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Corporate spiritual disciplines

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When we think of spiritual disciplines, things like prayer and Bible reading usually get the most attention. But there are a set of things that have to do with our life together as the body of Christ that can also be considered spiritual disciplines.

For my church, I taught a discipleship class introducing the spiritual disciplines and elaborating on these corporate spiritual disciplines. The class recording and my notes are below.


(Download.)


Welcome to our spiritual disciplines discipleship class! The elders have planned a cycle of several classes per year over the course of three years, and this is the second time we’re going through this material.

There are three books this class uses for inspiration, but these books are not required reading. Three years ago, we based the class entirely on Don Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, which is a good practical overview of the disciplines. This time we are also drawing from Tim Keller’s book Prayer and from David Mathis’s recent book Habits of Grace. I recommend Mathis highly; he is a good mix of practical reminder but also inspiration. He gives a great reminder that we are not just doing these things out of duty or for our improvement, but because they are all ways of growing in our experience and fellowship with Jesus who is our great treasure and delight. In fact, his book’s subtitle is “Enjoying Jesus through the spiritual disciplines.”

Let’s start by considering what spiritual disciplines are, and then we’ll finish up talking a bit about the disciplines of fellowship. In the coming weeks other teachers will talk about the disciplines of Bible reading, study, meditation, and memorization; prayer; and evangelism. We’re covering quite a lot of ground today, so we are only going to scratch the surface in a “tour guide” sort of way.

The idea of spiritual disciplines comes from 1 Timothy 4:7–8, where Paul says that we are to “train [or discipline] yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” This theme appears in many other passages related to self–control, self–discipline, training, discipleship, and work. In some ways you could say that all of life is spiritual discipline just like all of life is worship. But it is helpful to narrow down and say that disciplines are efforts or practices that we consciously pursue that will help us to grow spiritually. So, for example, suffering is beneficial to us, but it is something God brings to us, so it is discipline from him rather than one of our spiritual disciplines.

As we consider the spiritual disciplines over the next few weeks, we need to be careful to remember that they are not a way of earning access to God or earning his favor and approval. God is already disposed to love us as our Father. He wants and delights and schemes and works to see us spiritually healthy and strong, but his love comes before and runs underneath all of this.

God’s love for us and his work in us makes spiritual disciplines a bit of a mystery. Paul says in Colossians 1:29 that “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” In Philippians 2:12–13 he exhorts us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” All of the work in us is God’s—but much of the work and all of the sweat is ours too!

Let’s think about a few pictures of what spiritual disciplines are.

First of all, they are spiritual food, something that is necessary for our spiritual life and our growth in faith. There are many examples of this in Scripture. In John 4:34, Jesus says that “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” In John 6:55, Jesus says that we are to feed on him: “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Paul and the author of Hebrews both compare the word and preaching to eating, telling us that there is both milk and solid food (1 Cor 3:2, Hebrews 5:12–14). David declares—and we sing with him—that God’s word is sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10, 119:103).

If spiritual disciplines are food for us, then it is wise for us to work towards a balanced diet of disciplines. We should work to grow from milk to solid food; not that milk is bad, just that it is not our only diet. Also, to state the obvious, we shouldn’t starve ourselves. The disciplines are what we call means of grace, a channel through which the Holy Spirit normally works to powerfully help us. We need to get ourselves regularly into the path of that help and power; to shun the disciplines is to quench the Spirit.

Second, the spiritual disciplines are a preparation for battle. They are not just food but like a kind of preparation and strength training. In Matthew 26:41, Jesus warns his disciples in Gethsemane to “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” We already saw that in 1 Timothy 4:7–8, Paul charges Timothy to “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” In Psalm 119:11, David declares—and we sing with him—that “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” We are like children wrestling with our Father, like Jacob wrestling with Jesus. He wrestles with us to make us stronger, and he is proud to see us succeed. He gives us hard things, sometimes even permanent hard things, but they are all gifts to enable us to depend on his power and strength, and also to prepare us to be fruitful and victorious. The cross and our own experience prove that through suffering and dying to ourselves we will experience victory and life.

Third, the spiritual disciplines are not just a preparation for battle but they are actual spiritual warfare. We know that God goes to battle for his people as we pray, both individually and corporately. From Ephesians 6, the word and prayer are part of how we wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” From Psalm 8:2 and Matthew 21:16, we know that praise, including the praise of our infants and babies, “still[s] the enemy and the avenger.” From Romans 8 and Galatians 5 we know that the Spirit and the flesh are at war within us. Practicing the disciplines is directly engaging in that battle to put our flesh to death.

Fourth, all this means that the spiritual disciplines are a way of becoming more like Jesus. The result of the battle between Spirit and flesh in Romans 8 is that we are “conformed to the image of his Son,” who is the “firstborn among many brothers.”

Finally, but most importantly, David Mathis reminds us that the point of spiritual disciplines is not just to fulfill duties or even to grow stronger and more mature and more like Jesus, but to fellowship with Jesus. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul insists that the purpose of creation and our salvation is “to unite all things in [Jesus], things in heaven and things on earth.” Jesus is our greatest treasure, and our greatest delight should be is to experience him. This is the best and greatest reason to pursue the spiritual disciplines.

So: you are attending a class right now, which is a kind of a spiritual discipline. But classes are certainly one of the lesser ways to learn things. We hope that you are inspired and challenged by these classes, first to invest more in all these other spiritual disciplines, and second to see that all of this is an investment in your pursuit of Jesus.

To summarize, the spiritual disciplines are: food, preparation for battle, actual battle, a means of becoming more like Jesus, and a means of fellowship with Jesus.

We can think of the disciplines in several categories. Consider the ways that Jesus works and wrestles with us through the Holy Spirit: first, directly and personally; second, through his word; and third, corporately through his people, as the Spirit’s streams of living water flow to and from one another. Mathis groups the disciplines into these three groups, except he calls the disciplines of the word direct, and fellowship with Jesus in prayer, fasting, and journaling indirect. Under the disciplines of the word he groups hearing, reading, study, memorization, and meditation.

Today we’ll make a whirlwind tour of the corporate disciplines. Under the corporate disciplines Mathis groups fellowship, worship (which includes preaching and the sacraments), rebuke, evangelism, discipleship, and generosity with our money and time.

As Christians, members of Jesus’s own family and body, we are connected to each other in a special way unlike any other relationship and fellowship in the world. We are connected or bound to Jesus our head, and through him and his Spirit we are bound to each other. He is the hub and we are the spokes. This unity we have in Jesus as his body is an important theme throughout the New Testament. 1 John reminds us that “if we walk in the light . . . we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7) and that because “God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

Really this is just our being invited into the fellowship God has had for all eternity. As a Trinity, God has existed in perfect loving fellowship since before creation. Amazingly, he created the world not just to display his glory and beauty, but to invite us into that fellowship as his friends, as his family.

Incidentally, this is the opposite of how the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches view our relation to saints and icons. They say that we can have a relationship with Jesus through saints or icons, but we recognize that the fellowship of the saints exists only because we are all connected first of all to Jesus, and through him to one another.

So, we can say that all of the corporate spiritual disciplines have to do with life in the body, life in the covenant. There is both a give and take to all of this life; God has made his body to work in such a way that we are never purely giving or purely receiving. Really all of the spiritual disciplines are part of our speaking to and with Jesus; the corporate disciplines are just how we do this together.

A big part of covenants in the Bible is meals and feasting. The new covenant has a weekly feast at Jesus’s table and is moving to a final great feast at his table. We could express many of the corporate disciplines in terms of this. First of all, our corporate worship is our life at Jesus’s house and at his table. Then, our fellowship and hospitality is about imitating Jesus’s table and having proper manners at Jesus’s table and his house, since we are his house. Finally, evangelism is an invitation to Jesus’s house and table.

However, our life together is not just about resting together but also about laboring and battling and warring to reach rest together. God gives us a taste of final rest here but it is not final. He sends us out after every weekly worship–feast to rejoin the battle. We are like the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half–tribe of Manasseh. They received their inheritance and rest on the far side of the Jordan, but they were not allowed to enjoy it until they had fought to bring their brothers to rest as well. So, first of all, worship is also replenishment and warfare and receiving battle plans from our commander in chief; then, fellowship and hospitality and discipleship are replenishment and refreshment, training and weapon sharpening, planning strategies and tactics; and finally, evangelism is warfare and conquest.

Let’s spend a few minutes thinking about worship and how God serves and strengthens us there. In one sense worship covers all of life, but there is a special way that God’s people meet with him as we gather together corporately, especially on the Lord’s day when we assemble as the entire body, bride, and army of God. If we look at the Old Testament precursors of worship at altars and tabernacles and temples, we see a pattern of meeting with God that we call covenant renewal. Sacrifice, song, gathering, bringing offerings of tribute to the king, hearing the word and teaching, and feasting are all connected together. Although God is always near to us, the book of Hebrews especially links our corporate worship with this pattern of covenant renewal, declaring that when we worship we actually draw near to God at his heavenly temple (Hebrews 8), at the heavenly mountain, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12). In a way, you could say that while Jesus is always with us by his Spirit, especially when two or more are gathered together; however, on the Lord’s day we are transported up to be with him.

So, the Lord’s day worship is not just a convenient mutual aid society where we help and are helped. It is an actual meeting with Jesus, an actual hearing from him, an actual feasting together with him. But this means that we are really and supernaturally helped, in ways far beyond anything that happens if we were to get together on our own. This really heightens the importance of our gathering together: you have been invited to an audience with the emperor of the universe. You need to make extraordinary effort and sacrifice to keep tryst with him. There is no privilege in the universe like Christian privilege: we get to have an audience with the king of kings and judge of judges and the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:17).

It is the meeting with Jesus that is the whole purpose of worship. We don’t attend worship because we are helped by it, though we are greatly helped by it and so our effort to get there and participate is a kind of a spiritual discipline. Think of all the ways that worship helps us:

  1. Our very ability to draw near to God is a strong assurance that we stand completely forgiven.
  2. Our going up to meet with him in song and adoration is a strong rehearsal and assurance of his greatness and power and victory that he wields for us, his family, his bride.
  3. Our hearing the word and preaching is a real word from Jesus to us. Consider Ephesians 2:17 where Paul says that Jesus “preached peace” to the Ephesians. Jesus was never in Ephesus, but Jesus preached peace to the Ephesians through his apostles and pastors.
  4. Our receiving and witnessing baptism is a real word from God that in Jesus we are all beloved Sons, with whom he is well pleased.
  5. Our eating the Lord’s supper at the Lord’s table together with Jesus is a real word from Jesus that we “shall eat at my table always” (2 Samuel 9) just as lame Mephibosheth always ate at David’s table “like one of the king’s sons.”

Of course this means we are brothers and sisters and must show good manners, both at the table and beyond. So now let’s consider how our corporate life and fellowship works in our homes and at our tables.

We know from 1 Corinthians 10–11 that it is possible by our eating to partake of the “table of demons” and by our lack of consideration and patience for one another as the body of Jesus to eat and drink judgment on ourselves. We know from Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 that it is possible by our eating to destroy a brother. We know from Galatians 2 that by refusing to eat with one another it is possible to walk out of step with the truth of the gospel. We know from Peter’s vision in Acts 10 that by refusing to eat with one another we could become a fountain of uncleanness in the church. Eating together, and how we eat together, are really important. Of course, the first way we practice these Christian table manners is in the Lord’s supper, but it should be taking place at our own tables as well.

This family and table life together in the covenant, in the body, is actually the foundation of all of the kinds of fellowship that we can practice. Love, charity, and hospitality are the foundation of our entire life together. All of the harder aspects of life together, such as forgiveness, warning, rebuke, and even excommunication, grow out of the soil of love for one another in Jesus. As we work at the practical expressions of love and hospitality year in and year out, we are making an investment in building and strengthening our bonds in the body, which will pay off when the hard times come. There is a genuine cementing of our bonds that takes place in fellowship, especially over food.

Let’s take some time to think through some of the spectrum of how we should practice this fellowship, considering it as a spiritual discipline. The first organizing idea I want to use for the discipline of fellowship is the list of “one–another” and “each–other” commands and prayers in the Bible.

By far the most common command is to love one another, which appears about 15 times. In addition to that, we are to have peace with one another, wash one another’s feet, honor and prefer one another, be like–minded (twice), edify, receive, admonish, greet (five times, with a kiss!), wait for, care, serve, forbear with (twice), be kind to, forgive, submit to (twice), comfort (twice), do good to, stir up, confess to, pray for, show hospitality toward, and fellowship with one another. We are to bear one another’s burdens and esteem one another more highly than ourselves. However, we are not to judge one another, defraud, devour, provoke, envy, lie to, speak evil of, or grumble to one another.

In all of this we are acting towards each other with the heart and attitude of Jesus toward his sheep. And as always this is a two–way street; we are just as much receiving from one another Jesus’s own personal care for us.

The second organizing idea I want to use for the discipline of fellowship is the kinds of speech that we are to give and receive. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 speaks of admonishing, encouraging, and helping, with patience towards all. 2 Timothy 3:16 speaks of teaching, reproving, correcting, and training, with all of this coming from the word and working to equipping and completion.

In one way it is possible to think of these kinds of speech as being positive or negative, reinforcing or redirecting. But all of our speech is working in love for the good of one another and the good of the body. All of it should have the purpose of building or rebuilding each other. In terms of Romans 14 and the stronger–brother and weaker–brother instructions, this love means we should not despise one another, nor pass judgment on one another. Not despising is easy to understand, though it can be hard to live! Never passing judgment, however, seems surprising. A couple helpful ways to think of this are that, first, this doesn’t at all keep us from questioning and warning one another, and second, that Paul is speaking of individual judgments. There is a place for the church under the rule of the elders to make judgments, perhaps even ending in excommunications. And those churchy judgments actually draw the lines of our Christian fellowship. So, we can say that we ought to have scruples about how we live, and the church altogether defines our scruples about who we carry on Christian life with, but in between we are only allowed to have opinions and not scruples about one another.

The last organizing idea I want to use for the discipline of fellowship is the gifts and fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). The Spirit is building and knitting together the body, proceeding from the Father and the Son toward us and proceeding from us toward each other. The gifts and fruits of the Spirit are a key way the Spirit is doing this building and knitting. Most of the gifts and fruits can only exist in a one–another context, and all of them are oriented toward the good of one another, even internal ones like joy, peace, and self–control. So, part of our discipline of fellowship is to steadily practice and cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self–control.

We could go on to add the various lists of gifts of the Spirit, and also work through the definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. We could look at how the godly woman is described in Proverbs 31, because this is just how Jesus’s bride should behave. We could think of different models of relationship: brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and how these spell out different kinds of friendship and discipleship. Perhaps you can do this and more on your own time. And we need to remember that all of this grows out of love, so we need to take care to walk in wisdom, patience, and faith, to walk with and be led by the Spirit, and to consider the fact that this love requires us to sacrifice ourselves and die to ourselves.

But let’s shift for a few minutes instead to think about some practical matters of how you do this. Afterwards I really want to hear some ideas from you as well, since there are combined centuries of experience in fellowship here in this room. Here are a few thoughts from my limited experience:

  1. Think small and simple. Invite someone over after church for a Wal–Mart pizza; spaghetti noodles and Ragu; bread, cheese, and salad; or even peanut butter and jelly. Pack a picnic lunch after church and announce that to your group. Offer to bring food over to someone’s house as an alternative if that makes life simpler for their family (we did this a number of times especially as newlyweds). Attend the piano recital or baseball game of each other’s children. Since you are going to the fireworks or state fair anyway, extend an open invitation for folks to join you. Bring a meal over just because someone had a hectic week. Remember that it is more important to fuss over people than over food and decoration. Have faith that steady little investments over a long period of time will blossom and bear great fruit. Your faithful participation in your home group are is one simple but tremendously powerful bit of fellowship. Think about how things pile up and grow over years; Lisa and I are now coming up on close to 400 home group meetings since we joined the church 18 years ago!
  2. Think large and festive, like the feast of booths, which was Israel’s annual Bible camp. Plan a home group picnic, dinner, bowling night, or caroling outing. It’s certainly possible to pull off a home group camping trip, mountain cabin stay, or beach trip. It requires some organization and planning, and you likely won’t be able to fit everyone’s schedule. But it is not beyond your reach, and I can promise you will benefit tremendously from extended unprogrammatic time together. You don’t need to wait for your home group leader to plan this.
  3. Think in groups. Invite multiple people or multiple families over to multiply the conversation and fellowship.
  4. Do a little bit now rather than waiting and scheming for the perfect. As they say, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Set realistic and even plodding goals. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with guilt; simply plod along. Pick a Sunday and work from there. Also, accept the limitations of your circumstances or season of life. Perhaps your fellowship and worship are more taken up with caring for little children, or perhaps they are quite taken up with your kids’ friends. Welcome this as part of the fellowship God is calling you to practice right now.
  5. Be spiritual. This doesn’t have to be sophisticated. The important things are all covered by basic, solid questions. What is God teaching you? How can I pray for you? What are you reading? What is one area you want to change? What are your fears? What are your dreams? What do you love?
  6. Be human. One of the points of fellowship we will always have with Jesus and with one another is our shared humanity. Make time to laugh, play games, watch movies and sports, unpack good literature, discuss politics, and more.
  7. Phil has spoken often of the concentric circles of responsibility, from our church and family to our extended family, friends, neighbors, city, state, and world. We can’t carry an equal burden of care for all of these spheres of responsibility. Everyone has unique connections and needs to work out their priorities and spheres of responsibility before God. But as a general rule, make sure that you are placing the most weight on the inner circles. You don’t have to be equally close friends, even to everyone in your home group. But you should be spending time with them.
  8. Fellowship and especially hospitality are a way of expressing and living out that “these are my people.” Depending on where our culture goes over the next years and decades, there could be a real cost and risk to this. In the future it may be harder work to delight in being counted together with Jesus and his people. And of course, “our people” extends beyond the membership of this church to Jesus’s entire church. Jesus’s marriage is the one marriage that will endure into eternity, and his family is the one brotherhood and sisterhood that will endure into eternity. So, there is a kind of priority that the church as our family and people has even over our human families.
  9. Generosity has an important part in our life together as God’s family, as Jesus’s body. Our love for Jesus and for one another should lead us to be generous not just with our affection and time, but also strength, wisdom and experience, money, belongings, food, and homes. Receiving others’ generosity is just as important. It is a blessing both to give and to receive. Sometimes there is even a cost to receiving help — perhaps things are not done just the way you want them. Blessing others by not being picky receivers is itself a kind of generosity. Similarly, in your hospitality, be willing to suffer some broken and dirtied possessions. It is certainly part of the cost of parenting and that cost will be multiplied if you bring more children into your life and home.
  10. On rebuke, much wisdom is required. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak; a time to answer a fool according to his folly, and a time not to do so; a time to thunder, and a time to ask questions. Pray for wisdom, walk in step with the Spirit, and seek Godly counsel!
  11. Finally, remember that although all of this working at building up the body is a kind of spiritual discipline, and although we receive great benefits from it, the work and the benefits are not our goal. Our love for one another, our love for Jesus, and the fact that we experience Jesus and his Spirit as we strengthen our bonds are really what should be driving us. Jesus is our greatest treasure, and we are doing all of this to pursue, obey, and fellowship with him.

So: now I want to hear and benefit from your experience and counsel! Keeping in mind that we will cover evangelism later in these classes, what thoughts, questions or challenges do you have related to fellowship, hospitality, discipleship, and worship?

. . .
What are some unique ways you have engaged in fellowship?
What are some unique challenges you have had to overcome?
. . .

My final charge to you is this: before you go to sleep tonight, discuss and plan one thing you can do between now and the end of the year to practice the disciplines of fellowship and hospitality. Who will you invite to lunch after church or invite to your Thanksgiving dinner?

Thank you!

Written by Scott Moonen

October 7, 2018 at 5:22 pm

Egypt

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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)

Written by Scott Moonen

December 14, 2013 at 7:38 am

Son

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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)

Written by Scott Moonen

December 11, 2013 at 5:07 pm

New creation

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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.

Written by Scott Moonen

December 2, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Life

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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.

See also: Poythress on indifferentism and rigorism; and Leithart’s book, Against Christianity.

Written by Scott Moonen

January 21, 2012 at 7:36 am

Invictus

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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[1]. 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.


[1] 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.

Written by Scott Moonen

May 27, 2011 at 9:19 am

Faith acquisition

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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.

See also:

Written by Scott Moonen

May 6, 2011 at 3:42 pm