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The law of God

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The Bible uses law variously to refer to the ten commandments; laws within the five books of Moses; the Mosaic books themselves; or even the entire Old Testament (John 10:34, 12:34, 15:25). There is a history of dividing the law into categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, but the boundaries are not always clear: God’s laws are more a sermon than a legal code, mixing history, commands, exhortations, threats, and judgments. God is God, so every law is moral. Many of what we call civil laws have no judicial penalties attached. Is the fourth commandment, the Sabbath—a creation ordinance!—a moral law or a ceremonial law? And what kind of civil law neglects water rights?

It’s good to simplify things; a good map is a useful thing. But it’s easy and dangerous to over-simplify. We might over-simplify how the law has changed: our husband, the living law-word, died, releasing us from the law (Romans 7). The law was our tutor, but now we have graduated (Galatians 4). With the change of priesthood there is a change in law (Hebrews 7:12). The first Pentecost brought the letter; the last Pentecost brought the Spirit. Jesus inaugurated a new creation; to the degree this is “already,” the law has passed away together with the old heavens and earth (Matthew 5:18). The law was only a shadow (Hebrews 7). But we might also over-emphasize how things have not changed: The law reveals the unchanging character of an unchanging God. The law is perfect (Psalm 19:7), an exemplary witness (Deuteronomy 4:6-8), holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). Students live by the lessons of their tutor. Jesus and his Spirit do not negate the law but fulfill it.

Both of these have an element of truth; let us rather say that the law has been transfigured or glorified. The law is changed (Hebrews 7:12) but not abolished. Our husband has been transfigured, resurrected, glorified. We remember the lessons of our trainer but we are no longer running intervals and stuffing spaghetti: we are running a race.

All this is to say that we need much wisdom, understanding, and patience to wrestle with applying the law (2 Tim 3:16), to our lives, our church, and to nations (Matthew 28). Proverbs 25:2 reminds us that “it is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings . . . to search things out.” A few thoughts from teachers like John Frame and James Jordan have helped me in this search:

First, all law is typological of Jesus and his church (John 5:39, Luke 24:27, etc.). Typology doesn’t let us off the hook of applying the law to ourselves (the law of adultery applies to our marriages as well as Jesus’s), but it does enrich our understanding. When Peter saw the sheet of unclean food, he reasoned that God was adding Gentiles to his priestly people (Acts 10). Paul applies the law of the ox treading grain to pastors (1 Cor 9:10). The laws for house leprosy guide the inspections and and dismantlings that Ezekiel and Jesus performed on God’s own house. We know of no wife who experienced the jealousy test (Numbers 5)—except for Israel: consider the golden calf. The Lord’s supper is our jealousy test: some bread and some drinking and a threat of judgment (1 Corinthians 11).

Second, Jesus is still lord over nations and kings, and his law has much to teach them. The society spelled out by God’s law is amazingly free. Even in the case of death penalties, few were mandatory sentences (consider Matthew 1:19). But the first application of civil laws is to the church. The church is Israel transfigured, the beachhead of the new creation and new kingdom. We have elders. Church discipline replaces the death penalty. Evangelism by the sword of the spirit replaces holy warfare.

Third, the Jerusalem council ruling in Acts 15 gives a helpful guideline for what is transformed versus what is carried over directly. The laws for the stranger, the Gentile God-fearer, remain directly applicable: idolatry, sexual immorality, and eating blood. This is why God now allows eating bacon and shrimp but not homosexuality. Israel and her laws come transfigured into the church, where we are now all priests. But out in the world we live as sojourners.

Fourth, the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy are structured around the ten commandments. Deuteronomy is a kind of sermon by Moses after forty years meditating on the commandments. I’ve found this helpful in considering the Sabbath: Moses expresses the fourth commandment (Deut. 14:21b-16:17) in terms of tithing, giving freedom and rest, and feasting together with God. Moses considers the fifth commandment (Deut. 16:18-18:22) to also apply to leaders like judges, Levites, priests, and kings.

Finally, the ceremonial laws are not merely a picture of how Jesus deals with our sin at the cross. Hebrews repeatedly considers these to be transfigured in the church’s worship: All washings are wrapped up in baptism. All feasts are wrapped up in the Lord’s supper. The old covenant’s sacrifices are covenant renewals are feasts are drawing near are worship: Leviticus—a red-letter book if there ever was one—has much to teach us about worship in the new covenant.

There is so much to figure out; we have barely scratched the surface in our kingly search. I leave you with a few intriguing problems:

  1. In light of Acts 15, is blood pudding off the menu? Not that I’m tempted, mind you.
  2. In Genesis 26, God says that “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” What did Abraham know about God’s laws?
  3. Five times God commands us to greet one another with a kiss. What?

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Written by Scott Moonen

July 29, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology

Living sacrifice

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I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy points out that the first living sacrifice in scripture is Isaac:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. (Genesis 22:13 ESV)

This adds depth to how we understand Paul. Paul is saying that we offer our entire selves to God in worship. But we do so not simply because of God’s worthiness, or even because everything we have is from him (11:36). We do so out of the consciousness that we have been spared one kind of death by Jesus’s death, that we owe ourselves to him doubly.

[Y]ou were ransomed . . . not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18-19 ESV)

So we die in a different and better way, dying to ourselves not in order to repay him but in order to also give life to others (12:3ff).

Written by Scott Moonen

July 16, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Foodless

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Peter Leithart writes of weekly communion:

Foodless worship is unthinkable in the Bible and has been unthinkable through most of Christian history. . . .

The Church is not an “instrument” or “means” to achieve individual salvation. The Church is the present form of salvation in history.

Written by Scott Moonen

June 30, 2017 at 9:59 pm

De profundis

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The book of Job is, in effect, an immense psalm. (René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 117)

Written by Scott Moonen

June 25, 2017 at 6:34 pm

Sola fide

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The debate between credobaptists and paedobaptists is not so much a debate over what baptism is, as it is a debate over the nature of the church, the body, the covenant, the kingdom. Do the body and kingdom consist only of those who are beyond a certain point of intellectual development? In a sense, quite the opposite (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17).

A key scripture for this debate is the prophet Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31, and as quoted in Hebrews 8 and 10. This passage is often taken to imply that the new covenant is not just a new covenant but a new species of covenant: that its membership is fashioned spiritually, by faith; rather than naturally, by birth. This is a distinction that does not hold water, however: there are natural blessings in the new covenant; and salvation in the old covenants was by faith, grace, and through Jesus just as much as in the new. Moreover, as I have argued previously, Jeremiah 31 cannot be taken to mean that the new covenant excludes children; the opposite reading makes far better sense of the context and of related passages.

The church has almost universally confessed that her infant children go to be with Jesus if they die. Our infants are part of Jesus’s church-body-kingdom. Since they are to be seated at his heavenly table, it is right for us to seat them at his earthly table. Indeed, if they have a place at Jesus’s table, to refuse them access is to eat and drink judgment on ourselves (1 Cor 11:29) and to walk out of step with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14). And of course, to say that our children are fit participants in the Lord’s supper is to sneak baptism in the back door, for baptism is the seal of entry into the body, and the supper the seal of continuation and renewal.

But even granting all this, credobaptists normally balk at the thought of baptizing infants because baptism is normally in scripture linked with faith. Thus, a young child who can express the basic confession of Romans 10:9 may be a fitting subject for baptism by virtue of his profession of faith, but not an infant: even if he is likely part of Jesus’s body, he must wait until his faith becomes evident.

To make our infants wait is to confess that they have no faith, or no faith that we can discern. But we speak otherwise when we say that Jesus receives them if they die, because we also confess that justification is by faith alone. If our infants are to stand justified before God—and we believe that they are—then it must be by faith.

More importantly, scripture teaches us that they do have faith; if we were to better moderate the evangelical diet of conversion songs with Psalm singing, this confession would resonate more strongly with us. Psalm 22:9 speaks first of David’s and Jesus’s infant faith, but also our own. Psalm 71:6 speaks of the same. (Here we see the very spiritual dimension of the old covenants.) Certainly David speaks of a child-like faith rather than an adult faith; there is much more of fiducia to it and much less of notitia and assensus. But it is faith none the less.

Thus, infant baptism: because justification is by faith alone.

Written by Scott Moonen

December 4, 2016 at 8:45 pm

Covenant

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There’s a lot of material in the Bible on covenant, the vast majority of which focuses on God’s covenants with his people. But there are human relationships in the Bible also described as covenants, such as Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:27, 32), and Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:44). Importantly, marriages are named as covenants. God explicitly calls human marriage a covenant (Malachi 2:14). God also describes his own covenant with his people as a marriage (Ezek. 16), and this is surely one of the aspects of God’s marriage that is mirrored in our own (Eph. 5:32).

There are some dimensions of God’s covenant with his people that are not mirrored in all human marriages, except in rare cases such as Hosea. But there are still many insights into covenant from biblical theology that we can apply to our own marriage covenants. Here, in no particular order, are twelve reflections on marriage as a covenant:

Architecture. Covenants are relational-structural bonds. As a bond, a covenant establishes a sort of structure or architecture for the relationship. Like the architecture of a house, the covenant is not the purpose of marriage, but reflecting on the covenant can help us to understand the purpose and pattern of marriage. The covenant is sort of the hub or lattice on which all of the pieces of marriage can be arranged.

Complementarity. All covenants are asymmetric or complementary relationships in some way. Complementarity, the differing roles and responsibilities of husband and wife in the dance of marriage, is built into the fabric of covenant. For example, God calls the husband and wife together by the name of the husband (Gen. 5:2), and the first husband named the first wife. God, who establishes the marriage covenant (Matt. 19:6) has different exhortations and requirements for husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22, 25).

Particularity. Covenants are particular and exclusive: God is God and savior to these people; this man cleaves to this woman and no other.

Death. Covenants are not mere contracts that exchange goods and services for mutual benefit. Contracts have their place, but a covenant is a promise and a giving of oneself. Theologians speak of the “self-maledictory oath” in a covenant: covenant promises are a sort of “cross my heart and hope to die.”

Blessing and curse. There are always both blessings and curses attached to a covenant. God calls us to a standard of fidelity and sacrifice, but in this he equally intends to give us great gifts and happiness and joy. In fact, death and sacrifice are the very soil in which happiness and joy flourish.

Adoption. A good picture of a covenant is what happens in adoption: you leave an old world-situation-family and enter into a new one; you become responsible for and to one another. In fact, in marriage, husband and wife do adopt one another as brother and sister in a way (consider the sister-bride in the Song of Solomon).

New creation. Every covenant establishes a new creation, a new order of things. This involves a rejection and separation and death to what came before: what came before was good in its time, but it is no longer adequate for the current situation. Out of this death, every covenant brings a kind of new life or resurrection into a new world-creation.

Union. This new creation involves a new union: union with Jesus in one case, or union with one another in marriage. This is the husband and wife becoming one flesh, leaving and cleaving; it is an incorporation of the other into oneself. Sex is a part of this but it does not exhaust the meaning of it.

Signs. Covenants have covenant signs that mark their establishment and renewal. The old covenants were marked or renewed with rainbow, circumcision, offering, and sacrifice-feast. The new covenant is marked in baptism and renewed in the Lord’s Supper. Our marriage covenants are marked (often) by the exchange of rings, and renewed in sex.

Fellowship. These unions and covenant signs often include meals. The meals are an expression of fellowship, a high point of the entire covenant. Consider that God’s covenants are broken by false eating (Genesis 3, 1 Cor. 10) and in the end are summed up in a feast (Revelation 19). Even the most reluctant of covenants (Jacob and Laban) is an expression of equality through a meal (Gen. 31:54). Likewise there is an experience of equal footing and deep fellowship that we are to enjoy in our marriages.

Administration. Covenants make provision for their administration: they are not private agreements, but public ones. Our marriages are administered by God (Matt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9) through the help of his body that also serves as a witness.

Succession. All covenants make provision for their future and succession. God’s covenants include promises and instruction for future generations. God intends for our own marriage covenants normally to produce worshipers (Mal. 2). We also see that God intends to preserve Christian marriages (Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9), and this is not a mere platitude: he will give grace to us to accomplish this.

Written by Scott Moonen

October 3, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Begetting

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Jesse - David - Solomon

Peter Leithart makes the point that the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 shift from father-son language to the language of death with the introduction of kings. Building on this, we could say that:

  • Priests beget sons and houses in a Fatherly fashion (1 Chronicles 6:3)
  • Kings beget kings and kingdoms in a Son-like fashion, by dying (1 Chronicles 29:28 – 2 Chronicles 1:1)
  • Prophets beget in a Spirit-like fashion, by speaking-breathing:
    • New life into being by their prayer (1 Kings 17)
    • A new covenant-creation-world into being by their authority (Zechariah)
    • New prophets into being by their teaching (2 Kings 2:3)

All God’s people now are priests (1 Peter 2:5), kings (Ephesians 2:6), and prophets (Acts 2:17-18). Be fruitful, and multiply!

Written by Scott Moonen

September 28, 2016 at 9:28 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology