Tag Archives: Scripture

A Whale-Sized Lesson for Preachers

JonahThere now came a lull in [Father Mapple’s] look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself.

But again he leaned over towards the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:

“Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet- ‘out of the belly of hell’- when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ‘vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;’ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten- his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean- Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!

This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!

He drooped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,- “But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him- a far, far upward, and inward delight- who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,- top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath- O Father!- chiefly known to me by Thy rod- mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”

He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.

Herman Melville (1819-91), Moby Dick, Chapter IX, “The Sermon.”

Photo: Jim LePage 

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The Word is Sterile Unless Spoken

luther-preachesThe Reformation gave centrality to the sermon.  The pulpit was higher than the altar, for Luther held that salvation is through the Word and without the Word the elements are devoid of sacramental quality, but the Word is sterile unless it is spoken.  All of this is not to say that the Reformation invented preaching.  In the century preceding Luther, for the single province of Westphailia ten thousand sermons are in print, and though they are extant only in Latin they were delivered in German.  But the Reformation did exalt the sermon…  The reformers at Wittenberg undertook an extensive campaign of religious instruction through the sermon.  There were three public services on Sunday: from five to six in the morning on the Pauline epistles, from nine to ten on the Gospels, and in the afternoon at a variable hour on a continuation of the theme of the morning or on the catechism.  The church was not locking during the week, but on Mondays and Tuesdays there were sermons on the catechism, Wednesday on the Gospel of Matthew, Thursdays and Fridays on the apostolic letters, and Saturday evening on John’s Gospel.  No one man carried this entire load.  There was a staff of the clergy, but Luther’s share was prodigious.  Including family devotions he spoke often four times on Sundays and quarterly undertook a two-week series four days a week on the catechism.  The sum of his extant sermons is 2,300.  The highest count is for the year 1528, for which there are 195 sermons distributed over 145 days.

His pre-eminence in the pulpit derives in part from the earnestness with which he regarded the preaching office.  The task of the minister is to expound the Word, in which alone are to be found healing for life’s hurts and the balm of eternal blessedness.  The preacher must die daily through concern lest he lead his flock astray.  Sometimes from the pulpit Luther confessed that gladly like the priest and the Levite would he pass by on the other side.  But Luther was constantly repeating to himself the advice which he gave to a discouraged preacher who complained that preaching was a burden, his sermons were always short, and he might better have stayed in his former profession.  Luther said to him:

If Peter and Paul were here, they would scold you because you wish right off to be as accomplished as they.  Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk.  Do your best.  If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour or a quarter of an hour.  Do not try to imitate other people.  Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God.  Look solely to his honor and not to applause.  Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears.  I can tell you that preaching is not a work of man.  Although I am old [he was forty-eight] and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach.  You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; second, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace.  You will preach your very best.  The audience will be pleased, but you won’t.  And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself.  So pray to God and leave all the rest to him.

Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 272-74 (1995 Meridian ed.).

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Oh God, You are Good

Oh God,

You wound that you may heal.

You empty that you may fill.

You divide that you may unite.

You bring darkness that you may be light.

You tear down that you may build.

You humble that I may yield.

You take that you may give.

You kill that I may live.

You strike that I may be

Holy, likened unto Thee.

Gracious Father, let me see,

Through the pain, lies Your glory.

For Your Son, He went this way

Bearing sin that He might pay.

Every bit of wrath did He endure

For my soul, He did secure,

Life, oh life with Him at last,

When all sin and pain are past.

For this day I wait and fight,

‘Til Your glory be my sight.

Holy Spirit, help me here,

To cling to Christ and hold Him dear,

That I in faith may have to bring,

A life, my humble offering,

To lay before the throne

Of Christ, to be all glory alone.

You are good.

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Who’s in Charge Here?

churchquestionsIt happens often, probably more than you might think, or maybe less that you think it should happen, but it does happen.  The question is asked: “Who’s in charge here?”  You’ve seen it in Sci-Fi movies, when the alien lands and first encounters human beings and says, “Take me to your leader.”   This is that question in statement form.  Maybe at school in class, your teacher steps out of the room and things get rambunctious for a bit and another adult steps in and asks the question.   Or it could be children in a home watching mom and dad bicker and challenge one another and in their hearts, or possibly verbally as kids often do, ask, “Who’s in charge here?”  It is a good question to ask, particularly in times of chaos, rambunctiousness, and challenge, but it is even a better question to have rightly answered and for those “in charge” to act as though they are.

Concerning the local representations of God’s church, the question is of particular importance for it is His church and He has told us in His Word who is in charge.  When it comes to understanding who’s in charge in the church, rather than focusing upon levels of authority, though definitely an important aspect, two words are helpful and will be used to direct this discussion: responsibility and accountability.  You see, all authority is delegated by and flows from Christ, who is Lord over all, but the way in which the Bible reveals who has authority and what kind of authority they bear is described by means of what each person or group is accountable for and is therefore responsible to do.  You may ask, “How do I know if I have authority to do something in the church?” to which I would respond with, “Are you accountable before God for that which you are wanting to do?”  If the answer is yes then He has delegated that authority to you to do such by His Word and in His name.  If you are not accountable to God for what you are seeking to do, then you do not have the authority to do such.  God, in His wisdom in creating and sustaining the church, has provided all we need to be faithful, if we will but listen to Him.

To clarify, let me illustrate.  In a family there are different levels of authority revealed in differing levels of accountability and responsibility.  Simplistically, God created the husband to be and holds him accountable as the shepherd of the family, to physically and spiritually provide and protect, loving his wife as Christ does the church and training his children in the fear of the Lord.  With this the husband/father bears a delegated authority from God in which to carry out those things for which he will give account before God.  This accountability means that he is responsible for those roles in the family and no one else.  The wife/mother has been created by God and is held accountable before Him as the complementary helper, nurturing, submitting, and respecting her husband as unto the Lord, and caring for her children physically and spiritually.  With this, the wife/mother bears a delegated authority from God in which to carry out those things she will give an account before God.  This accountability means that she is responsible for those roles in the family and no one else.  Even children are accountable to God as they have been created to and therefore responsible to honor and obeying their parents, but also loving the other siblings.  To this, kids will give account.  Though the authority needed to fulfill this responsibility is low, it still exists for no one should interfere with a child seeking to honor and obey his or her parents.  While, not a one to one comparison, this family structure of accountability and responsibility is like that of the church.

When it comes to the church, according to the Word of God, there are 4 levels of responsibility and accountability within: Jesus, pastors, deacons, and the congregation* (see end).  Each will be reflected upon, listing what each group is responsible for and therefore accountable unto God.

1. Jesus: The Good Shepherd

It may seem unnecessary to include Jesus in a discussion of who’s in charge of a local church, but it is absolutely the contrary.  The church is His church (Eph. 5:25-27), bought with His blood (Acts 20:28), He is the head of it (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18), He declared that He would build it (Matt. 16:18), He cares for and nourishes it (Eph. 5:29), and He has told us who we are as His church and how we ought to function as His church.  Jesus holds all authority over His church and bears faithful responsibility over it as the One who has given account for it with His life, for He is the Good Shepherd who has laid His life down for His sheep (John 10:1-18).  There is nothing lacking in His work for the church from the past, in the present, and through to eternity.  He is the promised Shepherd that perpetually and graciously shepherds His sheep.  Apart from giving us the Spirit and His Word to feed us and guide us, Christ shepherds His people by calling and equipping undershepherds (pastors) to shepherd His flock wherever they serve.

2. Pastors: The Undershepherds

The next level of responsibility and accountability below Christ is that of pastors (synonymous with overseers, elders, bishops, and leaders in Heb. 13).  They are called undershepherds because under Christ, the Good Shepherd, they bear the greatest amount of responsibility and are therefore the most accountable to God in the church for how they use their delegated authority and fulfill their responsibilities.  Broadly summarizing, pastors (note the plurality nearly always used in Scripture concerning them) are responsible for caring for and protecting themselves and the flock (Acts 20:28-32; John 21:15-17), exercising oversight leading the flock (1 Peter 5:1-4; Heb. 13:7, 17), believing, handling, defending, preaching and teaching the Word of God rightly (2 Tim. 1:13-14, 2:15-17, 4:2-5; 1 Tim. 6:2-4; 1 Peter 3:14-17; Jude 3-4), reproving, rebuking, exhorting with all authority those in error (2 Tim. 4:2-5; Titus 2:15), being an example to the flock (1 Tim 3:1-7, 4:11-16, 6:11-16; Titus 1:5-9), equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for maturity in Christ, unity in the gospel (Eph. 4:11-14), and pastors are responsible for obeying God and not men (1 Thess. 2:2-8, 11-12).

Another area in which pastors bear responsibility is for the calling out, training, and appointing other pastors in the body in which they serve (2 Tim. 2:1-2; Titus 1:5-9). These men, called out and equipped by God to shepherd His flock, are accountable to Him for all of these things (Heb. 13:17; James 3:1; Acts 20:26-27) as well as accountable to the flock.  Pastors bear the authority needed to do these things faithfully by delegation from Christ and by the authority of the Word.  Pastors care for, protect, preach, equip, and rebuke/correct not by their own authority but by the authority of the Word of God.  All this applies to every and any man who claims to be called of God into pastoral ministry of any sort.  In Scripture and therefore before God there are not mere staff ministers and then a pastor but a plurality of pastors that each bear this responsibility and accountability before God and His church.  If any don’t want the responsibility or to be held accountable for this then they are not called by God to shepherd His flock, but are imposters, wolves in sheep’s clothing, seeking their own kingdom and good.  Even if one holds the office but ignores or is ignorant of these responsibilities, they are still accountable to God for them.  Pastors are called to die for they are called to follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd who laid His life down for the good of the sheep.

3. Deacons: The Servants

The next level of responsibility and accountability falling under Christ and pastors is deacons.  It may be offensive to some that the label “servants” are given to deacons but it ought not be offensive for it what the very word “deacon” means and as well as it defines their role in the church.  Deacons are not mentioned very much in the Bible (3 passages and one inference), which makes sense when you think about the non-public nature of their work.  While sharing in nearly identical characteristics/qualifications as pastors, deacons do not have the responsibility and therefore not the authority to teach or lead the church spiritually (1 Tim. 3:1-13).  They are called and responsible to serve, meet physical needs, and seek to maintain the unity of faith.  They must be of exemplary character and are to be selected because they are already doing the work of a deacon (serving) not so that they can have an official title or acknowledgment before the church.  Though the designation of deacon is not specifically mentioned in the text, the role of deacons is illustrated in Acts 6:1-4, where the apostles (spiritual leaders of the church) were being pulled away from the responsibilities God had called them to, so they called faithful men to serve those in need.

The needs of a church are endless so the opportunities of service and ministry for deacons are endless as well.  The work of deacons is crucial to the health of a church as they assist the pastors of the church by meeting necessary needs of the flock that would hinder pastors in their responsibilities and as they serve the church.  This responsibility bears accountability before God and to the pastors and the congregation.  With this comes the authority to take up the task before them and serve.  No one needs to tell a deacon to serve for that is what they have been called to do, and when they see a need they are to seek to serve and do so by the authority of and in unity with the Word.  All Christians are called to be servants/ slaves of Christ in service to Him and to His church.  Deacons are those who are recognized in the church as servants of God, the pastors, and of the congregation, meeting everyday needs not leading spiritually.  Rightly understood, there are those not known as deacons who are truly deacons before God and His people because of their dedicated service to the church and those with the name deacon who are not truly deacons due to their lack in service and the pursuit of their own good and way.

4. Congregation: The Body

The last level of responsibility and accountability falls on the congregation.  God has the most to say to this group concerning their responsibilities.  Apart from the expectations of every believer (being filled with the Spirit, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, praying, reading the Word, etc) the New Testament, particularly the epistles, shows that the congregation is responsible and therefore accountable for much, as individuals and corporately.  The largest portion of responsibility is easily found in the “one another’s” of the New Testament.  Every Christian and, therefore, every church body are responsible for carrying out each and every one another as they have the occasion.  This includes, though not exhaustively: loving, comforting, bearing with, being kind and compassionate to, forgiving, encouraging, edifying, praying for, being at peace with, serving, living in harmony with, instructing, correcting, admonishing, counseling, speaking graciously to, submitting to, exhorting, gathering with, and giving to one another.  Each member of the body is responsible for these and therefore accountable to God and to one another for fulfilling them.

Another area in which the congregation is responsible is dealing with sin in the church.  Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 6 make clear that while the pastors have a role in church discipline, it is further in the process and the congregation bears the greater responsibility for pursuing the sinning brother or sister’s repentance and restoration or removal.  Jesus in Matthew gives the instructions to every Christian, giving them authority to deal with sin in the church, whereas Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for not dealing with those in sin showing the responsibility and accountability they bore before God and one another for such things.

The next area for which the congregation is responsible is in the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-16).  We have already seen that pastors are responsible for equipping the church, but they do so for the purpose that the church, the congregation, would be able and would do the work of ministry.  Pastors are the spiritual leaders of the church and are responsible for much before God and the church but they are not expected to do it all, for they are not able to do it all and they were never meant to do it all.  The congregation is taught, trained, and counseled by the ministry of pastors according to the Word, not to merely be served but that they may teach, train (disciple), and counsel others according to the Word.

Another area of responsibility is the congregation’s command to submit to their pastors (Heb. 13:17).  This makes sense when you understand that they are bearers of Christ’s delegated authority to care for and serve you, so you submit to your pastors as unto the Lord, not because they are lords.  They are mere men who God has given a weighty responsibility and are fallible, which leads to the next thing for which congregation is responsible: pastoral accountability.  The pastoral submission mentioned above is not calling for blind or negligent submission but with it comes pastoral accountability, meaning that the congregation has the responsibility to hold their pastors accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities faithfully and honoring those who do so or rebuking those who persist in sinning by not being faithful (1 Tim. 5:17-20).  Again, with these responsibilities for each group comes the authority from God by His Word to do these things.  The previous two groups (pastors and deacons) bear the responsibilities of this category as well but are given more responsibilities and are therefore accountable for more before God and the church, but each will have to give an account before God for what they were responsible for in this life in the church (Rom. 14:12).

Conclusion:

These things are the key to a healthy church – everybody doing what God has called them to do according to the Word:  pastors leading with the Word as Christ would have them, deacons serving the daily needs of the church, and the congregation doing the work of ministry unto one another.  This is a high calling.  It is a calling to die to ourselves, our traditions, and our wisdom and a call to follow Christ, and it is there that we will find life, grace, and joy forevermore.  That is church.

So when you ask the question, “Who’s in charge here?” the right answer is Christ.  It is His church and we would do well to listen to how He would have us carry things out.  Anything more would be a questioning of His wisdom and grace and anything less would be mockery.

* Note: this has been an attempt to discuss what God’s Word says concerning the structure of His church and how He, in His wisdom, would have it function.  It is recognized that there are groups not mentioned above (e.g. committees or councils) as those who have taken on responsibility and authority in a church that may exist in the church or denomination in which you are a member.  This is due to the fact that they are not recognized as such in Scripture and are therefore only legitimate if they do not take on or exercise the responsibilities or authority of one of the God-ordained groups mentioned above and if they do not hinder those groups from fulfilling those responsibilities for which they are accountable.  This is not a matter of interpretation for it is a product of clear revelation, nor is this a matter of tradition, for those even vary in the same circles over generations, but biblical faithfulness unto God.  If the church cannot pick up the Word of God to find its identity and instruction, it has little reason to bear the name “church” or of the One who purchased it.

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The Preciousness of Time

hourglass

“Redeeming the time…” – Ephesians 5:16

Reasons Time is a thing that is exceedingly precious:

I. Because eternity depends on the improvement of time. Things are precious in proportion to the importance of them, or according to the degree wherein they concern our welfare. Men are wont to set the highest value on those things that they are sensible, and that they have their chief dependence upon. Other things they may easily part with, but they won’t very easily part with such things. And this renders time so exceeding precious, because our welfare, and interest of it, depends upon the improvement of it….

And hence it is that time is a thing so exceeding precious, because ’tis by that that we have opportunity of escaping everlasting misery and of obtaining eternal blessedness and glory. ‘Tis upon the improvement of time that there depends an escape from an infinite evil and an obtaining an infinite good. And this puts an infinite value upon time.

Eternity depends upon it, for eternity is an infinite or endless duration. And to be miserable through eternity is an infinite evil; ’tis infinitely dreadful. And so to be happy through {eternity is an infinite good}.

II. Time is very short, which is another thing that renders it very precious: the scarcity of any commodity occasions men to set an higher value upon it, especially if it be a thing that is necessary to be had and that they can’t do without, or be that which their interest much depends upon….

Time is so short, and the work is so great that we have to do in it, that we have none of it to spare. The work that we have to do to prepare for eternity must be done in time, or it never can be done; and ’tis found to be a work of great difficulty and labor.

We read of silver being so plenty in Solomon’s time that it was as the stones of the street: it was nothing accounted of; they had more of it than they needed, or knew what to do with. But this is not the case with us with respect to time. And.’tis but a little time that God hath allotted to us, a short space that is soon all of it gone.

If a man loses any of that that he has but little of, and yet is absolutely necessary to him, his loss is the greater. [It is] as if he has but a little food wherewith [to] support his life: if he loses some of it, his loss is greater than if had an abundance. So we ought to prize our time the more highly, and to be careful that we don’t lose any of it, because it is so short, and yet what is so necessary to us.

III. Time ought to be looked upon as very precious by us upon this account also, that we are uncertain of the continuance of it. We know that ’tis very short, but we don’t know how short: we don’t know how little there is of it remaining, whether a year or several years, or only a month, or a week, or a day.

We don’t know but that every day be not the last, or how little of the day we are to have. There is nothing that experience doth more verify than this….

How much more would many men prize their time, if they knew that they had but a few months, or a few days more in the world; and certainly a wise man would prize his time the more, because he does not know but hat it is so. This is the case with multitudes now in the world that now are in health, and so [see] no signs of approaching death. Many without doubt are to die the next month, and many are to die the next week; many are to die tomorrow that now know nothing of it, and think nothing about it. And neither they nor their neighbors can say [they] are any more likely soon to be taken out of the world than others. How many have died out of this town at one time and another, when neither they nor their neighbors saw any signs of death a week beforehand. And probably there are various persons now here present, hearing what I now say, that are to die in a very little time, that have no apprehension of it.

This teaches us how we ought to prize our time, and be careful that we don’t lose any of it.

IV. Time is very precious, because when it is past, it can’t be recovered.

Therefore we should be the more choice of it, while we have it; for that which is well improved is not lost; though the time itself be gone, yet the benefit of it abides with us.

It is so with our time, both in whole and in every particular part. When any part of time is lost, ’tis irrecoverably gone. The offer is never but once made us, whether we will improve it or no. Every part of our time is as it were successively offered to us, that we may choose whether we will make it our own or no; but there is no tarry to wait upon us, to see whether we will or not. But if we refuse, ’tis immediately taken away, and never offered more. As to that part of time that is gone, if we han’t well improved it, ’tis out of our possession, and out of our reach. ‘Tis only what is yet before us that we have any opportunity to make our own, whether that be less or more.

If we have lived fifty, or sixty, or seventy years, and han’t improved them, it now can’t be helped. ‘Tis all eternally gone from us. All that we can do, is to improve the little that remains. Yea, if we have spent all our lives, but a few minutes was improved, all that is gone is lost; and ’tis only those few remaining minutes that ’tis possible should be made his own.

But when the time of life is gone, it is impossible that we should ever obtain another such time. ‘Tis utterly and everlastingly gone.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), exert from sermon “The Preciousness of Time” in Sermons and Discourses, 1734-1738 (WJE Online Vol. 19), 243-61.

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The Danger of Serpentine Words

serpent

Yesterday, as I was working through the Good Book Guide “Biblical Manhood” with a friend, we discussed what happened in Genesis 3 in the Fall.  In particular, we began to think about how the serpent (Satan) deceived Eve.  The guide led us to consider how Eve was tempted to think about God’s Word and how we are tempted to heed the same tempting words of the serpent.  After some discussion on our part, we turned to the guide, which summed up Satan’s temptations toward Eve as portraying God’s Word as unclear, untrue, and unfair.

First, the crafty serpent comes to Eve and tempts her to believe that God’s Word is unclear.  He asks “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  If you have read chapter 2, you know that God did not actually say that, but “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”  Yet, Eve responds not with the clear word of God but with “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”  Whoa! Hang on a minute Eve, God didn’t say anything about touching it!  Sure it would be wise not to touch it or even go near it but that’s not what God said.  The serpent’s questioning of the clarity of God’s Word brought doubt to the mind of Eve, leading her to add to it and question her own understanding of it.

Next, we see Satan questioning the truthfulness of God’s Word.  After Eve’s first response, the serpent rebuts, “You will not surely die.”  Now we know we are in dangerous waters.  This is clearly not what God has said but Satan has already brought doubt concerning the clarity of God’s Word, so he has an open door to twist it to his own conclusions.  If it appears unclear to her what God has said, why couldn’t the serpent’s interpretation be valid or at least plausible?  But this is not what God has said.  He said if they eat of that one tree they WILL die.  No question. No ambiguous language.  Completely clear and, as they and all of mankind know, completely true, for death is the great leveler of all mankind.

Lastly, the serpent continues on, tempting Eve to believe that God’s Word and, therefore, God Himself is unfair.  After questioning the truthfulness Satan says, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  He is saying, “God doesn’t want you to eat because He is keeping something from you, something good, something you deserve.”  He questions God’s goodness and His truthfulness.  Yet the great deception here is not from God but from Satan, for Adam and Eve were already like God, made in His image.  His withholding was His protection over them, not an unfair keeping from them.  As their Creator, He knew what what they were created for and the best working out of that purpose, so their was even grace in the command not to eat.  Yet, Eve, turning from God and His Word, with the desire of the flesh (good for food), desire of the eyes (delight to the eyes), and the pride in possessions (desired to make one wise), took, ate, gave, and saw, plunging all of mankind into sin, death, and condemnation and bringing forth a curse upon all creation.

But the story does not end here.  The same temptations that the crafty one brought to Eve are temptations that each of us face.  We are constantly tempted to think of God’s Word as unclear, untrue, or unfair.  When it comes to the temptation to think God’s Word is unclear, we are often like Eve.  We either add to it, thinking we are clarifying  what was said or we doubt whether we can really understand it confidently, both of which are dangerous.  There is no doubt that there are things in God’s Word that are hard to understand, for Scripture declares such about itself but it never says that we won’t be able to understand or be confident in the clarity of it.  When such difficult things arise in the Word, or even at times things that are not so hard, we are tempted to add to it, thinking that we are really explaining more or better, while in reality we are explaining it away, making the divine human, robbing it of its power.  When we don’t agree with others on certain issues, rather than turning to the Word for understanding and correction, we merely claim that its a matter of interpretation or opinion, leading us to conclude that the Word is unclear and our comprehension can never be trusted.  This is a slippery slope that leads to all kinds of doubt and skepticism concerning God’s Word.  If God’s Word is unclear, how can we be sure we understand anything, particularly the essentials (God, man, gospel, salvation, Bible, etc.)?

But the Word of God is clear.  Again, I acknowledge that there are things that are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), but that in no ways means it is unclear.  God says His Word makes wise the simple and is pure enlightening the eyes (Ps 19:7-8), gives light and imparts understanding to the simple (Ps 119:130), able to make one wise for salvation and is God-breathed and therefore able to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:15-17), brings freedom from darkness and sin (John 8:31), renews the mind (Rom. 12:1-2), brings forth faith and new birth by the work of the Spirit, (Rom. 10:17, 1 Peter 1:23), in it we find all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), and on and on.  If God’s Word is unclear and we cannot stand confidently on it how could the Word accomplish any of those things?  More than that, Scripture is God’s Word – it is His communication to us that we might know Him, love Him, and be reconciled to Him.  Clarity is a must.  Though there will be those who come to differences when seeking to understand the Word, the problem is not with the Bible but shows the presence of the effects of sin on our minds, our own ignorance, assumptions, and attempts to make the infinite finite.  God has been gracious in that, even with these hindrances, He has given us His Spirit in Christ to give us understanding as well as teachers within the church to guide us in the truth and clarity of the Word.

We also face the crafty words of the devil like Eve, tempting us to believe that God’s Word is untrue.  This is extremely deadly.  We are tempted to deny parts that make us uncomfortable whether it concerns who God is and what He has done or whether is concerns who we are, what’s wrong with us, and what we need.  Any denial of its truthfulness leads to death, as seen with Adam and Eve.  It doesn’t matter if you understand it when determining its truthfulness.  It is only by faith that we can understand it (Heb. 11:3).  We are finite, fallen creatures holding before us the pure and authoritative words of God.  Who are we to question, criticize, or deny His Truth?  He spoke and it was!  His Word is unfading, imperishable, unchanging, truth for He is Truth.  The truthfulness of God’s Word flows from His character, for He is a “God, who never lies” (Titus 1:2), and “cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  “Every word of God proves true” (Prov 30:5; Ps 12;6, 119:42; John 17:17).  Leading from the question of the Word’s clarity, to deny it is to deny its truthfulness, for as shown, it declares itself to be clear and true.

Finally, we are tempted to question the fairness of God’s Word.  Whether it be a concern for the justice of a situation (e.g. destruction of whole cities or God’s choosing of Israel) or commands exhorting right action or prohibiting desirable actions/things (e.g. roles of men and women or lust), we can be easily tempted to think God is unfair and therefore not good for withholding what we think we should have or not doing what we think He should do.  Rereading that sentence may reveal the problem.  Who is the determining factor on what is right, just, or fair?  We are not the determining factor, nor are our conceptions of what is right, just, or fair, but God is – His person and His character determine what is right, just, and fair, which He shows forth in His actions.  Don’t think something God did is just?  Time to adjust your concept of justice to His.  Don’t think something He says or did is right or fair?  Time to adjust your understanding of what’s right and wrong to Him.

Fairness is not a biblical concept but justice and righteousness characterize God and are to characterize His people.  If we want to demand the justice and righteousness of God under the guise of fairness, we need to understand that we are calling down wrath on all of us.  As sinners before a holy and righteous God, all anyone deserves is wrath nothing more.  Want to talk of entitlement?  Before God, in your sin, you are only entitled to wrath.  But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love for us shown in Christ, has reconciled us to Himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  It is by Him and through Him that we are made new, given eyes to see, ears to hears, and minds renewed that we may stand confidently by the Spirit on the clarity, truthfulness, and justice of God’s Word.

Do not heed the deadly words of the serpent but cling to the living Word of God.

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The Word Become Flesh: The Secret of the Psalter

psalmsThe Psalter occupies a unique place in all the Holy Scriptures. It is God’s Word, and with few exceptions it is at the same time the prayer of human beings.  How are we to understand this?  How can God’s Word be at the same time prayer to God?  This question is followed by an observation made by all who begin to pray the Psalms.  First, they try to repeat the Psalms personally as their own prayer.  But soon they come across passages that they feel they cannot pray as their own personal prayers.  We remember, for example, the psalms of innocence, the psalms of vengeance, and also, in part, the psalms of suffering.  Nevertheless, these prayers are words of the Holy Scriptures that believing Christians cannot simply dismiss as obsolete and antiquated.  Thus they do not desire to gain control over the word of Scripture, and yet they realize that they cannot pray these words.  They can read them as the prayer of another person, wonder about them, be offended by them, but they can neither pray them themselves nor expunge them from the Holy Scriptures…. [T]his difficulty actually indicates the point at which we may get our first glimpse of the secret of the Psalter.  The psalms that will not cross our lips as prayers, those that make us falter and offend us, make us suspect that here someone else is praying, not we – that the one who is here affirming his innocence, who is calling God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself.  It is he who is praying here, and not only here, but in the whole Psalter.  The New Testament and the church have always recognized and testified to his truth.  The human Jesus Christ to whom no affliction, no illness, no suffering is unknown, and who yet was the wholly innocent and righteous one, is praying in the Psalter through the mouth of his congregation.  The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus in the truest sense of the word.  He prayed the Psalter, and now it has become his prayer for all time.  Can we now comprehend how the Psalter is capable of being simultaneously prayer to God and yet God’s own Word, precisely because the praying Christ encounters us here?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), Life Together, 53-55.

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