The Story of Scripture, Part 14 – Now We Work and Wait

Before Jesus was lifted up to heaven, He gave his disciples the following commission;

Mat 28:18-20;

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. 

They were to announce to all the world that God had fulfilled His promise. A promise first given to Adam, and then later expanded upon to Abraham. Now, finally, all the nations would be blessed. There was good news to be proclaimed to every tribe and tongue; and the promise of salvation for all who would receive it. 

Before they were to set out on this task, Jesus gave instructions for them to wait in Jerusalem. Once he was ascended to the Father, he would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. The power received from this baptism, would enable them to set upon their mission. 

Fifty days later, just as was promised, they were indeed filled with the Spirit and given a great boldness in their witness. They went forth proclaiming that;

Act 2:21;

…everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. 

Upon this Spirit-empowered proclamation, the church quickly spread outwards from Jerusalem to Judea, then to Samaria, and then throughout the whole Roman empire (just as Jesus said it would). As we know from history, this became point from which Christianity would then spread to the whole world, over the two thousand years that followed. 

It is at this very point then, two thousand years later, that we find ourselves in the story. Now we, along with those who have gone before us, are given the very same commission as we wait for Jesus to return in glory. And although times of great difficulty are promised in the interim, we are to press on in our task, trusting in Christ and waiting in sure hope. Jesus promised that, as surely as he came the first time, one day he would once again return. The first time he entered this world as a lowly servant, the second time would be as a mighty warrior and the very King of Kings. Then would be that final consummation of all that he had already achieved on the cross.

The last book in the Bible tells us what will take place in end. Here we read that everyone who ever lived will have their turn to stand before God. Every sin ever committed will be exposed by the light and condemned by the Law of God. When those books are opened, it is only the ones who have trusted in Christ that will be saved.

After judgement is the redemption of all things, and as the Bible opens with a garden, so it closes with one. With complete finality, the Great Priest of God will then have executed judgement upon the serpent, and never again will the garden-sanctuary be corrupted by evil. Moreover, the time of probation is completed, and the promise of eschatological Sabbath rest is finally fulfilled. Christ, who alone can stand as the champion of God’s people, will have succeeded in leading true Israel into the land. There, on the new earth, we will forever be God’s own people, and the tree of life will once again be opened to us.

Rev 22:20;

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. 

The Story of Scripture, Part 12 – The Lion and the Lamb

John the Baptist was the one prophesied to come just before the Messiah, and to carry out a forerunning ministry in order to prepare the people. This he did, calling the people to turn from their sins, and then pointing them to their long awaited Messiah.

John 1:29;

[John]… saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 

In reading through the Gospel accounts, it is revealed that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the types and shadows in the Old Testament. Indeed he was the very hope of Israel; the hope of Adam and Eve themselves; and the very fulfillment of the promise given to all who looked forward to it from that time of the garden onward. 

This fulfillment motif carries right through the New Testament. He came as none other than the second Adam and the true Israel. Indeed, many moments in the life and ministry of Jesus are recorded precisely so as to make this parallel clear. Like Adam, Christ was tempted by Satan directly. Like Israel, Christ was called to faithfulness during a wilderness trial period. Of course, where Adam had failed (along with Israel after him), it is shown through these events that only Christ was able to succeed in being perfectly obedient to God’s covenant requirements. Thus it is Christ, and Christ alone, who is deserving of the great eschatological Sabbath blessing. Yet, as the spotless sacrificial Lamb he had also come to receive the covenant sanction of death on behalf of his people.  

In this regard, when Jesus’ enemies asked Him to prove Himself, he simply said; 

John 2:19;

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

In this prediction, Jesus made reference to his own body as the true fulfillment of all that the temple had ever foreshadowed. Now it would be Jesus himself, and no longer a mere building, that would be the meeting place between God and men. The temple was always a vital reminder to the people of their need for a substitutionary sacrifice,  but now the ultimate sacrifice had come. He would be a substitute for his people in death, and so make a way to return to the fellowship that man had once enjoyed with God. To make this possible, Christ would have to die. However, in so doing he would defeat all of his enemies, and at the end be victorious over death itself.

Jesus was resurrected three days after the crucifixion, just as prophesied. Not only did this stand as a vital vindication of his ministry, but also a sign of his total triumph over evil. The Saviour had indeed come. All the promises had been fulfilled. Jesus of Nazareth had shown himself to be not only the sacrificial lamb promised to Israel, but also the very Lion of Judah; the mighty serpent-crushing Saviour first promised to Adam and Even in the garden. Added to this, Jesus had not merely made a way back to the garden, but rather to the final Sabbath glory first then offered to man.

The Story of Scripture, Part 8 – God Saves.

The Mosaic covenant promised blessing and prosperity. However, it was conditioned upon obedience. When entering into this covenant arrangement, the people of Israel displayed a grossly naive overconfidence with regard to their own ability. Without a thought to the contrary, they assumed that it would not be any trouble for them to keep their side of the bargain. However, despite their promises, they soon joined Adam in deep-seated covenant-breaking rebellion. Indeed, during their travels to the land of Canaan, Israel gave in almost completely to a contemptuous unbelief before God, and so had already forsaken any hope of entering the land as their promised covenant reward. Like Adam, they had failed to enter rest. 

Through it all however, God did not cast them off, showing them even at this stage that a promise of grace (Gen 3:15) undergirded the present typological Mosaic arrangement. Eventually, when this Mosaic law had served its function in destroying their false confidence, thereby properly joining them to Adam’s rebellion (and showing them their need for a Saviour); then, the undergirding covenant grace already promised to their forefather Abraham would bloom even further, eventually finding its full expression in the promise of the New Covenant itself. Before the New Covenant Messiah came however, they would have their whole national history (of failure) to look back on in order to prove one simple point: because of their failure to be obedient to God, they were under just condemnation, and had no hope of entering into the promised land of eternal sabbath rest. Only a Saviour, one who had not shared in their sin, could lead them into this promised land. While this truth would become clearer and clearer as they moved towards the New Covenant, already it was being shown to them in picture form. For even at this point, it was only once they had forsaken any right to the land that one of their kinsmen, one who had not shared in their wilderness rebellion, would lead them into the promised land. His name was Joshua, meaning “God saves”. It was the Hebrew equivalent of the name, Jesus. 

The Story of Scripture, Part 6 – Closer to Christ With Each Covenant

Over a period of four hundred years, since their first move to Egypt, Jacob’s sons (Abraham’s descendents) grew from a large family into a massive people group. Indeed, so much so that Egypt’s king at the time began to perceive this fast-expanding racial minority as a real threat to his kingdom. To stamp out the potential danger, Pharaoh reduced the Israelites to slavery. The ultimately satanic nature of this oppression was clearly manifested when Pharaoh ordered that all the male babies be taken from their mothers and killed (this occurs once again later at the time of Christ’s birth under Herod). Very significantly, however, we note that on both of these occasions, God protected the birth of the chosen deliverer.

When Moses was a grown man, God called him to lead his people out from under the yoke of Egyptian slavery. In a series of amazing incidents, ten plagues brought God’s judgment upon the Egyptian gods (each plague an intentional provocation and defiance of Egypt’s so-called gods). Eventually, the Israelites were enabled to leave Egypt and travel through the wilderness toward Mount Sinai. God miraculously parted the Red Sea for them, allowing nearly three million people to walk across the dry ocean bed. Soon, the Egyptians decided to chase after the Israelites, but God caused the ocean to close in upon them, drowning the entire army.

With this deliverance behind them, God made a covenant with Israel, and set them apart as a priestly nation,  chosen to mediate God’s promised blessing to the nations. This then, leads to the next covenant in the biblical story: the Mosaic covenant;  bringing us another step closer to the Saviour first promised in Gen 3:15. Where the Noahic covenant promised to preserve a humanity from whom the Saviour would come, and the Abrahamic covenant narrowed this promise down from that of humanity to a specific race (seed of Abraham); now, in the Mosaic covenant, God was promising to set apart a specific nationality from among Abraham’s descendants. In this way, we see how God’s plan of redemption was continuing to unfold. The lineage that led to the promised Messiah was becoming more and more specific. 

The Story of Scripture, Part 5 – From Humanity to a Specific Seed

As we might expect, after the flood man went exactly the same way again. In the story of Babel we read how (a freshly unified) mankind reaches yet another crescendo of open rebellion against their Maker. Had God not made the covenant of common grace with Noah, thereby committing himself to preserve humanity, he would have destroyed the human race all over again. Instead however, God intended through the Noahic covenant, that a foundation of humanity be preserved. And this so, as a foundation from which to bring forth the promised Saviour.

We come then to the next important figure in the biblical story: Abraham. 

Gen 12:1-3;

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The covenant that God made with Abraham is significant because it served to elaborate on the promise that he had already made with Adam and Eve (Gen. 12:1-3; 18:18). The Abrahamic covenant comprised of 3 main parts:

  1. God would make Abraham into a great nation.
  2. God would give that nation their own land of blessing.
  3. God would extend that blessing to all nations.

When God had made a covenant with Noah, He was preserving the entire human race in order that the promised Saviour could be born. Now, in the Abrahamic covenant, God was setting about to narrow the lineage from that of ‘all mankind’ to a particular race; namely, the seed of Abraham.

Despite seemingly impossible obstacles, God showed himself to be true in this covenant. Abraham had a son named Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob. And Jacob had 12 sons, who were all very significant in the future life of Israel.

As the story continues many dangers beset Abraham and his family. In certain moments, it might even have seemed that God’s covenant promise would fail.  However, through it all, time and time again God showed Himself to be ‘God Almighty’: the One who has the power to carry out his purposes.

These purposes eventually led to Jacob moving his whole family to Egypt in order to escape a great famine. However, before Jacob himself died, he prophesied something very important, which once again reminded all the sons of Abraham of God’s great plan; and a promise that yet awaited its fulfillment. 

Gen 49:10:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

By considering this prophecy as they ought, they would once again be given a fresh reminder, and further clarity, of all that they (as a people called by God) should be looking forward to in hope.

The Story of Scripture, Part 4 – Light Shines Amidst the Darkness

Gen 4:25;

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.

Now exiled from Eden, Eve gave birth to her first son, Cain. Though she had surely anticipated that he would be the promised Savior, he turned out to be quite the opposite, even murdering his own brother and putting on full display what it would now be like to live in a fallen world.

Even so, sin spread rapidly; like an aggressive cancer. At the same time, however, we read of the way that God remained faithful to His promise, and started to preserve for himself a godly remnant.  Eve gave birth to another son, Seth, which then served to begin the lineage that would eventually lead to Christ, the promised Son. 

To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.

And so we see the beginnings of a theme and contrast that stays consistent throughout. The shining light of God’s promise against the background of vast, dark human rebellion.

In that regard, the next major figure in this lineage of grace, is Noah.

Gen 6:5-8;

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. 

Once the effects of the fall were painfully evident, God unleashed judgement, and destroyed everything with a flood. However, because of the promise that he had made to Adam and Eve, God gave Noah instructions to build a boat that would keep him and his family safe. This was to act as a powerful foreshadowing of the predicament that man was in, and that his only hope was in the promise of grace through the coming Messiah. While the whole world will be subject to judgment, those (like Noah and his family), who have trusted in the promise of God’s word, would be saved. 

When the flood was over, God made a covenant with Noah: a covenant that promised the preservation of humanity. Though it had now been clearly shown that man deserved to be destroyed for their sins, God would nevertheless preserve a stage of humanity from whom the Saviour would come. In this sense, it would be by God’s common grace to all that the stage is preserved, so that special grace could be given to those who would place their trust in the Ark of God.

To confirm this, God established the rainbow as a covenant sign. The bow, which was an ancient symbol for war, would remind the world that the next time that God’s wrath would be aimed at man, it would be aimed upwards upon himself (in Jesus Christ) rather than downwards as it had been, upon the sons of men.

The Story of Scripture, Part 3 – Bad News and Good News

We ended on the last post, talking about Adam’s tragic failure, and the entry of sin. For the first time in human history, mankind began to run away from the presence of God. The whole world was now ruined by their rebellion. But the question was this: how would God respond to a world that had chosen to go its own way?

Firstly (as one might expect), God brought judgment. He told them that they would return to the dust. And while the idea of physical death was frightening enough, mankind would also face the reality of spiritual death and eternal judgment in hell.

At this point things would seem very dark indeed if it were not for the precious promise revealed in Gen 3:15.

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

Here, in seed form, is the first promise that God would send a Saviour. It is the first glorious fore-hailing of Christ. God promised to crush all the evil forces that Adam and Eve had unleashed in their foolish rebellion (Gen. 3:15). And it is really in this moment, just after our consideration of what was lost in the garden, that we are able to appreciate the purpose of this redemption most clearly. As Kline says: “The purpose of redemption is to bring to pass, in spite of the Fall, the realization of the eschatological goal of a consummate revelation of God’s Glory, as originally set for creation.”[1]

Put as simply as possible, a second Adam was needed, to do what the first Adam had failed to do. And this is exactly what is here promised. God told Adam and Eve that this salvation would come through their own offspring!Once again, we consider this image:

Can you imagine the incredible amount of joy and hope that they must have found in this promise?

Gen 3:20, says this: 

“The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”

Adam and Eve go on to trust that God would save them through the coming Messiah. One day, there would be another federal head; another great prophet, priest and king — a second Adam. And even so, Adam named his wife ‘Eve’ – meaning, mother (not of the dead, as would otherwise have been the case) but instead; mother of the living, and this because of the coming Saviour.

Even so, God killed an innocent animal for their sake, as a foreshadowing of the very manner in which the promised Son would bring about their redemption.

Gen 3:21 ;

“And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” 

God shed the blood (source of life) of the innocent as a substitute for the guilty so that they could be covered. However, until the foreshadowed reality was consummate, as a consequence of the fall mankind was no longer able to dwell in the presence of God.

In that regard, here is yet another haunting image to consider.

From this point, the next several millennia of human history are recorded for us in a few brief chapters (Gen. 3-11). It is a story of two interwoven developments. On the one hand, we see the increasing darkness of sin. On the other, we see God’s faithfulness to His gospel promise. We will explore these developments in the next post.

Notes;

 [1] Kline, M. G. (2006). God, Heaven and Har Magedon: A Covenantal Tale of Cosmos and Telos (p. 14). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Taking Christ out of Christmas and Talking about “the Holy”

First things first: Merry Christmas! Yes, it is Christmas day, and I’m blogging. Wow.  I’m pretty amazed at my commitment right now. But following on from the last post then, I hope you see where I’m coming from with this gesture. When you get right down to it, it’s a seasonal greeting. Much like saying, “happy Queen’s birthday!”, or something like . . . that. Except, no one actually says: “happy Queen’s birthday”. So, on second thought, a simple, “Happy Holidays” might work better to illustrate this point. Bottom line: by “Merry Christmas”, I’m wishing you a “happy holiday”. Oookay then, rough start. Moving on.

Essentially, I’m advocating that, as tolerated sojourners, we need to divide asunder those categories that have become horribly muddled over the last two millennia. The worst part is that this muddling has happened, and continues to happen, as a result of good intent; whenever well-meaning Christians of any age, start trying to redeem things. That’s definitely the first problem. We should not be redeeming things. Ever. That is always Jesus’ job.

The second problem is that our efforts to merge sacred and secular end up in religious syncretism. The whole thing kind of reminds me of a somewhat (but not actually) related issue: the ancient heresy of Eutychianism. If you happen to be familiar with this heresy, you’ll remember the way that, in trying to figure out how Jesus’ divine and human natures worked together, Eutychius ended up throwing it all into one big bucket. I.e., He ended up with a version of Christ that was neither God nor man, and was therefore no good to anyone. Not good. So much for the ‘blend’ method. In fact, the blend method never works, especially when Christology is in view. Thus the somewhat forced overlap with this topic: When it comes to the great-big-Christendom-Christmas-hand-me-down, Christology is definitely in view, and the ‘blend’ problem once again rears its ugly head.

So, even today then, here we are: trying to keep things from blending. We’re trying to keep Jingle Bells separate from Silent Night. Good, rightly so. To state it more provocatively, we’re trying to keep Christ out of Christmas. Gulp. Are we even allowed to say that? Yes we are, but keep reading.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me, untangling the cultural-theological spaghetti of Christmas is not as easy as we might have hoped. Indeed, a whole host of questions come to mind. Firstly, in thinking about Christ-mass (viz., going to the mass on the 25th of December for the purposes of celebrating the birth of Christ; and yup. . . that is where the name comes from), perhaps the first question is this: Am I meant to go to church today?

Well, I’ll start by giving you a fair warning here. I’m a confessionally reformed kind of guy. So, maybe that’s a clue as to how I might approach this. “What saith the Scriptures” is always going to be the all important settler, in any topic under discussion. And maybe you picked that up in the last post, when I pretty much begged you (on the basis of the regulative principle) to stop merging the Santa-story with the nativity. But then, even beyond getting those Santa-hat’s off of the worship leaders, and beyond getting those blasted Christmas trees out of the church sanctuary, I would strongly advocate teaching your kids that when it comes to celebrating the birth of Christ, Christ himself has prescribed the exact means through which to do this: Church; Word; Sacrament; Lord’s day. Certainly not the 25th of December mass, any protestant rendition of it . . . or any other homestay version for that matter.

Let me offer you a paragraph from the Spurge himself, a brother who felt my pain on this:

“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons.Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition,because not of divine authority.” –Charles Spurgeon [1]

I don’t think I could say it any better than that. So, I’ll just go ahead and put the point down right there. But what does this actually mean for those who really want to honour the Lord and make best use of the current seasonal inclination to think upon Christ? Well, as I bridge into this and some of the other questions like it, here’s one more quote, again from Spurgeon:

We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Savior was born, it is the 25th of December….Regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give thanks to God for the gift of His dear Son.”[2] 

Two things there;

1) We really don’t know the day of Christ’s birth. And the closest reckonings leave us in and around the month of Sep, during the feast of Tabernacles. Moreover, there is an incredible scriptural resonance with this conclusion, bearing in mind that John begins his gospel by reporting that he ‘tabernacled’ in our midst.

2) “regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give thanks to God for the gift of His dear Son.” And this is absolutely key: For a Christian, the only thing wrong with doing this, is if we are only doing it once a year. Perish the thought! Every day and hour we are rejoicing in the gift of the Saviour. And the gift(!), not merely the birth. Jesus is the Saviour because of his birth, death, resurrection and second coming. This, together, is the gift. This is the gospel!

When we worship as a church in response to this gospel, we do it in the scripturally prescribed manner. But of course, we are also to worship God (in response to the gospel) in ways that go beyond corporate worship. Certainly, we give thanks for the gospel in our own homes, as individual families of the church (once again, ideally these times of family devotion are going to be more than just once a year!). And then obviously, we are also to give thanks during our personal times of prayer. In fact there is something severely wrong with our personal time, if this is not the case. And so, when we look at the 25th of Dec from this perspective (and surely this is how we should look at it), any routines and rhythms of devotion on this day are entirely appropriate. Evangelism even? You betcha. Why the heck not. However, this is so, not because it’s Christmas, but rather because it’s (drum roll please) Christianity!

So, by all means then, use the season’s inclination as a time to either evangelize; or to delve deep into the rich theology of Christ’s incarnation; or both! As tolerated sojourners, we know the sacred and we pursue it with all of our hearts. Together with this, we know the secular, and the liberties that we are allowed along the way. We don’t ever conflate these, just as surely as there is an all important difference between the journey and the destination. But finally then, we also know the limits; and we adamantly refuse to partake in the profane. So . . . on this day, the day of December the 25th, we–the tolerated sojourners–stand together: We’re taking the Christ out of Christmas; and we’re putting that sacred name back where it should be.

Notes;

  1. Sermon on Dec. 24, 1871
  2. Ibid.