I managed to do a bit more reading from the Stewardship Study Bible, and stumbled upon something that really made me think about the nature of humanity.

Oftentimes, we like to think (even as Christian believers) that it would be nice to know for sure that God exists and what his plans and instructions are for us going forward.  Who hasn’t daydreamed about receiving a 3×5 card with written instructions from God on precisely how to proceed with some difficult task, or even things that aren’t really difficult at all?  I certainly have, and I know I’m not alone.  And of course the implication of such thoughts is that if only God would reveal himself to us in such a direct way, all our doubt and uncertainty would be washed away and we would be able to live our lives fully committed to His will and His ways.

Jonah and the Whale

Jonah and the Whale by Pieter Lastman

And yet the Bible gives us a completely different view of the matter.  How many people in the Bible communed directly with God, talked with Him, received direction from Him, only to turn away from Him later?  I touched on this a bit in the previous post, noting the poignancy of Solomon’s eventual straying from his solemn commitment to God at the dedication of the temple.  But my understanding of the gravity of Solomon’s sin was only enhanced through the reading of the beginning of I Kings 9, where the Lord appears to Solomon a second time. Imagine that – God appearing to you and speaking directly to you not once, but twice. One would think that should be enough to keep generations of a family on the straight and narrow.  And God’s instructions to Solomon are nothing if not clear:

“As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws,  I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’

“But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them,  then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples.  And though this temple is now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them.’ ”

This is not difficult to understand.  And coming directly from the mouth of God to Solomon, one would imagine that it would be unforgettable.  And yet, with the turn of a page, we see Solomon marrying foreign wives and allowing the worship of foreign gods in Israel.  Granted, many years had passed with that page turn.  But still – forgetting the personal, individual instruction of God?

And let us not forget that an entire generation of the nation of Israel enjoyed the physical presence of the incarnated Lord Jesus Christ – God enfleshed – and even that was not enough.  Matthew 12:38-45:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.

“When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

In the end, even the resurrection of the Son of God proved inadequate to convince many of the Jewish leaders of the authenticity of Christ’s claims.  If God-in-person wasn’t enough for some to change their ways, the 3×5 card probably wouldn’t make a lot of difference either.

Things are getting away from me here a little bit, so let me see if I can tease any worthwhile nuggets out of these scriptures and my mass of thoughts.

  • I suppose first of all, we must note the depravity of humanity.  The one thing we are able to do more easily than anything else it seems is to ignore God, to dismiss God, to shuttle God off to a corner while we go about our more important work.  Solomon had the opportunity to commune with God with a directness that most of us, if not all of us, will never experience or understand.  The chief work of his life was building a glorious temple for the Lord, a building which still inspires awe to this day in its description.  And yet, with the passage of time, even that was not enough to keep him fully committed to the Lord.  The first century Jews had Jesus, God himself, walking among them.  We all know how that story ended.  We must never underestimate our capability to ignore, deny, hate, and crucify God.  After the Fall, it is an inherent part of our being as humans.
  • With that being said, it is also important to note that while we will never have that 3×5 card from God, Jesus reminds us that what we have from God – His Word – should be enough for us.  I am reminded that God’s word serves as “…a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  A lamp does not flood the entire scene with light; rather it gives enough light to take a step or two, and reveals more territory as one walks along.  We need to live by faith, confident that the God who performed the miraculous deeds for his people in scripture is still the same today, and that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  For myself, I know that this is a lesson I need to learn and re-learn, again and again, for the rest of my life.
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I Kings 8:56-61

On March 26, 2010, in Culture, Religion, Theology, by marc

I’m still pursuing my goal of reading through the Bible from front to back in a year; I believe I’ve mentioned before that my reading Bible is Zondervan’s new NIV Stewardship Study Bible, which I’ve found to have a good deal of interesting supplemental material (although since my focus has been on reading scripture, I must confess that I’ve been skimming through some of the extras).  That being said, today I ran across the following passage – I Kings 8:56-61 – which struck me.  This is a prayer of Solomon, uttered immediately following his prayer of dedication for the just-completed temple:

“Praise be to the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses.  May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our fathers; may he never leave us nor forsake us.  May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep the commands, decrees and regulations he gave our fathers.  And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need,  so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other.  But your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commands, as at this time.”

There is a tenderness here that warmed my heart; such gratefulness for the faithfulness of God.  And then the request that God himself would guard the paths of the people – that God would cause the people to honor Him, in order that they avoid giving offense to God and bringing trouble upon their own heads, and ultimately to bring glory and honor to God from all peoples of the earth.

It’s poignant as well to note that in just a few chapters, Solomon will stray from the commitment that he makes here, and will thus face rebellion within his kingdom for abandoning a full devotion to his God – a reminder to us today that we must always guard our hearts and minds, aware that we are constantly susceptible to sin.  We must daily recommit ourselves to honoring God alone.

Bible Reading – Why We Fail

On March 26, 2010, in Culture, Religion, Theology, by marc

We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy. — R.C. Sproul

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A while back, I purchase N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God in the hopes that it would shed some light on my long-held theory that Christianity would not have been able to succeed as a religion and eventually take hold root around the world if the primary event of Christian history – the resurrection – had not actually taken place.  Wright’s monumental work – part of a larger series called Christian Origins and the Question of God (this book is Volume 3) – seemed to be a likely place to find a detailed examination of that very question, and so far it has not disappointed.  In reality, it is much more detailed than I had anticipated.  The first 206 pages of the book are devoted to examining the question of how the peoples of the ancient world viewed the idea of “resurrection,” so as to set the context in which the early Christian church began to proclaim Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave.

I believe that I have finally reached the point in the book where it will begin to intensively examine the ideas that initially caused me to purchase it; as such, a small excerpt to set the stage:

Titian - Averdoldi Polyptych. Brescia. Santi Nazzaro e Celso

Titian; Polyptych of the Resurrection - Santi Nazaro e Celso, Brescia

One of the most striking features of the early Christian movement is its virtual unanimity about the future hope.  We might have expected that the first Christians would quickly have developed a spectrum of beliefs about life after death, corresponding to the spectrums we have observed in the Judaism from within which Christianity emerged and the paganism into which it went as a missionary movement; but they did not.

This observation forms the hinge upon which turns one of the central arguments of the present book.  This can be expressed in the form of a question.  Granted that the early Christians drew freely on Jewish traditions, and engaged energetically with the pagan world of ideas, how does it happen that we find virtually no spectrum of belief about life after death, but instead almost a universal affirmation of that which pagans said could not happen, and that which one stream (albeit the dominant one) of Judaism insisted would happen, namely resurrection?  Let us be quite clear at this point: we shall see that when the early Christians said ‘resurrection’ they meant it in the sense it bore both in paganism (which denied it) and in Judaism (an influential part of which affirmed it).  ’Resurrection’ did not mean that someone possessed ‘a heavenly and exalted status’; when predicated of Jesus, it did not mean his ‘perceived presence’ in the ongoing church.  Nor, if we are thinking historically, could it have meant ‘the passage of the human Jesus into the power of God’.  It meant bodily resurrection; and that is what the early Christians affirmed.  There is nothing in the early Christian view of the promised future which corresponds to the pagan views we have studied; nothing at all which corresponds to the denials of the Sadducees; virtually no hint of the ‘disembodied bliss’ view of some Jewish sources; no Sheol, no ‘isles of the blessed’, no ‘shining like stars’, but a constant affirmation of newly embodied life.  As Christopher Evans put it a generation ago, ‘there emerged in Christianity a precise, confident and articulate faith in which resurrection has moved from the circumference to the centre.’

This alone demands historical explanation. But there is more.  There are substantial mutations from within the ‘resurrection’ stream of Judaism.  In particular, the historian must account for the fact that, with early Christianity thus being so clearly a ‘resurrection’ movement in the Jewish sense, the well-established metaphorical meaning of ‘resurrection’ – the restoration of Israel in a concrete socio-political sense – is almost entirely absent, and a different set of metaphorical meanings emerge instead.  How does it come about, in other words, that early Christianity located its life-after-death beliefs so firmly at the ‘resurrection’ end of the Jewish spectrum, while simultaneously giving the word a metaphorical meaning significantly different from, though in long-range continuity with, the meaning it had within Judaism?  How do we account for both the strong similarity between Christianity and Judaism (there is no sign, in early Christian resurrection belief, of anything remotely like moving in a pagan direction) and the equally clear dissimilarities?

Intriguing.  This should be well worth diving into.

Herman Bavinck, from Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1, Chapter 8 – “Religious Foundations”:

We have a choice only between two alternatives: either (1) religion is folly since God does not exist or is in any case strictly unknowable; or (2) it is truth but then demands and presupposes the existence and revelation of God in a rigorously logical and scientific sense.  Those who cannot accept the former are compelled to assume the latter and to recognize God as the very principle of being, the essential foundation (principium essendi) of all religion.  Religion exists solely because God exists and wants to be served by his creatures.  Only when the existence of God is certain can we understand the essence and origin, the validity and value of religion.

Later:

…a human is a human because he is the image of God; a human is at once a religious being in virtue of being human.  Religion is not “the essence”  of a human, as Amorie van der Hoeven Jr. expressed himself somewhat less correctly, for religion is not a substance but a disposition or virtue.  Still religion is an essential of human nature so integral to it and inseparably bound up with it that, though sin can devastate it, it cannot eradicate it.  For that reason religion is universal and has such immense power in life and history.

A Sunday Reflection

On March 14, 2010, in Theology, by marc
Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Ran across this quote from Charles Spurgeon while browsing at challies.com:

You need not weep because Christ died one-tenth so much as because your sins rendered it necessary that He should die. You need not weep over the crucifixion, but weep over your transgression, for your sins nailed the Redeemer to the accursed tree. To weep over a dying Saviour is to lament the remedy; it were wiser to bewail the disease. To weep over the dying Saviour is to wet the surgeon’s knife with tears; it were better to bewail the spreading polyps which that knife must cut away. To weep over the Lord Jesus as He goes to the cross is to weep over that which is the subject of the highest joy that ever heaven and earth have known; your tears are scarcely needed there; they are unnatural, but a deeper wisdom will make you brush them all away and chant with joy His victory over death and the grave. If we must continue our sad emotions, let us lament that we should have broken the law which He thus painfully vindicated; let us mourn that we should have incurred the penalty which He even to the death was made to endure … O brethren and sisters, this is the reason why we souls weep: because we have broken the divine law and rendered it impossible that we should be saved except Jesus Christ should die.

Ephesians 2:1-10:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Simple, stunning, beautiful.  Not from ourselves, but a gift of God; not by works so that boasting in anything but the grace and goodness of God is precluded.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

- Augustus M. Toplady, 1776.

Outward Show

On March 3, 2010, in Culture, Reformed Theology, Religion, Theology, by marc
John Calvin (1509-1584)

John Calvin (1509-1584)

Found in The Stewardship Study Bible, in the course of reading I Samuel 16 – a quote from John Calvin:

Where is our gratefulness toward God for our clothing if in the sumptuousness of our apparel we both admire ourselves and despise others, if with its elegance and glitter we prepare ourselves for shameless conduct?  Where is our recognition of God if our minds be fixed upon the splendor of our apparel?  For many so enslave all their senses to delights that the mind lies overwhelmed.  Many are so delighted with marble, gold, and pictures that they become marble, they turn, as it were, into metals and are like painted figures.  The smell of the kitchen or the sweetness of its odors so stupefies others that they are unable to smell anything spiritual.

Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism reads like a memo from the early 20th century to to present-day church. Case in point – Chapter 3′s extensive section on the loss of the consciousness of sin in preaching:

Modern liberalism has lost all sense of the gulf that separates the creature from the Creator; its doctrine of man follows naturally from its doctrine of God. But it is not only the creature limitations of mankind which are denied. Even more important is another difference. According to the Bible, man is a sinner under the just condemnation of God; according to modern liberalism, there is really no such thing as sin. At the very root of the modern liberal movement is the loss of the consciousness of sin.

The consciousness of sin was formerly the starting-point of all preaching; but today it is gone. Characteristic of the modern age, above all else, is a supreme confidence in human goodness; the religious literature of the day is redolent of that confidence. Get beneath the rough exterior of men, we are told, and we shall discover enough self-sacrifice to found upon it the hope of society; the world’s evil, it is said, can be overcome with the world’s good; no help is needed from outside the world.

What has produced this satisfaction with human goodness? What has become of the consciousness of sin? The consciousness of sin has certainly been lost. But what has removed it from the hearts of men?

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen

…the loss of the consciousness of sin… has its roots in a mighty spiritual process which has been active during the past seventy-five years. Like other great movements, that process has come silently ? so silently that its results have been achieved before the plain man was even aware of what was taking place. Nevertheless, despite all superficial continuity, a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life. Seventy-five years ago, Western civilization, despite inconsistencies, was still predominantly Christian; today it is predominantly pagan.

In speaking of “paganism,” we are not using a term of reproach. Ancient Greece was pagan, but it was glorious, and the modern world has not even begun to equal its achievements. What, then, is paganism? The answer is not really difficult. Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties. Very different is the Christian ideal. Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature’ whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism: a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace…

…The fundamental fault of the modern Church is that she is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task: she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the Church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. The preacher gets up into the pulpit, opens the Bible, and addresses the congregation somewhat as follows: “You people are very good,” he says; “you respond to every appeal that looks toward the welfare of the community. Now we have in the Bible – especially in the life of Jesus – something so good that we believe it is good enough even for you good people.” Such is modern preaching. It is heard every Sunday in thousands of pulpits. But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rob Bell’s recent “tour” titled The Gods Aren’t Angry while I was reading this.  The point of Bell’s tour, as I understand it, is that the message of scripture isn’t so much one of a just God who punishes sinners, but of a compassionate God who is different from the ancient wrathful pagan gods of antiquity.  This is all of a piece with the continual trend exhibited in the emergent movement (and in modern theology in general) that deemphasizes sin and the wrath of God while emphasizing the grace and love of God.  The problem with doing that, of course, is that it’s a fraud.  Telling people that God loves them without calling them to repentance for their sins and to accept the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for their salvation is to condemn them; and yet, the church today by and large deemphasizes sin because people prefer to believe that they’re basically good.

Machen addressed this problem nearly a century ago; sadly, his admonition is as necessary to the church today as it was then.