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Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History? The Archaeology of David’s Kingdom

For many years, though critics questioned the historicity of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the biblical portrait of the settlement of the land of Canaan, the historicity of the monarchy in Israel was more or less assumed. But with the rise of postmodernity, many scholars began to cast doubt even on the period of David and Solomon. The 1990s proved to be a volatile time in biblical studies as the trajectories begun by postmodern literary criticism began to intersect with biblical studies. Hence any number of postmodern biblical criticisms began to emerge, including feminist criticism, womanist criticism, postcolonial criticism, LGBT criticism and queer theory, cultural criticism, trauma/victimization criticism, and the list goes on.1

On the one hand, some of these criticisms—as bizarre as they seem—can at times provide a service to interpreters by drawing attention to details in the text often overlooked by those of us who are focused on different sets of details and categories. And yet, on the other hand, nearly all of them more frequently fall prey to postmodern deconstructionism, an approach that believes that “texts have no intrinsic ‘meaning,’ at least none that is recoverable in the case of ancient texts; the modern interpreter gives to the text whatever ‘meaning’ seems appropriate in the social context of his or her own ‘realm of discourse,’ whatever the ‘realm’ of the original author may have been.”2

When postmodern deconstructionism came to roost in biblical studies, the historicity of the united monarchy, once accepted as factual by nearly everyone, was now called into question. Thus the modern-day postmodern critic will claim that even though the biblical authors spoke of a David who ruled from such places as Hebron and Jerusalem, these stories are insufficient to provide us with reliable historical information and thus cause us to doubt their reliability. These critics have been labeled as “minimalists” in that they believe the Bible provides us with minimal access to “what really happened” and contains a minimum of historical truth.

By contrast, maximalist scholars—those who believe the Bible provides us with large amounts of historical data—have responded to minimalism in two primary ways

First, they have pointed out that minimalist writers who disparage the Old Testament for its supposed ideological stance (e.g., monotheism, Jerusalem-centeredness, etc.) while at the same time praising ancient Near Eastern texts which themselves exhibit ideological stances are guilty of a glaring inconsistency. For example, the Merneptah Stele, which we considered in a previous article,3 is unashamedly propagandistic, yet minimalist scholars demand that the people and places in the Bible be verified by texts like this before accepting them as historical.4

Second, maximalist scholars have mustered data from the archaeological record that doesindeedcorroborate the biblical texts. Though we noted in our first article that the Bible does not require attestation from outside sources (it is, after all, the self-authenticating Word of God, above which nothing is able to stand in judgment), archaeology does at times help us “respond to challenges” and “confirm the text.”5 In the remainder of this article, we will consider some of this data and witness how they give insight into the nature of David’s kingdom and support the historicity of the united monarchy.

Ancient Extrabiblical Mention of King David

In the early 1990s, several scholars began to opine that King David was on par, historically speaking, to the legendary King Arthur. The Bible’s description of David’s reign was said to be a fiction invented by later kings to explain their own kingship as originating in a divine covenant granted to the eponymous ancestor of their dynastic line (so 2 Sam. 7). There are no ancient extrabiblical texts that mention the man David by name, and this is because there was no David about whom to write.

Now it is true that no ancient extrabiblical texts record anything like this: “And then I fought alongside the armies of David of Jerusalem whereupon he smote our enemies with a mighty smiting!” We dohave texts that refer to individual Israelite and Judean kings by name from a later period (as we will see in our next article), but we have no such texts for David. In the case of David, however, we do have texts that mention his dynasty and possibly even reference a region made famous by his military activity prior to the death of Saul. Let us look at these examples in turn.

The site of Tel Dan, 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, is known from the Bible as one of the sites of Jeroboam’s golden calves. Excavations began in earnest in 1966 and continued without interruption until 2000. In 1993, archaeologists found a fragment of a stele written in Aramaic that sent shock waves through the biblical studies guild. Its text—written in the late ninth century B.C.—made mention of the “House of David” (Hebrew byt dwd). The author of the text, who is not identified by name but is described as having been made king by the storm god Hadad, boasts of having defeated the king of the northern kingdom and overthrown the king of Judah. Though fairly fragmentary, the Tel Dan stele reads:

Hadad went before me [and] I went from [ . . . ] of my kings.

I killed kings who harnessed . . . chariots and thousands of horsemen,

[Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel,

And [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram king] of the house of David.

I imposed [tribute] . . . their land . . . 6

Though the names Jehoram, Ahab, Ahaziahu (= Ahaziah), and Jehoram are reconstructed, what is absolutely clear is the reference to a dynastic succession going by the name “House of David” less than 150 years after the death of David himself.

The importance of this text was immediately recognized. Many scholars saw that 150 years is too short of a time for a King-Arthur-like lore to develop about King David. And for the critics who tried to demote David (even if he did exist) to the status of a “petty chieftain of little significance,” the Tel Dan stele annulled such speculation by showing the inconceivability of promotingDavid in less than 150 years to the full-blown eponymous ancestor of a Judean dynasty. (We will say more about “David demotion” below.) David-deniers began floundering: some challenged the translation of byt dwd as “House of David” and proposed a hitherto unknown and unattested Semitic god (apparently named Dod, achieved by translating the w not as a consonant but as an o vowel) as the referent in the stele. Others claimed that the inscription itself was a forgery, likely manufactured by conservative Jews or Christians trying to invent evidence for David. In the end, critics were forced to admit that there was a man named David who reigned as some kind of a king and from whom were descended the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.

Shortly after this, scholars revisited the translation of a stele discovered in 1868 from Dhiban, the ancient capital of Moab. The “Mesha Inscription” or “Moabite Stone” (as it is commonly called) not only described the deliverance of Moab from the Omeride dynasty of Israel, it even mentioned the God of Israel, YHWH, by name. In addition, it contained a reference to the House of David (bt [d]wd), although this had originally been obscured by the fact that the word house was spelled in short form (bt—i.e., missing the letter y) and the letter d of David was obscured. But since the Tel Dan stele had placed the Davidic dynasty on the radars of epigraphers, this new reading of a well-known text became even more widely accepted. Again, an ancient, extrabiblical text now provided witness to the historicity of a Davidic dynasty, and indirectly to its eponymous founder, King David.

Though the Tel Dan inscription and the Mesha Inscription are the best exemplars of extrabiblical references to the dynasty of David, the respected University of Liverpool Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen has also revisited a possible reading from the famous Karnak Reliefs in Thebes.7 After raiding Palestine in 925 B.C., Pharaoh Shoshenq I of Egypt commissioned this victory scene which covered various place names from regions in both Israel and Judah, including a southern Judean location called “the highlands of d-w-t.’” Since in Egyptian the letter t can be used to render the Semitic letter d, and since an Old South Arabian inscription spells the name of King David as d-w-t, Kitchen has suggested a very high probability that less than fifty years after David’s death, the Karnak Reliefs of Shoshenq I speak of the area of David’s military exploits in the final years of Saul’s reign as “the highlands of David.”

So in summary, archaeology has unearthed several inscriptions that make mention of David. Since these inscriptions cannot be dismissed as forgeries or misreadings, the burden of proof is upon the skeptic to show why one should not see these texts as attesting to the historicity of David. Is there anything else from archaeology, however, which sheds light on David’s reign?

Davidic Archaeology in Jerusalem

As noted above, some scholars have reluctantly admitted the existence of a man named David but have gone on to suggest that archaeology contradicts the portrait of David found in the books of Samuel. He was, in their reconstruction, not so much a king as a tribal warlord. The title “king” suggests a degree of societal organization and urbanization that is unattested, so it is claimed, in the late eleventh to early tenth centuries B.C. when the Old Testament says David existed. But is this really the case?

It should be noted that though Jerusalem is one of the most excavated cities in the Levant, few unequivocal tenth-century B.C. remains have been uncovered. One key reason for this is that pinpointing the tenth century (let alone the early tenth century when David reigned) is notoriously difficult. Traditionally, a pottery type called “red slipped/hand burnished ware” was attributed exclusively to the tenth century B.C., such that where one found this pottery type, one knew he was studying a tenth-century B.C. ruin. Minimalist archaeologists, however, began to down-date these assemblages by seventy-five to one hundred years, effectively removing sites traditionally attributed to David and Solomon from the tenth century and placing them in the ninth century B.C.8 Pottery found at Jezreel, however, demonstrated that red slipped/hand burnished ware had a longer lifespan than the minimalists allowed: it spanned both the tenth and ninth centuries B.C. Thus while finds containing this pottery type cannot be limited to the tenth century, they also cannot be denied a tenth-century date unless other factors point that direction.

Having said that few unequivocal tenth-century B.C. remains have been uncovered, there is one significant find that has been attributed to the tenth century, though whether it was constructed duringthe that century or constructed just prior is open to debate. In the mid-2000s, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered remains from the tenth century B.C. in Jerusalem, an edifice she named the “Large-Stone Structure.” In a 2006 article, she asked the question: Did I find King David’s palace? She has been given several different answers. Some suggest that the Large-Stone Structure is a Jebusite fortress (with some conservative scholars identifying it with the “Stronghold of Zion” that David conquered [2 Sam. 5:7]), but Mazar has her doubts. She suggests that it was built too late in the history of Jebusite occupation of Jerusalem (right about 1000 B.C.) and along vastly different architectural lines from what one would expect of a Jebusite construction. What is more, the Large-Stone Structure was built on bedrock, just outside the boundary of the earlier Jebusite city, and is thus clearly a late addition to a previously existing city plan. Instead, Mazar believes the Large-Stone Structure is best explained as the palace David built for himself (2 Sam. 5:11).9

If she is right, we have corroborating evidence that David is rightly termed a king since the label “tribal warlord” would not seem to reflect adequately the centralization necessary for the building of a project like the Large-Stone Structure. And while not all scholars agree with this conclusion, it is important to note that even a Jebusite construction of the Large-Stone structure does not conflict with the biblical portrait of David reigning as a king from a centralized Jerusalem. After all, at minimum this illustrates that Jerusalem was and remained a city of prominent size and stature during the periods before and after 1000 B.C., one perfectly suited to serve as the capital of the emerging Israelite kingdom.

Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Davidic Administrative Center

In addition to Jerusalem’s Large-Stone Structure, a site ca. 16 miles west of Jerusalem, Khirbet Qeiyafa, has yielded important finds from the time of David. Radiocarbon dating of olive pits from the site has shown that the site was built ca. 1020–980 b.c. Some have suggested that Qeiyafa is the location of biblical Shaaraim (Josh. 15:36; 1 Sam. 17:52; 1 Chron. 4:31) due to the two, multichambered gates found at the site. (Note that the Hebrew word sha’araim  literally means “two gates.”) But what is most significant is that Qeiyafa has characteristics best explained by viewing it as a royal administrative center on the outskirts of a larger kingdom. And who is the most likely candidate for such a kingdom?

Some scholars, unwilling to accept that a real King David began to rule a real kingdom from Jerusalem around 1010 B.C., have suggested that Qeiyafa was a Philistine administrative center, perhaps a satellite of nearby Gath ca. 12 miles to the southwest. The absence of pig bones at the site (usually found in abundance at Philistine sites) and the site’s extant pottery repertoire, however, point toward the Judean hill country as the center of this kingdom. Other scholars, recognizing the unlikelihood of Qeiyafa as being Philistine, have invented a hitherto unknown and unattested group of “Saulides” who built the site as a base for their opposition of the “war lord” David in Jerusalem. But since these Saulides are exactly like Israelites, and since the only way to posit their existence is to deny the only textual evidence we have (i.e., the Bible), it is hard to take seriously such a suggestion as anything but special pleading.10

No, Khirbet Qeiyafa is an Israelite site and provides a glimpse into the early days of David’s kingdom. The multistoried administrative structure in the middle of the site could only be built in the context of an urbanized, centralized state. Qeiyafa has also yielded one of the few examples of alphabetic writing from Judah, a sherd of pottery found in 2008 inscribed with Canaanite/pre-Hebrew letters, indicating the presence of a scribal bureaucracy at the site. The massive fortifications of the site (estimated to have used some 200,000 tons of stone), make the site a perfect outpost and military staging area for David’s kingdom near the boundaries of Philistine territory.

Conclusion

In conclusion, though we do not have extrabiblical writings attesting to the man King David by name, we do have extrabiblical texts describing a dynasty that descends from David. And while we do not have archaeological ruins with signs saying “David’s Palace” or “David’s Administrative Center Near Philistia,” we do have structures and sites from the period of history when the Bible says David reigned in Jerusalem. What is more, these structures and sites make little sense apart from positing the existence of an urbanized kingdom in Jerusalem around 1000 B.C. And so, as we have seen from other periods of Old Testament history, archaeology contextualizes, complements, responds to challenges, and even confirms the beginning of the united monarchy as it is described in the books of Samuel.

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1. A. K. M. Adam, ed., Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000).

2. William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 25–26.

3. The Outlook 67, no. 2 (March-April 2017): 28–29.

4. Iain Provan’s critique of minimalism is a must-read for any interested in countering the philosophical underpinnings of this movement. See Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015). See chapters 1, 2, 3, and 5.

5. See The Outlook 66, no. 3 (May-June 2016): 8–9.

6. This translation is a modification of that found in William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, The Context of Scripture, vol. 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2000), 161–62.

7. See Kenneth A. Kitchen, “A Possible Mention of David in the Late Tenth Century BCE, and Diety *Dod as Dead as the Dodo?,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 76 (1997): 29–44.

8. For an able critique of the so-called low chronology, see Steven M. Oritz, “The Archaeology of David and Solomon: Method or Madness?,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 497–516.

9. Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?,” Biblical Archaeology Review 32 (January-February 2006): 16–27, 70.

10. For the implications of Qeiyafa for David’s kingdom, see Michael G. Hasel, “New Excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa and the Early History of Judah,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 477–96. See too Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel, and Martin Klingbeil, “An Ending and a Beginning: Why We’re Leaving Qeiyafa and Going to Lachish,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39 (November-December 2013): 44–51.

 

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

The Submergent Church

Several years ago, when I pastored a church in Michigan, another nearby minister rose to international popularity as an “emergent” poster boy. His name is Rob Bell, his large mega-church was Mars Hill in Grandville, MI, and he had authored the books Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. The purpose of this article is not to discuss or critique the “emergent” movement but to ask some hard questions about our own non-emergent, confessionally-reformed churches.

With church buildings on nearly every corner, the Grand Rapids area can hardly be described as “un-churched.” Several NAPARC churches exist in the area, including many URCNA churches. So I asked myself why Mars Hill was attracting so many while many of our churches were struggling? There were, and still are, many ways one could answer that quesion: Rob Bell was a gifted speaker with a certain charm and charisma. Our entertainment-saturated culture made their worship style more attractive to many. People increasingly lack spiritual discernment. People could worship there without feeling as though they were being judged. People could worship there “anonymously” without any meaningful oversight. All of these are true and I’m sure there are any number of other factors that might explain such a phenomenon.

But here’s one other possibility that I considered for why such a church attracted so many: might it be that many join emergent churches because our churches are submergent?

A submerged church is a church that exists under the radar. For all its internal activity, it is virtually invisible to the community. Outreach, evangelism and missions are budget items, but nothing more. A submerged church is lethargic, apathetic, self-focused with a “we’ve arrived” attitude that refuses to evaluate itself or its ministry. It’s a church satisfied with the answer, “that’s the way we’ve always done it before.” It’s a church that takes “negotiable” things (adiaphora) and makes them non-negotiable, or refuses to deal with deficiencies in those things that actually are non-negotiable. It’s a church that wears the cloak of “conservatism” but underneath is the corpse of traditionalism.

I came to realize that the real threat to non-emergent, conservative Reformed churches is not the “emergent-church-movement” but the “submergent-church’s-lack-of-movement.”

Is your church a submergent church? I encourage you to think about and evaluate your own church in these following areas: the church and worship, the church and one another, and the church and the world.

The Church and Worship

To state it positively, our worship must be passionately God-honoring and Christ-centered in which we meet in covenantal dialogue with our Creator and Redeemer. We, God’s people, gather corporately before him to offer praise, petitions, confession, and offerings while God speaks words of forgiveness and salvation, calling us to a life of faith and obedience.

Negatively, our worship must avoid what God described in Isaiah 29:13 and repeated by Jesus in Matthew 15:8,9: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

These things—what our worship ought to be and what it ought not to be—are non-negotiable.

Jesus responded to the Samaritan woman’s question about worship with these words: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24).

To worship “in spirit and truth” is, for Jesus, non-negotiable. What does this mean? Hendriksen rightly explains it this way:

“In such a setting, it would seem to us, worshiping in spirit and truth can only mean a) rendering such homage to God that the entire heart enters into the act, and b) doing this in full harmony with the truth of God as revealed in His Word. Such worship, therefore, will not only be spiritual instead of physical, inward instead of outward, but it will also be directed to the true God as set forth in Scripture and as displayed in the work of redemption.”1

This means worship is not entertainment. It is not tailored to draw a crowd. Nor is worship primarily evangelism. The purpose of worship is not to recruit unbelievers but for believers to sincerely offer God what is due him, and be instructed and fed by him through word and sacrament. This was the practice of the New Testament church. They came together for worship and edification (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:24–25), then, in obedience to Jesus’ great commission, went to evangelize the world. Worship was the “fuel” for evangelism.

If these things describe a vibrant, healthy worshiping church, then how is your church doing? To worship with sincerity is admittedly a difficult thing to evaluate. Still, I do wonder what is happening in a person’s heart when we begin worship with singing that great hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and it looks as though he or she is singing about their next dentist appointment. I cannot judge such a thing, but it appearsas though there’s little praise going on. And, of course, with others the opposite might be the case. A person may appear to be very engaged when inside he or she is not. The elders can regulate worship so that the essential elements are done in truth, but they cannot make a hypocrite sincere.

Though only God can change hearts, the elders are responsible to ensure that our worship is done in truth. “Our preachers are faithfully preaching the whole counsel of God!” we say. “We have catechism sermons.” “The law is read each Lord’s Day.” As important as these things are in worship, there is more. In particular, I’m thinking about music. This ought to be a matter of real concern. The URC Church Order states in Article 39: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.” What songs are being sung from your second hymnal, or “floppy” book? Do they meet this criterion?

In a submerged church the elders are unwilling to biblically and confessionally evaluate the songs being sung, while being equally unwilling to biblically and confessionally evaluate new songs being written. The conviction seems to be: old hymns must be good (some aren’t), and anything contemporary must be bad (some aren’t). If, in your church, C. Autin Miles’ In the Gardenhas greater appeal than Stuart Townend’s In Christ Alone, pardon my bluntness but you’ve got problems. The former, written in 1912, makes allusions to the scene of Mary meeting the resurrected Jesus at the empty tomb, though this can be easily missed by the singer.2 Beyond that illusive imagery, the song can hardly be said to “faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity.” In comparison, the latter, written in 2001, does a much better job reflecting biblical and confessional truth.

This refusal to do the hard work of evaluation is either due to laziness, stubbornly clinging to personal taste, or a fear of man that is greater than a fear of God. Whatever the case, it is a mark of a submergent church.

A further consideration of music concerns accompaniment. In some circles one gets the impression that the only God-sanctioned instrument for worship is the organ. Any effort to integrate other instruments to accompany the singing of God’s people is, at best, met with suspicion; at worst, fiercely opposed. By demanding organ only, taste and tradition is raised to the level of commandment, making what is negotiable non-negotiable.

When these and other matters are not able to be discussed and evaluated by the leadership, when there is an unwillingness to biblically and confessionally consider the various aspects of worship, the church has submerged into tired, worn-out traditionalism.

The Church and One Another

Another area for evaluation is how we relate to one another as fellow church members. Scripture speaks clearly—and so God takes seriously—our mutual fellowship in the body of Christ. Notice the following passages:

Hebrews 10:24–25: “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together.”

Romans 12:9–10: “Let love bewithout hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.”

Galations 6:1–2: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Galations 6:10: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus instructs us on how to deal in a godly way with someone who sins against you. Added to this, Peter says, “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet 4:8)

What is biblically non-negotiable is that our relationships with one another be characterized with love, encouragement, building up, restoring, forgiving, warning, and admonishing. Does this describe you and your church? Sadly, some churches have an undercurrent of anger, bitterness, and possibly even hatred—a condition that will negatively affect your fellowship, your worship, and your witness.

This is contrary to the will of God for His church:

Ephesians 4:31: “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you.”

Hebrews 12:15: “ . . . looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled;”

Galations 5:15: “But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!”

Where these things exist in the body of Christ, they must be dealt with. Believers need to love one another enough to humbly admonish one another or, if unable to admonish, to forgive! Elders need to love Christ enough to firmly deal with those who would ravage his bride. Where such ungodliness remains unchecked, members and visitors will take notice and eventually search for a more loving fellowship while that church submerges into irrelevance.

Another aspect of this is the congregation’s attitude toward the leadership of the church, toward its pastors and elders. Christ gave the church pastors and elders “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12) And Paul instructs elders to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).

These verses, and many others, are indictments against the all-too-pervasive distrust of leadership today. The individualistic, anti-authority mindset of the world is alive and well in the church. “Who are theyto equip me? I don’t need shepherding.”

These attitudes are often focused on the minister who becomes the target. “Pastors come and go, but the congregation remains.” With that attitude, one has no reason to listen to the pastor. He’s seen as the hired hand rather than Christ’s ambassador to the flock (2 Cor. 5:20). Having that sinful attitude toward a minister of the Word allows one to ignore Paul’s instruction: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.” (1 Tim. 5:17)

Where these unbiblical attitudes toward office-bearers exist in Christ’s church, the leaders will not be able to lead with any effectiveness, and the church will submerge into irrelevance.

The Church and the World

Another important matter for evaluation is the way in which your church interacts in and with the world. When Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, he began by commending them for their witness: “And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything (I Thess.1:6–8).

As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called to worship and make disciples. We make disciples within our church body through education and instruction (Bible Studies, catechism, Sunday school, etc.). But, sadly, this seems to be where the vision of some churches end. While we certainly should be training our children, studying God’s Word, and growing in our knowledge and understanding, we need to see that there is more. Our vision must be greater. We are to go to the nations and make disciples: “And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

A submerged church lacks such a vision. Its vision is one of simple maintenance. “As long as we have regular worship services and good preaching; as long as Bible studies are offered (whether or not I attend is beside the point); as long as I’m visited when I’m sick—then the church is healthy.” Such a church is completely focused on itself. It views ministry as nothing more than a “religious cushion.” As C. John Miller writes:

“The local church was intended by Jesus to be a gathering of people full of faith—strong in their confidence in Him—not a gathering of religious folk who desperately need reassurance. Perhaps seeking personal comfort is not wrong in itself. But it is desperately wrong when it becomes the primary reason for the existence of the local church. When that happens, the local church is no living fellowship at all, but a retreat center where anxious people draw resources that enable them merely to cope with the pains of life. The church then becomes a religious cushion.”3

For the maintenance church, right doctrine is something to be taught, but not lived. It views our Reformed doctrine defensively, as something simply to preserve and defend rather than to proclaim and promote. The vision for missions and evangelism goes no further than contributing money to the offering plate (and often without thought or prayer as to its destination).

But Jesus said we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13–16). If that is who we are, then let us be that. Our vision should be offensive, not only defensive. We have the truth of the Almighty Creator God. We have the good news of his free sovereign grace—a message this world needs so desperately to hear. Our vision must be to advance that truth in order to change lives and win sinners for Christ. Our churches need to take responsibility for reaching the unreached rather than assuming this responsibility belongs to others.

One way to start changing that vision is to raise children to have hearts for missions and the lost. Years ago, when my children were still young, a couple from our church had volunteered several weeks to help an orphanage in Kenya. When they returned they gave a presentation to our church on a Wednesday evening. I made sure my children were present because hearing about the needs of children in Kenya was more important than getting to bed on time. Afterward, we picked up a photo and information about one of the boys in the orphanage whose name was Moses. For years afterward, at our devotion time and at the dinner table, my children would pray for Moses. In that small way they were acquiring a global vision for the spread of God’s kingdom.

Such an outward vision should also shape our youth programs. What a wonderful opportunity to train our young people to be servants instead of consumers. Rather than only providing activities and pizza, let’s search and find projects for them to help others and serve. There might be an older couple in your neighborhood whose yard is covered with leaves and need them raked and bagged. There may be an inner-city organization that needs volunteers. Our churches should be training our children to think about and care about things beyond themselves, to love their neighbors, and gain a global vision.

A submerged church doesn’t even consider sending out missionaries. Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few (Matt. 9:37), yet he has supplied our small federation with an abundance of laborers. Our church polity recognizes that for them to labor in foreign missions, they must be called and sent by the churches. But there are very few who have actually done it.Churches need to stop their navel-gazing, acquire a global vision and send missionaries.

Neither does a submerged church think about church planting. Some confessional Reformed churches are actually growing numerically. Praise the Lord. Now what? The tendency is to build a bigger building, increase the annual budget, and try to maintain. The result is that the pastor and elders become burdened—too often over-burdened—with the inevitable increased needs that arise within the body so that there is no time or energy to engage the community. Such a church, with all its frenetic activity within the “church walls” is virtually invisible to the world. Our churches need to recognize when this is happening and look for biblical ways to remedy this. One such way is church planting.

When our worship is truly in spirit and in truth, when members truly love one another, when our vision sees our community and the world as our mission field, then the inevitable human weaknesses within the church body will be more easily overlooked. Instead of fights, anger and bitterness, our focus will be on much greater things. Our vision will be refocused on the reputation of Christ and the advancement of His kingdom.

I suspect that like so many other “movements” in church history, the emergent church movement will eventually submerge into nothing more than an interesting footnote. My fervent prayer is that our confessionally Reformed churches that have received such a blessed inheritance will not only be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), but also “a city that is set on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14).

Now that would be truly emergent!

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

1. William Hendriksen. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John, Vol 1. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), 167.

2. Miles’s account of the writing of this hymn can be found in 101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1982), 124.

3. John C. Miller. Outgrowing the Ingrown Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 20.

(The author recently edited the above article that was originally printed in the February 2009 issue ofThe Outlook.)

 

Rev. Derrick J. Vander Meulen
is the pastor of Coram Deo Reformation Church in Littleton, CO

We’re All Going to Die

The seventeenth-century Puritans and their more contemporary heirs commonly wrote about “the four last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Earlier audiences were rightly concerned about their future and wanted to learn about their looming eternity. Today, all of these topics have largely fallen out of favor, eclipsed by subjects that focus more explicitly on the here and now.

But despite our aversion to talking or thinking about death and what follows, we continue to die.

Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 90 puts it well: “The busy tribes of flesh and blood, with all their lives and cares, are carried downward by [God’s] flood, and lost in foll’wing years. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.”1 And, as always, for all of us, after death come judgement (Heb. 9:27) and an eternity in heaven or hell. Nothing is more certain, unless Christ returns first: Everyone who has ever lived will die. Surely this is not a topic that we should avoid.

With the subject of death we begin to study individual eschatology, or the study of the end of all people prior to the end of all things. We need a realistic, hopeful, and biblical perspective on death and how to process our own end and the deaths of those around us.

The Idea of Death

From mere observation, we know that ordinary life ceases at death. But to understand death beyond what we can see we need to listen to know what God says about it.

Death is the antithesis of life, the foil of the beautiful portrait painted Genesis 2:7. In death God draws back to himself and keeps safe until the final judgment the spirits which had animated our material frame, while our physical bodies decay and return to the elements from which they were formed (Eccl. 3;18–21; 12:6–7). Louis Berkhof puts it succinctly: “Physical death is a termination of physical life by the separation of body and soul.”2 And yet, Scripture insists that “Death is not a cessation of existence, but a severance of the natural relations of life.”3

Death is contrary to nature.

And yet, like the stunted perspective of a person who has never traveled beyond the limits of his blighted, boarded-up city, death and decay seem normal to us. Everything we observe breaks down over time. It is easy to assume, as many people do today, that death has always been built into life, a sort of planned obsolescence to promote progress in the human race.

But the Bible insists that human death is a curse. God warned the first humans that they would forfeit life if they disobeyed his holy will (Gen. 2:17). When Adam violated God’s command against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he tested God’s integrity and found it intact. He and all who were connected to him by covenant headship,4 that is, his wife and his natural seed, began to die. To use James’s language, Adam’s desire conceived and gave birth to sin which always results in death (James 1:15). Paul sums it up thus: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, New American Standard Bible; cf. Rom. 6:23; 1 Cor. 15:22). Death is not natural but “foreign and hostile to human life; it is an expression of divine anger (Ps. 90:7, 11), a judgment (Rom. 1:32), a condemnation (Rom. 5:16), and a curse (Gal. 3:13), and fills the hearts of the children of men with dread and fear, just because it is felt to be something unnatural.”5

Sin’s curse brings not just physical death but also moral death—death to the blessings of God—and, if uncured, eternal death. Where the curse reigns humans are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). This grim reality helps us treasure the promise of the gospel; all who live by faith in the Son of God are redeemed from the curse of the law; Christ has become a curse for them (Gal. 3:10–13). Understanding the cause of death is vitally important. If death is natural then we have to accept it. But if death is caused by sin, then if sin is defeated death can be reversed. As Jesus told Martha, while both of them grieved the death of their brother and friend Lazarus, it is possible to taste death and not die in an absolute sense (John 11:23–27).

Preparing for Death

For each of us, death is both imminent and unpredictable. Every week the local paper contains obituaries of both old and young people. Some expected to die; others were blindsided. No one can cheat death. But we can prepare for death so that our deaths will not be eternal punishment for our sin, “but only a dying to sin and an entering into eternal life (John 5:24; Phil. 1:23; Rom. 7:24–25).”6 Do we?

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, young Jane was asked if she knew where bad children went when they died.

‘They go to hell’ was my ready and orthodox answer.

‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’

‘A pit full of fire.’

‘And should you like to fall into that pit and to be burning there forever?’

‘No sir.’

‘What must you do to avoid it?’

I deliberated a moment. My answer when it did come was objectionable. ‘I must keep in good health and not die.’

How many people are like Jane, trying to prevent death rather than prepare for the life to come with true godliness (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8)?

Prepare for Death by Entrusting Yourself to Christ

No one is ready to die who is not entrusting their eternity to the eternal Son of God. The only way to die well is to have your life “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) so that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection become yours. Christ died to answer the just and true God’s demand for the satisfaction of our sins (Heb. 2:9; Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 40). He was raised to “overcome death . . . make us partakers of the righteousness which He has obtained for us by his death,” raise us up to a new life, and offer a “sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.”7 God graciously offers us the eternal life we forfeited by our union with Adam (original sin) and by our actual transgressions.8 We can receive God’s gift “and make it [our] own in no other way that by faith only (1 John 5:10).”9

Prepare for Death by Bearing Fruit

Too many people enter old age woefully financially unprepared. And this, despite the urging of economists—armed with striking compound-interest graphs—to start investing for the golden years early. Similarly, too few people value Jesus’ admonition to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20, English Standard Version). John Piper reflects on Jesus’ words:

Evidently there are two ways to live: you can live with a view to accumulating valuable things on earth, or you can live with a view to accumulating valuable things in heaven. Jesus says: the mark of a Christian is that his eyes are on heaven and he measures all his behavior by what effect it will have on heaven—everlasting joy with God.10

Those who commit to investing in eternity, by beginning early, working hard, and finishing well, by God’s grace store up treasure in heaven.

Prepare for Death by Meditating on Death11

Macabre meditation can be unhealthy. But it doesn’t have to be. As evidence, and as a pattern for our reflection, the Scriptures frequently speak of death. The words “death,” “dead,” and “die” occur more often than “life,” “alive,” and “live” more than one thousand times. God still laments over his people’s lack of thought on ultimate things: “If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end!” (Deut. 32:29, English Standard Version). Moses understood and asked God to “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12, English Standard Version). Other psalms propose out-of-style-but-essential language for preparing to meet God. 

Make me, O Lord, to know my end,

Teach me the measure of my days,

That I may know how frail I am

And turn from pride and sinful ways.12

Likewise, Christian hymns teach us to find in Christ’s presence hope for life and death.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,

Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;

Heav’n’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee;

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.13

They help us to trust God to shepherd us even though he leads us to death.

And when my task on earth is done,

When by thy grace, the vict’ry’s won,

E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,

Since God through Jordan leadeth me.14

They help us process the inevitable: One day we will all long to be reclothed with immortality.

When in dust and ashes to the grave I sink,

When heav’n’s glory flashes o’er the shelving brink,

On thy truth relying through that mortal strife,

Lord, receive me, dying, to eternal life.15

Modern reluctance to think, talk, and sing about death could signify a superstitious attitude about, or an unpreparedness for, and a fear of death.16 Christians, for whom Christ has sanctified the grave, should not be overwhelmed by fear of death.

But we most certainly should grieve death.

Grieving Death

Believers lament death because it testifies to the treason of Satan and the fallenness of man. More concretely we grieve because a very real part of the deceased’s life is over. We miss them. We are saddened over the destruction of their “earthly house, this tent,” their body (2 Cor. 5:1). The current habit of referring to funerals as “celebrations of life,” while well-intentioned and partly appropriate, threatens to underestimate the tragedy of death. Our celebrations of the life of departed loved ones should never paint over the genuine distress (2 Sam. 1:26) we feel over the departure of our friends. Jesus wept (John 11:35). These two words contain a world of wonder: God cried. Indeed, “he groaned in spirit and was troubled” (v. 33). In full understanding that Lazarus was not lost, Jesus grieved over the treachery of the curse and in protest over the stinking corpse of a man who had previously been strong, beautiful, and good; the image of God. Believers must feel the freedom to cry, trusting that God puts our tears into his bottle and records them in his book (Ps. 56:8).

At the same time, believers must resist grieving inordinately, sorrowing as others who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Extreme efforts to remember departed loved ones and retain their memory can unintentionally conflict with God’s plan for our healing. Perhaps this is why God told his people, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28, New King James Version). Not only is the practice heathen in origin, but also it tends to extend artificially the grieving process and falsely suggest that self-imposed pain is redemptive.

By contrast, David engaged grief in a way that respected God’s gift of healing, even after he was dealt the crushing blow of the death of a child. Though filled with sadness, “David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate” (2 Sam. 12:20, New King James Version). David understood that he could not bring back his son from the dead and should make no attempt to do so, not even a symbolic attempt. He measured his grief against God’s promise to be a God to him and his son (Gen. 17:7). He gained perspective, insisting that he would one day see his son on the day of resurrection (2 Sam. 12:23). Believers grieve for other believers against the backdrop of hope.

But how do we grieve for departed unbelievers? In these moments of seemingly unredeemable tragedy we need to reserve judgment to God. We should be careful of declaring the eternal fate of the dead either by condemning them to hell or by marshaling false comfort of their salvation. When faced with terrible questions about God’s judgment against sinners we should content ourselves with the posture of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25, New King James Version).

Honoring the Dead

Part of the typical grieving process involves a funeral or memorial service. How should we use funerals to help cultivate an end-times spirituality?

If Possible, Attend the Funeral

Death should take priority over almost everything else in our schedule. This may mean taking a day off work or rearranging an important appointment even for a funeral of someone you have never met, if you have a relationship with the bereaved. The funeral is not, after all, for the deceased but for the living, including yourself. There is often no medicine for the soul like a gospel-infused memorial service if we follow John Donne’s advice. “By this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making recourse to my God, who is our only security.”17

Don’t Say Too Much

In an increasingly secular world funerals represent rapidly shrinking sacred ground. Fewer settings better remind us that “God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few” (Eccl. 5:2, New King James Version). Silence is a modern taboo. But in the valley of the shadow of death it can be a healing balm. When Job’s friends heard of the adversity that had befallen him, including the death of his children, “each one came from his own place . . . sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:11, 13, New King James Version). But they grew impatient of silence. Their mouths began to pour out counsel, prompting Job to answer, “I have heard many such things; miserable counselors are you all! Shall words of wind have an end?” If we are anxious about what to say to the bereaved we should remember, “I’m so sorry for your loss” will usually suffice. Those in the clutches of grief are not looking for logic but comfort. At all costs, avoid trite phrases like, “This will work out for your good,” or, “Isn’t God great!”

Insist on God-Centered Funerals

Very often, bereaved families are able to influence heavily the memorial service of their loved one.18 This means that family members can and should give careful thought to how the funeral will best honor God. A basic guideline is to not make the deceased the focal point. Over a century ago, Abraham Kuyper observed, “Sometimes in so offensive a way you hear addresses at the grave, when he, whose breath was in his nostrils, and now died, is exalted as in a halo of glory, and every remembrance of the name of the Lord remains wanting.”19 Where this is not already understood, families should ask of the funeral officiant that “a brief homily should be given after the gospel, but without any kind of funeral eulogy.”20 Funerals should be both biblical and personal. But eulogies tend to crowd out the preaching time, provide ample opportunity to communicate bad theology, and exaggerate the deceased’s good qualities minimizing their need for God’s grace. Might it not be best, if a eulogy seems necessary, to leave it for the fellowship time following the funeral, not unlike what often happens at weddings? If a eulogy must be given it should be brief, true, simple, and God-centered.

Honor the Body

The witness of Scripture is unambiguous: Human bodies are made by God, bear his image, can be indwelt and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and should, therefore, be treated with respect after death. The burials of Sarah (Gen. 23:19), Abraham (Gen. 2:25), Isaac (Gen. 35:29), Jacob (Gen. 50:13), Lazarus (John 11), and Jesus (John 19:38–42) illustrate how God’s people have always cared for the bodies of the departed. The Bible’s few examples of cremation (e.g., Josh. 7:25; 1 Sam. 31:12; 1 Kings 13:1–3; Amos 2:1) call to mind God’s displeasure toward the deceased. Following the tradition of the Old Testament believers, Christians from the time of the apostles until the late twentieth century almost uniformly buried their dead. The first cremation in America didn’t happen until 1876. It was “accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu Scriptures.”21 No Christian should doubt that God is able to resurrect one’s body whether they were buried or cremated. But, despite social and financial pressure to favor cremation, a Christian burial seems to best reflect a robust hope in a bodily resurrection. With planning and creativity, a God-honoring funeral can cost much less than the North American average of $7,000 to $10,000.

How we face death should be understood as the premier test of our life. After all, “when a person dies, we can see much more clearly who they really turned out to be, which is eternally significant . . . when a season of life ends, we see, at least to some degree, the true fruit of all our dreaming, planning, labor and investment.”22 What Isaiah said to Hezekiah, God says to all of us: “Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live” (Isa. 38:1, New King James Version). If we have a biblical vision for the future and are held tightly in the hand of God, these jarring words can also be words of hope.

Questions

Are you, and those close to you, comfortable talking about death? If not, why not?

How does the ministry of Christ affect your view of death?

Can you remember a time that you grew in godliness by attending a funeral?

How would you advise those wrestling over whether to take their young children with them to a funeral?

How, in John 11:32–44, does Jesus model appropriate grief over death?

How do his words and actions (see also vv. 20–27) encourage hope in the shadow of death?

How has God healed you after the hurtful loss of a loved one?

How can a Christian rightly wrestle with the cremation option?

The article cautioned against the use of funeral eulogies. If given the appropriate context to comment on the life of a loved one, what kind of themes might you want to emphasize?

 

1. Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA.: Great Commission Publication, Inc., 1990), song 30.

2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 668.

3. Ibid. 

4. On covenant headship and original sin see, for example, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 2.1; John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R, 1959); Michael Grant Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2012).

5. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 669. 

6. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 42, in The Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2, 1552–1566, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 779.

7. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 45, in Reformed Confessions, 2:779.

8. See Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 18, in Reformed Confessions, 4:355.

9. Heidelberg Catechism, answer 61, in Reformed Confessions, 2:783.

10. John Piper, “Don’t Be Anxious, Lay Up Treasure in Heaven, Part 1,” March 2, 2003, http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/dont-be-anxious-lay-up-treasure-in-heaven-part-1.

11. See, for example, Abraham Kuyper, In the Shadow of Death: Meditations for the Sick-Room and at the Death-Bed (Audubon, NJ.: Old Paths Publications, 1994), and John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel (New York: Random House, 1999).

12. Metrical version of Psalm 39 from The Psalter (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999), number 104.

13. Trinity Hymnal, song 402.

14. Trinity Hymnal, song 600.

15. Trinity Hymnal, song 568.

16. Pastoral experience indicates that even in the church, God’s people seldom feel the freedom to say with Jacob (Gen. 48:21) or Joseph (50:24), “I am dying.” One can’t help but notice how our reluctance robs us of the beautifully frank conversations our forebears had with their loved ones on the brink of death.

17. Donne, Devotions, 103–4.

18. The position of the United Reformed Churches in North America is helpful advice: “A Christian funeral is neither a service of corporate worship nor subject to ecclesiastical government, but is a family matter, and should be conducted accordingly.” Article 49 of the Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 7th ed., http://www.urcna.org/1651/file_retrieve/23868.

19. Kuyper, In the Shadow of Death, 299.

20. From Ordo Exsequiarum, no. 41, cited in John Allyn Melloh, “Homily or Eulogy? The Dilemma of Funeral Preaching,” Worship 67 (November 1993), 502.

21. Timothy George, “Cremation Confusion: Is it Unscriptural for a Christian to Be Cremated?,” Christianity Today 21 (May 2002), 66.

22. John Bloom, “Lord, Prepare Me to End Well,” February 28, 2017, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/lord-prepare-me-to-end-well.

 

Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 

The True Treasure of the Church Rev. Daniel R. Hyde

This was the sixty-second of Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses of 1517. Five hundred years later it is a thesis we still need to embrace for ourselves daily as believers and weekly as preachers and congregations. It’s still a thesis we must assert against all works-centric religion.

One of the places in Scripture where we see the gospel on display in such a powerful way is Romans. Luther said Romans was “the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.”1

Romans was written by Paul, the savage persecutor turned bondservant of Christ Jesus, that is, one who “belonged to” Jesus Christ. Even before calling himself apostle, that is, one sent out by Christ himself as an ambassador, he calls himself servant (Rom. 1:1). How different is Paul from the pope, who gives lip service to being “servant of the servants of God” all the while claiming to be “the representative of Christ on earth”? How different is Paul from those charlatans today who run around calling themselves “apostle” or “bishop” or “prophet” with their bodyguards, with their entourage, with their designer suits—all the while pasturing themselves on their sheep? Paul was formerly a Pharisee, that is, one set apart from the Israelites as a cut above the rest in terms of external obedience to the law (Phil. 3:5–6), but later he was “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). This gospel is the true treasure of the church for several reasons according to Paul in Romans 1.

It Is Centered in Jesus Christ

You may think Christianity is right-wing politics. But this is cultural Christianity. You may think the gospel is loving God; loving neighbor; doing unto others as you would have them do to you; feeding the homeless. But these are not the gospel—the good news of God to sinners. These are the fruits and results of the gospel. What is the gospel? And why is it the true treasure of the church? It is centered in Jesus Christ. The gospel that Paul was set apart for and that the prophets promised long ago is “concerning [God’s] Son” (Rom. 1:3). John Calvin therefore said, “The whole Gospel is contained in Christ.”2

As Christians we talk a lot about the gospel in such impersonal, third-person ways. “The gospel saves.” “It’s the gospel that sanctifies.” “He’s a gospel preacher.” But what do we mean by these statements? We get closer to the truth when we speak of the gospel as being the good news about Jesus Christ. But Paul says here that the gospel is Jesus Christ. As he says elsewhere, it is “him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28). “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10:14). “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).

Why is Jesus Christ the gospel? Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3–4). Paul makes this interesting contrast between “flesh” and “Spirit” not between what is physical and immaterial or between Jesus’ humanity and divinity, but to speak of two phases of his life. As the eternal Son of God he came down and took to himself true humanity being “descended from” the ancient Jewish line of king “David according to the flesh.” This is what we call in theological terms his state of humiliation. But in his being raised “according to the Spirit of holiness he was declared to be the Son of God in power.” This is what we call his state of exaltation. That word declared is used for appointing. As the Son of God in human flesh he was appointed to an authority he did not have in his humiliation; he was appointed to the place of power as “the Son of God in power.” That’s his title now! In Philippians 2 we read of this humiliation and exaltation:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him. (Phil. 2:6–9)

Why is Jesus the gospel and therefore the true treasure of the church? Because he’s done everything I cannot do to save me! He’s God; I’m not. He was a perfectly obedient man to God’s commands; I’m not. He died an unjust death that I might be justly acquitted by God; I’d hardly die for another. He rose again to newness of life; I couldn’t do that with all the money in the world. What is the gospel? Jesus!

It Is Revealed from God

But where did this gospel come from? I know if you watch History Channel or network news specials during the time of Christmas and Easter you’ve been fed a diet of Jesus Christ being a myth based on ancient religions. Others say a bunch of men gathered in ad 325 A.D. to condemn everyone but themselves and determine orthodoxy.

What does Paul say? He says the gospel is “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). The gospel is the true treasure of the church because it is revealed from God. The gospel is God’s gospel. God is the author of the gospel. God is the origin of the gospel. God is the source of the gospel. Our gospel is not the religion of Paul but of God himself. And coming from him it is good news to us that he—a holy God—saves us—sinners. The gospel is God’s revelation of grace, not law; acceptation with God, not condemnation from God.

It Is Promised by Prophets

“But how can I know Paul was telling the truth? I mean, he says the gospel is from God, but why should I believe him?” What if I told you that you were the heir of an ancient kingdom in Africa? That would be a stupendous claim! But what if I then showed you your family tree, tracing you back and back, and then I showed you pictures and documents chronicling this kingdom and how it all led to you? The New Testament makes a stupendous claim about Jesus. But it doesn’t just make it up. He is traced back through ancient prophets who preached and wrote of a Savior to come. The gospel is the true treasure of the church because it is promised by prophets: “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2).

Jesus Christ is the most verifiable figure from the ancient world. The New Testament manuscripts are the most abundant and verifiable of the ancient world. But it goes farther back than that. Beginning at the beginning of the world, there have been promises and prophecies that all come to fruition in Jesus Christ. The Creator spoke to Adam and Eve of a son to come who would crush the serpent that led them into sin (Gen. 3:15). Enoch prophesied of the coming of the Lord with ten thousands of his holy ones (Jude 14). To Abraham the Lord spoke of blessing all the nations through his family line. To Israel the Lord made his promise of salvation tangible in the sacrifices of lambs—pointing to one final sacrifice of a perfect lamb; in the priesthood of men­—pointing to one final high priest who was no mere man; in the tabernacle and temple that housed God in their midst—pointing to God’s becoming human and dwelling among us. To David the Lord made a promise of a son to sit on his throne forever. Through the prophets specific promises were made of where he would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), how we would be born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), how he would die by crucifixion (Ps. 22; Dan. 9), and the list goes on and on and on.

You might be thinking, “Jesus isn’t relevant to my life.” God has orchestrated the millennia of human history to bring his Son, Jesus Christ, to this world for exactly your problem: you are separated from God by your sins against God’s commands. There is nothing more relevant!

It Is Offered to You

This true treasure of the gospel that is centered in Jesus Christ, that is revealed by God himself, and that has been promised by prophets for thousands of years is offered to you. Paul says “that through Jesus we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:5–6).

The gospel Paul offered to the Romans is the gospel offered to you today in Jesus’ name. It does not matter where you are from. It does not matter the color of your skin. It does not matter how rich or poor you are. It does not matter what you have done or have not done. God speaks to you and says, “Trust in Jesus, and when you do I will regard you as obedient to me.” When you do this you will know the blessing of being loved by God (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know the blessing of being called to be a saint (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know the blessing of God’s grace in your life (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know the blessing of being at peace with God (Rom. 1:7). When you do this you will know this true treasure of the church.

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1. Martin Luther, “Preface to Romans,” Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1976), xiii.

2. John Calvin, Commentary, 15. See also Institutes 2.9.2, where Calvin contrasts the general sense of “gospel” being “all the promises by which God reconciles men to himself” with the proper sense: “By the Gospel, I understand the clear manifestation of the mystery of Christ . . . Paul . . . claims for the Gospel the honourable distinction of being a new and extraordinary kind of embassy, by which God fulfilled what he had promised, these promises being realised in the person of the Son . . . he has in his flesh completed all the parts of our salvation.”

 

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

The Good Portion Rev. Steve Swets

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” 

–Luke 10:38–42, English Standard Version

There are women reading this who have likely studied this passage before. There have been books written on this passage, and most women find themselves having a character a bit more like Mary’s or a bit more like Martha’s. Prayerfully consider this passage as an encouragement to serve others as you walk with the Lord. This article focuses primarily upon women.

As we turn to this passage, we see Jesus traveling on his way to Jerusalem. As he is traveling he comes to a village where, verse 38 says, a woman named Martha opened her house to him. She had a sister named Mary. We know this family. These sisters also had a brother named Lazarus, and Jesus loved this family. Remember, when Lazarus later dies (John 11), Jesus weeps. The village is Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. What kind of family was this? We don’t know, but it was likely a wealthy family and the parents were likely dead. We do not read about them, and it is strange that this house would be called Martha’s. This house was likely big.

How many people were with Jesus? Well, the seventy-two had just returned from preaching and teaching and healing earlier in Luke 10 . . . they might all be with Jesus. There could be a hundred guests coming to the home of Mary and Martha. Martha, as the woman of the house in a day and age where hospitality was extremely important, would have been busy preparing a meal. Put yourself in Martha’s sandals for a minute: you have dozens of guests coming over for a last-minute meal. What would your attitude be? If my wife and I invite someone over unexpectedly from church, we send the kids into the house to do a twenty-second clean-up sweep of the living room in one last rush before the guests arrive.

In the busyness of all of this preparation, Martha sees Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to what he said. Mary had taken the position of a disciple or a student, that is, the position at a teacher’s feet. This clearly annoyed Martha, who had been busy, and so she brings her complaint to Jesus, calling him Lord. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

Let’s pause a second. It is easy at this point to be condescending to Martha. C’mon, Martha, Jesus, the most important person to ever walk on the earth, is in your house, and you are too busy to listen to him? As I mentioned, hospitality was important. Poor hospitality reflected poorly upon a family. Think about hosting without running water and without indoor plumbing. Martha wasn’t the strange one in the text. Mary was. It was not normal for a woman to take the place of a disciple. It also would have been expected that women would have prepared the food, especially with such honored guests. Martha must have thought Mary was being lazy or negligent. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me!”

Jesus before had commended diligent servants. Matthew 24:45–46 (English Standard Version) says, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” Or think about the parable of the talents. Just before our passage we find the parable of the Good Samaritan. The point of that parable focused on loving and serving your neighbor. That parable ends with Jesus saying in Luke 10:37b, “Go and do likewise.” Now, in what Jesus is going to say, it is as if he is going to balance out that teaching. But in verses 41–42 Jesus reproves Martha. Why does Jesus reprove Martha? Let me tell you what it was not for. It was not because she was busy. Jesus also does not reprove Martha for her hospitality.

Rather, the problem with Martha was that she was anxious and troubled about many things. Martha was serving out of anxiety and worry, not grace. She was anxious and worried about many things, and when that happens, isn’t it the case that we are worried and concerned about ourselves? Who are we serving? This anxiety can be subtle, and it can be a danger to each of us. Why is this subtle?

First, it is subtle because the root is selfish, but the fruit looks deceptively unselfish. Isn’t this a problem with great philanthropy . . . if you give this much money we will put your name on this building. It isn’t always the case, but self-glory is a real danger there.

A second reason this is subtle is because this is a desire for approval disguised as a desire to serve. What was Martha so worried about? How many trips to the well she would have to make to get water without Mary’s help? Not at a base level; she was concerned about herself, and this is why Jesus reproves Martha.

A third reason this anxiety is subtle because it is my caring what you think of me, dressed up to look like my caring for you. And the danger is that we might not even notice, just like Martha. We don’t know what happens after verse 42, but we do know in John 11, Martha seems to have understood Jesus’ teaching, as she is the one who is quick to encounter Jesus. Nevertheless, we must pause and ask ourselves who it is that we are serving. Even when we serve others, there is a danger in serving ourselves.

But Mary has chosen the better way or the good portion, depending on what translation you use. In the original Greek, this word likely means the best. The best option. The only one thing that is needed is to sit at Jesus’ feet. Mary was more enthralled with Jesus than she was with Mary. She cared more about what Jesus said than about what people thought.

Physical service and spiritual disciplines are often pitted against each other in discussions of this passage. Though they can be helpfully distinguished, we must not separate them, for there is much overlap. We must do both of these things. Both of those things are important.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, it would not have been okay for the priest to see the man who was beaten up on the side of the road and say to the man, “Sorry, I would love to help you, but I am late for a prayer meeting. In fact, we will pray for you there.” No, that is not service. That is not love. That is selfish. We must be diligent in both love and service. And yet, Jesus calls one better. The first and the great commandment is to love God with our whole being. Mary longed to listen to the words of Jesus, and Jesus said, “It will not be taken away from her.” She will not be forced to stop listening. May the same be true of us. Once we find our place at the feet of Jesus, and once we recognize our security and acceptance in him, we then will be freed to live unto his glory. The gospel leads to gratitude.

As we take a step back from this passage, let me say what this passage does not mean. This passage is not teaching that a life of contemplation is greater than a life of service. This has been the view of monks and nuns for centuries. This is not what this passage is teaching. This passage is also not teaching that there is a separation between loving neighbor or loving God. The one who loves God will be able to love her neighbor best, and the one who is loving her neighbor is at the same time loving God.

Let me give you some thoughts to take to heart by way of application.

1. Don’t worry about the lesser things. Many things had Martha worried and upset. Oftentimes it is many little things that push us to exhaustion and burnout. Jesus says in the parable of the soils (Luke 8:14) that the thorny soil pictures the cares of the world which can choke out the word of God.

What are those things in your life? Certainly at times we have many competing allegiances and many things vying for our time and energy. Be wise, be stewardly, keep a calendar, but don’t worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow worry about itself.

2. Practice hospitality. Open your home to others. When you open your home, you are opening your life to others. This is genuine Christianity. The danger we face is individualism, or maybe family only-ism. Open your home and share it and yourself with others.

Your house doesn’t have to be spotless. People will not enjoy themselves more if you home is perfectly clean. Nobody has ever said, “What a boring time at the Smiths’ today, but at least their house was clean.”

When my wife and I went to our first church I served, we obviously didn’t know anyone. In fact, we were there as an interim pastor. There was a family from the church who invited us over to their house that first Sunday. As we were going to walk in, the mother who invited us said, “Please excuse the boxes.” Their whole house was packed up; they were moving that week to a new house. I don’t remember what we ate, but I remember as I watched her kids play among moving boxes, how wonderful it was that they would have us over when their house was in disarray. We ate off of paper plates, and we loved it. It was refreshing to us.

Hospitality is a focus upon people. Though you might enjoy a meal together, and good food and drink is a delight, the focus is on people. It is on building relationships and showing love. It is serving others as a Christian disciple. When you open your home, you open your family.

The more means you have, the more you can physically give to others. I say this because Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were wealthy. This get-together in Bethany would have been a large financial undertaking. Later, Mary would take extremely expensive perfume and wash Jesus’ feet with her hair. But with little means, there is always an opportunity. God blesses service. I knew of a lovely widow who opened her home to college students. Some Sunday nights there might be thirty of them there for a meal. That was a financial hardship, but she told me once in a while someone would put some money in her church mailbox anonymously, or she would find a hundred-dollar bill under her coffee pot. That was a beautiful picture of service, and God provided.

Hospitality and welcome are why many visitors end up joining churches. It isn’t for the sermons first of all; it is for the people connection.

3. Slow down. There is a principle taught in this passage, lying under the surface of quiet learning. We are busy. Sometimes we need to say no. We need to evaluate how much time and focus we are committing to social obligations and how much focus we have upon God’s Word. How much time are we spending at the ball field compared with how much time we are spending in family devotions? Then you have to ask yourself, Is it worth it to be so committed to extracurricular activities?

4. Godliness and Christian piety are a calling that we each have. We cannot go out and serve well if we don’t do so after leaving the prayer closet and the feet of Jesus.

We have likely all been taught that we ought to engage the culture around us instead of fleeing from this world. We cannot hide away in a corner until Jesus returns, this is true. But we must engage culture based on a foundation of Jesus Christ and godliness in our life, and a continual growing sanctification in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

5. We will get our priorities messed up, just like Martha did. But Jesus’ response to her was an act of love: “Martha, Martha . . .” It was tender shepherding and teaching. We need that too. Sometimes, we need a sermon to give us a little, gentle kick to the seat. How are your priorities? This is a conversation to have with your husband. Where you are in the trenches of raising children or considering how to spend your retirement? Everyone can find it easy to get their priorities messed up. When we do this, listen to the voice of the Lord from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”

6. See your role in the kingdom of God. There may be some women reading this who feel like they are living day by day. Especially if you are a young mother or have little kids in the home to take up so much time and attention. You might see women who seem to have it all together. Maybe they have young children and a career and from the outside all looks perfect. Don’t worry about them . . . they are not you. Remember your calling and place in the kingdom. Don’t feel guilty about a dirty home or the fact your husband comes home and says, “Let’s do something or have someone over,” and all you feel like doing is going to sleep.

God has called you to the very place that you are. If you are a mother who is tired, then take the time you need. Be in prayer and the Word, but don’t feel guilty about the little stuff in life. You are raising the next generation. It is an interesting study about how much influence mothers had upon the great leaders of the past.

7. Be comforted, sisters in the Lord. Jesus receives us in love and frees us from the anxiety of what others think. After this episode, Martha and Mary were dear friends of our Lord. The same is true for us by faith and repentance. We will not be accepted by everyone. How often do have to remind ourselves that we cannot please everyone? However, there is one we must seek to please, and he is not an angry ruler who is unapproachable, but rather, he is a loving Father who has sent his Son to save us and to become the friend of sinners.

This article is adapted from a speech given at a women’s conference.

 

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

The Promise in the Clouds: The Common Grace Covenant

It seems that every year another film is released that portrays the end of the world and a dramatic fight for the survival of the human race. Whether the disaster is a nuclear holocaust, alien invasion, or environmental abuse, the apocalyptic tones are usually the same. Each movie features some sort of Noah figure who survives to give the human race a new beginning. No matter how far-fetched the movies get, their presence and popularity seem to reflect humanity’s sense of guilt and fear that the world will one day crumble in destruction. There is a common sentiment that this world cannot continue the way it is; humanity needs a fresh start.

The Bible, however, does not leave us in doubt about these things. First of all, our Lord Jesus has promised to purge the earth of all evil at his second coming. He will usher in the new heavens and new earth, where his people will dwell with him forever in glory. Second, God has also promised that there would be no more Noah figures. The Lord of heaven and earth will not destroy the world again by water, requiring another Noah. No matter what storms may come, God’s promise stands. His rainbow still shines after the rain, because of his covenant with Noah and all the earth.

In order to understand the Noahic covenant, it is necessary to define common grace. Common grace is God’s undeserved kindness to all people, no matter what their spiritual status. We label this grace of God as “common” only in the sense of its contrast to his redemptive and saving grace. God’s redemptive grace in Christ is not common to all people. Rather, this grace is reserved only for God’s elect, bestowing on them all the blessings earned by Christ: regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification (Rom. 8:28–30). The blessings of common grace, however, are common to both regenerate and unregenerate, both the church and the world. These common blessings include things like sunshine, rain, food, and possessions (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:17), wisdom or skill in crafts, trades, and learning (Dan. 1:4–5; 1 Kings 5:6; Prov. 30:1; 31:1), family, and friends. No one deserves these blessings. They are common graces from God.

The Noahic covenant, therefore, can be defined as God’s covenant of common grace with the earth to sustain its order despite mankind’s depravity until the consummation, which is consistent with the pre-flood order.

What Does the Bible Teach?

Genesis 8:20–9:17. The flood account ends in Genesis 8:15–19 with God commanding Noah and all the animals to leave the ark and fill the earth. Verses 20–22 form a bridge between the flood account and God’s covenant. Noah, as God’s righteous servant, builds an altar and offers sacrifices to the Lord out of gratitude. At the smell of Noah’s sacrifice, God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (vv. 21–22).

There are two things about God’s statement we should notice. First, it makes a promise with two parts. The first part is that God vows never to destroy the earth again with a flood. In the second part, God promises to preserve the normal cycle of seasons. Animals will continue to live and God will uphold the environment and climate necessary for life on earth. He will sustain the change of seasons, the rain to make seeds grow until the harvest, and the passage of time in day and night.

Second, God makes this promise despite humanity’s depravity. The intention of humankind’s heart is still evil from his youth. Fallen man is no better after the flood than before. God grants them life under the sun even though they still deserve punishment. God’s promise is not dependent on man’s performance, whether it is righteous or wicked.

Parties of the Covenant. As we have explored in previous articles, covenants are agreements between different parties. Who are the parties of this covenant? The first party is God. It is his promise and covenant. The second party, however, is multiple in character. God makes his covenant with Noah, his descendants, and the animals (livestock, birds, and every beast), as in verse 10. But God names the second party over and over in varying ways. In verse 12, the covenant is with you and every living creature, for future generations. Noah, then, represents all future humanity. Verse 13 lists God and the earth, and the parties continue to be listed: between me and you and every living creature (v. 15); between God and every living creature of all flesh (v. 16); between me and all flesh (v. 17).

It is unmistakable that this covenant is common, not limited to God’s special people. It is God’s covenant with the earth, every living animal on the earth, and all humanity descended from Noah and his sons. God’s promise is to sustain, uphold, and govern the earth with all human and animal creatures on it. This makes this covenant non-redemptive. The promise is not to save the second party from sin and its curse, but to preserve the natural order of the world so that life can continue to exist.

Sign of the Covenant. This covenant also has a sign of commonness. Remember, God’s various covenants typically have visible and symbolic signs that help administer or maintain the covenant relationship. Covenant signs, though, are given only to those who are party to the covenant relationship. For example, the Abrahamic sign of circumcision is only for the covenant family, and the new covenant signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only for members of the church. Those outside the covenant community do not receive the sign. In distinction from these redemptive covenant administrations, the Noahic sign is public and part of the natural world. The rainbow sign shines out from the clouds for every man and beast to see. Every creature included in the second party is witness to the sign of the covenant.

This public sign has further significance in that it is symbolic. Signs are symbolic of a particular idea or meaning. So what does the rainbow symbolize? First, the Hebrew word for “rainbow” can mean either “rainbow” or “bow,” as in bow and arrow. God calls it “my bow” in verse 13. In ancient iconography, victorious kings and gods were often portrayed as coming back from war with their bows in a horizontal position (like a rainbow). Going into battle, the king or god has the bow vertical in hand, ready to shoot; but after battle it is horizontal, symbolizing the peace after war. The rainbow, then, may well be symbolic of God’s war bow that hangs in the sky, symbolic of peace. God will not destroy the world again; he is no longer hostile.

Second, the ancients understood the sky or firmament as a dome-shaped barrier that held back the waters above, as in Genesis 1:6–7. Hence, when God judged the world in the flood, he opened the windows of heaven, releasing the waters above (7:11). In fact, the Hebrew word for “flood” refers specifically to these celestial waters. Thus, God’s promise is that he will never wipe out all flesh by the waters of the flood. The rainbow then visually represents the dome-shape firmament as shut. The rainbow appears when it rains to show that the celestial waters will not be released.

The symbolic value of the rainbow could be either of these, or perhaps both. Either way, the effect of the symbol is clear. The rainbow reminds us that the floods will never come again. The beautiful arch points to God’s promise that he will never judge the world by the waters of the flood. The firmament is shut; there is peace after the storm.

Terms of the Covenant. What are the terms of this covenant for its continuing validity? First, the sign identifies that it is a sign for God: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (v. 16). God sees the sign and remembers his promise not to destroy but to sustain. The only term of the covenant is God keeping his promise. There are no terms for humanity or creation to meet for the covenant to continue. The covenant is a unilateral promise of God. It is by definition unbreakable. There are no conditional terms whereby the covenant can be broken.

This invincible nature of the covenant is reflected in Jeremiah 33:20–21a, “If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken.” The point of the Lord’s comparison between his covenant with day and night and the Davidic is that they both are impossible to break; man can do nothing to invalidate them. Hence, God calls the Noahic covenant eternal. It is everlasting; it will last as long as the earth endures.

This aspect should strike us as outstanding. When we see the rainbow, we can know God is also gazing at it and remembering his everlasting covenant to uphold seedtime and harvest, day and night. With all the terror and grievous evil that humans have inflicted on each other, we may wonder why the globe keeps spinning. From our point of view, it is not an easy thing to keep this promise. But God is greater than we are, and his thoughts are higher than ours. He is the God who keeps his promises.

Regulations of the Covenant. The everlasting and unilateral nature of the Noahic covenant does not negate the fact that there are some obligations for mankind within this covenant. Indeed there are, but the continuance of the covenant does not depend on these obligations. The imposed regulations define how God governs his creation and how mankind should act in it. Yet the existence of the covenant is not dependent on man’s fidelity to the regulations.

The regulations of the Noahic covenant are found in Genesis 9:1–7. First, God calls Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply (v. 1). This imperative reiterates what God told the animals in 8:17, and it parallels God’s command in Genesis 1:28. Mankind and animals are to procreate. God sustains and orders this world through the increase of mankind and animals. Assumed in this command to be fruitful is marriage. Therefore, marriage and procreation are a good and normal part of human society.

Second, God gives Noah all things for food (v. 3). The distinction between clean and unclean animals in the ark is no longer in force. Noah can eat from all types of animals and plants. God has given mankind a lordship over the animals. The good effect of this regulation is often overlooked. In fact, Paul has this regulation in mind when he says, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5). Likewise, Paul states that it is “God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). God gave us these things to be enjoyed, for his glory. Our everyday meals then are about more than just nourishment but about gratitude to God.

A corollary of this regulation is work. To eat of both animals and vegetation implies being a tiller of the soil and shepherd of herds. Cultivation and labor are the necessary means for taking all things for food. God’s food regulation displays his will that work is a good and necessary part of human life.

Third, God declares that whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed (v. 6). This regulation not only reveals that murder is wrong but also that man has the right, even the duty, to punish murders with capital punishment. Indeed, the mention of man being made in the image of God is the basis for man being able to judge criminals. The mention of image is not to establish the value of man’s life but to establish man’s right and duty to judge wrongdoing. The apostle Paul reflects on this in Romans 13 when he states that governing authorities bear the sword, even calling the governor “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4).

The regulation of Genesis 9:6 is the covenantal foundation for God’s instituting the state, that is, governments that regulate human society, particularly by protecting their lives. The state, imperfect as it is, is God’s instituted means whereby he punishes wrongdoers, thereby restraining human depravity. This is why Peter and Paul can say what they do about the Roman government (Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2).

This regulation further exhibits that God has preserved in humans a sense of law. Even though the inclination of man is evil from youth, God reveals his natural law on the conscience of humans. Thus, Paul can say, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:14–15). The Noahic covenant is the covenantal foundation for God ordering the world by natural law and preserving in fallen man an awareness of this law, so that man does not act as badly as he might.

These three regulations demonstrate that God ordered all of human life in the Noahic covenant. Fruitfulness covers the realm of marriage and family; food encapsulates the realm of vocation and enjoyment of good things; murder includes the arena of state and society; and natural law is evident in them all. Both Christians and non-Christians participate in all of these fields, and all of these arenas are necessary for preserving human society. They are founded on the Noahic covenant and are an important part of our lives as Christians in this world.

Continuity with Creation. The common grace covenant upholds and governs all of human history and the world. Nevertheless, to identify accurately the Noahic covenant as the covenantal foundation for all these regulations, we have to recognize the Noahic covenant’s continuity with creation. The command to be fruitful and multiply repeats Genesis 1:28. The image of God mentioned in 9:6 ties with Genesis 1:26. The regulation that protects the life of man is similar to God’s sign to Cain that protected his life from murder (Gen. 4:15). Jeremiah’s mention of a covenant with day and night that recalls 8:22 is also reminiscent of God’s call for the sun to rule the day (1:16–18). Humankind having to work for food links with God’s curse in Genesis 3:17–19. Moreover, God’s statement in 8:21, “I will not continue to curse the ground any further” (my translation), demonstrates that God is not changing his previous curse in 3:17.

Other connections could be listed, but the above illustrate that God is reinstating the natural order previous to the flood. There is an essential continuity in the created order before and after the flood. This is not to minimize the differences that Peter mentions in 2 Peter 3:5–7. Nonetheless, humanity is still in the image of God and imprisoned to the curse of sin and death. Seasons come and go as before. The theology of Genesis 1–4 still informs and guides our faith and life.

For the Seed to Come. Finally, the common grace covenant provides the arena for Christ to come. God promised Adam and Eve salvation through a Champion. Had God destroyed the world completely, this promise would not have been fulfilled. The Lord’s promise entails an ongoing conflict between the offspring of the Serpent and that of the woman, which needs a stage on which to unfold. It is the common grace realm secured in God’s promise that provides this stage for the drama of redemptive history.

God’s common grace sustains and upholds the natural order and human society so that Christ could be born of a woman, and under the law, in the fullness of time. After Christ’s ascension, the Lord did not bring the final judgment. Instead, according to his great mercy, the Father ordained the second coming of Christ to be in the distant future, so that many more generations might be born, hear the gospel proclaimed to them, and receive the free salvation found in Christ. One day, the heavens will be torn in two like a newspaper. The sun will turn black as coal and the moon blood-red. The mountains, tall and solid, seemingly indestructible, will be picked up like rag dolls and thrown away. The islands that are locked down to the sea floor will be sent skipping across the sea like a smooth stone. With the same ease with which God spoke the world into existence, he will send in his demolition team to tear it down. Common grace will come to an end when that seventh trumpet is blown and Christ rides forth on his glorious chariot cloud.

But until that day, common grace serves the purpose of God’s saving grace. As long as the sun shines, the gospel will be proclaimed, and those who were once lost will be found in Christ. Christ will continue to build his church, protecting her from the onslaughts of the Evil One, until he brings this world to a close.

In the meantime, the rainbow gives us assurance in the unshakable promise of God. Whatever disasters lie in the future, the rainbow reminds us that God will preserve winter and spring, marriage and childbirth, and human society until Christ comes in glory. The Noahic covenant comforts us with the assurance that nothing can thwart God’s plan, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

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

RYS Youth Convention 2017, Biola University, La Mirada, California

Youth Service Convention has been the one thing that I look forward to most in the year and fortunately, I have never been disappointed. This year was no different in that case. When I arrived at Biola University in La Mirada, California, for the RYS Youth Convention, I was absolutely buzzing with excitement for the upcoming week. Between the music, the fellowship, the community, the workshops, and the sessions, I knew that this week was going to be amazing. The theme for the week was centered around the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, which happens to be in October this year. The sessions were dedicated to the “5 Solas” of The Reformation which are: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Sola Fide, and Soli deo Gloria. Rev. Jon Bushnell of Prinsburg, Minnesota and Rev. Ed Marcusse of Salem, Oregon, were the designated main session speakers, and as we headed into the week I was anxiously anticipating their sessions. Aside from the sessions, I was also enthused about the workshops and the time I would get to spend with friends. 

Something about the main session speakers this year really drew me in. Both Rev. Bushnell and Rev. Marcusse have drastically different exhortation styles. Each session I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. Whether it was the gentle voice of Rev. Bushnell or the authoritative voice of Rev. Marcusse, I was completely absorbed and I left each session with my spirit soaring. 

Session #1, was chock full of amazing illustrations from Rev. Bushnell as he explained to us the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura,” which means “Scripture Alone.” One such illustration involved Rev. Bushnell dumping a bag of soil onto a table and asking us what the difference was between the dirt and a poor unfortunate conventioneer in the front row. Rev. Bushnell’s responded by saying that the only difference between them was the breath of God. Using 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5 and this illustration, Rev. Bushnell enforced the authority of the Bible and the proper usage of the Bible. 

Session #2 on Tuesday morning was led by Rev. Ed Marcusse who spoke on the doctrine of “Sola Gratia” or “Grace Alone.” Rev. Ed Marcusse began by emphasizing the magnitude of our depravity and comparing it with other views in our world. Using a piece of paper, he demonstrated the difference between being slightly wrinkled (not completely depraved) and a burnt pile of ash. This emphasized our need for a Savior and our need for a complete outpouring of grace. Without Christ and God’s grace on us, we are incapable of contributing to our salvation. Another example that resonated with me was 

the story of John Newton, the writer of “Amazing Grace.”John Newton was raised as a Christian until his parents died. Afterwards, he began living his life “to the fullness of his sin.” Rev. Ed Marcusse has a way of absolutely blasting through my sin to convict me and make me shrink in my seat. After his conviction he raised me up out of my guilt with the promise of God’s grace and how it is by grace alone we are saved. 

Session #3 brought us back to Rev. Jon Bushnell, who spoke this time on the doctrine of “Solus Christus” which means “Christ Alone.” Throughout the session Rev. Bushnell talked of the importance of Christ in our lives and how it is through him alone that we are saved. He began by expressing the supremacy of God in our lives and how he is in all and over all. Everything we do is for his glory. Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross was to break us free from the Covenant of Works and place us into the Covenant of Grace that Christ earned for us. Christ was raised so that we may receive the his grace. Rev. Bushnell said a lot of great things, but one thing that stuck in my head was, “My infidelity was crucified on the Cross and Christ’s perfect life was imputed onto me.” He then moved on to instruct us that since we have been given this grace, we must reconcile our sins with God and live for him. 

Session #4 allowed for us to hear from Rev. Ed Marcusse again as he spoke about the doctrine of “Sola Fide” which means “Faith Alone.” This session spoke to me on a really profound level. Something in the presentation and content of this session made my chest heave. Rev. Marcusse stressed the importance of this doctrine and impressed upon us that we must take ownership of our own faith. We cannot rely on our parents, our church, or friends to maintain and strengthen our faith. We must do this ourselves; otherwise we will perish. He depicts our faith as a canvas and we must use God’s Word as the paintbrush to create a beautiful painting that displays our faith. He emphasized that in order to have a blossoming faith we must have the “Three C’s”: Content, Confession, Commitment. Content pertains to the knowledge in our brain that we have about the Bible. We must have strong biblical knowledge because knowledge is the platform upon which our faith stands. After gaining Content we must Confess the content in our hearts. The most profound sentence of the entire RYS convention came from Rev. Marcusse when he said, “Don’t die 18 inches away from heaven.” Of course this is referring to the distance between someone’s heart and mind. If we do not confess the truth of the Bible in our hearts, then we are going to die eighteen inches away from heaven. After this we must Commit our lives to Christ and living for him.

Finally on the last day, we entered into Session #5 where we learned of the doctrine of “Soli Deo Gloria” which means “Glory to God Alone.” Rev. Bushnell began by explaining that all the other solas point to this one. In all the others, each gives glory to God. Rev. Bushnell spoke to us about how all things come from God, live through God, and all things are to God. He emphasizes that our worship is not about us or how it makes us feel. It is how it gives glory to God. Every decision we make should be to the glory of God, and to God all things are due. Our lives are in service of him. 

Outside of the main sessions each conventioneer signed up for five courses that a different pastor would teach: These are called workshops. More often than not there is a mandatory workshop for men and women. This year there was “Act Like Men” by Rev. Mike Schout of and “The Biblical Woman” by Mrs. Katie Pratt of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido, CA. Both workshops were phenomenal and reassuring to us as young men and women. There were other great workshops like “How to Read the Bible” by Rev. Angelo Contreras of the Zion URC in Ripon, California. Overall, all of the workshops were amazing and I have heard nothing but positivity about all of them and their leaders. The workshops and sessions are all available for listening on the Reformed Youth Services Website. 

On Thursday night, there was a talent show that allowed for many people to give glory to God through the gifts they have been given. There were many amazing acts and a few stood out. There were many piano players, a bunch of singers, a karate demonstration, a magician, and a few comedy skits! Each act did an amazing job and it was an amazing night. Rev. Bradd L. Nymeyer did a form of karate that in the end had the entire auditorium on their feet! A group of conventioneers led by Emily Lieffers from Little Farms, MI, and Willem Pettit of Hudsonville, MI, did a funny comedy sketch that had many people dying of laughter. There were a few singers who sang with ukuleles! Kees Kiledjian of Chino, CA, and Kaiden Tolkamp of Demotte, IN, did a fun mash-up of songs whose themes had to do with saying “hello.” I also did an act, that involved a ukulele. In my act I sang a song called “The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog. I accompanied this song with a little bit of comedy and a few impressions of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy! In the end everyone had a really great night at the talent show and we finished it all off with a beautiful song from the choir. 

Each of the main sessions were sandwiched by a time of singing that allowed for the magnificent chorus of 853 believers to rise from our souls and give glory to God. On the first evening we sang the hymn “How Great Thou Art” and as the song progressed the entire auditorium was filled with this feeling of, “RYS is here at last.” The singing is honestly one of the best parts of RYS because it can move you to tears, which was not uncommon. At the last session it is custom to link hands and sing a benediction that goes “My friends, may you grow in grace.” This song is really difficult to sing because for us it means that RYS is over and we must say goodbye to the friends that we have made. This convention, for some of us, is the only place where we feel like we belong. Where we feel that we can be ourselves, and where people are accepting, loving, and genuinely interested in you on a personal level. I know I’m not only speaking for myself on this matter when I say this. I have made lifelong friendships even though I have only known some people for 4-12 days. The friendships made at RYS are unlike any in the outside world and it is beautiful. I for one cannot wait for the next year, and I eagerly await the opportunity to learn and to spend time with people who believe the same as I do and who love in the same way I do.

 

Mr. Tate Kiledjian 
is a seventeen-year-old from Chino, CA, and is a senior at Ontario Christian High School and has been in the Reformed church all his life. He enjoys writing and playing volleyball. This is his third RYS youth convention.

 

Once Lost, Now Found: How Reformed Theology Assures Us - Rev. Daniel Hyde

we are still living in an age of Christ-less Christianity. That’s the diagnosis. I believe the reformed catholic Christianity of the Protestant Reformation and post-Reformation is the cure.

But all too often we as Reformed believers come off as total freaks when people visit our churches for the first time. A visitor walks in for the first time and hears something like this: “Hi, I’m Danny, welcome to OURC. Are you supra or infra?” Or, “So are you credo or paedo?” Maybe, “Pre-, post-, or pesimistic amillennial? We here are optimistic amil.” Too often we let our most rabid new members into greeting ministry too early. Instead, the “cage phase” Calvinists who are so excited about being Reformed need to be put in a cage for a year until they’ve been tamed. In this age of Christ-less Christianity we want to be welcoming to unbelievers, disenfranchised evangelicals, burned-out liberals, and everyone on the outside looking in an understandable, hospitable way. And we want them to come to know the assurance that Reformed Christianity brings.

It was the late-sixteenth-and early-seventeenth-century Catholic theologian, Robert Bellarmine, who said that assurance of salvation was the principal heresy of Protestantism. In the decades and centuries surrounding the Reformation this was the great question. What assurance could creatures have of their Creator revealing himself? What assurance could the pious Catholic have that he would not spend eternity in the flames of hell? And the list goes on.

We do not live in a time where everyone lives under Christendom, and hence everyone is searching for assurance within that system. We are living in a great time, though. The Reformed faith is on the march once again. People in our society are not coming to us seeking answers and assurance in the same way as in the sixteenth century. Instead, they are seeking assurance whether anything can be trusted and believed in.

You see, although we live in what we can call a post-everything culture where it seems people are unsure about everything, in reality, people evidence their deep-down need for belonging, for community, for assurance. Let me give an example of this. Russell R. Reno, a theologian at Creighton University, wrote a while back about the phenomenon of tattoos. That which was once a symbol of rebellion is now a symbol of belonging to something larger than oneself in our culture.

So what can we give people? The full-orbed message of the Reformation. And I am writing as one who—as the great hymn says—“I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

The
Assurance of Our
History

First, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our history. Everything today is about what have you done for me lately, the brief sound byte, the tyranny of the news cycle when the next big thing takes center stage only to eclipse what once had all our attention. We are by nature “chronologically arrogant,” as the great C. S. Lewis once said. When the Israelites languished under their disobedience and impending judgment of God, Jeremiah called upon them to seek the ancient paths. As Reformed churches we can confidently say to searching people, we have deep roots historically. We can call upon family, friends, and neighbors to unite themselves to something bigger than them and us.

The
Assurance of Our
Theology

Second, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our theology. Before next Sunday, stop and think about everyone who walks through the doors of where your congregation meets for worship, especially those who may be there for the first time. There are so many people coming with so many experiences. No doubt there will be someone who shares a similar story with you. For me, I was lost. I was baptized as a Roman Catholic, taken to Sunday school at Calvary Chapel, I remember going to Easter and Christmas Mass throughout my childhood and teenage years, and all through that I sought assurance that God loved me. I was converted in a Foursquare Church and then went off to college to play basketball. The church next to campus was an Assemblies of God church. After seeing the same people go forward to the altar calls to get saved or to rededicate themselves to the Lord week after week after week, I thought, “There has got to be more to the Christian faith than this.” There will be people who, like me, turned to investigating religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, agnosticism, and every -ism under the sun.

What brought me assurance? The gospel. I came to realize that no amount of works a la the Roman Catholic system, no amount of intellectual investigation of religion, and no amount of seeking emotional assurance via my Pentecostal church could bring the assurance I sought. That was, until one day I was introduced to the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 70, “What is justification?” The answer is, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.”

The
Assurance of Our Liturgy

Third, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our liturgy, that is, our way of worshipping the triune God. As you know, Rome likes to say, “We’ve had the Mass for two thousand years.” Well, in Reformed churches we can say confidently, “We’ve had the Psalms for three thousand years, like the entire people of God.”

I remember walking in a Reformed church for the first time. I’ve never told Mike Horton this, but it was Christ Reformed, which was then meeting in Placentia. I felt like I had walked into heaven. Remember I had seen the smells and bells of Rome and the signs and wonders of Pentecostalism. It wasn’t until I sat in a service saturated in the Word like a Reformed church, with reverent worship, that I found what I had been looking for. I had no idea how to hold a hymnal, how to read a note, when to stand, when to sit. But it was amazing.

The
Assurance of Our
Piety

Fourth, Reformed Christianity offers the assurance of our piety. Have you gone to your local Christian bookstore lately or received a catalog in the mail from the large publishers? What’s in them? Mostly Christian living, right? But it’s what some have called law-light. You know, how to be a better you, finding your purpose in life, Christian dieting, women’s issues, men’s issues, teen issues, how to get over your issues with having issues.

The Reformed Christian faith is not merely a bunch of doctrine. It’s not merely head knowledge. As my friend and mentor, Joel Beeke, describes our faith, it is a religion of head, heart, and hands. Our life is described so wonderfully by the two opening questions of the two great Reformed catechisms. The Heidelberg Catechism opens, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” We belong to the Lord; we are his bondservants. The Westminster Shorter Catechism opens, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We exist as clay, molded for the maker’s pleasure.

People walk into our churches beat down, ashamed, defeated. We get to say to them that God makes the dead alive, the blind to see, the enemy his friend. And now that you belong to him, live with joy and gratitude to the glory and praise of your maker and redeemer.

As you conclude reading this article and we go our separate ways, I pray you will be equipped to be used of God to communicate the truth of that great hymn to all unbelievers, pilgrims, and outcasts who walk through your church’s doors: “I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.”

 

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

 

Marks of a Healthy Reformed Church - Rev. Michael J. Schout

Over the past couple of years, the leaders at the church where I serve have been developing a vision statement. Perhaps that surprises you? Isn’t that the sort of thing larger churches with multi staffs busy themselves with? Don’t we have more important things to do, namely, ministry of the Word and sacraments?

Crafting a vision statement isn’t one of the marks of the church, nor does it make a church healthy. But in my opinion, the process has forced us to ask some questions we might not otherwise ask. Such as, why do we do what we do? Is there anything we do that we shouldn’t be doing? What aren’t we doing that we should? And what can we do better?

Self-evaluation is a normal part of any successful business. Yet, sometimes we can go years and even decades in the church without really looking in the mirror. This is not to advocate a church as business model but simply to point out that it’s easy to feel healthy when we might not necessarily be healthy. Like the guy who goes in for his annual physical only to discover he has a tumor.

Taking inventory can be hard. I don’t like to find weaknesses, and it means extra work. Who wants more council meetings when we’re already busy enough? Besides, isn’t being conservative and confessional a whole lot better than the vast majority of other churches in America? Why spend time looking at areas to improve when it takes so much time and energy just to maintain what we’ve already got?

In the next several installments of articles, I hope to develop a vision statement for all of our churches according to Scripture. Obviously, each congregation will need to personalize it for themselves. No two churches are exactly alike. We all have a unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and our contexts vary depending a host of factors.

But is there, broadly speaking, certain marks that make a church healthy? How is health measured? What is true for all churches, and what is particular to some? And perhaps even more fundamentally, does the Bible even address the idea of a healthy church?

In this article I want to introduce you to our vision statement to get your wheels turning. Perhaps your church already has one or is in the process of developing one. Or maybe this is totally foreign to you. It could very well be that you think this is a giant waste of time.

But hear me out. I think you’ll be the better for it. Even if you come away thankful for what you do and find little or nothing to change, at least you will have put in the necessary work to take inventory of your church to make sure that what you are doing is based on the Word of God for the glory of God.

The vision statement of the church I serve reads as follows: Grace United Reformed Church seeks to be a gospel-shaped community of biblically grounded, confessionally Reformed worshippers, disciples, and witnesses of Jesus Christ.

We’ve developed four major coordinates: worship, fellowship, discipleship, and outreach. The modifier for all of these things is the gospel. The foundation is the Word of God. And we stand and speak within a confessional history.

Worship is the chief end for which we’ve been created. It is the core of what we do as Christians and serves as the high point of our pilgrim experience.

We’ve been called in the gospel to the fellowship of the church. We’re united not on the basis of race, politics, or interests, but the Word of God and the blood of Christ.

As we grow in our walk with the Lord, we need continual discipleship and renewal. The goal is not stagnation but forward movement.

And we’ve been commissioned to spread the good news to those around us. Instead of huddling up, we need to venture out. The gospel is something we receive and give away.

We must not be driven by pragmatism. Yet neither can we turn a blind eye to our culture and context. Rather, we must be faithful to the Scriptures, centered upon the gospel, while finding ways to communicate our message to a dying world in ways that are always truthful but also thoughtful.

In my own context, many of our young people have left membership in a confessionally Reformed church, choosing bigger and broader evangelical churches. And while we can criticize all the things that are wrong with those churches, perhaps we’d be wise to ask: Is there anything wrong with ours?

Why are our young people leaving? Is it as simple as, “Well, they are Millennials, after all”? Or is there something we’re not doing to attract them? Could it be that we’ve left them with insufficient answers to the questions they’ve always had but never dared to ask? Is it possible that they’re bored with our churches because we’re bored with our churches? Or that we’re stuck in maintenance mode, just trying to stay clear of liberalism, and we’ve focused only on what we’re not instead of who we’re called to be?

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not even sure I’m asking the right questions. But in the articles that follow, I want to explore this further. I want to let the Great Physician diagnose the condition of our churches by seeing what the Bible says are the marks of a healthy church.

What is the goal of the church? Why do we meet Sunday after Sunday? What is our purpose? And how do we get there? It is to these and other questions we’ll explore next time.

More specifically, I want to examine why and how the gospel is to shape all that we do. If we don’t get this right, everything else will miss the mark.

So please join me in praying that God would show us both our true diagnosis and the remedy. It’s one thing to know you have a problem. It’s quite another to find an answer.

I believe the Word has answers, and I know that God promises to give grace to the humble.

May God be pleased to send his Spirit to bring both reformation and revival, for the health of our churches and the glory of Christ.

 

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

How Can I Understand Prophecy?

All of us think about the end times. When we reflect on what will happen, not only when we die, but also when this present age ends, some combination of ideas, images, hopes, and fears flood our minds. And this is good. God wants us to reflect on the last things, to cultivate an apocalyptic spirituality in which our vision for the future affects our walk before God’s face today.

For that to happen well our eschatology, our doctrine of the last things, needs to be drawn from Scripture and not reflect our prejudices or wishes. But when we study the last things, especially those things connected with the end of this present age and the beginning of the next, we have to engage prophecy, a genre of Scripture that presents a host of interpretive challenges. But we don’t need to read the prophets unarmed.

To understand the prophets we need to study them through the grid of a biblical hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. And even if we have never used the word we all have a hermeneutic. We all study the Bible with certain assumptions, following definite rules or at least impulses (even if we couldn’t articulate them). This is why two people can read the same passage and arrive at very different ideas, especially when studying prophecy. It is for lack of a biblically informed hermeneutic that some visions of the end are so complicated or wildly speculative that the author’s intent is completely corrupted.

To better understand the Bible’s portrayal of the end times it is critical to think through a number of issues that we have to face when interpreting prophecy.

The Bible Is a Story of Redemption

Neither the Old nor New Testament prophets spoke of the future merely to tell about a few spectacular events beforehand. Instead, they were instilling a piety by means of the story of God’s redemption in the past, present, and future.

Still, it is possible to lose sight of the big picture on account of scintillating or perplexing prophetic details. In fact, this happens all the time. In my in-laws’ home hangs a large framed mosaic puzzle. Each piece contains several tiny scenery photographs. You could study that framed puzzle with your nose a few inches away from the glass inspecting the individual photos. But when you step back from that mosaic you realize that the purpose of the individual images is to build a larger composition, in this case a map of the entire world.

Likewise, it is possible to study the end-times messages of the prophets simply for their ability to tell the future. But when you read their words as part of a grander mosaic, you realize that they are telling a story that is meant to inspire confidence in the meticulous, skillful, patient saving work of God. Prophecies that have been fulfilled and promises still to be realized bolster our confidence that God will continue to take “one from a city and two from a family” and build a holy kingdom called Zion made up of people from all nations (Jer. 3:14, 17).

God does record prophecy to “show His servants the things which must shortly take place” (Rev. 22:6; cf. Rev. 1:1). But these things must never be isolated from the grand story they are helping to tell. “Prophecy encourages us regarding the future, not by giving us the news headlines in advance, but by pointing to our victorious God, who has already won the decisive heavenly battle.”1

The Story Starts at the Beginning

When we think about the end times, we naturally think, “Revelation.” If we do consider the Old Testament we might include Daniel or other prophets. But long before the ministry of the apostle John or the later prophets, the Bible introduced themes that, perhaps unexpectedly, help inform our understanding of the end.

Think about how the concept of death seems to intrude on the otherwise serene beginning of God’s story. In the Bible’s second chapter, in the context of so much good (Gen. 1:31), God warned of the possibility of death (Gen. 2:17). In the third chapter animals died (Gen. 3:21).2 In the fourth chapter men began to die. In the book of beginnings we hear about a place where the dead go called Sheol (Gen. 37:35). God told Abraham that when he died he would go to his fathers in peace (Gen. 15:15); at death he was “gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). After just a few pages we begin to wonder what happens to dead people. Are they gone forever? How will God answer the cry of the blood of those unjustly taken from the land of the living (Gen. 4:10)? What is Sheol, whence was Abraham gathered, and will those resting in peace ever wake?

Or, consider the important end-times theme of the kingdom of God. The Old Testament tells us that God is a king (1 Sam. 12:12) who is establishing a vast kingdom. He began gathering kingdom citizens when he rescued Adam and Eve from the devil’s tricks. He has since been preserving a faithful seed from their posterity, also adding those from the other families of the nations–slowly at first, more rapidly after Pentecost. But one day, as Jesus taught us to pray, his kingdom will come (Matt. 6:10). He will return to earth, his people will reign with him, and he will exercise “the kingdom of his power in all the world.”3

Likewise, the Old Testament tells us that God will conquer death and build a kingdom of life through his Messiah (Deut. 18:15, 18, 19; Acts 3:17–26), who will bring about the Day of the Lord (Dan. 7:10, Joel 2:1, 11, 31), adjudicate a final judgment (Mal. 3:1–7), and raise to life every deceased person to either shame (Isa. 66:5–6) or glory (Job 19:25–27).

The message of the end is interwoven throughout the entire story, even its beginning. To understand the end we have to be students of the whole Bible.

The Prophets Were Masterful Storytellers

To understand the language of prophecy we need to wrestle humbly and diligently with several literary features of prophecy.

The Prophets Used Language and Forms Suitable to Their Time

The symbolic language of the prophets can be challenging. But rather than being a hurdle it can be a great gift. Symbolic language engages our interest and stirs our imagination. With richly figurative language Isaiah predicted that “there shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1; English Standard Version). The symbolism powerfully calls to mind ideas of revival, vibrancy, organic fruitfulness. Likewise, the robust symbolism of Revelation draws us into the story and floods our minds with powerful images of Christ’s victory over evil. We should give thanks for apocalyptic symbolism and allow the context to determine when prophetic language should be taken literally.

Especially with prophecies that will be fulfilled in the far future, we should expect that the forms of the prophet’s ideas might “have undergone radical changes” though their “essential central idea will still be realized.”4 For example, when Ezekiel prophesied that a restored people would worship God on his holy hill, it is perfectly fitting for him to describe this end-times revival in terms of the construction of a temple (Ezek. 40–48). In doing so, he follows a form long established in the construction of the tabernacle after the people’s new birth from Egypt. But it is too simplistic to suspect that the form of Ezekiel’s prophecy would not change by the time of its fulfillment. “This historically and culturally conditioned form is completely overlooked when people in all seriousness propose that the prophets predict for our time a rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem and reinstitution of animal sacrifices and a final battle fought with horses and chariots and spears and swords.”5 God’s word is never broken (John 10:35), though the form of its fulfillment can change.

Despite their abstract language and impermanent forms, the prophets always communicated a central message. For example, in portraying a wolf and lion grazing with a lamb (Isa. 65:25), Isaiah does not draw our attention to new feeding patterns of carnivores in heaven but to the other-worldly peace that will characterize the heavenly age to come.

The Prophets Tell Stories in Layers

Students of prophecy often ask whether a prophet was speaking about an event that has been fulfilled already or one that has yet to be realized. Very often, the answer is yes. The prophets’ messages often featured multiple layers in which “the earlier fulfillment is itself prophetic of the later fulfillment.”6 Remember, the entire story finds its ultimate filling up only at the end. So Joel’s prediction that someday God’s Spirit would powerfully move his people to prophesy and thatthe earth, moon, and heavens would be violently disturbed (Joel 2:28–32) was realized at Pentecost (Acts 2), but not completely. Pentecost itself is a harbinger for the mighty stirring of the Spirit at “the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Joel 2:31).

Likewise, in Jesus’ end-times speech in Mark 13, rather than insisting that the entire discourse was fulfilled by the Roman invasion of a.d. 70, or that it only points to the end of the age (or dissecting the passage into the parts that purportedly only speak to either event), “It might be simpler to take the whole as immediately, but partially . . . fulfilled in the Jewish War, but also to recognize that the events of that war point forward to the end of history.”7 Has Martin Luther King’s dream from 1963 been fulfilled “that one day . . . little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”? Yes, and no. Partly, but not perfectly. So it often is with biblical prophecy.

The Prophets Spoke to an Original Audience

The prophets were primarily preachers.8 As watchmen (Ezek. 3:17) and shepherds (Jer. 3:15) they urged God’s people to return to him so that he might heal their backslidings and deliver them from his judgments and give them rest in his good land. They were surgeons who dissected the hearts of God’s people to expose their disease and refer them to the Good Physician. “The prophets had, first of all, a message for their contemporaries. They were watchmen on the walls of Zion, to guide the destinies of the ancient people of God, and to guard against the dangers of apostasy.”9 For this reason, many prophecies are contingent on the actions of people. Through the prophets God says, “If you . . . then I . . .” (e.g., Jer. 15:19).

All Scripture, including prophecy, is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). God doesn’t give us prophecy so that we can build elaborate timelines or speculate on the precise manner in which God will keep his word. He speaks about our future so that we will live faithfully in the present. He speaks to the contemporary audience to develop in us a robust vision for the end.

The Story Is All About Jesus

If we are tempted to focus on the more mysterious, futuristic parts of biblical prophecy we should remember that at its core, the prophetic message was “always centered in the Kingdom of God, or the work of redemption through Christ.”10When Paul was on trial for preaching a message of repentance to the Gentiles he told his judge that “to this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great, saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said would come—that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead, and would proclaim light to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23). Jesus himself said, “For assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matt. 13:17). Peter echoed Jesus when he said, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you” (1 Pet. 1:10).

Twice, on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed and suffer body-and-soul-rending grief before rising from the dead (Luke 9:21–22, 43–45). When they could not understand what he was saying Jesus marshaled the testimony of the prophets: “‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished’” (Luke 18:31). Still the disciples missed the prophets’ focus on God’s promise to secure the kingdom through his Suffering Servant.

If the entire prophetic ministry revolved around the future comings of Christ, why did almost no one—including the apostles—get it when he came? It can be rightly said that only a small percentage of Old Testament prophecies explicitly “describe the Messiah or even the new covenant era.”11 But when taken as a whole, and especially as they began to be fulfilled, and when the Holy Spirit was poured out, Christ began to shine through every prophecy (John 12:16; 13:7, 19; 16:12–13). After the outer prophetic layers had been peeled back Peter could preach, “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18). Significantly, when the New Testament speaks of the ministry of the prophets it almost uniformly is focused on how they foretold the person and work of the Messiah. When we read prophecy we need to understand that the message, while ostensibly about future events, is most essentially about God and his saving work through Christ.12 It is not coincidental that the book of Revelation begins with a heart-stopping vision of Jesus ministering among the churches (Rev. 1–4) and ends with his promise to come back soon (Rev. 22:7, 12–13, 16, 20).

The Story Concludes with a Revelation

When we study end times we tend to think about the book of Revelation. As we’ve seen, John’s Revelation is only one of the many places in Scripture that gives us a vision of the future. But it is a critically important prophetic book.

How Should We Study Revelation?

William Hendriksen has persuasively argued that John’s Revelation consists of seven sections that each span the entire time period from Christ’s first coming to his second coming. In other words, the book is not arranged in strictly successive chronological fashion as one might expect. And yet, as the book progresses, especially starting at Revelation 12, God increasingly reveals the deeper spiritual battles that the church faces in this present age. The book is like a movie that seven times returns to the opening scene and records the same story from a different angle, retelling the plot with increasing depth.13

What Does Revelation Teach Us?

Revelation itself prevents us from charting out a continuous history of successive events that will yet come to pass. John’s Apocalypse should not be read like a codebook that can be unlocked to tell the details of tomorrow’s news today. Instead, we should read it as God’s encouragement to a marginalized people that despite the dark forces of evil and our own flagrant weaknesses Christ will be ever among his people, leading them to victory against his enemies and ours. Through its masterful use of words and images, Revelation drives home this much needed exhortation: He who, by faith in the Son of God, overcomes the trials of this life will not be disappointed by his reward in the life to come.

God’s Word encourages us to study prophecy. We will sometimes puzzle over the prophets’ use of unfamiliar symbols. We will not always be able to determine beyond doubt which events have been fulfilled and which are awaiting fulfillment. We cannot possibly presume to know with precision how God will bring his promises to pass. But in prophecy we can see God as the supreme storyteller whose word “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17) and who exists as comfortably in the future as he does in the present and the past. Through prophecy he says to us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by our name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:1–3).

Questions

What is your impression of the ministry of the prophets and the parts of the Bible that they wrote? Does their message tend to resonate with you or does it feel strangely inapplicable?

What is hermeneutics and why is it important?

Reflect on some of the most important points of the creation-fall-redemption-restoration scheme of the story of Scripture. What benefits are there in seeing Scripture as a story?

How do the following Old Testament passages, and others that might come to your mind, help to contribute to a biblical eschatology? Daniel 7:9–14; Joel 2:1–11; Job 19:25–27.

Note some examples of symbolism in Revelation 1:9–16. Is it necessary for these symbols to be understood literally in order for them to communicate powerfully? What impression do these symbols give of the glorified Christ?

Is there biblical evidence that the Old Testament prophetic message is all about Jesus? If so, why did his own disciples, and so many people today, not use their message to trust in Christ?

Are there ways in which John’s Revelation is susceptible to abuse?

What is the basic message of Revelation and how does the book develop that message?

How does the message of Revelation comfort you?

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1. Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton, Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 233 (italics in the original). Consider another illustration. Suppose, in order to run some errands, I decided to leave my young children home alone for a few hours. Before leaving I might say to them, “Dad will only be gone briefly. I have to pick up some things for our home from the post office, the grocery store, and the hardware store. If you work hard cleaning the house while I’m gone, I’ll be here before you know it to play the game you have been asking about.” My point in telling my children where I hoped to go was not so that they could argue about which store I would go to first, second, or third, or so that they could speculate on the sort of items I would buy at each store. I told them my plans to assure them that I left for their good and that I would return soon. I hoped to encourage them to work hard in my absence and to anticipate a good evening when I came back. With similar goals did God inspire the prophets with visions of the future.

2.  That God killed animals to provide skins for Adam and Eve is insufficient to prove that this was the first death. “Calvin and most reformed theologians were of the opinion that eating meat was permitted to humans even before the flood and the fall . . . The animal world had already been placed under human dominion in Genesis 1:28, an act that certainly includes, especially with respect to the fish of the sea, the right to kill and use animals. Immediately after the fall God himself made garments of animals skins (3:21).” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 575.

3. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 191.

4. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 151.

5. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19881), 232.

6. McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand, 234.

7. Ibid., 235.

8. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 228.

9. Berkhof, Principles, 149.

10. Ibid., 149.

11. Daniel M. Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 232.

12. Cf. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 229.

13. William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998).

 

Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.

 


Current Issue: September October 2017
Volume 67 Issue 5

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This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.

 

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