Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category
I contributed the following Advent reflection on Matthew 2:13-15 to the Sovereign Grace Church blog, where this is crossposted:
In today’s reading, we see Jesus and his family fleeing to Egypt at the warning of an angel, in order to escape Herod’s murderous rampage. Matthew writes that Jesus fulfilled what God had spoken through Hosea in this. But if you’ve ever taken the time to look back at Hosea 11, what Matthew says seems a bit of a puzzle. Hosea was referring to Israel rather than Jesus, and Israel’s calling out of Egypt had happened long before. Hosea does not seem to have been conscious of making any kind of prophecy. Calvin writes that because of this passage, “scoffers have attempted to disturb the whole religion of Christ, as though the Evangelist had misapplied the declaration of the Prophet.” But if we are not to be scoffers, how are we to understand this?
We have seen already that in the very first verse of his gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the true Isaac, the true Solomon. In the same way, what Matthew is saying in today’s reading is that Jesus is also the true Israel. Just as Isaac failed to bring an enduring blessing to all the nations, and just as Solomon’s throne did not endure, so also Israel failed in their mission to be priests to the nations. Hosea himself goes on to indict Israel for their refusal to turn to God. But at the very climax of Israel’s failure — at the moment when they led all the nations in rebellion rather than worship — Jesus came as the true Israel, walking in their footsteps, suffering the same trials and temptations. Unlike Israel, Jesus remained faithful, and ultimately it was this very faithfulness that brought about the possibility of restoration that was also promised to Israel in Hosea 11. What the scoffers do not recognize is that Jesus fulfilled much more than just prophecy. We know, for example, that Jesus also fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17). And what Matthew is telling us here is that Jesus fulfilled a calling. Where Israel failed in the calling to minister to the nations, Jesus has succeeded.
But there is more. Notice that it is out of Israel that Jesus was called by an angel. It is in Israel that a tyrant murders Hebrew sons and must be deceived so that the savior can be saved. It is out of Israel that Jesus escapes by night. It is not Israel but Egypt that is a place of refuge. Taking all this together, Matthew is not only telling us that Jesus is the true Israel: he is also telling us that Israel itself has become Egypt, and Herod has become Pharaoh. There is a need for a new exodus and for a new Moses.
There is a calling and a caution for us in this, because the body always follows the head. Just as Moses made a personal exodus from Egypt for 40 years before leading Israel in the great exodus, the church must follow our head. Our calling is this: the church must now lead the nations in worship. Our caution is this: we must fulfill our calling sacrificially. While we are called to different kinds of death in different seasons, it is always the church’s willingness to die that brings life and light to the world.
Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. (Hebrews 13:13)
I contributed the following Advent reflection on Matthew 1:1 to the Sovereign Grace Church blog, where this is crossposted:
It’s been said that some parts of the Bible are boring to read but interesting to study, and Matthew starts right off into one of those parts — a genealogy. This is especially boring for us as modern readers, because the old covenant’s Adamic priesthood has come to an end with the arrival of the long-promised seed. There is for us no longer any spiritual value in the careful recording of years and generations, so it is strange and unfamiliar.
Jesus is the last in a long history of promised sons; of miracle sons born in impossible circumstances; of latter sons who replace the first son; and of sons born to faith-filled women of tarnished reputation. Matthew begins his gospel with the hint that all this is coming to an end, that Jesus is the one true son to replace Adam and Israel. The phrase “book of the genealogy” uses the Greek root genesis, leading some commentators to suggest that Matthew is subtly presenting his entire gospel as a new Genesis, a “book of new beginnings.” And in this first verse, Matthew reaches back to two key promises that built upon God’s earlier promise of the seed in Genesis 3:15.
God had given to Abraham the promise that “your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:17-18). Abraham first thought this would be fulfilled through Ishmael, and later through Isaac. Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, trusting that God would raise him from the dead, and seeming to understand that the nations would be blessed by the sacrifice of the seed. But Isaac was spared by a substitute, because the true seed, the true substitute, was still to come. By the end of Genesis, God had worked through Joseph to bring a preliminary blessing on all nations, and yet the nations turned away again from God. Jesus is the promised son of Abraham who brought an enduring blessing to the nations.
God made a similar promise to David, that his offspring would “build a house for my name,” and that God would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:13). Solomon built a physical palace for God, but his kingdom was broken up shortly after his death, and that palace was torn down by Nebuchadnezzar. As Israel waited for this promise, one they sang for nearly a thousand years in the Psalms, they came to call the Messiah the “son of David” (Matthew 22:42). Jesus is this son of David, the one who built the true house of God — a house made out of people (1 Pet. 2:5-6) — and whose throne will truly endure forever.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29)
I contributed the following Advent reflection on Acts 2 to the Sovereign Grace Church blog, where this is crossposted:
After the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, Peter portrays God’s plan for history, and how he was accomplishing this through his son Jesus. As Christmas approaches, this helps us to remember where this baby in a manger was destined: a glorious king, seated on a throne with all things being put in increasing subjection to him, until he delivers the kingdom to the Father.
We recall that the flood was the first and last time God destroyed the earth itself; however, it was not the last time he brought an old creation to an end and established a new creation. To use prophetic and visionary language, in each of his covenants God tore down the sun, moon and stars of one fallen created order, and fashioned out of its very dust a new and better creation. Israel’s great exodus from Egypt was one such miraculous new creation. But even there our separation from God and the sting of the curse were highlighted: at Sinai, God’s glorious presence descended on a lofty mountain, Israel was forbidden to draw near, and only seventy elders could share a meal with God at a distance. Immediately afterwards, Israel fell into sin with the golden calf, and 3000 people were put to death. A newer and better creation was needed!
In his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus accomplished the last and greatest exodus from the old creation into the final new creation. In contrast with Sinai, at Pentecost God’s glorious presence descended directly on his people, all of whom are now welcome to draw near and commune with him in his own house. 3000 people were then added to God’s house: in Jesus, life, cleansing and healing are now contagious rather than death and curse. The sweep of Peter’s sermon also reminds us that Jesus’s whole life was wrapped up in this mission of “loosing the pangs of death” and of renewing all creation in himself. Not just his death but his life, obedience, teaching, prayers, healings, resurrection and ascension were all working to accomplish the condemnation and destruction of the old creation in its climactic failure, and at the very same time to prepare and begin to transfigure the old creation into the new. Even in the events of his birth we see battle lines beginning to be drawn.
And until the end, it remains a contest of loyalties, a war both without and within. Peter reminds us that we participate in this glorious new creation through identification with Jesus. Repentance breaks allegiance with the old creation and all that is both good and bad in it: we repent for our sin, and even for our attempts to deal with sin and find life apart from Jesus. Faith identifies with Jesus by continually laying hold of his sacrifice for sin and welcoming his rule over all things. Finally, baptism joins us with Jesus in an exodus from the old creation, just as Noah and later all Israel passed through the waters into a new creation.
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. . . . Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother. — Exodus 23:19
On the principle that “it was written for our sake” (1 Cor. 9:10), James Jordan explains this law in his book, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (pp. 190-192):
It is sometimes thought that boiling a kid in milk was a magic ritual used by the Canaanites, and that this is why it was forbidden. The text, however, does not forbid boiling a kid in milk, but in its own mother’s milk. The reason is that life and death must not be mixed. That milk which had been a source of life to the kid may not be used in its death. Any other milk might be used, but not its mother’s.
This law is thrice stated in the Torah (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Dt. 14:21). It is obviously quite important, yet its significance eludes us. There are many laws which prohibit the mixing of life and death, yet we wish to know the precise nuance of each. . .
We notice that the kid is a young goat, a child. The word only occurs 16 times in the Old Testament. In Genesis 27:9,16, Rebekah put the skins of a kid upon Jacob when she sent him to masquerade as Esau before Isaac. Here the mother helps her child (though Jacob was in his 70s at the time). In Genesis 38:17,20,23, Judah pledged to send a kid to Tamar as payment for her services as a prostitute. In the providence of God, this was symbolic, because Judah had in fact failed to provide Tamar the kid to which she was entitled: Judah’s son Shelah. Judah gave his seal and cord, and his staff, as pledges that the kid would be sent, but Tamar departed, and never received the kid. When she was found pregnant, she produced the seal and cord and the staff, as evidence that Judah was the father. The children that she bore became her kids, given her by Judah in exchange for the return of his cord and seal and his staffs. Finally, when Samson visited his wife, he took her a kid, signifying his intentions (Jud. 15:1).
These passages seem to indicate a symbolic connection between the kid and a human child, the son of a mother. (Indeed, Job 10:10 compares the process of embryonic development to the coagulation of milk.) The kid is still nursing, still taking in its mother’s milk in some sense, Jacob and Rebekah being an example of this. The mother is the protectress of the child, of the seed. This is the whole point of the theology of Judges 4 and 5, the war of the two mothers, Deborah and the mother of Sisera. Indeed, the passage calls attention to milk. The milk of the righteous woman was a tool used to crush the head of the serpent’s seed (Jud. 4:19ff; 5:24-27). How awful if the mother uses her own milk to destroy her own seed!
. . . Accordingly, one of the most horrible things imaginable is for a mother to boil and eat her own child. This is precisely what happened during the siege of Jerusalem, as Jeremiah describes it in Lamentations 4:10, “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” The same thing happened during the siege of Samaria, as recorded in 2 Kings 6:28ff. In both passages, the mother is said to boil her child.
We are now in a better position to understand this law, and its placement in passages having to do with offerings to God. The bride offers children to her husband. She bears them, rears them on her milk, and presents them to her lord as her gift to him. Similarly, Israel is to present the fruits of her hands, including her children, to her Divine Husband. She is not to consume her children, her offerings, or her tithes, but present them to God. The command not to boil the kid in its own mother’s milk is a negative command; the positive injunction it implies is that we are to present our children and the works of our hands to God.
Jerusalem is the mother of the seed (Ps. 87:5; Gal. 4:26ff.). When Jerusalem crucified Jesus Christ, her Seed, she was boiling her kid in her own milk. In Revelation 17, the apostate Jerusalem has been devouring her faithful children: “And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus.” Her punishment, under the Law of Equivalence, is to be devoured by the gentile kings who supported her (v. 17).
There are some obvious but also subtle ways that American culture consumes its children:
Our practice of abortion is clearly consuming our children for our own benefit. We are to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our children, not to sacrifice our children for the sake of ourselves. Abortion is cannibalism.
Mark Horne explains that “democracy with public debt is the economic system that makes it rational for adults to eat their children.”
I wonder, though, if over a century of individualistic, conversionistic tendencies in the evangelical church have helped to enable this consuming of children. God’s own covenant name, transcending covenants old and new (Ex. 34:6-7), assures us that he intends to show mercy to our children. But the evangelical church has tended to view its infants and children as fundamentally alienated from God instead of belonging to him. We have tended to view parenting more as evangelism than discipleship; we have given our children the impression that God’s forgiveness is harder to come by, and harder to be sure of, than mommy’s and daddy’s; we have withheld from them baptism’s designation of the family name “Christian,” as well as the nourishment, joy and fellowship of the family meal, in some cases until late in their teens; we have thus taught them that God requires a sufficiently sincere and intellectual faith instead of simple trust. This has produced a very modern tendency to wish one was baptized at a later age — as though salvation depended on understanding and maturity more than faith! We teach them many songs about God’s rescuing them out of rebellion, but none about his causing them to trust in him before their birth (Ps. 22, 71, etc.). The widely applauded testimony, the one seen as particularly incisive, is that they have finally come to know God on their own terms in their late teens or in college, not that they have feared God from their youth. Thus, we have taught them to despise small beginnings, confusing conversion with the very normal experience of maturing and growth. As a result, we have led them to believe not only that they are aliens and outcasts from the kingdom, but even that they must in some ways turn and become like adults in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. While perhaps well intentioned, our fear of false assurance robs them of genuine assurance; we withhold the kingdom from those to whom it belongs, starving and quenching the work of the Spirit. And although it is true that the evangelical church has largely taught the salvation of her infants who die, yet we have almost always seen this as an unusual or exceptional work of God rather than an ordinary part of the Spirit’s work in nurturing Christian children. In short, we have taught both our children and the world that infants and children are second-class citizens of God’s kingdom, if they are citizens at all.
One of the crucial ways that the church resists abortion is in how we parent.
The Westminster Confession of Faith reads:
God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
We confess that God ordains or decrees everything, but in a way that establishes individual freedom and responsibility. At one level this is simply a mystery to us, but it is possible for us to go a little deeper. Authorship and artistry — or, as Tolkien puts it, sub-creation — have been for me a helpful analogy for God’s sovereignty over creation. It does not even occur to us to accuse Tolkien of tempting or causing Gollum to sin, or of any injustice or violence toward Gollum. Even recognizing Tolkien’s authorship, we do not doubt that Gollum did what he did of his own free will, or that he deserved his end. Philosophers call this compatibilist free will, but it just means that we do what we want to do. An author or artist’s decreeing or ordaining her work is categorically different from ordinary causation or compulsion within the world of the work itself. In fact, the author’s decrees are just what establishes and upholds a structure of causality and responsibility within the world of her work. Otherwise it would be utter chaos.
This also means that God’s very being and existence are categorically different from ours; to use the philosophical term, he is transcendent. This is perhaps the main reason that Anselm’s argument fails: we cannot induct our way outside of the story; we cannot build a ladder that jumps right off the page. We need God to reveal himself to us.
There are some fun ways to explore this creator-creature distinction in story and art. In simplest form, characters might speculate about or comically defy the author. Pushing the analogy to its limits, we end up with self-reference, a multiplicity of levels, and illusions. This gets us into the realm of what Douglas Hofstadter calls the “strange loop,” and as Hofstadter points out, Escher’s work is a great example of all this. But the analogy does break down: our stories are only shadows of reality, and Escher’s lizards and hands and birds only have the illusion of reality. Only God enters his creation in the flesh and allows it to act upon himself.
While talking with the men from my small group this week, it struck me that this analogy of sub-creation gives literary references to God a double or ironic meaning. When an unbelieving author’s characters rail against or reject God’s authority, they are in one sense railing against him, and so he is undermining his own argument. In his very attempt to boast in human autonomy, he reveals the absurdity of that rebellion. He cannot escape his dependence on and submission to God any more than his characters can escape their obvious dependence on and submission to him.
This gives us an alternate reading of the poem Invictus. Instead of seeing it as the poet’s raising his fist against God, we can equally see it as the character within the poem’s raising his own fist against the poet. In that light, the poem becomes childish and petty.
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
The idea that we could transcend the boundary between ourselves and our author, or somehow cast off a dependence on him that is fundamental to our very existence, is absurd. Far better to humble our hearts and enjoy where he has set us.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
The analogy of authorship might prove instructive to us in other ways, too. The fact that God’s sovereignty is what establishes causality and responsibility rescues us from futile determinism. And seeing God as an author certainly emphasizes his power over his creation. It is a small thing for him to write of the weaving of his world in seven days, or of a world-wide flood rather than a regional flood: we don’t have to wring our hands over miracles that are hard for our creaturely minds to conceive. And as much as there may be degrees of fellowship with or separation from God, this also suggests that it is misguided to divide creation and our experience into the natural and the supernatural, secular and spiritual, nature and grace. Because of God’s intimate and personal involvement in his story, the overlap between the natural and supernatural is entire and complete. You cannot possibly escape God’s sovereignty, lordship, or grace. That in turn lays the foundation for a robust common grace.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
Finally, this analogy also suggests that, while there is great value in a reductionist approach to understanding God’s world, there is comparatively greater value in seeking to understand God’s word and world holistically, to grasp the sweep of story and persons.
See also: Proof of the non-existence of God.
 Yes, this does contradict the WCF quote on the face of it. See John Frame’s distinction between what you might call a proximate and an ultimate sense of authorship, which is what I’m getting at by distinguishing between decree/ordination and causation/compulsion.
John 3:1-15 reveals that there is an inescapable spiritual component to our children’s growing in faith. But this passage also insists that we can rarely peel back the layers to see what is happening, even in our own lives, much less our children’s. So it should not be surprising to find that the way God brings about spiritual life and growth, in us and our children, actually rides along the very natural and seemingly mundane tracks of hearing, seeing, tasting, doing. Consider:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. — Deut. 6:6-7
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. — Prov. 22:6
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! — Psalm 34:8
What is striking about these and other passages is that they speak of our children’s acquiring faith in God and learning to live in his household no differently than we would speak of how they acquire language, or how they come to know and love and trust us as their parents. This is because faith is a language: faith understands and speaks of ourselves and the entire world as being related to God in particular ways. Jesus, in whom all things hold together, is more real and immediate a part of his world than anything in it. So while we cannot see him, his constant activity can be seen everywhere to someone who speaks the right language. To anyone else, it is mere gibberish.
Therefore it is not vain repetition to teach our children to say “Jesus is my king and savior,” “God has forgiven my sins,” or “Jesus will always keep me;” any more than it is vain repetition to teach them to say “Daddy,” “this is a chair,” “that is blue,” or “Mr. S. is our mayor.” This is how they learn about both Jesus and the world that he has given to us. And, just as we talk in terms of stages of learning language (“he’s learned his primary and secondary colors,” or “he knows where his pancreas is”) rather than absolutes (“he’s learned English!”), we should speak in terms of stages of learning faith (“she’s really starting to bubble over with gratitude”) rather than absolutes (“she’s converted!”). Faith and language are things to be increasingly exercised rather than inert states of being.
So we teach our children simply to say “Jesus is …” and “Jesus does …” because that is the language of faith. After all, when we speak of Jesus’s world, we simply say “what color is that?” or “what letter is that?;” we do not say “do you believe that color is blue?” or “do you believe that letter is ‘K’?” Because of this, we can confuse our children (and ourselves) if we speak in indirect terms like “do you believe in Jesus as your savior?” rather than simply saying “Who is your savior?” By speaking a more indirect language than faith speaks, we make faith out to be something magical, and make it seem like getting that magic right is just as important as simply knowing and trusting Jesus. And without meaning to do so, this makes Jesus to be something less real than blueness and chairs and letters. But he is far more real than those. The best learning is by doing, and so the best learning to believe in Jesus is actually believing in Jesus — not believing in the supposed power of belief.
Finally, we do not worry that language will become a mindless habit for our children. Neither should we worry that all this Christian talking and living will become a mindless habit. There are some ways in which we expect a mature language and faith to become self-conscious, but it is the essence of language and of childlike faith to be unselfconscious, a simple confidence. The real danger is that this habit and language of faith will be uncultivated and cease to be a habit altogether! We do not want to banish habits — what we want is to cultivate all those delightful habits that a persevering life is simply full of.
René Girard has incredible insight into human nature, conflict, and the cross of Jesus. Although his understanding of Jesus’s atonement is incomplete, he has a great deal to teach us about the atonement. I must confess I haven’t read Girard yet, but I’ve gotten a bit of him indirectly through others. For an excellent introduction, you should watch this five-part interview with Girard now.
Given my small exposure to Girard, I have always assumed that a Girardian understanding of Jesus’s transcending human conflict and sacrifice operated primarily at a human level. This is the assessment of Caiaphas in John 11:50, who at this stage almost appears to recognize Jesus’s innocence along with Girard. But now I think the human plane is just a small piece of the Girardian puzzle. I am sure this is an elementary insight, but it was new to me this weekend.
God designated Israel to serve as priests to the nations. They failed to represent God to the nations: both in reaching out to the nations and more generally in upholding God’s law and righteousness before the nations. But however great their failure to represent God, they could not help but represent the nations to God, for good or bad. So just as Adam was the true and best representative we had to stand before God under the covenant of life, Israel was the true and best representative we had to stand before God under the curse.
As our representative, Israel and her leaders were not merely envious of Jesus at a human level, putting him to death to vindicate themselves in some human conflict. Rather, Israel very clearly put God himself on trial, on behalf of the whole world. Jealous of God’s greatness, holiness, truth, righteousness, wisdom and beauty, and seeking to establish their own, they put God on trial, declared him to be guilty, and executed him. Therefore, even in purely Girardian terms, Jesus’s death is not simply a transcendence of human conflict and sacrifice by the death of an innocent man, but it is actually an attempt by all of humanity to render judgment for mankind and against God.
It is a failed attempt: Jesus’s resurrection vindicates God decisively in the conflict between God and man. All mankind is shown to be condemned because of the actions of Israel their representative.
The truly amazing thing is that we who are thus condemned can be vindicated — through Jesus’s death and resurrection! In a sense, simply by agreeing with and rejoicing in Jesus’s vindication, God extends to us the great gift of Jesus’s own vindication and resurrection. This is where our understanding of the atonement as sacrificial and substitutionary comes into play, as John goes on to explain Caiaphas’s unwitting prophecy in verses 51-52. Jesus died for the sins of the world at the very moment the world’s sin and rejection of God had become total and complete. Our mediator is no longer Israel, but Jesus himself, the true Israel. Both Israel and all nations are invited to feast in God through him.