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The King of Zion (Psalm 2)

The sovereignty and lordship of God forms the backbone of the entire Psalter.  In the midst of the troubles and uncertainties of life, the Lord reigns as king.  When the righteous seek after God and pray to Him knowing that He will hear, the Lord reigns as king.  No matter the circumstances, the Lord remains firmly in control of all things.  Psalm 2, therefore, may be considered as a second introduction to the whole book, because it powerfully introduces this recurring and important theme.

This Psalm may be divided into four sections with three verses each.  In such a division, the Psalm moves in a clear thought pattern:  (1) the nations conspire against the Lord and His anointed king; (2) the Lord establishes this king nevertheless; (3) this king reigns victorious over his enemies; and (4) the nations should repent and submit to the king.  This pattern also gravitates toward the middle, where the focus is on the coronation.  The Lord establishes the reign of this king, and he reigns triumphant for this reason.

In the first section, therefore, the Psalmist describes the conspiracy of the nations.  They are “restless,” a word used only here in the Old Testament, and the peoples “plot in vain.”  As noted in the study on Psalm 1, this word translated as “plot” means something like “muttering.”  The righteous man in Psalm 1 mutters the Word as he focuses on it.  The wicked here mutter among themselves as they seek to cast off this king from ruling over them.  Yet they are not merely muttering against the Lord’s anointed king, but also against the Lord Himself.  As Moses told the Israelites who complained:  “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exodus 16:8).  To grumble against those whom the Lord establishes is to also grumble against the Lord who established them in the first place.

However, the Lord responds to their muttering with laughter.  This is not the laughter of happiness, but the laughter of derision.  The Lord laughs at the wicked who conspire against Him because they imagine that they can actually fight against what the Lord establishes.  In His burning anger, the Lord will make the conspirators flee in a panic.  They will not be able to accomplish what they desire, because what the Lord causes to happen will happen without question.  The Lord sets His king, more literally “pours out,” likely in an act of consecration.  Zion, the holy hill of the temple, also shows that this consecration is not merely a worldly event.  The Lord establishes this king in the very place of His presence, for Zion is holy because the Lord is there.

Out of all of the sections of this Psalm, the third section most clearly reveals the identity of this king.  The Lord says to this king, “You are My son, this day I have fathered you.”  Few other Psalms are quoted as often as this one in the New Testament.  It is cited directly in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5, and 5:5, all in reference to Christ.  The Gospel writers also allude to it at key moments within the earthly ministry of Christ, notably His Baptism (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35).  Jesus reigns as king in Zion even in the midst of His enemies, all of whom will finally be placed under His feet.  His judgment against them means the destruction of those who oppose Him, shattering them like a pot.  Every knee will bow at the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11), whether to their shame or to their joy.  Establishing the kingdom of God is as much about extending who belongs to that kingdom as rendering justice on those who do not.

Additionally, the promise of the nations as inheritance and the “ends of the earth” as property show that this is not an ordinary king.  Even apart from the clear testimony of the New Testament, this passage alone shows that a greater than Solomon is here.  Solomon’s kingdom had definite, if expansive, borders (1 Kings 4:21).  He ruled over the earthly kingdom in its greatest extent, but even he could not claim to rule over all the nations.  This is not hyperbole, either.  Christ reigns and will reign over all the nations of the earth, because He is the King of Kings without peer or rival.

The final section of the Psalm exhorts the same nations to submit to the king.  Kings and judges of the earth, the heads of the nations, should gain insight.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10).  Serving this king means walking in the way of the Lord.  Yet this service and joy comes with fear and trembling, because the fear of the Lord means fearing Him who can cast both body and soul into hell (Matthew 10:28).  Christ will return as judge, and the coming wrath means that the wicked will perish.  But Christ is also our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Those who fear Him as their King fear no man because Jesus is their Savior.

Christians can pray this Psalm confidently as a testimony to the kingship of God.  Even when the enemies of God seek to overwhelm, they are not able to overturn anything which the Lord does.  Further, just as this Psalm centers on the coronation of the king, so also the coronation of Christ, so prominent a theme in the New Testament, comforts us.  His reign as king means not only that He is in control, but also that there will be justice for His people.

Palm Sunday: Philippians 2:5-11

Philippi brought much joy through much sorrow to Paul.  While it seems that Paul passed through this Macedonian city on several occasions, on his first visit, he proclaimed the Gospel to the wealthy Lydia, who was baptized with her whole household (Acts 16:11-15).  Yet this joyful event soon met with trouble, for when Paul exorcised the demon possessing a slave girl, he and Silas suffered at the hands of Gentiles and were thrown into prison (Acts 16:16-24).  Even here, however, in the midst of suffering within the prison, the Lord in His providence brought the jailer to faith.  After he and his household were baptized, Paul and Silas left the city (Acts 16:25-40).

Years later, however, when Paul had been imprisoned, the saints at Philippi, who may have still included those who first believed when Paul was in the city, sent him a gift by the hand of Epaphroditus (Philippians 4:14-20).  Having heard of Paul’s situation, they sought to do what they could to support him, even though they could not free him.  Such a gift, as Paul said, was not as important in terms of the gift itself.  After all, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), by which Paul means that no matter the circumstances—poor or rich, hungry or sated, and so forth—Christ remains as our goal.  But the “fruit that increases to your credit” is a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God,” because the gift is a sign of the living faith that sent it. Paul desired that that gift—the faith which they had—would abound more and more, and this is the primary concern of his letter.

The primary concern for Paul seems to be disunity or at least the potential for disunity within the Philippian church.  Paul, after all, calls for them to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).  The letter, however, exudes joy and rejoicing, and there is no clear indication of a clear rebuke as in his other letters.  His exhortation to unity, therefore, seems to be one applicable to the Church in every situation rather than in explicit division.  To be a part of the Church is to have the mind of Christ, and such a mind exhibits itself in Spirit-given unity.

Paul presents Christ as a clear example to the Philippians for imitation.  Christ, who “was in the form of God,” emptied himself and became like one of us when He was born of the Virgin Mary.  He who had far more right than any of us for being exalted above others, since He is God Himself, chose instead to lower Himself for us men and for our salvation.  Because of this, the Father now exalts His name far above all names, because Christ won our salvation.

One thing that I think we need to be careful about, however, is how we understand Christ’s obedience and humbling.  Obedience is not the same thing as being a push-over.  Conformity to the will of God does not mean obliterating our will and filling it with the will of God.  Obedience to God for us means a renewal of the will.  Christ was not an automaton, but the perfectly willing Son of the Father, because they were of one mind.  If we understand Christ’s humility as getting pushed around, then many of His actions, like entering Jerusalem publicly as a king, make no sense.  But when we understand the humility of Christ as part of His willing obedience to the will of the Father, then there is no contradiction.  Christ is the King who desires to take up the cross, because it is the will of God to redeem man through the Lamb of God.

Christians should not interpret being of one mind, therefore, as meaning self-obliteration either.  Rather, conformity to the will of God means that the whole man, including the will, follows after Christ.  The righteous man desires what God desires, because he walks the same way that God is walking.  Therefore, the whole Church also has one mind in Christ Jesus, because she desires what her Lord desires.

Third Sunday in Lent: Ephesians 5:1-9

Paul exhorts the Ephesians to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love,” because that is fitting for those who are beloved children of the Lord.  Christ first loved us and offered Himself up on our behalf, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).  Yet as Christ Himself is a pleasing odor, so also Christians, being in Christ, are called to be a pleasing aroma to God.  This seems to be the guiding thought behind the epistle lesson for today.

Following the flood, Noah offered up some of every clean animal which was with him on the ark, and “when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma,” He inwardly promises never to curse the ground again on account of sin (Genesis 8:21-22).  Yet the odor of sacrifice is not pleasing for its own sake.  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:21-24).  “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Isaiah 1:11-15).  For the smell to be pleasing to the Lord, the one offering it must be acceptible in His sight, fit for His worship.  Christ alone is without any blemish or spot, the perfect lamb offered up to the Father for the sake of sinful men.  Christians, then, being in Christ, have been made fit for His worship, clean in His sight, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The burnt offerings of Leviticus 1 waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but the shedding of blood points to the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10).  Such an aroma properly belongs to Christ alone, since through Christ we have been reconciled to God.  The grain offerings of Leviticus 2, on the other hand, also waft up a pleasing aroma to the Lord, but for a different reason.  Grain offerings involve no shedding of blood, and therefore are not meant as forgiveness, but rather as thanksgiving.  Only one who has already been made fit for the worship of God, ceremonially clean, is able to offer such a sacrifice to Him.

Salt formed an important part of such sacrifices.  Leviticus 2:13 states that “you shall season all your grain offerings with salt.  You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”  Within the context of the New Testament, therefore, salt shows the purpose of grain offerings within the Christian life.  Christ tells us to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).  Paul also exhorts the Colossians to “let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).  If our speech and conduct is to be salted, then they form our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, which Pauls says in Romans 12:1 and Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5.

If our speech and conduct are the substance of our spiritual sacrifice to the Lord, then it also follows that such sacrifice, like the sacrifices of old, should be without blemish or spot.  Offering lame or blind or sick animals, for example, is offensive to God (Malachi 1:8).  More specifically with regard to grain offerings, leaven or honey rendered them unfit (Leviticus 2:11).  A little leaven, after all, leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9; see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Participating in sin blemishes the spiritual sacrifice and renders it unfit for God.  Yet Paul emphasizes that even speaking of such things are not fitting for a Christian for the same reason.  Paul rebukes such things, as is fitting, but to season our spiritual sacrifice with leaven is decidedly dangerous.  Leaven, having leavened the whole lump, renders one not only unfit for worship, but outside of the inheritance altogether.  To use a different metaphor, it is far better to resist sin being planted in the first place than to attempt to cut down the plant when it is in full bloom!

It must be remembered, of course, that even within the context of the old sacrificial system, only those who have been made fit for the worship of God were able to come into His presence.  Christ offered Himself up for us and made us to be His own through the shedding of His blood.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.  Only through the working of the Holy Spirit are we able to resist sin at all.  Yet seasoning our sacrifice with yeast rather than salt seems tantamount to tempting the Holy Spirit.  Paul says later in this chapter:  “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11-12).  Speaking of such things in a way that does not rebuke them as darkness is akin to participating in them.  “For what fellowship has light with darkness” (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)?  Christians must resist the temptation of sin even in its earliest stages, because Christ has made us to be His own, even while we were still His enemies.

Fourth Sunday in Advent: John 1:19-28

The Apostle John does not hesitate to identify John as a “man sent from God,” “a witness, to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).  John the Baptist always points away from himself toward the coming Christ, and he is fully aware of the nature of his calling.

The priests and Levites are not on a generic mission from Jerusalem.  They want an answer to a very specific question, even if it seems vague:  “Who are you?”  John’s immediate reply, “I am not the Christ,” and their follow up “What then?  Are you Elijah?” demonstrates that they, with the Pharisees, are wondering whether John is the promised Messiah.  They know that Christ is coming, though they mistake the signs and wonder whether John might be the promised one.  Only with John’s repeated denials do they finally ask him directly about his mission.  That the Pharisees know that Christ is coming, however, only highlights their hardness of heart:  “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).  They knew and expected Him, yet rejected Him when He appeared.

John denies being Elijah, the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, which is intriguing, since Christ Himself makes this identification (Matthew 11:14).  It may be that John, since he is rejecting the false notions of the Pharisees, speaks against their misunderstandings.  The bystanders at the cross purposely distort Jesus’ words, saying “Behold, he is calling Elijah” (Matthew 27:47; Mark 15:35), which suggests that they are expecting Elijah in the flesh to come in a miraculous way.  Jesus, however, connects John the Baptist to his office, and therefore gives us the correct understanding of Malachi’s prophecy.

John also denies being “the Prophet,” a reference to the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-22.  Moses says that the Lord “will raise up for you a prophet like me,” a qualification that no other Old Testament prophet met, since Moses knew the Lord “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).  Jesus says of John that “among those born of women none is greater” (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28), which implies that John is a greater prophet than Moses.  However, John’s denial here suggests that “the Prophet” is a reference to Christ as the greatest of all the prophets.  If John stands in the office of Elijah, then Christ is the greater Elisha, who worked more miracles than his predecessor and indeed bore a double portion of the Spirit (2 Kings 2:9).

After rejecting their false notions, John identifies himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” a plain reference to Isaiah 40:3.  There, the voice is told to cry out the good news:  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).  It is a preparation to the Lord’s declaration in the following chapters that He is the living God, the Help of Israel.  He will not share his glory with empty idols, but He will act when He sends His servant, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).  John’s call for repentance, therefore, includes this positive affirmation by extension:  Turn away from your sins, your false notions, and your idols, and return to the living God, the Fear of Jacob, the Fortress of Israel!  He will not share His glory with another, but He will act when He sends the one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.

The messengers of the Pharisees again demonstrate the hardness of their hearts by showing that they understand the purpose of Baptism, at least dimly.  If John is not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, then why is he baptizing, since this practice belongs to them (John 1:25)?  This is also shown by some of the Pharisees and Sadducees who tried to be baptized (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7).  They recognize that this practice belongs to the coming of Christ, but they have come for the wrong reasons, not by faith, but as if it were based on works (Romans 9:30-33).

John answers them by pointing again to his office and rebuking them for their unbelief.  His baptism, because it would give way to the Sacrament of Baptism (Acts 18:25; 19:1-7), was preparatory and temporary.  It, like John, pointed ahead to the coming of Christ, and it ceased with John’s office when Christ appeared.  However, John’s rebuke that “among you stands one you do not know” shows that the Pharisees, despite knowing the prophecies and knowing that Christ was near, stumbled over the rock of offense.  They knew that Christ was near, and yet seeing, they did not see.  “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

How beautiful were the stones of the mighty temple!  The work of forty-six years, the product of the rich offerings of so many (Luke 21:1)!  Yet all this, spectacular as it was, would be thrown down.  “The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).  Jesus’ words struck a nerve.  When will these things happen?

Jesus, in true prophetic fashion, points to several things at once.  The closest, of course, was the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., and so thorough was their work that this temple no longer stands.  This judgment fell upon the Jews, who were partially hardened through faithlessness (Romans 11:25) and also for crucifying the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 2:8).  This hardening can also be seen here in Jesus’ own words, since those who faithfully persevered would be delivered up also to “synagogues” (Luke 21:12), Israel according to the spirit persecuted by Israel according to the flesh.

But this destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the far greater judgment.  Israel is judged for a time, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, at which point her partial hardness will be healed.  But the judgment coming upon the world is like the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27).  They were hardened for a judgment they could not escape, and only through the mercy of the Lord were Noah and his immediate family delivered.  It is worth noting that, in Genesis, (1) out of all of the sons and daughters of the line of Adam to Noah, only Noah and his family were spared.  So many descendants of the great patriarchs, and yet so few were saved.  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth (Luke 18:8)?  (2) God’s mercy is further emphasized by the wickedness of Ham toward his father Noah (Genesis 9:18-29).  There will be no such mercy in the coming judgment, for then wickedness will have no place to run.  God’s patience, shown even to Ham in the flood, will finally come to an end.

The signs Christ gives for the coming of the end are somewhat and intentionally vague, which only emphasizes His primary message of watchfulness.  A call to watch for one specific sign ironically leads to laxity, because then all else is excluded.  But a call to watch for a specific event preceded by a wide range of signs increases vigilance.  The fig tree puts out its leaves as a sign of the approaching heat.  It is one sign among many, and not the only sign.

Even so, the signs to which Christ points are unique enough that they are likely closer to the end rather than a continual series throughout history.  It is true that wars and rumors of wars are continual and signs of the end.  But the “distress of nations in perplexity” here seems to be a distress brought about by the intensity and the unmistakable character of these signs.  The shaking of the heavens, the roaring of the seas, the signs in heaven and earth–all of these things point to the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).  Further, this distress among sinners arises from their being unprepared.  There will be no “last minute conversions” when Christ descends in majesty to judge the living and the dead.  The sight of Christ returning is the final proof that the time of grace is at an end.

Those who are vigilant, not weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, will find that day to be an everlasting joy.  For while the sight of Christ’s majesty is the first glimpse of the everlasting judgment for the reprobate, Christ Himself will be the herald of the coming joy for the faithful.  They, like the faithless, must stand before the judgment seat, and Christ commands us to pray for the strength to stand before Him on that day (Luke 21:36).  But it is the same strength which bears them up in the midst of persecution.  “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19).  Our endurance in the face of persecution is Christ, and our defense before the judgment seat is also Christ.

As a final note, Christ says quite clearly that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32).  The following verse that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” serve as a confirmation of this.  But they also, I think, clarify what He means.  Heaven and earth passing away, a clear reference to the end, seem to suggest that it will happen within the bounds of “this generation.”  Generation, therefore, here seems to be broader than how we might typically use it.  In an earlier passage of Luke, Christ says that the queen of Sheba and the men of Ninevah will rise up at the judgment “with this generation” and condemn it for its faithlessness (Luke 11:29-32).  Perhaps, then, as the faithless “generation” died in the wilderness, this faithless generation will also perish in the wilderness.  But as the children of the old generation entered the promised land, so also will the next generation, one man out of two, be healed and enter into the great Sabbath rest.

Second Sunday in Advent: Romans 15:4-13

Paul addresses the divided Roman congregation and exhorts the strong to bear with the weak.  The temptation in conflict is to seek vindication, especially at the expense of the other.  Note, however, that Paul does not say that each is equally right or valid.  “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2).  We bear with the weaker brother with the aim of building him up, so that he will no longer be weak.  Knowing who is in the right is a matter of knowing the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, of course, but even being in the right is not a license for arrogance, which was the whole problem.

Christ Himself, the strongest of all because of His sinlessness, bore with our weaknesses, even to the point of taking our guilt upon Himself.  Imitating Christ, therefore, calls for us to welcome the weaker brother with the aim of raising him toward a still more excellent way, just as the Holy Spirit raises us up out of darkness into light.  Arrogance gets this relationship exactly backwards, as if Christ would have nothing to do with us because of our weakness, when in fact we needed Him the most for that very reason.

Paul points here to the Scriptures as a means of building us up.  As he said also to the Corinthians, “Now 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).  The judgments of old, in this case upon those in the wilderness, served as a disciplinary example for them, but we in these last days learn from them.  The unbreakable Scriptures, as the living voice of the Holy Spirit, strengthen us and build us up, making us one people.  In the Lord is unity and harmony, something which the Romans were sorely lacking.  Heeding the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures and learning from them is the way out of this sinful impasse.

Paul continues with a few Biblical citations in order to prove his point in another way.  Christ the Master became a “servant to the circumcised” to show that God was not lying when He made His promises to the patriarchs.  More than this, by going to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6; 15:24), He was “found by those who did not seek me” (Romans 11:20, citing Isaiah 65:1).  The Strong Man bore with the weak, so that the Gentiles too might praise Him for His mercy.

Since this passage falls within the wider section of Paul’s exhortation, beginning in Romans 12, his point is clear.  Bear with one another’s failings as Christ bore with yours.  Build up one another as Christ has built you up.  Love one another as Christ has loved you.  Turn to the Holy Scriptures and learn from the living Spirit, so that “by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).  There is no room for boasting or arrogance, nor is it love to assert that there is no weakness.  But imitate Christ, so that you will have “all joy and peace in believing.”

Last Sunday of the Church Year: Isaiah 65:17-25

What image comes to mind when thinking of the life to come?  In the language of the New Testament, the new heavens and the new earth are frequently described as a feast or a perfect city.  This imagery can also be found in the Old Testament, such as the vision of the temple in Ezekiel.  However, this language of feasting and bridegrooms and cities tends to color our understanding.

More often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit describes the life to come in terms of unimaginable fruitfulness.  The blessings of this life will be magnified beyond our ability to comprehend them in our current state.  Moses clearly set before the eyes of Israel the blessings which came with obedience in Deuteronomy 28.  Fruitfulness in the field, fruitfulness in the pasture, fruitfulness in the home (which translates to the blessing of many children), all of these things come for those who follow after the Lord faithfully.  This should not be perverted into a prosperity gospel, as if the Lord is just waiting to make us rich when we choose.  Israel at no point in her history came close to this kind of obedience to the will of God.  Rather, Moses shows the source of the imagery in Isaiah:  fruitfulness is the language of blessing and perfection in the Old Testament.

Paul refers to the beginning of this section in his discussion of the hardening of Israel in Romans 10. The Lord seeks out a nation which did not seek him, which is to say, the Gentiles (Isaiah 65:1). Israel provokes Him because of the hardness of her heart. Therefore, judgment must come upon Israel. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:6). The partial hardening has come upon Israel so that the Gospel may go forth to bring in the fullness of the nations.  Judgment must come upon those who have rejected the Lord, even though they be His own chosen people. But God has not failed in His promises.

This, then, is Isaiah’s point when discussing the great Day when Christ returns in glory to bring about the new heavens and the new earth.  The judgment upon His people will come to an end. “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people” (Isaiah 65:18-19).  All of the former things, those things which separated Israel, will pass away and be no more.  There shall finally be one flock, one Shepherd.

When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the partial shall give way to the fullness. There will be unimaginable fruitfulness in an unending joy. Isaiah 65:20 should be understood in this light.  Isaiah does not mean to say that death will remain in the life to come, but rather this fruitfulness will translate also into life.  Where we suffer the pain of miscarriage and infant mortality, then this evil will be no more.  Where we struggle to live to a hundred years, then it will be thought odd should a man die so young!  But as Revelation 21:4 makes clear, death shall be no more in that day.

They will build and inhabit their houses.  They will plant and enjoy their vineyards.  Those things which others had taken away in this life shall be theirs forever.  The Lord will execute judgment on those who afflicted them (Ezekiel 28:25-26).  His people will have justice and vengeance upon their enemies, and the Lord shall be in their midst.  “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

Is this language only poetic?  I do not think so.  On the one hand, it is written for a people who have been exiled and are lamenting the loss of their home.  The Lord had placed them in that land, after all, so the grief is particularly strong.  Also, because the imagery shifts, especially moving forward into the New Testament, it should not be interpreted in a literalistic way.  One would have to assume that death was part of the new heavens and the new earth if that was the case!

On the other hand, Isaiah presents a picture of the life to come in all of its glory.  No longer shall there be a curse.  No longer shall there be division and unfaithfulness among His people.  No longer shall foreigners occupy the land of promise.  The Lord will be among His people in glory and majesty.  Adam worked in the garden before the fall into sin.  Laboring in vain is part of the curse, not laboring in itself.  It may be that we will find a new labor, receiving from the hand of God those tremendous blessings which sin has destroyed in this life.  But whatever the reality will be, it does not change that Christ will reign triumphant over sin and death, rendering judgment on His enemies.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity: Proverbs 8:11-22

“Wisdom is better than jewels” (Proverbs 8:11), because wisdom endures while riches perish.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).  This reading from the opening section of Proverbs emphasizes this truth, because all else is vanity and only with wisdom will a man truly prosper.

Wisdom speaks and describes the way of wisdom, somewhat in contrast to folly, but primarily positively.  The language of prudence, knowledge, and discretion, recalling the very beginning of the book (Proverbs 1:4), emphasizes virtue.  To be virtuous is to fear God, and to fear God is to hate what is evil.  A delight in what is corrupt shows that a man cannot be virtuous.  The godly man hates evil, just as the Lord hates evil.

Rulers govern also with wisdom (Proverbs 8:15-16).  All authority comes from God, and therefore one can say that all rulers exist because of the will of God (Romans 13:1-7).  Wicked rulers also serve as instruments in the hand of the living God, just as Nebuchadnezzar, whose name bears the name of the god Nabu, is described as God’s servant (Jeremiah 27:6).  However, as wisdom is not a vague virtue in the Scriptures, just and wise rulers are those who fear the living God (Psalm 2:10-11).

Wisdom is not elusive either, as if it hid even from those who feared the Lord.  Jesus says very clearly to His disciples:  “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).  James also says:  “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).  It must be emphasized that only those who fear the Lord will seek after wisdom, for the unbelieving fool has no such desire.

But for those who fear God and give Him glory, wisdom is a treasure far excelling all earthly things.  “More to be desired are [His commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11).  This promised inheritance comes for those who seek after wisdom and will “fill their treasuries” (Proverbs 8:21).  Those who trust in the Lord have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4).  Therefore, with such hope in the resurrection, we labor “as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” (Colossians 3:23-24).

The last verse of this pericope, Proverbs 8:22, points to a couple of things.  On the one hand, it emphasizes, as in Job 28:25-28, that the Lord’s work in creation highlights the call to wisdom.  Recognizing that God has weighed out and measured the world in the act of creation is to also recognize that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).  “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

On the other hand, wisdom is clearly described in Proverbs 8:22-31 as being involved in the creation of the world.  This is not a vague reference, but rather an identification with Christ, the Word through whom all things were made (John 1:3).  The Septuagint’s use of the word “created” instead of “possessed” here led some, notably Arius, to imagine that the Son was the first of God’s creations and thus different from the Father.  Passages such as John 1 clearly deny such a conclusion, since the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  Here in Proverbs, therefore, we have a poetic description of an eternal reality:  the Father eternally begets the Son, so that even before the foundation of the world and the beginning of time, the Holy Trinity exists entirely self-sufficiently and unchangingly.

Therefore, in Jesus, who is Wisdom, we see the clearest picture of what it means to fear the Lord.  “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).  “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).  “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).

Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity: Micah 6:6-8

“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:1-2). Moses, like Micah, had also called heaven and earth as witness against Israel. Choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19)! But Israel has not chosen life, but rather the way of death.

The language of “indictment” is, of course, a legal term. The Lord has brought a suit against His faithless people. Assyria must come as a punishment, which Micah clarifies in the previous chapter, but now the legal reasoning of this judgment is laid bare. God brought His people out of Egypt, out of the iron furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51). He sent Moses and Aaron (Psalm 106:26-36), and their sister Miriam the prophetess (Exodus 15:20). When Balak sought to curse, Balaam spoke a word of blessing contrary to his will (Numbers 22-24; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15), despite his idolatry which even later proved a snare (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14). But what has Israel done in return? She has whored after idols, from the Baal of Peor in Shittim (Numbers 25) to their godless and false worship in Gilgal (Hosea 12:11).

Micah, under the weight of this great accusation, therefore asks the question of a soul realizing the depths of sin: “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? His three questions, increasing in severity, point to the fruitlessness of any manmade way. Burnt offerings, though commanded by God, will not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). They do not save in and of themselves, in some magical fashion, but point to the blood of Christ which alone takes away sin. Even thousands upon thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil cannot accomplish this. Nor can sacrificing even what is most dear, a child, count for anything when it comes to righteousness before the all holy God. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matthew 16:26)?

Micah’s injunction to do “what is good,” therefore, is not a call to make amends with God through obedience. He has just expressly rejected such a conclusion with the three previous questions. Rather, he calls Israel as a defendant to do what she should already be doing. It is not a word spoken to an unbeliever, but one who knows the will of God already, though he is not following it as he ought. It is a call to return to the way things should be already, for “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: Genesis 28:10-17

Jacob is in a difficult spot. Since the beginning of his section in Genesis 25:19, Jacob has strove with his brother to obtain what belonged to Esau. In the previous chapter, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, steals the blessing from his father Isaac (Genesis 27). When Esau learned what happened, he cries out: “Is he not rightly named Jacob [that is, Deceiver or Grabber]? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36). Esau unsurprisingly wants to kill his brother because of what he has done. His parents therefore both tell Jacob to flee to Rebekah’s brother Laban to the north in Haran (Genesis 27:41-28:5).

Beersheba, the place where Abraham made an oath with Abimelech regarding the well (Genesis 21:25-34), is in the south (which is why the expression “from Dan to Beersheba” in passages like Judges 20:1 or 1 Kings 4:25 means basically “from north to south” or “from top to bottom”). Haran is in the far north, beyond the river Euphrates. Abraham had settled there with his father Terah before receiving the call to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:31). Since Terah died in Haran, some of Abraham’s kinsmen still lived there, which is why Jacob is told to go there. He flees along a major road northward, hoping to make good time.

Jacob is obviously travelling alone and with great haste, since he stops at a “certain place” and uses a rock for a pillow (Genesis 28:11). As he is sleeping, the Lord sends a great vision in a dream. Such dreams occur throughout the Scriptures, such as with his son Joseph (Genesis 37), Pharaoh (Genesis 41), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2), and Joseph the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:20). God uses these dreams, therefore, as a special means of revelation, both to believer and unbeliever alike, and often at critical moments in salvation history.

In this vision, Jacob sees a “ladder.” This word, however, only occurs here in the Old Testament. The Septuagint renders it with a word which primarily means “ladder,” which is perhaps why this is the most common translation. The word, however, is related to other words, like “siege mound” in 2 Samuel 20:15 or “highway” in Numbers 20:19. Therefore, the basic sense is something like an inclined ramp, which by no means excludes steps or even rungs. However, the raised incline is the key, since it begins on the earth and extends into heaven.

Jesus identifies Himself as this ladder or ramp in John 1:51, where He calls Nathanael and proclaims His own divinity. Because the Lord gives the promise which He made to Abraham (Genesis 13:14-16) and to Isaac (Genesis 26:1-5) now to Jacob, Christ seems to say that He too is the conduit of such blessings to His people. “For through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Since Jacob calls that place “the house of God” and the “gate of heaven,” it points toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who is the Son of God (John 14:6)! Further, Christ is also proclaiming both His own divinity, since He is a part of this vision to Jacob, and that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who made this promise to His people so long ago that night.

The Lord also consoles Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). Jacob doubtlessly was afraid of Esau his brother, and a red-eyed flight northwards to escape being murdered also made him wonder about his future. But the Lord was with Jacob even in the midst of this exile or sojourning, so that he would become Israel and the father of the Lord’s people. The Lord will not break His promises, even when it seems like they are so far from being able to be fulfilled.

Jacob awakes and makes a curious statement: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). On the one hand, Jacob like his fathers is a stranger and a wanderer in a land which did not belong to him, even though it was promised to his offspring. Jacob in his terror may have thought that he was being driven away from the Lord as well, since his relatives were not necessarily God-fearing (Laban his uncle, for example, was an obvious idolator in Genesis 31:19). On the other hand, since he saw “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) even more so than we (Matthew 13:17; Hebrews 11:13), it may be that he thought that the Lord remained behind him as he fled to the north. Imagine his surprise, then, to discover what his offspring David says in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Jacob in the morning sets up the stone and unsurprisingly calls the place Bethel, literally “house of God” (Genesis 28:19). It would not become a city for many years, but it would play an important role in the history of Israel. Bethel sits on the road north of Jerusalem, but when the kingdom divided, it became a part of the Northern Kingdom. Being so close to the border between the kingdoms, it was essentially the southern point in the same way Beersheba was for the whole kingdom. Jeroboam, therefore, set up one of his golden calves at Bethel (1 Kings 12:29). The place where God had appeared to Jacob therefore became a sin and a snare to Israel. Physical locations where the Lord performs His miracles, however important they may be for salvation history, too often serve as a snare to faith in the same way. “You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred” (Matthew 23:17)? But Elijah and Elisha set up one of their schools in Bethel and the true worship of God continued even in the midst of idolatry (2 Kings 2:2-3).