

I've listened to a lot of sermons recently combatting "Calvinism". The vast majority of them have argued that it would be unjust of God to demand of someone something that person can't do. They say, "It would be cruel of God to demand sinners repent when they're incapable of repenting". What nonsense.

It's not cruelty for a creditor to demand payment even when the debtor cannot pay. The creditor is looking for nothing more than justice. Similarly, God didn't create us sinful, we made that "improvement" ourselves. He has every right to demand repentance– or even righteousness– of us, whether we can actually produce it or not.

No, I'm not defending "Calvinism", I'm just pointing out that this is a sophomoric and childish argument.

But of course this principle carries on into the Christian walk, even following justification and rebirth. There is a huge difference between responsibility and power. When we look in Scripture, we see there are responsibilities for believers in Christ. We're to walk "worthy of our calling" (Ephesians 4:1). But we find we can't. We have the responsibility, but not the power.

Which is, after all, the whole point of Romans 7.

21 I find then the law upon *me* who will to practise what is right, that with *me* evil is there. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man: 23 but I see another law in my members, warring in opposition to the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which exists in my members. Romans 7:21–23
We want to do what's right, and we find ourselves unable to meet our obligations.

What's interesting is how much "ministry" to Christians re-iterates obligations to people who aren't able to meet them. As though enumerating debts can actually enable a bankrupt to pay them! It's foolishness.

The Scriptural path is to look outside myself for power. I can't live up to my calling, but Christ can. I can't overcome the law of sin in my members, but Christ can deliver me.

Obligation doesn't imply the power to fulfill it. That's a lesson that can take a lot of time to learn.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Terrible Things

1 ¶ Oh, that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, --that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, 2 --as fire kindleth brushwood, as the fire causeth water to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations might tremble at thy presence! 3 When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, and the mountains flowed down at thy presence. 4 Never have men heard, nor perceived by the ear, nor hath eye seen a God beside thee, who acteth for him that waiteth for him. 5 Thou meetest him that rejoiceth to do righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: (behold, thou wast wroth, and we have sinned:) in those is perpetuity, and we shall be saved. Isaiah 64:1–5, JND
Isaiah 64 describes what happens when God comes down. The mountains melt, His enemies learn His name, the nations tremble at His presence, and He does terrible things.

The New Testament records three times when God comes down:

  1. the Incarnation, when the Word was made flesh (John 1:14)
  2. Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended (Acts 2)
  3. Armageddon, when the Lord Jesus will descend on the Mount of Olives (Revelation 19:11–21, cf. Zechariah 14)
If we were to look at each of these in detail, I'm sure we'd find that the description in Isaiah 64 applies to each of these. For example, we might think that Acts 2 is characterized by fire that from heaven (cf. v. 2). Or we might think about Zechariah 14:1–5, where the mountains will flow down at His presence when the Lord descends (cf. v. 3).

We notice that God's descending is characterized by "terrible things which we looked not for" (v. 3). God does unexpected, terrible things when He descends. Did God do terrible, unexpected things when the Word became flesh? Absolutely He did! Let's consider some of them

When the Lord Jesus came down, He bore our sins in His body (1 Peter 2:24). It's important that we don't lose the truth of Substitution. When the Lord Jesus died, He carried my sins away. It's not just that He died for my sins (this is true), but that He actually took them from me and made them His own. He took the sins I committed, and bore them in His body. So when His body was judged, my sins were judged.

This is an important truth to remember, because it's the basis of my standing with God. God doesn't see my sins when He looks at me: the last time God saw my sins was at the Crucifixion. God saw my sins on the Cross, Christ was bearing them in His body. Then He was buried, and His body was hidden in the earth. Now He has been raised from the dead, and has gone back into Heaven. My sins aren't on His body now, He's in Heaven where sin can never come. So my sins are gone forever: the last time God saw my sins was in the body of the Lord Jesus.

So we're happy He bore our sins in His body, but there's no doubt it was a terrible thing that God did there. He put His own Son to shame, and put my wickednesses on Him so that He'd not see them when He looks at me. I'm grateful, but it was an awful thing He did.

When the Lord Jesus came down, He poured out His soul unto death (Isaiah 53:10–12). We sometimes get used to the idea that the Lord Jesus offered His body and His blood for us, but Scripture teaches that He offered something else: He offered His soul for us. And so Isaiah 53 says He, "poured out His soul unto death" (Isaiah 53:12).

This is a remarkable statement. 1 John 1 starts with this statement:

and the life has been manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us: (1 John 1:2)
Christ is "the eternal life which was with the Father". Colossians makes a similar statement:
When the Christ is manifested who [is] our life, then shall *ye* also be manifested with him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)
Christ is our Life, but the One who is eternal life poured out His soul to death.

We can't understand what that means: how does Someone the Bible calls "the eternal life that was with the Father" die? More than that, how does He pour out His soul to death?

Once again, we realize this was necessary for us to have eternal life. We're grateful, but it was a terrible thing He did.

When Christ Jesus came, He gave His flesh for sinners to eat and His blood for sinners to drink (John 6:38–58). We could spend months or years talking about John 6 without really getting past the surface. It's a powerful and profound passage. I think I've pointed out before that one major difference between John 5 and John 6 is that in John 5 the Son acts sovereignly, giving life to "whomsoever He will", while John 6 presents human responsibility: if you want eternal life, you need to eat. John 6 introduces another aspect: here the Son of Man can give eternal life, but it comes at a cost to Him. When the Son of God in John 5 gives life, it costs Him nothing. But when the Son of Man gives eternal life in John 6, it costs Him His flesh and His blood.

This brings in a deep and profound truth: that Christ Jesus paid an awful price to save sinners. I have eternal life: I know that because I believe on the name of the Son of God (1 John 5:13). My eternal life cost the Son of Man a great deal. The Son of Man came into the world to offer His flesh as food for wicked sinners, and His blood as something to drink.

Now, we don't think we literally eat Christ's flesh and drink His blood, but it literally cost Him both His flesh and His blood to give us life.

When Jesus Christ came down, He was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Even more astonishing than Christ taking my sins in His body is that He became sin for me. There are several statements made in Scripture that seem really close to blasphemy. This is one of them: the Son of God was made sin for us.

Scripture doesn't tell us what this means, and I don't think we can understand it. But Christ took my place so completely in judgement that Scripture says He became sin for me.

Need I say, I don't think I'm worth that? Need I say, you're not either? Christianity is based on the idea that God gave the priceless to buy the worthless.

When Christ Jesus came, He was forsaken by God (Matthew 27:46). Once again, we need to tread carefully here. We get awfully close to blasphemy when we make statements about eternal relationships in the Godhead. But Christ Jesus said God forsook Him on the Cross.

We might say that this takes the scandal of the Cross into Heaven. When we look at the Cross and see the Son of God dying for us, that's more-or-less limited to what happened on earth. When we look at the Son of God pouring out His soul to death, we see something incredible, that the One who is eternal life could die. But when we see Christ forsaken by His God, we see that the Crucifixion reached up into Heaven, into God's heart. That's how terrible my sin is. That's how seriously God took it. That's how far He was willing to go to save me.

When God comes down, His coming is characterized by "terrible things we looked not for": terrible things no one expected. This is one of those things, one of those things that astonishes us, no matter how well we know it to be true.

God's coming down is characterized by much more than "terrible things", but it's good for us to remember Who He is. He's the One who has done (and does!) unthinkable things to give eternal life to worthless sinners.

Thursday, September 12, 2013



I was at a Labour Day conference a couple weeks ago (you know... on Labour Day). I met some lovely new people there, which is always a joy. One of the gentlemen I met is a brother with whom I chatted for several hours. I think I freaked him out a little when I mentioned that elders aren't for today.

I wasn't trying to freak him out.

So I thought I'd write something about that. Not to prove to you, my one reader, that I'm right; but so that I can refer to this in the future. Now, here's the problem: this is a really big subject. It's a big subject, and it deserves careful consideration.

What Scripture commands

The first consideration whenever we think about an issue of church order is, "What does Scripture command?" Now, a lack of a Scriptural command isn't the same as Scriptural prohibition. We can't say, for example, that since Scripture doesn't command potluck dinners, they're forbidden. Similarly, if Scripture doesn't command us to appoint elders, it doesn't follow that it's a sin to do so. On the other hand, if Scripture positively commands something, then the question is settled.

So we ask, what does Scripture command concerning elders? The answer is simple: there is no command in Scripture for any church, assembly, or gathering to choose elders.

Don't let's forget that a lack of command is not the same thing as prohibition. We can't say that it's forbidden for an assembly to choose elders, but we can say positively that it's not commanded.

But it does raise a very important question: when Scripture doesn't command something, should we do it? Or, put another way, if Scripture is silent on something, why would we think we ought to do it? This is a question we'll try and answer in more detail. Let's leave that as an open question for the moment.

The gentleman with whom I spoke at the conference doesn't believe an assembly ought to appoint a pastor. (I mean here, not "pastor" in the sense of "shepherd", but "pastor" in the sense of a clergyman.) So I asked him, why not? Scripture doesn't actually forbid appointing a pastor, just like it doesn't actually forbid appointing elders. What is the difference? Why do you think one is acceptable but the other isn't?

Because, he said, it doesn't fit the New Testament pattern.

So let's discuss the "New Testament Pattern".

The "New Testament Pattern"

There are a great many Christians who talk about the "New Testament Pattern". By that they mean there is a pattern in Scripture for how the church was to function. So they search through Scripture, looking for how the church operated. We commend them for searching the Scriptures, but they make a dangerous assumption: they assume what Scripture describes about the early church is a de facto command for us today. They confuse the descriptive with the prescriptive.

This is essentially an appeal to precedent. If they see the New Testament church doing something, then they see a precedent for us to do the same thing. In fact, I've actually heard one preacher talk about "the mandate in Acts 2:42". Let's consider that for a minute: what's the mandate in Acts 2:42?

And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers. Acts 2:42
Simple answer: there is no mandate in Acts 2:42. There is no command given in this verse, it's simply a statement of what the early church did. But this preacher has taken the statement of what the early church did as a command for what churches today ought to do. Obviously there are some pretty huge hermeneutical problems with this approach.

What is the precedent?

But for the sake of argument, let's assume we can treat the early church as a precedent. Let's examine what Scripture has to tell us about the appointment of elders in the early church.

We see the appointment of elders exactly once in Scripture:

21 And having announced the glad tidings to that city, and having made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, and Iconium, and Antioch, 22 establishing the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to abide in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God. 23 And having chosen them elders in each assembly, having prayed with fastings, they committed them to the Lord, on whom they had believed Acts 14:21–23
In this case, it was Paul and Barnabas who chose elders "in each assembly."

There is also the case of Titus in Crete. Scripture doesn't record that he chose elders, but clearly he was told to do so:

5 For this cause I left thee in Crete, that thou mightest go on to set right what remained [unordered], and establish elders in each city, as *I* had ordered thee: 6 if any one be free from all charge [against him], husband of one wife, having believing children not accused of excess or unruly. Titus 1:4–5
We might notice a difference here from the events recorded in Acts 14. Titus was told to appoint elders "in each city", Paul and Barnabas appointed elders "in each assembly". This isn't a contradiction: Scripture uniformly presents only one gathering in each city. I don't take that to mean there was only one place the Christians gathered, but that all the Christians in a city were seen as one gathering, regardless of how many places they gathered.

What we don't see in Scripture is that any gathering chose their own elders. Either the Apostles appointed them, or they sent someone to appoint them. The idea that a gathering would choose elders for itself is entirely foreign to Scripture.

So the "pattern" isn't that assemblies chose elders for themselves: the "pattern" is that outsiders came along and appointed elders in each assembly. In every single case in Scripture elders are appointed by outsiders to an assembly. It's difficult to argue that we're following "the New Testament Pattern" in having elders unless we have Apostles coming through town, appointing them, and leaving. That's the New Testament pattern.

Choosing and recognizing

"But wait!" someone says, "we don't choose elders, we recognize the elders the Lord has chosen! That's what Acts 20:28 teaches!"

Let's consider that:

28 Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God, which he has purchased with the blood of his own. Acts 20:28
At first glance that seems like there might be something to that claim. If the Holy Spirit put the elders in the assembly, then maybe Paul and Barnabas didn't actually choose them: maybe Paul and Barnabas just pointed out the elders the Holy Spirit had already put into the assembly.

There is a compelling reason to reject this view: the Word of God explicitly says that Paul and Barnabas chose the elders (Acts 14:23). It doesn't say they "recognized" elders, it says they "chose" them. The fact is that "recognizing" elders has absolutely no Scriptural basis. There isn't a single place where Scripture says anyone "recognized" elders. Paul and Barnabas "chose" elders, Titus "established" elders.

So no, Acts 20:28 doesn't teach that God put elders in the assembly and Paul and Barnabas just "recognized" them. Acts 14:23 explicitly contradicts this interpretation. And it sure doesn't imply that God put elders anywhere else, just waiting to be recognized.

To whom is Acts 20 written?

I've noticed people who talk about the "New Testament Pattern" like to talk a lot about Acts 20:17–38. That makes a certain amount of sense: Paul's discourse to the Ephesian elders gives us a lot of insight into his relationship to them, their relationship to the assembly in Ephesus, and their responsibilities to the Lord. But in the end, Acts 20 isn't a discourse on proper church order. Acts 20:17–38 is Paul's farewell address to the elders at Ephesus. It's not Paul's address to the elders in Philippi, or the elders in Lystra, or the elders in Chicago.

In Acts 20:28, Paul states "the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers" in the assembly. There are many who'd try and apply that verse to elders in an assembly today, but that's nonsense, and demonstrably so. Let's consider the verse in context. Paul begins his talk with the Ephesian elders by reminding them of their relationship:

18 And when they were come to him, he said to them, *Ye* know how I was with you all the time from the first day that I arrived in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all lowliness, and tears, and temptations, which happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I held back nothing of what is profitable, so as not to announce [it] to you, and to teach you publicly and in every house, 21 testifying to both Jews and Greeks repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:18–21
Now, can we honestly say that applies to any elders in any assembly, church, or congregation in America? Of course not! And yet the "you" in these verses is exactly the same as the "you" in v. 28. If we can't apply the "you" in these verses to elders in a gathering today, then we can't apply the "you" in v. 28 to them either.

What about the verses after v. 28?

31 Wherefore watch, remembering that for three years, night and day, I ceased not admonishing each one [of you] with tears. Acts 20:31
Do we really think Paul spent three years, night and day, with the elders of any assembly today? Of course not!

Paul was speaking specifically to the elders from Ephesus, whom he called to Miletus to see him off. Whatever he said about the Ephesian elders, there's no reason to believe it's true of any other group of men. This is obvious if we consider v. 31, where Paul says he spent three years among them. If v. 31 isn't true of the elders in my city, why should I think v. 28 is?

Now, let me make an important point: if we were to say that Paul's commands to the elders in Ephesus apply to elders today, that might be arguable. But to say his statements about elders in Ephesus apply to someone today is a stretch.

There's no reason at all to believe that Paul's words about the Ephesian elders are applicable to anyone other than the Ephesian elders. He was specifically addressing a group of men that he knew personally. There is a lot we can learn from Acts 20, but to imagine that verse 28 (or any other verse) applies to anyone other than the elders in Ephesus is ridiculous.

1 Timothy 3

"But what about 1 Timothy 3?" someone might interrupt, "Doesn't that give us criteria for appointing elders?"

That's a good question. Before we consider 1 Timothy 3, let's remember to look at the context of the chapter. How does 1 Timothy start?

3 Even as I begged thee to remain in Ephesus, [when I was] going to Macedonia, that thou mightest enjoin some not to teach other doctrines, 4 nor to turn their minds to fables and interminable genealogies, which bring questionings rather than [further] God's dispensation, which [is] in faith. 1 Timothy 1:3–4
So Paul is writing to Timothy, and Timothy is in Ephesus. Ephesus... didn't we just read about Ephesus in Acts 20? Didn't we just learn that Paul had spoken to the elders in Ephesus? Yes he did... so why does 1 Timothy contain "qualifications" for elders, if there were already elders in Ephesus?

This isn't a trivial question. This is a really, really important question. This is a question that I've never heard anyone, anywhere ask. If there were already elders in Ephesus, why does Paul send Timothy the criteria for elders?

The general assumption seems to be that he was telling Timothy how to choose elders. But there were already elders in Ephesus! So if we take 1 Timothy 3 as being written so that Timothy could choose elders, then we have to conclude that even where there were existing elders, there was a need for an outsider to appoint their replacements. Even though there were elders in Ephesus who were appointed by the Apostle, it was Timothy who was given the criteria to choose elders in Ephesus.

But I suspect the general assumption is wrong. I suspect that 1 Timothy 3 wasn't written to tell Timothy how to choose [more] elders: I think it was written so that Timothy would know how to exhort the elders in Ephesus. Timothy was left in Ephesus to "enjoin some not to teach other doctrines" (v. 3). He was left there to make sure the Ephesians didn't depart from the Apostolic teachings. I think chapter 3 was given so that he'd be able to correct the elders in Ephesus.

No matter how you look at it, it's a really long stretch to think that 1 Timothy 3 gives us the green light to appoint elders. Timothy, an Apostolic appointment to Ephesus, was sent to an assembly where there were already elders, and given the qualifications (or "characteristics", if you prefer) of an elder. It's difficult to imagine how this might give us the authority to appoint elders today.

The New Testament pattern, revisited

We've considered several passages about elders. What is interesting, though, is what those passages tell us about the practices of the New Testament church.

I mentioned earlier that I was speaking with someone who said it's all right to appoint elders, but not clergymen, because of the "New Testament Pattern." That's an increasingly difficult point to argue... let's consider it. 1 Timothy, Titus, and 1 Corinthians present three very different "patterns" to us.

1 Timothy 1:3–4 tells us Paul left Timothy in Ephesus (where there were already elders) to ensure they didn't veer from Apostolic doctrine. So what does that pattern look like? The pattern in 1 Timothy is something like this: there is one person (an outsider) and the elders of the assembly report to him. His job is to make sure the locals don't depart from the Apostolic teaching, and he is (individually) given the criteria for elders. Maybe he appointed more elders, maybe he didn't. But that's the pattern we can deduce from 1 Timothy.

The situation in Titus is a little different: like Timothy, he was an outsider sent to take care of problems in the assemblies. But unlike Timothy, he was sent not to a single city, but to an island with several cities. So the pattern we might deduce from Titus is that there ought to be a single person over several assemblies.

Corinth is an interesting case study: there are two Epistles written to Corinth, and neither one mentions elders at all. There were some real problems at Corinth: there were problems of church order, there were moral problems, there were personal problems. But there's not one mention of elders. They are completely silent on the subject. They talk about a lot of things: they address the Lord's Supper and excommunication and who can talk in the meetings. But they don't mention elders.

So we might find a third pattern in the Corinthian epistles: there the pattern is an assembly without elders. Perhaps there were elders in Corinth and the epistles simply don't address them. We really don't know for sure, but if we're looking for a pattern, 1 Corinthians entirely omits elders.

Now, I don't point this out simply to be contentious. There are at least three "patterns" in Scripture, and there are genuine, sincere Christians who have attempted to model churches after all of them. We might say that Titus provides the pattern for episcopalianism, where a bishop is over the clergymen in several cities in a region. We might consider 1 Timothy as a pattern for presbyterianism, where there are many elders in an assembly, but one takes the lead over the others as the "teaching elder".

But of course there is a problem with these approaches: they each look in Scripture to find a pattern, and they attempt to follow them. But they find different patterns. I'm suggesting this is because the Lord never intended us to find a pattern. Scripture contains ample instruction in its explicit commands: there's no need to look for a pattern. There's no need to look to implication and inference when we've explicit instruction.

So what about elders, then?

When we look in Scripture, we don't see a very consistent pattern. The assembly in Jerusalem had elders, but we have no record where they came from. We can assume they were men of stature and renown in the Jewish community before they converted to Christianity, but we just don't know for sure. We're sure there were elders in Ephesus (Acts 20 makes this very clear), and we're sure Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in Iconium, Lystra, and Antioch. Titus was sent to appoint elders in every city in Crete, but Scripture doesn't say he actually did it (I assume he did). But there are other assemblies with no mention of elders at all, like Corinth.

I don't think it was ever intended that elders should be a fixture in the assembly. Elders were a temporary provision for the church until the canon of Scripture was completed. There aren't Apostles anymore: the Apostles were strictly a transitional feature of the church. Elders are exactly the same, a transitional provision for the church in its infancy.

I oppose appointing elders in the assembly for the same reason I oppose appointing clergy. Scripture doesn't actually condemn appointing clergy, just like it doesn't actually condemn appointing elders. But it was an Apostolic function to set up authority in the assembly: it wasn't a democratic process. We ought not take to ourselves the right to appoint authorities in the House of God.

The Apostles didn't follow a very consistent pattern, because they were following the Spirit of God. We notice Paul paid a lot of attention to Ephesus in particular: he spent three years there himself, then he gave the elders there severe warnings when he left, and then he sent Timothy to take care of that assembly. Interestingly, Ephesus is also the first assembly that's addressed in Revelation 2. It's one assembly (along with Laodicea) we know for sure received epistles from both Paul (Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) and John (Revelation 2). Ephesus seems to have been the center of the church on earth, in a way. It's significant that Paul predicted apostasy would arise among the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29). And it's in Ephesus that the judgment of the House of God begins (Revelation 2–3).

We observed already that 1 Corinthians makes no mention of elders. This is interesting insofar as 1 Corinthians deals with an assembly with very serious problems. But at no point is there the suggestion that the solution to the problem is leadership. If there were elders in Corinth, the epistle doesn't tell them to demonstrate leadership in the assembly. If there weren't, it doesn't suggest the Corinthians appoint (or even "recognize") elders to help them solve their problems. There seems to be a lot of people who are prescribing "strong leadership" as a solution to assembly problems, but at least the epistles to the Corinthians do not.

What should we take from this? Very simply, there is no reason to believe that elders are a necessity in an assembly. In fact, there is no reason to believe that elders are the solution to assembly problems. Let's consider that Paul told the elders in Ephesus:

32 And now I commit you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build [you] up and give [to you] an inheritance among all the sanctified Acts 20:32
When elders were being appointed in the New Testament, the canon wasn't complete. But even then, it was to "God and the word of His grace" that Paul committed the Ephesian elders.

Now we have the completed Scriptures: we have what the Ephesian elders didn't have. But we have what Paul said was the appropriate resource for believers in the face of trouble.

What do others think?

It's obvious that the vast majority of Christians don't take this view on elders. The majority of churches practice some form of clergy or another, and even those that don't generally practice some form of appointed eldership. The gentleman I spoke with the other week thought it would be wrong to have a "pastor", but was convinced an assembly should have elders. I think this is a common take on the subject.

But let me point out that I am in good company. William Kelly, C. H. Mackintosh, and J. N. Darby all held the same view on elders I've laid out here. That doesn't mean I'm right, but it does mean what I'm about to say was held and argued by careful and respected students of the Word of God.

William Kelly argued the case persuasively in his comments on Acts 14:

It is vain to deny or parry the importance of this decision of scripture on the subject of presbyters. Not infrequently there is an attack made on those who really desire to follow the word of God, by men who ask, "Where are your elders? You profess to follow scripture faithfully: how is it that you have not elders?" To such I would answer, "When you provide apostles to choose elders for us, we shall be exceedingly obliged for both." How can we have elders appointed according to scripture unless we have apostles or their delegates? Where are the men now who stand in the same position before God and the assembly as Paul and Barnabas? You must either have apostles, or at the very least apostolic men such as Timothy and Titus; for it is quite evident that merely to call people elders does not make them such. Nothing would be easier than to bestow the title of elders within a sect, or for the law of the land to sanction it. Any of us could set ourselves up, and do the work in name, no doubt; but whether there would be any value in the assumption, or whether it would not be really great sin, presumption, and folly, I must leave to the consciences of all to judge.

Thus we know with divine certainty that the elders were chosen for the disciples by the apostles in every church. Such is the doctrine of scripture, and the fact as here described. It is evident therefore, that unless there be duly qualified persons whom the Lord has authorised for the purpose, and in virtue of their most singular relation to the assembly, — unless there be such persons as apostles, or persons representing apostles in this particular, there is no authority for such appointment: it is mere imitation. And in questions of authority it must be evident that imitation is just as foolish as where it is a question of power. You cannot imitate the energy of the Spirit except by sin, neither can you arrogate the authority of the Lord without rebellion against Him. Notwithstanding, I do not doubt that this is often done with comparatively good — let us conceive the best — intentions on the part of many, but with very great rashness and inattention to the word of God. Hence those are really wrong, not to say inexcusable, who assume to do the work that apostles or their delegates alone could do, not such as content themselves with doing their own duty, and refuse a delicate and authoritative task to which they are not called of the Lord.

What, then, is the right thing? All that we can say is, that God has not been pleased, in the present broken state of the church, to provide all that is desirable and requisite for perpetuating everything in due order. Is this ever His way when things are morally ruined? Does He make provision to continue what dishonoured Him? So far from contrariety in this to the analogy of His dealings, it seems to me quite according to them. There was no such state of things in Israel in the days of the returned captives, as in the days of the Exodus, but Nehemiah was just as truly raised up of God for the return from Babylon, as Moses was for the march out of Egypt. Still the two conditions were quite different, and the mere doing by Nehemiah what Moses did would have been ignorance of his own proper place. Such imitation would have possessed no power, and would have secured no blessing.

(William Kelly, Introductory Lectures on the Acts, available at STEM Publishing)

And Kelly points out what really is at stake here: we don't want to play church. We want to gather as closely as we can to what we see in Scripture. The problem is, imitating the historical record of Acts is not really gathering according to Scripture. It has a good appearance, that's true. But there is a world of difference between having a "correct" form and having godly power. Scripture warns against having form without power (2 Timothy 3:5), but that is what modern appointment of elders amounts to.

J. N. Darby's rejection of the appointment of elders is much more difficult to read, but is very similar (although not identical) to Kelly's. I'd recommend starting with "On Gifts and Offices in the Church", if you're interested. His rejection of the idea that we have elders today is more fully developed in "Examination of a few passages of Scripture, etc.", but I'll caution you that it's a lot harder reading:

Whence comes the authority you pretend to in the house of God? How would you exercise it towards any one who might dispute it? When such men as Paul, Timothy (if it was so in his case), and Titus had with apostolical authority established elders in the churches, if the authority of these elders were disputed, it was disputing the apostolical authority that had placed them there. But as regards you, who made you elders? Except it be with revolutionists, authority flows from authority. Thus it was in the Church. Christ named apostles. The apostles named elders. Who is it that named you? Who is it that communicated to you your authority? You know, and you cannot deny, that the apostles and their special delegates established elders at the beginning. You ask for proof "that this was forbidden to any others." Is it thus that one can assume authority? If the right of naming public functionaries was exercised by the king in a state of which he was the sovereign, could each one name as he chose, over a small portion of the citizens, because there was nothing in the laws declaring that none else had a right to make them? Who would listen to such nonsense? Well! it is much more serious and much worse to do so in the things of God. One would not dare to say or to do such things in human society. Alas! one dares everything in the Church of God.

(J. N. Darby, "Examination of a few passages of Scripture, etc.", available at STEM Publishing).

Now, I don't in any way wish to give the impression that Kelly, Darby, or anyone else is the test of truth. Scripture is the test of truth. But I want to illustrate that I'm in very good company when I say that elders aren't for today.


The subject of elders isn't a simple one. There is some disagreement about what the correct practice is for us today. I am convinced the practice of appointing elders today is based on faulty exposition of Scripture. I'm convinced when we look at Scripture in context, it doesn't at all teach we have the authority– or the need– to appoint elders.

But I would hasten to add this caution: the path of the Christian is a path of submission. There is a tendency for us to want to throw off all authority, and no doubt the idea that we ought not to have elders today appeals to the flesh for this reason. We might like the idea that there's no authority in the assembly. But that's a wrong idea: there is a divine Head over the church, and we are to submit to Him.

Elders or not, we are "legitimately subject to Christ" (1 Corinthians 9:21). We're not called to lawlessly go about, not bowing to anyone. We're called to be subject to Christ. We're called to submit to one another. It would be much, much better for a believer to submit to elders– or even clergymen– than to adopt a high-handed attitude that "you're not the boss of me!"

Self-will is sin.

The problem with the appointment of elders is that it's effectively usurping authority in the House of God. If we reject the one usurpation only to replace it with another (our own self-will), we're worse off in every way.