Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ezekiel, Glory, and Advent

We’re in the midst of a survey of the books of the Bible in our Wednesday evening service. Last night we looked at Ezekiel. I was struck by a powerful theme that runs through Ezekiel which is very appropriate to the Advent season.

Ezekiel records the glory of the Lord departing from Solomon’s Temple, which had in that day become a haven for idolatry.

“Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the LORD, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them...say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.’ Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My rules and obey them. And they shall be My people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads,” declares the Lord GOD.’ Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city” (10:18,19; 11:16-23).

Have you ever noticed in your reading of Ezra-Nehemiah that, in the rebuilding of the Temple following the Babylonian Exile, there was no theophany as there was at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple? We have no glory, no cloud, no divine voice, nothing.

The glory of the Lord left the Temple in Ezekiel’s day, the days of the destruction of that Temple. The prophets of the Restoration promise a return of glory (Haggai 2:1-9; Zechariah 2:1-5), but we don’t see it happen in their day. We read Haggai commanding them to build God’s house instead of their own (showing us where their hearts were), and we read Malachi already indicting them for neglecting the worship of God. The Babylonian Exile had taught them little, and certainly hadn’t changed their hearts. The seeds are planted in the Restoration that, over four centuries, become the false religion, the twisting of old covenant Scripture, that Jesus confronts in His ministry.

The Restoration sees the rebuilding of a much smaller Temple, devoid of the glory of God, filled soon with heartless worship. It does not see what Ezekiel promised, a God-given new heart to the people that enables them to obey and love Him from the core of their being.

What about Ezekiel’s Temple in chapters 40-48?

First, let me point out that this Temple is described “in visions of God” (40:2), just like Ezekiel’s eating of the scroll (3:1-3) and the angelic destruction of the idolaters in Jerusalem (9:1-11). We understand both the latter to be spiritual depictions of earthly realities (God’s speaking His Word through Ezekiel and the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Babylonians). Why would the Ezekiel Temple, also given in vision, be any different? Why would we expect this to be a physical Temple, when Ezekiel didn’t physically eat a scroll and angels didn't physically slaughtered the ungodly in 586 B.C.? No, this is a picture of a spiritual reality. What is the earthly manifestation?

Second, notice that the entire Temple vision is conditional upon repentance: “As for you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and they shall measure the plan. And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the temple, its arrangement, its exits and its entrances, that is, its whole design; and make known to them as well all its statutes and its whole design and all its laws, and write it down in their sight, so that they may observe all its laws and all its statutes and carry them out” (43:10,11).


The command to “repent” is the first word of the Gospel in the dawning of the new covenant era (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:1-5; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 26:20). With God’s granting of the gift of repentance to both Jews (Acts 5:31) and Gentiles (Acts 11:18) in the Gospel age, we should expect the building of the true, eternal, spiritual Temple, from which the river of life flows to bring life to the world.

This is exactly what we see. The Church is the Spirit-built Temple of God, and is the only true Temple of God described in the New Testament (Ephesians 2:11-22; 2 Corinthians 6:16).

This is Advent. As we read of the departure of the glory of God from Solomon’s Temple in Ezekiel last night, I couldn’t help but think of the return of God’s glory.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

At the marriage in Cana, after He turned water to really good wine: “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).

At the resurrection of Lazarus: “Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’” (John 11:40).

“Though He had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in Him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said these things because He saw His glory and spoke of Him” (John 12:37-41).

In His high-priestly prayer: “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed” (John 17:5).

This Advent season, celebrate the presence of the glory of God through Christ by the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Let’s end with the final phrase of Ezekiel, “the LORD is there” (48:35). The covenant presence of God is fully and finally realized in Christ alone, Who is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23; cf. 28:20; Revelation 21:3).

God bless us this Advent with a clearer knowledge and understanding of the presence of His glory through a deeper illumination of His Word in our gatherings.

It's About the Word, Church

My friend and dear brother Johnny Tucker (International Mission Association, Citronelle, Alabama, U.S.A.) had this to say:

Much has been said about one of the "Duck Dynasty" stars concerning something he said which was perceived to be against homosexuality. I have not read what he said so I don't know the full and truthful connotations involved. 
However, the issue is not what he said, what a network did, or what a journalist wrote. The issue is much more critical than all of this: the issue is, "what does the BIBLE say." If he quoted the BIBLE then the issue is settled. If he is a Christian then he just did that which is required by GOD. If he gave his "opinion" it is exactly that - his opinion. 
Do we, as Christians, really expect anyone who is not a follower of CHRIST to agree with THE BIBLE. How absurd for us to think that one's mind can be changed about BIBLICAL principles by putting pressure on them. For one to believe and accept THE BIBLE as authority, faith is an absolute necessity. 
The bottom line here is money. The networks will do everything necessary to keep money flowing. Yes, stand up for that which is right. Freedom of speech is critically important. Thank GOD for people who aren't afraid to, "...speak THE TRUTH in love." However, what's the big deal. Phil, is suffering because of his beliefs. What's new? I see this happen every day of the week. You want to take a stand for TRUTH then get in a church where the GOSPEL is taught and preached and be a vital part of getting the message out about the redemptive power of THE CROSS AND THE SHED BLOOD OF JESUS. 
You've taken a stand for Phil who is a very wealthy man. When is the last time you stood up for your Pastor, who has struggled financially so that he can continue to speak THE TRUTH? When is the last time you told your Sunday School Teacher, "...thank you for faithfully teaching GOD'S WORD. 
Do we want to take a stand for TRUTH? Great, let's take our noses out of TV sets watching sports activities which are provided for our "pleasure" primarily by alcohol advertisements. Do we really want to do what's right or are offended because someone messed with our entertainment. 
This world is not impressed by our words: guess what, GOD isn't either. Actions testify of that which we really believe. I'm wondering what The Duck Dynasty Family will do with this situation. Their actions will speak "Loud And Clear". They have the greatest opportunity now more than any other time in their lives to show, "what they are made of." They aren't the only ones who face this great opportunity. What will you and I do? See you in church Sunday as we prepare to get GOD'S MESSAGE OF HOPE out to a world in need of a SAVIOUR, JESUS CHRIST THE LORD. 
See you in church, Sunday. Right?

* * * * * * *

It’s not really about Phil Robertson, but that’s where all our focus is, isn’t it?

Honestly, one of the more stunning things to me out of all this didn’t come from Mr. Robertson or any A&E spokesperson. It came from Wilson Cruz, a spokesperson for G.L.A.A.D. (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). “Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe.”

Mr. Robertson, of course, didn’t “lie” against “true Christians.” In at least part of his published GQ interview, he closely paraphrased 1 Corinthians: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:9-11).

If Christianity is not defined by the Word alone, it is not “true Christianity.” It’s not defined by Mr. Robertson or Mr. Cruz. It’s defined by the Word.

I wonder how many believers are standing for the cultural icon “Phil Robertson,” and how many are concerned about the further twisting of the definition of Christianity and the marginalizing of the Word.

How many believers could find Mr. Robertson’s quote in the Bible? Or can answer the frequent claim that Jesus didn’t address the issue (He did)?

As I have said for almost two decades: the Scripture teaches us that the biggest threat to the Church will always come from within. Antichrist is not a political figure in some government, but a Christ-twisting deceitful spirit that arises within the Church (1 John 2:15-23; 4:1-6; 2 John 7). The warning is against false teachers within, not forces without. Read the Word and be on the alert!

While our attention is on A&E (which is anything but a Christian company, so is operating perfectly within its worldview and belief system), it should be on ourselves and the Church. Again, let me repeat one of my life-principles: do not expect unbelievers to act like anything but unbelievers; they can do nothing else, and if they begin to act like believers without being believers, they’re just damned legalists/moralists that still don’t have this what we want from the A&E corporation? As my brother Johnny Tucker said above, do things like this increase our sense of urgency to be in the Word as the Body of Christ? Or is the exponential increase of pictures of Phil Robertson on my FaceBook wall a full indicator of where the focus of believers is right now?

God has attached no promise to work through a single man (or family) who has a popular show on television. He has attached promises to work through His Word, the preaching/teaching of that Word, the keeping of that Word, the showing forth of that Word in the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and the Body built by His Spirit through that Word. This Word will outlast us, this cultural, this nation, this age. This is where our focus should be, and this is where we should be teaching our children and grandchildren to keep their focus.

“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’ A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows Him His counsel? Whom did He consult, and who made Him understand? Who taught Him the path of justice, and taught Him knowledge, and showed Him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, He takes up the coastlands like fine dust” (Isaiah 40:3-15).

It’s about the Word. Get together and read it, hear it, pray it, sing it, study it,  live it.

It’s about the Word.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Warrior Lessons from Today's Psalms Reading

Battle lessons from today’s Psalm readings:

  • A warrior loves His God and proclaims it conspicuously: “A Psalm of David, the servant of the LORD, Who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. He said: ‘I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in Whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:1,2).
  • A warrior understands that the security and strength that surround him merely reflect the ultimate Security and Strength: “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King. Within her citadels God has made Himself known as a fortress...walk about Zion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will guide us forever” (Psalm 48:1-3,12-14).
  • A warrior knows that the character necessary for battle comes from covenant obedience to the covenant King and constant consideration of His great works: “The Ephraimites, armed with the bow, turned back on the day of battle. They did not keep God's covenant, but refused to walk according to His Law. They forgot His works and the wonders that He had shown them” (Psalm 78:9-11).
  • A warrior knows that whatever victories we see are actually God’s, and have happened according to His authority as sovereign over all: “God has promised in His holiness: ‘With exultation I will divide up Shechem and portion out the Valley of Succoth. Gilead is Mine; Manasseh is Mine; Ephraim is My helmet, Judah My scepter. Moab is My washbasin; upon Edom I cast My shoe; over Philistia I shout in triumph’” (Psalm 108:7-9).
  • A warrior knows that God is the only true Source of help, salvation, bravery, and victory: “Oh grant us help against the foe, for vain is the salvation of man! With God we shall do valiantly; it is He Who will tread down our foes” (Psalm 108:12,13).
  • A warrior knows that true victory produces glory to God; all else is vanity: “All the kings of the earth shall give You thanks, O LORD, for they have heard the words of Your mouth, and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD” (Psalm 138:4,5).
  • A warrior knows that his existence is from God, which means that God’s purpose for this existence will stand in trouble or peace: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You preserve my life; You stretch out Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and Your right hand delivers me. The LORD will fulfill His purpose for me; Your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of Your hands” (Psalm 138:7,8).

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jesus Christ, Almighty Creator and Sustainer

“ is only by continuously being related to God that the creature exists.”
- Does God Suffer? by Thomas G. Weinandy (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 2000), 131

What a powerful quote! While it should move believers to doxology, it makes the denials of humanity all the more tragic.

“For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the LORD. In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek Him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 10:3,4). The phrase “all his thoughts” reminds us that a commitment to atheism results in a twisting of all thinking. It also reminds us that atheism must be continually maintained, since we all know in the core of our being that our Creator is present.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools...” (Romans 1:18-22).

With the minds He has created they contrive reasonings to deny Him, for the sole purpose of making themselves little gods ruling over little worlds. The exceedingly complex connections of synapses and micro-electric firings are maintained because He, at this moment, wills it for His ultimate glory. The breath in the lungs that is expelled and shaped into the sounds of words through vocal chords, tongues, teeth, and lips, are all allowed to exist by the granting of His common grace in this moment. Only because God is involved does the atheist exist.

“The God Who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed His offspring’” (Acts 17:24-28).

“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:13-17).

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, Whom He appointed the heir of all things, through Whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:1-3).

Jesus Christ is the Person of the triune God Who was the mediatorial means of Creation. Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh Who, by absolute sovereign decree in this very moment, sustains every aspect (micro and macro) of Creation so that it continues to exist. It is for the ultimate and eternal exaltation of Jesus Christ that all things were created and are sustained.

This same Jesus is the One Whom God the Father has appointed the sole Savior (Acts 4:12) and Judge (Acts 17:30,31) of all of humanity. Repent and believe, and let the grace of your existence by His power shine forth in unending doxology to the only One Who is worthy of it!

Interacting Spiral Galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163

Saturday, December 14, 2013

How Does That Make You Feel?

Confession: I like reading philosophy. I say this by way of confession because there’s been a lot of philosophy through the years, secular and Christian, that’s left me feeling dirty intellectually and theologically. Many writers have made greater commitments to their own reasoning over against historical and (more importantly) biblical orthodoxy. This makes me feel icky.

K. Scott Oliphint is different. He’s not the only one, but reading Dr. Oliphint leaves me feeling like I am better equipped to obey that specific part of the greatest commandment than I was before I read him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all...your mind” (Matthew 22:37//Mark 12:30//Luke 10:27). Dr. Oliphint’s philosophy is pleasantly accessible (without avoiding the deep stuff) and even doxological. I’m re-reading God with Us this Advent season and thoroughly enjoying it.

Like I said, I like reading philosophy. But I’m bad at doing it. I am neither a philosopher nor the son of a philosopher, and am incapable of going past a pedestrian discussion of the weather with a philosopher. But as I’ve been re-reading God with Us this afternoon (and nursing a persistently annoying head cold with Echinacea tea), I was reminded of a theory I once jotted down on paper but never submitted to the imitation eternity that is the blogosphere (wow...the spell-checker recognized “blogosphere” as a real word...sigh).

What jogged my memory was Dr. Oliphint’s discussion of God’s immensity, immutability, and impassibility (which occurs back-to-back on pgs. 79-88). When I say this his words “jogged my memory,” it does not mean that anything I am about to say is an echo of his words or would be endorsed by him (or any other real philosopher) in any way. Disclaimer sufficiently made.

I affirm God’s immutability and impassibility whole-heartedly. I have read some objections to this classic doctrine, but have still returned to the ancient confessions of these doctrines. God is unchangeable and is not impassioned (in the sense that He reacts to events with emotions).

A few years ago I was reading the account of the Flood and paused at the recording of God’s “feelings” at that moment: “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart (Genesis 6:6). God does not literally have a “heart” (neither do we, at least according to the common way we refer to it), but this figure of speech (anthropomorphism and even anthropopathism) adequately and powerfully conveys God’s attitude toward what was going on in the world at the time: “...the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (6:5).

We read this and automatically interact with the facts based on our experience of things: something happens, and we react emotionally to the occurrence of that something. Is this what’s happening here with God? Did God wake up one day, look down, see the wickedness of humanity, and change moods in response to this wickedness? If so, God is not impassible.

What occurred to me a few years ago was that God’s “emotions,” as revealed in Scripture, need to be considered not in the context of an “emotional life” of God (which, in this understanding, is analogous to our own “emotional life”), but as a function of revelation.

God is always, unchangeably grieved and wrathful towards wickedness. This attribute of God is not dependent on His being exposed to wickedness. It isn’t that the day before God “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” all was well in the “emotional life” of God, but the day He “saw” everything changed in His divine “mood.” It’s that God is always grieved and wrathful against wickedness, and when it arose to a certain level in the civilization of humanity, God revealed this attribute of Himself through the subsequent events of His interaction with Noah, the Flood, and through the scriptural revelation of all this in the words of Moses we have recorded in Genesis. God’s mood didn’t change; He revealed an unchanging attribute of Himself at a specific time (and at a specific point in Scripture). He did not become; He revealed.

I believe the analogy for God’s “emotional life” is not in our own experience of feelings, but in God’s omnipresence (or, as Dr. Oliphint discusses it, God’s immensity or immeasurability). God is not limited by space or confined in it in any way. Dr. Oliphint mentions the following verses for this doctrine: Psalm 139:7-12; Jeremiah 23:23-24; Acts 17:28 (pg. 81, footnote 74.). While God is not limited by definite space as we are, He nonetheless allows His Presence to be revealed covenantally in specific places: the Garden of Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple, the new covenant Church. For God to be “enthroned upon the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6//Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 80:1; 99:1) does not in any way mean that God solely existed above the images of the cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon actually even confesses that any limiting of the Presence of God is crazy (1 Kings 8:27//2 Chronicles 6:18). This would be as foolish as the reasoning of Aaron before idolatrous Israel on the day of the golden calf (Exodus 32:4). For God to be specially manifested in a certain place in the midst of His covenant people did not mean that He was limited to that place, but that He gracefully revealed His Presence to His covenant people within the bounds of that covenant.

I’d like to propose that His “emotions” are the same way. The “feelings” we see Him manifesting at certain points in Scripture are actually His constant, unchanging attributes revealed at a certain point to describe His covenant relationship, either with unsaved humanity (under the curse of the violated covenant of works) or saved humanity (under the blessings of the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ). He manifests His attributes as a function of revelation, not as a result of passion.

Well, I’d better stop before I hurt myself or cause Dr. Oliphint to somewhere break out in a cold sweat because his name’s been mentioned in the context of the philosophical ramblings of a non-philosopher.

God’s “emotion” is a function of revelation, not mutability or passibility.

Friday, December 13, 2013

See Beyond the Empty Room

 “Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17,18).

Jesus Is a Merciful High Priest

In Jesus’ earthly ministry many appealed to Him for mercy (Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 17:15; Mark 5:19; 10:47; Luke 17:13; 18:38). In addition, mercy was a frequent theme of His teaching (Matthew 5:7; 18:33; Luke 16:24).

The merciful aspect of Jesus’ ministry as a priest is applied later in this letter: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but One Who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15,16).

Because He became as we are and was subjected to temptation, He is capable of sympathizing with our weakness. This does not mean He has a casual attitude toward sin, for He is still the Holy One Who detests lawlessness. John 6:69; Acts 2:27; 13:35; Revelation 3:7. In this letter He is said to hate lawlessness (1:9) and to be separate from sinners (7:26). It does, however, mean that that He gives help and forgiveness to those who come to Him in humble repentance (Luke 18:9-14).

Jesus Is a Faithful High Priest

The Old Testament describes several priests who were unfaithful in their ministry. Sadly, this includes the very first High Priest, Aaron (Exodus 32:1-5). See also Leviticus 10:1,2; 1 Samuel 2:12-16,22; Jeremiah 2:8; 5:31; 32:32; Lamentations 4:13; Ezekiel 22:26; Hosea 5:1; 6:9; 10:5; Micah 3:11; Zephaniah 3:4; Malachi 1:6-10. The New Testament shows us High Priests who were instrumental in leading the people to reject Christ and in having Him condemned to death (Matthew 26:3,4,57-66; John 11:49-51).

In great contrast to this, Christ is appointed our High Priest. He is utterly faithful in His ministry. The idea of a faithful priest of God’s appointment is rooted in the Old Testament story of Samuel, whom God raised up to replace Eli’s sons, who were unfaithful: “And I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. And I will build Him a sure house, and He shall go in and out before My anointed forever” (1 Samuel 2:35).

The Work of the High Priest

The old covenant priesthood, and particularly the office of High Priest, was decreed by God to show us the ministry of Christ. The high priest’s ministry under the old covenant was to offer atonement not for the sins of the whole world, but exclusively for the covenant people of God (Leviticus 4:20,21; 9:7; 10:17; 16:24,34; Numbers 8:19; 15:25; 16:46,47; 25:13).

Jesus is absolutely unique as priest, for He is both the One Who offers the sacrifice for the atonement of the sins of the covenant people and the Sacrifice itself.

Propitiation on Behalf of His Brethren

The Greek word for “propitiation” and “mercy seat” are closely related – because the biblical ideas behind these words are closely related.

The Ark of the Covenant, which was kept in the Holy of holies, had three elements that teach us about the work of Christ on our behalf:

God manifested His presence between the wings of the cherubim (a picture of heaven). God is absolutely holy, and cannot abide any sin in His presence; yet, He is graciously present in the midst of His covenant people, despite their sinfulness. There is no contradiction between His wrath against sin and His covenant-love for His people (even though they are sinful).

Inside the box were the tablets of the Law of Moses. They testified to the lawlessness in the heart of all humanity, and especially in the hearts of the covenant people of God.

The mercy seat (we could call it a propitiation lid) sits between the violated Law and a holy God offended by lawlessness among His people. The blood of the sacrifice appeased His wrath against His people on the Day of Atonement.

This is what Jesus did for us in His death and intercession for us: He propitiated, or satisfied God’s wrath against us. This is the perfect expression of God’s love: “...God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:8,9).

Faith in Atonement Not Seen

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted’” (Luke 18:9-14).

This is what the penitent man literally says to God in Luke 18:13, “please satisfy Your wrath against me” (the Greek verb is not “be merciful,” but “propitiate”).

Here’s the thing that makes this a powerful lesson to you and me. The penitent man invokes the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, covered with blood on the once-a-year Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).

But he was praying for something that couldn’t be seen. Since the Ark of the Covenant was not in the Holy of holies in Herod’s Temple (it disappeared when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed 600 years earlier), propitiation could not be made over the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement. The room was empty, and everyone knew it. This man’s plea is one of incredible faith, knowing that God would have to accomplish this work, since neither himself nor a merely human priest could satisfy God’s wrath.

This is where we are, too. We cannot propitiate God’s wrath against us, and neither can any other human being. Every man-made Holy of holies is empty and powerless at its heart. Christ is made visible to us by faith in the preaching of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. See and believe in Him Who has gone into the true Holy of holies in heaven on our behalf:
  • “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf...” (Hebrews 6:19,20).
  • “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Have you heard of Him and seen Him through the eyes of faith as your only propitiation? Do you see Him as the only propitiation for your sins?

“Though you have not seen Him, you love Him. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8,9).

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Advent: the Battle Begins

The Son became as we are that first Advent,
vulnerable to the temptations of the devil;
He took on the sentence of death due to us
and defeated its reign of fear on our behalf!

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14,15).

Several years ago my youngest daughter was having a skin abnormality removed from her leg. It was potentially cancerous. Despite the fact that it was a relatively minor procedure, it was anything but minor to this dad. I was in the store the day before and thought I'd buy her a new Dora the Explorer nightgown to wear when she returned home. I remember standing there, holding this little nightgown, with Sting's "Fragile" playing as background muzak (seriously, it was!). "Flesh and blood" is really weak stuff to be made of.

Several years before that I was speaking at a funeral for a church member I loved dearly. Halfway through the sermon, as I was holding myself together by sheer will-power, I heard a voice in my head, "I don't want to do this anymore." It stunned me. I love the ministry. I love pastoring. I love preaching and teaching the Word more than I can say. That voice scared me. I've spoken a few older, more experienced pastors since then and the Lord has ministered to me through it, but it was an exceedingly fragile of the most fragile in my life. "Flesh and blood" is really weak stuff to be made of.

But our weakness is not merely our experiences in this world as sometimes powerless beings in the midst of unwelcome circumstances; being “flesh and blood” is far more serious - and weak - than tough days in this world. The writer elaborates on this at the end of this chapter: “...He had to be made like His brothers in every respect...He Himself has suffered when tempted...” (2:17,18). The weakness of being “flesh and blood” is our vulnerability to being tempted. This weakness is further emphasized later in Hebrews. Christ is effective as our heavenly, eternal High Priest because He “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). The weakness is not merely being “flesh and blood,” but the vulnerability to sin in temptation we inherit from our “fleshly nature.”

Ours is a slavery to the curse of the Law (death). Being children of Adam and Eve, we are born into this slavery; we further the slavery by our own freely-chosen transgression and lawlessness. All of us. Every one. This is our biggest problem. Our weakness means all of us are enslaved to sin before our Creator, a holy God Who is eternally offended by that sin and wrathful against it.

The Accuser and His Power

The devil introduces sin into humanity through his temptation of Eve (Genesis 3:1-6; 1 Timothy 2:14). It’s important that the devil used the Law of God (Genesis 2:16,17) as the tool of his temptation (3:1) - he does the same with us (if it ain't broke...). Eve gave in to this temptation, then Adam, and therefore all humans are born with a nature that inevitably rebels against the Law of God.

“For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s Law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7,8).

“Cannot.” It is impossible. The standard is God's, and we fight against it, attempt to re-define it by our preferences, and roar about the injustice when the penalty time approaches.

With the Fall sin entered into the “spiritual DNA” of humanity. The title “devil” means “accuser.” Now that all of humanity is fallen in sin, the devil accuses us before God day and night.

“...the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Revelation 12:10).

With sin came the condemnation to spiritual death and physical death. We all have an innate spiritual knowledge that we are guilty before God because of our sin and deserve hell for our guilt. "Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them" (Romans 1:32). The devil uses this knowledge to fill humanity with fear of death. Remember, death is not “natural,” as is usually said these days. This is the philosophy of a naturalistic, evolutionist worldview. The Bible tells us that death is the curse of the Law of God against sin, and we are all born with a cursed sin nature, already condemned to die.

The devil/sin uses the Law of God to tempt us into transgression of that Law, the penalty of which is physical death and eternal spiritual death: 
  • “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Romans 7:10-14).
  • “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). 

Remember, the Law of God is “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12) and even “spiritual” (7:14). The problem isn’t the Law. It’s us as sinners. “Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).

The Law of God itself is not evil, except to the libertine rebel heart of fallen humanity (Psalm 2:1-3). God originally gave His Law to humanity as a means to avoid death and stay on the paths of His life:

However, the devil used the Law of God as a means of temptation unto death with Eve in the garden:

Since we are all born as descendants of the fallen Adam and Eve, we are born with a “spiritual DNA,” or sin nature that automatically desires to rebel against God’s Law. What was given as good is now an instrument of temptation, sin, and rebellion unto death. After the Fall, no human being can be right with God through Law-keeping (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16; 3:11). The devil, being the author of our death sentence through violation of the Law, then stands before God and accuses us of lawlessness and the death we deserve because of that lawlessness. He uses our condemnation under the Law to make us continually fearful of the curse of the Law: death.

Every human being is aware of the Law of God and the death sentence, even if they spend their whole lives denying it (Romans 2:14,15; 3:19). We do all we can to avoid facing this weakness. But it's still there. This is the fear of death from which Jesus came to deliver.

Advent Unto Deliverance

Jesus became one of us at Advent to destroy the power of the devil: “...the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, Who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). There is still Christian grief over death (Acts 8:2), but it is not a hopeless, defeated grief (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Jesus’ victory over death on our behalf did not avoid death, but went through it to destroy it.

“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:8-10).

Remember, we are born facing physical and eternal spiritual death because we are born under the condemnation of the Law of God. We need a Savior.

One of the most famous verses about victory over death is actually a quote from the Old Testament: “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from My eyes” (Hosea 13:14). In this O.T. passage God is actually summoning the grave and death to bring judgment! When the apostle Paul quotes this verse in the N.T., though, the victory of Christ totally reverses the meaning of the passage: “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law” (1 Corinthians 15:55,56). Even though the Law of God is “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12) and even “spiritual” (7:14), the devil uses it as a weapon of accusation and fear against our sin nature. He uses it as a means of temptation, since we are born with sin natures that rebel against the Law of God (7:15-23). No matter how fragile and weak the circumstances of this life sometimes make us feel, it's far, far worse than we can imagine.

But Advent means that the eternally divine Son of God took a human nature upon Himself and entered the world as one of us. He lived the perfectly holy, righteous, Law-keeping, and obedient life we could never live. He took the penalty for our lawlessness upon Himself, paying that penalty of death upon the cross. He rose on the third day that we might have life. He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, where "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). Advent was the beginning of the battle over our super-fragility and profound weakness as sinners. And the battle has been won in Christ, the Child of Advent.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trust and Obey Has Always Been the Way

“...the law is not of faith...” (Galatians 3:12). The Law of Moses, the Law of the old covenant, is usually placed in stark contradiction with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the new covenant. The old covenant is described as a works-based covenant, which means that it is obedience alone that is the burden on the covenant people. It certainly seems that this description is accurate.

“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live...” (Deuteronomy 4:1; cf. Romans 10:5). But was the primary command of the Law of the old covenant truly obedience? For several reasons, I’d like to suggest that this is far too simplistic of a proposition.

First, “the just shall live by faith” is not first found in the New Testament, but the Old Testament – Habakkuk 2:4.

Second, the caricature of an idea that the Law was sheer obedience alone overlooks the fact that in the Law God commanded love from the heart (Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 30:6).

Third, when God condemned the people under the Mosaic covenant, it was because of their failure to believe, or have faith, that they were condemned:
  • “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?’” (Numbers 14:11).
  • “The LORD your God Who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the LORD your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place. Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God, Who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go” (Deuteronomy 1:30-32).
  • “And when the LORD sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land that I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the commandment of the LORD your God and did not believe Him or obey His voice’” (Deuteronomy 9:23).
  • “Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep My commandments and My statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by My servants the prophets.’ But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God (2 Kings 17:13,14).
  • “He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God...they did not believe in God and did not trust His saving spite of all this, they still sinned; despite his wonders, they did not believe...their heart was not steadfast toward Him; they were not faithful to His covenant” (Psalm 78:5-8,22,32,37).
  • “...they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in His promise” (Psalm 106:24).
  • “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief (Hebrews 3:16-19).
  • “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, Who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe (Jude 5).

Perhaps we should be careful about how we understand Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:12. The Law, after all, is “holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” and even “spiritual” (Romans 7:12,14). For this and the reasons above, it would seem wise to consider a carefully nuanced approach to the differences between the old and new covenants. Both require faith. And even the new covenant has strong obedience commands (Matthew 28:20; John 14:15; 15:10; 1 John 2:3; 3:22; 5:3; Revelation 12:17; 14:12). There’s even an interesting echo of Deuteronomy 4:1 in Paul’s language: “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).

Of course there are differences between the covenants, differences that should not be minimized. But let’s not treat the covenants as if they were night-and-day cartoons, in yin and yang opposition.

God has always required His covenant people to be humbly faithful to Him from the heart, and has always required that faith to bear the fruit of obedience.

Trust and obey.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

He Slapped It Down on the Table

“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,’ declares the LORD. ‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the LORD: ‘I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the LORD. ‘For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

“And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:19,20).

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is My body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also He took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

The night that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, He slapped the new covenant promise down on the Table and said, “it belongs here.” What Christ has joined together don’t separate for the sake of anything in your eschatology, ecclesiology, or sacramentology...or anything else.

We observe the ordinance every week in our fellowship (it proclaims the Lord’s can we do that too much?). The promise of the new covenant in the cup still astounds, humbles, moves, and delights my soul every time. It tells us who we are, who God is to us, who is truly a member of the covenant, and of the gracious forgiveness that is found in the covenant...all sealed by the blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the lone Mediator of this covenant in which we rejoice at the Table (Hebrews 9:15; 12:24).

Oh, receive by faith the grace of the Gospel of the new covenant in Jesus Christ proclaimed by the Church at the Lord’s Supper Table!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The M.E.

When new individuals or families begin attending the church, it takes me several years to discuss membership with them. In most cases, though, I will have a meeting with them early on to discuss hot-button issues like Calvinism, eschatology, etc. Part of the reason is that I like being open and honest with them so they know what they’re going to get from the beginning. Of course, there’s a much more personal reason. My church is my family. I love people quickly and easily, and it hurts when they leave.

There have been many times over the years that folks have come, excited and enthusiastic about I.H.B.C. and the teaching here. Then a year passes. Suddenly, the Reformed Baptist theology offends. Or the commitment to the local Church. Or the amillennial and even partial-preterist eschatology. Or my glacial approach to change. Or the fact that I am just as welcoming and loving to people who believe differently than myself (and them) as I am to those who agree with me 100%. Or the fact that my commitment to Scripture means I’m not going to let you gossip or regularly skip worship. Or my less-than-stellar communication abilities. Or my tendency to occasionally make less-than-wise and impulsive decisions from a heart of compassion. Or whatever other awesome thing about me that should be endearing (in my lowly opinion) but eventually becomes grating and annoying and frustrating to you.

And after a year, the folks that I’ve welcomed into my heart are cool to me, bitter in spirit, suddenly mouthing against the doctrine preached from the pulpit like it’s something new, or are just gone without a word. It hurts. I take it personally (in a sad, not angry way).

Last night I was up with a sick little one and thinking about what I call (in my head) the “Michael Effect” – odds are that while you’re happy to have me as your pastor now, you’ll get over it. It was then that I noticed the acronym: “M.E.”

Well, that put things into perspective.

We are never, ever, ever, ever done in this life dying to ourselves. Just when we think we’re selfless and humble, we kick over a rock in our souls (stubbing our toe in the process) and find a big, hissing, ugly thing of pride. I have a Sunday School teacher who regularly jokes that he is proud of the fact that he is the most humble person in the congregation. Sad enough, that joke creeps into my self-identity too many times as my unconfessed confession. I have a long list of folks who’ve broken my heart because they’ve broken fellowship with me (the M.E.). I am a humble, lowly victim. Just like Jesus.

Wow, that’s ugly.

I was meditating on this passage in the Psalms yesterday: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins” (Psalm 25:16-18). Oh, I will pray and pray and pray (like Jesus!) the first phrases over and over as I wallow in the M.E. But it’s the last phrase that I need the most. Whatever afflictions or rejections that come my way (be they real or imagined), that’s not my greatest problem. My hardships do not negate “all my sins.” The list of spiritual family members who are now removed from me does not atone for or balance out the list of my sins before God. I need the forgiveness and wrath-covering that is gracefully given (not earned by my sufferings) through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

It is His Church, purchased with His blood (Acts 20:28), and I am just another member who is a sinner justified by faith in Him alone. I am thankful that, in the middle of the night, He shows me the acronym (M.E.) of my prideful, injured humility and disciplines me in Fatherly love (Hebrews 12:1-17).

I am the chief of sinners, not the chief of innocent sufferers. That would be Jesus, Whose obedient life, sacrifice, resurrection, and heavenly intercession I need more than the continual affection of a fan base.

This is why the cross junction includes the word “daily” (Luke 9:23), beloved.