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The Log of Hyper-Calvinism

Introduction

One of my favorite promises in Scripture is “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” What a remarkable invitation! What my heart needs, and what all our churches need, is more of God’s grace. Daily grace. Sanctifying grace. Renewing grace.

And that grace is ours for the taking, like a wrapped gift under the Christmas tree with our name on it, if we would humble ourselves. It couldn’t get any easier, right?

But not so fast.

Why? Because it’s so hard to be humble.

I know I need grace, and God promises to give me grace if I would humble myself, yet I claw and fight against the very grace I want and need because I’m so proud and self-sufficient that I don’t think I really need it. “Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).

We all, to one degree or another, have a problem with pride. Jesus called it a log issue. While we major in other people’s specks, we’re blind to the log protruding from our own eye.

This is what happens when we are so busy pointing out everybody else’s failures: our need for grace evaporates, God’s love no longer amazes, and we find identity in what we’re not instead of whose we are. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11) subtly becomes our rally cry and the posture of our heart.

But if we are too get the grace that we so desperately need, the grace that fuels and sustains and empowers us to a life of Christ-exalting worship, service, and witness, then it’s paramount that we take a good and hard look into the mirror of our own self-righteousness.

To that end, this series has been my attempt to identify some of our corporate logs; that is, the chief sins, weaknesses, and shortcomings of conservative Reformed churches that we are either ignorant about or unwilling to admit.

So far I have diagnosed the following six: legalism, familiarism, conservatism, elitism, tribalism, and retreatism. We come, lastly, to the seventh –ism, known as hyper-Calvinism.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Diagnosis

Before I attempt to define what hyper-Calvinism is, it may be helpful to know what it’s not.

Hyper-Calvinism is not what we call people who are really passionate about being Reformed. Those are what we called “cage phase” people in seminary: new to the Reformed faith from a wilderness of theological and ecclesiastical confusion, often fundamentalism or Arminianism. The kind of folks whose newfound purpose was not only to show why they’re right, but also why everyone else is wrong.

Yet that is not what we mean by hyper-Calvinism.

While not all hyper-Calvinists agree on every matter, there is a thread that connects these adherents as a theological movement, and it is this common thread that I want to focus my attention on in the remainder of this article.

Much more could be written and has been written about the beliefs of hyper-Calvinism, but for the sake of this article and for this series, my concern is with its tragic tendency to sever the urgency for gospel preaching and evangelism all in the name of Divine sovereignty.

To quote Josh Buice, “When understood properly, hyper-Calvinism is a technical term for an extreme and unbiblical view that rejects any need for Christians to engage in missions and evangelism. Simply put, Hyper-Calvinists forbid the preaching of the gospel and the offer of salvation to the non-elect. Such people believe that God has chosen people in Christ in eternity past and will bring about His results without the help of His people.”

To illustrate using a historical example, an exchange took place in the nineteenth century between a young missionary by the name of William Carey, and that of an older minister and hyper-Calvinist, Mr. Ryland. When Carey stood up to discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt to spread the gospel among the heathen nations,” Mr. Ryland responded by loudly exclaiming, “Sit down, young man! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine.”

In the mind of the hyper-Calvinist, Divine sovereignty swallows human responsibility. In other words, evangelism becomes pointless because God will save his elect no matter what.

But there is more, and it’s deeper than perhaps we realize. This isn’t just an issue that affects the church’s commission, but it gets to the heart of who God is. In this view, we may not, in fact we cannot, preach the gospel as an invitation to the sinner to come to Christ.

In other words, we cannot tell a person, “God loves you, and he demonstrated his love for you by sending his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for your sins. If you trust in him today, your sins will be forgiven and you will be justified.” Why? Because God loves only the elect, and here’s the logic: if the person to whom you are speaking is not elect, then God doesn’t really love him. To suggest that God does love him is possibly to make God a liar.

But as Michael Horton shows in “Reformed Theology vs. Hyper-Calvinism,” “Here once again we are faced with mystery—and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff of speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9).”

In other words, historic and confessional Reformed theology protects us from the error of hyper-Calvinism by affirming both God’s sovereignty and particular redemption on the one hand and the free offer of the gospel to everyone on the other.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Symptoms

What are some of the symptoms of hyper-Calvinism? How, where, and when does it show up in our churches?

The first and most prominent is when our churches fail to preach the gospel as an urgent call to everybody who believes. This happens when we assume the gospel, or when we assume that nobody in our churches needs the gospel since they’re already elect (which points to another problem: thinking that only unbelievers need the gospel, but that’s for another article).

A related symptom is when our gospel preaching is constantly footnoted with an explanation of election. This happens, for example, when the preacher calls for belief in Christ yet then feels compelled to begin a five-minute diatribe on how nobody can come to God unless the Spirit draws them.

To be sure, that is true. Wonderfully and beautifully and graciously true! “You did not choose me, but I chose you” said Jesus (John 15:16). Yet Christ also said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Period. No qualifications, no doctrine of election footnote. A true, sincere, earnest invitation to come find rest in him.

Can we say that to people? Jesus did! When is the last time our sermons included a personal, passionate plea to come to Christ, without any excursus on election? Just straight up, come to Jesus now while it’s the day of salvation?

As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20–21, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might bemuse the righteousness of God.”

Another symptom of hyper-Calvinism is the absence of evangelism and outreach. Could it be that one of the reasons we as Reformed churches struggle to evangelize our neighbors and communities is because deep down inside we’ve bought the narrative that says God will save his people without us, so why even try? In fact, why get in the way?

Yet, as Geoff Thomas writes, “When Calvinism ceases to be evangelistic it is a cerebral, chilling, and unattractive religious system.”

Historically, the Reformed faith has produced some of the most ardent and zealous missionaries the world has ever known. As J. I. Packer taught in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, it is precisely because God is sovereign that we have the confidence to be the ambassadors we’re called to be. Conversions don’t depend on us, our charisma, or how well we package the presentation. We preach Christ; God opens blind eyes. But we do preach Christ.

Hyper-Calvinism: Its Treatment

It shouldn’t be any surprise to you that I’m going to conclude this series as I have all the others, by argument that the best treatment for the disease of hyper-Calvinism is the gospel itself. Nothing more and nothing less than the pure, sweet, biblical announcement of the perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners.

God is sovereign. He chooses his people. We believe in unconditional election, irresistible grace, and particular redemption. But we also must affirm that we are called to preach this gospel to anyone and everyone, indiscriminately.

We don’t know who the elect are, so we are commanded to tell them all. And we can really say, sincerely and truly, “Christ died for your sins; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!”

The well-being of our churches depends on it. Our testimony depends on it. What this world needs is not a system of doctrine that cuts the heart out of the gospel we preach, but a message that offers the whole Christ to the whole person.

Praise God that he is “not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

May our conservative Reformed churches show the world that to be Reformed is to preach the good news of Christ for sinners. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17).

Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI.
He welcomes your feedback at mikeschout@gmail.com.

Blessed Is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord by Mr Gerry Wisz

 “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord . . . the Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you.” ­

—Psalm 118:19, 25–28

These are the words the people sang in Jerusalem as Jesus, to much fanfare, arrived just before Passover. The people took off their robes and spread them with cut palm branches before his path as he made his way toward the temple, riding on a donkey. Did they know what they were saying?

Many did receive him as the one “who comes in the name of the Lord,” recognizing at the least that he was a prophet (Matt. 21:11). The fact that he came riding not on a war horse but on a foal of a donkey (Zech. 9:9) indicated to the disconcerted Scribes and Pharisees looking on that he was coming to Jerusalem as a king, bringing peace.

But he was—and is—a priest as well. The priests in the temple were a shadowy configuration of him. How he would fulfill his priestly role was still to come. He himself would be the festal sacrifice bound with cords and brought up to the horns of the altar, after which the curtain separating the inner sanctuary from all the people would be rent in two. The cry for offering a sacrifice at Passover would be fulfilled, but not in the way the people expected.

The people cried out to him as the son of David, “Hosanna,” that is, “Save”; “bring success.” Israel was long under the heels of foreign oppressors of one kind or another; Rome was no different to them. They were counted, taxed, and bullied. They longed for freedom and a restoration of their kingdom, the one David had won and Solomon had established. This, they thought, would comprise their salvation.

But Jesus came to establish a different kingdom. The focus was no longer to be Israel’s national temple; he was the Temple into which all the nations would come (Isa. 2:2). The temple of bricks and mortar would eventually be destroyed and evacuated, but as the Temple, Christ—the one whom the rebuilt temple represented—though destroyed, would be reconstituted and stand forever. Thus he fulfills and grants the request of “Hosanna”: the redemption and establishment of a kingdom, this time one that will never end.

While in the temple, Jesus overturns the money-changers’ tables, again fulfilling prophecy (Isa. 56:7; Jer. 7:11), showing that in matters pertaining to God and his worship, there is no place for profit taking. He has choice words for the chief priests and Pharisees, whom he tells that they have matters exactly backwards: their rule devising, burdening the people with them, and repeatedly failed attempts at keeping them themselves are not the way to God.

The way to God, but also the truth and the life, is standing before them. Jesus instructs as well as rebukes them, on paying taxes, on the resurrection and marriage, and on the identity of the Son of Man. Before leaving the city with his disciples, he grieves over Jerusalem, remarking that they will not see him again until they—like the people at his arrival—say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt. 23:39; Ps. 118:26).

In the meantime, his prophetic Word and Spirit would soon begin to change the face of the world, and his high priestly office—established within days of his arrival in Jerusalem—will achieve what all the chief priests through all of Israel’s generations merely pointed to. May we also then sing verses 22–23 of Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing: it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Mr. Gerry Wisz
and his wife, Betty, live in Garfield, NJ, and are parents to eight children and grandparents to six. His family (children still at home) are members of Preakness Valley URC in Wayne, NJ. Gerry has been a long-time contributor to Christian publications, including Christian Renewal and World Magazine, and is featured on Redeemer Broadcasting’s show “Holding All Things Together.” He has also served as an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at gmwisz@optonline.net.

 

Welcoming Your Minister by Rev. William Boekestein

When Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to minister the gospel he told them how they should conduct themselves as kingdom servants (Matt. 10:5–15). But he also spoke of the responsibility of the people to receive these ministers as his official representatives. Jesus insists that the way people receive his ministers reflects their relationship with God (Matt. 10:40). He invites God’s people to welcome “a prophet in the name of a prophet” and “to receive a righteous man’s reward” (v. 41).

There is no better time to respond to this invitation than when your church receives a new minister. In the denomination in which I serve, the form for ministerial ordination asks the congregation, “Do you, in the name of the Lord, welcome this brother as your pastor?” That’s an important question. But it is just as important to ask, “How will you welcome this brother as your pastor?” in order to prepare the way for a fruitful ministry.

Begin Well with Your Minister

The importance of the first several days, weeks, and months in a new ministry cannot be overstated. A well-worn maxim suggests that it takes years for a congregation to bond with their pastor. Doubtless, this can be true. But does it have to be? Is it not just as likely that a church has a brief window of opportunity to establish the crucial habits that form a beautiful pastoral relationship?

Though most of Paul’s seasons of ministry were brief, the believers befriended him quickly (e.g., Acts 13:42–44; 16:11–15, 33–34). After Paul’s longest ministry—just three years—the church and its minister had so connected that, when he left, “they all wept freely, and fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing” (Acts 20:37–38). This kind of bond is formed, in part, by the way congregations welcome their ministers actively and early.

Especially if you did not vote in favor of calling your new minister, make every effort to begin your relationship positively. Your reservations will be better handled (down the road) if you establish a healthy rapport with him.

Befriend Your Minister’s Family

The ministry can be terribly lonely. Perhaps because congregants suspect that ministry families’ calendars overflow with social commitments the minister’s family can receive less care than others. A new minister and his family are outsiders trying to enter a closely-knit network. As counterintuitive as it sounds, unless your new minister grew up in your congregation, he is a stranger within your midst. He likely has no local connections and no local extended family members. Remember that “the stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34).

Pray with and for Your Minister

In one of the shortest verses in the Bible, Paul pleads with the church on behalf of himself and all Christian pastors: “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25). My ordination form admonished my church to “pray that he may, in the power of the Spirit, equip [them] in the work of advancing God’s Kingdom for the honor of Christ our Lord.” Let your minister know that you are praying for him. This habit, one practiced by Paul (Phil. 1:3, 9; Col. 1:9), assures those for whom you are praying that they are remembered before the throne of grace.

Communicate with Your Minister

Ironically, ministers can be among the last to know about pastoral needs. When this happens, their ability to fulfill their God-given duties is severely hampered. Paul pleads with his fellow church members to communicate openly and honestly with their shepherds. “We have spoken openly to you . . . you also be open” (2 Cor. 6:11, 13).

Positive communication with your minister means being willing to gently confront him (Gal. 6:1). Of course, you must overlook his sins when possible (Prov. 17:9). When you cannot, you must seek the opportunity to forgive your minister in a timely manner before hurts calcify into grudges. God’s plan for restoration from sin applies also to pastors: “Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he will not hear, take with you one or two more . . . and if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:15–17).

One of the worst ways you can damage your congregation is to gossip about your minister. Gossip is always toxic. It poisons a person’s reputation, sometimes irreparably. But secret criticism against the minister can shake the congregation’s confidence in the minister and jeopardize the entire ministry. “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21). Use your tongue to talk with your minister, not to gossip about him.

Affirm Your Minister’s Preaching

Pastors don’t necessarily need congregants begging for their preaching (but see Acts 13:42). Still, most ministers are helped by knowing that their people desire the preached word (1 Pet. 2:2).

A welcoming congregation will affirm the preaching during the sermon. Maintaining eye contact and communicating through engaging facial and body expressions can be a huge gift to the preacher. Conversely, those who seem (only God knows the heart) disinterested can deflate any minister. A minister can better preach his heart out when he perceives that people are feasting on the Word.

God’s people should also affirm the sermon after it is preached; not to feed your minister’s ego but to respond to his human need for encouragement. Thank your pastor for his preaching. Ask that nagging question about the sermon. Debrief with family and friends. Of course, the greatest affirmation of the preached word is prayerful, active application.

Follow Your Minister

Even as they pray for leadership wisdom, take to heart the feelings of the congregation, and submit to the oversight of the elders, ministers have a responsibility to lead. They have been trained to lead. The church has approved their qualification to lead (1 Tim. 3:1–7). They have been ordained to lead (1 Pet. 5:1–4). Ordinarily, they spend more time thinking about the future path of the church than anyone else in the congregation.

Church members need to recognize these realities. If you have concerns about the leadership of your minister, talk to him. If you feel that he is leading the church in a wrong direction, write a letter of concern to the consistory. Otherwise, the leadership of the minister should be received with respect and submission, unless it is proved to be in conflict with God’s Word (1 Tim. 5:17).

Be Thankful for Your Minister

The ordination form used at the start of my ministry stresses the need for thankfulness. “We receive this servant of our Lord from the hand and heart of the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. We are grateful that our Savior has committed preaching, teaching, and pastoral care to the office of the ministry.” The form charges “beloved Christians” to “receive your minister in the Lord, with all joy . . . let the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace, and bring the Good News, be beautiful and pleasant to you.” We should pray with gratitude when we think of our minister: “Merciful Father, we thank Thee that it pleases Thee by the ministry of men to gather Thy church out of the lost human race to life eternal. We acknowledge the gift of this thy servant, sent to this people as a messenger of Thy peace.”

Your minister might not always appear to be a gift. Even then we can trust that God is working his perfect will through him, sometimes in spite of him (Phil. 1:15–18).

Receive Christ Through Your Minister

Christ has given himself as the spotless Lamb through whom we can approach God in peace. God’s ministers declare this message both publicly and privately, in their words and in their deeds. Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever receives you receives me.”

That old ordination form puts it well: God uses ministers to “gather His church out of the corrupt race of men to life eternal, and to give to His church such teaching and care that she may grow in faith and love and service.” God uses his pastors and teachers to equip, build up, unify, sanctify, fortify, mature, and grow his people (Eph. 4:11–16). It is they who plead with us to be reconciled to God in every sphere of our lives (2 Cor. 5:20).

Those who receive Christ through the minister have this promise: “The God of peace shall enter your homes. You who receive this man in the name of a prophet, shall receive a prophet’s reward, and through faith in Jesus Christ, the inheritance of eternal life.”

This article first appeared on The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ website; www.alliancenet.org under the heading The Christward Collective, December 22, 2016.

Rev. William Boekestein
happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI (in which he and his family have been warmly welcomed!). He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation(with Joel Beeke).

A Matter of the Heart

In Leviticus 11, God sets forth various regulations governing clean and unclean foods. Certain animals, for example, could be eaten as food and others were forbidden to be eaten. God’s rule for determining whether an animal is clean or unclean is stated in Leviticus 11:2: “You may eat any animal that has a split hoof completely divided and that chews the cud.” Then some examples of clean and unclean animals are listed so that the people will clearly understand God’s law.

It must be understood that the unclean animals were themselves not less good for food than the clean ones. It appears, rather, that God wanted his people to prepare themselves properly in worshiping and serving him. The case of Nadab and Abihu seems to make this clear. These two sons of Aaron came to worship “with unauthorized fire before the Lord “contrary to his command” (Lev. 10:1). The Lord responded to their impropriety by sending forth fire which “consumed them and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2). Proper preparation, therefore, to worship the Lord requires observance of his laws. Thus, the ceremonial laws were intended to help God’s people honor him as holy and properly worship him. Now we can see that the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. One’s heart must be clean in order for our worship to be acceptable to God. That’s why the ceremonial laws could pass away when Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” He made it clear that cleanness and uncleanness come from within the heart of a person. Jesus declared to the people of his day that “nothing outside a man can make him ’unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:15). By so teaching, “Jesus declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:18). So the heart is what must be cleansed in order to satisfy the real meaning of the Old Testament ceremonial law regarding cleanness.

The apostle Peter also learned this truth when men were coming from Cornelius the centurion to ask him to return with them to the house of Cornelius. One will recall that Cornelius had been directed by an angel to send for Peter (Acts 10:5). As the men approached Joppa, where Peter was staying at the time, “he fell into a trance.” While in the trance, Peter saw “a large sheet let down to earth” in which were many ceremonially unclean animals. At that moment “a voice told him, ‘Get up Peter, kill and eat’” (Acts 10:13). Peter, always being careful to observe God’s law, rejected the command and responded: “Surely not, Lord! . . . I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (Acts 10:14). Thereafter, “the voice spoke a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”’ Apparently, God meant to reinforce this instruction in Peter’s mind, for Scripture states “this happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven” (Acts 10:16). Peter was still pondering the meaning of the vision when the men from Cornelius arrived and asked for him. It was then that Peter was given specific direction by God’s Spirit to “get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (Acts 10:20). Peter’s action was so contrary to what a good Jew would ordinarily do that it aroused controversy among the Jewish believers. Consequently Peter had to defend his conduct before them in Jerusalem (Acts 11:2–3). There Peter explained to them all that had happened to him and what happened later in the house of Cornelius, namely, “While [he] was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts10:44). This settled the matter among them, for we read: “When they [Jewish believers] heard this, they had no further objection and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even to the Gentiles repentance unto life’” (Acts 11:18). This now makes crystal clear that anyone who repents of sin and believes in his heart that the Lord Jesus has forgiven his sin can be saved; even Gentiles who once were considered unclean in terms of the ceremonial law. Thank God that his grace reaches even to sinners like you and me!

It seems then, that the ceremonial law about clean and unclean was intended to remind God’s people to have proper regard to his holiness and to worship him with proper regard to his majestic sovereignty. Thus, all that would hinder proper respect for God’s holy name must be set aside. That would include even associating with other peoples who did not acknowledge him. That helps explain also the “wall of partition” between Jews and Gentiles. All of that, however, has changed with Jesus’ coming into the world to die for sinners. Now the “middle wall of partition” has been destroyed and the ceremonial law with its commandments and regulations has been abolished (Eph. 2:14–15). We are back once again to the heart of the matter, which is to have our hearts attuned to God himself through Jesus Christ. He alone is “the way and the truth and the life” though whom we “come to the Father” (John 14:6).

It becomes evident, therefore, that we are called to examine our hearts. What is in the heart tells us the type of person we are. Surely, as believers in Christ, we should want to serve God with our whole heart and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Gal. 5:22–23). Let us seek to respond positively to the words of Proverbs 22:26:

My son, give me your heart

And let your eyes keep to my ways.

Or, in the words of an old hymn:

“Give Me thy heart,” says the Father above,

“No gift so precious to Him as our love;

“Softly He whispers, wherever thou art,

“Gratefully trust Me, and give Me thy heart.”

—Eliza E. Hewitt, 1898

 

Dr. Harry G. Arnold
is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI.
He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 

“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”: A Meditation on John 11:25–26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” –John 11:25–26

Sometimes it is the case that when a loved one passes away, the family calls together the entire family. It is common, if he is not already there, to call the pastor. What I do when I get there, whether the loved one is dying or is already dead, is to open up the Bible and read. I might read a number of different passages, but two I always read. One is Psalm 23, which reminds us of Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Psalm 23 speaks of the shepherd’s care for his sheep throughout their lives. Another passage I turn to is John 11. After I read this passage, if there are young grandchildren around, I explain to them what it means that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

We are up to our fifth of seven meditations on the “I am” statements of Christ. This time we look to that great I AM who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

What It Means

This passage begins with some of the most comforting words spoken by our Savior. “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” However, these words are comforting because of the context in which they are spoken. Jesus had three very close friends who were siblings. Lazarus was the brother and Mary and Martha were the sisters. They were a wealthy family who lived in Bethany, near Jerusalem. Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick. In verse 3 the statement is, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Jesus had a deep love for this family.

When Jesus received news of this serious illness, Jesus knew what was to take place. The glory of God will be revealed in the events of that week. Jesus decides to go to Bethany, even though the disciples warned him not to go, because the Jews tried to kill Jesus near there. Jesus was resolved to go because he was going to wake up Lazarus, who had fallen asleep. This phrase is used many times hereafter in the New Testament to refer to believers who die. The reason to use this phrase is because of what Jesus is going to reveal in this text.

When Jesus neared Bethany, he found out that Lazarus had been in the tomb dead for four days. When he got near, Martha went out to meet him (for context, read John 11:20–26). In response, Martha confessed her faith in Christ. Then Jesus sent for Mary, and when she arrived, she was weeping along with the other mourners. She fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then something happened. In verse 33 it says Jesus was moved in spirit and troubled. The result is that he wept. We have a Savior who can sympathize with us in our weaknesses. It is a very emotional scene. Jesus comes to the tomb, and at first Martha objected because it would stink . . . the body would have already begun to decompose. Nevertheless, the stone is removed; Jesus prays to God and then tells Lazarus to come out. The one who would in a short time go the cross and the grave and also would be resurrected, performs here the greatest of miracles in his ministry up until this point. He raises Lazarus from the dead. In this context he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Essentially there are two I am statements in our text: I am the resurrection, and I am the life. Christ proclaims this and then explains what they mean (read the rest of verse 25). When the subject of the resurrection first was brought up by Jesus, Martha thought that Jesus was speaking of the resurrection at the last day. Though this is true, he is speaking primarily about the spiritual resurrection today. What Lazarus is about to become is the ultimate visual aid of the great teacher. We might die in order to live.

Humans are, by nature, dead. This is what Scripture clearly teaches. Remember Genesis 8. Before and after the flood, man’s heart was only evil continually. In speaking of the new life in Christ, Ephesians 2 says that while we were dead in trespasses and sins, Christ made us alive. By nature we are dead. The first resurrection, the resurrection of which Jesus speaks, takes place when we believe. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” Jesus here is changing Martha’s outlook on the situation.

In response to the question of why is Christ the resurrection, John Calvin says, “Because by His Spirit he regenerates the children of Adam, who had been alienated from God by sin, so that they begin to live a new life.” In order to be resurrected, you must be dead, and contrary to what most Arminian churches teach, we are not born sick, we are born dead. For Christ to say, “I am the resurrection” was in light of Lazarus’s death, not Lazarus’s sickness.

Our Savior continues and explains what it means that he is the life. “And whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” When a Christian is spiritually brought to life, he will never die again. Oh, to be sure, his body might die, but it also will be raised again. His soul will live forevermore in fellowship with God. This second phrase confirms the first. What is the best evidence you have been resurrected? You are alive.

When we die now in this life, our body goes to the ground and our soul goes to heaven. It is conscious, fully sanctified, and in the presence of God. This time is called the intermediate state. We are awaiting the final state, where body will be resurrected and united to soul and will be transformed like Christ’s glorious body to inhabit the new earth. This is what Martha first had in mind in verse 24. But Jesus isn’t talking about the final resurrection. He is saying that he himself is the resurrection and the life. To partake of what Christ is doing happens by faith. “Do you believe this?”

As we think about this, we might wonder why Jesus took so long to go to Bethany. After all, Mary and Martha, women he loved, and the other mourners had four days of utter grief and sorrow. Why did he delay so long? This is what Jesus was getting at in verse 4 and verse 15.

There would be no doubting that Lazarus was dead. Jesus was going to do something no one else could do. Why would he do it? To glorify God by testifying to the fact that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Great I AM. This now is the third time Jesus spoke an I am statement in the presence of a miracle. He was the bread of life after he fed the five thousand. He was the light of the world after he healed the man born blind. Now he is the resurrection and the life as he raises Lazarus from the dead. The implications of the others was if you believe, you won’t be hungry, you won’t be in the dark, but now, you will not die.

Why It Is True

For us to read John 11 two thousand years after the cross, we can understand it more fully. Jesus speaks with authority given by the Father, for what he has accomplished and what he will accomplish. He speaks as one who has died, he raises Lazarus as one who was raised, and speaks of one who has eternal life while yet living on earth. This is how sure the redemption secured in Jesus was. With that said, we still must ask how it is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

For Jesus to be the resurrection, he must defeat death. This is precisely what he did. When Jesus breathed his last upon the cross, in the eyes of Satan, it must have been the great victory. But it wasn’t a victory for Satan, because three days later something happened: the resurrection on Easter morning. This is why we worship on Sunday . . . it is resurrection day. When Christ was raised, he was raised victoriously over Satan. “Sin’s bonds severed, we’re delivered; Christ has bruised the serpent’s head; death no longer is the stronger; Hell itself is captive led. Christ has risen from death’s prison; O’er the tomb He light has shed” (Psalter Hymnal #361, verse 3).  empty grave is guarantee of our resurrection, both in this life and in the life to come. Our catechism says that we are already now resurrected to a new life. This is because Christ defeated that ancient enemy: death!

Romans 5 says that we are raised up with Christ. First Peter 1:23 says that “we have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable.” Christ is the firstfruits of our glorious resurrection. What this means is that since Christ was raised, through union with him, we are guaranteed to be raised.

This is what Colossians 3:1–4 is getting at. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Focus your mind for a moment on the idea of our life being hidden with Christ. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. I explained to my catechism students this week that we are dying. The outward body is slowly dying away, but the inward man is being renewed. We are like a cut flower. A cut flower flourishes for a week or two and then it is thrown into the garbage. This is kind of depressing and sad, if it was not for the fact that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Our natural life is being eclipsed by the spiritual life.

Why It Matters

The glorious truth and comforting fact that Jesus is the great I Am, who makes a claim to divinity when he says, “I am,” is also the resurrection and the life. If we don’t see how this connects to our lives, there is a danger to leave it out there as just a nice teaching. It isn’t just a nice teaching. It is a life-changing teaching. Let me give you four reasons why.

First, this matters because you will die. Today it might seem that you are full of life. Maybe you have your whole life ahead of you. Or maybe you are at midlife. But maybe you are not. Maybe your life is at its end and you don’t realize it yet. Death can be scary, and it is no respecter of persons. If the Lord delays his return, we will die. What will happen to you when you die? This all depends how you answer Jesus’ question to Martha. Do you believe this? Not just do you believe that this is true, but do you believe this is true for you? Is your life now hidden with Christ; is he your life?

Second, our loved ones will die. The older we get, the more this is the case. My great-grandma told me one time when she was in her mid-nineties that just about everyone she knew when she was a little girl is now dead. Those close to us, whom we love, will also die, and it will hurt. Certainly, there are many reading this who are hurting and grieving, sometimes in silence. It is okay to grieve, but remember, we can grieve as those who have hope, because Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” That cemetery you may visit from time to time is not a final resting place. It is merely a waiting room, waiting for the Lord’s return. The soul, the mind, the essence of our loved ones, if they died as believers, are with the Lord. They are asleep in Jesus. Death has been defeated. That sting of death has been removed. Calvin says, “What is still more, death itself is a sort of emancipation from the bondage of death.”

As Mary and Martha weep, we see Jesus also weep. Martha wanted Lazarus to be alive. Jesus speaks about a better life, a spiritual life, one in which, if you live it, you will never die. And yet, the pain of death is still real. This is what happens when we love people. The only consolation as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death is that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Weeping is for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

To an unbeliever, this is nonsense. Death is the grim reaper. It is final. The idea of robbing death of its power is preposterous. It is by faith alone that these truths can be grasped. This is why Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” Because faith makes all the difference.

Third, this is important because of Christ’s statement and the comfort it affords when death looks us in the face. We do not have to fear death or life. We can be those who live assured. Don’t mix this up with cocksureness, arrogance, or fatalism (whatever will be will be). It has simply been called Calvinism in the past, but we can merely refer to this form of life as a trust in God in light of his providence. When you sing a song like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” you can do so almost with a clenched fist. “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed, his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” To overemphasize the triumphant life is not helpful. You have to fight in this life, because your enemies never stop attacking us. Live with fortitude, strength, courage in the Lord.

And last, the fact that Jesus called himself the resurrection and the life points us both to this life and the life to come. Let us not seek to escape this life and run off and hide in a corner with our Bibles until Jesus returns. Let us also remember there is something more than this. We are called here. After we die, we will be called out of this life, but we are not dead yet. As we live, serve the Lord. When you come before God in prayer at night, let it be found that you have been busy in the work of the Lord. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, awaiting the appearing of the Lord in glory. We will be resurrected when Christ returns, but also, already now, we are raised up to a new life.

In the midst of death, sorrow, and weeping, Jesus said, ”I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Let us confess, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church in Hamilton, ON. 

3 Reminders as You Enter the New Year

Don’t Worry About the Year 2017

Don’t worry about what you will eat, drink, and wear this year. Your Father in heaven knows your needs. Instead of worrying, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and all your needs will be given to you according to his will (Matt. 6:33, New King James Version).

After all, why worry about the unknown future of 2017 when you can pray? “O what peace we often forfeit / O what needless pain we bear / All because we do not carry / Everything to God in prayer.” Yes, what will take place this year is not known to us, but for us believers in Christ, we know that God is causing all things to work together for his glory and for our good (Rom. 8:28–29). And the word good in this passage ultimately refers to our conformity to the image of Christ. The bitter events of 2017 will only make us better believers. Let us therefore welcome the New Year without fear.

Don’t Boast About the Year 2017

Don’t brag about what you will do in 2017; you don’t know what will happen this year (Prov. 27:1). “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14, New International Version).

Don’t act as if you can control the future. You are not in control of everything. Don’t think that you can do and get whatever you want this year. You are not all-powerful. Don’t be overconfident about your future plans. You are not all-knowing. You don’t even know if you are still alive tomorrow. Thus learn to qualify your plans by saying, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:15, New International Version). Nevertheless, no matter what happens, God’s will is always best for us because he is all-wise and all-good.

Don’t Waste the Year 2017

You waste this year when you use it only for your own pleasure. Remember the rich fool who said to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will things be which you have provided?” (Luke 12:19–20, New King James Version).

What a wasted life this rich fool had! He used his time, energy, and resources only for himself. With God’s help, let’s spend all the days of 2017 for God’s praise. Let’s also seize all God-given opportunities this year to “do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10, New American Standard Bible). Remember, “Only one life, so soon it will pass / Only what’s done for Christ will last.” A life spent in the service of Christ is the most meaningful life that anyone can live in this world.

Have a blessed New Year!

 

Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart
of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality
(2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013).
He and his wife, Sarah, have three children, Anna, James, and Abigail. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.

 

What Is Covenant Theology, and Why Should I Care?

Covenant. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, that word seems to be one of God’s favorites. Yet it is more than just a word that appears frequently (more than three hundred times); it is one of the most important themes of sacred Scripture. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus is in large part about God’s covenant at Mount Sinai with the nation Israel. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament—in its historical, poetical, and prophetical books—we find continual references to these two covenants: the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. We then come to the New Testament and read of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). The apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews elaborate on the vital differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants (Gal. 3–4; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–10). On top of this, the Bible also reveals how God made important covenants with Noah and David. What do all of these covenants mean? Does it really make any difference how well we understand them?

Answering those questions is the task of covenant theology. Covenant theology is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants. It is not an interpretive grid that we impose upon Scripture, nor is it a system invented by Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, it is the Bible’s own method of interpreting itself. This is why covenant theology has enjoyed such a prominent place in the Reformed tradition. With its emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, the Protestant Reformation saw covenant theology as God’s prescribed method for interpreting his revelation, for covenant is the way in which God has chosen to relate to human beings. It is impossible, therefore, to interpret Scripture faithfully without understanding the meaning of these covenants. As J. I. Packer put it, “The Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.”1

This article is the first in a series that will concisely explore covenant theology. In each forthcoming issue of The Outlook, we will briefly examine one of the covenants revealed in Scripture, working our way chronologically from the covenant of redemption to the new covenant. If you find these short essays to whet your appetite for further study, consider reading Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, a book I wrote with co-author Zach Keele and published by Reformed Fellowship. That resource expands on the material found in these articles.

What Is a Covenant?

Before we begin our survey of the covenants, we must answer the question: What is a covenant? Covenant is not a word we use in everyday conversation. Yet, in Reformed circles we tend to toss it around quite a bit. We thank God for his covenant mercies. We talk about our children as heirs of the covenant. We even use it to give our local congregations names like Covenant Reformed Church. But what does the word covenant mean? We can define it like this: a covenant is an oath-bound relationship that implies sanctions. Some covenants are mutual agreements, while others are imposed unilaterally from one party to another. Some have equal parties, some unequal. The nature of the relationship between the parties can vary, depending on the covenant. Some covenants create an intimate relationship, while others an impersonal one. All covenants, in some fashion, involve oaths and promises and imply (if not explicitly state) consequences if the oath taker fails to keep his promise. In this sense, the relationship in the covenant has a certain legality.

If this sounds rather technical and complex, it may be helpful to reflect on the kind of covenants with which we are familiar in daily life. For example, consider the marriage relationship. Marriage is a covenant. A man and a woman formally commit themselves to each other by taking vows, pledging their love and undying loyalty to the other partner in the covenant. A marriage ceremony is essentially a covenant-making ceremony. The guests are there not merely to share in the joy of the couple but also to hear the vows and witness the making of a covenant. The oaths and promises that the bride and groom make result in the creation of a new relationship: the officiant pronounces them husband and wife. However, in order for the relationship to work, fidelity is required from those who took vows. If either party in the covenant is unfaithful to the oath he or she made to the other, there will be negative consequences: anything from a strained relationship to a messy divorce with costly lawsuits. This is what it means for a covenant relationship to have legality; sanctions are involved where there is unfaithfulness in the covenant.

We must be careful not to put legality in opposition to intimate relationships. For example, some might consider the relationship between parents and their children to have nothing to do with legality and to be only about love and nurture. But this is not the case. The love and intimacy of the parent-child relationship does not make it void of legality. In fact, it may increase its legal character. As Hebrews says, the father who does not discipline his children does not love them (12:7–8). Children are obligated to their parents at birth and vice versa. If children refuse to obey their parents, there are consequences. Likewise, there are consequences if parents neglect their children. Although the vast majority of these consequences are not dealt with in a court of law, they are nevertheless real and usually very painful: loss of privileges, loss of trust, anger, bitterness, and so on. There is no tension between the fact that a relationship can be both intimate and legal, that is, involving consequences. This is important to remember when we consider the biblical covenants.

Some covenant relationships, however, are less intimate. Think about the relationship between a bank and a borrower in a mortgage. Obviously this relationship is less personal and intimate than the covenant of marriage, yet it is still a covenant of sorts. This is a formalized agreement between two parties that states duties and consequences. The bank agrees to loan the borrower a great sum of money in order to buy a home. The borrower makes a promissory commitment to repay all the money plus interest over a long period. By signing his name to the mortgage documents, the borrower is giving his word that he will fulfill the conditions of the covenant. If he fails to keep his word, sanctions will follow. The house will go into foreclosure. His signature amounts to a self-maledictory oath whereby in essence the borrower says, “If I fail to keep my word, may the curses of this covenant come upon me!”

In one sense, the basic elements of covenant are present every time someone promises to do something for someone else. There are implied positive and negative consequences. If I promise my neighbor that I will collect his mail and put his trashcans on the curb while he is away on vacation, I have given him my word as an oath. If I keep my word, the positive consequence is that I will have gained more of my neighbor’s trust and appreciation. But if I forget, the negative consequence will be my embarrassment and shame. My promise, even in something small, implies sanctions. Our words can bind us to duties and to other people. Grasping this basic fact helps us to understand the nature of the biblical covenants, for a covenant in its fuller sense is a solemn formalization of commitments and promises.

Covenants in the Ancient World

In the ancient Near East, the use of covenants was essentially the same as in our modern world. They were commitments that created relationships with sanctions. Of course, the ceremonies and rituals associated with covenants in the ancient world were much different (and more gruesome) than ours. Instead of taking a self-maledictory oath by signing a contract, an ancient was typically required to participate in a ceremony that involved blood. Because the sanction for not keeping one’s covenant oath was the curse of death, the people making a covenant would kill animals as a symbol of their own death, serving as a warning to the oath taker. This imagery comes across vividly in the Hebrew idiom for making a covenant, which is literally “to cut a covenant.” The cutting referred to the ceremony of killing animals and cutting them in half. The person promising to fulfill the conditions of the covenant would then swear by a god that he would keep his word. Often, this included a dramatic ritual, such as passing between the severed animal or having its blood sprinkled before him. Added to this was a shared meal between the parties who made the covenant. They would eat the animals cut in the covenant ceremony. The meal was reflective of their committed relationship and a reminder of the oath made in the treaty. These rituals varied, however, according to the kind of covenant they accompanied.

The secular use of covenants in the ancient Near East provides us with important cultural background that is helpful for us to understand the religious covenants of the Bible. When God made covenants with his people in redemptive history, he did so in ways they could understand. As he brought Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Israelites, and David into particular covenants, he accommodated his language to fit their historical and cultural context. If God made a covenant with us today, we could expect him to use forms of treaties and legal agreements that are common to our society today. This does not mean that the biblical covenants are exhausted in their secular counterparts, but it does mean that our understanding of God’s covenants is greatly aided by our knowledge of the common ancient covenants.

Furthermore, the Lord’s accommodation to use covenant forms from the ancient world does not mean these are the original pattern for his covenants with his people. Reformed theologians have rightly observed that the original design for God’s covenants is the perfect communion found in the Trinity. As Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) pointed out, “The covenant idea developed in history before God made any formal use of the concept in the revelation of redemption.”

Covenants among men had been made long before God established his covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped them to understand the divine revelation when it presented man’s relation to God as a covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the mutual relationship between God and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy of this. God so ordered the life of man that the covenant idea should develop there as one of the pillars of social life, and after it had so developed, he formally introduced it as an expression of the existing relation between himself and man.2

We should not be surprised that God adopted covenant treaties for his own purposes, for covenant making among humans reflects the triune God in whose image they are made. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion and commitment to each other. As creatures made in the image of the triune God, we then reflect this life by keeping our promises and committing ourselves to others in ordinary covenant relationships. God used this function of his creatures for his own redemptive purposes to communicate his promises to us. We should be eager, therefore, to grasp the significance of ancient covenants in order to appreciate God’s covenant relationship with us.

The Joy of Studying God’s Covenants

Studying God’s covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. Nor should it be for the purpose of debating and arguing with our brothers in Christ. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and understand our relationship with him more fully. In this way, covenant theology has immense pastoral and practical value for Christians. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plot line and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ.

More importantly, covenant theology provides us with the deepest comfort as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know of his oath and promises to us, promises that are yes and amen through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children, namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.

In the next issue, we will turn our attention to the covenant of redemption. Until then, my prayer is that you will find the study of God’s covenants to enrich your communion with the triune God and strengthen your assurance in his unfailing promises to us in Christ!

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1. J. I. Packer, “Introduction: On Covenant Theology,” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), 5–8.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; repr. 1996), 263. 

 

Rev. Michael G. Brown
is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.

 

Interview with Rev. William Boekestein

William Boekestein’s latest book is Bible Studies on Mark (Reformed Fellowship, 2016), a twenty-one-lesson guide to Mark’s Gospel with study questions for each chapter. Here’s an opportunity to better get to know him and his book.

Back-cover bios tend to provide only brief and professional information. Help us get to know you better by telling us about your pathway to ministry.

When I graduated from high school I was certain that my days in a classroom were over; I was going to be a carpenter like my father. And I was for a few years, both in Michigan and in California. While working as a home builder for my cousin in California, mostly out of curiosity I responded to an advertisement from a missionary in India who was looking for a helper and companion. I went to India not as a missionary but as a twenty-year-old with almost no sense of direction. After three months of seeing God’s Word work powerfully in the lives of hurting people, I had a new and growing desire to teach the Bible. Upon returning to the States I enrolled at Kuyper College (with my future wife, Amy). Seven years later I graduated from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. After serving Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, for seven years, I have been pastoring Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, since May of 2015.

Do you have a ministry team?

I do. It was formed in 2003 and has been growing ever since! Amy and I married after graduating from college together. The Lord gave us two children (Asher and Eva) by the time I graduated from seminary. Mina joined us just after moving to Carbondale, and Hazel came along the year before we arrived in Michigan. No one could say that family life is always easy. But these teammates have brought me tremendous joy along the journey!

Clearly you enjoy writing, having written nine books in less than nine years of ministry. Do you have other hobbies or interests?

I do love to write. Someone has said that thoughts disentangle themselves as they pass from the mind, through the lips, and over the fingertips. I find that nothing clarifies my thoughts and sharpens my thinking like writing (and rewriting!) ideas. The discipline of squeezing out unnecessary words to make an article fit its allowed word count can pay dividends in other areas of communication. For a writer, finding the right word for a sentence is like, for a shopaholic, finding the perfect item of clothing. Maybe as a former carpenter, writing satisfies a desire to turn the raw materials of words into a sort of finished (though imperfect) product.

Beyond writing I love to hunt. The mid-century ranch home we bought in Kalamazoo is surrounded by great hunting land. My wife can almost see me in my deer hunting tree stand from our kitchen window! As our kids have grown, it has been a joy to see them begin to show interest in the sport as well.

We also love to bike as a family. We live very close to an excellent bike path (that conveniently passes an ice-cream shop!). In the last year we’ve begun riding tandem bikes, which is a great way to put on some distance with kids who, on their own, would not be able to make it so far.

Why did you decide to write a study on the book of Mark?

This book grew out of my conviction that clear, lively, and practical expository preaching can well lend itself to written Bible study material. Preaching should be the explanation and application of Scripture with an acute awareness of God’s redemptive work in Christ. Preaching through this Gospel is an excellent way to meet Jesus, the fulcrum of the biblical drama. The same can be true when we study the book on our own or in a small group.

What major themes do you find in this Gospel that the reader should remember?

Mark, along with the other Gospels, vividly demonstrates a central reality of the Scripture—in Christ, God is the primary actor. The Gospels show Christ fighting the forces of darkness, showing compassion on the needy, and fulfilling God’s royal law on behalf of God’s children. Christ lived and died and lives again to establish a kingdom of righteousness into which believers are graciously drawn by his Spirit. The Gospels can help us fix our eyes on Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. When we do, we can begin to live out another important theme of the gospel: God’s children are to follow Jesus in cross bearing and holy living.

Your study guide explains a Bible book that was written almost two thousand years ago to a very different culture. Does your book intend to bridge the gap between Mark’s world and ours?

The book is meant to bridge that gap in the same sense that preaching does. A preacher of the Bible should always plant one foot in the world of Scripture and the other in the world of his audience. This book “preaches” by helping the reader better understand parts of the story that aren’t immediately clear to modern readers.

But the Bible teacher’s task of bringing our two worlds together is aided by the character of Scripture itself. Every book of the Bible has a time and culture stamp, you might say. But the books are also timeless. At Pentecost people from a host of nations with their own languages and cultures were able to understand the basic message of the Bible, the gospel. So, today, aided by the Holy Spirit, this message still resonates with God’s chosen people. Though we live two millennia after the book was written, we still hunger, thirst, and hurt. It doesn’t take much translation for us to see relief in Jesus’ compassionate giving.

How, in your opinion, can this book best be used?

Scripture studies are almost always aided by well-written guides. Without a guide, we either struggle to know what to think or say about a text or we get in the habit of merely sharing our own thoughts that might have little to do with the intent of the biblical author. One of the dangers, though, of using a study guide is that the Bible can become eclipsed. It is easy to subconsciously begin to treat the Bible as the raw materials and the study guide as the finished product, favoring the latter. To avoid misusing supplemental materials it is important for students of the Scripture to carefully interrogate the Bible text they are studying. Ask hard questions of the text. Search for the theme of the verses you are studying. Be an investigator. Note observations and applications. Use the questions in your study guide to stimulate thought before turning to the answers in the book. In this way the book becomes a sounding board for your ideas and conclusions rather than a source book. The Bereans took such an approach. They “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11, New International Version).

Dr. Jason Van Vliet praised your book by saying you pack “more food for the soul into a short paragraph than many others do in an entire page.”

These are kind words! If Jason is right, then the book takes its cue from the Gospel itself. John Mark’s writing—the Spirit’s writing—is anything but dry and wordy. Mark tells the story of Jesus in a rapid-fire, can’t-sit-still kind of way. The movement in the story is often tied together by one of Mark’s favorite adverbs, “immediately.” Mark assures us that rich theological writing doesn’t have to be dry and long-winded.

Compiled by the Editor

The Fullness of Time Understanding the Context of Christmas

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son . . .” 
—Galatians 4:4a

For my family, living in a community with a coal-mining heritage has been a new experience. Since we didn’t grow up hearing the stories about the days when “coal was king,” we have found that taking coal mine tours and reading books on the industry has helped us appreciate the impact coal has had on our community.

Since is impossible to extract any particular point in time from its broader context, the better we understand history, the better we understand the present. The fact that time itself is inextricably interconnected has a bearing on how we celebrate Christmas. There seems to be a tendency today to extract Christ’s birth from its broader historical and redemptive context. We often look back only to the events immediately surrounding the birth of Christ. When we do this we miss the powerful background that set the stage for the coming of Christ.

Galatians 4:4 says that Christ was born at a particular and important time in history; it is called “the fullness of time.” God is telling us that the time of Quirinius’s governorship was “ripe” for Christ’s advent (Luke 2:2). Here’s the point: We will not appreciate the good news of Christ’s coming if we fail to realize what his coming was fulfilling.

The Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 19) helps set the context for Christ’s coming. It says that the holy gospel was “first revealed in Paradise; afterwards published by the holy patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the laws; and lastly fulfilled by God’s only begotten Son.” The Catechism briefly sketches out the revelation of the gospel from the beginning of time to Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Christ’s advent is given a context as we see the gospel previewed, proclaimed, portrayed, and performed.

The Gospel Previewed

God himself began to reveal the gospel in Paradise to Adam and Eve. We read of this revelation in Genesis 3:15, which has rightly been called the first gospel promise. Here God says, “I will put enmity between you [the Serpent] and the woman and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Remember that at this point in redemptive history Adam and Eve were two condemned and hopeless sinners trembling on the edge of Paradise Lost. No two people had ever given up so much so quickly and so foolishly. If you have ever felt completely discouraged and hopeless, then you know something of how our first parents felt that day in the Garden. In fact, by nature you are in the same position as your first parents, trembling and naked before God. In that setting God delivers their punishment.

But he also reveals a message of hope; he reveals the gospel. What does God promise in Genesis 3:15? That He Himself will work deliverance through the seed of the woman. The deliverer will be a conqueror, crushing the head of the serpent. How they needed to hear these words! The serpent had just carried out the greatest deception of all time. Adam and Eve had lost everything. But God promises to send a Son to crush the serpent—to set His people free from his tyranny.They also heard that the deliverer will suffer; His heel will be bruised. He will be a conquering king and a suffering servant.

This first promise is so important because the rest of the Bible unfolds the hope first revealed here. “The promise was vague at first; but the fulfillment was sure” because God had spoken.1 The gospel in Paradise has been likened to a tiny sapling. It will grow. It will expand. But everything that makes it a tree is there. God first began to unfold this gospel promise through the patriarchs (or early fathers) and the prophets.

The Gospel Proclaimed

Patriarchs as Gospel Proclaimers

We don’t always consider Old Covenant saints gospel preachers, but they were. Believe it or not, the first way in which the early fathers communicated the gospel was by having children. God told our first parents in Genesis 3:15 that salvation would come through the seed of the woman. The rest of Genesis is focused on this idea of “seed.” The word is used almost fifty times, far more than in any other Bible book.

From the first pages of Scripture the gospel promise is communicated through the continuance of the seed of promise. In every generation, there is a child of promise. Adam had three sons, but in time Seth comes to the fore. Seth also had many children, but it is Enoch through whom the promise will come. Noah had Shem, Ham, and Japheth, but Shem is chosen. And on it goes.

Every time the Bible focuses on the seed of promise, the gospel is proclaimed. Salvation will not be accomplished by humanity but by a single seed. This is why two of the gospel books begin with a genealogy. The seed progresses through time until it stops at “Jesus, who was born of Mary who is called Messiah” (Matt. 1:16).

Notably, Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham. To him the gospel promise was first clearly given by way of a covenant, or a pact of friendship. God said, “I will establish my covenant . . . to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). We learn that salvation is a union between God and man. God gives Himself to His people (cf. John 3:16)

Second, the gospel was proclaimed by the patriarchs through real words. Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5). Enoch preached the gospel (Jude 1:14). Called a patriarch in Acts 2:29, David preached the Messiah as King and Priest. He even spoke specifically of Christ’s crucifixion and divine dereliction (Ps. 22).

The patriarchs preached the gospel. But the clearest example of Old Testament gospel preaching was left for the prophets.

Prophets as Gospel Proclaimers

Consider the famous words of Isaiah 9:6. Here Isaiah is prophesying concerning the Messiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.” Wasn’t this the message from the beginning? That “a seed of the woman” would be the redeemer and King? But here we learn the Messiah will be more than a human son. Notice his names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The Christ would be “truly human and truly righteous, yet more powerful than all creatures, that is . . . true God.”2

It is worth noting that this prophetic preaching took place largely during the decline of God’s physical kingdom on earth. Gone were the glory days of David and Solomon. Instead the people of Israel faced military conquest and exile. In this setting, what is the theme of the prophets? The gospel of Christ. They preached the coming Messiah and his glorious kingdom.3

God not only previewed the gospel of His Son and caused it to be preached; He also presented it in picture form.

The Gospel Portrayed

Specifically, the gospel is portrayed by the sacrifices and ceremonies of the law. These bore witness as symbols of the good news of Jesus. They were types or foreshadowings of Christ’s life and work (Col. 2:17).

The Old Testament sacrifices never accomplished salvation; they were never seen as the end of God’s redemptive plan. God’s promised salvation would come from the body of a woman, not an animal. The ceremonies and sacrifices of the law served as types in several ways.

First, they were substitutionary in nature. That is, they taught that the sinner cannot pay for his own sins but must have his sins taken away by someone else. Second, they were a picture of perfection. God required that the sacrificial animal must have no blemish (Ex. 12:5). The mediator must be sinless. Third, although they were supposed to be flawless, the sacrificial animals were entirely inadequate. This fact is demonstrated in the repetitious nature of the sacrifices; they were never finished. The flawed character of the sacrifices is also graphically illustrated in that the animals died on the altar and were never raised up. They were not able to bear the weight of God’s anger; His wrath destroyed them. For this reason they were an inadequate shield from the just anger of God toward sin.

The catechism has walked us through the unfolding of the gospel prior to Christ’s birth. From the end of the Old Testament to the coming of Christ there is a period of silence of almost four hundred years. God wanted the world to wait. The prophecies had been made, but they could not be fulfilled by human work. During this time, God’s people had virtually no human prophet, no priest, and no king. Prior to this time, these offices had deviated from their intended use, so as to show that someone else must fulfill them. The time was indeed ripe for God to send His Son to be prophet, priest, and king for His people.

“In the fullness of time, God sent his Son . . .” He performed the gospel through His own dear Son.

The Gospel Performed

Jesus Christ was that deliverer who was born of the seed of the woman, Mary. Through His perfectly righteous humanity, He was flawless. He approached the cross as a substitute for His people. Through His death, He crushed the head of Satan. Through the power of His divinity, He was raised to newness of life. This sacrifice was finally accepted by God!

The gospel is progressively revealed in the Bible. It continually demands a response of faith. This is how the first promise was received. From our perspective, Adam didn’t have that much to go on. God had said, “An offspring will come from the woman’s body, and he will save you.” Shortly thereafter, Adam named his wife Eve “because she would become the mother of all the living” (Gen. 3:20). Clearly Adam trusted God.

As the first prophet, Adam declared that salvation would come from the woman. God continued to speak this message “to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1). God is calling us to place our trust in Jesus Christ today.

Thankfully, we have four thousand years of recorded redemptive history to bolster our faith! According to Peter, “ . . . We have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it . . .” (2 Peter 1:19). Let us be people who have confidence in the word of God’s promise. And let us praise the Lord, who in the fullness of time, for us and for our salvation, sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. William Cowper sums up well:

Jesus, I love to trace

Throughout the sacred page,

The footsteps of thy grace,

The same in ev’ry age!

Oh grant that I may faithful be

To clearer light, vouchsaf’d

to me! 4

------------ 

1. J. Gresham Machen, The New Testament, 45.

2. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 15.

3. O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets, 8.

4. From The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper, Olney Hymns XX.

 

Rev. William Boekestein
was the the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, PA,
at the time he wrote this article in 2010. He is now the pastor of
Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 

“I Am the Good Shepherd”: A Devotional on John 10:11–30

We are up to our fourth of seven meditations on the seven “I am” statements of Christ in the Gospel of John. In each of these statements, our Lord reveals something about Himself. He has referred to Himself as bread (John 6:35), light (John 8:12), and a gate or door (John 10:7). In each of these statements we learn something of our Savior’s work on our behalf. We see our need of Him, our fulfillment in Him, and our way to the Father through Him. In those passages, and the one of our present study, look to the Savior who graciously provides for us. (Read this with your Bible open.)

As we turn to the statement that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are reminded of Psalter Hymnal #417:

Savior, like a shepherd lead us,

Much we need thy tender care;

In thy pleasant pastures feed us,

For our use thy folds prepare.

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,

Thou hast bought us, thine we are,

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,

Thou hast bought us, thine we are.

In that first stanza, we have a beautiful glimpse of the Good Shepherd. He cares for us, He feeds us, He prepares us and protects us. A shepherd should always do those things, but there is something that the Good Shepherd does which no other shepherd can do. In John 10:17, Jesus says that the Father loves Him because He lays down His life, only to take it up again. Jesus died in order to live forevermore. Let us look deeper at what Christ has done.

His Sacrifice

In the last meditation we saw that Jesus is the gate for the sheep. Jesus was pictured there as the entrance into eternal life, a full, abundant life. Now, to continue in the realm of caring for sheep, He calls Himself the Good Shepherd. The term good distinguishes this shepherd from “bad.” The people knew all about bad shepherds (read Jer. 23:1–4; see also Jer. 25:32–38; Isa. 56:9–12; Ezek. 34). The people of God had been oppressed by their own leaders. What they were left longing for was a Messianic shepherd, one who would love and care and lead them, like a good shepherd ought to do. What they desired was the shepherd of Isaiah 40:11 (ESV): “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

This is what they receive in the person of Jesus Christ. In the same sentence which declares His love for the sheep, He declares His right to the sheep, in that He calls Himself the “I am.” This Old Testament covenant name angered the Pharisees because they knew it was a claim to divinity. He was the God-Man. This God-Man had come to lay down His life for the sheep, as He says in John 10:11.

Jesus contrasts Himself to a hired hand. A hired hand is someone who does not own the sheep. He works for the owner of the sheep. He is not invested personally in the sheep. He will watch the sheep and care for the sheep until danger comes to him. When the wolf attacks, the hired hand isn’t going to wait around to fend off a wolf with a shepherd’s staff. He might lose; he might get hurt or even killed. His life isn’t worth giving up for a few dozen animals. He is out of there.

Jesus, by contrast, as the Good Shepherd, does not run. In John 10:14 He says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” This knowledge of the sheep is not to be understood in the sense that He knows their breed, their color, their purpose, or even more personally, their name. Rather, He knows them. Substitute the word know for “love.” He knows them intimately. He loves them. How do we know? He not only gave as a word picture of a shepherd who is willing to risk his life to save the sheep. In the case of Jesus, He gave His life for the sheep. The shepherd became the sacrifice. But even more.

Listen to the words of John 1:29: “The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” God the Son becomes a lamb in order to save lambs. The Shepherd of Psalm 23 becomes the sheep of John 1, who saves the sheep of John 10. This is why there is this important pronoun before the word shepherd. The word is “good.” It is a unique word in the original. It isn’t the common Greek word for “good.” It is the same word used later to describe Jesus as the true or good vine. So, it could be translated as true or perfect or fulfilling. It means that He is unique unto Himself. He is in a category of His own. He is the priest who becomes the sacrifice, the prophet who becomes the word, the king who becomes the servant, and the shepherd who becomes a sheep. When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” our salvation is wrapped up in that phrase.

The hired hand scatters when danger appears. The Good Shepherd walks right toward that wolf as the sacrifice, to exchange Himself, to substitute Himself in the place of the sheep. “Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus, thou hast bought us, thine we are.”

His Sympathy

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. However, most of these verses (John 10:11–30) look at the care and sympathy the shepherd bestows. Look just at the personal pronouns our glorious Savior uses: “I know my sheep” (v. 14); “they too will listen” (v. 16); “my sheep” (v. 27); “they follow me” (v. 27); “no one can snatch them” (v. 28). This is not a picture of a farmer who leaves his sheep scattered in a field while he sits and relaxes in his house. He is not a shepherd out of touch with the sheep. Rather, he is a sympathizing shepherd.

Jesus knows the sheep, and He loves them. In verses 14–15, Jesus even compares His love and relationship with the sheep with the knowledge and love between the Father and the Son. That love is beyond comprehension. There is a perfect unity of Father and Son. This is a startling claim. Once again, the Pharisees didn’t like it. They were divided (vv. 19–24). These leaders of Israel had just threatened and expelled the man born blind who Jesus healed (John 9). In John 9:28, they hurl insults at him. In John 9:32–33, the man born blind makes a simple statement implying that if this man was not from God, he could do nothing, right? In John 9:34, we see the Pharisees respond again with excommunication. That is the great contrast between the wicked shepherds and the good shepherd.

The Good Shepherd does not throw His people out. He cares for them. He loves them. What does this mean?

It means we can go to Him. Hebrews 4:15–16 reminds us, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Have you been treated poorly? Have you been misrepresented to someone else? Have your words ever been twisted by someone? Have you ever had your friends leave you when you needed them? Have you been pushed away from someone you were trying to help? Have you felt all alone? Have you felt burned out to the point that you needed to take a break? Have you prayed with tears in your eyes (probably no drops of blood)? Have you been mocked, called a liar wrongly, and wanted to give up? So has our Savior. We do not have a Savior who cannot sympathize with us in our weaknesses.

Another tremendous comfort we can have from this relationship is the fact that when we belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, we cannot be lost. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). This teaches the perseverance of the saints. God preserves His people. Hallelujah for that. If that isn’t exciting to you, then you don’t understand your own heart. This sympathizing Savior/Shepherd is the one who leaves the ninety-nine to go and look for the one sheep that has gone astray. The shepherd of Psalm 23 shepherds with his rod and his staff, which are a comfort. How does a shepherd use his staff? Have you ever wondered why a shepherd’s staff looks like a giant wooden candy cane? It is so that the shepherd can take the crook of his staff and reach sheep who have gotten themselves into compromising situations. It is so that he can give the sheep a loving smack on the backside before it falls upon the rocks. The shepherd’s staff is for the protection of the sheep. The rod is likely a weapon of defense.

The prophet Isaiah says that we all like sheep have gone astray. How many of us does that include? “We all.” We have all been grabbed hold of by the shepherd as we peeked over the cliff of eternal death.

These truths also become a tremendous comfort to believing parents. As a parent stands before God and presents a child for baptism, the prayer of the parents must be, “Loving shepherd of thy sheep, all thy lambs to safety keep, nothing can thy power withstand, none can pluck them from thy hand.” Let it be a comfort, parents, that the Lord preserves His sheep. Sometimes the sheep walk beside quiet water, sometimes they can lie down in green pastures, but sometimes they must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Will you fear evil? You need not, when you understand the preserving grace of God.

Maybe you are in a place right now in life where it seems like no one understands. Or maybe you are caught up in a sin that you feel that you cannot talk to anyone about. Maybe you feel alone and vulnerable, like a sheep left on a hillside when night is falling. Dear child of God, you are not alone. The Good Shepherd knows you and is with you. He calls you to listen to His voice. Do you trust Him? Then go with Him and let Him lead you. He is faithful, always faithful.

His Search

The picture of the Good Shepherd is of one who lays down His life for the sheep, who sympathizes and graciously cares for the sheep, but also who searches. Last time, we looked at John 10:3, which says, “To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own by name and leads them out.” Picture three small flocks all sharing one fenced-in sheep pen. The sheep listen to the voice of their shepherd.

In John 10:16, our Savior makes clear that there are other sheep not in that sheep pen. This is a reference primarily to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church of God. They will be gathered together not as two churches or as two people of God, but as one church of Jesus Christ. There are a couple of closing implications to these truths.

The first is that when the Good Shepherd calls the sheep and they hear His voice, they follow Him. But what about those baptized sheep who do not follow? What about those sheep who stay back with the other flock or are not interested in going out to pasture? These are unbelieving covenant breakers. So many families have members who have walked away from the Lord. Everyone will, by the fact that we are human, follow someone. But there is only one Good Shepherd. To stay back in the pen when the gate closes is not where you want to be. We must pray for and petition these wayward sheep. They might ask in sincerity and in different words, “What if it seems like the flock has already left you behind and you haven’t been walking with God?” They must call out to the Good Shepherd. He will leave the flock to come and find them. Call out in faith and repentance, and they will see that He is very near. This all applies as well to the backsliding sinner.

The second point is that Jesus is a missionary. He went to the Jews preaching the gospel of His salvation. He sent the disciples out to all nations (Matt. 28) to bring the gospel to the world. This is still the calling of the church. God in His wisdom is bringing the world to us. How much has God loved you? Tell others that there is always room in the flock of the Good Shepherd.

Finally, a note to parents and grandparents of covenant children. God has claimed these children. The parents presented them for baptism, but that is because God told them to in His Word. They have been branded with the name of the Good Shepherd. They are His sheep. He is their shepherd. The Good Shepherd calls parents to be undershepherds. This means the parents must ensure safe pasture, clean water, the use of a rod and staff to comfort our children. This speaks of protection for our children, training and preparation for our children, teaching and loving. Raise them in the nursery of the Holy Spirit and always point them to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The shepherd of our text doesn’t save us with the crook of His staff; rather, He saves us with the cross of salvation. “Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus, thou has loved us, love us still.”

 

Rev. Steve Swets
is the pastor of Rehoboth United Reformed Church
in Hamilton, ON.

 


Listen to a 42-minute audio lecture by Dr. Carl Trueman
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This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.

Current Issue: March April 2017
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