Friday, May 27, 2011

Ezekiel 33 and Simple Repentance

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XV, Section 2, we find this profound statement regarding repentance: "By it a sinner, out of the sight and sense, not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature and righteous law of God, and upon the apprehension of His mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments." We find almost identical wording in Question 76 of the Larger Catechism.

I love these expressions, and I am grateful to God for the wise men who summarized the teaching of the Bible on this subject in such succinct but profound words.

However, there is also a precious simplicity and child-like joy in the expressions of Scripture on the same matter. Consider the words of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:11), "Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?" Here we see the turning to which the Westminster Standards refer, but notice the appeal in them. Jehovah doesn't simply lay out the nature of repentance, but strenuously urges the elect to avail themselves of it.

And verse 19, "When the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by this." This is more of the dictionary-style definition we see in the Standards. As if God lays out for us precisely what repentance is, to ease our finding of it in our hearts.

And here, both in the words of the Standards and the words of God Himself, the nature of what He requires is laid out as simply as possible. Therefore, He adds this promise (verses 14-16), "though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, not doing injustice, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live." Is the very promise of Jehovah Himself enough?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Samuel 17, David, Goliath, and the Sovereignty of God

Vv. 19-26, "Now Saul and they and all the men of Israel were in the Valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. And David rose early in the morning and left the sheep with a keeper and took the provisions and went, as Jesse had commanded him. And he came to the encampment as the host was going out to the battle line, shouting the war cry. And Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage and ran to the ranks and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid. And the men of Israel said, 'Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.' And David said to the men who stood by him, 'What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?'"

Vv. 41-47, "And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, 'Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.' Then David said to the Philistine, 'You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hand.'"

This story has entered our common lexicon. Even the most biblically-illiterate person has heard of David and Goliath, and uses their names any time an apparent underdog defeats a better-provided opponent. However, that popular version of the story actually misses its significance.

First, consider Goliath. A last survivor of the race of giants, Joshua 11:22 (eleven and a half feet, or about four meters, tall, v. 4), heavily armored and weaponed. All of the greatest fighting men of Israel, even comparably accoutered, were too afraid even to face him.

Second, consider David, the youngest of eight sons (v. 12). In fact, he was even the youngest of the five sons who were too young to join the army (as implied by the fact that only the three eldest were at the battle, v. 13). He refused Saul's armor and sword (vv. 38-39). Instead, he approached the giant with just his shepherding staff and a sling with five stones ( v. 40). Both in his person and in his provisions, David was no match for this foe of all Israel.

What does David say? Verse 45, "You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, Whom you have defied." He counters the humanistic bullying of Goliath, not with human strength, reasoning, or arms, but with the name of Jehovah his God. Notice especially how this contrasts with Goliath's earlier curses in the names of his own pagan deities, verse 43. David takes these curses, not as a personal insult, but rather an aspersion against the God of Israel (vv. 26 and 45).

And now we see the real nature of this battle. David's words continue, verse 46-47, "This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hand." He understands that Jehovah is jealous for His own deity. And indeed, He could have struck down Goliath directly, with a mere thought. However, in His grace, God condescends to bless us His people, by allowing us to be the means that He uses for His purposes. David is just a boy, with only the weapons of his shepherding, facing a battle-hardened, heavily-armed literal giant. He is perfectly aware that he has no native ability to defeat this foe. Yet his faith assures him that his God is not limited by our powers and talents, but rather acts by His own power and intent.

The significance of this story isn't that Jehovah, the true and living God, has a guiding concern about borders and political competition. Rather, His concern is for His own glory. As He Himself says (Isaiah 42:8), "I am the LORD; that is My name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to carved idols." This is the exact principle that Goliath explicitly challenged! And subordinately, He is concerned for the safety and conversion of His elect people. As David says in verse 47, he intends that "all this assembly may know that the Lord saves..."

In the words of Paul (I Corinthians 1:27), the true moral of this story is that "God chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong." Is this not something we need to know in our own daily spiritual confrontations?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Isaiah's Vision of a Converted World

"It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that He may teach us His ways
and that we may walk in His paths.'
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."

- Isaiah 2:2-3

How much plainer can the scriptures be, than that the nations shall flow to the mountain of the Lord? The mountain of the Lord is Mt. Moriah, the Temple Mount, a type of the church (compare Isaiah 56:7, and Psalm 48:1). This prophecy is repeated verbatim in Micah 4:1. It is the second aspect of the prophecy of Daniel 2:35 (with 2:44): the Prophet Daniel saw the kingdom of God as a rock which smashed the great empires and then grew into a great mountain. Compare also Zechariah 8:3. Isaiah saw the peoples flocking to that mountain to be instructed by the Lord. "Law" here is not a reference to the Mosaic Law, but rather is an inclusive term for "teachings," as used in Psalm 119:18, etc.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Proper Dating of the Revelation of John

While I have long held to the necessarily-early dating of the writing of the Revelation, I am indebted for the reasoning below to Rev. Kenneth Gentry's book "Postmillennialism Made Easy."

The general view among evangelicals is that the Apostle John wrote the Revelation in the early 90's AD, during the persecution under Emperor Diocletian. Liberal theologians time it much later, and deny the apostolic authorship. However, I don't take that view into consideration. Gentry, and many in the preterist and postmillenialist crowd, time it about 25 years earlier, during the reign of Emperor Nero. I find their reasoning, based on the internal evidence, to be compelling.

First, John writes with a view of a standing Temple. Revelation 11:1-2 reads, "Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, 'Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.'" Since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70AD, as Jesus Himself prophesied in Matthew 24:2, then the Revelation must have been written before that date. Notice especially the parallel wording used by John here and the words of Jesus in Luke 21:24.

Now go down to Revelation 17:1-6, the vision of a seven-headed beast. Verse 9 then interprets the vision: the seven heads represent seven mountains, surely a reference to the renowned seven hills of Rome. Then verse 10 adds that the heads also represent seven kings. The presumption is strong that these would then be kings of Rome. John specifies that there were five past kings in the chain, one reigning currently, with his successor doomed to reign only briefly. The first seven emperors of Rome were Julius Caesar (49-44BC), Augustus (31BC-14AD, see Luke 2:1), Tiberius (14-37AD, see Luke 3:1), Gaius (37-41AD), Claudius (41-54AD, see Acts 11:28 and Acts 18:2), Nero (54-68AD. see Acts 28:19), and Galba (June, 68-January, 69AD). So, sixth Emperor Nero's death in 68 (followed by the six-month reign of Galba), requires that the Revelation have been written no later that his death on June 6, 68AD, an historically-objective circumstance not subject to anyone's theological presuppositions.

Where this leads me is to the expectation that John was describing the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the sacrificial system, in the Revelation. Not exhaustively, since I am conscious obviously that the resurrection and Second Coming are yet to be fulfilled. However, this is logically the predominant focus of the book. Not the European Union or Social Security numbers or the myriad of other passing fantasies that arise daily in the "prophetic" crowd, most-recently from Harold Camping.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Matthew 24 Teach a Future Tribulation?

"Jesus left the temple and was going away, when His disciples came to point out to Him the buildings of the temple. But He answered them, 'You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.' As He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?' And Jesus answered them, 'See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in My name, saying, "I am the Christ," and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.'"
- Matthew 24:1-8

Bits and pieces of this passage have been brought into modern parlance, primarily through the work of popular apocalyptic preachers, such as Hal Lindsay. Every time some foreign conflict is mentioned on the news, someone starts spouting about "wars and rumors of wars," and every earthquake is touted as proof of the coming rapture. However, there is very little critical thinking in these usages. Are they actually justified by the text?

My answer is no, they are not justified. Not only do I deny that Matthew 24 teaches a future tribulation, but I even insist that it is about events that happened long ago, indeed, soon after Jesus spoke these words. I suggest that the apocalyptic interpretation is not only not required by the text, but is actually forbidden by it. I can hear all the voices out there, bellowing, "What, are you CRAZY?!?!?!"

First, go a little further down the passage to verse 16, "
then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." Who is Jesus addressing with these warnings? Not people all over the world, but rather specifically in Judea! That is, He isn't warning of wars in general, but specifically in Judea (the area around modern Jerusalem). Nor is He warning of earthquakes in general, but rather specifically in that same area. This is reinforced by the parallel passage in Luke 21:20, "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near." There, Luke paraphrases "abomination of desolation" as "Jerusalem surrounded by armies," a situation that doesn't occur in the many conflicts in our modern era. Thus, the geographical references within the passage forbid its use as is popular in our time.

Second, the time references given by the Lord forbid a futuristic interpretation. Note His very words in verse 34, "Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place." He explicitly states that the events He is describing will occur within the general lifetimes of His audience. Some dispensationalists have tried to get around this verse by referring it to some future generation, in spite of His use of "this generation." However, their interpretations are excluded not only by the "this," though that would be sufficient, but also by other usages in its context. Just before, in Matthew 23:36, Jesus, speaking to the scribes and Pharisees, tells them, "Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation." He is referring to their judgment. Remember that our chapter and verse divisions are relatively modern, dating from the 1500's; they were not part of the inspired text. Matthew 23 and 24 are a continuous narrative, with no break in time between the "generation" of 23:36 and the "generation" of 24:34. Jesus is telling the hypocritical leaders of the Jewish nation that the hardness of their hearts will soon bring His retribution. When? In the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD, including the demolition of the temple (24:2, "not one stone left upon another") and the ending of the priestly and sacrificial system. Jesus came again, not in the salvific Second Coming that we yet look forward to, but in awful judgment on those who rejected and murdered Him. Matthew 24, describes a horrible tribulation, it is true, but for them, not for today's Christians.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Messianic Psalms and the Prosperity of the Gospel

Three of the Davidic Psalms are quoted frequently in the New Testament to refer to David's descendant, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. They also teach much regarding his mediatorial reign between His first and second advents.

King David, God's Hymn-Writer
Psalm 2:7-8, "The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten You. Ask of me, and I will make the nations Your heritage, and the ends of the earth Your possession." God the Father, speaking to the Son, promises Him all the nations, His merely to ask for. Did Jesus do so? Matthew 28:19 quotes Him, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." The Father promised and the Son received. Referring to this passage, Keil and Delitzsch explain, Jehovah "has appointed the dominion of the world to His Son: on His part, therefore, it needs only the desire for it, to appropriate to Himself that which is allotted to Him." Can this mean anything less than that the nations shall belong to Him?

Psalm 22:27-28 reads, "
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations." Again, the Lord's dominion is taken as the basis for the expectation that a time will come when the nations (not necessarily all individuals) will worship Him through His mediatorial Son. The Apostle Paul borrows this theme in Ephesians 1:20-22.

And finally Psalm 110:1-3, "
The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.' The Lord sends forth from Zion Your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of Your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of Your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of Your youth will be Yours." After His ascension, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Father's throne in heaven, compare Acts 2:33, Hebrews 1:3, and Hebrews 10:13. There He receives the Father's promise to bring all things under His dominion. Notice especially that this is said while Jesus is in Heaven, and explicitly states that He is to wait there until it is achieved. There is no allowance here for the premillennialist error that holds that His dominion is established after His second advent. This is a description of His kingly work between His first and second advents, i.e., it is being achieved now!

It is an error, dishonoring to our Redeemer, to hold that He is impotent to change the world, until some future millennium. I hold that the millennium is now, and Jesus reigns now, and history is the story of His conquest of His enemies. Having once been His enemy, I rejoice in His conquest of my heart (Romans 5:19, Colossians 1:21).