Saturday, October 31, 2015

Another Halloween Post.

It seems like the pro-Halloween articles multiply exponentially every year.

As for me and my house, we’re still not doing Halloween.

It’s not because we don’t believe in “fun” or dress-up. We do that to some degree about 80% of the days of the year. Myself included.

It isn’t because we are anti-evangelistic or are against being missional. We have developed and nurture relationships with non-Christian (and marginally Christian) neighbors and community members.

I'm not anti-culture. Tomorrow's my birthday. My presents are on the table in the dining room wrapped in Stars Wars paper. I wish I could be in Taos for their jazz festival at the end of November honoring the late Frank Morgan. I love listening to Frank Morgan. I will watch college football this afternoon. Culture rocks.

Yes, I’ve seen the dozen articles that argue Halloween to be a “Christian holiday.” Here’s the thing about that: Martin Luther.

You see, I admit only one Christian holiday, strictly speaking: the Lord’s Day. Happens every week. Any other day I choose to have any involvement with is not because the Roman Catholic Church has declared it a holiday. I’m not Roman Catholic. 498 years ago today, Martin Luther unknowingly fired the first figurative shot of the Protestant Reformation. So, not only do I not observe Halloween (or All Hallows’ Eve), but I also don’t observe All Saints’ Day. I’m in the Southwest U.S. I don’t observe El Día de los Muerto, either. I don’t go to Mass. Don’t do Ash Wednesday. Don’t do saints’ feast days. I am, by my convictions from the Bible and historical inheritance from the Protestant Reformation, decidedly and annoyingly thrilled to be a Baptist.

So, no. I don’t think Halloween is “Christian.”[1] If we wanted to observe it, we would be free to by our convictions. No “Church” has told us to or told us not to.

Your kids sure are adorable in their costumes, and I love seeing the pictures. I’ve got my Santa Claus hat on right now, both to keep my ears warm and because we put our Christmas tree up last night. Because we can. That may seem weird, but lots of people will paint their faces as skulls or zombies or whatever today. I think that’s weird.

For us, it was Christmas lights, The Polar Express, the first fireplace fire of the season, and cocoa last night. Not because it was a “Christian holiday,” but because we wanted to. I don’t share this with my kids (maybe I should), but I cannonball dive into enough darkness in other people’s lives during the year as their pastor, trying by the grace of God to fulfill Galatians 6:2 in love. I don’t need to make darkness a comic and play with it tonight. Some people might find release in doing so. Not me. Children’s funerals, spousal infidelity, aging issues, addictions, and just plain old run-of-the-mill depression are enough for me. I am haunted enough and praying for countless spiritually dead people – pretend hauntings and the undead aren’t fun to me. So this is the confession: I might not be primarily sheltering my children (though, as my wife says, I wouldn’t let them watch a horror movie, so why would I open the door to a stranger with a bloody axe in his head?). It could be that I am choosing against the play-acting darkness because I’ve seen enough this year in the lives of people I love and shepherd. I don’t need or want any more. The phone could ring at any moment. I’ll seek my “fun” elsewhere.

Maybe I’ll grow out of it. Probably not. I don’t have to. Martin Luther. This is Reformation Day. I am freed from the Roman Catholic calendar, and bound only (in my theological tradition) to the Lord’s Day. Whatever else I choose to participate in is in Christian liberty of conscience (Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 ought to have some bearing on how we treat each other on days like this).

My Christmas tree’s up. Earlier than ever this year. It’s not a “Christian” tree. It’s a fun, light, sweet thing that’s now a little funnier and quirkier because we did it on Halloween Eve (All Hallows’ Eve, Eve?).

So I’m going to be just as fun-loving (I do love fun) and “missional” (the word used to guilt non-participating Christians into Halloween-ing) today as I was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Not because a day is “Christian,” but because I am, and this is what I am called to do every day wherever I am and in whatever I’m doing.

Let me finish with my favorite of Luther’s 95 Theses, number 62: “The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”
House decorated for Halloween, costume ready, coffee good.

[1] Of course, there is the sense in which all things are Christian, since they were created through Christ (John 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:7; Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2) and are maintained at every moment by Christ (Hebrews 1:3).

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Exalted Fountain of Our Praise and Obedience

“For the choir director; on a stringed instrument. A Psalm of David.
Hear my cry, O God;
Give heed to my prayer.
From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a refuge for me,
A tower of strength against the enemy.
Let me dwell in Your tent forever;
Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings. Selah.
For You have heard my vows, O God;
You have given me the inheritance of those who fear Your name” (Psalm 61:1-5).

“You will prolong the king’s life;
His years will be as many generations.
He will abide before God forever;
Appoint lovingkindness and truth that they may preserve him.
So I will sing praise to Your name forever,
That I may pay my vows day by day” (61:6-8).

Verses 6-8 is a choral intercession the Holy Spirit gave the Church through David for the King. We have only one King: the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 25:31-46; 28:18; Luke 19:38; John 18:37; Ephesians 1:20-22; Revelation 1:5; 11:15; 17:14; 19:16).

The Father lifted up His Son from the grave to the eternal throne (Acts 2:24; 3:15,26; 10:40; 13:30; Romans 4:24; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 4:14; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 1:21). We sing of the Father’s doing this work in His Son the King: “You will prolong the King’s life; His years will be as many generations. He will abide before God forever; appoint lovingkindness and truth that they may preserve Him...”

What is the result of this for our lives as the Church? So [כן] I will sing praise to Your name forever, that I may pay my vows day by day.” The Father’s exalting the throne of His resurrected Son enables us to sing forever of His glory. We cannot, would not sing apart from the Father’s exalting of the Son. We cannot sing forever apart from the enthronement of the resurrected Son.

Out of our union with the resurrected heavenly King we sing forever. And out of this we are further enabled to remain faithfully obedient to Him. It doesn't get more practical than this.

Our praise and obedience are the fruits of the act of God in exalting His Son. It is not of us. We cannot boast in ourselves. It is the divinely gifted “inheritance of those who fear [His] name.”

Sing. Serve. Pray.

Until we’re Home:
“Let me dwell in Your tent forever;

Let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings.”

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Law, Prophets, and a Lesson About Gathering

“And you will say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, “If you will not listen to Me, to walk in My law [תורה] which I have set before you, to listen to the words of My servants the prophets, whom I have been sending to you again and again, but you have not listened; then I will make this house like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse to all the nations of the earth”’” (Jeremiah 26:4-6).

Ask most people what prophets do, and they will tell you that prophets foretell the future. I have been convinced for a long time that such an understanding of the prophets and biblical prophecy misses a crucial message of the biblical Prophets (and those who echo them in the New Testament). I contend that the Prophets applied the Law of Moses to their audiences in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They communicated using language meant to move hard hearts – powerful language with dramatic imagery and edgy language. Their “future telling,” when it is present at all (not nearly as often as we’ve grown accustomed to think), is merely an application of the curses for covenant violation in the Law (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). The Law promised invasion by a foreign army and deportation. The Prophets, in seeing covenant violation among the people, promised this would come. And it did.

Learning one thing revolutionized my reading of the Bible, and that one thing is seeing parallelism.[1] The Hebrew language is not highly technical (like Greek) – the Old Testament writers say one thing several different ways to further illuminate their meaning.

Consider this parallelism:
  • “...listen to Me, to walk in My law [תורה] which I have set before you...”
  • “ listen to the words of My servants the prophets, whom I have been sending to you again and again...”

Both of these phrases are introduced with the verb “listen” (שמע), setting up the parallelism as clear as possible for us. Both “law” and “the words of My servants the prophets” are the words of the LORD to His covenant people.

From the standpoint of the doctrine of the Bible, the Law is foundational. The New Testament shows us the Lord Jesus and His apostles continually citing the Law as authoritative teaching. The Prophets of the Old Testament rely on the Law in the same way. There is no fullness to your understanding of later passages of Scripture if you aren’t familiar with what came before. Sadly, most people’s reading of the Prophets leans forward rather than backward. I find the same to be true in most attempts to interpret Revelation.

The LORD, speaking through Jeremiah, places His Law and Prophets in parallelism.

False prophets do not speak the words of the LORD (applying His Law), but speak their own words. “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; they speak a vision of their own imagination, not from the mouth of the LORD” (23:16). “‘Behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who use their tongues and declare, “The Lord declares”’” (23:31).

Prophecy is the Spirit-empowered application of the Law to the lives of God’s people with the goal of moving them to repentance from their sin before the Lord. I would use this definition for most of New Testament “prophecy,” as well (especially as described in Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12,14; Ephesians 4:11). We would put it under the category “preaching” these days, though the Bible seems to have parsed the categories of prophetic preaching of the Law for conviction, evangelistic preaching of the Gospel for the giving of grace (to believers and non-believers), and the teaching/explanation of the Bible. We need all of these in our spiritual diet continually.

The “Prophets” of the Old Testament are inerrant and inspired, and serve as models/examples for preachers in the Church. We are, as part of our calling, preach the commands of God, leaning on the Holy Spirit’s help, to move the people of God to repentance and obedience...and we are to do this without abandoning the giving of the grace of the Gospel or the explanation of the meaning and theology of the text.

It is foolish to believe we can accomplish this in a 15-minute talk filled with anecdotes and stories. It is woefully naive to believe attending the gathering of the Church for one hour a week can adequately fill the God-intended purpose of teachers/preachers in the Church. Does your Church have an evening service, a mid-week Bible study, other small groups that study the Word? Are you a part? These are the means by which God speaks His Word to His people through the power of His Holy Spirit.

We need to be convicted unto repentance and obedience, fed grace unto communion with God in Christ, and trained in the nature, character, ways, and thoughts of God through the explanation of His Word. This cannot happen without giving time to the corporate times in the Word. Commit and get involved. It’s not a matter of not having enough’re reading this, aren’t you? If you’re reading this, you’re probably reading a lot of other stuff online. How many hours of online time are you spending a week compared to gathering with Spirit-filled believers to get into God’s Word together? We fool ourselves by complaining there’s not enough time.

He has given the Law and Prophets, the Gospel and Apostles. We need this more than anything else, and He has purposed that we receive and grow in His Word together.

Let’s get to it.

[1] This book was helpful when I was first learning this principle.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Big Picture Parallels in the Bible

I was thinking about the big picture of the Bible yesterday on my run, specifically about the two revelatory “dark ages” in the history of the biblical story. Between the final events of Joseph’s life and the Exodus is just over four hundred years (Genesis 15:13; Exodus 12:40,41; Acts 7:6; Galatians 3:17). Between Malachi and the apostles’ writing of the New Testament is a similar period of time (depending on when you date Malachi and the earliest writings of the New Testament).

The covenant people of God were delivered through Moses (as servant in God’s house, Hebrews 3:1-6) from Egypt, the house of slavery (Exodus 13:3,14; 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:5; 6:12; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5,10; Judges 6:8; Micah 6:4).

The covenant people of God were delivered through Jesus Christ (as Son in God’s house, Hebrews 3:1-6) from Second Temple Judaism, the house of slavery (John 8:31-36; Galatians 4:1-5:1).

In the allegory of Galatians 4:22-31, Hagar is “is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children” (4:25). Remember that Hagar is Egyptian (Genesis 16:1,3; 21:9; 25:12), a native from the house of slavery.

The Revelation makes the same comparison between earthly Jerusalem and Egypt: “...the great city which mystically is called Sodom [Isaiah 1:10; Jeremiah 23:13; Ezekiel 16:46] and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (11:8). This is, in fact, my interpretation of the Revelation: the story of the generation that transitioned from the old covenant to the new covenant, culminating in the current Gospel age (described symbolically in chapters 20-22).[1]

Jacob’s family goes into slavery in Egypt. Parallel to this, Zerubbabel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah lead the people back into the land after the Babylonian exile. They build a second temple, one without the Ark of the Covenant or a manifestation of God’s glory at its dedication (it is an exceedingly empty symbol).

Over four centuries of silence occur both in the Hebrews’ time in Egypt and the growth of Second Temple Judaism.

God manifests His presence through His servant Moses and His Son Jesus Christ to bring deliverance.

The revelatory “dark ages” come to an end with Moses’ writing of the Law (the first five books of the Old Testament) and Jesus Christ’s apostles’ writing of the New Testament.

Interesting parallels worth some thought.

[1] I do not deny a second coming of Christ, but don’t believe the New Testament tells us much about it (many of the passages we attribute to the second coming actually describe the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the full establishment of the Gospel/New Covenant Age) – instead, we’re told how to live in Christ on earth while longing to be with Him in heaven. “To deter all men from sin on the one hand, and to give greater comfort to the godly in their adversity on the other, Christ would have us firmly persuaded that a day of judgment lies ahead. For the same reasons He has kept the day’s date a secret so that men may shake off all confidence in themselves and, in ignorance of the hour in which the Lord will come, may be ever on the watch, and ever prepared to say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus; come quickly. Amen’” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 32.3).

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Holy Spirit's 70-Year Lesson in Bible Reading

“Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Because you have not obeyed My words, behold, I will send and take all the families of the north,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, My servant, and will bring them against this land and against its inhabitants and against all these nations round about; and I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation. Moreover, I will take from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,’ declares the LORD, ‘for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation. I will bring upon that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book which Jeremiah has prophesied against all the nation...for thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place’” (Jeremiah 25:8-13; 29:10).

This is the first place chronologically in Scripture where the “seventy years” are promised by the Lord for the Babylonian exile of the Jews.

As our Baptist forefathers taught, “the infallible rule for the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith 1.9). Jeremiah’s prophecy seems very straight-forward, without any need for nuance or cleverness. However, three other inspired authors of Scripture give us three different inspired interpretations of Jeremiah’s “seventy years.” In this we learn an important lesson about biblical interpretation.

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm; He gave them all into his hand. All the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his officers, he brought them all to Babylon. Then they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire and destroyed all its valuable articles. Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete. Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia - in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah - the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, ‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, “The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!”’” (2 Chronicles 36:15-23).

The Chronicler is inspired to interpret “seventy years” as the time between the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.) and Cyrus’ decree (539 B.C.) – somewhere between 47-48 years. Given that the Chronicler mentions this time as that in which “the land had enjoyed its sabbaths” (36:21; in accord with the covenant curses in Leviticus 26:34,35,43), we are probably meant to understand this seventy years to be seven sabbaths (49 years). The Chronicler, as inspired of God the Holy Spirit as Jeremiah, understands the 70 years to be “literally” about 49 years, or seven sabbaths. If we truly let Scripture interpret Scripture, Jeremiah’s prophetically-uttered time period must be understood symbolically.

“Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which You have been indignant these seventy years?’ The LORD answered the angel who was speaking with me with gracious words, comforting words. So the angel who was speaking with me said to me, ‘Proclaim, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion. But I am very angry with the nations who are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they furthered the disaster.’” Therefore thus says the LORD, “I will return to Jerusalem with compassion; My house will be built in it,” declares the LORD of hosts, “and a measuring line will be stretched over Jerusalem”’” (Zechariah 1:12-16).

Interestingly, one of the most challenging prophets to interpret (Zechariah) seems to be inspired of God the Holy Spirit to interpret Jeremiah’s “seventy years” in what we would consider the most “literal” manner! Between the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.) and the dedication of the second temple (515 B.C.), the building of which is the predominant theme of the first chapters of Zechariah, is roughly 70 years. Is Zechariah more accurate or inspired than the Chronicler? No! They are both inerrantly inspired by the same Holy Spirit. Jeremiah’s “seventy years” are meant to be understood symbolically, and the Holy Spirit’s interpretation of His own words reveal this to us clearly.

“In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of Median descent, who was made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans - in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed...” (Daniel 9:2-4).

The prophet Daniel, after reading Jeremiah’s “seventy years” prophecy, prays a confession worthy of our reading, meditation, and memorization (9:4-19). He doesn’t seek interpretation of the prophecy, but confesses the sins of his forefathers and his own generation. He confesses that they are worthy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile – all “the curse...along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God” (9:11). After this prayer, the prophet is visited by a supernatural messenger who gives us a third inspired interpretation of the “seventy years.”

“...while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering. He gave me instruction and talked with me and said, ‘O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you insight with understanding. At the beginning of your supplications the command was issued, and I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed; so give heed to the message and gain understanding of the vision. Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place...’” (9:21-24).

This revelation is related to Jeremiah’s “seventy years” since Gabriel says he was sent “at the beginning of [Daniel’s] supplications” (9:23), which were prompted by the reading of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah’s “seventy weeks,” while referring to the Babylonian exile, are now expanded to “seventy weeks” (9:24). Is there conflict between Jeremiah and Gabriel? No. Both are perfectly inspired by God the Holy Spirit. We now learn in this period of redemptive history that the promises made by the prophets concerning the return from Babylonian exile would not be immediately fulfilled after the “seventy years” (including Jeremiah’s promises concerning the “new covenant” in 31:31-34). Instead, they would be delayed until after the intertestamental period (the time between the Old and New Testaments, a major theme of the book of Daniel), until the time of “Messiah the Prince” and the destruction of the second temple in A.D. 70.

One inspired prophecy (Jeremiah) and three inspired different interpretations (the Chronicler, Zechariah, and Daniel) – all given by the same Holy Spirit. Each uses the “seventy years” in a theological sense to teach the original audience (and us) something important about God’s plan for His people. The Chronicler connects the “seventy years” to the completion of the land’s sabbaths promised in the Law’s curse and Cyrus’ decree that the exiles return to that land. Zechariah connects the “seventy years” to his (and Haggai’s) great prophetic concern – the rebuilding of the temple so that the returning exiles could resume the worship mandated by the old covenant. Daniel is moved to intercession and confession by Jeremiah’s “seventy years,” and Gabriel is sent to extend the fulfillment of the return/restoration promises to the time of the beginning of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.

Biblical numbers are not given to us for the primary purpose of making charts or timelines or setting dates. Biblical numbers, as the Holy Spirit teaches us in this example of the “seventy years,” themselves are symbolic and teach theological truths. This is not one redeemed sinner disagreeing with the interpretation of another (as you and I might over Gabriel's statements in Daniel 9), but four biblical writers all inspired by one God the Holy Spirit, the infinitely wise Author of all Scripture.

May we learn from this example as we come across other theologically-significant numbers in Scripture, and let the Author teach us how to read His Book, in the name of the Son ("All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, Who is Himself the focus of divine revelation," Baptist Faith & Message 2000, 1) to the glory of the Father now and forever.