Posts

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.

First Sunday in Advent: Romans 13:11-14

The First Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the church calendar, therefore it is an opportune time to change the choice of lectionary studies. Beginning with this Sunday, I will now focus on the Epistle readings, just as I had previously focused on the Old Testament.

Romans 13:11-14 falls within the wider subsection of Romans 12-15. In the previous section of Romans 9-11, Paul demonstrates that, while Israel has stumbled and is under a partial hardening, God’s purposes in election have not failed. Israel cannot boast in the flesh, just as the Gentiles cannot boast in being grafted in to the tree in place of Israel. There is no room for boasting anywhere. “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:30-31). The Lord has not chosen based on merit. His election is sure and done for His own purposes, and the faithful are counted among the elect purely by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

But election is not a trump card. That was Israel’s sin that brought judgment upon them until the fulness of the Gentiles comes in. One cannot be elect and lack faith, as if being part of Israel according to the flesh was enough for salvation. The Lord chooses to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). But wherever this faith is, there are also the fruits of faith (Luke 6:45), which is Paul’s point in Romans 12-15. For those who know the Lord’s mercy walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Paul exhorts the Romans toward this living faith, a faith which does not delight in the division which plagued the Roman church, but seeks “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

While there is much that is descriptive about this section, such as Romans 12:9-21 which in the Greek is composed primarily of sentence fragments without verbs, Paul does not hesitate speak commands as well. Romans 13:1, for example, is a clear imperative: let this be the case, and not otherwise. Exhortation is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive, because the Christian struggling in the flesh needs to learn what the will of God means, often in rather concrete formulations. As Paul said in the beginning of this section, conforming to the Spirit rather than to the world involves testing and discernment, both of which are not automatic processes.

Thus, the reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a strong exhortation to put off what is evil and to cling to what is good. Paul highlights the urgency of this message by noting what the Christian should already recognize: the time is growing shorter and shorter with each passing moment. The Judgment of Christ is fast approaching. “Salvation,” by which Paul means the fullness of our salvation when Christ returns in glory, “is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). Wake up! Do not slumber in sin! The end is near (Luke 21:28; Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:13). The night of God’s patience is fast coming to an end; it is the moment just before the dawn. Even now the night is beginning to brighten in the east.

Since the time is fast approaching, Paul exhorts us to cast off “the works of darkness,” which he describes briefly here and more fully elsewhere (Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-11). There is a sense in which this call shows the reality of sin in this life. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). But Paul is not describing the struggle here, but commanding. Will we walk as is befitting for Christians? Or will we turn again to the works of the flesh? Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling, and jealousy belong to the former way of life. The Christian must choose whether to seek after life or seek after death (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Only those who are in Christ have such a choice, of course, but the regenerate will is real. Christ saves the whole man, and those who know the Lord also choose Him above all other things.

Romans 13:14 is therefore an important summary. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” just as we have put Him on as the garment of our righteousness. But at the same time, “make no provision for the flesh.” Do not even tend to the needs of the flesh and its sinful desires! But make provision for the Spirit, walking in His ways and seeking to conform to the will of God. Too often Christians get this backwards, putting ourselves in the path of temptation, knowing full well that the end can only be evil. What’s the harm of looking? But Paul commands us clearly: do not even till the soil for the seeds of sin, but let us seek the fruit of righteousness whose harvest will come when the morning dawns.

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.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 29:17-24

Distress and judgment shall come upon Jerusalem!  Isaiah says very clearly that foreign armies will surround the city and bring it down to the ground.  “And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down” (Isaiah 29:4).  Yet this judgment will be swift and intense.  Isaiah compares the coming of these armies to “fine dust” and “passing chaff” (Isaiah 29:5).  They “shall be like a dream, a vision of the night” (Isaiah 29:7).  The fire of the Lord descending upon Jerusalem shall come quickly and pass by so quickly that there will be no time to prepare.

However, a yet greater judgment than this is poured out upon Israel.  The Lord is hardening their hearts because of their sins.  They will be blind, drunk without drinking wine, and asleep (Isaiah 29:9-10).  This is the Lord’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious people, lest they turn and see and be healed (Isaiah 6:10).  Paul cites this verse in Romans 11:8 as evidence that the Lord will bring about a great wonder through this hardening.  Israel will stumble so that the nations may be brought in.  Everything will be turned right-side up.  Even the “spirit of deep sleep” in Isaiah 29:10 points to this, because it is the same sleep God poured out on Adam (Genesis 2:21), on Abraham (Genesis 15:12), and on Saul and his army (1 Samuel 26:12).  It is a sleep which marks a great turning point in the history of God’s salvation.

But Israel cannot see this for what it is.  They are like men attempting to read a sealed book or illiterate men who cannot read it at all (Isaiah 29:11-12).  Jesus cites Isaiah 29:13 against the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9, because the hardness of the hearts leads them, as it did their fathers, to honor God only in words and not with their heart.  Therefore, the Lord will “again do wonderful things with this people” (Isaiah 29:14) who He once delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34).  He will turn things upside down in His almighty power.  As Paul says when he cites Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” a reversal which finds its fullest expression in Christ crucified, the stumbling block of the Jews.

Yet this is a stumbling block because the clay desires to say that it is not made by the potter or that the potter lacks understanding (Isaiah 29:16).  Why should God upset everything in this way?  Why should Jerusalem, the city of God’s favor (1 Kings 11:36), be cast down?  “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God” (Romans 9:20)?  God will do as He pleases for His own purposes, hardening Israel to bring in the fullness of the Gentiles.  “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33)!

Therefore, the lectionary reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity describes this reversal which is meant to make Israel jealous (Deuteronomy 32:19-22).  Lebanon, noted for its forests throughout Scripture (Judges 9:15; 1 Kings 4:33; 5:6; 7:2; etc.), will be reduced to a field, perhaps an orchard.  But the fruitful field will be regarded as a mighty forest.  Those who are deaf shall hear.  Those who are blind shall see.  The ruthless will come to nothing.  Those who watch to do evil will be cut off.  “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:20-21).

Jacob will then see his children in his midst, the children of the promise, because “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  His jealousy for the Lord will lead to a real change of heart.  Those who have gone astray will understand and those who murmur against God will accept His instruction (Isaiah 29:24).  No longer will stumble over the cornerstone Christ, but they will believe in Him and be grafted in again to their own natural tree.  The sons of Levi will be purified, and they will offer up a sacrifice in righteousness (Malachi 3:3), living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Numbers 21:4-9

That Israel was complaining yet again on the way around Edom in Numbers 21:4-9 is not surprising.  The people have done little other than complain against God and His providence during their journey through the wilderness.  Even their complaint is nothing unusual (finding parallels with passages like Exodus 16:3 and 17:3).

What is unique about this passage is the punishment the Lord sends against them in the form of “fiery serpents.”  The word translated here as “fiery” is related to the word “seraphim” from Isaiah 6:2, which might be translated there literally as “the burning ones.”  But it is not as clear in Numbers 21 what the word is meant to describe.  Is it “fiery” because of their bite, a burning sensation?  Is there something about their appearance which makes them seem like fire?  They do not need to be a miraculous form of snake, since the Lord has shown through the plagues and other similar miracles that He may use even what is “natural” to fulfill His will.  Moses even mentions them in passing in Deuteronomy 8:15 as if they were a normal part of the wilderness.  But they may be related to the flying fiery serpents of Isaiah 14:29 and 30:6.  Nevertheless, the question, while intriguing, does not change much in terms of the point of the passage.

The people recognize their sin and ask for Moses to intercede for them.  Aaron did a similar act earlier in Numbers 16:46-50, when he stood between the dead and the living to make atonement for them.  Exodus 32:11-14 is helpful for understanding such intercession, because it recalls the longsuffering and the mercy of the Lord.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom He swore by Himself.

The Lord commands Moses to fashion a metal image of a snake.  Such a command does not break the law against such images in Exodus 20:4, because it is the Lord who commands it (compare the similar command to test God, normally forbidden, in Isaiah 7:11).  Gazing upon this image carried with it the clear promise of deliverance.  God delivered His people who had faith in Him and His promises, even in the midst of judgment.

Jesus refers to this event while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:14-15.  As the serpent was raised up, so must the Son of Man be raised up.  As gazing upon the serpent according to the promise delivered men from death, so will the Son of Man deliver those who believe in Him from everlasting death.  The serpent on the pole delivered from a temporal judgment, and Christ on the cross delivers from an eternal judgment.

One must be careful, however, to not turn the serpent on the pole into merely a sermon illustration.  Christ makes a comparison between Himself and the serpent of Moses, not an identification, so to speak.  God delivered His people in a real and very historical way on the way to Edom, and this should not be overlooked.  Christ delivers His people in a greater way, to be sure, and the serpent points to this deliverance.  But if God did not act in history to work a very real, however limited, salvation, then why does the “story” have to be “real”?  The parables are fictional stories which still make spiritual points.  But the Old Testament is not a collection of narratives, so to speak, but an account of God delivering a “real people” through His “real acts” of deliverance in preparation for the great Deliverance in His Son.

One final note about the bronze serpent occurs in 2 Kings 18:4.  Hezekiah tears down that image and destroys it during his religious reforms, because the people had fallen into idolatry, calling it “Nehushtan.”  They had corrupted the clear promise of God for deliverance and perverted it into something God had not intended.  Israel had likely made it into a “god” in its own right, in spite of the clear commandment against it.  But it also shows the very real danger to fall into spiritual security, imagining that God’s promises provide license for sin (compare Jeremiah 7:4).  This is no less a temptation for Christians, who may exalt the love of God so as to extinguish His wrath.

Sidon’s Punishment is Israel’s Joy

In Ezekiel 28, the Lord commands the prophet to speak against Sidon:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, and prophesy against her and say, Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against you, O Sidon, and I will manifest my glory in your midst. And they shall know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her and manifest my holiness in her; for I will send pestilence into her, and blood into her streets; and the slain shall fall in her midst, by the sword that is against her on every side. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”  Ezekiel 28:20-23

Sidon was a city on the coast of the Mediterranean to the north of Israel, closely connected to Tyre.  Ezekiel previously denounced the king of Tyre, because he had taken advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness (Ezekiel 26:2).  Tyre’s previous good will toward Israel made this even worse.  Solomon used the cedars of Lebanon, the region of Tyre, in building his house and the temple (1 Kings 5-7).  Hiram had also sent skilled labor to assist in the project.  But Tyre broke that trust by assaulting Jerusalem when it was weak from the attacks of Babylon.  Tyre’s judgment became Sidon’s judgment.  Lebanon had betrayed Israel.

But Sidon’s judgment is like so many passages in Scripture.  God speaks His judgment against them and describes their punishments in detail.  He has two reasons for doing so:

The first is to emphasize the righteousness and the justice of God.  “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).  He cannot stand by forever and allow sins to pile up.  This is true within the Church, and this is also true within the world.  The iniquity of Lebanon was full, and the time for judgment had come (cf. Genesis 15:16).  Therefore, Tyre and Sidon became a warning for Christians.  Jesus denounced Chorazin, saying that Tyre and Sidon, as wicked as they were, would have repented long ago (Luke 10:13).

This is how Christians usually view the judgments of God.  After all, He threatens to punish and destroy Sidon.  However, consider the passage immediately following:

And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord God. Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land that I gave to my servant Jacob. And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God.  Ezekiel 28:24-26

The destruction of Sidon, and Tyre with it, is good news for Israel.  “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly” (Deuteronomy 32:35).  God will punish the sins of those who sin against His Church, against spiritual Israel.  That day of judgment may seem so far away, almost like it may never come.  But God has not forgotten His people or their affliction.  God remembered His people in Egypt:  “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).  God remembered His people when they turned to Him:  “So Israel put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:16).  God remembers His people and will not forsake them:  “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them” (Luke 18:7)?

The judgment of the enemies of the Church is good news.  Their destruction is the salvation of Israel.  God indeed desires the salvation of all, but He will also not tolerate sins against His bride to remain unpunished.  This is true of the earthly enemies of the Church as well as the spiritual.  Satan himself will pay for everything that he has done:  “The devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).  Therefore, there is joy and good news in destruction, because God has not forgotten His people.