Introduction to Revelation: Part 4

The Kingdom of God & the Already Not Yet

Often it is very easy to get caught up in viewpoints about the millennium, and I do not want to detract from the importance of the millennium. For even though the millennium – the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in the first few verses of chapter 20 – takes up a very short space in terms of the book itself, its importance is seen in how we interpret what its saying.

But before we discuss these things specifically, I believe we need to begin our study of this book by briefly examining the nature of the kingdom of God. For when we speak of the “millennium” we’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and specifically the reign of His Christ.

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6), although the nature of this reign is intensely debated, and scholars differ on whether it refers to the reign of saints in the heaven during the time between the resurrection and the return of Christ or to a reign of the saints on earth before the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth.”[ix]

We can see the importance of this idea of the reign of Christ in how it manages to seep into how pastors and theologians comprehend the overarching theme(s) of this book. For instance, Warren Wiersebe, a Premillennialist, says, “The overriding theme of the book of Revelation is the return of Jesus Christ to defeat all evil and to establish His reign.”   Note how he uses the word “establish” in lieu of the word “consummate” which is the term an amillennialist would use because of the emphasis on Christ’s current reign.

The amillennialist would remind us of verses like we find at the end of Mark’s gospel, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19 – also see Ephesians 1:20-23)[i]

Now, most theologians believe that Christ is reigning now, but what is the nature of that reign? I think the difference lies in whether or not one believes that His current reign is somewhat lesser or mostly spiritual (i.e. in the hearts of his people).

Dispensationalist John MacArthur puts it this way:

So God rules spiritually now over the hearts of those who know Him by faith. And that’s been the case since His saving work began. There is a spiritual element of the Kingdom that has existed since God started redeeming men. But this is not that spiritual Kingdom of which we read here, but rather that earthly literal Kingdom which comes at the culmination of human history.[ii]

However, I think that this emphasis on the future nature of Christ’s kingdom does injustice to His victory at Calvary, and does not fully comprehend the fullness of Christ’s current reign.

You can now see the rub, can you not? How we think about the kingdom of God shapes how we view the book of Revelation, and perhaps the millennium question in particular.

The Already/Not Yet

I believe the critical hermeneutical principle which will help us most is called the “already/not yet” principle. In order to understand most of the NT – especially the words of Jesus and the book of Revelation – we need to understand this important principle.

For our purposes, I believe that we need to get our heads around two truths about the nature of God’s kingdom. The first is that it has been inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and will be consummated upon his return. The second is that God is working dynamically in history to bring about the expansion of His kingdom and its final consummation.

Regarding the first truth, it is worth quoting R.C. Sproul at this point at length:

Many professing evangelicals today believe the kingdom of God is strictly in the future, although there is no biblical foundation for that. This view robs the church of important teachings concerning the kingdom that are clearly set forth in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament opens with John the Baptist’s announcement of the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Another time the Pharisees asked Him when the kingdom of God would come, and Jesus replied, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom was in their midst became (sic – because) the King was there. In another occasion, He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

So John came first with his warning of the radical nearness of the kingdom. Then Jesus came announcing the presence of the kingdom. This was followed by the acme of His redemptive work in the ascension, when He left earth to go to His coronation, where God declared Him King. As Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, read to depart, His disciples asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They had been waiting for Jesus to make His move, to drive out the Romans and establish the kingdom, but Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

In answer to their question about the kingdom, Jesus gave the fundamental mission of the church. Men would be blind to His kingship, so His disciples were given the task of making it visible. The fundamental task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. Our King reigns now, so for us to put the kingdom of God entirely in the future is to miss one of the most significant points of the New Testament. Our King has come and has inaugurated the kingdom of God. The future aspect of the kingdom is its final consummation.[iii]

When Jesus returns it will not be to establish a kingdom, but rather to consummate a kingdom which has been established from before the foundation of the world, and which He reigns over at this very moment.

Indeed the book of Revelation, as we mentioned earlier, was written to assure Christians that He is in control over all things – He is the Lord of history.

Interestingly, Beale thinks that John wrote Revelation with the book of Daniel in mind – especially important in Daniel is the already/not yet function of his literature. Some things were occurring right away for Daniel during his time, while others he saw as distant and far away. Those things which Daniel saw as far away, John saw as fulfilled at least partially in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the inauguration of his kingdom.

Beale puts it this way:

John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of the end times predicted by Daniel, which will now continue throughout the church age.

Side note: for those more advanced in prophetic study or curious about these things, one of the things Beale and other see in Revelation is that at the beginning of some of the major sections/division there is a reference or allusion to something from Daniel chapter two (1:1, 4:1, and 22:6) Beale says that a pattern definitely emerges, “John is employing the same allusion as a literary device to give structure to his whole book.”

This also has ramifications for how we understand the millennium.

Douglass Kelly says, “The exercise of this heavenly authority over all lesser powers is the main thing that is happening in this age between the two comings of the Lord; which, as we shall seek to demonstrate, is the prime meaning of the millennium. The millennium is not a literal period of only one thousand years that will occur much later; rather it is that period of victorious outreach of the Gospel to the nations: a time that last from Jesus’ first coming to his last.”[iv]

All of this can be comprehended by identifying how the Bible speaks about the kingdom of God and the reign of His Christ in other places, and how we are to understand this in light of what we read in chapter 20. Is Jesus’ reign something future, or is it now and to be seen with our eyes in the future? How should we think of, and describe his reign?

This is what R.C. Sproul was speaking of earlier when he said that Christ’s kingdom was “inaugurated” but not yet “consummated.” There are some promises, and some realities that are presently being realized in the church age, yet will not come to their full glory until Christ returns. Our very salvation is like this, for we are saved NOW, yet we have not yet fully realized that salvation. We have the down payment of this reality in the giving of the Spirit, yet not the consummation of this reality in the presence of our Lord and Savior.

The second principle is tied to the first, and it is this: The kingdom of God is “dynamic.” That is to say it is more than just this idea of God separately reigning in heaven, He is working out His will in and amongst us in time and space. He is ruling here – He is involved in our lives – His rule is not detached.

John Frame quotes Geerhardus Vos for us on this matter:

To him (Jesus) the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.

Then Frame says, “On this definition, the kingdom is dynamic, indeed dramatic. It is a world-historical movement, following the fall of Adam, in which God works to defeat Satan and bring human beings to acknowledge Christ as Lord. It is, preeminently, the history of salvation.”[v]

Anthony Hoekema puts it this way:

The kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It means the great drama of the history of salvation has been inaugurated, and that the new age has been ushered in. The kingdom must not be understood as merely the salvation of certain individuals or even as the reign of God in the hearts of his people; it means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe. “The kingdom of God means that God is King and acts in history to bring history to a divinely directed goal. (quoting Ladd)”[vi]

He goes on to say, “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”[vii]

Now given what we know of these two principles, we know that God is both reigning supreme over all, but also dynamically working in and through His creation to bring about His purposes. This points to the linear nature of history – God is working toward something.[viii] What He is doing now in and through us by His Spirit and His Lordship over all history and creation is a shadow of what will be upon the consummation of His purposes.

Christ inaugurated a kingdom (the already) and with that inauguration has brought forth fruit first by His cross work, and now by His Spirit’s powerful work here on earth through the spread of the gospel. One day He will return to consummate His kingdom (the not yet) and upon that return will usher in the visible reality of his reign (the already).

While futurists await a future “literal earthly” kingdom (which we all look for), the way in which we speak about and think about God’s exercise of power and authority over the world, and the souls of lost people is important. I believe its crucial that we understand God as working even now dynamically, personally, powerfully in history and in the lives of men all across the globe to expand his kingdom – a real kingdom of real people.

So you can see how these perspectives function to shape our viewpoint of the book itself and the millennium. But they also shape how we live our lives as Christians – especially what kind of mindset we take toward events here on earth and circumstances in our personal lives.

NOTE: Some of the dispensationalists might argue that God rules “spiritually in the hearts” of men, but not physically here on earth, and does not rule them in any way other than in their hearts. To me this is a false dilemma. The postmillennialist has it right in the respect that when God saves a man, there is fruit and evidence of change not only in that man’s heart, but in his life and in the society in which he lives. To argue a distant futurist reign of Christ is to argue the opposite of how the Bible describes the efficacy of Christ’s work on the cross. He truly is Lord of all and he exercises that Lordship full now, though it is unseen (as Sproul mentions above). I’m not saying that the Postmillennial view is perfect, but their mindset on the nature of the kingdom certainly seems to make more sense and align more Biblically to me.

The Millennium

With this cursory understanding of the kingdom of God under our belts, let us examine the four major views on the reign of Christ in the millennium.

Amillennialism

The Amillennial view (Amil) is probably the simplest of the four major viewpoints on the millennial question.

Wayne Grudem says, “Those who are said to be reigning with Christ for the thousand years are Christians who have died and are already reigning with Christ in heaven…This view is called ‘Amillennialism’ because it maintains that there is no future millennium yet to come.”[x]

John Frame describes it:

The Amil believe that the millennium is now, the whole period from Jesus’ ascension to his return. He emphasizes that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus ushered in a new era of world history. Jesus has now achieved a great victory over Satan, sin, and death…The Amil says that Satan no longer deceives the nations (20:3) as he did before the coming of Christ. Before Jesus came, believers in the truth God existed mainly in Israel. The other nations were deceived by Satan into worship idols. But after the resurrection, the Christian church received power to reach people of all nations with the message of the gospel. And God will continue to empower this mission until the last day, until there are believers from every kingdom, tongue, tribe and nation.[xi]

R.C. Sproul adds…

The Amillennial position, which holds some points in common with both of the premillennial positions, believes that the church age is the kingdom age prophesied in the Old Testament. The New Testament church has become the Israel of God. Amillennialists believe that the binding of Satan took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry; Satan was restrained while the gospel was preached to the world, and this restraint continues today.[xii]

The verses that come to my mind as typically cited in terms of the defeat of Satan are as follows:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Frame describes how the Amil views the future…

Amils affirm that toward the end of this era Satan will be released briefly, as Revelation 20:3 indicates (also verses 7-8). He will then deceive the nations again, presumably achieving some measure of his old power. But he will be frustrated and defeated by the return of Christ and the judgment that will result in his final destruction.[xiii]

Amils believe that the first resurrection is simply that spiritual resurrection that has taken place and realized during the intermediate state. The second resurrection is the physical resurrection of the body preceding the judgment when Christ returns. Frame says, “Similarly, the first death is the physical death of human being; the second death is the condemnation of the wicked, a death that believers do not experience.”[xiv]

Postmillennialism 

Most folks who are of the post-mil persuasion also believe that the millennium period of 1,000 years is NOW just like the Amils believe. John Frame notes that some older literature reveals that there are a few Post-mills who have said that is a part of this time now, but more will reside in the future. Post-mills also agree with Amils on the binding of Satan during Christ’s ministry and his release for a short time before Jesus’ return.

John Frame describes the difference between Amils and Post-mills:

Well, although the postmil agrees with the amil that our age is a time of persecution for the church, he also thinks that during this time Christians will come to have more and more influence in general culture. Believers will indeed gain wealth, influence, and even dominance.[xv]

Sproul describes this unique part of Post-millennialism:

What distinguishes postmillennialists from amillennialists and premillennialists is the belief that Scripture teaches the success of the Great Commission in the age of the church.[xvi]

Grudem says, “ The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world.”

I must admit that when I study the history of the world since the spread of the gospel, I do not see a uniform trajectory upward toward a world of people who are united in morals and standards. Certainly I believe that since Christ the world has been changed in huge part by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that the world was in darkness before He came – so much so that every other nation worshiped idols except Israel. Can you imagine if we looked around the world today and every other nation except one the size of Rhode Island worshiped wooden blocks and golden statues? So certainly the gospel has transformed our world.

However, the post-millennial viewpoint was really made popular and caught on prior to the 20th century. It was perhaps at its height at the end of the 19th century when medical cures were being found, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and great revivals had swept across the world many times over the course of the past several hundred years. Then came World War I. The gruesome bloodshed and seemingly worthless outcome was more than conservative theologians could swallow in their assessments of world events and the human situation on earth.

However, not all theologians and pastors had to wait until the bloody events of the 20th century to object to Postmillennialism’s optimistic theology. J.C. Ryle, the great 19th century contemporary of Spurgeon, wrote hinting about this way of thinking:

Let us dismiss from our minds the vain idea that nations will ever give up wars entirely, before Jesus Christ comes again. So long as the devil is the prince of this world, and the hearts of the many are unconverted, so long there must be strife and fighting. There will be no universal peace before the second advent of the Prince of peace. Then, and then only, men shall “learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Let us cease to expect that missionaries and ministers will ever convert the world, and teach all mankind to love one another. They will do nothing of the kind. They were never intended to do it. They will call out a witnessing people who shall serve Christ in every land, but they will do no more. The bulk of mankind will always refuse to obey the Gospel. The nations will always go on quarreling, wrangling, and fighting. The last days of the earth shall be its worst days. The last war shall be the most fearful and terrible war that ever desolated the earth.[xvii]

The theology fell out of style, yet there are some very smart theologians whom I respect who still hold this theology today. John Frame[xviii] and Keith Mathison both consider themselves Post-Millennial.

I say all that because, while I do not consider myself Postmillennial, I really respect those who take that view, and their arguments are generally very scriptural. They point to many times, both in Scripture and in the time since Christ, when Christian influence has changed the world for the good. They remind us that when Jesus changes someone’s head and heart, those changes lead to changes in our actions which affect the society in which we live.

NEXT TIME…..Premillenialism…..

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ligonier has a devotional published about the kingdom of God which cites these verses in Ephesians: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/seated-at-gods-right-hand/

[ii] John MacArthur sermon on Revelation 20 (Part 1): http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/66-73

[iii] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 307.

[iv] Kelly, Pg. 11

[v] John M. Frame, ‘Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief’, Pg. 87

[vi] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Pg. 45

[vii] Anthony Hoekema, ‘The Bible and the Future’, Pg. 51

[viii] For more on the linear nature of history, see Anthony Hoekema’s ‘Created in God’s Image’

[ix] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 846-847.

[x] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1110.

[xi] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1087-1088

[xii] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 313.

[xiii] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xiv] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xv] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088.

[xvi] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[xvii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 21:10-19. Here Ryle is discussing the Olivet Discourse and particularly, “Christ’s predictions concerning the nations and the world.” That this important, and sound, theologian and pastor would raise such a warning flag against the post-mil mindset while its popularity was at its zenith is (to me) a very important note.

[xviii] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1094

Revelation: An Introduction Part I

This week I have started a study on Sunday mornings in the book of Revelation.  For the first few weeks we’ll be examining the overall picture of the book, and covering some introductory themes.  Below is part 1 of that introduction – I hope you enjoy!

PJW

Introduction and Overview to the Book

Why Study Revelation? 

Revelation can be intimidating. It has taken me several years just to get up the courage to study through it and teach it. Many commentators also note in their respective prefaces how difficult it was to get around to doing this study as well. Pastor Voddie Baucham says that when surveyed, a large denomination of Christians said that Revelation was the book they most wanted to hear preached. That same survey found it was the bottom of the list of books Pastors most wanted to preach![i]

The word “Revelation” or “Apocolypse” holds negative, even scary connotations in our society today. As Warren Wiersbe writes:

The word translated “revelation” simply means “unveiling.” It gives us our English word apocalypse which, unfortunately, is today a synonym for chaos and catastrophe. The verb simply means “to uncover, to reveal, to make manifest.” In this book, the Holy Spirit pulls back the curtain and gives us the privilege of seeing the glorified Christ in heaven and the fulfillment of His sovereign purposes in the world.[ii]

But I have found that in my studies thus far, it is a book that provides great blessing and perspective which can enable a Christian to persevere, and adore Christ above all other things. In fact, those are the two things that I believe makeup the two main themes of the book: Christ’s reign and ultimate victory, and our ultimate triumph with him. The second part – our eventual triumph – is the reality for which we have been called to endure. Therefore the majestic reign of Christ and the call to persevere under tribulation make up the main nexus of John’s writing.

The majestic reign of Christ and His overall splendor permeates the book. He is the Lord of history, the Lord of man and of all created things. The high Christology of Revelation is evident from the first chapter:

…and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:13-18)

He is the first and the last, and the one who is “alive forevermore.” His power and His majesty are evident to all who read the book. No longer are we limited to the motif of the suffering servant, or the profound teachings of the Great Rabboni. Now we are afforded a peak, a glimpse, a view into the fuller person and majesty of Jesus Christ.

Revelation helps us understand the profundity of His cross work, and finality of His sacrifice. It helps us understand that He is sovereign over all things, including time and creation.

I really like what Warren Wiersbe has to say about the proper approach to the book: “When Daniel and John received God’s revelations of the future, both fell down as dead men (Dan. 10:7-10; Rev. 1:17). They were overwhelmed! We need to approach this book as wonderers and worshippers, not as academic students.”

But it is also a book about the saints who are called to endure. William Hendriksen says, “In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil.”[iii]

Followers of the Lamb are to endure until He comes again – that second coming is our great hope. As Hendriksen so beautifully opines:

As we think of the glorious hope of the second coming, our hearts are filled with joy; our souls are consumed with a breathless impatience; our eyes attempt to pierce the dark clouds which veil the future, hoping that the glorious descent of the Son of man may burst upon the view. It is a longing which gushes into word: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that hears, let him say, Come” (22:17).[iv]

John MacArthur points out that this is the only book in the Bible that begins and ends with a blessing. And Doug Kelley puts his finger on the reason I decided to study this book, namely the blessings/benedictions ascribed to those who would take the time to study it.

Kelly splits these into promises and blessings. The benedictions (blessings):[v]

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

(“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) (Revelation 16:15)

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:9)

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:6)

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” (Revelation 22:7)

Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)

Here are the promises to the saints that Kelly lists:[vi]

  1. God sees their tears (7:17; 21:4)
  2. Their prayers are heard and used to rule the world (8:3-4)
  3. Their death or suffering leads to glory (14:13; 20:4)
  4. Their final victory is assured (15:2)
  5. Their blood will be avenged (6:9; 8:3)
  6. Their Christ lives and reigns forever and is victorious in time and eternity (5:7-8; 21:22)

Clearly this gives us ample motivation to study this wonderful book!

Who wrote this Book?

Most every scholar and theologian believes that the book was written by the apostle John – the one who wrote the gospel of John, and the three epistles named for him. Some hold that perhaps another John wrote the book – a late 1st century prophet with the same name, perhaps. But G.K. Beale (who believes the apostle John is the likely author) says this, “The issue is not important to settle since it does not affect the message of the book. Regardless of which John wrote, the author of the book identifies himself as a prophet (parenthetical references). Therefore, it is probably that John should be socially identified with a group of early Christian itinerant prophets.”[vii] 

William Hendriksen thinks that the evidence for another John having written this book is particularly weak. For instance, he points out, “Surely the very fact that the author of the Apocalypse merely calls himself John indicates that he was very well known, not only in one particular locality but throughout the churches of Asia.”[viii]

Now, there are certainly different styles of grammar and writing between the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John – some say this is enough to believe another man wrote the book. But conservative scholars are not so sure. There are some differences, but there are also many similarities. Hendriksen says, “The similarities are striking. They are to be found even in peculiar grammatical constructions and in characteristic expressions.” His comparative similarities are as follows (for those who want to look them up):[ix]

John 3:36 and Revelation 22:17
John 10:18 and Revelation 2:27
John 20:12 and Revelation 3:4
John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13
John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6 
 

Some of these comparisons are more obvious, others less so. But there are many other similarities. The gospel calls Jesus the “Lamb of God” and the “Logos” and so does Revelation – these are words and phrases that make John’s gospel unique, and here we find the phrase “Lamb of God” used 29 times in Revelation.

Of course the similarities don’t stop with grammar and phraseology. The doctrine is the same in both books. The sovereignty of God, the pre-temporal nature of Christ, the conquering power of the blood of Jesus all form major doctrinal similarities between books.

I especially like the way in which John describes Jesus as pre-temporal in both books. Here are a few examples:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [2] He was in the beginning with God. [3] All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” [58] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:57-58)

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13) 

When was this Book Written?

It is hard to overestimate the importance of discerning when this book of Revelation was written. The reason being that if the book was written prior to A.D. 70, then scholars have reason for believing that some of the things written herein refer to the events that occurred in that fateful year when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and the great Herodian (2nd) temple complex.

G.K. Beale has done a nice job compiling the different historical arguments for both viewpoints, and is worth quoting his summation here below:

The difference of dating could alter the interpretation of the book, since the occasion prompting John to write might be different in each case. The early date is especially important for those viewing the main intention of the book as prophecy of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem: interpreters who hold to the early date generally understand the book primarily as a polemic against apostate Jewish faith. And the early date places many of the book’s descriptions of persecution against the background of Nero’s oppression of Christians in 65 (A.D.).

But if the book was written in the nineties, then it was occasioned by the situation of Christians living under the reign of Domitian, a situation that itself is an issue of debate. The majority maintaining a late date have viewed Domitian as a persecutor of Christians, though a few others recently have viewed his reign in more benevolent terms.

One can in fact affirm the early date or the late date without the main interpretative approach being affected. Under either dating position the book could be understood as a polemic against Rome and especially against compromise with ungodly Roman culture. The early date allows for an anti-Jerusalem focus, but does not demand it.

There are no single arguments that point clearly to the early or the late date. The early date could be right, but the cumulative weight of evidence points to the late date.[x]

Those who are partial (or full) preterists rely on the early date because they see these events in 65 and especially in 70 AD as fulfilling the prophecies of John’s apocalypse. Full preterists even believe the Jesus Himself came back in 70 AD!

I believe the latter date is more likely simply from my own study of church history this past year in seminary. The persecution under Nero was very localized to Rome, and the rest of the church really didn’t feel the pressures as much.

Furthermore, as Beale and others point out, when Pliny (a magistrate/governor of Rome) was trying to figure out what to do with Christians in 113 AD he wrote to Emperor Trajan as there seemed to be no previous law code or judicial or military precedent as to how to deal with them.[xi] 

Furthermore, John uses the term “Babylon” throughout the book, and while some see this as a sort of symbolic name for the “apostate Jerusalem”, Beale rightly (I believe) notes, “John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 date. ‘Babylon refers to Rome in Jewish literature after 70 A.D. and roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse. Jewish commentators called Rome ‘Babylon’ because the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., just as Babylon had done in the sixth century B.C. This use of the name probably influenced John, as did other Jewish traditions.”[xii]

Lastly, it is the testimony of very early Christian authors that this book was written at a later date. Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Origen, and possibly Clement of Alexandria as well all believed the book to be written post 70 A.D.[xiii]

Irenaeus’ writings are especially important. In discussing the antichrist’s identify he wrote that, “We will not, however incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of the Antichrist; if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him (John) who beheld the Apocalypse. For it was seen not very long ago, but almost in our day, toward the end of Domitian’s reign.”

This is very hard to refute for early daters no matter how much they try and re-translate or offer new ideas about what Ireneaus clearly spoke.

Early daters mention a number of arguments in their favor, from the mention of the “seven mountains” in 17:9, which are supposed to be seven kings of Rome, to the calculation of the number 666 as meaning Nero in the gematria, to Babylon (which we’ve already mentioned). Beale goes through each argument (and several more) and I really don’t find the weight of these arguments convincing.

Therefore, while either date might be correct, it seems like the weight of both the historical and internal arguments on behalf of a later date rule the day.

The Importance of Hermeneutics

It is so important that before we begin our study in this book that we have an understanding of how to interpret what we’re reading. The book of Revelation is classified as what theologians call “apocalyptic literature”, which means that the genre of this writing is not poetry, historical narrative, or epistolary – though it has some elements of the latter form.

R.C. Sproul explains this very well, and its worth quoting him at length here:

The basic principle of biblical interpretation established by the Reformers was literal interpretation, sensus literalis, which means that responsible interpreters of Scripture always interpret the Bible in the sense in which it was written. Poetic literature should be interpreted as poetry, didactic literature should be interpreted as didactic, and so on. A verb remains a verb, a noun remains a noun, a simile is a simile, and a metaphor is a metaphor.

Conversely, the style of interpretation called “literalism” involves applying a wooden interpretation, which does not work well for poetic literature. For example, when the psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands (98:8), we do not take that to mean that rivers somehow grow hands and begin clapping. We do not interpret such poetic images in an overly literalistic way.

When it comes to interpreting prophetic literature, the question is whether the language is figurative or ordinary prose, and there is widespread disagreement about that. Some believe that we must interpret the prophecies of the future literally in order to be faithful to the Bible, but that can lead us in circles.[xiv]

Revelation is a book will need to be interpreted differently than, say, the book of Genesis. We will encounter all manner of symbols, numbers, and visual descriptions that will leave us in awe – and perhaps a little confused, especially if we take the wrong approach to the book. Dennis Johnson rightly says, “The strength of symbolism is vividness, for often a picture is worth a thousand words. The challenge of symbolism, however, is its ambiguity.”[xv]

…to be continued…

Footnotes

[i] Voddie Baucham: http://www.gracefamilybaptist.net/sermons/2012-05-introduction-revelation/

[ii] Warren Wiersbe, Commentary on the New Testament (The David Cook two volume set), Revelation, Pg. 1036.

[iii] William Hendriksen, ‘More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation’, Pg. 7.

[iv] Hendriksen, Pg. 8

[v] Douglas F. Kelly, Revelation, A mentor expository commentary, Pg. 21

[vi] Kelly, Pg. 21

[vii] From G.K. Beale’s commentary on Revelation, Pg.’s 35-36

[viii] Hendriksen, Pg. 12

[ix] Hendriksen, Pg. 12 – carries on the discussion onto page 13 as well, and really provides some helpful comparative verses here. Shockingly, he leaves out John 8 which I cite above (it’s one of my favorite examples of Jesus’ pre-temporal existence).

[x] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, Commentary, Pg. 4

[xi] Beale, Pg. 5

[xii] Beale, Pg.’s 18-19

[xiii] Beale, Pg. 19

[xiv] R.C. Sproul, ‘Everyone’s A Theologian;, Pg.’s 310-311

[xv] Johnson’s commentary on Revelation is called, ‘Triumph of the Lamb’ and this quote is found on page 10.

John 3:16 in its Context

Last night I preached a message from verses John 3:16-21 in our evening service and I’ve posted both the notes and the audio below.  The notes seem extensive, but that’s only because I’ve included footnotes here for your edification.

My goal was to show that salvation is from first to last from God and by God, and that He alone deserves glory for salvation.

Introduction to the Passage

God is the One responsible for our salvation from first to last.  He saves us for Himself, by Himself, from Himself.  In contrast to our love for sin, His love is seen as extravagant. His salvation is provided at great cost, and in a way of His own choosing – there are no other paths up the mountain of God.

3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. [i]

Context and Background

John 3:16 may perhaps be the most famous Bible verse in the world.  It has been quoted more times than any other verse, and it is well known to both pagan and Christian alike.

Yet this verse is also one of the most misunderstood, misinterpreted verses in Scripture.  It is used to justify all manner of incoherent and incorrect doctrine, especially Universalism and Pelagianism. But as we’ll soon see, this verse must be read in its context if we’re to truly appreciate and understand our Lord’s message.

Prior to this verse, the Lord Jesus has been the one speaking, but many scholars believe that John 3:16 is actually John now commenting, and given the flow and narrative of the passage, I believe that this is correct.

Verse 16 comes on the heels of an Old Testament account of salvation being reapplied by Jesus as he turned the timetables forward to show how the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness foreshadowed His being lifted up on the cross.  Prior to that, dialoguing with a Jewish elder, Nicodemus, Jesus explains that all salvation is predicated upon the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit – you must become a new creation (born again) in order to be saved.

There are three things that this verse teaches us.

  1. That the world lies under condemnation from its own sin
  2. That God’s love and plan for salvation extends far wider than simply to the people of Israel
  3. That Jesus is the chosen instrument through which mankind will be saved from eternal damnation

1. Bound for Destruction

The first thing this verse assumes is that people in the world have the wrath of God abiding on them – otherwise there would be no need for a Savior.

The words, “whoever believes in him should not perish” assume that there will be some who do perish, and that had Christ not come into the world all would, indeed, perish.

Later in the chapter John explicitly spells this out:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)

So the assumption is that the entire world is doomed for hell unless God does something.  If God doesn’t break through, then we won’t be saved.  We’re all perishing physically, and the larger context of the chapter addresses the nature of the soul and our need for eternal salvation.[ii]

2. What in the World?

The second point is mind blowing – and its also where people get tripped up in Universalism.

John here says that, “God so loved the world.”  In the gospel of John, the apostle uses the word “world” in at least 10 different ways:

The word world (Greek: Kosmos) appears 185 times in the New Testament: 78 times in John, 8 in Matthew, 3 in Mark, and 3 also in Luke. The vast majority of its occurrences are therefore in John’s writings, as it is also found 24 times in John’s three epistles, and just three times in Peter.

John uses the word world in ten different ways in his Gospel.

1. The Entire Universe – John 1:10; 1:3; 17:5
2. The Physical Earth – John 13:1; 16:33; 21:25
3. The World System – John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11 (see also similar usage in Gal 1:4 Paul)
4. All humanity minus believers – John 7:7; 15:18
5. A Big Group but less than all people everywhere – John 12:19
6. The Elect Only – John 3:17
7. The Non-Elect Only – John 17:9
8. The Realm of Mankind – John 1:10; (this is very probably the best understanding of the word “world” in John 3:16 also)
9. Jews and Gentiles (not just Israel but many Gentiles too) – John 4:42
10. The General Public (as distinguished from a private group) not those in small private groups – John 7:4[iii]
 

It’s sometimes difficult to know what meaning of “world” the apostle is going for, but the context always provides the answer, and simple logical deduction helps us stay away from incorrectly applying the wrong meaning.

Our task isn’t made any easier when we realize that throughout the rest of his gospel John sets the “world” over against the things of the Spirit.  That is to say that we are “called out” of the world, we are to not to our minds on the things of the world, and even that the world will “hate us.”

Knowing all of that, I think that the best way to understand the word “World” here is that is refers to all mankind – Jews and Gentiles.  The apostle knows that the Jews are familiar with the love God had for them as His special people, and Jesus’ relating to them the story of Moses and the bronze serpent would have certainly reminded them of God’s loyal love for them (hesed), all of this is contrasted with John now saying that “God so loved the world” – this would have set alarm bells ringing for his audience.  And it should do the same for us.

What he is saying is that God’s plan of salvation is wider than simply the Jews. In fact that is what Jesus meant when He said He would “draw all men to Himself.”  The cross is for Jew and Gentile alike.

All nations will call Him blessed.  Indeed it is a sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom that God’s love is mentioned so broadly.[iv]

Sadly, there are many people who incorrectly associate Christ’s saving work with the entire world, as if all the world will be saved simply because this verse says that God loved the world.  This is a grievous error. I’ll say more about that in a moment…

3. Jesus is the Way

Thirdly this verse tells us that Jesus is the intended way of salvation for all those who believe upon His name.  John later would say this in his epistles:

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)

Believing on the name of Jesus is believing in what that name represents – salvation.  It is believing that Jesus is who He says He is, and has done what He says He has done.  It is treating His message with seriousness, and laying hold of His promise of eternal life by faith.

The verse says that we get eternal life by “believing”, not by doing, not by working.  Similarly, God doesn’t love the “world” because the world is inherently good.  Indeed we’re told the opposite.  God loves the world despite the fact that the world is evil.  Before you are saved you are not good at all – you are a child of the Devil (John 8) and you are an enemy of God (as Paul argues in Romans).

Therefore your are called to believe – and that faith, that belief, is the instrument by which you obtain your salvation.  Listen to what Jesus says later to the masses in John 6:

Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29, ESV)

There is no “work” to be done – that’s already been done by Jesus.  You simply need to trust that it has, and repent of your sins.

What this Verse Does NOT Say

Because it is such a popular verse, people often use this verse as a proof text for universalism – this is probably mainly because A. Jesus doesn’t claim in this verse exclusivity and B. Because the “world” is mentioned earlier in the verse it must therefore mean that Jesus has in view that everyone in the world will be saved by His death. ,

Well first, although John isn’t saying in THIS verse explicitly that Jesus is the “only” way to salvation, I believe that it is implied simply by the context.  Furthermore, John and Jesus say time and time again that Jesus IS the only way to salvation. For example:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)

Secondly, if one examines the verse closely, it is plain that John isn’t saying that God loves the entire world unto salvation. Quite the opposite.  John clearly infers that Jesus came to save those people who would believe upon His name.  The implication is that some will not believe up on His name.

The verse simply says that God loves the world, and that Jesus came to die for those who would believe in Him.  It doesn’t say God sent Jesus to die for the entire world. It doesn’t say the entire world would be saved. It does not describe the intricacies of the new birth.

Conclusion

What Jon 3:16 does say is that God loved the world, He has extended His saving love to more than simply the Jews – to men from all tribes, tongues and nations.  And He has provided us a way of salvation – through His Son Jesus Christ.  For the world sits under the judgment of God for the wickedness and sin debt that we owe Him can never be paid back on our own.  Therefore, in His great love, He has sent a way of salvation –the only way of salvation, and that comes in the person and work of Jesus Christ and belief upon His name.

3:17-18 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [18] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

I think there are two tricky things here. First, the idea that the “world” will be saved through Him, despite the fact that we just heard John use the word “world” to refer to a wide group of people, all humanity in fact, we now hear him use the word “world” in a more selective way – those who will be saved.  So the word “world” is here used to refer to those achieving salvation – the elect.

The second tricky topic here is the idea of judgment and condemnation and how it seems that verses 17 and 18 might not square with each other.

As far as condemnation goes, John says that Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world – yet in verse 18 we read that those who don’t believe are condemned!  Is John contradicting himself?  May it never be! It’s more straightforward than we think.

John is simply saying that Jesus’ first advent was not the time of judgment, but rather of salvation – a time to usher in the kingdom of God.

Later, in John 5, Jesus says this:

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:22-24)

1 Peter 4:5 says, “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”  The “living” are those who have been born again to new life, and the “dead” are those who are spiritually dead.  Make no mistake, every man, whether spiritually alive or spiritually dead, will face the judgment of Christ when He comes back in glory.

So…what does it mean when John says they are “condemned already?”

It means that there are some who will never believe. Those who do not place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ are “condemned already.”  As John MacArthur notes, “while the final sentencing of those who reject Christ is still future, their judgment will merely consummate what has already begun.”

I will offer a paraphrase here based on what I understand John to be saying: “every human being is born already condemned by their own sinfulness and if you don’t believe in Jesus then you will remain condemned.”

Therefore, “Condemned already” is another way of saying, “the wrath of God abides on him.”

This takes discernment, but it will be illuminated (no pun intended) as we read verses 19-21 because while Jesus had not come to “judge” the world, the very effect of His coming exposed the darkness of this world – a world filled with people already under condemnation and headed for damnation. And those who do not believe in the name of the Son of God will not be saved from that condemnation.

3:19-21 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. [20] For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. [21] But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Problem 1: We Love Our Sin

The question we raised a moment ago about “condemnation” is now answered by the apostle, and what he has to say is frightening to say the least.

Why do we sit under condemnation?  Because “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.”

Judgment in this case is the obvious result of exposure.  It is not a courtroom, or a white throne in revelation; it is the exposure of Christ’s ministry of truth upon the wicked hearts of mankind.  That exposure testifies to one thing, according to John: man loves the darkness.  They love their own sin.[v]

Apart from Christ, before you are saved, you love sin – in fact you cannot NOT love your sin.

This isn’t the only place we read this in the Bible. Listen to what God says to Isaiah about the hearts of men:

These have chosen their own ways,
and their soul delights in their abominations;
I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and bring their fears upon them,
because when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did what was evil in my eyes
and chose that in which I did not delight.” (Isaiah 66:3-4, ESV)
 

Our deeds are evil, and we love our sinful ways. Our natural tendency is not to love the light but to run from it, to hide from it and hate it.

Problem 2: Our Works Are Evil

Shocking claim number two comes in verse 20. The apostle says we don’t want to come into the light because we don’t want our deeds exposed.  When you pull back and remember that we’re talking about the light of the Gospel of Jesus here – remember John 3:16 anyone? – you add two and two together and see that we have a serious issue here.  Like cockroaches, we are described as running from the light, not running to the light!

Those who have not been born again by the Spirit of God run as fast as they can from the gospel.  They don’t want to hear that they are sinners and that their sin is wrong.  They don’t want to hear that their lives are headed for eternal hell.  They don’t want to follow Christ.  Not only that, but they don’t want to leave their old way of life!  They like their sin.  They like who they are (or so they say).

Most people we talk to on a day-to-day basis would probably tell us (if they are non-believers) that they are basically “good people.” I bet you hear that all the time, don’t you.  But Jesus doesn’t accept this, does He? What we read here is that we naturally RUN from the light.  He is saying that there are no “good people.” We have all gone astray (Is. 53:6), no one does anything that is truly “good” in the eyes of the Holy God we serve (Roman 3:12).

We read in Romans 3:11 that “…no one understands; no one seeks for God.” And in Ephesians 2:2 we read that as unbelievers we “…followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”  In John 8:44a Jesus says of those who are unbelievers, “you are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

Theologian R.C. Sproul says, “Man’s natural tendency is to flee from the presence of God and to have no affection for the biblical Christ. Therefore, if you have in your heart today any affection for Christ at all, it is because God the Holy Spirit in His sweetness, in His power, in His mercy, and in His grace has been to the cemetery of your soul and has raised you from the dead. So you are now alive to the things of Christ and you rejoice in the kingdom into which He has brought you.”

Pastor Warren Wiersbe puts it this way, “It is not ‘intellectual problems’ that keep people from trusting Christ; it is the moral and spiritual blindness that keeps them loving the darkness and hating the light.”

C.H. Spurgeon adds, “there is no man so ignorant that he can claim a lack of intellect as an excuse for rejecting the gospel…it is not any lack or deficiency there (in the mind)…through the fall, and through our own sin, the nature of man has become so debased, and depraved, and corrupt, that it has become impossible for him to Christ without the assistance of God the Holy Sprit.”[vi]

The Dilemma

So we are faced with a dilemma, aren’t we…we read the glorious offer of salvation (“For God so love the world”), and all we need to do is believe in Him and we’ll be saved. Yet at the same time John describes our character as fallen, in love with the darkness, naturally enemies of God (Romans 5:10).

The issue here is that we see the offer of salvation, but in our natural state we don’t see it as glorious.  Plenty of people understand the ABC’s of what Jesus did.  Plenty of people have heard the gospel, but not everyone sees it as glorious.  And this is what Paul sums up in 2 Corinthians 4:4:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4, ESV)

The Solution

What can be done?  How can anyone be saved?

The answer is that this: we need a supernatural change of heart. For no man will ever call upon the name of the Lord without the gracious help of God who opens our eyes and shows us the glory of the light of Jesus for what it truly is.[vii]

Later in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul describes it in this way:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6, ESV)

In order for anyone to believe upon Jesus, God must sovereignly intervene.  He initiates a love for us that softens our hearts, and draws us to Himself.

First, Jesus initiates a love for us – and then expects us to follow His example:

We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19, ESV)

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:16-17, ESV)

His love is poured out upon us through His Holy Spirit. He brings us out of darkness into His marvelous light by His sovereign initiating love.

In so doing, He softens our hearts with this love. Remember, He is the Lord of all the earth, He is God and He sees and controls the hearts of all men (Prov. 21:1, Ps. 33:13-15, Phil. 2:13).

Perhaps the most famous example of this is found in Exodus when God is said repeatedly to have “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Ex. 4:21, 7:3, 10:20, 27, 11:10 and so on).  Paul reminds us that:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:17-18, ESV)

Note: When Scripture talks of God’s “hardening our hearts” it cannot mean God is creating evil that isn’t already there. In fact, if we think carefully about what John has been saying in verses 19-21 we will see that our natural disposition is to love the darkness. It is only by God’s grace that we aren’t completely turned over[viii] to these desires in the first place.[ix]

Nevertheless, the Bible makes clear that we are still held responsible for our actions and our choices. Just the fact that there is a hell and a heaven and a final judgment showcase this obvious truth. And while we may not fully understand why God chooses to work this way, I praise God that He is who He is, and that He has intervened in my life.  I praise God that though I am a sinner, Christ died for me.  Though I loved the darkness more than the light, He has turned my heart toward Him. He opened my eyes to see the gloriousness of the gospel.

Those Who Do What is Right

In the final verse we find that those who do “right” are okay coming into the light.  In fact, they love the light!  These are people whose lives have been changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  These are people who used to hate the light, and run from it.

What is remarkable about these people is that they have been turned from sinners who love their sin, to those who love to give glory to God for anything good they do.  This is what is meant by, “so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Christians who carry out the fruit of their salvation in love toward others give glory to God.  For they know in their hearts that any good they do is completely and totally owed to the sovereign work of God.

In Conclusion

What we learn from this passage of Scripture is that salvation is from first to last of God, by God, from God, for God – it is all of God.  He deserves all the credit.

I cannot get Paul’s words out of my mind, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”…for me.  For you.  You were lost.  You were dead.  You were faithless, hopeless, and on a grim march toward eternal death when He snatched you off that path and plucked you like a “brand from the burning” (Zech. 3)!  Praise God for his love and grace and the gospel which reminds us everyday that He has saved us for Himself, by Himself, and from Himself.

How Do We Respond?

How do we respond to what John has written here?  I hope you respond by recognizing the depth of your depravity and your sin and that apart from Christ you were a wretch without merit enough to last one hour before the Holy One.  I hope you see the glorious grace of Jesus Christ and the magnificence of His offer to you this evening.

If you are a Christian and you have become puffed up in your walk. Then I plead with you – repent of that sin.  You have no merit on your own.  Furthermore, you weren’t the one who ordained salvation, and neither will you have to maintain it.  You have been swept up in unspeakable grace, a never-ending grace, a love so powerful that it will never let you go.

If you came here a skeptic and have felt your heart strangely warmed but our Lord’s offer of eternal life, then I encourage you now to repent of your sins.  Cast away your pride and your old life and trust in the salvation that comes from believing in the name of Jesus Christ.  He is faithful, He will lift you out of the mire you find yourself in and set your life upon solid footing for eternity.


[i] Old verse 16 notes that I didn’t get to include: What has become, however, a sad commentary in our current day is that many have distorted this verse and taken it out of context.  Jesus tells us explicitly that in order to be born again, one must be born of “Water and the Spirit” – not of any human work (“lest any man should boast”).   And yet here it seems as though Jesus is saying that He has died for the entire world, and that all we need to do is believe.  Some have taken this verse (incorrectly) to mean that on our own we can make a decision on whether or not we want to believe in Jesus.  Well, we certainly make that decision, but not until we are born again – otherwise we would never desire to choose to believe.  For it is God alone working in the hearts of men, who melts those hearts, who changes those spots, who does a supernatural, miraculous work in our lives in order for us to see the majesty and great value of Christ.

In his book ‘Chosen by God’ RC Sproul says this about John 3:16 and the distortions mentioned above, “What does this famous verse teach about fallen man’s ability to choose Christ? The answer, simply, is nothing. The argument used by non-Reformed people is that the text teaches that everybody in the world has it in their power to accept or reject Christ.  A careful look at the text reveals, however, that it teaches nothing of the kind.  What the text teaches is that everyone who believes in Christ will be saved.”

What this verse does teach us is that God has prepared a way of salvation (eternal salvation) for the whole world – people from every tribe and tongue and nation will have a way to be saved.  God doesn’t not discriminate based on sex, age, race, and ethnicity.  And that is the great love of our undiscriminating God.  God has showed both common grace to all of mankind in that He’s allowed a way of salvation at all, and a more specific and particular saving grace to those whom He chose to save before He made the world.

Lastly this verse teaches us how people are saved: by believing in the Son of God. A very straightforward proposition, however, just like not everyone would have been saved by the copper snake, not everyone is saved by Christ’s sacrifice.  The copper snake had the power (efficaciousness) to save all/anyone who looked at it, as does Christ.  But not everyone would look at the copper snake, and not everyone will look to Christ.  Christ has been lifted up for all the world to see, His salvation has been made manifest and millions upon millions of men have known of what He did, yet millions continue to scoff at the olive branch of reconciliation that God handed down from on high.

[ii] Article 4 of the First Head of Doctrine from the Synod of Dort says it best, “The wrath of God abideth upon those who believe not this gospel. But such as receive it, and embrace Jesus the Savior by a true and living faith, are by Him delivered from the wrath of God and from destruction, and have the gift of eternal life conferred upon them.”

[iii] This list was taken from reformationtheology.com.  The specific link can be found here: http://www.reformationtheology.com/2009/04/world_johns_ten_uses_of_the_wo.php

[iv] In fact, we as gentiles ought to praise the God for including us into his promises.  Listen to what Paul says in Romans 15:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
 
10 And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
 
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”
 
12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:8-13, ESV)

[v] In ‘God’s Greater Glory’ Bruce Ware explains: “Both Jacob Arminius and John Wesley agreed with John Calvin, who in turn agreed with Augustine, on this point (although many in the Arminian tradition have departed from the view of the founders of Wesleyan Arminianism). These men all agreed that sin has resulted in human nature being unable, on its own, to do what pleases God or to obey (from the heart) the commands of God.”  Ware actually cites Paul in Romans 8:7-8 where the apostle says that the desires of the flesh are set against God, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

[vi] This is taken from a sermon called ‘Human Inability’ from three different paragraphs. The full text is found here: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0182.htm

[vii] Bruce Ware talks about how people see Christ intellectually, but they don’t see him as glorious.  It’s a different way of saying what Spurgeon says about the corruption of the intellect. He calls this critical realism, and it’s a via media between rationalism and fideism.  The text that harmonizes this for him is 2 Corinthians 4:4 – a text I use above.

[viii] In fact, when God does “turn us over” to our own desires, they aren’t good, and the outcome is horrific!  Paul tells us as much in Romans chapter one:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:24-25, ESV)

Paul says God “gave them up” or “turned them over” to their own desire multiple times in this passage.  The truth that this conveys is that when human beings are allowed to have everything they naturally want, those natural desires are evil and rebellious – not loving and seeking after the will of God.

[ix] R.C. Sproul has a marvelous explanation of this, especially as it pertains to Pharoah in his book ‘Chosen by God’.  Also, in his book ‘God’s Greater Glory’ Bruce Ware tackles this same text in Exodus with great wisdom and care.

Study Notes 11-18-12

We continue our study of John’s Gospel and will be looking at some of our Lord’s greatest words (if one can possibly peal off greatness from greatness) as it pertains to freedom, and our natural state of slavery to sin and darkness.

The Lord has freed us from the galleys of slavery and to sin and self-centeredness and brought us into the glorious light of the knowledge of His gospel.  God be praised!  Let’s start into the lesson…

John 8:31-36 – Freedom from Sin

8:31-32 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, [32] and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

First I want to go back and examine how verse 30 and verse 31 interact with each other, because many good commentators have pointed out that both verses in many of our English versions use the word “believe” to describe the people’s reaction here.

Some say there is some difference between the meanings used, Boice, for instance says that the first is meant to be saving faith and the latter to mean intellectual ascent.  But they both utilize the same Greek word “pisteuō”, so I’m not entirely convinced of that.  What I am convinced of is that those who were listening to Jesus may have believed what He was saying mentally, but obviously they didn’t stand the discipleship test, which we’ll see later on.

Abiding in the Word

The second thing we note here is the nature of a true Christian.  The true Christian “abides” in the word of Christ.

In our study of John 6:55-56 we talked about the nature of abiding.  Those verses say, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Here is what I noted about what it meant to “abide”:

The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  I like what the ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

What Christ is saying, in affect, is that a true Christian will have the desire to spend time listening, reading, and meditating on His word.  A true Christian will be obeying His word as well.  These are fruits of a true Christ-follower.  Truly it is a privilege to know something of the eternal God, and that we should know this truth in even a small way is in itself part of our reward as well as our fruit of the relationship we gain by acquaintance with Jesus.  Calvin enumerates upon this privilege as only Calvin can:

Wherefore, whatever progress any of us have made in the Gospel, let him know that he needs new additions. This is the reward which Christ bestows on their perseverance, that he admits them to greater familiarity with him; though in this way he does nothing more than add another gift to the former, so that no man ought to think that he is entitled to any reward. For it is he who impresses his word on our hearts by his Spirit, and it is he who daily chases away from our minds the clouds of ignorance which obscure the brightness of the Gospel. In order that the truth may be fully revealed to us, we ought sincerely and earnestly to endeavor to attain it. It is the same unvarying truth which Christ teaches his followers from the beginning to the end, but on those who were at first enlightened by him, as it were with small sparks, he at length pours a full light. Thus believers, until they have been fully confirmed, are in some measure ignorant of what they know; and yet it is not so small or obscure a knowledge of faith as not to be efficacious for salvation.

Freedom from Sin

The third thing we take from the passage is the result of abiding is learning the truth, and by learning that truth we will experience a great reality: freedom.  What kind of freedom could He mean?  I believe that Christ is talking about freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, freedom from the slavery to the prince of this world – what Calvin calls “an invaluable blessing.”  It is these points Jesus goes on to labor in his debate with the Pharisees.

What does true freedom looks like? Freedom looks like someone who has the fruit of the Spirit.  And, not coincidently, those who have the fruit of the Spirit are also abiding in the Word of God – written by that same Spirit.

Perhaps there is no better expositing of this truth than Paul’s writing in Romans 6.  The entire chapter is about being free from sin, and being a slave to righteousness.  The dichotomy between the two is labored by Paul because so many people think that they are basically good people who happen to sin a little here and there.

Amazing to think that what was so important for Paul to intensively labor in Romans 6, is actually more pertinent today than ever before.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of Romans 6 as it applies to this particular verse, is the section between verses 6 and 11:

[6] We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [7] For one who has died has been set free from sin. [8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The main thrust of this part of the passage is that we were formally slaves to sin, but because of Christ’s work we have been set free from sin.  It is the gospel that has delivered us from our sin. That is the freedom Christ is talking about here in verse 32.  He’s saying that because He was going to conquer death, death would no longer have dominion over us. Sin’s end is death, and so sin and its result (death) would no longer have power over anyone who believes upon Christ. Calvin agrees, saying that the kind of liberty that’s being described here is “that which sets us free from the tyranny of Satan, sin, and death.”

Barnes says, “The service of God is freedom from degrading vices and carnal propensities; from the slavery of passion and inordinate desires. It is a cheerful and delightful surrender of ourselves to Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.”

When we think about the practical way this has revolutionized our lives, its unthinkable to go back to living any other way. Calvin says, “All men feel and acknowledge that slavery is a very wretched state; and since the gospel delivers us from it, it follows that we derive from the gospel the treasure of a blessed life.”  To this comment I can only add “amen!”

Born Free?

I’m always amazed at how many Christians insist on stating that they “freely” chose Christ because they were born with “free will.”  But as R.C. Sproul reminds us, we need to be cautious when we talk about free will so that we know exactly what it is we’re saying.

Certainly God gives us the freedom of choice to make decisions.  We aren’t robots, and we aren’t puppets.  But there are some things that even in our natural freedom we are not free to do.  One of those things is not sinning.  When we are born into this world, we are not free not to sin.  In other words, we are going to sin because it is who we are, and we are enslaved to it.  We will continue in this sin until Christ sets us free from it.

Calvin comments, “It is astonishing that men are not convinced by their own experience, so that, laying aside their pride, they may learn to be humble. And it is a very frequent occurrence in the present day, that, the greater the load of vices by which a man is weighed down, the more fiercely does he utter unmeaning words in extolling free-will.”

This is what irked the Pharisees.  They were saying, “Hey Jesus, we’re not slaves to anyone!  We make our own decisions.  We live our own lives.  No one rules over us, or our families!” But they were wrong in saying this, and people today are wrong in thinking that mankind is free to do whatever they’d like – we aren’t free to be holy and perfect because we’re incapable of it in our natural state.

When you think about how this plays out, it’s really worth contemplating and meditating on deeply because it shows the state of our old self and where we were headed apart from Christ.  For when we were slaves to sin, not only were we tethered to that form of life that is most odious to Christ, but we are tethered to the result of that life, namely death. When Christ unchains us from our slavery to sin, He also unchains us from the pangs of death – death could not rule over him (Acts 2), and we also have victory over death due to His death and resurrection (Rom. 6).

A.W. Pink laments at how fallen we are in our natural state, and yet how unwilling we are to realize this fact:

The condition of the natural man is far, far worse than he imagines, and far worse than the average preacher and Sunday school teacher supposes. Man is a fallen creature, totally depraved, with no soundness in him from the sole of his foot even unto the head (Isa. 1:6). He is completely under the dominion of sin (John 8:34), a bond-slave to divers lusts (Titus 3:3), so that he “cannot cease from sin” (2 Pet. 2:14). Moreover, the natural man is thoroughly under the dominion of it. He is taken captive by the Devil at his will (2 Tim. 2:26). He walks according to the Prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). He fulfills the lusts of his father, the Devil (John 8:44). He is completely dominated by Satan’s power (Col. 1:13). And from this thraldom nothing but the truth of God can deliver.

When I first read Pink’s comments it struck me to the bone. His first sentence was aimed at me – the teacher. Am I really honest with how ugly I was before Christ? That is a question that not many men or women truly meditate on for much more than a passing thought – perhaps before taking the Lord’s Super. But what Pink is calling us to realize is our state of depravity and darkness without Jesus.

Calvin says this, “For so long as we are governed by our sense and by our natural disposition, we are in bondage to sin; but when the Lord regenerates us by his Spirit, he likewise makes us free, so that, loosed from the snares of Satan, we willingly obey righteousness. But regeneration proceeds from faith, and hence it is evident that freedom proceeds from the gospel.”

Barnes adds, “There is need of the gospel. That only can make men free, calm, collected, meek, and lovers of truth; and as every man is by nature the servant of sin, he should without delay seek an interest in that gospel which can alone make him free.”

In the midst of our celebration of this freedom, we pause and wonder, “now wait a minute, how is it that I still continue to sin?”  Well, as Paul works this matter of slavery out in Romans 6, we are glad he continued to write because when we get to Romans 7 we learn that he faced that same dilemma – namely that he still continued to battle sin.  Despite the freedom not to sin that Christ has given us, Paul says that we still sin due to the nature of the flesh. But I don’t want to get too deep into that here.  The main point we need to see is the dichotomy between one who is a slave to sin, and one who is not, and that we have been made free men and women by the power and work of Christ.

8:33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Ironically, the very shackles that bound these Pharisees in their sin were the same chains causing them to claim they weren’t enslaved to anyone.  In their blindness they claimed they weren’t blind.  In their darkness they claimed to be enlightened.  These were truly men who were missing the point.

Oddly enough (and Calvin picks up on this point as well) it isn’t as though these people have never been enslaved physically to anyway…in point of fact, they were currently under a type of mild slavery/tyranny by the Romans at this very time in history – something I will address shortly. Warren Wiersbe collects these thoughts together succinctly:

Their claim that Abraham’s descendants had never been in bondage was certainly a false one that was refuted by the very record in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Jews had been enslaved by seven mighty nations, as recorded in the book of Judges. The ten northern tribes had been carried away captive by Assyria, and the two southern tribes had gone into seventy years of captivity in Babylon. And at that very hour, the Jews were under the iron heel of Rome! How difficult it is for proud religious people to admit their failings and their needs!

Pink cites all of the above that Wiersbe mentions, and then says, “It was therefore the height of absurdity and a manifest departure from the truth for them to affirm that the seed of Abraham had never been in bondage. Yet no more untenable and erroneous was this than the assertions of present-day errorists who prate so loudly of the freedom of the natural man, and who so hotly deny that his will is enslaved by sin.”

8:34-36 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. [35] The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. [36] So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Jesus uses the emphatic phrase “truly, truly” to get our attention.  He is saying to us “pay attention to this.”

Bondage to our Self-Centeredness

D.A. Carson explores the intent of what Christ is saying, “For Jesus, then, the ultimate bondage is not enslavement to a political or economic system, but vicious slavery to moral failure, to rebellion against the God who had made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centeredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the Creator.”

In other words, we are so self-centered and self-serving that our own sin and moral failures are the chief problems that need to be dealt with in life.

I think this is so important because the context in which Jesus is saying this is under the oppression of the Roman regime. The Jewish people had found their freedoms limited, and their liberties cut off. We also are going through a time in America where our own liberties are in question. We see the despotic nature of our government, which is becoming ever more tyrannical and hostile to Christian beliefs and values, and we wonder (rightly) if our freedoms will all be gone within a generation.

The generation of men and women Christ was addressing were far worse off than we are today, yet, like them, we often find ourselves distracted from solving life’s most important challenges, and that is what Christ came to solve.  The real problem is with ourselves, not our government. There’s only so much you can do about government – believe me, I’ve been fighting that battle for a while now.  Jesus isn’t saying that freedom from political tyranny isn’t important, what He is saying is that there’s something even more important.  When the Son of God came to the earth, He came to address life’s biggest problems, life’s biggest challenges. He came to free us from our bondage to sin.

That’s why we gather on Sunday mornings, that’s why we “abide” in the word of God, that’s why we pray and devote ourselves to growth in Christ. Because what we are doing today and on these other days, is addressing the real problems in life – life’s most consequential and difficult challenges.

The Power of the Son

The second thing that Jesus says in this passage is that as the Son of God He has unique privileges and power. He has the ability to set them free, because He has full reign over the house of God.  Calvin comments, “By these words he means that the right of freedom belongs to himself alone, and that all others, being born slaves, cannot be delivered by his grace.  For what he possesses as his own by nature he imparts to us by adoption, when we are engrafted by faith into his body, and become his members.”

“…the Gospel is the instrument by which we obtain our freedom” – Calvin

One of the main reasons I like to bring up the issue of the way we view “free will” is because in our “freedom” we come to rely too heavily on our flesh for the support of our souls. Here is what I mean by that: when we are going through the turmoil that this life brings us, it is natural (because of the flesh) to wonder at the purpose of life, and even whether our souls are truly saved. We wonder at God and ask Him in our difficulties whether He’s really there or not.  We wonder at Him and ask if we are truly saved or not.

Well one of the great things we hear Jesus saying in this passage is that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In other words, He is the one with the power over sin and death, and not your “free will” or your “fleshly power.”  To steal a recent campaign theme, “you didn’t build this” – no indeed: Christ built this!

Carson says this, “Jesus not only enjoys inalienable rights as the unique Son of God, but exercises full authority, vested in him by the Father (3:35), to liberate slaves. Those who Jesus liberates from the tyranny of sin are really (ontos) free.”

Those who build their house upon this Rock will be able to stand firm in the storm because they know they weren’t the craftsmen, they weren’t the guarantee of the foundation’s sturdiness.  Christ Himself is the cornerstone and the Master Builder, and when life’s trials come, you can say with confidence “I will survive this, and either by life or death I will be with Christ, for He is my firm foundation, and in His work I can trust.”

Carson makes the great point that once free, we have been set free for a purpose:

True freedom is not the liberty to do anything we please, but the liberty to do what we ought; and it is genuine liberty because doing what we ought now pleases us.

What an amazing truth he’s hit on here. Christ knows that those who are set free are going to want to please Christ – before we simply wanted to please ourselves, now we have a desire and are at liberty to please the Lover of our Souls.

Dear friends: step away from the reliance on your own work, and rest upon the great and mighty work of Jesus Christ – the Son who has set you free!

 

Bible Study Resources

This is a post I’ve had on my “to-do” list for a LONG time now.  Many people ask me for tips on how to study the Bible, and how/where to find the answers they need as they are reading.  It’s a very common thing (for me and everyone one I know) to be reading along and stumble on a word, a phrase, an idea, a name etc that raises questions, concerns, or curiosity.

So where do you go to find the answers to these questions? Well, I’d like to begin a post here with some sites/books you can use to compliment your Bible Study.  I’d imagine that I’ll need to periodically update this post as I find new resources myself – I also intend on starting with a relatively small list and adding as I have time. So here goes…

Bible Overviews and Handbooks

Bible overviews usually take a broad look at whole books, locations, and people in order to distill things into a readable and quick reference.  I like:

Wiersbe’s ‘With the Word’ – this is a chapter by chapter summary of the entire Bible.  Very cool stuff.  Very easy to read.

MacArthur’s Bible Handbook – this book is fantastic.  It gives a book by book overview of the entire Bible, including “where is Christ” in every book, an outline of each book, and many other great background and authorship notes.  It also has a “tough questions answered” section for each book – very neat and very helpful!

Westminster’s Theological Dictionary – ever wonder what those fancy theological terms mean? Well now you can know! LOL  This book is seriously really great.  Each definition is only one or two sentences long.  Very concise and easy.  Very helpful.

New Dictionary of Theology – this is like the Westminster Theological Dictionary, only a little more expanded.  It almost reminds me of an encyclopedia.  This one is written and edited by Ferguson, Wright, and Packer, so needless to say its VERY good!

What’s in the Bible? – this is a great overview of the entire Bible by R.C. Sproul and Robert Wolgemuth.  Its eminently readable, and very helpful if you’re looking to get a quick overview of entire books/sections of biblical history.

Bible Commentaries

Commentaries are probably the most important study resource a Bible Scholar should have on their shelves at home.  Commentaries come in a variety of different ways.  Some are a collection of notes on each book of the Bible by 1 author (like Calvin or MacArthur), others are a collection of notes on each book by a series of authors, others are simply stand alone notes on one or two particular books of the Bible by 1 author.  Some commentaries are expositional and some are more pastoral.  The former is focused more on a verse by verse explanation of the text, the latter focuses on the bigger picture only and takes large sections of the text at a time.  As you might imagine, commentaries reflect a Biblical theology of the writer, and shouldn’t be taken as “gospel” (so to speak).  However, every pastor I know uses commentaries to see what the great Christian men and women thought about the Biblical text long before we were born.  Here are some of my favorites (though I may not agree with each person on every point):

Calvin’s Commentaries – these are available online for free and here. These are a blend of pastoral and exegetical. Calvin wrote commentaries on most of the Bible, but some of the OT books are left out, as is Revelation.

Barnes Notes – Albert Barnes wrote these, this is a new testament only. He’s very conservative, and really solid on most every passage.  He does a great job of dispelling error and helps you logically sort through the possibilities for difficult verses as well.  Really like a lot of his work.

Wiersbe’s Commentary – very pastoral in his approach, this is most of the entire Bible, with a few of the old testament books combined. I enjoy his writing and his overarching points.  It’s not a “must have”, but its very helpful on some of the OT books and minor prophets.

Sproul’s Commentary Set – this is very pastor in its approach, and not as in-depth on a verse by vese basis as some of the others.  Still, there’s no one with insights quite like R.C. Sproul.  Often he has things to say that many of the others simply don’t think of, or are too timid to focus on.  He has only done 5 volumes (6 books) thus far.  I’ve read through most of all of them (except the Mark edition which I don’t have) and have really enjoyed them thus far.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible – great puritan preacher Matthew Henry wrote these notes for teaching his family, not his church.  But they have ended up as classics, and show a brilliant depth of understanding, and wonderful heart for God.  A blend between exegetical and pastoral style.

Pillar Commentary Set – I’ve used D.A. Carson’s volume on John (which is what this link is for), and have a lot of respect for some of the other authors in this set (some overlap here with the New International Commentary Set).  This is a more exegetical/technical commentary set from what I’ve seen. Only New Testament.

MacArthur’s Bible Commentaries – These are very good, very exegetical, and really helpful commentaries.  He takes the time to explain words, phrases, and history even larger themes.  This is only New Testament though. They can be purchased as a set or individually.

John Stott’s Set – These are edited and partially written (in some cases) by Stott and from what I’ve read thus far they are really solid.

MacArthur Whole Bible Commentary – these are his Study Bible notes (maybe slightly expanded) put into a one volume edition.  A good quick resource for getting a grasp of the passage you’re looking at.

The New International Commentary Set – These are very technical and very good.  If you’re interested in knowing all the angles, all the background, and all the key view points on each passage of scripture, I’ve found that these are great editions.  Leon Morris, Douglass Moo, F.F. Bruce and others wrote each volume. This link is for the NT, but there’s also OT volumes as well.

Vernon McGee’s Commentary – This is very pastoral, very funny and light hearted.  He has some good insights, notes, but you won’t get the kind of in-depth education that MacArthur or Carson will provide.  He’s also dispensational in his approach to the Scripture, which means that some of his Old Testament comments are a little wacky.

James Montgomery Boice– This is a link to his set.  He’s done Daniel, Romans, Acts, and several other books as well.  These are probably some of the best pastoral-styled commentaries that I’ve ever read.  He and Ryle are probably tied at the top of my favorites list for men who know how to bring out the very best in a passage of scripture.

J.C. Ryle’s Commentary on the Gospels – He only did the gospels, but its worth looking at anyway!  Ryle is very pastoral, but also provides a verse by verse analysis in some parts (especially in John).  You can also get his Matthew commentary online for free here. 

Crossway Classic Series – This is a set of commentaries that form a compilation of many great authors, including Ryle, Calvin, Manton, Henry, Owen, Hodge and more.

Systematic Theologies

Systematic theologies sound more daunting than they really are!  A systematic theology is a book that organizes the different theological topics of the Bible and provides a doctrinal overview of each topic.  Topics usually range from election, adoption, the incarnation, justification, sanctification, the millenium and much more.  These books are heavily influenced by the theology of the person compiling the volume, but most that I’ve read try and offer an objective viewpoint and reason why we believe what we believe.  You really only need one or two at most, because they are SO large!  However, these are some of the most helpful tools you can have at home for personal study.

Grudem’s Systematic Theology – if you’re going to buy one systematic theology, it should be Grudem’s.  I don’t agree 100% with him on the millenium or on the age of the earth, but he’s very very good on just about every other big theological issue.  Just a tremendous resource to have at your fingertips.

Michael Horton’s Systematic Theology – I am borrowing this edition at the moment, and unlike some of his other work, I think its a slightly more readable volume.  Horton tends to speak in a sort of unnecessary academic vernacular, so if I had to recommend a volume that is readable for the layman, this probably wouldn’t be my first pick.  As I read more I’ll add more information here.

Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology – This is one that is a classic, and is really good as well.  I don’t have as much experience pawing through its pages as some others, but I can’t begin to count the times that Sproul and others have quoted this volume.

Websites

CCEL – this is an amazing collection of online commentaries, essays, sermons and more.  Calvin, Ryle, Augustine, Edwards and on and on.  All of it is here.

Blue Letter Bible – This is probably the best place I’ve found online to look up the Greek and Hebrew meanings of words in Scripture.  It’s simply an amazing resource.

Biblos – One of the best parallel Bibles online today.  This site is also just simply terrific.  You can get commentaries here as well, and there are some language tools available too.  What I like most about it is that when you look up a verse, you can immediate see 10 different versions of the verse.  There are also pretty decent maps that go along with some of the passages here.

ESV.org – If you don’t own an ESV Study Bible, well, you should.  The notes in the ESV are probably the best notes available today.  The general editor was JI Packer, and the contributing editors and authors are nothing short of a laundry list sof the finest scholars in the world.  It’s been endorsed by just about every major Christian scholar today.  If you have the study Bible, you have automatic access to the online study notes, maps, and other goodies.  If you don’t, then you can at least read the Bible, but you need the code to sign up and get the study notes.  The site also has the ability to plug in MacArthur’s study bible notes as well if you purchase them.

Properly Interpreting Scripture

In class this past Sunday I mentioned a good rule for interpreting Scripture – namely that we should interpret the difficult, less clear passages by the more passages in Scripture that are explicit.  We should always interpret the implicit by the explicit.

I mentioned that this method of interpretation falls under what is called ‘The Analogy of Faith’ which puts forth the idea that all Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture because there are no contradictions in Scripture.  J.I. Packer notes that, “The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity.”

R.C. Sproul says, “the supreme arbiter in interpreting the meaning of a particular verse in Scripture is the overall teaching of the Bible.” If we come across a word or phrase that seems to contradict what we see plainly tough in other parts of Scripture, then we need to ask ourselves if we’re reading this verse correctly and begin to test our thoughts against what we know is plainly taught in other parts of Scripture.

Lastly, if you are stumped by a passage of Scripture, it is helpful to seek guidance from those who are wiser than you are.  This is why Biblical commentaries are written, and why leaders in the church are supposed to help the layperson clearly understand the scripture.  This was the even the case in the Old Testament (see Nehemiah 8:8).

More resources on correctly interpreting Scripture:

A short article by Sproul explaining some of his methods (START HERE)

R.C Sproul’s series (there is also a book) called ‘Knowing Scripture’ (all levels of maturity)  Here’s a link to the book.

A longer article by J.I. Packer on interpretation (more advanced)

A few good Bible Commentaries for your own personal study are:

Matthew Henry – good for all levels, though the english is older

Crossway’s Individual Bible Commentaries – good for a serious student

Warren Wiersbe Commentary Set – good for beginners

Believer’s Bible Commentary – good for all levels

John MacArthur’s Commentary Set – good for the serious student

Calvin’s Commentary Set – good for the advanced student