Friday, July 23, 2021

The New Covenant and Acts 2

One of my friends mentioned to me the New Covenant in connection with Acts 2, which I thought was a little odd, as I can't find a mention of the New Covenant in Acts 2. He tried to connect them via Joel 2:19–32, which I thought was more odd, because I can't find a mention of the New Covenant in Joel 2. But after some thought, I admit there is something there that's worth considering.

It's a fact that the Lord frequently fulfills a prophecy partially before fulfilling it ultimately. We don't have to look hard to find that sort of thing in Matthew's gospel, for example. A great deal of the statements Matthew makes about prophecy seem to be based on quotes wrested from their context. One reason for that (there are other considerations too) is that God sees ultimate fulfillment in Christ. For example, when Isaiah says, "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and shall bring forth a son, and call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:10–25), our minds go immediately to Christ. And rightly so (Matthew 1:23). But in the context where Isaiah actually spoke that prophecy, he was promising deliverance from Syria to Ahaz. If we read on to the next verses (Isaiah 7:14–16), the promise is that a virgin would conceive, have a son, and before her son would be old enough to develop a discerning palate, God would destroy the kings of Syria. So God promises deliverance in the time it takes a young woman to marry, give birth to her first child, wean him, and he develops a taste for food. That's a really weird way to specify a time-frame, but God does it with a purpose: He is looking forward to ultimate deliverance from the ultimate enemy, and that will come from the Son of God, who would be born of a virgin.

So in Acts 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit is identified by Peter (Acts 2:14–21) as the pouring out in Joel 2:28–32. A lot of Christians read Peter's words here and declare that God has fulfilled the prophecy in Joel 2, it's now in the past. I disagree, because Joel clearly promises things that didn't happen in Acts 2. We have no record that the younger people prophesied while the older people dreamed dreams. As Watchman Nee points out, between the Holy Spirit's coming and Peter's sermon, we know for a fact no one had dreamed dreams, because none of them had been sleeping!  Peter goes on to mention the signs and wonders Joel promised (Joel 2:30–31; Acts 2:19–20), which is odd considering none of these things are recorded in Acts 2, nor anywhere else in Acts.

Peter wasn't claiming that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 was the fulfillment of the prophecies in Joel 2. Peter was claiming that what they saw in Acts 2 was a pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and they should have known a pouring out of the Holy Spirit was coming, because it's foretold in Joel 2. This is subtly different: the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is coming, I have no doubt. Acts 2 wasn't the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy, but it was a partial fulfillment. Just like the child born in Ahaz's time was a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, but a bigger fulfillment was coming; so the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a fulfillment of Joel's prophecy, but a more complete fulfillment is coming.

Notice this same theme is picked up in Romans 11:25–27. What God has done since Christ was rejected (see especially Acts 3:19–26) is build something new on the earth that gives a glimpse into what things would have been, had Israel repented. And Romans tells us, it's with the intention that Israel would see what God has done in the church, and be moved to jealousy. 

And notice, Romans 11:27 mentions the Covenant God will make with Israel "after I take away their sins."

So here's another place the church and the New Covenant meet. Again, I don't believe that the church benefits under the New Covenant, but I absolutely believe that God is using us to demonstrate publicly His grace, so that Israel would be moved to repentance. God is showing how He would treat them, in how He treats us. And part of that promised renewed relationship with Israel is the New Covenant.

I should probably also mention... I don't believe the church is temporary, but I am certain the church is playing roles right now on earth that are temporary. What I mean by that is, our relationship to Christ as Bride isn't going to end, but our place on this earth as the house of God will absolutely come to an end. We will eventually be replaced by Israel in that sense. And that's a good thing! We should look forward to that, because it'll be part of the public vindication of the Lord Jesus Christ. I mentioned before, I don't believe our role as the Body of Christ will last beyond our time here (Christ already has a body in Heaven, our place is to be His Body on earth). I don't believe our role as the habitation of God through the Spirit will last beyond our time here. But we absolutely will be "forever with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Friday, July 16, 2021

The New Covenant and the Church

I think at this point I've made it clear that I don't believe the Church receives and blessings under the New Covenant. Properly speaking, the Church isn't a party to the New Covenant. The New Covenant has not yet been inaugurated, but when it is inaugurated, it will be made between God and the houses of Israel and Judah (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 8:8–12). 

But the fact is that the Church isn't entirely separate from the New Covenant for several reasons:

  1. we are united to Christ (Ephesians 5:28–33), the Mediator of the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:6)
  2. we have the "blood of the New Covenant" (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

Whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we announce the Lord's death (1 Corinthians 11:26). We have a tendency to think that we eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of what the Lord has done for us, but Scripture tells us otherwise. We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Him (I Corinthians 11:24–25). He is more than "just" the One who died for us. His death was for us, that's true. But it wasn't only for us: there is value in His death for God. There is something in His death for Israel. There is something in His death for us. And while our Calvinist friends might not approve of my saying so: there is something in His death for fallen, unredeemed, unrepentant man too.

But even more than that, we aren't really called to remember His death. We're called to remember Him, and in doing so, we announce His death. We remember the Lord as the eternal God who became Man. We remember that He spoke the universe into existence (Hebrews 1:1–4, Colossians 1:16). We remember that He dwells in light unapproachable, that no man has seen, nor can see (1 Timothy 6:13–16). We remember that He is the only-begotten Son in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18).

And yes, we remember that He came down here, becoming a Man with the express purpose of giving Himself for us (Hebrews 10:4–10).

But the point is, we don't dissect Christ. We remember Him, and that includes the New Covenant. 

Even more to the point, He gave us the cup, and told us explicitly it's "the new covenant in [His] blood" (1 Corinthians 11:25).

This last point is a problem for people (like me) who take the view that the New Covenant is with Israel and Judah. If the New Covenant isn't ours, why do we have the cup? Why doesn't the Lord say we have "the cup, which is My blood?" Why does He bring up the New Covenant?

To me, this is all about Asenath. The Lord came to His own, and they didn't receive Him (John 1:11). He presented Himself to His own people, and they made it very clear they'd rather have Caesar than their own King (John 19:11–15). So He was crucified by the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:22–23), and when they killed Him, they were clear that He was the King of Israel (Matthew 27:37). And then, after His resurrection, the apostles called them to repent, promising them that He would come back then and there, to set up His kingdom (Acts 3:19–21). But of course they didn't repent.

The timing of the Last Supper is significant: it's before the assembly was formed, before the Holy Spirit came. It's the night He was betrayed (1 Corinthians 11:23). And on that night, He gives the disciples the cup, and tells them it's the New Covenant in His blood (Luke 22:19–20). They might not have realized it at the time, but the New Covenant will be made in blood (Hebrews 9:15–22), just as the Old Covenant was (Exodus 24:4–8). And the disciples were to remember that blood until He comes back.

No, I don't believe in transubstantiation. I don't believe the cup really is His blood, or that the bread really is His body. But I do believe that the Lord left a memorial of His blood, and of the New Covenant that will be made in it. And He made it a definite thing: we remember Him in bread and wine until He comes back (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

So here we are: we announce His death while we wait for Him to come back. And when He comes back, He'll establish the "times of refreshing," inaugurating the New Covenant with Israel and Judah in His own blood. And that blood has been a testimony to His death for this whole time (Hebrews 12:24).

So in a sense, we're keeping the cup in trust for Israel and Judah. When our Lord comes back, He'll be their Lord too. And then we won't have that cup anymore.

But right now we're Asenath: we're the Lord's here while He has been rejected. We remember Him here so that His name won't be forgotten, but will be remembered throughout all generations (Psalm 45:17). And once His own people receive Him, we won't need to be holding that cup for them anymore.

There will be something amazing between the Lord and His people when He comes back for them. Some of that isn't our business, just like our union with Him is none of theirs. But when He does come as their King, He'll write His own copy of the law, just like Moses commanded (Deuteronomy 17:18). He'll write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).

So no, I don't believe the Church is party to the New Covenant. And I don't believe the Church receives any blessings from it, although I'm sure there are some blessings that we'll both have, not because we share them, but because we need them. But I do believe the assembly is connected to the New Covenant, because it is Christ's New Covenant, and we are connected with Him. And I believe we are connected with the New Covenant, because we hold (even if only symbolically) the blood of that New Covenant, until He comes.

 

Friday, July 9, 2021

Dispensationalism

It's popular to hate on Dispensationalism these days (although I've seen faint glimmers of its coming back into fashion). Some of the criticisms I have seen are valid, most are a bit of a reach, some are entirely outside the realm of reasonable.

In my experience, the term "dispensationalism" generally means the Scofield version, with seven ages that each begin with a covenant and end with a judgment. I'm not a huge fan of that system, although I understand its appeal. Clarence Larkin taught a version with eight ages, rather than seven. I'm sure there are many other versions of Dispensationalism, but the Scofield version seems to be the one people think of first, and the one people are attacking when they claim Dispensationalism is wrong.

Reading Darby cured me of Scofield's brand of Dispensationalism. Scofield does a good job of seeing and calling out discontinuities between the Old and New Testaments (for example), but not such a great job of recognizing continuities. The immediate effect reading Darby had on me was to make me step away from a lot of the Dispensationalist ideas I had grown up believing.

But I digress. 

Dispensationalism seems to me to be particularly strong in its hermeneutic. It's not perfect, but it's based on a remarkably consistent hermeneutic. Dispensationalists tend to view things in context (perhaps to a fault), and are very consistent across passages. I'm frequently surprised by the inconsistent hermeneutic in conversations with Christians from other backgrounds.

One of the more common criticisms of Dispensationalism is that it teaches that man was justified by works under Law in the Old Testament, and is now justified by grace through faith.  That's a common enough criticism that it deserves a detailed answer.

Let's be clear that God has only ever justified fallen men and women by grace through faith. That's the plain teaching of the Epistles. But I admit that I have met some (not all, not most, not even many) dispensationalists who weren't very clear on that. I can't recall ever speaking to a dispensationalist who didn't quickly realize the truth when pressed on the point, but I should be fair and say that I have actually met dispensationalists (not many, but some) who weren't very clear on that. I don't think I've ever heard anyone teach error on that point, and I've certainly never read it anywhere that I can recall.

But there is another "line of truth" to consider: the Epistles teach that the Law was given to reveal man's sinfulness (Romans 3:20, 5:12–21, Galatians 3:19). God was testing the human race. It wasn't to educate God, but to reveal what fallen men and women are.

What God knows (and has always known) is that Adam's descendants aren't merely guilty, but are lost. When Romans 8:7 says the mind of the flesh is not subject to the law of God and cannot be, it's giving God's verdict of our race. We're not merely guilty, we are also lost.

The testing of our race reaches its climax in the life and death of Jesus Christ. God Himself comes to live as a Man, is hated, persecuted, and murdered. In the rejection of Christ, we have the very worst thing the human race has ever done. There is no sin worse than Deicide.

Is God surprised by the death of His Son? Of course not! It was by the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" that He was killed (Acts 2:22–23). But that doesn't mean it wasn't the lowest point in human history. That doesn't mean God isn't going to judge the human race for this greatest of all crimes.

So Dispensationalism recognizes not only the individual need for redemption (only by the blood of Christ) and justification (only by grace through faith). It also recognizes God's testing of the human race. This is brought out especially by Darby and other "brethren" writers:

Man was lawless; then, when the law came, there was the transgression of the law; and when the blessed Lord in wondrous love and grace came into the world and went about doing good, they could not stand God's presence ("Our Portion in Christ," Collected Writings, Volume 21, pp. 317–326).

By nature, man was simply lawless (anomos), with a conscience, or the sense of good and evil. But he, being lawless in nature, was expressly put under law. If he had fulfilled it, he was righteous; but the flesh is not subject to it, nor can it be. ("The Pauline Doctrine of the Righteousness of Faith," Collected Writings, Volume 7, pp. 349–386).

Men had been sinners, lawless sinners and law-breaking sinners, before Christ came. His coming brought an additional element of sin. God came into this world in goodness. What did it do to Him?  ("The Law, and the Gospel of the Glory of Christ", Collected Writings, Volume 34, pp. 416–429)

One of the tragedies of Dispensationalism is that it has become characterized by charts and tables, rather than by a deep appreciation of God's ways with our lost race, but I digress. I love charts and tables, by the way. But the real meat isn't in the charts and tables.

It's fair to say dispensationalists believe that God put Israel – as representatives of the entire human race – under Law at Sinai as a test. It was a test He knew they (we) would fail, but it was a real test. And so we believe if they had passed the test (they did not and could not), then they would have been righteous based on their own merit. But that's not at all the same thing as saying they were justified by their works. They were not, as Romans 4:1–8 shows.

So yes, in a way, all dispensationalists believe that if men and women had kept the Law, they would have been righteous before God. But that would mean they were not lost. The Law doesn't prove man's guilt, but his lostness. And the impossibility of lost men and women being subject to the law of God is precisely what the law proved.

We don't believe that God has justified lost men and women any other way than by grace through faith. That is universally true: it was true of Abraham before the Law, and of David under it (Romans 4:1–8). 

Only one Man is just in God's sight on His own merits.


 

 


 

 

 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

New Covenant – individual walk and corporate responsibility

I've been traveling for work, so I've been a little distanced from the blog. We got back safe and sound, so I'm trying to get back to "real life."

Scripture tells us that God's purpose is to head up all things "in Christ" (Ephesians 1:10). While that includes individuals who are saved and brought into eternal blessing, it also includes groups of individuals. When we examine individual salvation in the Old Testament (Romans 4:1–8), we find that David and Abraham were both justified by faith without works. Abraham was a man before the Law (Galatians 3:15–18), David was a man under the Law. But both were justified the same way, and both are held up as models for us. God only justifies on the principle of faith without works. God has only ever justified sinners one way: by grace through faith. There is no difference between a man without Law and a man with Law. There is no difference between Gentiles and Jewish people, between men and women, between wicked sinners and respectable members of society. All need God's righteousness, and He only gives it to those who do not work, but believe (Romans 4:5).

But God is at work not only with individuals, but with the world as a whole. So while David and Abraham were justified the same way, they were under different earthly responsibilities. David was a sinner who needed God's righteous. Abraham was a sinner who needed God's righteousness. On the individual level, there is no difference. But from a dispensational perspective (if I can use that expression), there is tremendous difference. David was a member of the nation of Israel, given the Mosaic (Old) Covenant. There is responsibility there that the patriarchs just did not have.

And don't let's forget that David had a much more complete revelation from God than Abraham had.

There is now a different responsibility than even David had: there is now the assembly on earth. In Abraham's time, there was no house of God on earth. The house of God is mentioned first by Jacob (Genesis 28:17), then by Moses (Exodus 15:17). This isn't something Abraham had, but it's something David had (1 Chronicles 6:31), and it's something we now have (Ephesians 2:19–22).

As an aside, it's worth reading Darby's commentary on Exodus 15 with respect to the dwelling of God on earth.

Now the assembly is the "habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22). And this carries earthly (dispensational) responsibility. We are individually justified by God freely through faith, but as a group, there is responsibility for the assembly of God on earth. This is precisely the point of Revelation 2 and 3. We have two chapters of the Lord's assessment of that responsibility, and it's clear, complete, and scathing. To put it bluntly, the assembly of God has failed just as completely as Israel did before us.

Let me pause here for a moment... I am sure that when the Lord judges the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, He's not limiting His judgment to those who are born again. There are false professors, as well as genuine children of God in those churches. But He treats them all as "the church" in the context of dispensational responsibility. We see the same thing in Jude 1:4, there are certain men who have crept in "unnoticed" – they blend in with the real believers, but they're not real believers. 2 Peter 2:1–3 says the same thing: they're among us. And the Lord doesn't give the true believers a pass when He judges the seven churches in Asia, He judges the church because they have false teachers there (Revelation 2:14–15, 2:20). 

So judgment begins in the house of God (1 Peter 4:17), and we as the assembly aren't an exception. The house of God is a very real responsibility on the earth. This isn't an eternal thing, and it's not an individual thing: it's the corporate responsibility of the church of God on earth.

Again, let's try and be clear that we're not talking about individual salvation: that's not what the house of God is about. This is about God's having a place on this earth that is His. His name is there, His reputation is tied to it. In the Old Testament, that was in Israel. It was first in Shiloh, then in Jerusalem (Psalm 78:60–72). And I have no doubt that Psalm 132:14–18 looks forward to a time when the house of God will be established in Jerusalem again, then the Lord Himself is there. But that hasn't happened yet.

Now here's where we get back to the New Covenant: the New Covenant promises "their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:6–12). On an individual level, that has always been true – God does not at all reckon sin to the one who is justified by faith without works (Psalm 32:1–2, Romans 4:6–8). But on a corporate level, that is not true even in the church! Revelation 2 and 3 make it very clear that the Lord sees our [corporate] failures, and He even holds them against us (Revelation 2:4, etc.) 1 Peter 4:17 isn't a meaningless side note: judgment begins in the house of God. Paul says the same thing with regard to the assembly, "let each see how he builds upon it" (1 Corinthians 3:10).

So there is at least one sense in which the New Covenant is better than the present state of the church.

Now, it's very true that the New Testament speaks of the assembly in more than one sense. There is the sense that the assembly is the house of God – and there is responsibility and judgment associated with that – there is also the sense that the assembly is the body of Christ, which is a different thing. The house of God may include false professors, but the body of Christ cannot. Still, the body of Christ is a temporal, earthly thing. When we look outside of our time on this earth, we see not the body of Christ, but the bride of Christ. That is an eternal thing, and certainly no false professor has a part in that.

So to bring this all back: God's saving individuals by grace through faith without works is universal: from Adam until the last day, God only ever saves individuals one way. The Law added nothing to that, and takes nothing away from it. God only saves sinners one way.

But when it comes to responsibility before God in the earthly responsibility that He has given us, that has changed many times. Abraham and David – both justified by faith without works – had very different responsibilities before God on earth. And our responsibilities are different even from theirs. But I am convinced that the Mosaic (Old) and New Covenants are given in that context: the context of corporate responsibility, not individual walk.

I didn't mean to go on like that. Maybe it's best to end this here and we can go on with the New Covenant next time.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The New Covenant – Covenants

It seems to me that "covenant" is a popular word among Christians right now. It was in the last five years I noticed that the new Christian phrase was "covenant marriage," and while not as ubiquitous as it was five years ago, it's still pretty widely used.

I have no idea what people mean by "covenant marriage." I've heard sermons on it, and I still don't know. My suspicion is that Christians just add the "covenant" qualifier to Christianize things. The Catholic idea of the sacrament of marriage might be closer to Scripture, but I digress.

As far as I can tell, we are under the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:1–7). This is the main reason I eat meat, but do not eat blood (Genesis 9:4). It seems to me that I, as a Gentile, am definitely a descendant of  Noah, and bound by that covenant.

As an aside, I don't think that means it's a sin if we ever ingest a single corpuscle of blood, but that we make a good faith effort to bleed out an animal before we eat it. I'm certain there are traces of blood in any meat we eat. The times I have personally killed an animal to eat it, I have done my best to bleed it out, treating the blood as though it's not mine, but God's. I think that is what Genesis 9 is calling us to do (cf. Leviticus 17:13–14).

I know some Reformed folks who don't share my convictions about eating blood. As I understand it, their argument centers on Mark 7:19 (ESV), "Thus he declared all foods clean," I don't find that compelling, given the Apostles' prohibition on eating blood in Acts 15:22–29. It seems to me that the Lord's declaration that all foods are clean didn't include things which were never given to us as food. Of course our Reformed friends should eat what they feel free before the Lord to eat, giving thanks to the Father through Christ, just like I should eat what I feel free before the Lord to eat, giving thanks to the Father through Christ.

Back to the covenants...

The Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15:13–21) is a little more difficult to place in context for believers. As far as I can tell, I am from entirely Gentile stock. I am unaware of any trace of Abrahamic ancestry. So in that regard, the Abrahamic Covenant doesn't apply to me. 

It doesn't seem to me that the promises God made to Abraham in Genesis 22:15–18 are properly part of the Abrahamic Covenant, but I'm sure many Christians disagree (more on that another time). Those promises are certainly given to Christ (Galatians 3:13–16), and through Him to the Gentiles. Notice the parallel here to Genesis 22:18 – it was always God's plan and His promise to bless "all the nations" through Abraham, through Christ.

So my understanding is that the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15:13–21 is distinct from the promises He made in Genesis 22:15–18. Galatians quotes only the latter (Galatians 3:13–16), not the former, as being given to the nations through Christ. That seems consistent with the text of Genesis 15, which contains no "and thy seed" clause. And notice, Genesis 22 doesn't say anything about the land of Canaan.

We've discussed the Mosaic ("Old") and New Covenants in detail, so we needn't discuss them here. The Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:8–17) lies historically between them. Here again, there is no direct application to the Church: it's a covenant God made with David, effectively promising him a dynasty – a kingdom for his descendants to inherit.

So I believe we are directly under the Noahic Covenant. As a Gentile, that's where it ends for me... well, that's the end of the direct connections. When we look at those covenants through the lens of our role as Asenath, we find things look a bit different.

Ultimately, all those covenants center on Christ. Galatians 3:13–16 makes that explicit about the promises made to Abraham, Hebrews 1:5 quotes the Davidic Covenant as applying to Christ. And certainly we don't have to look hard to see the connections between Him and the Mosaic Covenant, nor for the New Covenant. 

So when we see ourselves as united with Christ: when we see that we have died with Him (Romans 6:2, Galatians 2:19–20, Colossians 3:3), have been buried with Him (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:11–12), have risen with Him ( Romans 6:5, Ephesians 2:5–6, Colossians 2:13, 3:1), and are seated in heavenly places with Him (Ephesians 2:6)... when we realize that He is our life (Colossians 3:4)... then we begin to take a deep interest in those covenants. Not because they have anything to do with me, but because they have everything to do with Him (2 Corinthians 1:18–22).

We'll discuss the New Covenant in more detail another time, but for now let's just say this: we don't need to gain any benefits from any of the covenants. We have Christ, "who has been made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and holiness, and redemption; that according as it is written, He that boasts, let him boast in [the] Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).






 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

New Covenant (again)

Over the past few years I've heard several statements about the New Covenant that made me stop and say, "Wait... what?" It seems to me that people use the term "New Covenant" in a vague way that's foreign to Scripture, resulting in a whole lot of confusion and inconsistency.

So let's examine the New Covenant in detail.

The New Covenant is given explicitly in the Old Testament in Jeremiah 31:31–34. We notice promises in Isaiah 61:6–9, Jeremiah 32:36–41, and  Ezekiel 37:21–28 of an "everlasting covenant," which I take to be the same New Covenant given in Jeremiah 31, but they're not explicit about the terms.  

The New Covenant is mentioned in Hebrews 8 & 9 (Hebrews 8:8–12 introduces the New Covenant by quoting Jeremiah 31) and 2 Corinthians 3:1–6.  It is also mentioned in connection with the Lord's Supper in Matthew 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, and 1 Corinthians 11:25.

Hebrews 13:20 refers to the "eternal covenant," which I take to be the New Covenant. There are some  I deeply respect who think Hebrews 13:20 is referring to a covenant made in eternity past between the Father and the Son, but I disagree. I think it is a reference to Ezekiel 37:26. The difficulty is that Ezekiel talks about the everlasting covenant, while Hebrews refers to the eternal covenant. I'm no scholar, but Ezekiel 37:26 in the Septuagint reads identically to Hebrews 13:20. In other words, I think the difference between "eternal" and "everlasting" is merely an indication of the LXX rendering of Ezekiel.

 So what are the terms of the New Covenant? Jeremiah 31:31–34 (NASB) reads:

31 “Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. 33 “For this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord: “I will put My law within them and write it on their heart; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 They will not teach again, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their wrongdoing, and their sin I will no longer remember.”

This is the most explicit statement we have in Scripture about the New Covenant. Hebrews 8:7–13 quotes this passage as the definitive statement.

I've stated before that I take Darby's view, that the New Covenant doesn't apply to the Church: it's a covenant with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31). See "The Covenants" (Collected Writings, Volume 3, pp. 44–56). I think William Kelly is even more explicit in his denial that the Church is connected with the New Covenant. From An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 8, his comments on Hebrews 8:8–9:

Equally vain is the dream that the church, or the Christian, is here contemplated. On every sound principle of interpretation the same people, and in its divided houses, is reserved for future blessing, whose iniquities the prophet bewailed and denounced. The truth always suffers by tampering with its integrity or by ignorance. Israel only had the first covenant; Israel by grace will have the second. Israel lost their privileges and land under the old; Israel will be restored and blessed more than ever and for ever in their land under the new covenant.

Jeremiah 31:31 gives the New Covenant as a Covenant between God and "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." If we read the verse out of context, we miss an important detail here: it's given in the context of a reunited Israel – Israel and Judah reunited into a single nation.

If we remember our Old Testament history, we recall that Jeremiah is in the last days of the kingdom of Judah – the southern kingdom – he is there at the start of the Babylonian Captivity.  Let's not forget that Jeremiah is actually a couple generations after the Assyrian Captivity: the kingdom of Israel – the northern kingdom – no longer exists by Jeremiah's time. There is only "the house of Judah," there is no longer a "house of Israel." 

Jeremiah 31:16–20 foretells the restoration of Ephraim. When the prophets speak about Ephraim they almost always mean the northern kingdom. It's synecdoche: Ephraim means the northern kingdom, just like Judah means the southern kingdom. Maybe we should discuss Ephraim in more detail another time.

So Jeremiah 31:16–34 gives the New Covenant in the context of a repentant Ephraim and a reunited nation: all twelve tribes gathered back together. Notice this is exactly paralleled in Ezekiel 37:15–28, vv. 15–22 foretell the reunification of Judah and Ephraim into one nation, vv. 23–28 foretell the "everlasting" covenant God will make with them when they are reunited into the land (Ezekiel 37:25).

So both Jeremiah and Ezekiel specify that the New Covenant will be given after all twelve tribes are brought back into the land as a single nation. Hosea 14:1–9 foretells the repentance of Ephraim as the triggering event for the millennial kingdom. Hosea doesn't mention the New Covenant, but we see that it foretells the same event as Ezekiel 37:15–22 and Jeremiah 31:16–20. So the New Covenant is made at the start of the millennial kingdom.

Notice Jeremiah 31:32 contrasts the New Covenant with the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. Hebrews 8:6–13 elaborates on this, referring to the Mosaic Covenant as the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8:13). In other words, Hebrews 8–9 presents the New Covenant in contrast to the Mosaic Covenant (the "Old Covenant"). 

We might ask the question, was Abraham under the New Covenant or the Old Covenant? The answer is, neither. Abraham was under neither the Old Covenant nor the New Covenant, as Galatians 3:15–19 shows. Galatians develops its doctrine from the fact that the Law was given 430 years after Abraham. In other words, Abraham was not under the Old Covenant (which Jeremiah 31:32 tells us was made "in the day of my taking them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt").  He certainly isn't under the New, if he predates the Old.

The patriarchs predate the Old Covenant as well as the New Covenant.

Romans 4:1–13 develops the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone based on the lives of Abraham and David. Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised (Romans 4:10–12), centuries before the Old Covenant was given (Galatians 3:15–19). On the other hand, David was justified by faith as a man who was circumcised, a man under the law. But he, too, was justified by faith without works (Romans 4:6–8). 

Notice the Romans 4:7–8 quotes Psalm 32:1–2, "blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not at all reckon sin." In other words, a person who is justified by faith alone – without works (Romans 4:6) – is a man whose sins God does not count. And notice David makes this statement centuries before Jeremiah promises the New Covenant, including "their sin will I remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). That seems like a contradiction, doesn't it?

The New Covenant isn't individual. It's national, just like the Old Covenant before it. God doesn't justify sinners based on the covenants, but based on His sovereign grace, based on the blood of Christ (Romans 3:21–26). God has only ever justified sinners on the basis of faith, on the basis of the blood of Christ. It doesn't matter whether we're discussing Abraham (before the Old Covenant was given) or David (a man under the Law), God only ever justifies sinners one way. 

Someone once shared with me a quote from (I think) Charles Ryrie. It was something to the effect that Dispensationalism recognizes God has purposes both in individual salvation and in His government on earth. They are both true, but they are not the same thing. The Covenants apply to the latter (God's government on earth), not the former (the eternal salvation of individuals). We tend to miss this if we're not careful: when we think of dispensations, we're really thinking about God's government over the earth, not His work in eternal salvation.

So when Jeremiah 31:34 promises a Covenant under which God no longer remembers sins, it's not talking about individual justification, but about national sins. That's starting to sound a lot like Acts 2:38, isn't it?

I feel like there's more to say, but we can perhaps say it another time. My entire point is not to convince people that the New Covenant has no bearing on the Church (which might not actually be a true statement, despite everything I said here), but to point out that it is so frequently misreferenced and misquoted that people seem entirely unaware what Scripture actually says about it. If we stick to what Scripture actually says about the New Covenant, we find something very, very different from what most Christians seem to think. It's funny how much of what we say and think and believe seems entirely divorced from what Scripture actually says.




Friday, May 21, 2021

Whoso is wise

Psalm 107 is among my favorite chapters. It ends with an interesting command: "Whoso is wise, let him observe these things, and let them understand the loving-kindnesses of Jehovah" (Psalm 107:43). I realize this is Old Testament, and we're not under the Law, etc. But I still can't help but think this one is "for us" in some sense. If we're wise – or perhaps even if we understand we're not wise, but we want to change that – we need to observe "these things" and learn to understand that loving-kindnesses of the Lord.

In my small Bible, I have a note on this verse, marking it as a "God's ways" verse. There is a theme in Scripture about God's ways, and a general invitation that we should try to learn them. God's ways, we are told, are completely different from – and infinitely superior to – our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). We don't naturally think like God, and when we get a glimpse of His thoughts and we get a sense of His ways, we tend to find them offensive, repugnant, and foolish. And that's not just an Old Testament truth, the New Testament makes the same claim (1 Corinthians 3:18–23).

The Pharisees were offended that Christ would receive sinners and eat with them (Luke 15:1–2). Of course they didn't realize that His ultimate goal was not merely to eat with sinners, but to give His flesh to them to eat, and His blood to them to drink (John 6:48–58). The Pharisees didn't understand the half of it! 

And if we go back to Isaiah 55:8–9 and read it in context (Isaiah 55:6–10), we realize that God's declaration about His ways being better and higher and superior to our own was made in the context that He forgives sinners. God does what we naturally think of as foolish: He forgives sinners freely, regardless how badly or how frequently they sin. Only let the sinner return to the Lord, and He entirely forgives and forgets their sins (Micah 7:18–19).

And this, I suppose, is one of the reasons I keep railing about "-isms". Whether Calvinism, or Arminianism, or Dispensationalism... take any "-ism" you like, and you'll find it comes up short. All those "-isms" are attempts to understand God's ways, but they all come up short, because we're not God. Of course the problem is that all those "-isms" capture some of the truth, but they all end up going off the rails eventually, because they eventually try and fill in some of the gaps in Scripture. And try as they might, they have nothing to fill those gaps with except men's thoughts. And even the best men can't think like God. 

And I don't think they're wrong to try. I really don't, but I do think we're wrong when we start to allow our "-isms" to come between us and Scripture. I do think we're wrong when we try to explain away those pesky verses instead of admitting that Scripture is authoritative and our understanding of it is not. And I am entirely sure that "I am of Calvin" or "I am of Luther" is no better than "I am of Paul" or "I am of Apollos" (1 Corinthians 3:1–7).

So we understand that our ways are not God's ways. But let's not stop there: we are invited to contemplate God's ways. We're invited to observe His ways. The old preachers used to point out that God showed Moses His ways, but He only showed the children of Israel His acts (Psalm 103:7). Maybe they read too much into that verse, but I suspect there's something to that. Maybe it's just that Moses was looking past those individual acts of God to try and understand the bigger principles behind them. That would seem to be what Moses was asking for on Sinai (Exodus 33:11–13).

The Lord Jesus made the remarkable claim, "I am the Way" (John 14:6). On the surface this would seem to indicate He is how to get to the Father, but it seems to me that there is something deeper there. The Old Testament is full of invitations to learn God's ways, and here is a Man who is claiming that He is the embodiment of that. If we want to learn God's ways, we can contemplate Christ.

God invites us (Psalm 107:43) to "observe these things." It seems to me that one of our greatest failings is the tendency to try and move too quickly when we look into the Scriptures. I don't mean that we go through at too great a pace, but we don't allow ourselves time for things to sink in. We don't observe, contemplate, or meditate like we ought when we look into Scripture. It's like we try to eat by gulping down, but we should be chewing and savoring. We need to slow down and let ourselves be affected by the words that God has spoken.

I was listening to a sermon recently where someone was working through the second half of Romans 13. I was all excited to hear what he would say about Romans 13:11, but all he said was, "Salvation happens in three tenses in Scripture: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved." Then he went to the next verse.

That sort of thing gets under my skin. When we have "pat answers" to complex issues in Scripture, they act like little vaccines against truth. It's like we allow a small amount of truth into our systems so that we can build up a resistance to the full-on truth of Scripture. We inoculate ourselves against truth.

There is a value to pausing to let Scripture speak to us. There is a value to wrestling with the text, rather than looking for a "pat answer" so that we don't have to. Instead, we act like the most important thing is to have some sort of internal commentary to explain away every verse: some sort of "pat answer" to give, so we won't be dismayed when our intellect doesn't measure up. It's like we fear the very worst thing that can happen is for people who don't have answers to leave the faith... instead of fearing that they never get answers, but cover their hunger for truth with unsatisfying truisms.

Well, I am not a very wise person: I'm neither very smart nor very good. So I suppose you should take my advice as being worth precisely what it costs you... but it seems to me that it's better to slow down, contemplate what God has said, and treat the text like every word was breathed by Him than coming up with programmed responses we can toss out with very little thought whenever someone might [hypothetically] ask.


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Books

I have to pack up my bookshelves for a home renovation project. I found some duplicate books that might be useful to someone else.



Here's a complete set (34 volumes) of Collected Writings of J. N. Darby. This is a "mass market" printing, so they're bound in cloth, but they're not the highest quality.

This is my personal set: I bought them in 1998 or 1999, and I've used them all. I've underlined, highlighted, and probably written in them. Reading these books changed my life, and I'd like them to go to someone else who'll use them too, instead of just letting them collect dust.

If you're interested, please let me know. I've only got the one complete set, but I'll update my blog with other duplicates as I find them.






Friday, May 14, 2021

Christ a public Person

My bookshelves groan with the weight of books I've started and haven't yet finished. I recently picked up Kelly's Notes on Romans again to try to make some progress on it. 

This gem is from Chapter Eight (pp. 131–132)

This deliverance then consists of these two parts: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that we are placed in and as Christ before God. For Christ was not an individual solely, who simply came and did a great work for others, but apart from bearing our sins He is a public man in an infinitely better sense than any other could be. The queen, for instance, is a public person. As sovereign she gives expression to whatever is the law of the land; her sign-manual is supreme authority. Properly speaking there is no statute law without her. I use this merely as an illustration. But the Lord Jesus is a public person in an infinitely higher yet closer and nearer way, because no subject could be said to be in the sovereign as the Christian is in Christ. She may represent the people that she governs, but there could be nothing more intimate in their relation to her. The wonderful truth of redemption shows that the Lord Jesus is a public person so far as to give us a place in Himself above, and not only in identifying Himself with our guilt before God which He did once for all on the cross. In another sense He died for every man. Nothing can be more certain than that both are true, that He died for those that believe, and that He died for every man — with this difference, that the believer alone can say that He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. But it is the guilt of the natural man that, Christ having died for all, he nevertheless rejects Him. Yes, the deepest aggravation of unbelief is that, though Christ came for every creature, none would have Him. Not a living soul would have had Him unless by the special grace of God that opens a believer's eyes and inclines his heart to receive Him. This God does for the elect, though all be responsible.

The distinction between Christ dying for all, and His dying for the believer is helpful. Both are true, but they aren't the same thing. How very Kelly!

Friday, May 7, 2021

You're welcome to come

When I was much younger, I misunderstood what people meant when they said, "You're welcome to come." I thought that sounded a whole lot like, "I'd love to have you come." But of course it really means something more like, "You won't actually offend me by your presence." Once I realized what people actually mean when they say, "You're welcome to come," I made a habit of politely declining those invitations.

Sometimes we interpret the Gospel as a sort of "You're welcome to come." Like, God wouldn't mind us being with Him for all eternity, but He wouldn't be particularly upset if we weren't there. Or maybe we think that God has a sort of a general benevolence, like He wants to be sure that there are some (as opposed to none) with Him through all eternity, but He's not particular about who they are.

When I was in high school, I spoke with a man who had fled communist Hungary. He talked about the difference between the Marxist notion of "the masses" and the scriptural notion of a name graven on God's hand. God sees us not as some mass of humanity, but as individuals. He knows us intimately (cf. Psalm 139). God isn't interested in me in some vague, general way: His interest in me is very specific, very individual. He doesn't treat me as an afterthought.

The Lord makes our relationship with Him intensely specific: " No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him, and I will raise him up in the last day" (John 6:44). We should pause to let that sink in. The Lord sees each individual (notice it's "him" and not "them" in His mind), He sees each of us as brought to Him by the Father, and His commitment to us is total: not even death will come between Him and someone the Father has brought to Him.

 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Cost

We worship the Son of God, the maker of all things (John 1:3). He is God over all, blessed forever (Romans 9:5). His becoming Man is something none of us can understand, and I'm sure we never will. How could we understand the fullness of Godhead dwelling in Him bodily (Colossians 2:9)?

When I was growing up, I understood the Gospel very differently than I do now – which is probably a good thing, I should expect our understanding of the Gospel to change with age and experience – I thought of it as a sort of response on God's part, which isn't entirely wrong. But there came a day when I realized that God knew exactly what it would cost Him to declare that it would require blood to make atonement for a soul (Leviticus 17:10–11). God made that declaration knowing full well it would be the blood of Christ that would ultimately be the price.

Watchman Nee points out that the first type of Christ going into death for us in Scripture is presented before the Fall (Genesis 2:21–25; Ephesians 5:28–32). So there's at least one sense in which the Gospel is more than a response to sin. Christ's going into death for us is more than "just" a response to the Fall. 

John's Gospel seems to shine a light on that: it doesn't really present Christ suffering for sins so much as it's the Son of God giving life to those who don't have it. And we see something fascinating when we compare John 5:24–29 and John 6:48–58. In John 5 we learn that the Son of God can give life to the dead "merely" by commanding it: the Son of God can call the dead from the grave. In John 6 we learn that the Son of Man can give life too, but it costs Him: He gives life by giving us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink.

Of course I don't mean that the Son of God and the Son of Man aren't the same Person. Of course they are the same Person (see John 5:25–27). But the point is that the Lord gives the Gospel appropriate to whichever title He is using. So when we think of Him as the Son of God, we see that there's nothing He can't do: He is God. But when we think of Him as Son of Man, then we see that He pays dearly for the life He gives us.

When the Lord discusses giving us His flesh to eat and His blood to drink, He tells us that He is the bread of life that came down from Heaven (John 6:35–51). And He makes the remarkable claim that He came down out of Heaven so that we may it eat and not die (John 6:50). It was to give us His flesh to be our food and His blood to be our drink that He came down from Heaven (John 6:50–51).

And this is, I suppose, the point of my rambling: the Son of God became the Son of Man in order to do the unthinkable and give us life at an incalculable cost to Himself. He knew what it would cost, and He came specifically for that purpose (cf. John 12:27).


Friday, April 23, 2021

Courage

By nature I am not very brave.

When I was a teenager, I got my private pilot's license. One of my main motivations was that I was afraid of heights and wanted to confront my fears. It didn't work. I'm still afraid of heights, but now I have a much better idea what can go wrong whenever I travel by plane. So that backfired.

A few years ago I was reading Calvin's Institutes, and I found this:

In this way, and in no other, can the immoderate and superstitious fears, excited by the dangers to which we are exposed, be calmed or subdued. I say superstitious fears. For such they are, as often as the dangers threatened by any created objects inspire us with such terror, that we tremble as if they had in themselves a power to hurt us, or could hurt at random or by chance; or as if we had not in God a sufficient protection against them. (Book 1, Chapter 16).

It struck me that Calvin was saying, every fear – except the fear of God – is superstitious fear. If I am afraid of something, it is because I believe that it can hurt me. Can it? Only if God allows it.

If you haven't time to or inclination to read Darby, please take time to read "Two Warnings and an Example" (Collected Writings, Volume 12, pp. 145–151). It's well worth the time and effort to read. He says this about the Lord Jesus praying in Gethsemane:

being in an agony, He prays the more earnestly; it drives Him to His Father; and that before the trial comes. Then what is the next thing? When the trial actually comes, it is already gone through with God! He presents Himself before them saying, "whom seek ye?" as calmly as if going to work a miracle. Whether before Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate, He makes a good confession; owns Himself Son of God before the Jews, and King before Pilate.

This, according to Darby, is the key to suffering: to go through it with the Lord before it happens, so we can see it as coming from Him. He says it better than Calvin, but it's essentially the same advice: if we see everything as coming from God, then we can accept them as the Father's will for us.

I'm not by any means claiming to be brave. But I am finding myself acting more courageously as I learn to accept things from God's hand. I frequently have to remind myself that if I fear God, then there's no fear left to give whatever thing frightens me.

I recently cut down a big tree. It has been dead a long time, and I figured if I cut it down, then I'll get firewood from it. If I just leave it alone, it'll eventually fall anyway, but it'll be too rotten to be of use to me. Either way the tree comes down, but if I bring it down myself, I can at least keep warm from it.

 


 

Cutting down trees is inherently risky. If there's a time when saying "Lord willing" isn't taking the Lord's name in vain, it's when I point to where I want the tree to fall and say, "It'll fall there, Lord willing." But where I once gibbered like an idiot at the thought of doing something so very scary, I now find myself approaching it with a whole lot of prayer, and a willingness to accept the blessing God has for me. Our Heavenly Father isn't going to let a tree kill me, unless He specifically wants the tree to kill me, in which case that's the very best thing that can happen. So I don't act foolishly: I take every precaution, and I work slowly and carefully. But I don't shie away from the task either. I am taking my responsibility seriously to maintain the land He has given me, and I am doing it in fear and dependence on Him.



Friday, April 16, 2021

All Things

I am not claiming any sort of success, but I have been struggling for a couple years now to do "all things" in the name of Christ. There are some things I'd like to mention in connection with that.

First, if there's something I can't do in the name of Christ, I shouldn't be doing it. I think I first read that somewhere in Darby.  I have heard that used as a legalistic bludgeon to pressure people into not doing certain things. That's not at all my intention. My intention is simply to say that there are things I cannot do, and one test is whether I can do it in the name of Christ.

I can feed my chickens in the name of Christ. I can sharpen my chainsaw in the name of Christ. I can repair my truck in the name of Christ. I can even paddle my canoe in the name of Christ. But I can't commit adultery in the name of Christ or lie to a brother or sister in the Lord in the name of Christ. That's an extreme example, but it makes the point plainly: if there's something God hates, I can't do it in the name of Christ.

In one sense, this removes the idea of "grey areas" from our lives. I don't mean that it removes those areas where serious believers disagree. I mean it removes the "neither right nor wrong" places from our lives. If we are doing something in the name of Christ, then it is necessarily right. If we can't, then there's something that needs to go.

Again, I really don't believe in asceticism. I am not espousing a Christianity that doesn't include recreation: quite the opposite! I am espousing a Christianity where even the recreation is done in the name of Christ. Where hunting and fishing and hiking and playing with our children are all spiritual activities, because they're all done in the name of Christ.

Second, Colossians 3:17 goes on to give us the first step in doing "all things" in the name of Christ: it's giving thanks to God the Father through Him. So the first step to doing "all things" is to thank God the Father. This is something we miss very easily. 

I wear hiking boots almost exclusively. I spent several years working in downtown Seattle, and I commuted to work by bus. So I would put a whole lot of miles on my shoes. I eventually decided I would just switch to serious hiking boots, because my feet were starting to complain about my walking habits.

One day my boot laces wore out, so I ordered a new pair from Amazon. Of course I ordered the bright red laces, because I've always thought brown leather hiking boots need bright red laces. I commented to my wife about being grateful that my brown boots had bright red laces, and she told me I was right to be thankful, even for tiny things... and I began to understand giving thanks to God the Father in the context of "all things."

I have so much to be thankful for. Among many, many blessings are bright red laces in my brown leather hiking boots. And this, I have become convinced, is the starting point to doing "all things" in the name of Christ. Can I walk to work in the name of Christ? If I can't, I shouldn't be walking to work. If I can, it starts with "giving thanks to God the Father through Him," and for me, that involves being thankful for my bright red boot laces.

Third, we are to acknowledge God in all things. I was listening to a sermon on Acts 18, and the speaker spent quite a bit of time on "if God wills" in Acts 18:21. Here's what I took from that talk: we're not looking for a superstitious phrase we can tack on to every utterance. I really don't think it honors the Lord for people to say things like, "I'm planning to order a burger when get to the restaurant, if God wills," or "Yes, I'll have coffee, please – Lord willing." Those are silly, irreverent uses of the Lord's name. But at the same time, Paul models for us what it's like to acknowledge the Lord in our daily life (Proverbs 3:5–6; James 4:13–16). There is such a thing as vain repetition, there is also such a thing as acknowledging the Lord in all our ways.

I do this very, very badly. I seem to fluctuate between de facto atheism and mindless superstition. But if I am to live every area of my life under the Lordship of Christ, it seems to me I ought at the very least to be mindful of His Lordship over me in "all things."  So while studiously avoiding tacking on a "God willing" to the end of every statement, I am trying to learn that there is a time and place to say that, as led by the Spirit of God, of course.

Fourth, I am learning that being led of the Spirit isn't just going on autopilot, awaiting some miraculous intervention. There is a very real give-and-take in the Christian life, where there is real, significant human responsibility. 

I have told this story at length to some friends, so I won't go into tremendous detail here, but I think an abridged version is worth relating. Last summer I got a depredation elk tag, so I was all excited to go elk hunting in the early part of August, in depredation season. My hunting partner and I were out there in the woods when the sun came up, carrying rifles and packs, trying to keep quiet as we put so many miles on our boots. The whole time, I was praying that if the Lord had an elk for me, He'd put it right in front of me, with a clear shot, unmistakably from Him. The long and short of it is, He put an elk right in front of me. It wasn't the first elk we saw, but it was the first one I felt like I had a safe shot on. And I knew it was the elk the Lord had for me when she turned to give me a clear broadside shot, then stood there in the middle of the path, 170-ish yards away.

Here's what I learned from my elk hunting adventure: the Lord gave me an elk, but I had to go out and get her. And she wasn't the first elk I saw, but she was the elk who stood right in front of me and gave me the textbook shot. I wore myself out getting that elk: I spent several hours a day walking up and down hills with a pack and a heavy rifle. Did the Lord send me the elk? Absolutely! Did He make me put some miles on my boots to go get her? Yes, yes He did.

I think that's a pretty good analogy for walking in the Spirit. It's being led of God, and trusting Him for the outcome. But it's not just sitting around, waiting for Him to intervene miraculously. It's asking Him to bless, then heading out confident of His blessing. 

I had a friend who used to talk about Genesis 24:27, "I being in the way, the Lord led me." That seems to sum up a whole lot of what I'm trying to say.

My life to this point has very rarely been like that: I've spent many years sitting and waiting for Him to bless, refusing to lift a finger myself. And I've spent many years working hard to produce results for God. Neither one is walking in the Spirit. We look for His results, but we're not afraid to roll up our sleeves when He leads in that direction.

Finally, it is our looking at the glory of the Lord that makes us like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18). Someday He'll come physically to get us, and we'll get a really good look, and we'll be like Him immediately (1 John 3:2). We're not called to be something we're not: we're made in God's image, and that's not something we're supposed to leave behind. But at the same time, we're called not to show ourselves, but to show the life of Jesus manifested in mortal flesh (2 Corinthians 4:6–12). These two truths have been very hard for me to see at the same time, but the longer I go on, the more important it is for me to keep them both in view.

 


Friday, April 9, 2021

Worlds Colliding

It has been several years since I realized there was a bit of a disconnect in my mind. I read or re-read J. N. Darby's article, "First Resurrection; or, Resurrection of the Just" (Collected Writings, Vol. 2, pp. 301–309), and was struck by the clarity with which he points out that the Lord's coming for us is precisely Resurrection. Somehow, in my mind, the Lord's coming for us and the Resurrection were two distinct events.  There was a moment in my head that went something like this:

NICENE CREED: Our hope is the resurrection

DISPENSATIONALIST BIBLE TEACHER: No, our hope is the Lord coming for us

J. N. DARBY: (Looking confused) What's the difference?

That has proven to be a life-changing moment.

Over the past couple years, I have found myself combating the idea that our faith is (or ought to be) what Francis Schaeffer would call an "upper storey experience." I find myself slipping over and over into the idea that there's a "real world right now" reality where I go to work, pay my bills, keep the woodstove burning, wash dishes, and do all the "mundane" things; and then there's another level of reality where God is, where I am a believer, where the Lord Jesus is coming for me. It's really a very split view of reality... But that's not what Scripture teaches. 

There is a repeated theme when Moses addresses the children of Israel on the plain in Moab, he appeals to them several times on the basis of what they saw, and what they had heard (see Deuteronomy 4:9–13, etc.). The face-value message is that they shouldn't forget the Lord, but there is a deeper message here too: he is reminding them that these things really happened. They weren't to think of them in terms of myth, but in terms of documented, verified, witnessed history.

In Francis Schaeffer's excellent True Spirituality, he talks about how, if we were at the Crucifixion and we were to run our hands over the cross, we'd get splinters. His point is that the events of our faith happened in this world: they're not in some mystical reality. There is a physical place where the Son of God physically died, and people were there who saw it (John 21:24–25).

The appeal to witnesses characterizes both the Old and New Testaments. Moses appeals to the people to remember what they themselves had seen and heard, Paul appeals to over five hundred witnesses of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1–8), and in what strikes me as the most convincing statement of the entire chapter, he admits that most of them are still alive, but some had since died.

But the point that Moses was making, that Paul was making, that Francis Schaeffer was making, is that our faith isn't in some other. We believe the Lord rose bodily from the dead. We believe God actually spoke to Moses in an audible voice, in human language. We don't believe the Lord will come for us spiritually (whatever that means), we believe He will actually arrive in this physical world at a definite point in time, and take us away.

I've been struggling to understand how to live that reality. The first thing I began to understand is that everything in this life is to be done in the name of Christ (Colossians 3:17). I don't even begin to know all that means, and I'm quite sure I'm not living up to it. But one thing it has to mean is that there's no such thing as a mundane thing. I'm to eat and drink in the name of Christ. I'm to wake and sleep in the name of Christ. I'm to wash dishes and drive to work in the name of Christ. I am to feed my chickens in the name of Christ. And yes, I am to kill and eat those chickens (when the time comes) in the name of Christ.

I think our Reformed friends have a better handle on this than our Dispensationalist friends do.

Something else it means is that asceticism is fundamentally flawed: if I am to do all things in the name of Christ, then there's really no part of this physical life that I am divorced from. I'm not to live in the hope of being rescued from this life, I am to live it in the name of Christ.  

Which is not, of course, to say we're not to be looking for the Son of God to come from Heaven to change our mortal bodies (Philippians 3:20–21). But it is to say that we ought to be living this life – until He comes – in His name.

There's a lot more to be said, but it's time to wrap this one up. Suffice it to say, doing all things in the name of Christ is one of the simplest and hardest things to do. But it's what keeps us from living in a spiritual un-reality. It protects us from asceticism on the one hand and latitudinarianism on the other. But more on that later.



Friday, April 2, 2021

The whole

I had an extremely encouraging conversation with a friend who is both much younger and much smarter than I am. Those conversations can be challenging, but also rewarding. I realized in the conversation that our faith must embrace everything that we are. 

It seems to me that we fall constantly into the trap of denying one truth in order to believe another. And that seems evident in our attempts at spiritual growth: some of us attempt to deny our emotions, others attempt to deny our wills, or our bodies, or our intellects in order to achieve some sort of spirituality. But of course none of those things is actually spiritual. True spirituality is not a denial of any part of what we are, it's being all that we are under the control of the Holy Spirit, under the Lordship of Christ (Colossians 3:17).

So the path to spirituality isn't denying our emotions in order to focus on our intellects, any more than it is denying our intellects in order to focus on our wills. We are made in the image of God, and we have emotions, intellects, wills, physical bodies, and so on. We don't become more spiritual by being less intellectual, any more than we become more spiritual by being less emotional, or by being less physical. The point of Christianity isn't that any part of what we are becomes less, it's that all that we are comes under the Lordship of Christ, under the control of the Spirit of God.

 

Our faith is to be intellectual, but not merely intellectual. It is to be emotional, but not merely emotional. It is to be intentional, but not merely intentional. It is to be physical, but not merely physical. But all under the Lordship of Christ.

 

But of course that's not really enough. Our faith is transformational: we who have died with Christ are transformed by it. We die as one thing and are raised another (1 Corinthians 15:40–45).  So please don't misunderstand me to be saying that spirituality is continuing exactly as we were as unregenerate people, that's not at all true. My point is that Christianity doesn't involve becoming less human: Christ is completely Man in His resurrection, just like He was before He died. We, too, will be fully human when we have been raised with Him. Christian perfection is not to be less intellectual, or less emotional, or less physical. We will be all those things in the resurrection.

My point is that denying our wills, or our emotions, or our intellects, or our bodies isn't spirituality. Spirituality is to have a will under God's control. It's to have emotions under God's control. It's to have a body under God's control. It's to have an intellect under God's control. Spirituality is being what God has made us to be, especially being subject to Christ in everything we do, think, and feel.

 

Many years ago I was reading Watchman Nee, and I was struck by his statement that Romans 6 isn't aspirational: it's not that we aspire to be crucified with Christ. It's a statement of fact: we have died with Christ.

Many of the sermons I listen to go off the rails at precisely this point. When those preachers talk about New Creation, they're not talking about something they believe to be real. If you listen – really listen – to what they say, they believe Romans 6 and Colossians 3 and Galatians 2 are metaphors: they are statements we should all be working hard to live up to.

I absolutely believe this is the leaven of evangelicalism: it's the idea that new birth is an addition, as opposed to a replacement. Nothing could be farther from the truth! 

 

But having said all that, the Christian life is nothing less than the life of Jesus in our mortal bodies (2 Corinthians 4:6–12). It's not a diminishing of the mortal body, it's not a diminishing of what we are as God's creations. It's a transformation. It's a change. But it's the life of Jesus worked out in mortal bodies. We can't shortcut the Holy Spirit's work in us by denying our intellects (although our intellect gets us into trouble) or by denying our emotions (as messy as they are) or by denying we have wills (as problematic as our wills prove) or by denying our physical bodies (as much as we might long for transcendence). The Spirit of God is working in us to reveal Christ in those things. And we are foolish to think we can help Him out by denying them.




Saturday, March 27, 2021

Creation

I'm no great hunter, but I very much enjoy hunting. I'm enthusiastic rather than skilled.  Last year, I was trying to get a clear shot at an elk who walked down into a gully, out of my sight. Not wanting to lose a chance at him, I climbed down from  the tree stand and started making my way carefully down the hill after him. When I gave up and turned to go back for my pack, I saw two black, furry ears peaking out over a bush extremely close to where I had left my pack. I was so intent on the elk I was stalking, I had completely missed the bear that was much closer.

We all have trouble with tunnel vision. We all tend to focus so much on one thing we can't see anything else. One of the issues I have with a whole lot of ministry by "brethren" is precisely tunnel vision: a focus so intent on one issue, they are oblivious to all other issues. But I am just as bad as any of them.

One area where I've had really bad tunnel vision has been the whole area of New Creation.  The Pauline epistles bring New Creation into view sharply, front and center. "For [in Christ Jesus] neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision; but new creation" (Galatians 6:15). God isn't looking for us to improve what we are by nature in Adam, He is looking for something entirely new, what we are in Christ.

But the equal and opposite truth is, New Creation isn't some ethereal, vague place. It's not nirvana. We know this, because the Lord Jesus, having been raised from the dead, was as much a physical Man as any of us are. John 20:26–28 tells the story of Thomas not believing the Resurrection. So the Lord appears to the disciples, and invites Thomas to touch the nail marks in His hands and the spear wound in His side. Notice it's a physical touch that the Lord offers as proof. This isn't some discorporeal apparition, it's a real Man, with a real body.

And 1 Corinthians 15 brings both these truths to equal light and importance: the core of our faith – the single most important thing we believe – is that Christ has been raised from the dead in His physical body. If we don't believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ, we're not Christians, period. This isn't negotiable (1 Corinthians 15:11–17). And Christ being raised from the dead, we shall also be raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:19–28). That's one truth, the bodily Resurrection.

The other truth is that Resurrection changes us (1 Corinthians 14:42–45). We won't be raised exactly like we are now, we'll be raised into incorruptibility. Our bodies will be changed to be like His. Not new bodies, but changed bodies, certainly. That's what we're waiting for: the Son of God will come from Heaven to transform our bodies (Philippians 3:20–21).

I have trouble keeping both these things in mind at the same time. I tend to think about the Lord coming to transform my body in such a way that I forget it'll still be a human body. I tend to think lose sight of the truth of bodily resurrection when I am thinking about the truth of our being raised into incorruptibility.

But the reality is that the end goal isn't for me to be any less human than I am. I'll be transformed, certainly, but not less human for all that. Francis Schaeffer might argue I'll be more human. I'm not sure I really buy that, but it's worth thinking about.

Or to put it another way, New Creation is still the sort of thing where we wash dishes and learn to play guitar. It's not a place where we sit around like a cartoon parody of Heaven, with gentle background music and harps and clouds. Ellis Potter points out that the Lord baked bread, build a fire, and roasted fish after His Resurrection. So New Creation definitely doesn't exclude mundane tasks.

There's a lot more to be said, but I think this is a good place to stop for now.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Experimental

My dad told me one time, "when Moses struck the rock a second time, he was wrong... but water still came out" (see Numbers 20:7–13).  I've thought about that comment many, many times. It's entirely possible – even likely – that God will bless us regardless of our obedience or our disobedience. God's blessing isn't evidence that we are obedient, it's evidence that God is good. In the story of the water from the rock, everyone was wrong except God; but He still gave them what they needed.

So let's don't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that God's blessing is proof of our own goodness. It isn't. A friend told me many years ago (quoting someone else), "God blesses us because He is good, not because we are."

But the fact remains that I'm not terribly interested in a Christianity that doesn't actually work. And this brings me to a sort of a conundrum: on the one hand, faith is believing that God has said. "The just shall live by faith," is really the central message of Romans (Romans 1:17), Galatians (Galatians 3:11), and Hebrews (Hebrews 10:38). There's not much more central than that!

But on the other hand, the epistles teach a transforming sort of faith. 2 Corinthians 4:6 tells us that the same God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts. God's having called light to shine out of the darkness of our hearts (which is really the point Paul is making) suggests a visible effect.

Note I'm not talking about counterfeit spirituality. I am convinced nothing has done more to hurt the testimony of believers than trying to produce spiritual fruit from carnal energy. And I suppose that's really the point I'm trying to make. Moses and Aaron acted carnally at Meribah, but water still came out. See, it's possible to act with fleshly energy, and still see tremendous blessing. Isn't that what Philippians 1:15–20 teaches? It's possible to preach Christ out of envy, out of a desire for strife. And it's possible people will be brought to repentance out of it, not because God approves of the preaching, but because God blesses out of His own goodness.

I know for a fact that we can be fleshly in our preaching, our prayer, our Bible study, and even our declaring the Gospel. We know for a fact that God can and does bless us, and through us, even when we're acting badly, even when we're flat-out wrong. And seeing "results" isn't proof that we're right, it just means that God is acting like He always does – out of grace.





Friday, February 26, 2021

Priesthood

I read somewhere that Psalm 110 is the most-quoted passage in the New Testament. I don't know whether that's actually true, but it does seem to form the basis of our Christology. No, I don't mean everything we know about Christ is in Psalm 110 (we wouldn't need the gospels if it were), I mean that the New Testament authors quote Psalm 110 to show that God's plan with regard to Christ hasn't gone awry. The Lord Jesus Himself quotes Psalm 110 to show that He is David's Son as well as David's Lord, baffling both the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 22:41–46). Peter quotes the Psalm to show that Christ is now sitting at God's right hand (Acts 2:32–35). And, of course, Hebrews uses the Psalm to establish the connection between Christ and Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:6–10; Hebrews 7).

J. N. Darby's paper "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ" is well worth reading. It's been about twenty years since I first read that paper, but I remember being struck by the observation that Melchisedec – the first person the Scripture refers to as a priest – doesn't offer for sins. 

J. G. Bellett wrote a book on Hebrews called, The Opened Heavens. I'm ashamed to admit I don't recall very much about that book, but the title is profound. The story of the golden calf at Sinai begins with the people getting tired of waiting for Moses (Exodus 32:1). He had gone up to speak with God, and they said, "we do not know what is become of him." We are very much in danger of saying the same thing: the Man who has delivered us has gone up into God's presence, and we have exactly the same tendency to get tired of waiting for Him to come back down (Acts 1:1–11). At the simplest level, Hebrews is written to tell us what's going on up there, where we can't see Him.

Darby links this current state of affairs with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. We have a great High Priest who has passed into the heavens (Hebrews 4:14). Like the people of Aaron's day, we can't see what's going on with our Priest. What's He doing up there? The children of Israel might have wondered if Aaron had died when they couldn't see him (Leviticus 16:2, 13). We don't have that fear, but it does seem like He's been in there a long time...

Well, Hebrews tells us that He's in there for us (Hebrews 9:24). It's not that He got tired of us and left (although really, who could blame Him?), it's that He is appearing before the face of God for us.

What got me thinking about this was Exodus 28:29–30. Aaron was to have the names of the tribes of Israel over his heart whenever he went into the Tabernacle: " Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment on his heart, when he goes in to the sanctuary" (Exodus 28:29). He wasn't supposed to be able to forget that he was in there for them.

It's striking that Peter offered the return of Christ and the commencement of the Millennium if only the children of Israel would repent (Acts 3:19–21). I don't doubt that the Son of Man will come from Heaven to receive a kingdom (Daniel 7:13–14). Right now we're living in that intermediate period, where He is sitting at God's right hand, waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool. And there are deep and profound consequences of that.

But at the same time, He's now in Heaven for us. This is worth contemplating.

 



 


Friday, February 19, 2021

Ponzi Scheme

There is a recurring theme in a lot of the sermons I've been hearing over the last couple decades. It seems like a lot of people believe that our primary role is evangelism. I heard one recording where the speaker said the best way to honor the Lord is to share the gospel with lost sinners. I'm not convinced that's true.

I know, 2 Timothy 4:5 says, "do the work of an evangelist." Isn't that a slam dunk? Doesn't that prove we're to focus on witnessing?

Well... it's a little more complicated than that. Let's start with the context of that verse: v. 9 says "Use diligence to come to me quickly," and then goes on to detail that he should bring Mark, a cloak, and manuscripts (2 Timothy 4:9–13). I find it interesting that people are quick to say 2 Timothy 4:5 is a command to us, who don't then make a pilgrimage to Troas. It's clearly the same person being addressed in v. 5 and v. 9–13. What reason do we have to think the one verse applies to us, but the others do not?

I'm not trying to be pugilistic here, I'm just pointing out that reading 2 Timothy 4:5 as a command to us is an untenable hermeneutical position. There's not justification for it in the text. It's a command to Timothy, not to us. And the context makes that clear.

Just today I read an article that said, "Let’s start with the premise that the paramount mission of the church is the proclamation of the gospel and creation of disciples" (emphasis in the original). That's quite a statement, and one the author doesn't really demonstrate from the texts he quotes (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15).  There are (at least) two problems with this reasoning:

First, the Lord wasn't addressing the church, which didn't exist at the time. He was addressing the Eleven. 

Second, I don't see anything in the text that claims these verses are somehow more important than the rest of what the Lord commanded. I know it's common to label those passages "the Great Commission", but the Scripture does not. There's nothing in the text to suggest these verses take primacy over anything else the Lord commanded. It's just not there.

Of course none of this is to say we ought not to evangelize. It's just to say that dubious hermeneutics and careless handling of the text aren't a solid foundation for building much of anything. It's certainly not sufficient for the claim that evangelism is "the paramount mission of the church."

It seems to me there are several problems that spring from this sort of carelessness with the Word of God. There are probably many, but I'll just mention a few.

The first problem is that we end up messing with the gospel. I've mentioned at least a few times that the Scripture talks about the gospel a lot, but it only tells us what the gospel is twice: 1 Corinthians 15:1–8 and Revelation 14:6–7. 1 Corinthians 15 lays out the gospel Paul preached (1 Corinthians 15:1). When he says, "if even we or an angel out of heaven announce as glad tidings to you [anything] besides what we have announced as glad tidings to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:8). That's a serious statement, and it should catch our attention.

If we examine the gospel Paul preached, we see it doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to most of the "gospel preaching" we hear most places today. How many "gospel messages" have you heard that mentioned the burial of Christ? I've heard "gospel messages" that don't even mention the Resurrection!

Further, the gospel Paul preached is remarkably devoid of appeals to repent, or even urging to believe. It wasn't much of a sales pitch.  Acts 13:16–41 records Paul's message to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. We notice immediately the lack of the pressure to "close the deal". There just isn't that high-pressure sales tactic here.

We might see a bit more of an appeal in Acts 2:14–40, in Peter's sermon on Pentecost. But the context sheds some light on that: notice that Peter's urging the hearers to repent comes after they ask him what they should do (Acts 2:37). Peter tells the people that the Man they had crucified was the Messiah, and He had been raised from the dead, and is now sitting at God's right hand. They respond by asking what they should do, having crucified the Lord, and he tells them, "Repent, and be baptised, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for remission of sins, and ye will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Someone pointed out many years ago that the book of Acts doesn't even mention the love of God. Not once. I'm afraid that our "gospel preaching" is a whole lot more like a sales pitch than it is like the preaching of the Apostles. 

The second problem is that we reduce Christianity to a race to sign people up: a membership drive, if you will. It seems to me that evangelicalism frequently reduces to a Ponzi scheme. It's people working hard to sign others up, so they can sign others up, so they can sign others up... there doesn't seem to be a lot of point to it.

The point of Christianity – at least according to the Word of God – is to know God (John 17:3). It's to know Christ (Philippians 3:8–12). It's to have fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:3). I can't recall ever reading in the Scripture that the point of Christianity is to get as many other people on board as possible. 

The third problem is that high-pressure tactics create false profession. I personally have seen – I was there – people who put so much pressure on the gospel, that entirely unrepentant sinners repeat a prayer just to get the "evangelist" to shut up. How do I know that's what happened? Because the supposed "new convert" said that's what happened. I heard Robert say something like, "the devil has made enough false professors, let's not help him by making more."

So let's do invite sinners to repent, let's do tell them about that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas and the Twelve. But don't let's miss out on what Christianity actually is: fellowship with the Father and the Son.





Friday, February 12, 2021

Not now, not here

1 Corinthians 14:27–33 presents us with some scenarios that should surprise us, if we're paying attention. In the first, we have someone in the assembly who wants to speak in a tongue, but there is no interpreter. So he is told to speak to himself and to God, but not out loud (1 Corinthians 14:28). In the second, we have someone who is prophesying – giving a word from the Lord – but someone else rises to speak, so he is to sit down and let the other person speak (1 Corinthians 14:30). And then we're given a remarkable statement, "spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32).

What's surprising here is that the text treats both the tongues-speaker and the interrupted prophet as having a legitimate thing from God. Neither one is treated as "out of order" in what they would say, but they would be "out of order" to say it at that time, in that place.

In other words, we are responsible to assess the situation, see how it lines up with 1 Corinthians 14, and then possibly refuse to say what the Spirit of God has given us to say. It's entirely possible that He will give us something to say, and then expect us not to say it, according to 1 Corinthians 14:32.

The first few times I experienced this, I tended to echo the disciples in John 9:2, "Who is in sin? Is it me for thinking I had something from the Lord? Or is it that other guy who stood up third, so now I can't?" But I've come to understand it might be more like the Lord's answer to the disciples, "Neither you nor he sinned, but this is the for the glory of God" (John 9:3).

There is a story in the Old Testament that seems appropriate to bring up here. David had a genuine exercise to build a temple for the Lord (2 Samuel 7:1–2). Nathan the prophet recognized it was a genuine exercise from the Lord, and told him so (2 Samuel 7:3). But the Lord spoke to Nathan, and told him that it would be David's son, not David, who would build the temple (2 Samuel 7:4–17).

So I've become a little more comfortable with the idea that I've gotten a genuine exercise from the Lord, but it wasn't ever His intention for me to be the one to act on it.

I'm not saying that third guy who stood up to speak in the assembly wasn't wrong to do so. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. I confess there are a lot of times someone stands up and I am quite convinced they had nothing to say. But to be honest, there are a lot of times someone else stood up, and it was a great act of love for me not to roll my eyes... but then someone else would tell me afterwards that they felt the Lord gave them something they really needed in that message. In other words, He knew much better than I what was best for the assembly.

And that's the big lesson in 1 Corinthians 14. There is real responsibility in the assembly, but at the end of the day, the Lord doesn't need me. He is perfectly capable of doing what is best for the believers there without my help. 

Underneath a whole lot of what we do is the fear that if we don't intervene, things will go sideways. That's not even close to what Scripture teaches. God who raises the dead might well use me, but He certainly doesn't need me.