Imprecatory Prayers?

With all of the study that takes place each week in the lead up to teaching a section of scripture, I often stumble across really good teaching by theologians and pastors whose mind is far more developed than my own. I greatly admire men like G.K. Beale, James Hamilton, Tom Schreiner, and D.A. Carson to name a few. I may not agree with them on every point, but often their wisdom and insight into passages of Scripture is very edifying.

The past few weeks/months I’ve been reading and studying closely the book of Revelation. In my notes on this site I’ve shown how the prayers of the saints in chapter six (the 5th “Seal”) actually serve as a catalyst for the judgments that God sends upon the earth. The power of prayer, and God’s ordination of it as a means through which He works, is plainly seen in these verses. But it leads to an interesting question: should we pray these kinds of imprecatory prayers? And if so, how ought we to think about and go about this?

In his commentary on Revelation, James Hamilton provides some wonderful insight that has been profitable for me, and perhaps would be worth your time to consider:

If you have ever wondered whether you should pray the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms, let me encourage you to look again at the way the martyrs pray for God to “avenge” their blood in 6:9-11. You bet you should pray those imprecatory prayers. Pray that God would either save His enemies, those who oppose the gospel and the people of God, that He would bring them to repentance, or if He is not going to do that, that He would thwart all their efforts to keep people from worshiping God by faith in Christ. Pray that God would either save those who destroy families and hurt little children or thwart all their efforts and keep them from doing further harm. Those prayers will be heard. Pray that God would either redeem people who are right now identifying with the seed of the serpent, or if he is not going to redeem them, that he would crush them and all their evil designs. God will answer those prayers.

Amen!

 

Samuel and David: An Overview

Last night I had the privilege of walking through an overview of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles for a group of ladies devoted to the Word of God. In their preparation to study 2 Samuel, they graciously invited me to discuss the book in an introductory fashion.  My notes from that study are below.

Introduction to 2 Samuel

The Approach to this Introduction

I’m going to discuss 2 Samuel in three categories in honor of the three horizons of interpretation: textual, epochal, and canonical (not that we’re doing exactly this form of interpretation, as this is only an overview). So first we’ll look at some of the textual issues like authority, dating, themes, some of the characters and David himself. Then we’ll zoom out and see how this book fits into this period in history, and the surrounding events and characters of this time. Finally, we’ll look at how this book fits into the overall canonical context of the Bible, including how David typologically and covenantally fits into the larger schema of redemptive history.

Textual Horizon

Authorship and Dating

1 and 2 Samuel were originally one book. So in order to understand 2 Samuel, you must first understand that you are picking up in the middle of a story.

Let’s talk first about authorship and the flow of 1 Samuel. The book as one unit covers about 135 years of history from 1105 BC to 971 BC and mostly focuses on the story of David as the central character.

The first 7 chapters of 1 Samuel are very focused on Samuel, who is the last man in a line of judges that have led Israel for hundreds of years. We learn about his upbringing, his parents, his lifestyle, his dedication, the plight of his mother Hannah, the state of the nation of Israel, the state of the priesthood, and other significant things as well.

Internal and external evidence seems to point to Kings having been written with a knowledge of what was written in Samuel, and Samuel seems to have been written with some knowledge of what occurred in Deuteronomy (Firth). However, the author is unknown. Traditionally the writing is ascribed to the namesake of the book by Jewish traditionalists, but that can’t be the case since Samuel’s death is recorded for us in 1 Sam. 25:1. Others say that Gad, and Nathan (both prophets during the time of David) wrote the book, but it is more likely that their writings helped serve as a foundation for the book since it is obvious the book was written after the kingdom was divided.

We don’t know the exact date of the writing, but MacArthur notes that it must have been post divided kingdom since there are distinct references to “Judah” and “Israel” as separate entities, and because the statement “to the kings of Judah to this day” (speaking of Ziklag belonging to Judah) in 1 Sam. 27:6 indicates that the writing must have been post-Solomonic rule. Some say that Samuel was written by the same author who wrote 1&2 Kings during the Babylonian Captivity, but as MacArthur notes, the writing style differs enough for that not to be a possibility, and therefore it was likely penned prior to the exile but during the era of the divided kingdom.

Notable Cities

  • Shiloh – the residence of Eli and the tabernacle
  • Remah – the hometown of Samuel
  • Gibeah – the headquarters of Saul
  • Bethlehem – the birthplace of David
  • Hebron – David’s capital when he ruled over Judah
  • Jerusalem – the ultimate city where David ruled all of Israel

Notable Nations

Philistines – these were one of two chief enemies of Israel during the time of Samuel/David. They had migrated from Asia Minor and settled along the Mediterranean cost of Palestine in the 12th century BC (to the west of Israel). They also controlled the iron in the region, so they had a distinct advantage over Israel in that way.

Ammonites – these people were settled to the east of Israel and were the second major source of trouble for the Israelites. As MacArthur notes, the Ammonites were descendants of Lot who lived on the Transjordan Plateau.

David conquered both the Ammonites (2 Sam. 12:29-31) and the Philistines (2 Sam. 8:1) during his reign.

The Themes in 1 Samuel

As we open the book of 2 Samuel its important to know what events were covered in the previous book. There are many issues brewing politically and spiritually in Israel. As MacArthur notes, “Israel was at a low point spiritually. The priesthood was corrupt, the Ark of the Covenant was not at the tabernacle, idolatry was practiced, and the judges were dishonest.”

There are four major themes that run throughout the books according the MacArthur:

  1. The Davidic covenant (1 Sam. 2:10 and 2 Sam. 22:51). This is the reference to the Messiah coming in the line of David. He wants to make a “house” for God, God ends up making him an eternal “house” (lineage – see Gentry for Hebrew play on words).
  2. The sovereignty of God – i.e. His power in brining about Samuel’s birth and David’s reign.
  3. The Work of the Holy Spirit – i.e. both Saul and David were anointed as king by the Holy Spirit. Victories in battle were won with the help of the Holy Spirit, and the power of the Holy Spirit brought forth prophesy (1 Sam. 10:6).
  4. The personal and national effects of sin. This ranges from the sins of Eli and his sons, to the sins of David, and the disobedience of Saul. These men all had to deal with the consequences of their sins.

I think I would add to these themes a nuance to number four called “the character of David” and here is what I would note about David’s character:

  1. He was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) (DeYoung says, “David was a man after God’s own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it”)
  2. He was a sinful man
  3. He was a humble man
  4. He was a man of great faith in God
  5. He came from nothing and God made him something
  6. He was a man of great courage and talent (see Kevin DeYoung’s article)

In an article entitled “What made David great”, Rev. Kevin DeYoung says that what made David great, in a nutshell, was that, “In particular, David was a great man because he was willing to overlook others’ sins but unwilling to overlook his own.” He continues, “More than anyone prior to Jesus, David loved his enemies. Like no other Old Testament king, David was willing to welcome rebels back to the fold and overlook the sins of those who had opposed him.”

Some Final Interesting textual notes:

  • Three different pieces of Samuel were found in the Caves at Quomron – often referred to as the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were not entire books or even entire chapters, but rather just fragments of 1&2 Samuel (Firth).
  • There is good reason to believe 1&2 Samuel were originally one book, and should probably be read as one volume. In the original masoretic texts they were one volume (Firth). It was only during the Greek versions of the OT (the Septuagint LXX) that a division occurred (MacArthur study notes). 1&2 Kings were called “3&4” Kings/Books of the Kingdom in the Vulgate and LXX.
  • There are four citation of 2 Samuel in the New Testament, and 1 direct citation to 1 Samuel. However, there are also several allusions to instances within the book in the NT (Firth).
  • There are four poetic texts in the writing. We know that at least one of them is drawn from the book of Jasher – 2 Sam. 1:17-27 (Firth).

 

The Epochal Context

Much of how we understand the framework of 1 Samuel comes through the prayer song of Hannah at the beginning of the book. Much like Mary’s Magnificat – which borrows greatly from its themes – Hannah’s prayer is predictive of the events in the book. The prayer is as follows:

2:1 And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.

2:2-8 “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. [3] Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. [4] The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength. [5] Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. [6] The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. [7] The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. [8] He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.

2:9-10 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail. [10] The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Samuel 2:1-10)

Stephen Dempster comments that, “Hannah and David not only echo each other’s desperate prayers at holy sites; they echo each other’s songs of thanksgiving, and these songs focus on a messianic king…These two figures, Hannah and David, are crucially important for understanding the book. Hannah’s song looks to the future for the overthrow of a tyrannical dominion that will be replaced by a just king, a Messiah, who will bring justice beyond Israel to the ends of the earth (1 Sam. 2:10). David looks back and sees how God has delivered him from all his enemies. David some them until they fell under his feet (2 Sam. 22:39-40). God gave him the neck of his enemies (22:41), and this becomes the pledge of a future in which God will magnify his salvation to his king and extend covenant loyalty to his Messiah, to David and his seed for over (22:51).”[i]

So “The poem begins with a renewed Hannah, but by its end there is a vision of a renewed cosmos.”[ii]

With that said, let’s back up even more…

By the time you have arrived at David, it’s roughly 1000 BC, and you’ve seen the slow – sometimes deathly slow – progress of this Middle Eastern nation as they go from 12 boys, to 70 family members traveling down to Egypt. When they come up out of Egypt they are over 600,000. The country is leaderless though, and they will not be ruled by the wise council of judges any longer. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

They’ve been given the Promised Land, and Abraham has more descendants than he ever imagined. Yet the blessing of a united nation, a prosperous people, has not yet come to pass. They are harangued by nations on every side that are stronger than they.

God placed them geographically in the midst of super powers so that they would be a light to the world, a people who would shine in the midst of darkness. They were to show mankind what it means to be in a right relationship with God – the God – and therefore what it meant to be truly human. To rule as God’s image bearers and representatives on earth.

But they failed.

Eventually they call for a king. Not because they want a righteous ruler, but because they want to be like everyone else. They want to look like the world. “No sooner is Saul installed as king than he sins and Yahweh rejects him. It is Israel at Sinai all over again, taking cultic matters into its own hands (1 Sam. 13:8-14).”[iii]

Samuel sees their request as a rejection of his leadership, but God sees it for what it is: a rejection of His divine kingship. So God gave them a king – one that fit exactly what they were hoping for.

That king – Saul – was a failure.

But God, in His everlasting mercy, raised up a man – a shepherd boy – named David. David’s first two acts were to 1. Be a servant of healing to Saul who was plagued by evil spirits who troubled him and 2. To liberate his people from the oppression of a giant enemy.

In the defeat of Goliath, some of the great themes from Hannah’s song are beginning to play out, as Dempster so adeptly tells us:

This clash between the giant and the boy vividly displays the theme of the song of Hannah. But it also does more. That song celebrates the birth of a child (Samuel), God’s demolition of the power structures of the world and the installation of his Messiah to bring justice to the ends of the earth. It thus reaches back to the creation of the world and the promise to restore world order at the beginning through the birth of a child, the seed of the woman. The genealogical focus has shifted from Adam to Seth, to Shem, to Abraham, to Israel, to Judah and finally to David. David has become the focus of world genealogy. The seed of the woman has arrived, and in David’s first action as king he is a warrior, an anointed one who conquers and beheads a monstrous giant, whose speech echoes the serpent’s voice. David will now become the main focus of the storyline and, with his coming, there will be a similar narrowing and expanding of the geographical focus. It will be David who will bring this about as he conquers the Canaanite enclave of Jebus, and it will be Jerusalem that becomes the centre of world geography.

God put David through many trials and tests. He was chased from cave to cave as Saul had a strong desire to put him to death. Saul’s madness eventually drove David away, and David joined the Philistines as a sort of rogue mercenary. While working on their behalf, David ended up plundering many of Israel’s enemies, sending that plunder to the elders of Israel. David did in exile what Saul failed to do from the throne.

Then the final day came for the Philistines to engage in battle against the Israelites. What would David do? He told the king of the Philistines that he would go into battle with him, but the king’s generals would not permit that to happen. They were concerned that in the heat of battle David would not be able to remain loyal to them.

In this brutal conflict, both Jonathan and Saul were slain on mount Gilboa. Jonathan was David’s best friend and soul mate.

Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. [2] And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. [3] The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. [4] Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. [5] And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. [6] Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. [7] And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them. (1 Samuel 31:1-7)

That is where 1 Samuel ends and 2 Samuel begins, and where you will pick up the story in the weeks ahead.

Dempster concludes his overview of Samuel by saying, “The lesson of Hannah’s song, however, is repeated again and again. The future belongs to the one who says, ‘I am abased (low) in my own eyes (and am not tall) (2 Sam. 6:22). The future does not lie with the strong and secure but, rather, the least likely of David’s sons will inherit a throne of glory (1 Sam. 2:8b). Michal will die childless (2 Sam. 6:23).”[iv]

The Canonical Context

The story of the Bible is a story of redemption. Ever since the Fall God has been executing His plan to reconcile man to Himself and restore what was lost on that day so long ago.

Now from the larger canonical perspective, when we get to David, we have arrived at a time when Israel as a nation is finally going to reach the very peak of the blessings God made to Abraham, and begin to once again fulfill what it looks like to subdue the earth.

In this time we see the kingdom of God seems settled politically, physically, and spiritually in the town of Jerusalem, in the kingship of God’s anointed servant, David, and in Solomon’s time in the temple in Jerusalem. The result is both physical blessing and spiritual intimacy with God. The key here is that His presence is with them – in the tabernacle and then in the temple. Redemptive history is moving from the separation experienced in the Garden of Eden to a restoration of the relationship between God and man, and God dwelling amongst His people in a way that is increasingly intimate. From Abraham to Moses to David this reconciliation of the relationship between God and man is steadily increasing.

The terms of the relationship are defined in terms of “covenant”, this is the framework God operates within as He’s dealing with His people. This framework will become extremely important in your study of 2 Samuel because God will make a covenant with David that is the latest in a series of covenants that began with Adam.

Grahame Goldsworthy says, “Central to the theology of the books of Samuel is the covenant made with David (2 Sam. 7:4-16). David expresses the desire to finish the glory of the city of God by building a permanent sanctuary for Yahweh. Nathan the prophet is instructed to tell David that, far from his building God a house, God will build him a house; that is, a dynasty. David’s son will build the sanctuary, and the throne of his kingdom will be established for ever. God declares of this son of David, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’ (vs. 14). There is a clear reference here to the covenant with Abraham and God’s intention ‘To be God to you’ (Gen. 17:7).”[v]

The Davidic Covenant is found in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17.

Both Goldsworthy and Stephen Wellum see that in the Davidic Covenant God has now embodied within the king the attributes previously attributed to the nation of Israel. The Israelites are still under the Mosaic Covenant, but now the king will represent them as their federal head. Just as the Israelites were regarded as God’s son (Exodus 4:22), and Adam before that (Luke’s genealogy) so now the Davidic ancestor is seen to be the Son of God – this will be uniquely fulfilled in David’s greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who owns the title (Son of God) in a unique way (ontologically).

Goldsworthy sums up the lead up to this moment well:

Biblical history begins with creation and, after the Fall, as a new beginning with the call of Abraham and the covenant of grace that God makes with him. This covenant underpins the exodus from captivity in Egypt and the binding of the redeemed people to the covenant instruction given by Moses at Sinai. This, in turn, underpins the responsibility of the people of Israel toward their God as he brings them to the Promised Land, gives them possession of it, raises up a king and establishes Zion and its temple as the focal point representing God’s presence among his people.

So you can see that these covenants before David are layered and interlocking. God is progressively revealing Himself and His plan of redemption for His chosen people and for creation itself.

What we see then across these covenants, and in David as well, is a tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice. This is an outgrowth of His character, which we read about in Exodus 34:

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

So within God’s character there is both a love for Mercy and for Justice. And God cannot deny Himself.

As the OT story unfolds, this tension grows.

You could say that the tension reaches its peak with the great blessings experienced during the reign of David and then Solomon, and that His justice is shown in the downfall of the kingdom and the exile to Babylon and Assyria.

What we see in the life of David is the very peak of God’s fulfillment specifically of the promises to Abraham: Land, Seed, and finally, worldwide Blessing. All of these elements have come to fruition in the time of David and Solomon. Yet not in a way that can fully usher in the kingdom of God. Why? Because these people are still covenant breakers. They still prefer to do things their own way and chase after the desire of their own heart.

Even in the time of great blessing, which will be seen in the life and rule of David and then Solomon, there is a very clear sense that this can’t be as good as it gets. Sin – even in David’s life – is still predominant, and the author of Samuel does not hide David’s character (warts and all!) from the reader.

Eventually the sin of the king leads to exile.

But even in exile the people believe exactly what David believed, namely that, 1. The Davidic reign would be forever and 2. All the earth and its kings would be ruled and subdued by the Davidic king.

The latter is drawn from David’s response to God’s covenant:

Then King David went in and sat before the LORD and said, “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord GOD. You have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord GOD! (2 Samuel 7:18-19 ESV)

So the question in exile becomes: “How long oh Lord?”

The end of your study will leave you with this impression – of a need for a faithful convent partner who will obey God and desire to do His will, and the need for a Messianic king who will deliver His people from bondage.

This is why, by the way, the original arrangement of the OT ends with Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra and then Chronicles because it anticipates a day soon to come when a glorious temple (a better temple) will be made, and a time when the city (God’s city) will be built with an everlasting foundation and strong walls, and finally a time when an everlasting king will come to sit upon the throne of David. All of these things point forward typologically to Jesus Christ, the everlasting king who is building a temple with living stones, and a city which John describes as a “bride adorned for her groom” – that’s us!

So as you study 2 Samuel and the 1 Chronicles, you must understand where you’re coming in on the story. This is Israel at its height. God’s faithfulness has remained despite years of the people going their own way. His love has lifted this people from nothing to the richest, most envied nation in the ancient world.

Yet unresolved tensions will point you forward toward a need for resolution. Let me end with a summary from Wellum and Gentry:

As one works across the covenants and the tension increases, there is only one answer to these questions: it is only if God himself, as the covenant maker and keeper, unilaterally acts to keep his own promise through the provision of a faithful covenant partner that a new and better covenant can be established. It is only in the giving of His Son and through the Son’s obedient life and death for us as God the Son incarnate that our redemption is secured, our sin is paid for, and the inauguration of an unshakeable new covenant is established.[vi]

Footnotes

[i] Stephen Dempster, ‘Dominion and Dynasty’ Pg. 134.

[ii] Dempster, Pg. 135.

[iii] Dempster, Pg. 138.

[iv] Dempster, Pg. 141.

[v] Grahame Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, Pg. 124.

[vi] Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, Pg. 611.

My Opinions Won’t Save Me

Today I was reading in Steven Lawson’s book ‘Foundations of Grace‘, the book reads like a Biblical Theology on the Doctrines of Grace. Here I am at Chapter Four, and its as if Lawson never wrote the previous three chapters, such is his energy and enthusiasm for the topic.

This chapter covers some of the early leaders of the Bible ‘Joshua to Job’, and shows how God’s sovereignty in salvation was on full display in their life stories.

Here’s how he opens:

Strong men always proclaim a strong message. They do not read the polls and check the surveys before they give their opinion. In fact, they do not even have opinions – they have convictions. They bleed convictions. They are strong men anchored in the strong Word of God, and, as such, they bring a message with gravitas and punch.

That certainly sounds like the kind of man I want to be. Though I come from dust and will return to it, I want to stand for something during this life. Don’t you?

That phrase, “In fact, the do not even have opinions – they have convictions” is worth pondering. I believe what Lawson is getting at is that men and women who stand on the truth of God do not stand on the strength of their own ideas.

The ideas that a godly man or woman stand on are not always popular – in fact, they can be downright dangerous. But they hold them and speak them nonetheless.

Lawson continues:

When they (“strong men”) stand to speak, they actually have something to say – and they say it, whether anyone listens or not. When they sit to write, they do not skirt the issues – they tackle them. When they address the times in which they live, they do not tickle ears – they box them. They do not have one message for one group and a different message for a different group. Wherever they go and whomever they address, they have only one message – God’s message. This is what makes them strong men. They speak God’s Word, or they do not speak at all.

Indeed, very well said! As a Christian there are some difficult truths which we must embrace. Some are difficult because they are hard to understand, and others are difficult because we are sinners and do not like what they entail. Such is the case with the doctrines of grace, as Lawson states:

There is no stronger message than the truths of God’s sovereignty in the doctrines of grace. No other message is more God-exalting and Christ-glorifying than these truths. And yet, no other announcement is as sin-exposing, pride-crushing, and self-denouncing as these five theological points. No other truths are as sweet and previous to the soul that is humbled and submissive, but no other message is more offensive to the flesh or abrasive to the carnal mind than these doctrines. In fact, this message is unbearable to the natural man – just as it is sometimes intolerable even to those who are saved.

In my short time upon this earth, I’ve spent a lot of time in church. And in sermon after sermon, I have heard good men flee from preaching these truths. In fact, one of the things that seems to govern the phraseology of their sermons is a fear of man. A fear of offending either the sensibilities or intellect of their congregants.

I have heard men that I respect and love, equivocate on these truths with a subtlety that would be better left to politicians. And because I am a politician and communications and messaging expert by trade, I smell this stuff from 1000 yards away! I can tell when someone either doesn’t own up to the truths of God’s Word, or cannot fully come to embrace it intellectually.

I sometimes wonder how many other communications professionals – or just attentive people in the sanctuary – pickup on this kind of equivocation…phrases like “God won’t force himself on you, you have to let him into your heart”, which I heard even this week. These are really poor ways of communicating God’s work and your responsibility. And they are purposefully vague because they are meant not to offend, and to force people toward making some kind of “move toward God.” AS IF WE HAVE TO TAKE THE FIRST STEP!?

The truth is that Lawson is right. Without the sovereign in-breaking of God’s love into our lives we would never seek Him (John 3:19-21). I am personally glad that He “forced” His way into my life, and preached grace to my dead heart (Ephesians 2:1-10).

I wrote this post today because I really don’t have much to stand on for truth outside of Scripture and what it says. So that when I come to a more difficult truth in Scripture, I remember that the One who saved me doesn’t have to explain Himself to me. He doesn’t have to tell me why He does what He does. I know He does all for His own pleasure and glory. It is enough for me to know that He saved me, and that if He had not, I would still be standing on the shakiness of my own opinions. And, in the end, it is not my opinions that will save me.

Reminding People of God’s Reality

Last week I was asked to give a devotional for our church’s deacon meeting. I used the time to issue the following challenge – perhaps it will be edifying to you as well.

Reminding People of God’s Reality

I want to suggest that most of us get caught up in a reality of our own making so easily, and for so long, that it is often difficult to see God’s reality. This is especially true for those who are suffering. It seems more and more often that as I minister to the body of Christ, that men lean on the shallowness of watered down devotionals, and trinkets of the Word of God taken out of context and plunked down in ‘5 easy steps to happiness’, or ‘how to successfully arrange your day by God’s word.’

Too often have I visited a sick person who has wandered through unsatisfying pages of tripe, when he needs the richness of God’s unvarnished Word. It is your mission to bring that richness to their lives.

Yet, by His grace He has given us several means through which we may see His reality more clearly. Some of these include sharing a testimony from our own lives. Sometimes God uses great literature with rich stories of adventures in other words to bring back a wandering mind into the realities of His governance over this world. Very often though, He uses the traversing of a great wilderness where all good things seemed stripped away, to bring us to nothing in order that we would be reminded that we have everything we need in Him.

Some of the people we are ministering to do not want to spend time in God’s Word. They do not know it, or they have too often allowed the words of men – mostly weak kneed and watered down devotionals – to come between them and the words of God.

When they encounter the Word of God in all its brightness, they are brought back to reality – a reality of God’s making. They realize both judgment and grace. This is the best and most effective way to bring someone back to reality. Yet for the unwilling, there are these other more subtle ways of grace that God uses as “first steps” back to His glorious word.

Well-written fantasy, or allegory, can do just that. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein wrote in such powerful prose that readers are transported from their world to another. In this other world they once again recognize the principles that rule our own world.

Tolkein wrote clearly about this saying…

“The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.”[1]

In Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, a conversation ensues between Lucy, Edward, and the Christ-like character Aslan, which brings out similar truths:

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”[2]

But not everyone we minister to will have this literary background. Sometimes we find people so lost in despondency, and in the desert of their own suffering, that the only escape for them is the few hours of restless sleep they glean every night. We catch them, as it were, in the wasteland.

And it does no good to nurture the idea that God did not ordain their circumstances. Indeed, that is the lie which undermines our very ability to comfort them. Rather, we must point them to the truths of the gospel, and bring them to the only one who can anoint them with the balm necessary to salve their scabbed and worn feet from the desert walk.

It is in the desert where God trained Israel to have affection only for Him. It was in exile that great leaders were born. It was out of Egypt that God called His Son.

For as Samuel Rutherford points out, in a reference to Hosea 2:

I rejoice that He is come and hath chosen you in the furnace; it was even there where ye and He set tryst; that is an old gate of Christ’s. He keepeth the good old fashion with you, that was in Hosea’s days (Hosea 2:14). “Therefore, behold I will allure her, and bring her to the wilderness and speak to her heart.” There was no talking to her heart while He and she were in the fair and flourishing city and at ease; but out in the cold, hungry, waste wilderness, He allureth her, He whispered into her ear there, and said, “Thou art mine.”[3]

No matter what these “first steps” are, they are God’s gracious gifts to bring back wandering sheep to His fold.

It is our mission as leaders of the church to set that truth in front of them. That truth is this: All you are going through now is not meaningless. It is preordained by God in Christ so that you will treasure Him and His reality above all things.

Therefore my charge to you as leaders is to prevent nothing from coming between the people you are ministering to, and the great realities of the gospel of Christ. Do not let the watered down devotionals of our day, which are often Christ-less and bloodless, be your first line of defense. Take up great allegory from titans of literature, take up great writing from the Puritans, take up experience from God’s work in your own life and show how He has been faithful. Yet above all, take up the Word of God, and use it to shake men and women from the false realities of their own making. Shine truth into their lives in vivid colors and clearly written phrases. Do all you can to showcase the bloody, costly, gracious, glorious gospel of Christ, and in boldness and gentleness pour love into the lives of those you minister to in the weeks and months ahead.

I’ll just close with some thoughts from John Piper to those who are suffering, and the importance of preaching God’s Word to themselves in the midst of the wilderness:

Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there. But all of it is totally meaningful. Every millisecond of your pain, from the fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that.

I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism. I don’t care if it was slander or sickness. It wasn’t meaningless. It’s doing something! It’s not meaningless. Of course you can’t see what it’s doing. Don’t look to what is seen.

When your mom dies, when your kid dies, when you’ve got cancer at 40, when a car careens into the sidewalk and takes her out, don’t say, “That’s meaningless!” It’s not. It’s working for you an eternal weight of glory.

Therefore, therefore, do not lose heart. But take these truths and day by day focus on them. Preach them to yourself every morning. Get alone with God and preach his word into your mind until your heart sings with confidence that you are new and cared for.[4]

 

footnotes

[1]J.R.R. Tolkein, ‘On Fairy Stories’, http://www.rivendellcommunity.org/Formation/Tolkien_On_Fairy_Stories.pdf?utm_source=Desiring+God&utm_campaign=b5ec8d8fa5-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6da5f8315b-b5ec8d8fa5-99744309

[2] C.S. Lewis, ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’, As quoted on goodreads.com, http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3349054-the-voyage-of-the-dawn-treader.

[3] Samuel Rutherford, ‘The Loveliness of Christ’, Pg. 64-65.

[4] John Piper, as found on desiringgod.com, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-song-for-the-suffering-with-john-piper

Death Can’t Beat You

I was reading in Frank Matera’s excellent Biblical Theology this week, and though he is a Catholic (a VERY conservative one), and I disagree with him on many points, he is also a brilliant Biblical Scholar who says some really wise things on the nature of our union with Christ. What Matera says concerns the fact that those who are joined to Christ will benefit from the resurrection of Christ.   Here’s what Matera says:

Those who believe already enjoy resurrection life because the one in whom they believe is resurrection and the life. Because they already possess this life, they will live even if they die, and they will not suffer eternal death because the eternal life they already possess cannot be taken from them. Consequently, even though they must face physical death, they will not lose the eternal life they already enjoy. Their resurrected life will be the continuation of a life they already possess.

This is a concept that I spoke about on Sunday morning, and that I believe Luther understood when he wrote the famous hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’.

Luther puts it this way:

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

In other words, once you are joined to Christ, you’re unstoppable.  Death can’t keep you from life.  You’re going from life to life.  This reality is only ours through the finished work of Jesus.  This week, I’m going to stop and remember that fact, and preach it to my fears and my self-centered concerns, giving thanks to Jesus who has overcome death to give us life everlasting.

Can’t Hold Him Down

As I was studying another passage in Acts 2 with some guys this past Sunday, we ran headlong into Acts 2:24.  Check it out:

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:24 ESV)

Now, we didn’t spend a lot of time on it then, but this has always been one of my favorite passages when regulating/guiding my understanding of the resurrection.  And since its Easter week (“Holy Week”), I thought I’d just bring this verse to your attention for meditation in the days ahead.

I really wanted to mention two things. First, there’s something amazing here about his ontology (His essence), and second, there’s some great truths that should put our mind to ease about our own salvation.

So first, a quick note about the “ontology” or “essence” of Jesus.  He is, of course, fully man.  That’s how He was able to be killed in the first place.   But because you cannot actually kill God, He is unable to die, and therefore death simply can’t hold him. You can’t snuff out the essence of life just like darkness, as a natural principle of science, flees from the room when you turn on the light. The rules that govern reality don’t work like that.  Had Jesus stayed dead, its not like people could say “well there goes that myth” because there would be not people to say that. When you kill the single entity that is powering and upholding our understanding of life and reality as we know it (Heb. 1:1-3, and Col. 1:15-20), then you would (or “might” since its impossible) also destroy all life which is tied to that power source pretty much instantly.

Let that thought settle in your mind a bit…can you imagine having crucified this man and then see Him walk around Jerusalem for 40 days teaching people?!  ……and you wonder why this whole Christianity thing really took off?  That, by the way, is what Easter is all about.  Time to bring your mind into a proper state to once again focus on this truth and then be subsequently blown by this truth.

But secondly, I love this verse because for those who might be struggling with that thought of “well, I definitely believe in Jesus, I definitely believe I’m saved, and I have repented of my sins…but, man, I just struggle with whether or not I’ll lose my salvation.  I know my sinfulness, and I know I’m just constantly failing!” This is the passage for you.

Why?  Well think about it this way – if Jesus is said not to be able to “be held by (death)” then that means He has power over death.  And when you combine that truth with another from Romans six which states, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5 ESV)” — what you get then is the perfect combination for assurance that you’ll make it to the end without losing a thing!  

In fact, I think that’s exactly what the last part of Romans 8 is all about, and what the whole of the chapter is about, namely that since God is in charge and in control of the saving your soul from start to finish, you have to assume He knows what He’s doing AND that He can see the project through to completion.

Definitely check out Romans 8, but also check out John 6, because Jesus says some remarkable things there as well.  I’m going to leave you with a few of those verses — but first, you need to remember, and (rightly) assume that when Jesus teaches us something you can know with absolute certainty that its going to happen. Why?  Well, anyone who can control acts of nature, raise people to life, heal them of hideous diseases, multiply food without calling for takeout, and beat the grave can pretty much by guaranteed to keep your salvation safe until He comes back (note the sarcasm…).  Now here’s what Jesus says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:35-40 ESV)