Monday, December 10, 2012

The Greatest Miracle of All

Last Sunday, I preached a sermon on Jesus as the Son of Man/Son of Mary.  It is the second part of a series that takes Isaiah 9:6, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given...." as its theme.  The first message was on Jesus the Son of God.  It focused on the deity of Christ (after all, in Isa. 9:7, he is called "The Mighty God").  In our last message, however, we focused on the humanity of Christ.

You cannot talk about the humanity of Christ without talking about the incarnation.  When theologians say "incarnation" with reference to Christ, they are referring to the event which brought the Son of God into the world to become a man.  It is often called a "miracle," and so it is!  This miracle is summed up in the words of John 1:14, "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us."

But it is important to see where the miracle is.  I think a lot of people probably think that the "miracle" of the incarnation is the virgin birth.  But that would be wrong.  Though the virgin birth is a miracle, that was really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.  The big deal is the fact that the infinite Word became finite flesh.  The big deal is that the Son of God became man, "and so was, and continueth to be, God and man, in two distinct natures, and one person forever" (Westminster Shorter Catechism).

We will never understand how this happened or how it came to be.  It is a mystery, a mighty miracle.  God became man, truly man, without ever ceasing to be God.  "Remaining what he was, he became what he was not."  I do not understand it, but I believe it.  My salvation hangs upon it.  Yours does, too.

Why?  Because I am a sinner, a traitor before God, and I cannot purge my sins.  If my sins are to be taken away, someone else must do it for me.  A mediator between God and man.  But only another man can be my substitute, and only God can purge my sins.  That is why the only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man.

So I can understand why Wayne Grudem has called the incarnation the greatest miracle in the Bible, greater than the resurrection and greater even than the creation of the universe.  And when we celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the mightiest mystery and greatest miracle in the world.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The God who knows our sins

    In one of the Psalms, David writes:

O God, you know my folly;
        the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.
(Psalm 69:5 ESV)

I find this very encouraging.  It is encouraging that God knew the folly and wrongs of David.  Why?  Because, despite this, David still knew he could pour out his heart to God.  He didn't think he had to hide or ignore his sins in order to approach God.  He didn't have to put on an air of respectability or fake righteousness to come to God in prayer. 

People are not like this.  If your closest friends knew everything about you, they probably wouldn't like you anymore.  If they could peer into your heart, they might become disgusted.  But God does see everything about us.  He peers into our hearts.  "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good" (Prov. 15:3).  As the catechism puts it, "Nothing is hidden from God."

And despite this, God loves his people.  David goes on to say:

    When the humble see it they will be glad;
        you who seek God, let your hearts revive.
    For the LORD hears the needy
        and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.
    Let heaven and earth praise him,
        the seas and everything that moves in them.
    For God will save Zion
        and build up the cities of Judah,
    and people shall dwell there and possess it;
        the offspring of his servants shall inherit it,
        and those who love his name shall dwell in it.
(Psalm 69:32-36 ESV)

David was confident that the God who knew his sins would hear him and not despise him.  Of course, we know why God does this.  He does this because his people are righteousness - not with a righteousness of their own, but with the righteousness of Christ.  God made his Son who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor. 5:21).  The gospel - the salvation wrought by Christ for us - is therefore the basis of our prayers, and is why, with David, we can come with boldness to the throne of grace to find mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Matthew 24 and the Second Coming

I have struggled for many years with Jesus' words in Matthew 24 about what appears to be his second coming.  The problem is that sentence just after he tells of his climatic coming: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled" (ver.34).  The problem is that it is almost certain that "this generation" refers to the people living in Jesus' day.  If the previous verses (vs. 29-33) are a reference to the Second Coming, it appears that Jesus is predicting his coming within that very generation.

Over the years, atheists (such as Betrand Russell, among others) have picked up on this and used this as a reason why they rejected the Christian faith.  If Jesus did predict his coming before that generation passed away, then he simply was wrong.  His prophesy was false.  And so he is not who the Church claims he is: namely, the Son of God and Savior of the world.

The Church has also struggled with this over the years, quite apart from any consideration of the snarky comments of guys like Russell.  Over time, there have been a lot of attempts to reconcile Jesus' teaching with his rather forceful words in verse 34.  For example, some have claimed that the word "generation" means "race," and so what Jesus is saying is that the Jewish race would not pass away before Jesus returned.  The problem with this interpretation is that it is a very questionable definition for "generation."  It seems that most scholars reject it as a reasonable definition.

Another way to deal with it is what has sometimes been called "preterism" or a variation thereof.  Preterists claim that all the prophesies in the Scripture (Old and New Testaments) have all been fulfilled.  Preterists therefore do not put Matthew 24 in the category of unfulfilled prophesy; they claim it was entirely fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.  This of course is tempting, because there is no question that Matthew 24 deals largely with the destruction of the Jewish holy city.  But what do you do with the words of verses 29-33?  It really is hard to conceive for me, at least, that this paragraph is talking about the Roman army's triumph over Jerusalem.  Especially since, as Jesus goes on in verses 36 through the end of chapter 25, it is almost incontrovertible that Jesus is referring to the end of the world as a whole, not just the close of a chapter in salvific history.

There are variations of this.  Some scholars, like R.T. France, believe that everything up to verse 35 is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.  Then in verses 36 and following, he switches to the Second Coming (note that the disciples have asked two questions: one related to the destruction of Jerusalem, and one related to the Second Coming, verse 3).  The "coming" in verse 31 is then not a coming for salvation, but a coming in judgment.  Scholars who take this interpretation do a fairly good job in justifying their position by paying careful attention to the imagery used in verses 29-33 and comparing them to similar phraseology in the Old Testament, where such phrases clearly refer to temporal judgments.  In fact, after reading France on this (see his commentary on Matthew) I was almost convinced.

But I don't buy it for two reasons.  First, because the imagery of "coming" is used again in chapter 25:31, "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him...".  The following scene described by Jesus is a reference to the final judgment (this seems clear to me, at least).  The same language is used here as in 24:29,ff. but with a reference not to Jesus coming to judge Jerusalem but to the final climatic coming of Jesus to judge all the world.  As the parables in chapter 25 are clearly tied to his teaching in chapter 24, this leads me to believe that Jesus is referring to his Second Coming in 24:29-33.

Second, it doesn't fit with the Lukan telling of Jesus' words.  In Luke's narrative, Jesus says, "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory (cf. Mt 24:30).  And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh."   A coming of Jesus in judgment?  No, "for your redemption draweth nigh."  The redemption of the Church was not accomplished at the destruction of Jerusalem, but it will be at that Great Day.  The coming Jesus is referring to is not just a coming for judgment but a coming for redemption.  It seems to me that these words of Jesus in Luke fit much better with the Second Coming.

So then, we are back to the original problem: how to reconcile verse 34 with the previous verses.  Here's my attempt at it.

First of all, it seems that the sorrows that Jesus refers to in verses 6-14 cover the entire period of human history until the very End (see verse 14).  Then, beginning in verse 15 through verse 24, Jesus refers to the destruction of Jerusalem as a species of the sorrows of vs. 6-14.  The point of all this is given in verses 25-28: don't expect Jesus' return just because really bad things are happening.  Charlatans will take advantage of suffering to hype people up into expecting immediate deliverance. Don't buy it.  In any case, you won't have to guess when the Second Coming is because it will be as obvious as lightening that explodes across the sky.

So when Jesus says, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days..." I don't think he's referring to just the destruction of Jerusalem, but to all the sorrows of which the destruction of Jerusalem was a species, and which covers the entire period of human history, down to the End.  A lot of suffering will take place before Jesus returns, make no mistake about it.  But when God says enough is enough, the curtains come down, and the show is over.  Human history ends abruptly in the climatic return of the Son of God (verses 29-31).

Jesus then gives the parable of the fig tree (vs. 32-33) with an application in verse 34.  The point again seems to be to expect a lot of suffering before the Return.  The prevalence of suffering is like the appearance of figs on the fig tree: when that happens, you know the End is near.  But remember, the suffering that precedes the Second Coming is not just the destruction of Jerusalem as vs. 6-14 show.  They include that event as a subset, but the subset is not the whole set of events!  However, all the different species of suffering that will figure into the experience of God's people (including the destruction of Jerusalem) will be experienced by that generation.

Therefore the words, "This generation will not pass until all these things be fulfilled" seems to be a reference to all the different kinds of tribulation experienced by the church leading up to the Second Coming, not the Second Coming itself.  And of course if this is the case, then there is no contradiction between Jesus' prophesy and what actually has happened.

The following verses seem to bear this out.  The problem with guys like Russell claiming that Jesus was predicting his Second Coming within that very generation is that it doesn't fit with what Jesus says about it in verse 36: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (ESV).  In other words, Jesus is saying that even he did not know when the Second Coming would take place!  (Even if, like the KJV, you omit the words "nor the Son," the point is still the same.  "But the Father only" precludes the Son as a co-knower.)  So how could he predict it at all?  That would be impossible, given his own words.  No, verse 34 is not a prediction that the events in verses 29-31 would happen in that very generation.  They are a prediction that the sorrows which the church will experience in the entire time leading up to the Second Coming would be experienced by that very generation.

But since Jesus himself does not know the timing of the Second Coming, we should always be ready for it (vs. 36-51).  "Watch!" is the word for the church today.  What Jesus is doing is preparing his disciples for the shock of his absence.  They might recover from his death on a cross by the resurrection: but would they hold out in his absence?  You must, Jesus is saying.  Hold on, be ready at all times.  Don't be like the foolish virgins (25:1-13) or the Foolish Servant (25:14-30), who squandered their time as if the Master was not going to return.  I will return, Jesus is saying, and the faithful will be eternally blessed (25:31-46).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thoughts on Health Food and the Bible

It seems that today, many families are into the health food craze.  They tell us that we really must drop all processed foods and eat only organic food, only grass-fed beef, etc., etc., etc.   And they've all watched Food, Inc. it seems.

Well, that's all fine as far as it goes.  If you've got the money to buy food at your local health food emporium, go for it.  I'm poor, so I shop at Walmart, and so, . . . well, you get the idea. 

But what really irks me is when people begin to look down their nose at you if you don't follow them down the path of "eating responsibly."  Especially if they profess to be Christian.  In fact, you get the idea from some that if you're not eating "right" (according to the standards of the health food people) then you're just not cutting it spiritually.  I beg to differ.  In fact, I don't really think God cares about it that much.  Here's why.

Under the Old Covenant, God told his people Israel not to eat pork.  ("See!" the heath food people say, "God does care!!!")  Now, I won't debate that a juicy slab of bacon is not the healthiest for you (especially when it's only baked in the microwave for 5 seconds - let me tell you, that is gross).  But turn over to 1 Timothy 4 and you read this words:

"Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer." (ESV)

Note the words: "everything created by God is good" and trust me, this includes bacon.  In fact, it most certainly does, as the apostle is refuting the teaching of those who want to impose the restrictions of the Jewish diet on new Gentile believers who did not observe such scruples when it came to food.  The same point could be made from Acts 10, Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8.  The food laws of the Old Covenant no longer apply.

However, if it were true that God really does care about whether we eat bacon or not, then it seems hard to see why God would not have told the early church: "Okay, no more sacrificing goats.  But you still can't eat pork."  God didn't say that.  In fact, the apostle tells us that you come along and tell believers that they can't eat certain foods, and that if they do they are disobeying God, then you are really carrying a doctrine of demons.

Now I understand that you can go overboard either direction.  Eating 12 packages of Twinkies a day is not exactly a sign of self-control.  But giving someone the impression that they can't be as holy as you are because they drink good-ol' homogenized milk is bad, too.

In the end, when it comes to food, I think God cares about two things: how much you eat (a matter of self-control), and why you eat it (a matter of worship).  1 Corinthians 10:31 comes to mind:  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."

The Seals of the Scroll (Rev. 6)

Most of us have experienced disillusionment as the result of false promises of help. Perhaps this is one reason why the whole Charlie Brown ...