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Articles posts of '2017' 'September'

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.

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

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.


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