Articles posts of '2016' 'December'

The Fullness of Time Understanding the Context of Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Previewed

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

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

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

The Gospel Proclaimed

Patriarchs as Gospel Proclaimers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prophets as Gospel Proclaimers

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

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

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

The Gospel Portrayed

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Performed

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

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

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

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

Jesus, I love to trace

Throughout the sacred page,

The footsteps of thy grace,

The same in ev’ry age!

Oh grant that I may faithful be

To clearer light, vouchsaf’d

to me! 4


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

2. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 15.

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

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


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


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

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

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

Savior, like a shepherd lead us,

Much we need thy tender care;

In thy pleasant pastures feed us,

For our use thy folds prepare.

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,

Thou hast bought us, thine we are,

Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,

Thou hast bought us, thine we are.

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

His Sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Sympathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Search

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Log of Tribalism


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

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Tribalism

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

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

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

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

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

But we are guilty of tribalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastical Tribalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Shall We Then Harmonize?

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

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

The Location of Egypt’s Capital

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

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

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

The Location of the Re(e)d Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrowing Down Candidates for Mt. Sinai

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

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

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


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


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

2. Dillard, “Harmonization.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Chapter and Verse Divisions in the Bible

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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