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“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.

 

The Log of Tribalism

Introduction

Now that we’ve reached the halfway point in this series of articles, let’s review where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Fueled by a desire to be helpful to our confessional and conservative churches, I’ve been identifying some of our most prevalent weak spots with the hope that we will corporately turn in humble repentance to the God who shows mercy to the weak.

Much of these articles, therefore, has been diagnostic. Until a need is acknowledged, God’s storehouse of resources will remain hidden. We will remain at the status quo, never making progress.

But God wants us to move forward, not stand stagnant in the little comforts of the familiar. Yes, there is much to celebrate and praise God for as we take the baton of our Reformed forefathers into the twenty-first century. My desire is that our churches would be unashamedly Reformed in a day of increasing ecclesiastical confusion, silliness, and decay.

Yet if we think our main responsibility is to protect and preserve, without examining how we as a community have failed and continue to fail, then we are guilty of ignoring the logs that obstruct our vision even as we spend much energy in pointing out the specks in other groups.

Ethnic Tribalism

This month our deadly sin is what socialists have termed tribalism. A quick Google search defines it this way: the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group. The first form of tribalism alive in our circles is what I’d call ethnic tribalism.

Many reading this article come from a tradition that is steeped in Dutch Reformed history. I myself am one of them. My great-great-grandparents immigrated to West Michigan, and I’m 100 percent Dutch, as are my children. I grew up on ham buns and Dutch peppermints. I don’t have blond hair or blue eyes, but I did grow up in Zeeland, Michigan, a small Dutch community where there is a church on almost every corner. The only question is: Which Reformed variety is it?

I grew up in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). My family then joined a Presbyterian Church (PCA) when I was in high school. What’s a Presbyterian, I thought? I married a girl born and raised in Northwest Iowa with Christian Reformed roots. I currently serve as a pastor of in the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA).

I’ve heard old ladies play Dutch bingo hundreds of times. I’ve even played along. I’ve worn (it’s been a while) a short-sleeve dress shirt with a tie and didn’t flinch. And I know what it’s like to have a last name that starts with “S” and be in the first half of the directory.

All that to say: I’m an insider and a grateful son of the Dutch Reformed tradition.

But we are guilty of tribalism.

You ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much might make for a clever bumper sticker one can find at Tulip Time, but it has no place in the church. When our first (and sometimes only) question to visitors is What’s your last name? (i.e., are we related?), we have succumbed to a poisonous and insidious tribalism rooted in cultural pride that Christ came to abolish when He shed His blood.

I have witnessed, first hand, the effect our so-called innocent games of Dutch bingo can play on someone who has no place on the board. It shouts outsider, not fellow traveler. It breeds division, not unity. It creates second-class citizens, not a culture of togetherness.

I have heard church members who are confused, belittled, and isolated because they have felt the sting of tribalism.

I even heard stories of “good church-going folks” who ostracize family members who look different from them, and who seem embarrassed that they don’t fit the cultural mold.

This, perhaps, is not unique to our tradition. But that doesn’t excuse it. Jesus didn’t spill His blood so that our churches could be divided into those who are truly Dutch and those who aren’t.

I’m not suggesting that we need to apologize for our heritage. Or that we should ignore our tradition. The fact of the matter is that many of our churches come from Dutch Reformed backgrounds, just like most Presbyterians have a big percentage of Scots-Irish blood.

But that’s not our identity. Our identity is the Christ of the cross.

This is precisely what the apostle Paul was dealing with in his letter to the Ephesians. Jews and Gentiles in one church. How about that? But it wasn’t enough that they just co-existed. They were one in the gospel. And therefore, they needed to act as one:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph. 2:13–18)

Most of you reading this were Gentiles. Outsiders. But God, who is rich in mercy, called you into fellowship with His Son. The church is the gathering place of God’s people, the family of God, where people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people are brought together under the heading of “it is finished.”

The mission and outreach of our churches are stifled when we refuse to let go of our precious ethnic roots for the sake of the gospel.

Ecclesiastical Tribalism

But there is one other way we fall prey to tribalism, and that is when we act as if our local churches are in competition with others, even like-minded bodies. We might call this ecclesiastical tribalism.

Here in West Michigan, often the first question I get asked when I meet another Christian at a coffee shop is “What denomination are you in?” I’ll often ask the same. Of course, the motivation behind this question might be perfectly legit. We simply want to get an idea of where this person stands in relation to us.

But what we often really mean is, “What tribe are you from?” In other words, we’ve got our assumptions. If you’re from tribe A, then I’ll put you in this category. If you’re from tribe B, then I’ll put you over here.

We even do this within our own denominations. Instead of leaning on one another for encouragement and looking to one another as examples, we’re content to be isolated. Part of this, no doubt, stems from prideful snobbery—which often manifests itself in the form of suspicion.

Within the classis I serve, although we are the closest geographically, we are perhaps the furthest apart relationally. Perhaps this is because we don’t think we need each other as other churches in other regions do. But that is precisely the problem: we’re convinced we don’t need each other.

It often leaves me wondering: what would our brothers and sisters from persecuted lands think of our tribalism? I’m sure no one is immune to this, but I can’t help but think we’re particularly prone to this sort of classification.

I can assure you that if you met a Christian while serving in the military or while working overseas somewhere in the Middle East, you’re first question wouldn’t be, “Now is that name Dutch?” My guess is that you’d celebrate what you have in common, not what makes you different. Why? Because you need one another. Because there aren’t many of you around. And because all that ultimately matters is your unity in Christ.

Conclusion

If you’ve ever been an outsider, a visitor to a group unlike your own, and experienced the sort of things our churches are often guilty of, you’ll quickly learn how inconsistent tribalism is to the gospel.

The gospel is the great announcement that Jesus saves sinners through His obedient life, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection. The message is for anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord in repentance and faith.

Christ came to break these walls down. He died so that we might be reconciled to God and to each other. God’s grace is meant to spill over; it’s not meant to create holy huddles of comfortable traditionalism.

Family reunions are great places to play bingo. But the church is a family that is to have no ethnic boundaries. May we repent of our tribalism and open our doors to anyone and everyone who thirsts. And let us celebrate our unity in Christ, learning to lean instead push, to the glory of God:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1–6)

 

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

 

Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? Out of Egypt and Into the Wilderness

In previous articles, we have looked at how archaeology can be utilized by Christians who affirm the historicity of the Old Testament events. Though many in our day claim that archaeology causes problems for believers, we have asked whether this is truly the case. Indeed, as we have seen thus far, archaeology creates problems only for those who presuppose that the biblical texts contain historical errors and that archaeology is a hard science that speaks more truthfully than the Bible. Christians who believe that God’s Word is true appropriate the observations of archaeology very differently and study it with an eagerness and excitement because of the wonderful role it can play in contextualizing and illustrating many aspects of the biblical text. Before we consider what archaeology can tell us about the exodus and wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, we should consider a brief methodological point.

Shall We Then Harmonize?

The word harmonization is often used in biblical studies to describe how believing scholars reconcile apparent discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Bible. It is often claimed that attempts to harmonize these seemingly discrepant passages are an artificial and contrived practice. Not only do critics scoff at harmonizing seemingly disparate textual claims, they do the same with attempts to harmonize the claims of Scripture and science and, as in our case, the claims of Scripture and archaeology. Critics say we need to admit that these two sources stand in true contradiction to one another and then side with the “more objective” conclusions of science. From there, we are asked to accept the Bible as a religious, though not historical, document. It hardly needs stating that such a proposal stands in stark contrast with what the Bible itself claims to be (i.e., the divinely inspired, infallible, and thus authoritative Word of God), but our interest is in why critics would be so quick to dismiss harmonization when harmonization is a regular part of human experience.

In reality, skeptics are unable to live according to their own professed beliefs about harmonization. The late Raymond Dillard of Westminster Theological Seminary points out that “The question is not ‘should we harmonize or not,’ for harmonization is a virtually universal and inevitable feature of daily life. At home parents confront sharply different versions of a recent squabble between children . . . and [try] to create a scenario . . . closer to what a more detached observer would have reported or what would have been recorded on videotape.”1 While there are times one child is lying, other times both children are speaking the truth, only each is emphasizing one aspect more than others. Dillard insists: “Encounters like these are regular features of daily life. . . . One cannot a priori or simplistically repudiate harmonization of biblical data without contradicting what would be a routine and natural response to data in other areas of life.”2 Indeed, even ancient historians routinely work to harmonize different sets of data. As an example, Matt Waters, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, practices this very thing in his recently published history of the Persian Empire.3 As they say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”; Christians should feel no embarrassment for doing the hard work of seeking to harmonize the difficult data that archaeology presents with the historical narrative that Scripture provides.

The Location of Egypt’s Capital

Following the final plague, Pharaoh relented and let the Israelites leave Egypt. Exodus 12:37 says that they traveled from Rameses to Succoth. Exodus 13:20 then notes their travel from Succoth to Etham at the edge of the wilderness. Exodus 14:2 records that Israel then turned back and camped “in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon.” We often skim past these names since most of us are not well versed in ancient topography. But historians have not been so quick to pass over these, and some have even claimed that these place names are proof that Exodus does not record true history. One example will illustrate.

In the early 1900s, archaeologists were divided on the location of biblical Rameses (called Pi-Ramesses in Egyptian sources). The site of San el-Hagar (ca. 75 miles northeast of Cairo), also known as Tanis, was believed to be the location of Rameses because stonework and bricks inscribed with the name Rameses were present at the site. The problem, however, is that Tanis was not built until the eleventh century B.C., which not only was later than the Ramesside period but also was too late to accommodate either of the main dates proposed by conservative scholars for the exodus.4 Archaeological excavations about 10 miles southwest of Tanis at the adjacent sites of Qantir and Tell el-Dab‘a, however, yielded royal palaces with more inscribed Ramesside inscriptions. Tell el-Dab‘a was identified as the former Hyksos capital, Avarris, and nearby Qantir has been identified as Rameses. While adherents to a fifteenth-century B.C. exodus date recognize that Qantir itself did not flourish until the thirteenth century B.C., they note that the remains are of a huge city that encompassed also the site of Tell el-Dab‘a, which was present already in the fifteenth century B.C.5 Thus both positions can rightly claim this site as support.

Though there is nearly universal agreement by scholars about the location of Rameses at Qantir/Tell el-Dab‘a, some critical writers have claimed that the exodus stories were written late in Israel’s history and are merely a retrojection of places and names that bear little resemblance with real history. When critical Egyptologist Donald Redford insisted that linguistics did not allow for an identification of the biblical name Rameses with the Egyptian name Pi-Ramesses, minimalist scholars capitalized on this. Lester Grabbe, for example, argued that Rameses (as opposed to Pi-Ramesses) was a widespread topographical name in the first millennium B.C. and thus the stories of the exodus do not describe Pi-Ramesses of ancient Egypt, but realities from a much later period.6 Another linguist, Wolfgang Heck, however, wrote a thorough critique of Redford’s work forcing critical scholars either to sheepishly admit Redford’s errors or ignore Heck’s critique.7 Indeed, the only way the biblical texts could speak as they do about the geography of the exodus and its beginnings at Rameses is if they truly reflect the historical reality of the Late Bronze Age in Egypt. The only other option for critical scholars is to posit that the supposed “late inventors” of the exodus story wholly by accident gave the precise name for the Egyptian capital at the time when the exodus was said to have happened! Such naïve and blind faith is ironic. After all, critical scholars claim that faith should not inform one’s study of ancient history.

The Location of the Re(e)d Sea

When I was young, I distinctly remember seeing a map of the Middle East and feeling excited when I saw the Red Sea bordering the west coast of Saudi Arabia. I thought for sure that modern-day maps had accurately pinpointed the body of water made famous by Exodus 14–15. Students of Hebrew, however, have sought in vain for a literal reference to a “red” sea in the Bible. Instead, the body of water through which the Israelites passed on dry ground is literally named yam suf, the Sea of Reeds. It is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which has given us the name Red Sea by translating the phrase yam sufas eruthra thalassa (Exod. 15:4). It is true that there are salt-water reeds that grow along sections of the Red Sea, but reeds are most often thought of as growing in fresh water. As Egypt has several substantial freshwater lakes within a reasonable distance of Rameses, how can we narrow down our investigation into the location yam suf?

While media claims to have found chariot wheels covered in coral and strewn across the bottom of the Gulf of Aqaba are tantalizing, in reality archaeology has not found evidence for the location of yam sufin such a sensational manner. It has, however, drawn attention to an ancient man-made feature that would have affected the Israelites’ journey to yam suf and narrows the range of options. This is the eastern border canal that quarantined off large sections of Egypt between the Great Bitter Lake, Lake Timsah, and many of the other lakes from antiquity that have disappeared since the drying up of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile River and (more recently) the digging of the Suez Canal. This eastern border canal was discovered by Israeli geologists in the 1970s and would have been in operation during the time of the exodus.8 While this man-made water barrier was noted by classical writers like Herodotus, the discovery of its remains helped scholars to better understand one of the most significant obstacles faced by the Israelites in the exodus.

Though many routes for the exodus have been proposed, several seem unlikely due to severe limitations.9 As an example, a northern route following the main road out of Egypt, the Way of Horus, would have been a much shorter and more direct journey but was funneled through a heavily guarded path peppered with Egyptian military outposts. The coast was “heavily militarized” and would have been, according to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, a jump “out of the frying pan and into the fire.”10 This seems to be the concern of Exodus 13:17: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see fighting and return to Egypt.’”

Instead of northward, God initially sent Israel in a southerly direction. Though going “up” from the land of Egypt (Exod. 13:18) sounds like traveling north, Egypt was conceived in reverse in ancient times. “Lower Egypt” was the portion of the country closest to the Mediterranean Sea (north on a map) whereas “Upper Egypt” was further south, following the Nile River upstream. When traveling in a southeasterly direction, however, the Israelites would inevitably bump up against the eastern border canal, preventing them from traveling southeast indefinitely or of even turning east at will. This seems to be reflected in Exodus 14:2, where God tells them to “turn back” (i.e., head northward) and encamp facing “the sea” (presumably yam suf, although it simply says the sea [hayam] and could refer to one of the many Ballah or Bitter lakes of antiquity and not specifically yam suf). Pharaoh himself would have seen the people as boxed in by the wilderness (Exod. 14:3).

Where then does this put our quest for the location of the Red/Reed Sea? The Bible records that after turning back, the Israelites encamped in a specific location: in front of Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-Zephon (Exod. 14:2). As it turns out, ancient Egyptian texts mention these same places as all located in proximity. And what is more fascinating is that Egyptian texts locate them near a large body of water named pa-chuf in Egyptian. The name pa-chuf is linguistically related to yam suf and seems quite likely to be the same body of water.11 What is more, the name Pi-hariroth in Exodus 14:2 is related to an Egyptian term, pa-char, derived from a Semitic word meaning “canal.” In light of all this, the Red/Reed Sea seems most likely to have been located as part of the Ballah lake system, east of Rameses and east of the Nile delta. It is quite likely that the texts—biblical and ancient Egyptian—even envision the Red/Reed Sea as connected to the eastern border canal and thus a key feature of this ancient Egyptian defense system. Imagine how Pharaoh must have felt watching the Lord easily lead his people through a defense system designed to stop even the more formidable military foe!

Archaeology of the eastern border canal, combined with an understanding of ancient geography gathered from ancient Egyptian texts, encourage us to view yam suf as one of the large lakes in the Ballah lakes system. As water features east of the Nile delta have had a volatile existence, historically speaking, it is likely that the Red/Reed Sea is no longer even in existence. Over the course of the first millennium B.C., the Pelusiac branch of the Nile slowly migrated northward some 10 to 12 miles, leaving even the largest lakes to dry up and fill with sand down into the present. Indeed, since that time, the Pelusiac branch has disappeared and the digging of the Suez Canal has further changed the topography of the eastern delta. Nevertheless, we know from archaeology that a significant canal system utilized a series of large lakes in an area not far from Rameses. This helps us to contextualize the story of the exodus and reconstruct the travel itinerary of the Israelites. But speaking of travel, what do travel speeds help us understand about the locations of the exodus?

Narrowing Down Candidates for Mt. Sinai

As alluded to above, some have claimed to have found the remains of Pharaoh’s army some 200 miles southeast of Rameses in the modern-day Gulf of Aqaba. As studies of ancient travel times have shown, one day’s journey in the ancient world would cover a distance of 17 to 23 miles. How does this square with a 200-mile trip to the Gulf of Aqaba? Numbers 33 recounts the travel itinerary of the Israelites in a more systematic fashion and even includes a technical term, “stage” (or “stages,” ESV), which refers to distance one could cover in a single day. We read that the first day was a journey from Rameses to Succoth (v. 5). The second day was a journey from Succoth to Etham (v. 6). The third day was their journey back northward (the “turning back” of Exod. 14:2) to Pi-hariroth. On the fourth day, they passed through the sea. If the Gulf of Aqaba truly was the Red Sea of the Bible and really did contain Pharaoh’s chariots, the host of the Israelites, including women and children, traveled an astonishing 66 miles per day! It is hard to imagine that the Gulf of Aqaba is a reasonable location for the Red Sea.

We mention this because some in recent years have suggested that Mt. Sinai is located not in the Sinai Peninsula, where it has been traditionally located, but in Saudi Arabia at a site called Jebel al-Lawz.12 Others have posited other sites in Arabia, or sites in the northern Sinai. The work of Emmanuel Anati at Har Karkom, about 55 miles north of modern-day Eilat, has become another alternative suggestion in recent years. While the approximately 150 miles from Rameses to Har Karkom would fit within the eight-to-eleven-day time period allowed by Numbers 33:8–15, problems emerge when the journey from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh-Barnea is said to take eleven days to cover only 32 miles. One could propose that the entire assembly of Israel suddenly took on a snail’s pace, traveling just under 3 miles per day for this last leg of the journey; however, such an approach seems a bit forced.

Ancient tradition has suggested the site of Gebel Musa in the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula is the location of Mt. Sinai. St. Catherine’s Monastery is a famous site purporting to mark the location of the burning bush (Exod. 3). While Byzantine traditions are not the most reliable for determining biblical locations, and while Gebel Musa has some limitations (e.g., it lacks room for the Israelites to camp at its base), its location seems to jibe better with consistent travel speeds and the itinerary of Numbers 33. It should be noted that Gebel Musa is located close to other mountains that have been proposed for Mt. Sinai: Gebel Serbal and Gebel Katherina. Unfortunately nothing more can be proven with the current state of archaeological knowledge. Nevertheless, archaeology has helped us to understand the beginning of the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt, and thereby provides us with some options for considering the remainder of their travels.

Conclusion

Two major conclusions can be drawn from this article. First, archaeology can help us to identify ancient cities that correspond with biblical names and thereby provide a context for the events in Scripture. This is certainly the case with the location of Rameses at Qantir/Tell el-Dab‘a, and seems likely the case with the location of the Red Sea east of Rameses in the ancient Ballah lake system. But second, archaeology cannot always be used to illustrate with the detail we might wish. This seems to be the case with the location of Mt. Sinai. Nevertheless, archaeology provides us with a useful tool for taking what might otherwise be a boring list of old cities and campsites in Exodus and Numbers and viewing them as a real itinerary with stopping points that seem viable based on known travel speeds and ancient topography. In the next installment of this series, we move into the time of Israel’s settlement in the land of Canaan. This is where archaeology begins to yield more information about the biblical text than ever before.

 

1.  Raymond B. Dillard, “Harmonization: A Help and a Hindrance,” in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie M. Conn (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 153.

2. Dillard, “Harmonization.”

3.  Matt Waters, Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire 550–330 BCE(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 39, 73.

4. Note that 1 Kings 6:1 posits 480 years between the exodus and the commencement of the temple construction. Those who interpret this time frame as an exact time marker view the exodus as taking place in the fifteenth century B.C., whereas those who view it as a figurative number representing twelve generations of forty years each place the exodus in the thirteenth century. We will consider this question more in a future article.

5. Bryant Wood, “From Ramesses to Shiloh,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, ed. David M. Howard and Michael A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2003), 262; idem, “The Royal Precinct at Rameses,” Associates for Biblical Research, April 3, 2008, http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/04/The-Royal-Precinct-at-Rameses.aspx.

6. Lester Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?(London: T&T Clark, 2007), 86.

7. For this debate and citation of Hecks’s work, see James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 117–18.

8. For the background of this canal and its implications for the exodus, see Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 164–75.

9. For pros and cons of the various options, see Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 266–72.

10. Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament, 267.

11. For a full discussion, see James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 105–8.

12. This has been pushed by a group called BASE Institute, led by a former police investigator and S.W.A.T. team member, Bob Cornuke (see www.baseinstitute.org). Hoffmeier expertly points out the flaws in the BASE arguments for Gebel el-Lawz. See Israel in Sinai, 133–36.

 

Rev. R. Andrew Compton
is assistant professor of Old Testament at
Mid-America Reformed Seminary.

 

Chapter and Verse Divisions in the Bible

Where did the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles come from?

When Scripture was originally written, there were no chapter and verse divisions. These man-made additions to our Bibles came much later. It was Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury in England, who added chapter divisions into the Latin Vulgate around A.D. 1227. A Jewish rabbi by the name of Nathan divided the Hebrew Bible (what we as Christians call the Old Testament) into verses in 1448. Then, Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus) divided the chapters into verses in his Greek New Testament in 1551. The first English translation to make use of his verse divisions was the Geneva Bible of 1560.

 

That is something of the history behind the chapter and verse divisions. The question becomes “Was this development a good thing?”

My answer would be yes and no. It is fair to say there are pros and cons in this matter.

The designations are helpful in that they allow us to find a verse or passage in a short time. We can find a verse easily without the need to read an entire book of the Bible. The numbering system allows us to go straight to a verse or passage we wish to locate. This is a wonderful, practical benefit. Imagine if there were no chapter/verse divisions and a preacher asked the congregation to find the section of Isaiah dealing with the Suffering Servant of the Lord. How many people would find the passage? Not many, and certainly, not very many in a swift manner. However, if the preacher says, “Let’s turn to Isaiah chapter 53,” anyone in the audience with a Bible in hand can find the passage in just a few seconds. In this way, then, chapter and verse divisions are helpful and convenient when it comes to finding references and quotations.

But there is a downside—a major downside. These divisions make it especially easy for us to look at a verse in isolation, with no reference to its context. Many pages could be filled with examples. Just one is Philippians 4:13, where we read, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse, in isolation, could be interpreted (falsely) to mean that Christ strengthens us to achieve any human endeavor, the “all things” referring to any conceivable task. An athlete might apply this by thinking the verse means Christ will strengthen him to win every race he enters—that this in fact is God’s promise to him. An author might use the verse as a promise that whatever he writes will be a best seller, and the Christian salesman might believe that he will be number 1 in company sales because of his relationship with Christ. Christ strengthens us to accomplish anything we set out to do.

But here’s the problem. The verse teaches nothing of the kind. The “all things” Christ does strengthen us to do refers to the things Paul wrote about in the previous sentences (vv. 10–12):

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

Verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” has a context which, if ignored, leads to a false interpretation. The correct one is this: Whatever the situation, whatever the circumstance, whether in hardship or in much provision and abundance, whether there is plenty or whether we experience hunger and great need, God’s grace is more than abundant for us in Christ. He will strengthen us to endure whatever it is we have to face. That was true for Paul, and it is also true for all who trust in Christ. We can go through any event in life, whether it is a very good or a very hard thing, because the Lord Jesus Christ will strengthen us to do so. That is the meaning of Philippians 4:13.

The word arbitrary refers to something based on a random choice or personal whim, rather than reason or a sound logical system. Some of the chapter divisions in our Bibles are especially arbitrary. And this is another downside.

Just above, I mentioned Isaiah 53 and its reference to God’s Suffering Servant. Yet if we look at the words in their context, the passage starts speaking of this Servant in Isaiah 52:13, not Isaiah 53:1. Rather than Isaiah 53 starting where it does, a much better place for the insertion of a new chapter would have been at Isaiah 52, between verses 12 and 13. This would then allow us to see the entire passage in one section in our Bibles, rather than this unnecessary breaking up of the passage in a way that defies all logic and reason. And it is more than all right to say this, because in doing so, I am not being critical of God’s Word in any way. God’s Word is flawless, inerrant, and inspired. I am critical here only of what man has added to God’s inspired text in our Bibles. The chapter division here in Isaiah 53 is not helpful at all. Quite the opposite!

In summary, I think it is a good thing for us to have chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles, for the sake of convenience. However, it is important that we never forget that context is a key factor in forming a correct understanding of Scripture. When we forget context, misinterpretation is inevitable, and this is something we should always be vigilant to avoid.

Rev. John Samson
is the pastor of King’s Church, Peoria, AZ.
www.kingshurchaz.com

 

“I Am the Gate for the Sheep”: A Devotional on John 10:7b by Rev. Steve Swets

We continue our study of the seven “I Am” statements of Christ. We have seen that He is the bread of life, the light of the world, and now the gate for the sheep. As we think about sheep, there are likely a number of different images that come to mind, but much of the way that modern sheep farming is done is foreign to the first-century mind. When a modern sheep farmer wants to round up his sheep, he jumps on a quad or a dirt bike and sets off. Oftentimes sheep farms are much bigger now than they were in Jesus’ day, and often a large number of different animals make up the average farm. For these next two studies, let us put modern farming out of our minds.

As Jesus gives this allegory or figure of speech in our text, the average shepherd cared for twenty to eighty sheep. He walked with the sheep, spending all day and night with them. He didn’t have much of a social life, so to speak. He named his sheep, and his sheep knew his voice. He was entrusted to care for the sheep, protect the sheep, lead the sheep, water and feed the sheep. John 10 contains two “I Am” statements of Jesus dealing with shepherds and sheep. In the next study we plan to see Jesus as the good shepherd; this month, that Jesus is the gate to the sheep. Our Lord Jesus proclaims Himself to be the way of salvation.

The Meaning

God has always governed His people through the means He has appointed. What we see taking place in the Old Testament is a continual word picture of the leaders of the people being shepherds, and the people of God as sheep. The shepherds were to serve the great Shepherd of the sheep, which was God: think of Psalm 23 or Isaiah 40:10. The problem was that so many of the shepherds of Israel were wicked (Jer. 23; 25; Isa. 56:9–12). If we look closely at Ezekiel 34 (it is best to turn there in your Bible) we see that after renouncing the wickedness of the shepherds in the first ten verses, in verse 11 God says that He Himself will be the one who will have to shepherd His sheep. Notice verse 12, “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered.” We will have to keep that in mind when later in John 10 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” He is the one God is ultimately speaking about in Ezekiel 34. In Ezekiel 34:23 it says, “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Jesus is the Son of David who would be greater than David. Most of this principle we will study in the next article, God willing, but keep it in your mind as we keep looking at our text.

The opening picture of our text is that of a sheep pen or a sheepfold. During the day, a shepherd would lead the sheep from pasture to pasture, from watering hole to watering hole, to ensure their nourishment and livelihood. At night it was unsafe to leave the sheep out on a hillside, so he would have to put the sheep in some type of pen. Depending on the size of his flock, sometimes a cave would be used and the shepherd would sleep by the entrance of the cave to ensure no one or nothing went in or out. In a village, there would be an open roofed enclosure made of wood or likely stone, sometimes even connected to the back side of a house. In this type of closure, the sheep would be brought in and then the gate would be locked or closed to make sure none of the sheep wandered out. This is the picture we have of our text.

It was an enclosure which had more than one flock, so it had different shepherds sharing an enclosure for the evening. There would be a watchman, John 10:3 says, who would open the gate for the shepherd. He was not to open it for others, and therefore, if someone or some animal wanted to steal a sheep, he would climb over the wall. When these structures were out in the wilderness, the dangers would be bears, lions, or wolves; in town this was less of a danger. The danger then became someone rustling or stealing sheep. John 10:1 calls this person a thief or a robber. Those terms refer to mostly the same thing, but the difference is that the robber uses violence to accomplish his goal.

Jesus, in this allegory, compares Himself as the faithful shepherd with those others who are thieves and robbers. Sheep will follow the voice of their shepherd, and they will not follow the voice of a stranger. So, to go back to the sheep pen, if there are three shepherds who keep their sheep in the same pen, how do they divide them again the next morning? What happens is the watchman opens the gate for the shepherd, and he calls out to his sheep and they follow him; the other sheep ignore the stranger’s voice and wait only for the voice of their own shepherd. This is still done in many Eastern cultures where shepherds share watering holes and flocks come together and they all leave with their own flock by following the shepherd’s voice. There is a closeness between a shepherd and his flock: he knows the name of the sheep and they are with him 24/7. It is like having a faithful dog: as soon as the owner comes home and the dog hears the voice, the ears perk up and the dog wags its tail. When a stranger comes, there isn’t trust at first. This idea is the same with sheep.

The Pharisees and the others who are listening did not understand what Jesus was saying. John 10:6 says: “Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.” So, in verses 7–10 of John 10, he makes it more explicit. Some have said that this becomes a mixed metaphor. In the first five verses Jesus is a shepherd; now, in verses 7–10, he is a gate. How is this? The way we must understand this is that verses 7–10 amplify what Jesus was saying. Also, as with an allegory, we must be careful not to be too particular of every detail.

So, now the picture focuses upon Jesus as the gate for the sheep. Notice Jesus uses the “I Am” statement again. This is a divine claim! But now, Jesus is the gate. Jesus calls Himself that very thing that brings the sheep into the safety of the sheep pen and brings them back out into the place where they can be fed and nourished. Whoever enters through the gate, Jesus says in John 10:9, will be saved. So, coming in through the gate is a picture of salvation. Salvation here is pictured as a place of safety, going in and out of the sheepfold, and having an abundant life. This is what John 10:10 means when it says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

A full life or an abundant life is one of fellowship with God. It is a life that is so full that it cannot be destroyed by death. It is a life of abundant grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. Is this the life you are living—a full life in the grace of God? Or are you living a life of fear? If you believe, if you have entered through the gate which is Christ, by faith, you can go in and out of the sheep pen without fear. The sheep pen can be the church—John 10:16 makes this clear. It is initially speaking about Israel, but for us today it speaks of the church. Are you afraid of what is out there? Are you afraid of your neighbors? Are you afraid of ISIS? Are you afraid of Satan? You need not be, because the shepherd gives abundant grace to the sheep. Be wise out there, be loving out there, be active out there, get involved in your community. Invite your neighbors over for supper and then invite them to church or just invite them into your lives. We will ask ourselves in the next article, but if we are afraid, then do we really trust that Jesus is the good shepherd who will not lose one of His sheep?

Brothers and sisters, there is only one way in. At some point, that shepherd is going to call the sheep in at night, and if you are not in the sheep pen, then you are in danger, eternal danger because one of these nights will be the last one. Do you hear the voice of the Savior? He says, “Come unto me and I will give you rest.”

 

The Danger

After explaining to you that you do not need to be afraid if you have entered the gate, now let me warn you of two obvious but serious dangers.

The first of these dangers is listening to the wrong voice. In John 10:3 Jesus says that the shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out. Notice that beautiful phrase, “He leads them.” Most modern shepherds drive the sheep. They walk behind the sheep and have a dog or two to keep the sheep in line. Not Jesus; He leads the sheep. The way that He leads them is not by the fact that they see Him but rather that they hear Him. The danger then is to follow the wrong voice.

The wrong voice is described by Jesus as that of a robber or thief or a stranger. What would the wrong voice sound like? In Jesus’ day, it was the voice of unbelieving Pharisees. It was a voice of threatening. Just as they threw the man who was healed of blindness out of the temple, so a false shepherd threatens the sheep. Pastors (which is the Latin word for shepherd) must not threaten the sheep; they should lead the sheep and teach them to run away from strange voices. Like what? Who are the thieves of our day?

The thieves of our day are those who teach that there is another way to be saved; those who teach that all religions ultimately lead to the same place. A thief might also say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Thieves today who have a false voice are those who promote a false religion, whether it is naturalism and its daughter evolution. Namely, it is that which is contrary to God’s Word. Another false voice is that of prosperity preachers who teach that God wants you to be wealthy and have all of your carnal desires met, and the reason you are sick or weak is your own fault. The first danger is listening to the wrong voice.

The second danger is seeking to enter by the wrong entrance. Jesus claims to be the exclusive gate. The only other way into the sheep pen is an illegitimate way: the way of thieves and robbers. We have already mentioned false religions and the like under the first danger. Likely the great danger of seeking the wrong entrance is seeking to enter the kingdom of God without the church.

This is the notion that someone can be a part of the universal church without being faithfully involved in a local church. This is the teaching that says that you can live a healthy Christian life without the communion of the saints, without accountability, without corporate worship, and most dangerously, without the means of grace—the preaching and sacraments.

What has become obvious to those watching is the role of religion in American politics. How many of the candidates attended worship on Sunday? How many attended worship on this Sunday last year? It is a show, and it is a joke. An individualistic faith with an individualistic salvation isn’t entering by the gate, which is Christ. It is sitting on the wall, it is straddling the fence. Cyprian, the early church father, said, “You cannot have God as your Father if the church is not your mother.” These people are the opposites of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were members of the local church but were not members of the universal church. We need both, and it is local church where we express our membership in the universal church.

Beware of the dangers.

The Application

As we take a step back from this “I Am” statement, what can you take home from the knowledge that Jesus is the gate for the sheep?

First (and we will build on this in the next article), be comforted in the fact that Christ will protect and feed us. John 10: 27–28 says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” Jesus will not leave us out in the wilderness for the lions, bears, and wolves to devour. Rather the I Am is an iron gate of protection for the sheep. He feeds us as the bread of life, He nourishes us with streams of living water, and He does so in His Word and by grace through the Holy Spirit.

Second, it is the calling of the Christian pastor to teach the sheep to run away from a strange voice. An important part of preaching is the defense of the faith or apologetics and polemics. This is especially the case in catechism sermons. In the faithful preaching of the Word, the sheep ought to be able to hear the voice of the good shepherd. The shepherd at times has to keep sheep from cliffs, pitfalls, and predators.

Third, enter in at the gate and follow the voice of Jesus. Many of you were welcomed into the sheep pen in a sense when you were baptized as members of the covenant. Praise God for that, but don’t rest merely on that. The picture of our text is that of sheep going in and out. Sometimes when sheep go out, they get lost. The shepherd with the one hundred sheep left the ninety-nine to go and find the one that was lost. When he found that sheep, he picked it up, put it on his shoulders, and carried it back to the flock. How would that sheep have gotten lost? That sheep entered dangerous territory or didn’t follow the shepherd. This is what our sin does. Flee from it. Repent and believe and experience abundant life.

There is only one gate, and that is Jesus. Come to Him. Enter through Him and have life, true, eternal, life.

--------------------

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.

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