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Joy in Trials?

James loves to exhort his readers. 59 times in 108 verses, in fact. James is relentless in his drive to get us to live out our faith in God-honoring ways. Most of the time we have no trouble with his exhortations. After all, what Christian objects to asking God for wisdom (1:5), being quick to hear and slow to anger (1:19), putting away wickedness (1:21), being a doer of the word and not a hearer only (1:22), caring for orphans and widows (1:27), and avoiding worldliness (1:27)? To these exhortations we say, “Amen.” It’s when James starts talking about trials that we get a bit uncomfortable.

Consider his opening words:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (1:2-4).

What immediately causes some cognitive dissonance is the association of joy with trials. Upon reading this, the reader is tempted to dismiss James altogether as a reliable counselor or take offense at his apparent naive callousness toward people’s pain. To make it still worse for James, we should remember the situation of his original readers. He was addressing “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). What do we know about this dispersed or scattered group of Jewish Christians?

In making a profound theological point about who constitutes the true Israel, James compares the scattered and persecuted church of Christ to the twelve tribes of Israel that had been scattered throughout the world through the oppression of the Assyrians and Babylonians. His audience would understand this comparison as they identified as the true Israel of God in Christ. Christians, James knows, are sojourners and exiles living away from their heavenly home even as they await the glorious return of the Lord to gather his people to himself. But even as this ingathering is assured, the present pilgrimage to our heavenly home is wrought with “many dangers, toils, and snares.” Followers of Christ are called to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:13-14). Indeed, on our way to the city of God, we meet trials of various kinds as we live in solidarity with Christ in his suffering and death.

James is not naive. As a leader in the Jerusalem church for nearly two decades, James would shepherd God’s people through countless struggles and fears and hurts. In connecting joy to trials James is not crazy, he’s serving as a faithful pastor.

James is helping his readers step back and see the redemptive purpose of God in our trials – a purpose we need to help our people see as well if they would live as faithful pilgrims on the King’s way. In vv. 2-4 James gives us two exhortations and two corresponding explanations that move toward a glorious climax. It’s as if we’re ascending Mount Everest with the promise of a breathtaking view that more than justifies the excruciating climb.

The first exhortation James gives is, “Count it all joy, my brothers, whenever you meet trials of various kinds” (v. 2). The word translated ‘count’ carries with it the idea of ‘deliberate consideration’ or ‘measured judgment.’ And James’ idea of ‘joy’ is not some thin worldly happiness (like R.E.M.’s ‘Shiny Happy People’ from the 1991 song of the same name). Christians are far too honest about the realities of a fallen world for that. Christian joy, likewise, is not stoicism or emotional detachment or denial. And we do not rejoice in the trial itself. Christian joy exists alongside sorrow and grief and pain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:10 “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”). Christian joy is a serious happiness that is realistic about the trials that come in a fallen world, but also intensely confident that God is sovereign over them. This leads us to James’ explanation of why joy in trials.

James explains why Christians should count it all joy whenever we meet trials. The reason is because of something his readers know: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (v. 3). This ‘test’ of our faith is producing ‘steadfastness’ or ‘perseverance’ or ‘fortitude’ or ‘endurance.’ This testing is intended to make our faith strong. The background is likely the Refiner’s fire from Proverbs 17:3, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” God is doing a refining work so that our faith is rid of all impurities, leaving steadfastness through the fire. The Christian knows these tests are given by the hand of the loving, merciful, gracious, Almighty God. Indeed, our heavenly Father stands behind every trial and test, refining our faith so that it is strong and steadfast.

Knowing this, William Cowper, no stranger to suffering, was able to write in 1774 one of the great hymns of the church “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Pastor James continues to help us on our climb by offering another exhortation and explanation. He exhorts, “And let steadfastness have its full effect” (v. 4). What we see with James is that steadfastness is no passive thing. Perseverance, in other words, is strong and active. We are called to endure in the right path even when difficult. Like a good shepherd, James exhorts us to not try to short-circuit the gracious process of our Lord in trials. Of course, we try to do this in manifold ways. We may try to deny the trial by pretending it’s not there. Or, we may try avoid it by doing everything imaginable to get-out-of-the-way of it. Or, we try to speed it up as if we, and not God, were sovereign over it. In our arrogance we simply say, “Ok, I’m done with this. The trial is over.” (I see people trying this with quarantines, lockdowns, and COVID.) But James will have none of this for steadfastness is not the end for James, but something far greater.

James explains what the “full effect” of steadfastness is: “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). The “full effect” of steadfastness is ‘perfection,’ ‘completeness,’ ‘lacking in nothing.’

This is nothing less than Christlikeness – being as much like Christ as glorified human beings ever could be. This is what God’s salvation is accomplishing in us. And James isn’t alone in this thinking. Consider Paul’s words in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Like James, Paul would have us see the “big picture” of our salvation. We will glorify God by perfectly reflecting his character throughout eternity so that he is the preeminent One among an innumerable host of “the righteous [who] will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We are now at the summit. And pastors help their people take in the view.

To make the point still more emphatic, James says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12). It is this eschatological perfection that provides the ultimate framework for James. Without an appreciation for this eternal perspective in James, the idea of joy in trials is at best nonsensical, at worst, offensive.

Where did James get this vision of trials? What had he been taught, and what had he witnessed, that led him to write such audacious things about suffering?

OUR JOYFUL, SUFFERING SERVANT

Our joy in trials is blood bought. Indeed, this was the way of Christ. In Isaiah 53:11 we learn that it was only out of an anguished soul that the Lord was satisfied. And in Hebrews 12:2 we are reminded that the joy of the ascension comes only through the agony of the cross. It is the loving pastor who helps God’s people see that the journey through suffering and to glory that Christ walked, is the same journey we are called to walk by faith.

Notice, for example, how explicitly Paul makes this connection: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16-17). We are fellow heirs with Christ in his glory “provided we suffer with him.” The road to glory is paved with trials of various kinds.

James is not crazy in his talk of joy in trials. On the contrary, he’s a faithful pastor. As co-laborers with James, pastors today must help God’s people see trials in their redemptive context. In the company of suffering saints, pastors exhort their churches to imagine a day when we will be perfected in Christ, complete in Christ, lacking nothing in Christ. A day when our faith will no longer need to be tested for it will have resulted in perfect praise and honor and glory to the One who authored it.

May that day come soon.

Shepherding in the Fruit of the Spirit: Self Control

It should be no surprise that Paul ends his list of the fruit of the Spirit with self-control. After noting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness, Paul wants us to get to work. Whatever is keeping us from loving others or being gentle must be put to death. But the desires of the flesh won’t go down without a fight. Walking in love and joy won’t be easy. And so we need self-control. Paul put it this way: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). The presence of self-control proves it.

Pastors have the wonderful opportunity to model self-control in a world that prizes self-indulgence.

What about your situation? Where does the fight for self-control take place in your ministry? Every man is different. But the temptations that come with leadership are common, and they are numerous.

Pastors and church leaders are in the public eye. It’s impossible to teach without being noticed, and a certain amount of attention follows. You interact with people eager to share their problems and looking for help. The pastor is often a counselor, and this work breeds an intimacy with others we can easily abuse.

If a hurting woman comes to you seeking help, are you careful to serve her while being entirely above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2)?

Self-control is your best friend in moments like this. It will lead you to counsel in a visible space, perhaps in the presence of another counselor. Self-control will keep you from probing too deeply into salacious details you really don’t need to know. Finally, self-control will keep you focused on the Bible, reminding you she needs Christ and His Word more than you and your wisdom. This will discourage you from playing the savior, which can puff you up in her eyes and encourage you to tear down important boundaries.

Too many men have blamed the advances of a woman for their sin. Of course, every individual, male and female, will stand before God and give an account for his or her actions. But the pastor who stumbles in this area is not to blame his circumstances— which may include the immaturity of a sister in Christ. He is to look at his own heart and ask himself, “Why did I not exercise self-control?”

Brothers, as you read these words, how many respected, theologically sound church leaders can you think of who recently lost their ministry and tarnished the name of Christ and His church because they lacked self-control in the area of sexuality? Far too many. There are countless roads into sexual scandal, but there is only one result: destruction. How many pastors and church leaders are, right now, locked into a pattern of viewing sexually explicit material on their computers, smartphones, or television sets? Again, far too many. Sadly, they minister with the constant fear of being found out. Honestly, they know why their heart is cold to the Lord. The sexually immoral “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). This is why self-control is a piece of the fruit of the Spirit.

Obviously, pastors struggle with more than sexual purity. We are uniquely challenged in the arena of pride as well. Congregations tend to highly esteem their pastors and elders. In many ways, this is wonderful. After all, elders are worthy of honor (1 Tim. 5:17). But such honor shouldn’t be used as an excuse for a pastor to isolate himself. Far too many men lead as if they are clothed in bubble-wrap—beyond the need for correction. A brother has lost the fight for self-control if he thinks he is above critical feedback, in no need of accountability, or singularly responsible for the vitality of the ministry he leads. In cases like these, self-control is like truth serum. Even a little will helpfully remind us we are nothing more than stewards of a ministry belonging to Christ alone (Col. 1:18). This humility—fueled by self-control—will help us submit to the wisdom of others “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

Wherever you struggle, self-control is a fruit of the Spirit that appears only with difficulty. There’s a reason Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The Christian life is difficult. There is no easy path to travel, no broad entrance. We will find ourselves at war with sin, bloodied and bruised, before the last battle is won and the tears are gone (Rev. 21:4).

***

[ Editor’s note: The following excerpt is taken from Character Matters: Shepherding in the Fruit of the Spirit by Aaron Menikoff (©2020). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.]

Coveting a Seat at the Table: Embracing a New Testament Theology of Weakness

At my small country church in Missouri, we once had a Sunday School lesson in which we talked extensively about the Holocaust. Honestly, I don’t remember what the lesson subject was that sparked this discussion. However, one lady’s comment has stuck with me. She said, “Just imagine what good could have been done if Hitler had been saved – how many people could have heard the gospel!”

Her comment did not produce snarky cynicism in me, but genuine curiosity. I wondered, “What makes us think that?” Her sentiments are not unusual. It seems we evangelicals exult in the high-profiled who are outspoken about their faith. We love the politician who tweets out Bible verses. I learned that Philippians 4:13 is the reference for “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” because of Tim Tebow’s eye black. Biblically speaking, Peter at Pentecost becomes our metric in preaching. Why wouldn’t God want us preaching the gospel to thousands? So, we become beside ourselves with joy when famous people do exactly that.

Hear me: I am not at all mad when thousands of people hear the gospel proclaimed or the name of Christ praised. But I think the lady in my Sunday School class reflected a sentiment many evangelicals hold: famous people can do more for the gospel. With their platforms and influence, they can do more good and reach more people in one 5-minute TV slot than we can do in years of ministry. We clamor for a seat at the table of the powerful, hoping that the powerful will use their influence for the sake of the gospel.

But I wonder if we have this exactly backward. I wonder if the ethic of Christ is not “get a seat at the table with the influential,” but actually “leave the house altogether and share a table with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.” In other words, Christians are not the most powerful when we have powerful people on our side; we are most powerful when we are weakest. Obscure. Away from the spotlight.

You do not need to go far in Scripture to learn that it is precisely the weak who inherit the kingdom of God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Luke is so bold to omit “in spirit” altogether so that what he really means are the materially poor. 1Of course, it’s not enough to be poor – it’s the poor who know their need for God who are blessed and receive the kingdom. The disciples later quarrel over who is the greatest(!). You might insert in their argument who can do the greatest. Jesus turns this worldly understanding on its head. “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43). Even the Lord of creation “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

It’s easy to memorize these passages and to have them on our lips. We exegete them and preach them. But do we really see the woman who teaches 5-year-olds from low-quality teaching material as greater than the preacher? I was having this discussion with my wife a few days ago. We had a lady who had only just returned from taking care of her mother-in-law 24/7, hand-and-foot. Did she talk about how hard it was? Nope. She only expressed her joy in being able to serve and her gratitude to God for always providing. And then she willingly sat out our Sunday service in order to serve more by teaching our elementary kids. It’s an honor to be in the presence of someone who is truly “the greatest in the kingdom.”

So, my question is, do we actually believe she is doing more for the kingdom than our great, Christian leaders and influencers? Does the widow who only gives two copper coins truly give more than the wealthy? The church that gives joyfully and sacrificially a fragment of much larger churches? The thing about leaders that we love is that it is easy to see their influence. Sunday school teachers, nursery workers, volunteers, and church secretaries don’t have near the same kind of output. Yet, are they truly the greatest? Greater than the amazing output of seminaries and seminary presidents, authors, and high-profile pastors?

I believe that’s the radical nature of what Jesus teaches us. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). There is something to be said about child-like faith, but the context for this appears in questions about “who is the greatest.” Children, in Jesus’ culture, were not the greatest. They were the least – no rights, no say-so, no influence. In fact, children are weak and often helpless. Yet, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). Indeed, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Under the cross, you have no power. You have no rights. Under the cross, you are stripped of everything that makes you human.

We often think of weakness in terms of bodily feebleness. That is, our weaknesses become sicknesses, broken bones, cancer, or something of that nature. I’m not denying these are weaknesses – they certainly are. But in terms of the New Testament weakness is a political, social, and cultural weakness. What does Paul’s list of weaknesses include? “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one.” How? “With far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger form rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

These are the things that made Paul great. The conclusion from all of this, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Weakness is the hallmark of a great Christian. And, believe it or not, it is weakness that propels the gospel forward. Paul will write from prison to the Philippians, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Not the gospel has spread despite my imprisonment, but because of it. Really? Yes. The gospel spreads because of prison-bar obscurity.

These days, you’ll often hear the phrase, “Speak truth to power.” When and where do we do that? Throughout the New Testament, when Christians had audience with power, they were in chains. They were prisoners. John the Baptist (Mark 6:17), Jesus (Matthew 26:57-27:26; Mark 14:53-15:20; Luke 22:66-23:25; John 18:12-19:16), and the disciples (Acts 4:1-22, 23:1-25:32) all stood before councils and kings and governors in the weakest possible posture, as prisoners. The pattern of the New Testament witness of speaking truth to power happens in chains, that is, in weakness.

Seeking a place at the table of the powerful isn’t wrong in itself. In fact, much good can come from it. But based on the consistent New Testament calls and witness, we must ask ourselves why we are so eager to find a place among the powerful. We think we are most powerful at the table; but the reality is, we are most powerful when we are most weak. After all, it is in our weakness that the power of Christ rests upon us and our ministries (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

References   [ + ]

1. Of course, it’s not enough to be poor – it’s the poor who know their need for God who are blessed and receive the kingdom.

Yahweh Remembers Us

It is Yahweh who remembered us in our low estate,
for his covenant faithfulness endures forever;
and snatched us from our foes,
for his covenant faithfulness endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
for his covenant faithfulness endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his covenant faithfulness forever.
– Psalm 136:23–26

Time and again Scripture attributes salvation solely to the Lord. It does not attribute salvation to anything in us or done by us. The subject of this passage is Yahweh, the covenant Lord who delivered his rebellious people Israel from destruction in the Red Sea. We know that the subject of the Psalm is Yahweh the sovereign Lord because v.1 begins with a doxology to his name: “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his covenant faithfulness (חֶסֶד) endures forever.” When Scripture says that Yahweh is “good” (טוֹב) it is usually in connection with two things, his nearness and his covenant faithfulness, which term occurs in every verse (26x) of the Psalm. This Psalm of Ascents is a celebration of Yahweh’s promise making and promise keeping. We give thanks because he is above all so-called gods. He alone spoke creation into existence (vv.4–9). He alone saves his people (vv. 10–15). It is he alone who delivered his church into a good place (vv. 16–22).

The praise and doxology at the conclusion of the Psalm is in light of all that Yahweh has done: creation, salvation, and blessing.

Whom has he remembered? What does it mean for the sovereign Creator and Savior God to “remember”? These are fair questions. Let us think first about the latter. “To remember” means one thing when we speak of ourselves or other creatures and quite another when the subject is God. You and I do actually forget. In school, one might forget the answer to a math test. Later one might forget where he set his reading glasses. When the Lord is said to “remember,” it is a figure of speech. For us, time comes in a succession of moments. One moment we are in one room, the phone rings, and the next moment we forget what we were just doing. The Lord created the succession of moments but he transcends them. They are all present before him from all eternity. Some years ago J. B. Phillips published the provocative title, Your God Is Too Small. I confess that I have never read the book but the title is doubtless true. For one thing, we can not really conceive of the reality of God’s transcendence but we must confess it to be true. He is beyond our comprehending. Yet, he reveals true things about himself, which we must apprehend. One of those is that Yahweh makes and keeps promises. For the Psalmist to say that Yahweh, the covenant-making and keeping God, has remembered is to say that he does not forget his promises. The Israelites were sorely tempted to give up hope that the Lord would remember his promise but he did not forget it or them. In his good time he sent the mediator of the Old Covenant, Moses, and through him the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit delivered his son Israel out of bondage, through the wilderness, and into the land of promise. The church had to wait, in bondage, under suffering but finally, the savior came.

Whom has he remembered? His church. He constituted a covenant people and redeemed them from destruction. All those whom the Father gave to the Son shall not be lost. That has always been true. It was true under the types and shadows. After all, Jude says that it was Jesus who led them out of Egypt, which gets us to how he saves. The Psalmist uses a colorful word to describe the salvation of the Old Covenant church: “snatched.” It sometimes means suddenly to grab something from someone, like an earring from an ear. So it was that Yahweh snatched the church from the jaws of Pharaoh and death. Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness is forever. He gave food to his people in the wilderness, a type of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10:1–4). The Rock who was with them in the wilderness, that Rock was Christ. He sustained his people because he keeps covenant with his church: “I will be a God to you and to your children” (Genesis 17:7).

There is one more thing to consider: why he saves. He saves because of his covenant faithfulness. We give thanks to the God of heaven because his covenant faithfulness is immutable and endless. Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness is not limited to his Old Covenant church, Israel. Moses was a savior but he was not the Savior. That one was still to come and he did come. In the fulness of time, born of a virgin, born under the law, for our salvation. With the Psalmist we rejoice in Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness. He has not forgotten us. All the types and shadows, all the bloodshed, came to its end in the cross and the tomb in which they laid the Lamb of God. Salvation really came. The promise was fulfilled and, in his covenant faithfulness, he did not leave the Lamb in the tomb. He was raised for our justification. So our hope has been vindicated. We wait expectantly, and not as those who have no reason to hope. God the Son was in our midst. Hundreds of our brothers and sisters saw and heard him preach. They saw the miracles. Some of them were the direct recipients of his wonders and power. All of us are the recipients of his marvelous salvation. All of us who believe have been raised from death to life, granted true faith, union with the risen Christ, and adoption as sons. We are seated with him in the heavens. In him, we have access to the holy of holies.

As he came so he shall come again, this time in glory and power. We wait, but we wait as those who have already seen, as those who have been seen and known, as those redeemed from sin, the flesh, and the devil.

Yahweh remembers. He keeps covenant. Wait expectantly. Jesus is coming.

Maranatha!

What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About — A Review

[DeRouchie, Jason. What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2013.]

INTRODUCTION

Jason DeRouchie is the editor and primary contributor of this “multi-author, book-by-book, manageable, thematic survey of the Old Testament” (23). The stated thesis of this book from the very beginning is to present a “gospel-saturated and text-based,  portrayal of the Old Testament as foundation for a fulfillment found in the New Testament and celebrating the hope of Messiah and God’s kingdom as it is progressively disclosed in the Old Testament’s literary flow” (23). The seventeen contributors to this work are representative of “fourteen of the finest conservative, evangelical schools across North America” (24). DeRouchie was the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary when this survey was created. He has since moved to Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is serving as the Research Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Theology. In addition to the present volume, DeRouchie has written, co-authored, contributed to, and edited a plethora of books and journals on the understanding and interpretation of the OT such as How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology, Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course Between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, and many others.

SUMMARY

What sets this OT survey apart from the others in its genre is its demonstration of how the “Kingdom through covenant climaxes in Christ” (30). DeRouchie states that the target audience for this book is college and seminary students and local churches (23). It seeks to avoid getting lost in the weeds and is more of a birds-eye view of the progressive revelation of Yahweh’s covenantal development pertaining to its Christological trajectory. My review of this survey will focus on the lens through which it seeks to offer so that we would read the OT Scriptures with Christian eyes. To summarize the book, it is best to discuss the multi-faceted way in which DeRouchie frames and elucidates the OT by means of the arrangement of the OT books, how the OT and NT parallel one another in proclaiming one grand narrative, and God’s Kingdom building plan in Christ.

First, DeRouchie and others emphasize the arrangement of the OT from the Hebrew tradition and its significance in undergirding the very thesis of this survey. The full title is: What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible. The subtitle provides foreshadowing for what is to come. What is not implied by the subtitle is that the content oF Jesus’ Bible is different than the one we have today. Rather, it is highlighting that unlike most Christian Bibles at present which arrange the OT by Law, History, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy, in Jesus’ day the Scriptures were arranged and structured differently. During Christ’s earthly ministry the same thirty-nine books we have that make up the OT were themselves arranged in a different order and grouped under the following divisions: Law (Torah), Prophets (Nevi’im), and the Writings (Kethuvim). This is why the Hebrew Bible is commonly referred to as the TaNaK.

We can be confident this is the framework through which Jesus himself arranged the OT Scriptures in due to his post-resurrection statement: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44, emphasis mine). As DeRouchie clarifies, “In most reckonings, Psalms is the first main book in the Writings (though prefaced by Ruth), and in Jesus’ words it appears to provide a title for the whole third division” (42). DeRouchie offers two significant takeaways from this three-division structure that are readily apparent. First, it is both “justified” and “necessary” for the whole Bible to be put together by a historical narrative that is in chronological order (43). In other words, we need to follow the flow of God’s redemptive purposes in space and time and how they unfold from creation. Structuring the OT Bible according to the Hebrew arrangement grants and reinforces this. Secondly, DeRouchie posits that we can read the overarching message of Scripture far more clearly when it is placed within this three-part division as it is the very lens through which Jesus and the apostles preached the message of God’s kingdom (46).

Fascinatingly, DeRouchie argues the following, “Yahweh’s special covenant relationship with Israel, instituted at Sinai, controls the Old Testament’s three divisions. The old (Mosaic) covenant is established in the Law, enforced in the Prophets, and enjoyed in the Writings” (46). He then claims the arrangement of the NT books parallels the Old. He asserts, “the new covenant is established in the Gospels, enforced in Acts and the Pauline Epistles, and enjoyed in the General Epistles and Revelation” (48). Moreover, in order to synthesize the OT’s message DeRouchie demonstrates we need to understand the Bible’s Frame (Content: What?), Form (Means: How?), Focus (Purpose: Why?), and Fulcrum (Sphere: Whom?) (49-50). These questions are asked in the introduction of each survey of individual OT books to display the consistent message throughout the OT Scriptures. DeRouchie synthesizes the message of the entire Bible then as God’s Kingdom (What?), through covenant (How?), for his glory (Why?), in Christ (Whom?) (51). From this understanding, the OT can be read as the foundation of the NT while the NT fulfills the OT.

Before DeRouchie puts forward these arguments regarding the arrangement of the OT Scriptures and how we synthesize their message he gives an overview of the entire Bible’s message using the acronym KINGDOM. It unpacks each stage of God’s redemptive plan (34-40). He begins with the creation, fall, and flood, and how these constitute Kickoff and Rebellion. Next, we see that God by his grace elects and consecrates a people for himself through his Instrument of blessing, namely the patriarchs. Following this we see the Nation redeemed and commissioned through the Exodus, Sinai, and the wilderness. After this Yahweh grants conquest and establishes Government in the Promised Land. This is followed by exile and initial restoration in the Dispersion and return. These first five letters of KINGDOM are the foundation we see laid and revealed in the OT.

The last two letters culminate in the person and work of Christ and his church in the NT. When Jesus came in the fullness of time, he inaugurated the Kingdom of God and from his earthly ministry until his return the Overlap of the ages is in play in which the church lives in the already-not-yet. Finally, upon Christ’s return and kingdom consummation, the Mission will be accomplished. Derouchie takes this acronym and situates the books of the Bible accordingly. What is important about the arrangement of books and the chronological development found in the Hebrew tradition is that when you read the OT with this structure against the backdrop of this KINGDOM overview the flow of God’s redemptive plan in history is made clear.

CRITICAL EVALUATION 

What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About will reshape how one reads the OT. It puts forward a significant argument for Christians to consider reading the Bible with the same framework Jesus did. What I found most edifying and refreshing in reading through this survey was how DeRouchie and the others reframed the way in which their readers encounter the OT. In his opening overview, he forecasts that he will both promote how foundational the OT is in grounding what will be fulfilled in the NT and prove the lasting relevance of the OT through continually making connections to the NT and the twenty-first century (23-24). Throughout the entire survey, it is demonstrated how the Bible is a single text with a cohesive plot structure that culminates in Christ. This birds-eye view thematic survey does not get lost in the weeds as it demonstrates the overarching theme of the OT’s proclamation and anticipation of Christ. However, it by no means is untethered from the text. Rather, it profoundly and convincingly underscores what the text itself emphasizes.

Another remarkable aid this work provides for its readers is its use of over one hundred and sixty sidebars in making these connections between the OT and NT. Additionally, it has almost two-hundred high-resolution photographs, over eighty charts, and tables, and twelve colorful maps (24). This survey is engaging, interactive, and its sidebars and charts help its readers better grasp the underlying arguments.

Again, the underlying thesis of this work is to promote a gospel-saturated and text-based portrayal of the OT and its progressive disclosure literarily in celebrating and anticipating the coming kingdom of Christ (23). Each chapter surveys a book of the OT to determine what its inspired author desired to communicate. To defend its claim, it offers three to six themes of the lasting message of each OT book and how it reinforces the underlying thesis. Through the consistent and repetitive thematic presentation of the OT connecting with the NT it becomes abundantly clear that this survey’s theme is not manipulation of the text, instead it makes plain what the Biblical text says. Christians are to read the OT as Scripture, its story is our story, and when we begin to see the gospel-saturated and Christological nature of the OT we are left in awe at the organic connection between the two testaments of Scripture.

In my estimation, this organic connection is the work’s greatest strength. In comparison to other OT surveys What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About separates itself by its relentless commitment to demonstrate the Messianic-bent inherent to its message. Other surveys in this genre (e.g., Eugene Merrill’s An Historical Survey of the Old Testament and Gleason Archer’s A Survey of Old Testament Introduction) tend to focus so closely on the tree that is a specific OT passage that they miss the forest which is both OT and NT and how that passage integrates with the unified whole. DeRouchie and his team claim the OT lays the foundation for the coming Messiah and then demonstrate this conviction over and over again. Whereas other OT surveys tend to make interesting historical elucidations that can be helpful in understanding specific passages, this survey allows its readers to see the whole picture and how it comes together in Christ.

The only weakness I noticed in reading this OT survey was that due to it being a thematic survey it intentionally avoids some of the hot-button issues that other OT studies may deal with. Readers who would demand a position on matters such as creationism, the Nephilim, or other such specific debates may be disappointed. The focus of this work is to lay the groundwork for the redemptive plan of God culminating in Christ. So, I am hesitant to call this a “weakness,” as this survey is not attempting to be exhaustive.

CONCLUSION

I believe this to be the best introductory OT survey available. Its desire to exalt and savor Christ in laying the foundation for the gospel through this thematic unpacking of the OT is exemplary. I will turn to this survey again in the future and commend it to others who want to make sense of the OT. As new covenant believers, we must read all of Scripture through a Christological lens. I wish I had read this book in Bible college as the surveys I worked through years ago were helpful, but I was often left confused on how to comprehend the text’s impact on the overarching narrative of Scripture. It came across as disconnected and as though I was reading the narrative of a different people, rather than of those to whom I am related by faith in Christ. I would highly commend this survey for college and seminary students as well as pastors and their churches. This survey will go far to help the evangelical church see the Old Testament as the essential part of the Christian Bible that it is.

The Christian’s Song in Babylon

Several weeks ago, my pastor, Chris Gordon, reflected briefly in his morning sermon on Psalm 137. I have been meditating on it since.

The theme of the believer’s exile in this world is frequently sounded in Scripture. Abraham was a pilgrim, who was looking for a city, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10). The same was true of all the other believers in the Old and New Testaments. Our Lord Jesus did not come to build an earthly kingdom. Had he intended to do so, he would have called down legions of angels to defeat his enemies (Matthew 26:53) but he did not because his agenda did not include setting up an earthly, this-worldly kingdom. He did authorize representatives of his kingdom, the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of heaven. The apostles were those representatives and they established embassies, congregations of Christ’s church. He established ministers, elders, and deacons to preach the Word, to oversee discipline, and to minister to the practical needs of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom. They did that, however, as “sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11).

ISRAEL IN EXILE

In Psalms 137, the psalmist laments his pilgrim status and helps us to understand what it means to live between the accomplishment of salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ and its gracious and sovereign application in this life by the Holy Spirit, in the church, and the consummation of all things. Jerusalem fell to Edom, Esau’s descendants, in 586 B.C. The Israelites were carried away to Babylon because of their infidelity to the Lord. The Babylonians mocked the Jews and their God and thus the Psalmist laments.

How Shall We Sing the LORD’s Song?

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

It is a powerful song but not the kind of song we typically hear today in church. The songs sung in most evangelical congregations today are upbeat, uplifting, and therapeutic. This is a brutally honest song. It is a sad song. It is a compelling song. It is a song that looks backward to those days when God’s church was in the promised land, gathering in the temple, singing the songs that God had inspired by his Spirit (i.e., Psalms thus far given). It also looks back to the destruction of Jerusalem. The sadness is almost palpable.

It is a present song. It reflects on the humiliation of the Jews and upon their frustration. How to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land indeed? Their captors mocked God’s people. They taunted them by demanding that they sing the songs celebrating God’s salvation. Doubtless they mocked them for trusting in the Lord: “Where is your God now, Jew? Sing louder, maybe he cannot hear you?”

It is present in another sense. Despite his circumstances, he pledges faithfulness to the God whom he knew to be faithful. To seal his pledge he invokes judgment upon himself if he forgets the City of David and God’s faithfulness.

It is also a forward-looking song but not in the way we might expect. It looks forward to judgment. There is what scholars call an “imprecation.” He calls for the destruction of God’s enemies, of the Edomites who had taken God’s people captive, who mocked God and his people.

SINGING THE SONGS OF ZION

Zion is a powerful and important word in Scripture. It has multiple senses, but two of the most important are references to the mountain upon which God met with his people in the Old Testament and to the ultimate meeting place with God, the heavenly Zion, to which Hebrews 12 refers:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18–24).

The writer to the Hebrews was reflecting on how we, in the New Covenant, sing the songs of Zion as we wait for the new heavens and the new earth. We have not come to Sinai but to Zion. The former was frightening but it is nothing compared to the New Covenant reality. We have come not to Sinai but to “the city of the living God.” We have come to angels, to the heavenly church, and to Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant.

How can we sing the songs of the Lord, the songs of Zion, in a foreign land? We do so recognizing that we are in a foreign land. This is the Lord’s earth but it is not our home. There is no glory age promised in this world but there is a glorious home and there is a coming judgment, and there is coming consummation of the new heavens and the new earth. We sing them because we are exiles and pilgrims. We sing them in hope.

Now is not the time for judgment. Now is the time to announce the coming judgment and the free salvation available now to all whom the Lord gives new life and true faith. The judgment is coming but it is not here. We should be careful about identifying Edomites but we should know that the coming judgment is part of Paul’s gospel: “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).

When the skeptics mock, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4), we have an answer. It is to point them to the past and to remind them they are not the first to scoff:

For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:5–7).

The flood came and took away all the scoffers and so will it be when the Son of Man comes. Until then, like Noah, we call all to turn and to trust the Savior. When they call us to sing the songs of Zion, we do so joyfully, to give witness to the truth of salvation and judgment, even as we eagerly wait for the Lord.

Siren Songs, Odysseus, and Us

What is the most important “voice” in your life? Who do you listen to most intently? What words have the most influence over choices you make throughout the day?

Perhaps it’s the voice of your heart, how you feel about something at any moment. “If it feels right, I’ll do it” is the functional philosophy of the world. Or perhaps it’s the voice of social media that drives your decision making and your priorities in a day? You jump into Facebook or Twitter and something is triggered in you. Based on that trigger, emotions are felt, and certain conduct follows. In an election year, perhaps the voice of politics has your allegiance. You find yourself hanging on every word coming out of the news talk shows and virtual Democratic and Republican conventions taking place. Or perhaps concerns about the economy have you listening non-stop to financial news as you wonder anxiously about your ability to pay the bills.

SIREN SONGS OF THE WORLD

If we let them, these voices can become like the Siren Song in The Odyssey. You may recall Homer’s epic poem featuring the Greek hero Odysseus as he journeys back to Ithaca over a ten-year period following the Trojan War. In Book XII, Circe gave Odysseus several prophecies regarding his future. She first warned him about the Sirens:

First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear; but if you like you can listen yourself, for you may get the men to bind you as you stand upright on a cross piece half way up the mast, and they must lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself, that you may have the pleasure of listening. If you beg and pray the men to unloose you, then they must bind you faster.

The allure of the Sirens proved too strong for many men as we are given an awful picture of “a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.” Enchanting voices leading men to utter ruin. But even with this dreadful picture, Circe knows how tempting it will be for Odysseus to listen to the Siren’s song. Therefore, she gives detailed instructions on how to withstand the deceptive beauty of the Sirens: wax for the crew’s ears and Odysseus fastened tightly to the mast of the ship. And when he begs to be set free so he can run headlong into the trap, bind him still tighter.

Having heard this prophesy and others, Odysseus thought it wise to inform his crew members of the danger ahead as they continued their journey home:

Then, being much troubled in mind, I said to my men, “My friends, it is not right that one or two of us alone should know the prophecies that Circe has made me, I will therefore tell you about them, so that whether we live or die we may do so with our eyes open. First, she said we were to keep clear of the Sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers; but she said I might hear them myself so long as no one else did. Therefore, take me and bind me to the crosspiece halfway up the mast; bind me as I stand upright, with a bond so fast that I cannot possibly break away, and lash the rope’s ends to the mast itself. If I beg and pray you to set me free, then bind me more tightly still.”

Before they knew it, Odysseus and the crew were in earshot of the Sirens:

I had hardly finished telling everything to the men before we reached the island of the two Sirens, for the wind had been very favourable. Then all of a sudden it fell dead calm; there was not a breath of wind nor a ripple upon the water, so the men furled the sails and stowed them; then taking to their oars they whitened the water with the foam they raised in rowing. Meanwhile I look a large wheel of wax and cut it up small with my sword. Then I kneaded the wax in my strong hands till it became soft, which it soon did between the kneading and the rays of the sun-god son of Hyperion. Then I stopped the ears of all my men, and they bound me hands and feet to the mast as I stood upright on the cross piece; but they went on rowing themselves. When we had got within earshot of the land, and the ship was going at a good rate, the Sirens saw that we were getting in shore and began with their singing.

An ominous calm surrounded the sailors. It was as if the Sirens wanted nothing distracting the men from hearing their voices loud and clear. They wanted their prey’s undivided attention. Having it, what did they sing?

“Come here,” they sang, “renowned Odysseus, honour to the Achaean name, and listen to our two voices. No one ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our song—and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.” 

The Sirens engaged in tricks as old as the devil: flattery, peer pressure, and deception. And all this wickedness cloaked in the façade of irresistible delight.

They sang these words most musically, and as I longed to hear them further I made signs by frowning to my men that they should set me free; but they quickened their stroke, and Eurylochus and Perimedes bound me with still stronger bonds till we had got out of hearing of the Sirens’ voices. Then my men took the wax from their ears and unbound me.

Thankfully for Odysseus, they were prepared for the onslaught. The wax worked and the crew was loyal to their captain for as he tried to persuade them to untie him, they obediently bound Odysseus “with still stronger bonds.”

A METAPHOR FOR THE CHRISTIAN LIFE 

The world is full of Siren songs—enchanting voices that don’t appear to present any real danger. They allure us with flattery, peer pressure, and deception of all kinds. These “songs” sing false promises of fame or wealth or power or peace. We listen to them to our certain peril. Indeed, when we rush headlong into the way of these Sirens, we join a heap of dead bodies rotting away “under the sweetness of their song.”

There is more metaphorical material in this poem. Notice the realism of Circe. She knows something of human nature. We are easily tempted, and some temptations are very powerful. Given this, she explains to Odysseus what he must do to withstand the Sirens. He needs a loyal crew and a mast upon which to be bound.

As Christians, we have a loyal crew and a mast: the church and the Word of God. Indeed, our loyal crew is the brothers and sisters in Christ who are doing everything they can to help us stay firmly bound to the mast of the Scriptures. We labor and strive with one another for the faith of the gospel against all the false gospels of the world. In manifold ways we remind one another of the foundational truth of Hebrews 1:1-4:

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. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

There is no greater voice than the voice of Jesus. Only his voice, heard in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is an utterly true voice. All other voices will ultimately lead to the shipwreck of our faith (Cf., 1 Timothy 1:19). This is why God’s voice broke out of the cloud and declared, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7).

The voices of the world are singing tyrants. What we need is a singing Savior. And this we have in Jesus. Consider the astonishing song of God over his people in Zephaniah 3:17:

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

This heavenly song will lead not to death but to life; not to shipwreck but to safe harbor. It is a song more beautiful than anything the world could ever sing. Can you hear it?

Equipped with a loyal crew and firmly bound to the mast of God’s Word, let us listen intently to the voice of Jesus and follow his song all the way home.

Between Conscience and Defiance

INTRODUCTION

Grace Community Church met for worship this past Sunday. Ordinarily, that would not be news. But we are not living in ordinary times. In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the State of California has forbidden churches to meet indoors for worship. This comes after California had opened up and allowed businesses (e.g., barbershops and restaurants) to resume. The summer spike, which the media insists had nothing to do with the 60 days (and counting) of protests and riots but which even the Public Health Officer of Los Angeles County conceded probably did have an effect, prompted the governor to mandate the restriction on indoor dining, cosmetology, worship, etc. This whipsaw effect of the latest decision, combined with fairly obviously partisan, corrupt, incoherent, inconsistent, and, according to a vocal, persuasive minority of United States Supreme Court justices, restriction on constitutionally protected behavior has fostered mistrust of public health officers, doubt, confusion, frustration, and anger.

HERE THEY STAND

Grace Community Church published a statement last week, “Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church.” Their principal argument is explicit in the title. They refused to argue for their right to gather indoors on the basis of the Constitution or Supreme Court decisions or dissents. They appealed mainly to the Scriptures and their congregational statement of faith. They addressed Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:18, both of which enjoin submission by Christians and even the visible church to the civil magistrate, but they deny that the civil magistrate has any “jurisdiction” over the church: “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church” (italics original). They do not seem to distinguish between indoor and outdoor gatherings and argue civil authorities have “exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction.” They reject any restrictions on the number of people who are able to gather arguing, “[w]hen officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church.” Thus, they declare, “we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

They do make some appeal to church and American history:

As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

They also appeal to “Calvin’s Geneva” where “church officials at times needed to fend off attempts by the city council to govern aspects of worship, church polity, and church discipline.” This is true. GCC also sides with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists who judged the Church of England “but halfly Reformed” and even to the Great Ejection of 1662, in which “the Puritans” were ejected from their pulpits for non-conformity. Their second argument, mostly contained in an addendum, is that the public health authorities in the State of California and Los Angeles County are wrong about Covid-19 and how to respond to it: “But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong, and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.” This leads us to our next point.

WITHOUT MASKS OR DISTANCE

Photos of the service suggest that most people gathered for the service without masks or without social distance. When I asked about this on social media, the response by those defending GCC was almost uniform: masks and social distancing are of no medical value in preventing the transmission of Covid-19. The other argument made by those favoring GCC’s statement and defiance is that the state’s imposition of masks and social distancing is an infringement upon Christian liberty.

This matter may not remain theoretical for long. According to news media reports, the L.A. County Department of Public Health “is investigating and will be reaching out to the church leaders to let them know they need to comply with the Health Officer Order.” Thus, it seems that GCC’s decision to meet indoors and even to ignore the mask and distance requirements may provoke some sort of showdown between the church and the county health department.

According to Tulsa, OK public health officials, there is a link between President Trump’s rally there in late June and a rise in Covid-19 cases. Assuming that there were some among the thousands gathered for the GCC service who were asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, we shall have to wait to see if there are any consequences for the health of those present and for those with whom they came into contact.

QUESTIONS AND ANALYSIS: IS THIS AN ACTS 5:29 MOMENT?

Regular readers of my work will know that I have been seeking to apply Acts 5:29 to the church’s response to the Covid-19 regulations. I’ve done so aware that Christians will come to different conclusions. I have only asked that, since we are dealing with an inference from Scripture, Christians respect the liberty of Christians who disagree with them. Thus, in that spirit, though I disagree with GCC’s decision to meet indoors, I understand and respect their convictions.

That said, there are some aspects of their statement and behavior that deserve scrutiny.

  1. As a Reformed-confessing Christian (e.g., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards), I heartily affirm their declaration that Christ is the only head of the church (Belgic art. 31; Heidelberg Catechism 50; WCF 25.6). Neither the Bishop of Rome nor a civil magistrate has a right to require the church to do in worship what God has not himself instituted. God’s Word alone (sola scriptura) is the unique and final authority for the church’s theology, piety, and practice. The Lordship of Christ over his church, however, does not free the church as an institution from obligations common to human society. GCC seems to be unaware of Calvin’s distinction of a “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen). We submit to Christ’s saving Lordship in the church and his general dominion in the shared, common realm of public life. Those things intersect whenever the church gathers visibly.
  2. GCC does not appear to have distinguished between meeting indoors and outdoors. The GCC statement complains that the state will not permit them to gather for worship but that does not seem to be quite accurate. The “Safer Los Angeles” regulations updated July 16, 2020, seem to permit outdoor gatherings where participants practice social distancing and wear masks. In San Diego County our congregation (Escondido United Reformed Church) has responded to California’s (fairly Draconian) regulations by staying at home (under phase 1) and then by meeting in a drive-in service in the parking lot, and now we are meeting out of doors, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, in a nearby school courtyard under tents and umbrellas. I understand that meeting out of doors is inconvenient and even uncomfortable. In some places (e.g., the Inland Valleys of California), it is probably not possible for most of the day during the summer. If GCC can and may meet out of doors, does that not alleviate the problem?
  3. On the rationale offered by the church, it is not clear that they recognize the state’s authority to regulate any part of church life. For example, the California Retail Food Code requires “all food employees preparing, serving, or handling food or utensils shall wear hair restraints, such as hats, hair coverings, or nets, which are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting non-prepackaged food, clean equipment, utensils, linens, and unwrapped single-use articles.” I assume that GCC agrees with and submits to these sorts of regulations. I assume that GCC has fire extinguishers and bathrooms that accommodate the disabled. If so, why not masks and distancing during worship? Are such restrictions really a violation of Christian liberty, as some seem to be arguing? Such arguments seem to misunderstand the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty. It holds that no one has a right to bind the conscience in moral matters, on which God has spoken. Whether to eat meat offered to idols is a matter of Christian liberty (see 1 Corinthians 8; 10). There are divinely imposed restrictions on whether a Christian may eat meat offered to idols. If a pagan neighbor invites a Christian to what is a religious (sacred) meal, as opposed to a common or secular meal, the Christian may not partake. A Christian should not partake if in doing so will cause another to stumble. Beyond that, he is free. Wearing a mask is not a religious Is the mask-wearing food handler violating God’s moral law? Is a hairnet contrary to God’s moral law? It is a matter of public health. It is true that the authorities have lied to the public about masks and have been incoherent, first telling us that they do no good and then telling us that they are essential but, according to God’s Word, they get to be incoherent and inconsistent. Nero was not a nice man. He was a ruthless, narcissistic pagan, who set Christians on fire in order to cover up a business scandal. We were still obligated to submit to him and honor what the dissenting English Reformed might have called “God’s silly vassal.” How are multiple outdoor services, with social distancing and masks, contrary to God’s Word?
  4. Neither Romans 13 nor 1 Peter 2:18 condition our obedience even to pagan magistrates upon their being just, fair, or right on these issues. The test is whether they have commanded us to disobey God. Clearly, GCC did not regard the initial restriction, in principle, as contrary to God’s moral will. Thus, GCC’s about-face seems about as coherent as the state’s policies.
  5. The GCC statement cites Acts 5:29 but does not reckon with what the text says in context. Has GCC made the case that the public health restrictions currently in place would require us to disobey God? The statement seems to reflect some tension in this regard. It recognizes that the church did submit to the Phase 1 restrictions but argues that the restrictions have gone on too long. This fact places the congregation in the uncomfortable position of sitting in judgment over the medical judgment of the public health authorities. GCC, however, does not seem uncomfortable making that judgment. This gets us back to the twofold kingdom. If, in GCC’s judgment, the civil magistrate has exceeded its authority in restricting worship, has not GCC exceeded its professed authority by making a medical judgment about public health? Christ is Lord of all, but does that empower GCC to make medical and public health decisions that potentially jeopardize thousands of people? Is GCC defending their sphere sovereignty or Christendom?
  6. Were the building on fire, GCC would have safely evacuated everyone present in the interests of public safety. Were it the case that the leadership of GCC believes that masks and social distancing contributed to the safety of the congregation, they would have required them just as they require attenders to be reasonably clothed and to evacuate in case of fire. Even in the case that the GCC leadership evidently discounts the value of masks and social distancing, have they adequately accounted for their neighbors, Christian and non-Christian. The statement says that non-Christians will not understand why GCC felt compelled to meet. That is likely true. But what if the photos of the assembly showed congregants masked and distanced? Might that have mitigated concerns by non-Christians who, after the service and all week long, will now come into contact with attenders from GCC? Might it have sent a signal to the watching world that GCC does love their neighbors? As it was, the refusal to wear masks or distance looked like a cultural-political statement as much as a religious statement.
  7. The early Christians were martyred not because they had no regard for their neighbors but because they would not conform to the Roman demands that the Christians conform to the state religion by denouncing Christ and making an offering to the Romans gods. Those Christians, of course, were forbidden by God’s Word to practice idolatry and many of them went to the stake and to the lions out of fidelity to the Word of God. Our apologists (e.g., Justin the Martyr c. 150 AD) did not prescribe social or public health policy to the pagan government. They only asked that the Christians be left alone to worship according to the dictates of conscience. They asked, in effect, for a secular Instead of implicitly lamenting the death of Christendom, GCC would have done better to harken to the early church.

The Gospel through Cancer

[Editor’s note: This article was first published in Tabletalk magazine in 2011. Given its continued relevance in our pandemic age, we are publishing it here.]

***

I recently sat with my wife in the waiting room at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. We were there to meet with Dr. Lupe Salazar to receive the results of Julia’s latest PET/CT scans. The goal: to determine if the cancer was progressing. This drill is an example of our “new normal” since the diagnosis of stage 4-breast cancer on Mother’s Day weekend in 2009.

Julia and I talk a lot. In fact, there is no one I would rather visit with on a daily basis. But in oncology waiting rooms we often find ourselves quiet. Cancer clinics have a way of making you measure your words. And as you consider and feel the weight of why you’re there, common conversations often yield to silence.

Of course, the iPhone is never far away and in the silence of one’s thoughts, the urge to tweet can become irresistible. Here’s what I wrote that day:

Seminary course suggestion: spend three afternoons a week for a semester in a cancer clinic with your mouth shut watching and listening.

I was moved to write those words because of what I was witnessing in the waiting room all around me. Emotions like concern, despair, anger, and bitterness were obvious as I studied the faces, watched the body language, and listened to some of the spoken words. But there were also clear examples of hope and joy as individuals and families came and went. I was gripped by the fact that one of the front-desk assistants spoke to us freely about the “bad day” she was having and how unfortunate it was given that it wasn’t yet noon. Clearly the fact that the couple dozen people in the waiting room were fighting cancer was lost on her—at least for the moment. The cancer patients could just as well have been waiting for a haircut. Alas, for this employee it was just another day at work filled with mundane tasks of checking in and scheduling people.

The pastorate is all about God and people. As pastors, we have the wonderful (and terrible) privilege of shepherding people to God in Christ every day. Cancer clinics are an indispensable resource for pastors as we strive for faithfulness in our calling because they keep us grounded in the greatest realities in the universe. The idea of having seminary students spend consistent time in oncology waiting rooms (not to mention surgery center waiting rooms) seems more-than-appropriate given the things these students will be facing in their churches once called. This practice has the added benefit of helping train the future pastor to make sure his doctrine is always meeting life. Pity the church that has a pastor with mere book knowledge.

But these laboratories are not just for pastors. Cancer clinic waiting rooms can be a tremendous resource for all people regardless of vocation.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the cancer clinic waiting room reminds us that our lives are a vapor; that our days are all numbered; that He gives us life and breath and all things and, therefore, we are utterly dependent creatures; that sin is real and has a million tragic consequences; that pride is ridiculously ugly and meekness wonderfully beautiful; that we are called to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who weep; that people are either saved or lost; that God’s grace is real, His Son all-sufficient, and through the cross cancer will one day be no more.

We must demand that pastors live in these awesome realities so that local churches are filled with members who live in these awesome realities—because they will in one form or another, sooner or later.

Cancer clinics (if I may adapt one of C.S. Lewis’ more recognized phrases) are God’s megaphone to a chronically amused people. Through cancer clinics, God brings the significance of the present and the weight of glory to bear on us in ways unlike anything else. Few things, by God’s grace, capture the mind and the heart like an oncology waiting room. And we need to be captured by God—pulled away from the numbing effects of the world. Our default instinct is to avoid pain, grief, and sorrow by covering these emotions with fun, levity, and leisure of all kinds. And I’m not immune to this sinful weakness that leaves me anesthetized to God. In other words, I need the cancer clinic waiting room because I need God.

When the waiting was over and our nurse called us back to Dr. Salazar’s office, we learned that Julia’s cancer was indeed progressing. But given her relatively young age (40) and the chemotherapy drugs still at our disposal, we re-staged and within a week began a new treatment regimen that is successfully pushing back on the tumors. We press on. And as we do we are, by God’s grace, watching and listening, praying for eyes to see and ears to hear the gospel through cancer.

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil — A Review

[Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New York: Image Books, 1992. 330 pp.]

INTRODUCTION

Heiko Oberman, Luther biographer and scholar of the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the late Middle Ages, was the Regents’ professor of history at the University of Arizona for seventeen years before his death in May, 2001 at the age of 70. Considered the preeminent Dutch Calvinist authority on late-medieval theology, Oberman has bequeathed to our generation several substantial works including, Dawn of the Reformation, The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought, The Impact of the Reformation, and The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications. Foremost among his books is the classic biography on Martin Luther: Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. First published in German in 1982 to critical acclaim, the American edition under review has been ably translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart.

SUMMARY

Oberman sees in Luther a complex man who has been misunderstood in much of the historiography. Without giving adequate attention to the medieval context of Luther’s life and work, the reformer has been illegitimately studied through a modern lens. However, to simply say that Luther was in fact a man of the Middle Ages would be to miss the mark as well. For Oberman, Luther is to be understood in a devil-God dialectic: “It is not the ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or even ‘modern’ Luther we are looking for…our objective is Martin Luther between God and the Devil” (xix). Oberman makes no apologies for narrowly tailoring his view of Luther in this way for “Precisely this ‘narrow’ perspective will, in fact, open to us the total vista of the Reformation and the part it played in Luther’s time and life; how unexpected it was when it became reality; how imperiled it remained after Luther’s death” (xix). In examining the reformer through this devil-Christ dialectic, students of Luther are granted passage into “the total vista of the Reformation.” Oberman’s purpose in writing Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is to “grasp the man in his totality—with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time” (xix).

The thesis of Luther: Man Between God and the Devil may be summarized briefly. Convinced he and his generation were living in the Last Days, Luther saw himself as a prophet proclaiming the “Reformation-to-come”—the second coming of Christ when God would consummate His kingdom. This message is heralded against the backdrop of the Devil’s “counterreformation.” Oberman explains: “According to Luther’s prediction, the Devil would not ‘tolerate’ the rediscovery of the Gospel; he would rebel with all his might, and muster all his forces against it. God’s Reformation would be preceded by a counterreformation, and the Devil’s progress would mark the Last Days” (12). According to Oberman, Luther “never styled himself a ‘reformer.’ He did not, however, shrink from being seen as a prophet; he wanted to spread the Gospel as an ‘evangelist’” (79). Luther could not see himself as a reformer or his movement as a “Reformation” given his conviction that “reformation” is God’s work. “Hence it is not a question of Luther initiating or bringing on the reformation. From his point of view, all he or any Christian can do is to initiate reforms to better the world to such an extent that it can survive until the moment when God will put a final end to our chaos” (80; cf. 177).

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is divided into three parts with a total of eleven chapters. Acting as book-ends there is a prologue and an epilogue. Part I titled “The Longed-for Reformation” considers the Reformation as “A German Event,” “A Medieval Event,” and “An Elemental Event” (chapters 1-3). Part II considers “The Unexpected Reformation” while describing Luther’s development academically and spiritually and his fateful confrontation with Rome (chapters 4-6). Part III shows “The Reformation in Peril” with chapters considering Luther’s life as “between God and the Devil,” “Discord in the Reformation,” “Christianity between God and the Devil,” “Wedded Bliss and World Peace: In Defiance of the Devil,” and finally, “The Man and His Deeds” (chapters 7-11).

CRITICAL EVALUATION  

Among the many strengths of Oberman’s work is the advance of his thesis with painstaking attention to the historical details of Luther’s life and time. For example, chapter 1 sketches the importance of Frederick “the Wise” in protecting Luther’s role in the Reformation: “Without Frederick and his councilors, Cardinal Cajetan’s interrogation of Luther would have taken place in Rome and not on German soil. Without the Elector’s perseverance, the evangelical movement would have come to an end in 1518, to remain at best a dimly remembered chapter in church history. Luther the reformer and charismatic genius would never have existed, only Luther the heretic, who for a time enjoyed a certain degree of notoriety…” (21). In addition, we learn why Luther kept his distance from the national movement of his day. Oberman explains, “[For Luther] The German event is not the achievement of national glory, but rather repentance and reform” (46). A second strength is Oberman’s ability to give the reader insight into the emotional struggles of Luther without falling victim to reckless psychoanalysis of the reformer. In this, Oberman succeeds in accomplishing his purpose of grasping the man in his totality, namely, “with head and heart, in and out of tune with the temper of his time.” This skill is particularly on display in chapter 6 titled, “The Reformer Attacked” where Oberman asserts that it is Luther’s “fear of the Lord” that gave him the strength to resist the empire in Worms and “bear to be condemned as a heretic by Rome and damned as the Devil’s spawn” (187). Furthermore, Oberman helps the reader better understand Luther and his role in the Reformation by accepting Luther’s self-understanding of being an instrument in the hands of God: “Luther’s proclamation before the emperor in Worms, ‘Here I stand, God help me, Amen,’ is a trenchant expression of his certainty that contrary to his wishes and plans, God had made him His instrument” (178).

A fair question to ask of Oberman’s work is whether or not the totality of Luther can be understood through this devil-God dialectic. Lutheran scholar Eric Gritsch denies that this is possible “given the complexities of historiography.” While it is clear that Luther understood himself as a man caught up in a cosmic battle between God and the Devil, it is not clear that this is the only way of passage into “the total vista of the Reformation and the part it played in Luther’s time and life . . . .”

CONCLUSION  

Surely Oberman is correct when he states, “To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective. It is history ‘sub specie aeternitatis,’ in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity” (12). In Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Oberman has given the reader uncommon help in grasping this “unconventional perspective.” It is fitting that Oberman dedicated this work to the late Roland Bainton, for it is possible that Oberman’s work will succeed Bainton’s classic biography of Luther as the definitive work for our generation.