Great Salvation, Greater Stakes
August 4, 2013
Christ Community Church
Great Salvation, Greater Stakes
August 4, 2013
Christ Community Church
Last week I wrote about the apostolic conviction that everything written in the Old Testament was written about Christ and for the church. I believe this conviction can serve as a powerful corrective to a watered-down moralistic hermeneutic which we’ve all heard or used at some point.
We have all heard (or preached) that moralistic sermon, right? The one where the preacher (who is still a good man, by the way; it’s not easy to present God’s Word to God’s people every week) asks us to turn to Joshua 1:9 and spends twenty-five minutes exhorting us all to “be strong and courageous” because Joshua was so. Or the one where we are exhorted to show generosity in hardship like Elisha’s widowed supporter. These are the kind of expository maneuvers which can be performed on any story where the flow of the narrative ends with the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished. We may profit just as much from a homily which takes as its text “Old Mother Hubbard,” and which admonishes us to be diligent and hardworking, to lay up for lean times.
The point is, these moralistic sermons and teachings, rather than applying the sacred text in the way it was intended, obscure the true message of the text and in the end are powerless to bring about the true ethical change which is their aim. Try as you might to exhort me to courage in the face of fear and challenge, I am no Joshua, and when the obstacle before me seems too large for what I thought I could handle, your sermon last Sunday loses its ability to strengthen and hold me up. There is no true link between the modern hearer and the ancient hero.
This is where the apostolic conviction comes in. It claims that all of Scripture, rather than being a cipher from which I may glean moral directive if I can, is a story. The apostles held that Scripture, with all its facets and in all its genres, is a single story about a single offspring who is the object of saving faith. Every faithful son and daughter looks like that Son. Every enemy is his enemy, and every victory is a prelude to his final victory.
A method for reading Scripture emerges from this conviction. It holds that events in the Old Testament really did happen, and do need to be understood fully in their context before being used as starting blocks. Having understood the story or passage in question, the next step is to see Christ where he may be seen as fulfilling what is promised. By the way, this isn’t like that game you played as a child where you lay down on the grass and stared up at the sky, willing elephants and battleships to emerge from the shapeless clouds. Rather, it is much more like an Easter egg hunt–no matter how difficult it is to find the egg, you can be assured that it is there because hey, it’s Easter.
It is only after we see Christ for who he is as he has revealed himself in the Word that we see ourselves in him as his redeemed people. When we see that Joshua, the strong and fearless commander of the Lord’s army, is a shadow, a picture, a type of the greater Joshua who defeats the enemies of God and provides his people with an eternal inheritance, then whom have we to fear? What might can stand against the divine and risen Christ who works on our behalf? Courage is a foregone conclusion at that point. There is a moral imperative here, but it can only exist in its connection to the redemptive fiat standing over our lives as those who are in Christ.
The moralistic method of interpreting Scripture is a crab-walk, a graceless two-step from the figures of the Old Testament to you and I. The apostolic method is a beautiful dance, a three-step waltz between the Old and New in which Christ is glorified and his people redeemed.
Alright, I admit the original version is catchier. I’m no songwriter.
Last week I mentioned that my convictions about the meaning of Scripture can be summed up in one phrase: Everything written is about Christ and for the church. To be more accurate, I should have said that my convictions about the apostolic method of Scriptural interpretation can be summed up in the above phrase. I believe that these two statements, “Scripture is written about Christ” and “Scripture is written for the church,” function as two great guiding lights which Christ and his apostles used in their Spirit-inspired interpretation of the Old Testament. I’d like to unpack that a little bit.
Everything is written about Christ. In Luke 24:13-27, the Emmaus road account, the incognito risen Christ gives what must have been the most edifying sermon ever: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Later the same day, he appeared in the midst of his disciples and reminded them of his teaching: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). He then opened their minds to understand the Scripture, and this is the summary of their understanding: “‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise of the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem'” (24:46-47).
Everything is written for the church. Paul says in Romans 15 that “whatever was written in former times was written for our instruction, that through the endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He says in 1 Corinthians of the Jewish exodus that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is what allows Paul to relate the Jews’ eating of manna and drinking water from a rock to the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 10), to apply laws concerning oxen to the rights of a gospel minister (1 Corinthians 9), to call the church Isaac and the unbelieving world Ishmael (Galatians 4); it’s what allows Peter to give the Jew-Gentile church the designation given to Israel in the Old Testament, that we are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).
This matters now– have you ever started in on a one-year reading plan for your Bible and gotten bogged down in Leviticus, or Samuel, or Jeremiah, because it feels alien and draining rather than life-giving? Have you ever felt that a particular passage couldn’t possibly fit the rubric given in 1 Timothy, not profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, or training in righteousness? The truth is, the whole Bible exalts Christ for the benefit of the church. Therefore, it is our duty and delight to read the Old Testament in such a way that Christ is exalted and we are edified. This is not reading into the text; this is reading the entire text.
There is more to say here, but I’ve exhausted my word limit.
I know I’m indebted to Peter Leithart and Jim Jordan on this one, but I cannot tell you how much of this is from them or where I read it. It seems to have just leached into my brain.
In the beginning, God set the lights in the sky in order to serve as signs, among other things. He also set them in the sky to rule. Throughout the Old Testament, stars seem to be associated with kingship and ruling. In Numbers 24:17, for example, “star” and “scepter” are parallels, and in Judges 5:19-20 “kings” and “stars” are parallel. In Isaiah the king of Babylon is called the Day Star (14:12).
At the beginning of the New Testament, we see the same thing. Three wise men see a star and surmise that a king was born. This isn’t just eastern paganism, either; when the magi tell Herod about the star, he and all Jerusalem are concerned (Matthew 2:3). And again at the end of the New Testament: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16). The root and descendant of David– meaning the king of Israel– the bright morning star.
Abraham was promised descendants like the stars, and physically speaking, that was fulfilled (Deuteronomy 1:10). But Abraham is the father of the faithful also. Jesus’s star is first of a mighty innumerable host who rule with a rod of iron and receive the morning star (Revelation 2:26-28). At the end of Revelation we’re told that the sun and moon are replaced by the Lamb, but what of the stars? Perhaps they are replaced by the church, shining like stars in the universe (Philippians 2:15)
And if stars are kings, then perhaps when God told him he would have descendants as numerous as the stars he was also hinting at the future reality of the church- “And you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign with him on the earth” (Revelation 5:10).
Last night at Bible study we were talking about the “household code” found in 1 Peter 2:13-3:7. I think the household codes in Scripture (Ephesians 5:22-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1) are really amazing and counter-cultural, and I enjoy teaching on them.
When I lead Bible studies I like to be able to go deep into the text, discuss things, difficulties, bring up questions, all that; but I don’t like to end there. I think people should go away from a Bible study challenged and encouraged, and so at the end of every Bible study I teach I throw on a little “homiletical takeaway–” my attempt to draw the discussion to a close with an encouraging word from the text. So here’s what I said last night:
God wants unity in inequality. I don’t mean inequality of worth; I mean distinction, difference. God doesn’t want a homogenous church, but an integrated one. He doesn’t love his own equally, as though they were all the same; he loves his own fully, as fully as he can love them. God is a Father– what father loves his own without distinction? There are different places, different levels of maturity, different gifts, different sexes, different roles. But one baptism, one church, one Lord, one Spirit, one God and Father of all.
Satan wants to iron out the difference between sexes, giftings, and institutions. God wants a beautiful stained-glass window; Satan want’s a nice uniform mud, which is just another way of talking about entropy, which is just another way of talking about death.
Unity in inequality. Each member fully accepted, fully loved, fully appreciated, for all their differences, their strengths and weaknesses– many members, one body, one Lord.
Tomorrow I leave for the East Coast for a few weeks, and I have no intention of posting. Maybe a poem every now and again, we’ll see. Before I leave, however, I want to share something I found encouraging.
Pastor Sam Crabtree (author of Practicing Affirmation, one of my all time favorite Christian living books) and I sat down the other day to talk about the BBC Shepherd Group which I lead. Sam just became our overseeing elder, and so I was able to introduce him to the group and hear his heart for us. It was good.
Toward the end of our time I asked him what he expects of me as a small group leader, and he said something I thought was profound. He told me that my gift, my strength, the advantage that I have over him in this situation, is thereness. I am not as wise or experienced or mature or articulate or pastoral as Pastor Sam, but I am there, every week, with my group, and he is not. And for Sam, that counts for something.
I’m not sure I’d ever thought about that before. This extends to the whole church, this gift of thereness. Unless you suddenly find yourself the protagonist in a robinsonade, you have been gifted with thereness for someone else’s benefit, to be a blessing. People need good teaching/preaching, wise counselors, just authorities, and a whole host of other things, but they also need someone to just be there for them, and you can do that.
I think this is amazing- God has created a need in the greatest of us which can be met by the least of us. How well this ties the body together! I don’t need to be paralyzed by my own insecurities when it comes to comforting and encouraging a much older brother in the faith. I can just be there for that brother, and God is building his church. Anybody can do it; everybody should. There’s a brother or sister in your local body who needs you to exercise your gift of thereness.
Yesterday I mentioned my little “fourfolds” which serve as a unique headspace for me. I thought today I might share the first fourfold I wrote.
Christianity is about forgiveness, not guilt. When one enters the Kingdom, the most important thing to know deep down in the bones is the gospel proper- that Christ died for my sins, and rose again for my justification. God is no longer angry with his people. There is no charge that can be brought against God’s elect. These are not superfluous doctrines- they are at the heart of the gospel news of Jesus Christ, and the devil knows it, even if the Christians don’t. If a man becomes a Christian and struggles all his life with besetting sin but realizes this, his life will not have been a failure. This is not to say that a man may believe the gospel and continue to delight in unremitting, unrepentant, yet realized sin; no, that man is lost. The true believer does stumble in many ways, but he knows it for what it is and hates it, or at least hates that he hates it not enough. The issue is not what this man looks like next to the apostle Paul; rather, what he looks like next to the old man of sin. Without Christ, a man’s works are an offense to God; in Christ, they are a delight to him. All men may be created equal, but not all men are gifted equally. One has faith enough for great deeds, another for “normal” deeds, and yet another for hardly any deeds at all, just enough to believe that God is for him and not against him. If the man of great faith does “normal” deeds, the man of “normal” faith does small deeds, and the weak man believes with all his might, then he and he alone will have moved mountains. God is equally satisfied with all because all are in Christ, but the weak man pleases him more than all the rest.
Flourish where you are planted, you who fall in rich soil, and you will produce one-hundred fold. Flourish where you are planted, you who fall in mediocre soil, and you will produce sixty fold. Flourish where you are planted, you who fall in dry desert soil, and you will produce thirty fold. The vines that grow in hot and arid climes produce the sweetest grapes. God is pleased with his poor children in a way he is pleased with no others. Though they may do no deeds which resound through history, their “insignificant” acts light up the universe for rulers and authorities in heavenly places to see.
I say God is pleased with his poor children in a way he is pleased with no others. This does not mean that he loves his own unequally; rather, he loves his own uniquely. God is a father; what father loves his children without distinction? He shares a special moment with this one, and gives a special gift to that one. All are equally sons, but not without distinction. If the second-born believes the father’s love is greater toward his firstborn, it is because he misunderstands that love. You will never be an apostle; will you never be loved? You have inherited a faith as precious as Peter’s, but you may never walk on water. Some have been given mercy to live well; some to die well. Do not confuse the two.
Gospel love is unmerited; it is not undistinguished. The strong love the weak, being more capable of love. The weak love the strong, seeing in them more of those admirable qualities reminiscent of Christ. As the strong love the weak, they help them to grow into maturity as they themselves are being exercised in those Christ-like qualities. As the weak love the strong, they too are being exercised in such as they have and give the strong an example to follow, as a candle in a dark room is more evident than a floodlight at noon. Each receives fully from Christ the divine love; each shares it accordance with his faith. This is the economy of heaven. Such love can only grow out of distinction. We are in Christ, and we are being made into his image. The church shares in all that Jesus has. Jesus has made his ascent to the Father; the church age is a participation in his return. He came down, after all, to obtain his bride and present her to the Father without spot or blemish. We are the bride of Christ. There may be many members, but there is only one bride. The bride makes one ascent to the Father, as Jesus made one ascent. How then shall we not help each other in holiness? There are many circumstances, many trials, many falls, many hurts, and many struggles- but there is only one Christian life. There is only one baptism. “Are you able to be baptized with my baptism? Jesus asked the brothers. The strong must help the weak into the waters. They will rise over his head, and he will die; but he will come up remade.
Among the greatest duties and privileges of the strong is to shepherd the weak. Among the greatest duties and privileges of the weak is to love the strong. This admits no envy of station, for both are given by God to promote the good and salvation of the individual and the body. As the body goes, so go its members.
Christian love is better than pagan love because of its distinctions, not despite them. Pagans love the lovely, as they should. They also love the unlovely, but not because they are unlovely; their love rises from pity, not delight. It is a lesser love, not a different one. But the Christian loves his enemy, precisely because he is an enemy. He is able to pray for those who persecute him because they persecute him, not despite it. To the Christian, the one who persecutes has gone through weakness and out the other side, like a petulant and disobedient child.
The strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak. Love your neighbor as yourself- this is the sum of the commandments. The law, we know, was given to show us Christ. How? To reveal guilt. How for the guiltless, those whose sins are paid for? To show forgiveness. Love your weak neighbor, you strong. Bear with his failings. How? What does this look like? Forgive him. This is the sum of the commandments. This is the heart of the gospel, for, as it has been said, Christianity is about forgiveness, not guilt. The man who spends his entire life understanding this, having reached its end, will have discovered that his was a life well spent.