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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.

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

 

Let Them Hear Them by Rev. Daniel Hyde

Jesus’ illustration of the rich man and Lazarus in the afterlife brings home the powerful point that the Word of God is authoritative (Luke 16:22–31). The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his family to warn them of hell (Luke 16:27–28). But Abraham responded in a provocative way: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). The Old Testament prophets constantly called the people of God back to the Law of God, the Word of God (Deut. 17:10; Isa. 8:20). Jesus constantly called His disciples and His opponents back to the Scriptures (Luke 16:29; Matt. 4; 19:28; 22:29; John 5:39; 10:34–35; Acts 17:2, 11; 18:28; 26:22). The apostle Peter points us to the Word, not to himself as the supposed pope (2 Peter 1:19). We know the story of the Bereans (Acts 17:11), whom Paul described as noble because they searched the Scriptures to determine if Paul’s words were true. The rich man in Luke 16 responded: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Luke 16:30). Abraham’s reply? “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

The Scriptures are authoritative. The authority of Scripture is the inherent right they posses that makes it necessary for us to believe every truth and to obey every command. This is why the Westminster Confession says, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God” (1.4).

I want you to think about this question with me: How do we know the Scriptures are authoritative? The debate between Rome and the Reformation on this question was and continues to be: Do we come to this persuasion primarily through the church’s testimony or through the testimony of the Scriptures themselves? We say the authority of the Word of God is demonstrated primarily by God Himself and His Word and secondarily by the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith said it like this:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (WCF 1.5)

The Spirit’s Witness

The Word of God clearly evidences and testifies of its own authority. And the way we recognize this is the Spirit’s witness. It is important to recognize the Spirit is behind the Word as the cause of its authority. The church’s witness is important, too, but it is only the means by which the Word is proclaimed so that the Spirit can do His work.

We read of the Holy Spirit’s internal testimony in our hearts that we are children of God (e.g., Rom. 8). And as He testifies to us that we belong to God, He does so in His Word. Jesus calls His words “spirit and life” (John 6:63). But what is the inner witness of the Spirit? Is it the same thing that Mormons teach when they say all we have to do is read and pray and we will have a burning in the bosom? No. This internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is not spiritual ecstasy or enthusiasm. It is a certainty that convinces our mind of the reasons implanted in the Word itself.

The Word’s Own Witness

The Spirit bears witness to us through the means of the Word of God. This is why we say that the Word is autopistis, that is, self-testifying. This means that the authority of Scripture is derived from its origin and source, which is God Himself. One illustration of this is to think about a jewel. Take a diamond, for example. Its refraction of light, its glowing brilliance in the sun, and its ability to cut glass all testify that it is a diamond. It has this ability to testify of itself.

In what ways do the Scriptures testify of their own authority, that they are from God? The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.5 mentions six. Let me just briefly list them for you to write.

Q. 4. How doth it appear that the Scriptures are the Word of God?
A. The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very Word of God.

First, the heavenliness of the matter. We are dealing here not with myths and old wives’ tales but with a message from heaven to earth. In the Scriptures we read God’s own address to us.

Second, the efficacy of the doctrine. This means that the doctrines have an effect upon us. When we learn of sin, we come to know why things are the way they are. When we learn of Jesus Christ, we come to put our trust in Him. When we hear of the law, we seek to obey.

Third, the majesty of the style. This doesn’t mean that it is so incomprehensible that it has to be from God, but that there is something elevated in the poetry and prose that evidences its divinity. There is something about the doctrines, as well. Reason cannot produce the doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, satisfaction, and resurrection of Christ, and fulfillment of prophecy. This must be a book from another source and not from man.

Fourth, the consent of all the parts. There is harmony in the one Bible between the two Testaments, which were written over several thousand years, by many authors, in multiple languages, and in different continents. We see this in the prophecies that are fulfilled.

Fifth, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God). This is not a self-help book or a means to an end. This is a book about God. This is why medieval Christians described the task of theology, saying, “Theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God.”

Sixth, the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation. No other book offers the   like the Bible.

The Church’s Witness

Let’s finally come to the church’s witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the one who convinces us of the authority of the Word through the Word. As a secondary means, the church and other external witnesses help us to see this as well. But it has to be in this order: Spirit and Word and then church. Men like Francis Turretin said the church was an introductory and ministerial means of bringing us to believe the authority of the Word (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:87–88). This is why Ephesians 2:20 is so key to us as Christians. What we learn there is that the church is built upon the Scriptures and then gets any authority it has from the Scriptures. This means that the Scriptures did not come to be because of the church.

Conclusion: One Main Application versus Rome

Let me conclude with one main application versus Rome’s understanding of this issue. What all this means is that the church discerns the Word of God and distinguishes it from other false books, but the church doesn’t make these books the Word of God.

Rome bases its whole claim upon a circular argument: Why do we believe the Bible is divine? Because the church says so. Why do we believe what the church says? Because the Bible says it is authoritative. And how do we know that this teaching of the Word is true? Because the church says so. And the circle never ends. This is why John Calvin once wrote, “Against opposing arguments they will set up this brazen wall—who are you to question the interpretation of the Church?” (Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote, 69).

The Scriptures, therefore, are our supreme judge in all doctrinal controversies. At the great Council of Nicea, Emperor Constantine said, “Therefore laying aside warring strife, we may obtain a solution of difficulties from the words of inspiration” (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2, 3:44). And while the church will always have error until Christ comes again (1 Cor. 11:19), we ultimately listen to God speaking in the Scriptures more than we listen to popes and even our own theologians.

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Rev. Daniel Hyde
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, CA. 

 

 

The Dangers of Neglecting the Assembly (or, See You on Sunday!)

“Do we have to go to church today?”

This is a question my parents remember me asking more than a few times when I was growing up. I’m sure other parents have heard their own children ask the same question. I certainly have! This request is somewhat understandable from a child’s point of view. I admit that when I was eleven, there were times I would’ve rather stayed home to work on my Lego catapult than go to church on Sunday. I knew going to church was good; I would have agreed that God wanted us to worship Him together. But I might have argued that going to church once or twice a month was good enough. That was my logic as a child in a Christian home. It’s not the best logic, but from a child’s point of view, it is somewhat understandable.

One problem in the Christian life is when adults use this same logic: going to church is good, God wants us to worship together, and going once or twice a month is good enough. It’s one thing for a child to reason this way; it’s a very different thing for an adult to do it. So I’d like to spend a little time on this topic. There are legitimate reasons why some people can’t meet for worship frequently (illness, emergencies, legitimate travel, etc.). However, I believe that most of our reasons for neglecting worship are not legitimate (ball game, boating, too tired, etc.). But that’s the topic of a different article.

For now, I want to open the discussion by asking questions like these: What are the dangers of neglecting public worship? How does it hurt a Christian when he or she frequently misses worship? What does it hurt to skip church? Or, to repeat a child’s question, “Why do we have to go to church today?”

The following answers to those questions are based on Scripture and biblical principles. I don’t want to come at this topic from a legalistic point of view (you must worship in order for God to accept and save you), nor do I want to come at it from a traditionalistic point of view (we worship every week because that’s the way we’ve always done it). Instead, I want to give reasonable, wise, and biblical answers to these questions. So again, what does it hurt the Christian to habitually skip public assembly?

It is against God’s will. In Hebrews 10:25 Scripture clearly rebukes Christians who habitually neglect public worship. To paraphrase, the verse says, “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some people today.” Without debating the number of worship services these people were missing, it is safe to say that the early church was regularly meeting together to worship Christ; for one example, Acts 2:42 says God’s people were “continually devoting themselves” to meet (NASB). By the time and context of Hebrews, some in the church were very irregular in their attendance, and they were clearly called out for skipping church. So our Larger Catechism says that sins forbidden in the fourth commandment include “all omissions of the duties required” in keeping the Sabbath and “all careless, negligent, and unprofitable performing of them” (WLC Q/A 119). It is displeasing to God when His people habitually neglect public worship services; it does not bring Him glory and honor because it is against His will.

It is harmful to the Christian’s faith. Missing public worship services hurts a person’s faith. God has promised that through His Word He will powerfully bless His people. Faith in Christ comes through hearing His Word (Rom. 10:17), and that faith is strengthened through the same Word. The Word of God’s grace is able to build you up in faith (Acts 20:32; see also Ps. 119). This is why we call preaching an ordinary means of grace—it is one of the primary ways God showers His grace upon His people (see WLC Q/A 154). If we habitually neglect preaching, we habitually neglect God’s showers of grace. And neglecting showers of grace makes the seed of faith wither rather than grow in our hearts. The same can be said of the sacraments, which are signs of Christ’s work for us—other means God uses to strengthen our faith. So think of habitual neglect of worship like habitual neglect of watering and fertilizing a garden in an arid climate. The plants will not grow. So our faith will not grow if it is not regularly watered by the Word and sacraments.

It hinders Christian fellowship. Hebrews 10:24–25 not only talks about attending worship services, it also talks about Christian fellowship in the same sentence. Alongside the exhortation to stop missing worship services, the author of Hebrews tells God’s people to stir one another up in love and good works, and encourage one another in the faith as we await Christ’s return. Assembly, encouragement, love, and good works go hand in hand. This kills our self-centered, individualistic attitude and helps us think and live in a more covenantal, corporate way. We should regularly assemble with other Christians so we can encourage one another in the Christian faith and be encouraged by one another. One commentator put it this way, “The entire community must assume responsibility to watch that no one grows weary or becomes apostate. This is possible only when Christians continue to exercise care for one another personally.” After all, Christianity is not a solo endeavor, nor does it square with the individualism of our culture. Jesus said “by this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NASB). This is why the Westminster Confession says, “Saints by profession are bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God” (WCF 26.2). A true Christian doesn’t say, “I love Jesus but not the church.” If a person frequently skips worship, he is casting his doubt on the importance of fellowship and love for God’s people.

It diminishes God’s praise. The Bible (especially the Psalms) is full of examples where God’s people publicly sing praises to His name and honor Him together. For example, Psalm 34:3 says, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (cf. Ps. 95:1–2, 6; Rev. 19:7). When we rarely sing praises to God with His people, it diminishes our praise of God—praise which we should want to give Him together with His people: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (Ps. 122:1). Habitually missing worship service means habitually neglecting to praise God with His people. This even sets a bad example before unbelievers; an unbeliever might begin to think (wrongly) that one can be a Christian without attending public worship services. Indeed, it is inconsistent if a person calls himself a Christian but does not care about praising the Lord with other Christians.

It confuses other Christians. To put it in common terms, Christians have historically been known as “church goers,” and this is a biblical way to think (see the first point above). When a Christian frequently skips worship services, other Christians who notice begin to wonder why this person is skipping. Or, if a child in a Christian family notices that a certain other family never comes to worship, that child might wonder why that family is not worshipping. I myself have been confused by those who call themselves Christians but rarely worship publicly. The Bible teaches that if a person is truly a Christian, that person doesn’t depart from the body but sticks with it (1 John 2:19). In other words, if a Christian frequently skips church, he is setting a poor example for other Christians and causing them confusion (rather than building them up as he should). Perhaps people who frequently skip church need to think more about how this might harm other Christians. Habitual neglect of public worship is a blemish on a Christian’s profession of faith that can cause other Christians to stumble. Certainly no Christian should want to be a stumbling block for another Christian!

It obstructs true piety. In the church’s liturgy God’s people learn the rhythm of the Christian life: praise, confession of sin, forgiveness of sin, prayer, hearing God’s Word, and learning how to live for Him. These elements of worship help keep our Christian life oriented in the right direction; liturgy is like a Christian recalibration. God’s law gives us moral clarity, a biblically informed conscience, and leads us to recognize and confess our sins. Hearing God’s forgiveness helps us fight guilt and shame, and learning how to live a life of gratitude helps us live for His glory. Habitually avoiding worship services make us forget the right way to walk as disciples, casts confusion on morality, messes up our consciences, makes us prone to shame and guilt, and throws a fog on the realities of God and His grace. Someone who constantly skips worship is exposed to the world and often falls into the sin of worldliness. As a friend recently reminded me, the psalmist’s confusion about reality was cleared up when he went into the sanctuary of God (Ps. 73). Neglecting worship services gets in the way of true Christian piety.

It makes the pastor’s and elders’ task difficult. God has called the pastor and elders of a local church to care for the flock, to pay attention to it, love it, set good examples for it, to pray for it, and so forth (see Acts 20:28–31; 1 Tim. 3:4; 1 Peter 5:1–3, etc.). In fact, church leaders are accountable to God for how they lead and care for the flock (Heb. 13:17). When a person habitually neglects public worship, the pastor cannot preach to that person and the elders begin to worry about that person’s faith and life. Certainly pastors and elders should do their duty even outside the public worship service, but it is very difficult for pastors and elders to do their task of shepherding when someone constantly misses worship services. In fact, Hebrews says that Christians should “obey” their leaders, “submit to them,” and “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7, 13). The Bible even talks about Christians honoring elders (1 Tim. 5:17). When a Christian constantly dodges worship services the elders have called for, he is not obeying and submitting to his leaders, nor is he showing honor to them. One might even think of the fifth commandment here, which implies that God’s people must obey those in authority over them. Despite the fact that most Americans don’t like authority figures, the Bible is quite clear: we must obey elders and pastors that God has put in authority over us. Neglecting worship services is a failure to obey authority and makes pastors’ and elders’ jobs difficult.

It is making light of membership vows. Although some churches today care little about membership, historic Reformed churches have membership vows that are taken from various places in Scripture (cf. Deut. 6:13; Ezra 10:5; Ps. 50:14; 116:14, etc.). When a Christian joins one of Christ’s churches, he makes certain covenantal (and public) promises: that he believes in the triune God, that Jesus saves him from sin, that he wants to live a godly life, and so forth. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a person vows “to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline.” One of the vows in the URCNA is a promise to share “faithfully in the life of the church, honoring and submitting to its authority.” If a person makes a vow in church and then bails on the church by habitually forsaking worship, that person is not keeping the vows he made. Here is where one might discuss a violation of the ninth commandment (see also WCF 22.5 on vows and oaths).

It is a sign of apathy in the faith. If a person loves the Lord with fervency, loves His Word with passion, and loves other Christians, he will want to worship Christ with other Christians (cf. Ps. 122:1; Isa. 2:3). I don’t know of any Christian who fervently loves Jesus but never sings to Him with His people and doesn’t care to sit at His feet with His people to hear His Word. I do, however, know of Christians who grow lazy in the faith and would rather watch a football game or fire up the barbeque than sing to Jesus with other Christians. The Larger Catechism says one of the sins that the fourth commandment forbids is “being weary” of the duties required on the Sabbath (WLC Q/A 119). John Newton once wrote a letter to his congregation on this very topic. Among other things, he said, “Most of you agree with me that Scripture is God’s revelation. But do not some of you act inconsistently with your acknowledged principles? Your business and entertainment indispose you for due observation of our church services. You have other things to do, so you miss many sermons. . . . Many people can give their attention to trivial entertainment for several hours without weariness, but their patience is quickly exhausted under a sermon where the principles of Scripture are applied to the conscience.”

It invites Satan’s temptations. I once saw a clip on a nature show on hyenas and how they hunt for food. They often look for and hunt the antelope that is a bit removed from the herd since there is protection in numbers. Similarly, Satan and his demons often attack Christians at a vulnerable point: when they are alone, not accountable to anyone, not hearing God’s Word regularly, and not benefiting from Christian strength in Christian numbers. Satan is no idiot—he knows the best times to attack. It is no coincidence that Peter says Satan is like a hungry lion on the prowl (1 Peter 5:8). The church is Christ’s flock, and straying from the flock is spiritually dangerous. To remove oneself from the assembly is to expose oneself to Satan’s attacks and invite his arrows of temptation.

It is a step down the road of apostasy. The track record of apostates is to go to church for a while, then less frequently, then not at all. Hebrews 10 (mentioned above) doesn’t just give a command to habitually worship with the assembly; it also warns of the hellish punishment for those who forsake Christ. If someone is truly a Christian, he will not leave the flock. However, those that left “were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19 NASB). One commentator wrote this of Hebrews 10:24–25: “The writer regarded the desertion of the communal meetings as utterly serious. It threatened the corporate life of the congregation and almost certainly was a prelude to apostasy on the part of those who were separating themselves from the assembly. The neglect of worship and fellowship was symptomatic of a catastrophic failure to appreciate the significance of Christ’s priestly ministry and the access to God it provided.”

I realize we live in a world of a thousand distractions and ten thousand entertaining things to do on the weekends. Our weekday schedules are overcrowded to the point where we’re completely drained by Sunday. It is very hard to get our priorities right, manage our time well, and live for the glory of God without falling in love with the world. It takes prayer, tears, effort, Scripture reading, encouragement from Christian friends, and firm resolve to habitually attend public worship.

I plead with readers to ask God’s forgiveness if they’ve failed in this—and to ask Him for grace, motivation, and desire to regularly worship Him with the saints. God is gracious, He hears us when we ask for help, and He is patient with our weakness and lethargy. Rest in God’s grace and (re)commit yourself to habitual worship! Remember this: I’ve never heard anyone say, “My faith has grown weak and feeble ever since I started going to church more often.” Trust that God will bless you as you gather with His people to worship. Trust that the gospel of grace will encourage, refresh, comfort, and motivate you in the Christian faith.

My above list was a negative one, so I’d like to end on a positive note. Using the same points above, we can positively say that regularly attending public worship services 1) is God’s will for you, 2) strengthens your fellowship with other saints, 3) helps you praise God better, 4) is beneficial for your faith, 5) builds up other Christians, 6) helps keep Satan’s attacks at bay, 7) keeps you from straying off the path, 8) enflames true piety, 9) makes the pastor’s and elders’ jobs easier and more enjoyable, 10) helps you keep your church vows, and 11) is a sign of strong faith.

Dear Christian, you are called to be salt and light, to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, to live a strong Christian life, and to enjoy, glorify, and praise God while on this journey. God has not left you on your own to do these things. He’s given you His Word, His sacraments, and His church to help you on the way.

See you on Sunday! 

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the August-September 2015 issue of New Horizons.)

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Rev. Shane Lems
is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, WI.
Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the English Standard Version. 

 

 

The Tongue, Small Yet Great

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
—James 3:2–5a

According to researchers at the University of Arizona, “men talk just as much as women–on average, 16,000 words in a day.”1 Imagine that . . . 16,000 words in a day! However, Proverbs 10:19 warns, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” Indeed, the more you talk, the more likely you sin. Aware of the teaching found in this verse, it’s really no wonder that James takes the time to write about taming the tongue! As we reflect on James 3:2–5a, there are at least three significant observations that we should make: (1) the inclusive truth about the tongue; (2) the importance of the tongue; and (3) the inclination of the tongue.

First, we must recognize the inclusive (or universal) truth about the tongue, which is that we all make moral mistakes with it! Verse 2 reminds us that “we all stumble . . .” In this context, “stumble” means to fall into sin and commit moral error. You and I—all of us—struggle and fall into sin at times with our tongues. The text adds that we do this “in many ways.” This can include such sinful behavior as lying, slander, gossip, vulgarity, insults, blasphemous comments and verbally abusing others. Indeed, one of the many ways in which we sin against God is in our speech, and there are so many ways in which we are liable to do this!

James continues, “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says . . .”—that is to say, if anyone claims to have mastered the use of his tongue—“ . . . he is a perfect man.” In other words, to say that you never sin in your speech is to declare boldly that you never sin at all—that you are perfect! Anyone who fits this description is “ . . . able also to bridle his whole body.” Supposedly, this person is “perfect” in the sense that he is able to control all parts of his body . . . but the truth is that nobody is perfect!

To insist that you have fully mastered the use of your tongue is to imply that you are fully perfect—which means, also, that you have absolute control over your mind, your eyes, your heart, and so on—but the fact that you sometimes stumble in what you say shows that you also stumble at times in other ways. Without doubt, we all stumble in regard to our mind (what we think), our eyes (what we see), our ears (what we hear), our heart (what we feel), our hands (what we do), and our feet (where we go).

We all stumble—we are all vulnerable to temptation—and we all sin. Even James acknowledges his own need to admit this. He intentionally uses the pronoun “we,” counting himself among those who fail in their moral behavior. Proverbs 20:9 asks, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” Who among us no longer falls into temptation? Not one person! This truth is a universal one—we still struggle with sin—and this includes sin with regard to our tongue.

Children—have you spoken to your parents disrespectfully? Have you lied to them? If you know that you have done this, will you now come before the Lord and repent of your sin, and commit yourself to speaking to your parents with love and respect?

Parents—have you used overly harsh words when disciplining your children? Have you ever said things that you didn’t truly mean, such as, “You are always bad!” (knowing that your child is not always bad), or “You don’t do anything right!” (knowing that it isn’t true)? If you have, will you confess your error to your children, seek their forgiveness for this, and repent before God?

Husbands and wives—have you communicated with one another in anger when there have been disagreements between you? Have you used unnecessary yelling to communicate with one another? Worse yet—have you done this in front of your children? Do you need to confess sin of this sort to one another—and to God—in order to restore health, happiness, and love to your marriage? If so, then isn’t it worth the effort to do this in order to see the joy and blessing increase in your home? (It is!)

Proverbs 12:18 says, “Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words can heal.”2 Oh, friends—how often have we deeply wounded other people simply because we were not careful with our speech? Far too often, we are hasty, careless, insensitive, and thoughtless of the ways that we speak to others. In this passage, though, James offers us a sobering warning—we should take this matter very seriously, for we all stumble in what we say—and this truth is inclusive, in that it includes you and me.

Second, we should acknowledge the importance of the tongue, which is great! James already addressed this subject in James 1:26, where he wrote the following: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Now, in chapter 3, James delves more deeply into this problem, offering us twelve additional verses of instruction about our speech. The fact that he’s teaching us about the tongue in multiple parts of his epistle should leave no doubt concerning the subject’s importance to James—and, more especially, to God.

Clearly, the tongue is an important part of our bodies! We should note, though, that James sometimes uses the word “tongue” in a literal sense to mean a physical part of our bodies, while in other verses he uses the word figuratively, in regard to our speech and our communication with one another. In regard to our physical bodies, though, the tongue is vital. There are certain parts of our bodies—such as our wisdom teeth, our tonsils and our appendix—which can be removed with little consequence. However, without a tongue, we would have great difficulty communicating with other people!

James is drawing the conclusion that the tongue, though small, can greatly affect the outcome of our lives. He offers two illustrations to help us see this. First, he likens the tongue to the bit in the mouth of a horse (v. 3). That small metal mouthpiece, when put on a horse, is what enables riders to steer the direction of the horse. Without the bit, a rider can have great difficulty controlling where the horse goes. In the same way, each of us must control our tongue, which in turn helps determine the direction in which our life goes.

The popular commentator Albert Barnes once wrote, “A man always has complete government over himself if he has the entire control of his tongue. It is that by which he gives expression to his thoughts and passions; and if that is kept under proper restraint, all the rest of his members are as easily controlled as the horse is by having the control of the bit.”3 This, of course, is true!

As a second illustration, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship (v. 4). What a powerful illustration this is! In fact, James made excellent use of illustrations throughout this epistle—a skill which he, no doubt, acquired from listening to his half-brother, Jesus, when he taught! Illustrations are intended to help us learn profound truths about God, and that’s precisely what James is aiming to do here. He’s explaining that even ships, which are large and are constantly being blown to and fro by the wind, are actually guided by the small rudder—and by the will of the captain, who controls the rudder and determines the ship’s direction.

To control a ship’s rudder is to control the ship. Again, we see the same principle being taught. While the tongue is a small part of our bodies, how we use it can greatly influence the direction of our entire lives! None of us are perfect, and we will all continue to struggle with temptation regarding our speech, but the more control that each of us have over our tongue, the more control that we’ll have regarding the direction of our lives.

Throughout this book, James is concerned that there are some people who claim to be Christians, but demonstrate no good works. They give no signs or evidence that they have experienced genuine spiritual conversion.

If we are in Christ, we have the grace of God in our lives—and we can use that grace to direct our tongue, so that we may bring honor and glory to God. If, however, we continuously live with an uncontrolled tongue, it’s indicative of the fact that we are not truly in Christ. In other words, we can’t truly be in Christ if we consistently slander others and tell lies. We should be alarmed if we don’t sense an overwhelming conviction about such sinful behavior in our lives—conviction which the Holy Spirit promises to bring in the lives of all true believers.

Finally, in this passage from James, we should also see the inclination of the tongue, which is sinful! In verse 5, James warns, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” In our speech—as in all areas of our lives—we are naturally inclined to sin. We have a tendency to curse God, and to sin against other people, by the things that we say. The tongue is small, but it is powerfully dangerous—like a poisonous snake that can bite!

With our tongues, we can destroy churches; we can ruin families; we can divide brother against brother and sister against sister. Evil words can emotionally wound a spouse or provoke our children to anger. A person’s character can be publicly shattered by what he says, or by what others might say about him.

So much of the evil and suffering in the world begins with sinful talk! Truly, the tongue can destroy our lives if we aren’t careful to honor God with how we use it! Regarding our ongoing struggle to guard our speech in this way, Matthew Henry wisely noted, “No man can tame the tongue without Divine grace and assistance. The apostle does not represent it as impossible, but as extremely difficult.”4 How true this is! Why don’t we humbly pray to God to help us tame our tongues?

Questions

1. Why is it foolish to deny the universal truth about the tongue? Explain James’ line of reasoning to answer this question.

In what area or sphere of your life are you most tempted to sin with your tongue? What steps of confession and repentance need to be taken?

2. In what way is your tongue important to the direction of your life? Explain the illustrations James uses to emphasize the importance of the tongue.

3. What are some practical and specific ways you can use your tongue to direct your life for God’s glory?

4. Do you experience the Holy Spirit’s conviction when you sin with your tongue? Why is your answer to this question so critical?

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References:

1. Ashley Phillips, “Study: Women Don’t Talk More Than Men,” ABC News, July 5, 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=3348076&page=1 (accessed June 6, 2016). 

2. Good News Translation.

3. Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the General Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850), 65. 

4. Matthew Henry, Short Comments on Every Chapter of the Holy Bible (London: Religious Tract Society, 1839), 972.

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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 two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.

Reformed Youth Services 2016 Annual Convention Myron Rau

In this twentieth anniversary year of Reformed Youth Services (RYS), the fifteenth annual convention was held at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri. The week of July 25–29 brought just short of seven hundred youth, sponsors, speakers, and workshop leaders together for an exciting time of spiritual growth and fellowship. Over the years many lives have been touched and changed from participating in these annual conventions. The following are reports from two of the young people who attended the 2016 convention.

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Mr. Myron Rau
is the chairman of the board of Reformed Fellowship. He is a member of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 


Current Issue: November December 2016
Volume 66 Issue 6

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