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Hearing the Word


Faith comes by hearing.  Because preaching is the chief means of grace, not only is what we hear important, but also how we hear it.  How can we best prepare to hear Gods Word when it is preached?  What should our expectations be?  How does that influence how we hear a sermon?  How can we better hear the written Word?  What about Bible class?  Join us as we discuss hearing the Word in practical ways.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 34

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The Majesty of God (Psalm 8)

Glory, majesty, power, dominion—all words used to describe the Lord and His perfect reign on earth. Yet God’s ways are not our ways, and the wisdom of God is foolishness to men (Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Corinthians 1:20-25). God’s majesty and glory display themselves in unexpected ways. This reality prompts two important questions for the Christian. How and why does the Master of the whole creation take notice of such seemingly insignificant creatures as we? Why do the words of God and our present reality not seem to match up with each other? David addresses both these questions in Psalm 8.

This short psalm is unique in being entirely a direct address to the Lord. While other psalms certainly address God directly, they also speak directly to other men, whether calling on the congregation to praise the Lord for what He has done, calling on the Lord’s enemies to repent, or for some other reason. Therefore, Psalm 8 has the characteristics of a hymn, down to the repetition of the opening at the end as well as its three-part structure.

The very first word of the psalm proper is the divine name: “O Lord, our Lord,” or perhaps more to the point “O Jehovah, our Lord.” By opening and closing this psalm with God’s revealed name, David centers the answers to his questions in that name. God’s name is more than just a way to distinguish Him from others. God’s name expresses both who He is and what He has done. “Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples” (Psalm 105:1)! God’s name has the power to save (Acts 4:12).

This name is “majestic” in “all the earth.” The creation itself bears witness to the works of God. Even Paul’s point that God’s perfect witness in the world leaves all without excuse (Romans 1:20) demonstrates that His majesty is not limited to believers. His specific glory is the redemption of His people, but His general glory also flows forth from His work of creation. The world endures because God reigns over it (Psalm 65:9-13). God’s glory, which can also be rendered “cloak” as in 1 Kings 19:13, envelopes everything, even the mighty heavens.

Yet, in the first section of the psalm, David clarifies that this glory does not express itself in expected ways. Though we might associate glory and power with human strength, God casts down the mighty and exalts the lowly. “Out of the mouth of children and infants you have established strength” (Psalm 8:3). Jesus rebukes the chief priests and the scribes with this verse, since they regarded the praise of children as shameful. Having worldly significance means nothing in the eyes of God (1 Samuel 16:7). The strength of children comes from having the name of God on their lips, even when it is lisped or stammered.

This reversal prompts another important question in the second section and which is the key question of the entire psalm. David is evidently out under the night sky, since he mentions the moon and the stars and omits any mention of the sun. Few sights in this creation as the glory of the night sky have the ability to make men feel so small and insignificant. The numberless stars, the brightness of the moon, the limitless arm of our galaxy—all make us ask an important question: “what is mankind that you remember him, and the son of man that you visit him” (Psalm 8:5)?

It is impossible to interpret this Psalm correctly without noting Paul’s words in Hebrews 2:5-9, where he identifies the son of man with the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. Yet I think it is important to note that while this psalm applies specifically to Christ, it also applies generally to the sons of men (a title also applied to Ezekiel in Ezekiel 2:1, etc). In fact, it is the transition from the general application regarding men in general to the specific application in Christ that answers the questions laid out by the Psalm.

Applied generally, then, the third section of this psalm describes the uniqueness of mankind with respect to the rest of creation. Man’s physical insignificance in the face of all that the Lord has created is offset by the Lord’s care and concern for Him. Because of God and God alone, man is what he is. The dominion given in creation does not belong to Adam because of something within him, but stems from God alone (Genesis 1:28). As the child whispering the name of God is stronger than the wicked man in all his worldly strength, so the importance of man stems from God’s words alone. God’s name from beginning to end makes us who we are, even as human beings.

Yet this is precisely the point where the other question comes into the forefront. Judging by our present reality, we no longer exercise the dominion given to Adam, or at least in an extremely fractured way. “Is the wild ox willing to serve you” (Job 39:9-12)? “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord” (Job 41)? Our present reality of sin shows that Psalm 8 is not a song of human triumph. The disparity between its words and our current mourning shows that it must look forward to something else.

This is why Hebrews 2 is so important for interpretation. Christ, the Son of Man, has been made a little lower than the angels. His dominion also awaits its completion, since “we do not yet see everything in subjection to Him” (Hebrews 2:8). But it is in Christ that we see the fulfillment. Jesus is man in the way that man is supposed to be. Adam was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), but Christ is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15). Adam exercised dominion under God (Genesis 1:28), but Christ has dominion under the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24-27). In God and God alone, man finds the full expression of who he is as God’s creation.

Therefore, Psalm 8 is not a glorification of man, but of God. Though man seems childish and insignificant in comparison with God’s creation, Christ proves to us that God cares for us. The cross, foolish in the eyes of the world, is God’s visitation among men and the proof that we are His chief concern. Even if our lives seem small and unimportant, we bear the name of God. Bearing that name will mean bearing a cross, so that our experience will be one of weakness and seemingly contrary to God’s promises. Yet as God says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Ascension: Acts 1:1-11

While the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke are closely connected and written by the same author, Luke seems to have composed them separately.  Luke 24:50-53, for example, includes a brief synopsis of the Ascension, while Acts 1:1-3 equally briefly recounts the events of Luke 24.  The purpose of each book, however, is different.  In the Gospel, Jesus begins to work and teach, while in Acts, Jesus continues to work and teach through His Church.

The ascension, therefore, is not Jesus disappearing from the scene until the Second Coming.  Christ ascends so as to be nearer to His Church.  “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth:  it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).  The sending of the Holy Spirit closely follows, because Jesus sends His Church into the world to be His witnesses.

Christ ascending into heaven also figures as one of the most important events within the New Testament, ranking next to His death and resurrection.  Having gone up into heaven, He sits down at the right hand of God.  In this moment, Christ receives the glory and the reward for His work.  All things have been put under His feet (Ephesians 1:20-23; 1 Peter 3:22).  “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).  Christ’s victory also consoles His Christians in the world.  Paul, for example, connects all three as proof that Christ intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).  Those who belong to Him seek the things which are above, because Christ is there at God’s right hand (Colossians 3:1).

It is, however, easy to misunderstand the purpose of Christ’s ascension.  The disciples, thinking in terms of the world, imagined that Christ’s enthronement meant that all things would be set in order immediately.  They did not understand that Christ reigns in the midst of His enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25).  While Christ’s reign is perfect, it still expands and grows through His work in the world.  When the fullness of the kingdom will come is not for His Church to know.  But how this will come to pass is the work of the Church in this age.  The power of the Holy Spirit sends the Church out to the very ends of the earth to bear witness about what has been seen and heard.

The angels who gently rebuke the apostles point toward this reality.  Christ disappearing behind a cloud is not the end of His work.  He “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” when He returns to judge the living and the dead, an office given to Him as a consequence of His death and resurrection (Romans 14:9).  Prior to that judgment, however, Christ sends the Spirit to send His Church.  “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).  “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48-49).  “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).  This mighty, living, active Word continues to grow in the world, because the ascended Jesus sits at God’s right hand.

Muttering in the Word (Psalm 1)

The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Church, meant to instruct, comfort, and build up in every situation.  Stretching from the days of David until Israel’s exile, they glorify and praise God, the heavenly King.  The first Psalm forms a fitting header, not only for the first book of the Psalms (1-42), but also for the Psalter as a whole.  It has no inscription, but its position in the whole book suggests that it may have been written close to the time when the Psalter as we have it was put together.  Since I personally think that this happened near the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Psalm 1 fits with Ezra’s emphasis on the renewal of the Law (Ezra 7, for example).

Psalm 1 opens with a common division found in the books of wisdom: the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness (Proverbs, written largely by Solomon, frequently calls these ways wisdom and foolishness, as in Proverbs 1:7).  Thus, the psalm reflects on the differences between these two ways, comparing one against the other in a way that leaves no middle ground.  One is either in the way of the righteous or in the way of sinners.

The righteous man does not go in the way of wickedness, described first by the psalm writer in a series of verbs:  “walk,” “stand,” and “sit.”  To “walk in the counsel” of the wicked suggests listening to their foolish words and to base one’s actions around them.  It may also have the sense of beginning to listen to their words, since the movement of these three verbs slows to a stop.  “Standing in the way of sinners” would therefore mean leaving the way of righteousness, followed closely by “sitting in the seat of scoffers,” implying that the transition is complete.  Instead of passing by, this man has taken a seat among the chatterers, the scoffers and mockers, and is now fully within their assembly.

But this is what the righteous man does not do!  He is happy or blessed (related to the name Asher in Genesis 30:12-13), because his delight, his treasure is in the Law of the Lord.  Torah, which is often translated as Law, is not an imposing structure hanging over us, the way the idea of law is frequently presented.  Rather, it is closely related to a word either translated as “to throw or to shoot” (1 Samuel 20:36, for example).  Like an arrow, then, the Law has a direction or trajectory.  It is a description of the way of righteousness as a whole.  Delighting in the Law, then, is not rejoicing about a set of rules, but a joy in the way which leads to life rather than death.  The commandments of the Law are part of this way, studied by all who delight in them.

This study of the Law shows itself in meditation, or rather, reading aloud.  The verb translated here as “meditates” in many translations means something like muttering, the kind of voice someone uses when they read aloud to themselves.  Since the same word is translated as “to plot” in Psalm 2:1, it also has the idea of quiet talking, the way the conspirators there would mutter and talk among themselves.  For the righteous man, however, this muttering day and night reflects a constant reading aloud of the words of the living God.  He is not thinking about them in an abstract way, but has the very words of God on his lips constantly.  To meditate on the Law means to be in the Scriptures.

When he is in the Scriptures like this, he is like a tree planted by streams or canals of water.  The tree thrives and prospers, not because it is a tree, but because it is by the water.  Being away from this water means withering and drying up.  He also bears fruit at the proper time, suggesting growth and maturity.  His fruit, his good works, created and sustained by the Word, come according to the will and the timing of God (Ephesians 2:10).

His success is a direct contrast to the image of the wicked rather than a worldly success.  The wicked man is like chaff, separated from the wheat and fit only to be burned or blown away.  It is impermanent and quickly forgotten.  Even if the wicked seems to prosper in this life, his end will come to nothing.  The one rooted in the waters of Scripture, however, endures, because the Word of the Lord endures forever.

The psalmist closes with an important warning.  Those who walk the way of wickedness will perish, because the judgment of the Lord is coming which will sweep them away.  They will not be able to endure the day of His coming and will be separated from the congregation.  Woe to those who scoff at the way of the Lord!  Yet the righteous find comfort, because the Lord knows them.  They are in His hand, and no one can take them out of it (John 10:28-29).

Psalm 1, therefore, is a fitting prayer for a Christian for two reasons.  It emphasizes, on the one hand, the delight of remaining in Christ and His Word.  Jesus endures as the one who gives us living waters.  Whoever hears the Word of God and keeps it will never see death!  It also emphasizes, on the other hand, the importance of guarding against evil and the way of death.  “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies” (Psalm 141:3-4)! Thus, the Lord sets us in the way of life, and the Lord brings us to Himself, strengthening us through His holy Word.

Biblical Piety, Part 3.1: Scripture

Part 2 of this series.

Biblical piety lives in the Word.

As noted in the previous section, piety begins and ends in knowledge. However, knowledge is not an empty concept, as if one could know something without content. Knowledge deals in particulars, even if knowledge is never complete.

The fountain and source of the knowledge of God is what He has said about Himself. Absolutely nothing else can say the same. We do not know God fully through His self-revelation in His creation. It is not because this revelation is imperfect; indeed, Paul says that it is perfect (Romans 1:19). Rather, sinful suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Creation declares clearly and perfectly that the Lord is the Creator, but men do not honor Him as their Creator. This self-revelation therefore leaves them without an excuse in the day of judgment. It is not imperfect, though it is incomplete, because it does not speak of Christ. The two ideas are not synonymous.

We do not know God through any kind of private revelation. We are called to test the spirits “to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). A prophet whose word does not prove to be true is not from God, no matter how impressive it seems (Deuteronomy 18:22). Should a revelation pass the test, it is only repeating what has already been said in the Scriptures. If it does not pass, it is not from God. If it refuses to be tested, it shows itself by its fruits (Luke 6:46). These things have not been done in a corner (Acts 26:26). “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached” (1 Corinthians 14:36)?

We also do not know God through any writing other than the Holy Scriptures. This is true of any writing which claims to say something about God. There is no other Gospel than the one delivered through the prophets and the apostles (Galatians 1:6-9). There is salvation in no one other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6). Such writings must be tested against the Scriptures, and anything which must be tested is no authority.

Something worth noting, however, is that even those writings which are rooted in the Bible are not a means by which we know God. I need to clarify that so that I am not misunderstood. All human writings, no matter how venerable or orthodox, are not the Bible. They all without exception speak about the Bible. If they accomplish their task well, they will lead back to the Bible. If they fail in this respect, they will wander off into myths or draw attention to themselves. Such works about the Bible are like a sign by the road, which help us to go the way that others have gone before. It would be a strange piety indeed that spent more time looking at the sign than travelling along the road. Metaphors are imperfect, but men should listen to human authorities when they agree with the Word of God. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Therefore, we know God through what He says about Himself in His holy Word. “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14-15). “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

The Scriptures also form the basis for all of the other forms of piety. Preaching, for example, is a proclamation of the Word. The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper flow out of the Word which attaches the promises to them. Prayer, worship, and the other forms are grounded in the Word itself. Apart from the Word, there is no foundation for Biblical piety. “If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31).

The Bible, of course, clearly identifies Jesus Christ as the Word (John 1:1-5). It is entirely possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus who is the whole point (John 5:39; 2 Corinthians 3:12-16). But one must not draw a sharp distinction between the Bible as the Word of God and Jesus as the Word of God for that reason. Such a division, however well-intentioned, tends to disparage the Bible. But how will we know about God in any other way? The Bible is the very Word of the living God to His people, the way through which we know Him. To use an metaphor, it would be strange to receive a letter from the king, only to protest that the letter is not the king himself. Would an earthly king be impressed with such an argument? But the Bible is more than a letter from a king. It is the very voice of God the Holy Spirit.

In the next article, we will focus on practical suggestions regarding the Scriptures. This will be the pattern for the other forms of piety as well.